Tag Archive | barrens

Something Great in the Hoosier State (after all)

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.

Large oaks in an open woods

Large oaks in an open woods


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).

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors... several weeks behind northern WI!

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors… several weeks behind northern WI!

Wetland at Tippecanoe.  They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats... but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

Wetland at Tippecanoe. They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats… but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

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!


Wild Turkeys in the Northwoods

Here in Wisconsin, the spring turkey season lasts from early April through late May, but an individual permit is for one designated week (Wednesday to Tuesday) in one designated Zone (1-7).  I had Period B, Zone 5, which put me in northeast Wisconsin in the third week in April.  Applying for that season (applications are due in December) can be a bit dicey – we often have snow on the ground or falling from the sky that time of year up here – but it’s also a beautiful time to be out in the woods.  Plus, a lot of people don’t like being cold so there’s a better chance of getting that week, and since I had never applied for a permit before I wanted to improve my odds.  I don’t like being cold, either, of course, but I have plenty of cool weather clothing!

I started scouting about a week before my season started.  Around here, there are a lot of birds in agricultural fields that border woods.  I work on public lands, though, so I wanted to hunt in one of the areas where we’ve worked to improve turkey habitat.  It’s a prettier spot, but also more challenging because they don’t necessarily follow the rigid patterns that develop in farmlands where they have consistent food sources and less danger from predators.

The area where I was scouting was burned last spring to improve wild turkey habitat by setting back brush and stimulating the grasses and flowers.

My first morning scouting, I chose an area that I had heard had good turkey activity.  I parked my car and walked around a firebreak and up an old trail.  It looked “ideal” for turkey, but I only scared up a few deer in a small draw next to an oaky ridge.  I saw some canid scat that was too old for me to be able to tell coyote from wolf, but not much else.  The songbirds were nice to listen to, but I didn’t hear a single gobble, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes soon drowned out the other sounds.  They sounded like they were down in an open bog to the south of me, then I heard them in the air, then again to the west, and then they flew again.  Their resounding trumpets echoed off the hills.  The turkeys were probably just as annoyed as I was with the din, and had moved on to a place where they could call to their potential mates and actually be heard!  I continued walking down and up the hills, overlooking a couple small lakes, though it was well past dawn and I hadn’t seen any sign, just to enjoy the morning off of work.  As I walked back up the road to my car, I saw my first black bear tracks of the spring in the soft surface.  Continuing on up the hill, I saw several turkey tracks in the sandy surface, including thin lines where the strutting toms had dragged their wings to attract the hens.   They must not have been gobbling, or else I had arrived too late to see them and missed their tracks on the drive in.  I would have to come back to this spot.

The next time I went out, it was already light, and threatening to rain, but I thought that I might look around for some tracks anyway, or hope to hear a gobble in the distance.  I was on a different part of the same property, a couple miles away – over the river and through the woods, you could say.  At first, I didn’t see much other than a few wolf tracks, but when I turned off onto a narrow, rarely-traveled road that is sandwiched between denser woods, not only did the wolf sign increase, but I began to see turkey scat and tracks in the hardened mud.  Turkey signsare interesting, because you can tell males from females without being an accomplished biologist or DNA-analyst.  On female turkeys (hens), all three toes are approximately the same length.  On males (toms-adults, or jakes-juveniles), the middle one is noticeably longer.  Hens poop comes out in a spiral shape, whereas males poop out

Hen poop!

a long segment.  I saw a little of each on the trail, and got my hopes up.

When the trail opened up again, my turkey tracks faded out – not sure if it was because they moved off the path, or because the grass growing on it obscured indentations.  I continued on, mostly because I love that area and enjoyed being far enough back off the road that I knew I wouldn’t encounter any other people.  I thought I might walk all the way down to the river, as I’d never quite gotten there from this direction before.  I scared up a couple small groups of white-tailed deer along the way, although they all stared at me for a long time before running away, as though they hadn’t seen people since last fall.  I veered off the trail to poke my head into a little wetland area, checking for interesting plants since I had given up on the turkey.  As I came back out onto the trail, I heard a rustle behind some bushes that didn’t seem like a deer, and my hopes rose that I might have found a turkey after all.  Instead, as I rounded the corner, a round and furry head appeared, tawny yellow and gray and white mixed together, and I found myself face-to-face with a wolf, not 20 yards away.  It was as surprised as I was, and bounded back a few paces before stopping to look at me again.  I backed up quickly and steadily, keeping my eyes on the bushes that it had come from, and it ran downhill a little farther, also keeping its eyes warily on me, before running across the trail into the brush and towards that little wet area I had come from.  A moment later, a second wolf came out of the bush and ran across the road, too.  I didn’t see another sign of them, although as I walked back the way I came, I did hear one more quiet commotion in that direction.

As I walked up the hill, my heart was beating and hands shaking as adrenaline pumped through me.  I was much more excited than if I had found the turkeys I had started out stalking – I knew that there was a pack of wolves out here somewhere, but I’d never managed to come across one before!  They hadn’t been particularly alert when I’d happened along, or they never would have let me see them.  The deer must have known they were close by, but hadn’t seemed disturbed, either.  Probably they were all enjoying the unusual warmth of this spring, and had enough to eat and drink, and several square miles to roam undisturbed.  Fawns haven’t begun to drop yet, so the does don’t need to be worrying about protecting them, and wolves are still cleaning up the carrion from the winter.  I felt lucky to have gotten such an uncommon glimpse into the world that these animals inhabit every day.


While no match for the torrents of the Cascades, LaSalle Falls is the highest waterfall in Florence County, at 14 ft. Here, it is a torrent of its own, after 4 inches of rainfall in just over 24 hours!

A year ago today, I was in the Cascade Mountains in central Oregon.  Tall trees, snowy bowls, swiftly-flowing streams, crisp mornings, lava beds.  In some ways, that landscape was radically different from the one I’m in now, but I’ve been reminded of my time there recently.  In fact, over the last several weeks I have thought back on most of last fall’s journey.  Depending on the stage of the season and the weather conditions, I have been reminded daily of everywhere from Isle Royale to the Rocky Mountains, down to West Texas and back up through the Ozarks.

We have had our share of cold and damp in northeastern Wisconsin this fall, with our first frost over Labor Day weekend, 3 hard freezes in September, and two nearly straight weeks of rain and drizzle.  The last couple weeks, however, have made up for my disappointment with the failed garden, as we’ve had nearly constantly clear skies.  This, along with the natural senescing of vegetation, has resulted in low humidity, near-record daytime temperatures (81 today!), and chilly evenings (except for this weekend, when I sat around the campfire in shorts and didn’t feel a chill until after midnight).  It feels like waking up in the mountains.  Specifically, it feels like waking up in the Rogue-Umpqua National Forest south of Crater Lake, where I was on October 4th of 2010.

The Pine River at Meyers Falls in northern Florence County, WI

What exactly does that forest have in common with the Chequamegon-Nicolet, other than the hyphen?  They both have Wild Rivers flowing swiftly over bedrock.  Chilly, dewy October mornings with warm, sunny afternoons. Sandy soils supporting conifers and heath species, with an understory including wintergreen and the always-popular pipsissewa.  In that respect, really, it’s not too different from, say, the Superior National Forest that I hiked through on my way to Isle Royale, at the beginning of my trip.  Or the Chippewa that I crossed in drizzle through northern Minnesota, watching the beginning of the brilliant fall foliage.  It’s easy to be reminded of those places from here in Florence County.

Heading north on WI-55 in northern Forest County, WI

Fallen leaves and drooping Wild Rice characterize the "north country" in the fall, here at Glidden Lake in Iron County, MI

Though one of the smallest counties in the state of Wisconsin, Florence Cty. actually has two distinct ecoregions in it – the “northern forests” that I cited above, and a bracken grassland/jack pine barrens that is an open, hilly

Jack Pines dot the bracken grassland at Spread Eagle Barrens State Natural Area in northeastern WI

landscape of sparse vegetation, growing on sandy glacial outwash.   When I’m over in the eastern half of the county, I’m no longer reminded of the wilds of Oregon or the headwaters of the Mississippi.   Instead, I feel as though I never left the glacial hills and aspen parkland of northwestern Minnesota.  As the colors turn to browns and reds, it even looks a little like eastern and central Montana, or the hills of West Texas.

Ferns, heath, and trees changing color at Lake Mary Plains in Iron County, MI

Blueberries and other heath species have colors as brilliant as the scrub oak around them

Which reminds me… I still have some catching up to do!  The long-awaited story of my travels through Texas is coming up soon, and I hope to be caught up on all of last year’s adventures before a year has passed.  After that, I’ll fill in more of what I’ve been seeing since my return!

St. Croix State Park

Days 3 – 4         September 2-3, 2010

Mile 437-463

Hinckley, MN

St. Croix State Park is, according to their literature, the largest Minnesota state park (with over 34,000 acres), and contains two wild and scenic rivers (The St. Croix is a National Wild and Scenic River, and the Kettle River is designated as such by the state).  It was originally developed as a park by the National Park Service and mostly constructed by CCC workers, and was intended to showcase excellence in recreation development.  That is does, as the facilities here are by far the most varied I have ever seen in a state park.

Kettle River Highlands

St. Croix River

In addition to two backpack camps (Crooked Creek, where I stayed, and Bear Creek), there are several maintained canoe campsites, a large campground, and an equestrian campground.  There are probably a hundred miles of multi-use trails criss-crossing the area.  Moreover, there are two fully-equipped guest houses for rent, two “trail center” pavilions with fireplaces, tables, and shower facilities, and a lodge and nature center. The former CCC camp now houses the Minnesota Conservation Corps, as well.  Without doubt, you can find something to suit your needs here!

Barrens in St. Croix State Park

The park also has some ecological interest, though it is not quite as remarkable in this regard.  Most of the area was cropland before being purchased from failing farmers during the Great Depression, though the federal wild-and-scenic designation now restricts any development (or even parking) along the St. Croix.  The reason the farmers didn’t do so well may have been due to the sandy soils in the area (in large part a result of glacial outwash, according to one interpretive display), and those same poor soils now support a limited array of vegetation.  Jack pines, adapted to grow in those dry areas, are the primary species of the majority of the park today – in the form of forest, woodland, and barrens.  In my meanderings, I did not see any great examples

Restoration in progress (left side of the road) at St. Croix State Park

of the first two, but there are some bits of barrens along the St. Croix that I spotted.  For the most part, the park was very overgrown and was not putting as much effort into ecological management as into its recreational facilities (pretty much the norm for a state park), and I found maple and aspen to be the dominant species throughout much of the area.  One interesting feature, though, is that the entire park is in the low-lying river valley, so that any time the level of its well-drained sandy soils dipped down a few feet, it became damp enough for an entirely new set of species.  One could go from barrens to wetland to forest over the course of a few hundred feet, which I thought was pretty cool.

All in all, I liked St. Croix State Park, but I think the facilities really tipped the balance for me.  The mosquitoes very nearly tipped it back – on my six mile hike out on Thursday morning, I killed at least 600 of the buggers on just my hands and forearms!  I had been planning to take a little break, but no dice – they

Maples (small-diameter trees) invading woods (larger-diameter tree is a red oak).

swarmed me if I slowed up at all.  And counting them was about the only way to break up the monotony of the uniform scenery.  It’s definitely a great place to go if you want to practice backpacking – since you don’t have to pack a tent, they supply firewood out there, and the trail is super easy (one caveat: water is not easily available at the sites).  I think the Bear Creek backpacking site would be a little more exciting than the one I was at, and I would definitely recommend going in a drought year – or really early or late in the season.  Actually, I bet it would be a pretty nice place to see some fall colors, and the bugs should be mostly gone by then!



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