Tag Archive | travel

Ten Thousand Islands

IMG_1728An often-overlooked aspect of Everglades National Park is that about 50% of it is covered with water… but only a few feet.  The Ten Thousand Islands is so-called because of the many mangrove islets that dot the tidal flats for over a hundred square miles before giving way to the open Gulf of Mexico.  This is an estuary: a place where fresh water from the rivers meets salt water from the ocean.  This brackish water that results in estuaries forms the basis for the most productive and diverse ecosystems on earth – and the 10,000 Islands are no exception!

This particular estuary is a result of both a submerged coastal plain (basically a continuation of the very gradual slope of land in south Florida) and the development of shoals from oyster bars.  Oysters are one of the unique organisms that not only survive but thrive in brackish water and tidal flats, and it’s only a little exaggeration to say that this area is one huge oyster bed!  The pelicans in the photo above are standing on one

Sunset boat trip (7)

These pelicans are standing on an oyster bar, a few hours before low tide.

such oyster reef.  Oysters, and other estuarine species, make up the plentiful bottom of a food chain that feeds local and migratory animals of all sorts – but especially birds and fish!  These reefs/bars/shoals also protect the mainland from storm surges and hurricanes, breaking up the force of waves before they hit shore.  When these shoals get filled in with a little sediment coming down the rivers, the mangroves are able to get a toehold, and eventually they grow to form the islets, with some higher, drier ground at the center.  For the most part, only mangroves grow there, though as debris gets caught in

Sunset boat trip (12)

Rabbit Key, a barrier island at the edge of the Gulf

the mangrove roots, some other plants are able to gain a footing themselves.  The outermost islands in the Ten Thousand Islands are true barrier islands, made of sand and shells and supporting a variety of hardy plants that grow above the high-tide line.


A Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, and Royal Tern stake out posts on a shoal as they wait for a meal to swim by.

Some visitors spend their entire vacation in the Ten Thousand Islands – paddling or boating, fishing, birding, camping.  We had other stops to make, and only spent an afternoon here.  We took a private boat tour out among the islands and saw an abundance of wildlife, both mangrove and barrier islands, and capped it off with a sunset over the ocean.

Sunset boat trip (39)

Our tour was operated by the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, which has an interesting history itself.  These tours came well-recommended, and I had hoped to get a smattering of local island lore from someone who had spent their lives in the islands, but unfortunately out guide had only been there for a few months and was about to leave for his next job elsewhere.  He enjoyed talking about the wildlife and the Islands, but not all


All of the boat operators know how to find dolphins for the tourists! It was admittedly fun to watch them play in the wake of the boat.

of his ecological facts turned out to be true (I don’t blame him – I think he thought he was giving us accurate information!).  This was a pattern I noticed while we were down there, that most tour guides (both park staff and private companies) had memorized a little bit of information but couldn’t really extrapolate from that, and sometimes mixed up what they had learned.  This is a very heavily-visited area, and most people don’t wonder about the things I’m interested in… but if you do, I suggest reading up before you go, rather than relying on guides or interpreters to inform you!

Final note: last fall I read a novel called Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which takes place in a fictionalized version of the Ten Thousand Islands and southwest Florida.  If you’re looking for something less science-y to read, I highly recommend it!




Everglades vista – the “River of Grass” dotted with Dwarf Cypress trees

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!



I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation!  I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis.  I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave.  You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?  


In case you thought Iowa was nothing but corn, you can rest assured that there are soybeans here, too.


This giant statue of Pocahontas, along with a lot of historic signs about the real “Indian princess,” filled the town of Pocahontas, Iowa. Yes, you are remembering history correctly: Pocahontas was a figure in early Virginia history, at a time when no one even knew Ohio existed, let alone Iowa.


Somewhere around Oelwein, IA, the Driftless Area ends and the land flattens out. I was in foreign territory once I’d crossed the Wapsapinnicon… which became obvious as KwikStars gave way to Kum & Gos.


Onawa, Iowa (that’s 2/3 vowels for those counting) has the widest main street in the world. According to the sign.

This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind.  When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in.  As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious.  I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization.  I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche.  There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement.  In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything.  Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.


It really is corn as far as the eye can see, even in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, where the eye can see much farther…


Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, the towns get farther apart and the road ditches fill with prairie.


In addition to beans and corn, there is wind in


Iowa. These windmill farms use different technology than some of the others I have seen.

The Best-Laid Plans

“In battle, what cannot be predicted is the enemy’s reaction; in exploration, what cannot be predicted is what is around the next bend in the river or on the other side of the hill.  The planning process, therefore, is as much guesswork as it is intelligent forecasting of the physical needs of the expedition.  It tends to be frustrating, because the planner carries with him a nagging sense that he is making some simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage, but may cause a dead loss when the mistake is discovered midway through the voyage.”

—Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West


The journeys I take are not Voyages of Discovery, and they do notDCP_2966 involve dozens of men for several year.  Yet, I feel some sympathy for Ambrose’s description of Meriwether Lewis’s struggles in planning for the unknown.  Though it can sometimes be stressful, I deny that it is in fact frustrating – at least not during the planning phase itself.  I actually get a certain energy from the planning, spending much more time on it than necessary, and getting more excited for the trip ahead with every moment.



I love reading a map – planning the route of a road trip is one of the best parts.  Deciding which personal effects to pack for a journey helps me realize my priorities.  Determining meals for a backpacking trip makes me examine my true needs.

However, it is true that I usually pack too much.  Maybe I am afraid of those “simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage.”  Of course, I’m sure most of you can attest that bringing along unnecessary items can be as big an error as omitting a useful tool!



The frustrating part for me is when the journey is not an adventure.  Making hotel and plane reservations do indeed try my patience.  I prefer to travel in a way that does not require advanced planning for every step of the way.  Yet, even planning the complicated logistics of a longer trip or one with multiple participants or specific objectives to accomplish can stimulate me.  In that case, it may be less excitement that I am feeling, and more a positive type of stress.  It is that feeling that I imagine Captain Lewis to have had while planning his famous journey to discover what would become the western two-thirds of the United States.

What about you?  Do you find planning and packing to be exhilarating or frustrating?  Do you have tups to make the process go more smoothly?  What is your favorite part about planning for a journey?


The photos on this page document the packing portion of a research project that I worked with in Chile, ten years ago.  We not only had to pack our personal items, but also quite a bit of our food for four months, as well as materials for the project, including fence construction.  These photos show us packing the gear once in Santiago, then bringing it to the boat yard in Valparaiso, where it was loaded into crates for its journey to our island destination.  That was, indeed, a frustrating project!  And yes, we packed many things that we never used, and not enough of some items we couldn’t do without!  Luckily, we were not in uncharted waters, and were able to make things turn out alright in the end.


A Human Pace

The second reason that Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is so fascinating to me, is its theme.  As an Anthropology major many years ago, I have a lasting appreciation of cultural exploration. I have also been particularly interested in hominid evolution since interning at the Field Museum of Natural History back in 1999.  At the time, I was involved in a project to create a computer-based “field trip” touring students through human evolution.  Technology-wise, our efforts were laughable in the face of what is commonplace today.  In fact, the Out of Eden project itself has a program to bring classroom students along for the walk, as it were.  It looks really neat – I wish I were a teacher or homeschooling parent and could sign my students up!

But I digress…

My particular interest in hominid evolution and expansion has focused on the linguistic repercussions.  I have always wondered if it would be possible to track expansion out of Africa based on the similarities of languages… and for now I am left to keep wondering!  Mr. Salopek is a journalist – his trip isn’t intended for scientific research, or to bring new facts to light for the world community.  Instead, he is documenting the way life is now in each of these places, with reflection on the first humans to have walked before him.  His intent is to slow down his speed of observation to a walking pace, to get to know the locals on his trek, and to bring that experience to the rest of us.  He has chosen to travel in a mode that humans – and one might add only humans – have always had at their disposal: our two feet.  In doing so, with all the added support and conveniences of modern life apart from transportation, he showcases the tremendous effort it must have taken those first humans, the drive they must have had to reach new lands.  Along the way, he records the struggles and ambitions of modern people along his route, in conversations and interactions that point out our universal human similarities, as well as our large cultural differences.

This is what travel is always about, for me.  I can find similarities and difference a couple of towns over – and not more or less of either on the other side of the world!  I may not get to walk around the globe, or the country, or even this state, but whenever I reach a new destination, I am full of curiosity about the people who live there.  I do get out of my car, off the bus or train, and just walk, through neighborhoods, fields, skyscrapers, or backcountry trails.  I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Salopek that you can’t see the world of people unless you are moving at a human pace.

Walk Around the World

IMG_0184Since I can’t do much of anything myself right now, I am living vicariously through others to get my adventure fix.  I recently read a months-old issue of National Geographic magazine, and found this article on one man’s plan to walk around the world, following the path of human expansion out of Africa and eventually into the Americas.  I find it fascinating on many levels!

For one, I have long had an interest in walking across the country.  This will never happen, largely because I think my weak joints would fall apart if I attempted it, but it is fun to think about.  In 2000, while hiking and walking regularly along Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana, I concocted a plan.  At the time, I imagined asking random strangers along my route for lodging – a spot to pitch a tent in a yard, or a couch to sleep on.  I would let word of mouth follow me ahead, and I would build a network of generous folks willing to help out their fellow travelers.  I would maintain a list of those willing to offer a couch, and screen potential travelers.  There might even be a place in all this for the internet, I thought.  Remember, this was at a time when we had just begun making our own plane reservations via online sites, before craigslist had spread out of the Bay Area, before Facebook (Friendster, now that’s a different story…).  Most people did not have cell phones, there wasn’t even decent infrastructure for cell phones and internet across the nation.  It is both humorous and overwhelming how much things have changed in such a short time!

In his around-the world trip, Paul Salopek seems to be doing an excellent job of integrating 21st-century technology into his primitive mode of transport.  The website for the project includes a wonderful array of information: “dispatches from the field,” “milestones,” and “map room” showcase these remarkable well.


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.