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.
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!
I had one great, and correct guess on this week’s Mystery Photo. The answer is indeed Larix laricina, alternately called the American Larch, Hackmatack, or, most commonly here in Wisconsin, the Tamarack. In writing this post, I just found out that “tamarack” is an Algonquin word meaning “wood for snowshoes.”
The most interesting thing about the Tamarack is that it is a deciduous conifer – it looses its needles each fall and replaces them in the spring. What you saw in Tuesday’s photo in an example of a twig “leafing out” this spring. These early trees are easy to identify, because of the way they seem to glow in the sunlight with their tiny, light-green clumps of needles. Looking closely, you’ll see that they even sprout needles from the trunk! Once summer hits,however, the tamarack’s color does not stand out quite as sharply from the other species around it.
It is still relatively easy to identify then, though, primarily because it grows in fairly specific areas. While the tamarack is capable of growing in many soil types and in extremely (to moderately) cold regions, it is usually found in fairly moist, even wet areas. If you find yourself in a bog and there is one lone tree, there is a decent chance that it is a tamarack. It may also be a black spruce, but the two are not difficult to tell apart. Tamaracks are among the first species to invade an open area – they help to initiate the succession of an open grassland to forest, and thus could be termed an “early-successional species.” As such, they do not do well at all in shade, will not germinate in their own shade, and are rarely found in stands of other trees, other than on the very edge. Because they tend to grow in more open areas, and don’t grow their needles until part-way through the spring, they also usually have healthy undergrowth around them – a great place to look for pitcher plants and other exciting bog species! In the autumn, their needles turn a consistent yellow color, and they stand out sharply against the vareigated maples, aspens, and oaks around them, adding to the rainbow of “fall colors.”
If you see a tamarack, consider yourself lucky – it means you’re in a special place!
Oct 30- 31, 2010
Miles 8369 – 8748
Stowell, TX to Little River, AR
After crossing the Bolivar Peninsula, I headed more or less straight north, and got to the Big Thicket Preserve in the late afternoon. I immediately recognized both that it would be a very interesting place to explore and that it was getting too late to do it that day. I opted instead to find a place to spend the night, and by the time I had done that I was on the north side of the preserve. After two months on the road, I was itching to be back home, and never got to explore the area… but you will be sure to see it on my upcoming “top ten list of places I want to go back to!”
What makes the Big Thicket Preserve so interesting to a plant geek like myself is that it is at the intersection of four major ecological zones of the country, and as such has an amazing variety of flora in a relatively small geographical area. The headline of the preserve’s brochure reads, “Unusual Combinations of the Ordinary,” and if you haven’t gotten the hint from my past posts, this kind of fusion is what gets me the most excited. I had driven north from the coast, away from the dry plains landscape of central Texas, through a hundred miles of lowland swamps and coastal bayous, and all of a sudden was seeing not only several
different species of pine trees but also magnolias, tupelo, sweetgum, cypress, and hickories, not to mention about ten different kinds of oaks – the Water Oak being one that I had never seen before. That was only in a short walk that I did right in Martin Dies Jr. State Park! An equal variety of herbaceous plants would have greeted me earlier in the year, and birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals of all sorts were hidden in the woods, swamps, and meadows around me. Because of this diversity, the Big Thicket is a little bit different from other National Parks and Preserves in that it is not a large block of land, but rather several separate corridors totaling about 100,000 acres within about 1800 square miles! Definitely plenty for everyoneto do… at least everyone who enjoys outdoor recreation.
Though reluctant to leave such a cool site, I trucked on into Arkansas, and spent a little while exploring Texarkana, where I had a good lunch at a café and got some great fudge at Shelly’s Bakery (oh, and an oil change, too… funny how you need a couple of those when you drive 10,000 miles). I stayed at a fairly nondescript campground at Millwood State Park, next to a large impounded lake and some train tracks, a little ways northwest of Hope, where I headed on the next day…
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
October 18-19, 2010
Since returning from my trip last fall, I’ve been asked several times about my favorite places along the way. This is one of them. It was beautiful, there were great views, and it stuck out (both literally and figuratively) as unique in both Texas and the Southwest. The real reason, though, that I was blown away by the Guadalupe Mountains was a pretty nerdy one: botany.
I had just spent nearly a week crossing the desert, from San Francisco to west Texas. New (to me) flowers, grasses, shrubs, and of course cacti sprouted from the sparse sands of the rolling hills and expansive plains as I traversed that territory. As I was nearing Texas, I asked a fellow traveler what I should see while passing through. Without hesitating, he named the Guadalupe Mountains, and added, “You might be in time for the peak colors.” I spent the intervening days pondering what he might have meant by that statement. I knew that my timing had been off for the spectacular fall bloom of the Arizona desert, but thought that maybe I would be able to hit it 500 miles to the east.
I arrived at the National Park campground at dusk on a Monday in mid-October, and was surprised to find it nearly full. I scrambled to secure the last available tent site and get my tent set up before darkness fell. There was a thunderstorm off in the distance, and the winds shooting across the plains were upwards of 30 mph. The ground was too hard for stakes, and my site was totally unsheltered, so I wound up putting logs around the inside of my tent to try to hold it down – it was too windy for a fire that night, anyway! In the morning, commiserating with fellow campers about the night before, I commented on the unusually crowded park. “Well,” he said, “it turns out we’re a little early for the fall colors, but I’d already taken this week off of work.” “Yeah,” I said, “What are these ‘colors’ everyone keeps talking about?” “Oh, well the maples are really pretty when they change color – everything’s all bright red and orange.”
Maples? In the Chihuahuan Desert? Sure enough! Somehow, just before dark, I had crossed the invisible line to a place where maples and oaks, prairie grasses and blazing stars grew – alongside of the yucca, prickly pear, madrones, and ocotillo. As I headed out on the trail, I saw some mustache grass
(Bouteloua hirsuta) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium/Andropogon scoparius) next to my boots, and when I reached the higher reaches I was able to immediately identify gray oak (Quercus grisea)and pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), which I’d never seen before, based
on my frequent browsing through The Golden Guide to Trees. Through this environment, so similar to our own prairies or oak-pine barrens, there was strewn a huge variety of desert succulents and western shrubs. The juxtaposition made my hike as exciting intellectually as it was visually!
I walked on through the heat of the day, under cover of the high desert trees, startled a few white-tailed deer, and took a break on the peak overlooking, well, the rest of Texas. As I explained briefly in a previous post, the Guadalupe Mountains are the remnants of the reef of an ancient sea that spread away to the south and east. While their sheer elevation might make them mountains otherwise, the vertical rise of around 3,000 ft. makes Guadalupe Peak an impressive edifice! Perched atop the escarpment that runs around the edge of the plains below, I could almost envision the long-dry waves lapping in the haze below.
Finally, I began my descent along steep switchbacks, through a canyon on the back side of the hills. As I picked my way downhill, the cooler, moister conditions brought about a change in the vegetation – at last, the long-sought maples! While not yet at their peak, the Bigtooth Maples (Acer grandidentatum) were dotted with scarlet, and after the desolation of the desert I could understand why this splash of cool color would be worth driving hundreds of miles to view.
My biggest (and nerdiest) find of the day was yet to come, though. Edging along a rocky trail, I spotted an oak tree out of the corner
of my eye, with different bark from any others I’d seen in the park. Pretty familiar bark, actually – browner than gray, with flaking furrows. I looked around for a shed leaf, and picked it up. Could that be a chinquapin? Quercus muehlenbergii is at the tip of its northern range in the southwestern-most corner of Wisconsin, existing primarily on the dry, rocky bluffs above the Mississippi River, but I didn’t know it extended that far south and west. Upon examining my Golden Guide, it turned out that its primary range extends to eastern Texas… but there was a small outlier dot placed over the border between Texas and New Mexico… right at the Guadalupes. In fact, many of the plants there, including the maples, were outliers, with their nearest counterparts a hundred or more miles away. In all, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park has over 1000 species of plants, making it even an amateur botanist’s paradise!
That night in my tent, I mused over my finds here at the end of the desert. The next day would take me through the desert grassland and low hills of West Texas, en route to Austin. Details to follow soon!