I finally made it to the southernmost end of Florida and the greater Everglades ecoregion – I spent a week in and around Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, adventuring by foot, boat, and bicycle and getting wet, muddy, and mosquito-bitten in the process! It was different from what I had expected, and I discovered some fascinating facts to pass on! Fresh water flowing slowly but steadily towards the ocean, over surface bedrock, has created five distinct ecosystems within those 4,000 square miles. The next few posts will go into more depth on what I learned and experienced, and provide some recommendations for exploring this area in even greater depth! Enjoy!
Though my goal had been to get to the Smoky Mountains, I never made it… but had great fun exploring the Cumberland Plateau instead. Covering much of central Tennessee, this plateau is nearly 1,000 feet above the height of the Cumberland River (to the southeast), and contains an incredible diversity of plant and animal species. It has been carved over millenia by many creeks, and the geology of the area is apparent at every turn.
I decided to take a short backpacking trip (one night… though now I’m convinced to go back for more), and decided on the Collins Gulf sector of the Savage Gulf State Natural Area, which covers nearly 16,000 acres on the western edge of the Plateau. On a longer trip, I could have traversed the area, which is cut through by several rivers and creeks, giving it the aerial appearance of “a giant crowfoot.” If you are handy at reading a topographic map, you’ll find this one quite impressive.
Despite the topography, I figured that a twelve-mile hike in one day was do-able, if potentially exhausting. The volunteer at the ranger station had told us that in the drought and late fall conditions, there was “no water” on the trail, so we packed in all we would need. It turned out that there was enough water to filter in several places, so I will do my research better next time.
I left northern Wisconsin after a half-day of work, hoping to arrive in northern Indiana before making camp for the night. I picked a spot on the map that was both far enough from the Chicagoland area to mean I was really on vacation, and that had a little campground symbol. This place was Tippecanoe River State Park, and it turned out to be just far enough out of urbanity that my eyes had trouble staying open by the time I got there. It also turned out to be a pretty cool stopover.
Arriving in the middle of the night, this state park did not seem very promising, from an “experiencing nature” perspective. Although a Tuesday evening in October, the campground was quite busy. Busy with large RV’s, generators running because temperatures were near freezing, and decorated for Halloween. Apparently there is some sort of annual competition for the best Halloween decorations at this park. And by “decorations” they apparently mean copious lighted objects, string lights, flashing lights, and other light-type apparati in the orange-and-purple spectrum. Think your neighborhood’s obnoxious Christmas decorations… in October… in a campground. Not that appealing for those of us in a tent, but so be it.
By morning light, though, the party lites lost their luster (and got turned off), and there was time for a quick walk to stretch the legs before getting back in the vehicle and driving south. Turned out to be not so quick, partly because the trail system was a little bit confusing, and partly because it was so darn
cool. The park had a variety of ecosystems, from floodplain forests along the Tippecanoe, to a wetland impoundment, upland white oak woods, grassland, etc. Most of my hike meandered through the oak woods, and even into a (very) small section of “barrens.” A few white pines grew here and there in the area, at the southern end of their range, and white oaks grew alongside post oaks near the northern end of their range. The barrens had many of the same trees and wildflowers that we see in sandy soils of central and northern Wisconsin – neat to see, a few hundred miles to the south. From a land management perspective, it was immediately apparent that the park staff were doing an excellent job of maintaining an open woods, and keeping invasive plants under control. Go Hoosiers! (Might be the first time I’ve said that).
If walking around a labyrinthine trail system in deep sand looking at trees isn’t your bag, I’ve heard from a friend that the Battle of Tippecanoe historic site is also in that area. I missed it in the middle of the night, but if I had it to do over again, I would want to stop there. Check it out and let me know how it is!
While I’m waiting for spring to arrive this year, I’ll recount an experience from last spring that has stuck with me, and of which I’m reminded with every new hint that the change of seasons is really underway. This morning (April 6th), I heard the first Red-winged Blackbirds outside my window, and yesterday my first Sandhill Cranes trumpeted in the distance, probably looking for open water. Every day there is less snow and ice – except for today, when two inches fell overnight, but it may yet melt before the sun sets. What a difference from last year’s record warmth in March, when I was startled to hear Spring Peepers on March 20th, and found myself witnessing the sights below.
Crex Meadows Wildlife Area is owned and managed by the State of Wisconsin, Department of Natural Resources. Most of the management of the 30,000 acre site is paid for indirectly by hunters, through a combination of license sales and a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition. However, the Friends of Crex Meadows is a very active group that funds management and interpretive programs for birdwatchers, botanists, and other nature enthusiasts, in addition to waterfowl hunters who have traditionally used the area. On this day, I was a birdwatcher, and I made good use of the road network on dikes between the flowages, as well as a permanent blind that was set up on the Phantom Flowage.
The birds didn’t actually seem to mind when I was sitting outside of the blind, but as the cold rain got heavier, I did, and went into the roofed structure. Swans, geese, and any number of ducks swam, foraged, fluffed their feathers, and occasionally squabbled with their neighbors. Occasionally, without warning, a flock would fly up, make a few circles, and land again. As the evening wore on, more and more waterfowl flew in for the night.
They say that pictures are worth a thousand words, and that’s probably true, but what these pictures don’t show you is the way that evening felt and sounded. At times, the noise of so many birds of so many species arriving and greeting each other would be overwhelming; at times they would quiet down and I would only hear muffled honks, quacks, and ruffles as they fed, dove, preened, and settled in with their mates. The rain pattered on the roof of the blind, but when I stepped out, there was barely a sound, and the rain was warm for the season. As I noticed the light on the water turn pink (and the swans turn into flamingos!), I got out to look around… and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets of the year, complete with a double rainbow!
On a perfect fall weekend late last September, I found myself exploring the “North Coast” of Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. My chosen timing was a little bit of a crapshoot – it could have just as easily been 40 degrees and drizzling, as the sunny and high-in-the-60s that I got instead. Unfortunately, that brought with it the complication of itinerary-planning.
At Pictured Rocks, as at many National Parks, backcountry camping is allowed only at designated sites, and only by permit. Pictured Rocks is a day’s drive from both Chicago and Detroit, not to mention all the points between, so its 15 or so backcountry sites can be booked far in advance. I figured that with my post-Labor Day travel, the sites wouldn’t all be reserved. Though I wasn’t wrong about that, by the time I arrived at the Visitor’s Center late on Friday, the pickings were slim. I had to scrap my initial plan, as the more popular sites had already filled up for all three of the nights I had planned to be there. I wound up making a tour of the Beaver Basin Wilderness, a valley of inland lakes and maple-beech forest, and spending the bulk of the weekend in a less-busy area of lakeside cliffs. I never really saw the eponymous “pictured rocks,” except from a distance, but got a good taste of the rugged beauty of the landscape.
I arrived at the Beaver Basin Overlook in the late afternoon, and met a group of bear hunters coming off the trail. I couldn’t take long to chat, though, or to observe the fabulous view – I had four miles to go before the sun set! I walked down an old road grade into the valley, and flushed a couple grouse in a grove of young aspen near the crossing of Lowney Creek. I couldn’t stop by the babbling rapids, but pushed on, up a rise, and onto a broad plateau of maple woods. This was the least interesting part of the walk, but it eventually transitioned into an older-growth forest, with large beech and yellow birch interspersed with knobby old sugar maples. Finally the flat woods ended, and I began to push uphill – the end of my power-hike finally near! I meandered along the increasingly-sandy trail, and the hemlocks that had transitioned into red pines became white and jack pines in turn. The ostrich ferns and wildflowers were replaced with bracken ferns, blueberries, and short grasses. Within moments I had gone from a northern mesic forest to a sand barren and finally to a north-facing cliff….where I arrived just in time to watch the sun set over Lake Superior!
I spent that first night, as well as the second, at Pine Bluff campground, along with three other groups the first night, and only two the second. I could hear
the waves crashing from my tent, but was sheltered enough from the wind. There’s plenty of fresh water there, too… the only catch is you have to wade out waist deep in the big lake to get at it! So I waited in my tent until I was too warm in the morning, then I ran down there clothed in long underwear, clutching my water bottles and filter. In late September, the lake is still pretty close to its high temperature for the year… but the air temperature has gone down a
bit. After a few minutes of pumping my filter, trying to keep it under the waves but above the sand, I had a couple bottles of water, but couldn’t feel my toes anymore! I ran back up the hill to get my blood moving, changed into dry clothes, and prepared for the day. I hiked east to Sevenmile Creek, enjoyed lunch by the creek, and walked around on the beach. The beaches looked tropical, with white sands and clear, bright blue water… but the winds were a good reminder of fall in The U.P.! I filled up all of my water bottles in the creek and hiked them back to the campground… didn’t want to take another chilly dip that night!
The next day, I hiked westward towards the Coves campground, named for the numerous rocky inlets near it. I took a couple of breaks along the way, one of whch was over an hour of lying on a sun-baked rock, reading a book in one of these sheltered nooks. I got closer and closer to the outcrop of the pictured rocks, and though I never got all the way there, I enjoyed the colors and the formations of the cliffs I was on. The Coves campground was nearly deserted on a Sunday night in late September, so I was able to relax after my long and exhausting hike. The next morning, I regretted not
having swim in Lake Superior since my arrival, so I decided to take a real dip – I kept my long underwear on again (a poor substitute for a wet suit!), but I actually ducked all the way under the water for at least a few seconds. It was a lovely morning, and the “swim” was only part of it, but it helped to energize me for the trek back to civilization. The hike out was long, but mostly pleasant, I took the west side of the inland lake this time, with somewhat more varied woods, and a break for lunch on the swampy shores of that lake. When I got back to my car and looked out at the Beaver Basin Overlook, I found that the foliage had become noticeably more orange since my first look a few days earlier. As I drove south away from the coast, I saw the “fall colors” begin to “peak” as I neared home. A beautiful end to a lovely weekend!
Congratulations to everyone who chose “Photo E” in the Poison Ivy quiz – you will be rewarded by many rash-free camping, hiking, hunting, and canoeing trips! For the other 37% of you… here is some more information that might help you in the future.
First off, what were the other photos of?
Photo A: Hog Peanut. This is a very common plant in woodlands – it twines around other plants, sometimes up trees, and often along the ground, creating a carpet of three-leaved plants. As a legume, its growth is characteristic of others in the pea or bean family – it has three symmetrical leaves, and fine curly tendrils at the growing end of the plant (maybe like the peas in your garden). It gets the name “hog peanut” from its tuber-like root that is edible… if you bother to dig up enough of them to make a meal!
Photo B: Raspberry. A couple of you guessed this one – you’ll be missing out on some tasty treats this summer! Raspberries and blackberries often look like they have three leaves on a branch, sometimes 5, sometimes more. The leaves have toothed or serrated edges, though, the leaves are usually somewhat fuzzy, and the veins are very clear. The stalks usually have hairs and/or thorns on them, so you probably don’t want to get in a thicket of them without shorts on. The flowers are white, and the berries… well, they look like raspberries (in this case black raspberries)! The plant grows on long canes that together look like a bush, often between head- and waist-high, though the young stalks are shorter and especially blackberries can grow well above my head!
Photo C: Trillium. This is a woodland plant that has a big, showy, white flower in the early spring – there are many different species throughout the Unites States; this one is a Large-flowered Trililum (Trillium grandiflorum). The “tri-” in its name refers to the fact that the flower has three petals and the plant has… you guessed it… 3 leaves! Its leaves are large like Poison Ivy’s can be, and the shape of the leaves is not always perfectly symmetrical. However, a few things set it apart: 1) if it is blooming, it will be obvious! Even if it is done blooming, you may be able to see where the flower came from – right in the middle of those leaves. 2) Trillium, being in the Lily family, has a few long veins, rather than many shorter veins off of a central mid-rib. 3) The leaves of most trilliums rarely appear glossy. 4) Each trillium plant is a stand-alone – just a stalk with three leaves at the top, and a flower. There may be several plants in a patch, but each one is distinct. While it is possible to see Poison Ivy with just three leaves and a stalk, it is more common to see that grouping as part of a larger plant. 5) Trilliums are herbaceous – they wilt and die back after a few months of growth; Poison Ivy has woody stems and thus the stalks persist even when leaves are not present.
Photo D: White Oak sapling. No one guessed this, but to me it can be a tricky look-alike. It has a woody stem, like PI. The leaves of young white oaks, in their first year of growth. can be of varying sizes, and may or may not be symmetrical, though all of the leaves have at least some waviness to them. A clue to this one is that you can see even younger leaves starting to grow, and if you look around you should be able to find one with a very characteristic “oak” leaf. Also, the stem is much more robust than that of Poison Ivy, because it is the start of the trunk that will one day support the “might oak.”
Photo E: POISON IVY!! This really is Poison Ivy. Note a few characteristic features: 1) Glossy leaves – that is the oil that is going to cause the nasty rash! 2) A-symmetrical leaves – often one half of the leaf has a smooth edge, while the other half has a couple serrations, teeth, or waves in it. On larger plants the leaves will sometimes look like a mitten – just a thumb and a finger showing, with the rest smooth. If there are several plants visible in one location (which there almost always are), it is likely that all of the leaves will look a little bit different. These leaves are the best way to ID poison ivy! 3) Poison Ivy has woody stems, but that is sometimes hard to tell. It can grow like a small shrub, like an individual plant, or like a vine, up a tree or neighboring branch. It doesn’t have to look like a vine, though. 4) Poison Ivy grows in a “rhizominous colony,” meaning that all of the plants in one area are likely connected by the same roots – this is what makes it grow up trees, and spread quickly once established. 5) As I showed in the previous post, PI has white berries and flowers – but you may not get close enough to be able to see that! 6) As I also mention, PI, though characteristically found in the woods, can also grow in open fields and riparian areas. Here in Wisconsin, our “western poison ivy” grows in open prairies, and the “eastern poison ivy” has done a great job of colonizing the floodplains of the major rivers.
Photo F: Virginia Creeper. This is a common vine that grows in the woods. It has a woody stem, and you can see it twining around many of the trees around you, I’m sure. But…it has 5 leaves! So it is clearly not Poison Ivy. You were all smart enough to know that, and no one chose it in the quiz! However, I know some very intelligent people who have spent their whole lives avoiding the harmless Virginia Creeper because they thought it was the dreaded PI!
Photo G: Desmodium glutinosum. This plant has a common name, too, listed in my book as Cluster-Leaf (or Pointed) Tick-trefoil. It is a relative of the Tick-trefoils that grow in western prairies, but this one grows in the woods. It has somewhat irregularly-shaped leaves, in groups of three (it’s another legume – they’re tricky!), but it is yet another harmless wildflower growing around us. A couple things that set it apart from Poison Ivy are: 1) the flowers grow on a long stalk coming up out of the center of the plant; 2) While it appears that the leaves are in groups of three, those are actually the leaflets – there are 3 leaves on the plant, but each one consists of three groups of leaflets, emanating from the central stalk. If you can see this pattern, it’s a good bet it’s not PI; 3) This plant usually grows singly, not in large bunches, so the above pattern should be easy to discern.
Did you find any Poison Ivy this weekend? Or avoid any near misses?! Have more tips for identifying Poison Ivy in the wild, or tricks for healing the rash once you’ve acquired it?
It’s not too late to test your PI skills… that stands for “poison ivy,” not “private investigator!”
Check out my previous post for the full array of choices to see if you can identify Poison Ivy as well as you thought! To give you an extra hint, here’s a photo of it from underneath, showing its characteristic white flowers and berries, which are not visible all year ’round, but are now, if you dare to take a close enough look!