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Why Earth Day Doesn’t Matter

A friend sent me a text message this morning, wishing me a “Happy Earth Day!”  Hunh, I commented, I hadn’t realized that was today.  For some reason I thought it was the 24th of April, not the 22nd.

When I got to work, I wished my colleagues the same… and got the same response. “Hunh,” said one, “I thought it was on the 25th for some reason.”

Another wryly commented, “Didn’t you know?  Every day is Earth Day… to a Forester!”

That’s right, folks, our office is full of people whose jobs are to think about the Earth, or at least the environment. We work for an agency whose leader sent out an Earth Day message, thanking us for what we do.  We live in Wisconsin, the state where Earth Day was created, the state whose Wild Rivers legislation formed the basis for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the state where Aldo Leopold lived out his years with his family, the state where our soils, our minerals, our timber, and our waters form the basis for the economy as they always have.  And we didn’t even notice it was Earth Day.

A "sun dog" or a rainbow-aura around the sun, on a  hot afternoon on a remote island in the southern Pacific.

A “sun dog” or a rainbow-aura around the sun, on a hot afternoon on a remote island in the southern Pacific.

I’m not criticizing us, not myself nor my colleagues.  We might not have made any special effort to conserve water or turn off lights today.  We might have wasted some paper and we surely drove some gas-guzzling trucks around.  But we did our darndest to make the Earth a better place for all of its living things to thrive.  As we do every day.

For me, I can honestly say that no day goes by when I do not think of our natural world in some way.  Sometimes it is indeed taking the extra step to recycle my grocery bags, or composting kitchen waste, or buying local produce.  Sometimes, though, it is just sitting outside on a sunny spring afternoon and breathing deeply.  And being thankful that I live in a place where that is possible.  And hoping that we can maintain the best parts of our Earth, and repair those places where clean air and water aren’t the reality.

The theme of this blog is discovery on our rare planet – discovery of the first blossoms of spring, of waterfalls and oceans, of our diverse human cultures.  This year, I haven’t been doing much exploring, because I slipped on ice and broke my leg, the day after the bulk of our snow melted.  When I have paused from my reading and internet-browsing and other indoor diversions, I’ve felt sorry for myself, because I can’t get out and enjoy the spring of the year.  I have watched as friends posted on Facebook the first wildflowers of the year, the Pasque Flowers and Hepatica.  I am facing the reality that I won’t be walking by the time my Wild Turkey hunting season rolls around next week.  I have been following the progression of spring bird migrations, but haven’t gotten out to see and hear the flocks. I join in the speculation about whether or not this will be a good year for morel mushrooms (I’m voting on the yes side, if the weather pattern holds), but I won’t be stumbling around in the woods looking for them myself.

Yet… I live in a world, on an Earth, where all of this is possible.  I am lucky enough to be able to get out and do all of those things, most of the time.  I have been so fortunate as to see so many of the truly amazing places on our continent and our planet!  And if there is one thing that I know more surely than anything, it is that I want to keep living in this amazing world, and I want future generations to have the same opportunities.

So yes, I forgot that it was Earth Day.  In fact, I don’t really care that it is Earth Day, because, even if it makes me sound like a corny tree-hugger to say it… Every day is Earth Day.  Or it should be.

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Wintery spring

Speaking of enjoying winter while it lasts (and lasts and lasts and lasts), I thought I’d showcase some of why I love the Midwest and its seasons.  One word: Weather.

Storm clouds in Marinette County, WI drop "virga" - rain that never hits the ground.  The large anvil-shaped clouds near the horizon indicate full-fledged storms to the west.

Storm clouds in Marinette County, WI drop “virga” – rain that never hits the ground. The large anvil-shaped clouds near the horizon indicate full-fledged storms to the west.

We all know that adage, “If you don’t like the weather in [insert location here], just wait five minutes and it will change.”  I’ve lived in a lot of places, and in almost every one that same statement is repeated, as though their town, or state, or region has the craziest weather on earth.  Well folks, I’m here to tell you that you are mostly wrong.  For example, in the San Francisco area, this is used to refer to the daily variability of the weather… BUT the weather is exactly the same from day to day!  Every morning is foggy, then it gets breezy around mid-day, the fog burns off and it is sunny and pleasant for a few hours, before getting slightly too warm, but then the shore breezes return and the chill of the evening sets in.  That’s from, say, April through August.  In October is is sunny and warm; in January it rains all the time.  You actually have to wait months for the weather to change!  It makes a lot of things really convenient – for example, camping farther up the coast, you can usually tell by mid-afternoon if you will get any fog/dew overnight, and decide what you’ll need for a tent based on that.

What makes the setting sun look like that?  Weather!  Also known as moisture in the atmosphere...

What makes the setting sun look like that? Weather! Also known as moisture in the atmosphere…

In Wisconsin, that is never an option.  Here is Wisconsin, we start to get nervous if the weather pattern has been constant for a few days (three if the weather is bad, six or seven if it’s good).  During spring and summer, it is shocking to have a whole day pass without a front coming in or a storm cell blowing through.  Year-round, the weather is a constant source of concern and conversation to those whose lives are in any way related to the natural world.  Will we have enough snow to fill the lakes and rivers… but not so much that our towns’ budgets are used up plowing, or too many snow days close the schools?  Will spring come early or late, wet or dry, and how will this affect the planting of fields, harvesting timber, maple syrup

Green pumpkins pulled in before a hard freeze.  Last year, we had two weeks between the first frost and this freeze, which left most of my squash to ripen.  Most of these eventually ripened indoors, and the results are still in my freezer this spring!

2013 saw warm temperatures and a wet summer, which put lots of pumpkins on the vines, despite a late spring.  I covered my pumpkins for the first frost, but harvested them two weeks later before the hard freeze.  Most of these eventually ripened indoors, and the results are still in my freezer this spring!

production, or early-season fishing?  Will the summer be so hot or humid as to be unbearable, or pleasantly warm; will we have enough rain to feed the crops and leave the rivers paddle-able, but not so much to flood or flatten the fields?  Will we have an early frost, leaving me out on a chilly night covering up plants laden with green tomatoes – or one so late that leaves obscure the woods for deer hunters?

A thunderstorm rages east of Florence, WI, which remains safe and dry.

A thunderstorm rages east of Florence, WI, which remains safe and dry.

This is, in a word, awesome.  I moved back here from the West Coast in large part because they don’t have thunderstorms there.  Here in the south-west part of the state, the hills are high, and the late spring weather pattern brings storms in from the West, through Iowa.  If you find yourself on a tall hill, or on the central Military Ridge, you can often see four or five storm cells at once, dropping rain and lightning on towns close and far.  You know the storm is over when steam begins to rise from the wooded hills, even if a little drizzle persists.

A storm moves in from west.  It wound up passing just to the south as we watched the town across the river get drenched from our perch in Sauk County, WI.

A storm moves in from west. It wound up passing just to the south as we watched the town across the river get drenched from our perch in Sauk County, WI.

 

You only get rainbows when it rains...  Grantsburg, WI

You only get rainbows when it rains… Grantsburg, WI

Wisconsin also seems varied weather patterns around the state.  Location of certain industries in certain regions, and the presence of several large rivers running north-to-south, means that the weather in one place has repercussions around the state.  Right now, for example, northern Wisconsin still has a foot or more of snow on the ground, and some lakes have up to 30″ of ice still on.  The rivers have mostly opened up, though, and are flowing well.  In the southern parts of the state, all water is open as of about a week ago, but overnight frosts and snow are continuing.  The Mississippi River is expected to crest above flood stage this weekend, and the Baraboo River will be flooding as well…but those northern lakes, including Lake Superior, might not be open until mid-May, based on latest predictions.  This has major effects not only on homes, farms, and recreation, but on shipping traffic as well.

The Mississippi above flood stage in Wisconsin at Wyalusing State Park, June 2013

The Mississippi above flood stage in Wisconsin at Wyalusing State Park, June 2013

This road wash-out is a result of flooding caused by heavy rains in Grant County, WI, 2007

This road wash-out is a result of flooding caused by heavy rains in Grant County, WI, 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re interested in learning more about our local weather, here are a couple of interesting links.

From the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, info on Lake Superior ice

From the National Weather Service, flood and storm warnings

Fire Weather Planning Forecast

Mississippi River Levels

U.S. Geological Survey Stream Gauges – click on your favorite river for a real-time update!

University of Wisconsin Extension’s Climate of Wisconsin page and their Corn Silage Moisture page

On Weather Underground you can find historical weather information, as well as information from various private and public weather stations in your area, and cool weather photos from spotters and interested citizens.

 

Red sky at night, sailor's delight... an adage predicting clear weather in the morning, among the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior; Bayfield, WI

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight… an adage predicting clear weather in the morning, among the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior; Bayfield, WI

A thin ribbon of light at the horizon separates the overcast sky from a frozen Lake Superior... what you can't feel in this photo are chilly winds upwards of 20 mph blustering off the lake.

A thin ribbon of light at the horizon separates the overcast sky from a frozen Lake Superior… what you can’t feel in this photo are chilly winds upwards of 20 mph blustering off the lake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this spring, or endless winter, or whatever you are experiencing wherever you are – enjoy the weather!  Enjoy living in a place where the weather, natural conditions, matter.  Enjoy being able to understand how the weather will affect you, your neighbors, the produce you’ll eat this summer, the milk you’ll drink, the fish you’ll catch, the animals you’ll hunt.

 

Spring?? Who needs spring!

Usually at this time of year I would be blogging about the spring of the year, posting photos of the first shoots of grass, buds on trees, and the earliest wildflowers.  This year, though, I am injured and confined indoors, and another winter storm is set to slam us tonight, with some parts of our fair state slated to get another foot of April snow!  I thought I would take the opportunity to showcase some of my later winter adventures.  After all, if you can’t beat the cold, you might as well enjoy it!

Cassell Bluff in a snowstorm, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Cassell Bluff in a snowstorm, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Something New and Different in Central Wisconsin… Really?

Every time I drive through central Wisconsin, I try to take a different route. This is because the vast middle of our otherwise fair state is a flat, windy wasteland.  On one such trip I discovered Pittsville. Ever since then, I have tried to cover up the fact that it is the (self-proclaimed) “Geographical Center of the State.”  The town seems to live up to its name, based on my stop at its gas station/social center. I feel that its existence in such a representative location could color outsiders’ opinions of Wisconsin. Luckily, unless you are able to teleport, or for some reason fly into Wausau, you can only get to central WI from the north, south, east, or west – all of which are much more appealing.

However, on a recent trip from southwest to northeast, I found a place that I actually want to go back to. Abbottsford, WI reminds me entirely of Postville, IA – another surprisingly distinctive town on the flatlands, that goes by the moniker “Hometown to the World.”  Eerily, I had thought of Postville earlier the same day, for the first time in years.

You have to get off the highway (WI 29) to see the historic downtown of Abbotsford. I did this because I needed to de-fuel at a pit stop, and while there I thought I’d check the online reviews of local restaurants. Cafe Mexico had several raves, so I drove over to find it… And found myself in a one-block Little Mexico! The restaurant, a Mercado down the street, a shop for quinceanera dresses, a Spanish-

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language tax preparation office… Everything from the size of the
street to the architecture seemed to have Latin influences.  Folks, we are in central Wisconsin here.  For all that I love about my state, it is incredibly white, and not very friendly to diverse groups. Even in the agricultural communities where many Spanish-speaking residents live, they are typically not welcome at local establishments, and only show their faces at the nearest Walmart. It’s sad, I know, and something that has bothered me for a while. It is one more reason that Abbotsford was so pleasantly surprising!

I suspect that Abbottsford’s diversity has the same source as Postville’s – a huge meat processing plant outside of town. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closing up just as I arrived. However, the mystery of the town’s history combined with the promise of an authentic dinner will bring me back. And it may be the first time that I will expect to enjoy my trip through central WI!

Pot of Gold

Sandhill Crane soaring over Crex Meadows Wildlife Area

Sandhill Crane soaring over Crex Meadows Wildlife Area

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.

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A dried stalk of Round-headed Bush Clover towers over the first wildflowers of spring

A dried stalk of Round-headed Bush Clover towers over the first wildflowers of spring

Pasque Flower in full bloom

Pasque Flower in full bloom

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.

Sandhill Cranes blend in on a portion of the Wildlife Area that is closed to hunting

Sandhill Cranes blend in on a portion of the Wildlife Area that is closed to hunting

A pair of swans prepare to nest

A pair of swans prepare to nest

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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.  IMG_4742Swans, 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.

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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!

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Still Winter

It has been warm for the past few days, but today snow fell again, to remind us that winter hasn’t let go just yet.  I’m getting antsy for spring to begin, but in the meantime I’ll continue to showcase the joys of the winter wonderland we live in, here in the frozen North.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a morning to go cross-country skiing on a trail system I’d never visited before, in Niagara, WI.  Afterwards, I headed across the river to Michigan to hike the trail in to Piers Gorge, and check out some more frozen waterfalls.  I thought I’d share some of the experiences of that day.

IMG_0056The trails in Riverside Park feature 17 winding km of groomed classic skiing.  Despite living only 20 miles away, I hadn’t even known that this trail netweek existed, until I went onto SkinnySki to look for some new adventures.  I highly recommend that site for information about trails near home or in unfamiliar locations, at least in the upper Midwest.  The trails lead through some pretty scenery, from IMG_0053recent aspen clear-cuts and red pine plantations, to fields, spruce swamps, marshes, and riverfront.  There are some hills, but most of the terrain is flat (in the Menominee River floodplain), or rolling at best.  Despite being just outside of town, it feels like skiing in more remote parts of the Northwoods (which I’ll get to in later posts).  My only criticism is that it could use some maps.  There are a lot of loops, most of which eventually connect up at some point, but it would have been nicer to have been able to plan the journey better.

A view of the frozen Menominee River from a spur of the Riverside Trails in Niagara, WI

A view of the frozen Menominee River from a spur of the Riverside Trails in Niagara, WI

 

IMG_0074Though tired from skiing, I wanted to see how some of the more turbulent portions of the river were looking in frozen condition.  I crossed over into Norway, MI, and hiked up the snowy trail to Piers Gorge.  It is beautiful in any season, and this was no exception.  It’s hard to capture the intricacies of the ice buildup without more sunlight to provide contract… which should be an excuse for you to come and visit it yourself sometime!IMG_0078

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Further Adventures

It’s been a while since you heard from me, eh?  It’s not because I haven’t done anything interesting, it’s because I haven’t had time to sit around on the

An old-growth sugar maple in the Archibald Lake unit of the Nicolet National Forest

computer and tell you about it!  It’s time to start getting caught up, though, because the stories are piling up!  What better place to start than this past weekend, which included a lot more “adventures” than I expected…

 

 

 

It seemed like a simple weekend excursion – meet a friend, find a campsite, enjoy nature.  Of course, I always have to complicate things.  See, last time I was down on the Lakewood-Laona District of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, I meandered my way home, with an intermediate destination of a cool secluded lake surrounded by a bog full of great plants.  Along the way, I happened upon a campsite, investigated, and found that it was lovely and rarely used.  So naturally, I suggested that we go there.  Unfortunately, all I could remember was that it was on the North Branch of the Oconto River, on public land near private land, somewhere between Mountain and Townsend, east of the highway (it doesn’t narrow down that 40-square-mile area very much).  Even less fortunately (for him), my friend got there before I did, and he dutifully started looking for it.  By the time I got there, he’d traveled half of the country roads in that vicinity and had been compelled to break into that evening’s beverage-based entertainment in mid-afternoon.  Which is to say that he was mildly frustrated.  We checked out a few more spots, but with no luck, and ultimately we found a decent place to pitch our tent off of a rarely-used forest road, behind a berm so that no bear-tracking trucks would come roaring out of the woods and run us down in the early morninghours.  Adventure #1 down.

 

Despite a little drizzle, the night was relaxing and enjoyable, we heard the sounds of nature around us and not trucks and ATV’s.  After a lazy morning involving some reading, bike riding on forest trails, and dog-walking, we went to really start the day.  At which point I discovered that I had locked my keys in my car.  This would be Adventure #2.  We tried for a while to break in to it, but apparently all of the curves in the metal and tight weatherproofing that has kept my car dry (and theft-free) for twelve years was not corruptible with sticks and screwdrivers.  Finally, opting not to damage my car further, I decided that we should drive into town (in the friend’s car) and call a lockout service.  So we did, and even got an ice cream cone (and fried green beans!) while waiting for the mechanic to show up.  The kid who got roped into working lock-outs on Sunday morning met us at the gas station in Lakewood, and followed us back to the car, probably wondering where exactly we were taking him, as we got over a mile down this heavily-rutted road.  However, he got me into my car in five minutes, and we finished packing up and went to spend what was left of our day in pursuit of nature in the Northwoods.

We went west of Lakewood a few miles, to the Cathedral Pines, a stand of never-logged pines that were “saved from the axe” by a lumber baron’s wife who, according to legend (and the informative sign at the site), plead with him to save the area where she took her children to learn their bible verses.  The trees are amazingly tall there, though their bases aren’t as wide as some others in the area.  We hiked around a bit through some old growth forest in the area, and checked out a nearby heron rookery.  The Great Blue Herons were all gone for the year, their young having fledged, but we found traces of their presence in the woods.  We ambled around for a couple hours, enjoying the woods and exploring.  Adventure #3 was enjoyable, if shorter than originally intended!  The time came for us to part ways, though, and my friend headed home, while I went off to find another campsite for the night (hooray for a Monday off!).

A Great Blue Heron nest in a tall pine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great Blue Heron, hanging in a tree. Was this bird killed in a dispute and thrown to the ground?

 

 

An eggshell on the ground under the heron rookery.

 

 

Old trees. My (65-lb) dog poses to the left of a hemlock, for scale, with the larger white pine on the right.

Burls in maples – will the one just getting established in the foreground ever rival the monster above it in back?

When forests are managed for old growth, larger trees are allowed to fall over, rather than simply being harvested. The resulting “tip-up mounds” are sometimes a good way to recognize a forest that has had this less-intensive management.

 

A beech tree spreads out in front of a white pine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mind was still on that elusive site on the N. Branch Oconto, but I didn’t want to drive back south to explore that area more.  There was one more possibility to the north east, a long shot, but there were established campsites on the map in that area, so I knew that even if my search didn’t pan out, I’d be able to find a spot to lay my head.  Well, turns out that Adventure #4 took all of 10 minutes!  Before I even found the turn-off, I recognized some signs on private land in the area and let out a yelp of success!  I followed a couple of dirt roads in to a small turnaround on the south side of the river, carried my gear in, and pitched the tent.  I sat near the fire on a cool fall-like night, listening to the riffling and clumph-ing of the water over the rocks and around fallen trees, and woke up in the morning to do a bit of (completely unproductive) fishing.

I don’t know that the site is currently being maintained by the Forest Service (there’s another, newer site just down the road), and the fishing isn’t great,  but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a secluded night in the Northwoods.  But you think I’m going to tell you where it is???  You’ll have to have that Adventure for yourself!