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?
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 has come to my attention that what started as a “travel” blog has morphed into a “nature” blog. This is because I have been traveling primarily locally – to those who don’t live here, it is probably just as interesting as anything else, but for me it has lost the zing! of “something new.” Rather than focusing on the specifics of my routes, my campsites, the novelties witnessed, I’ve been looking a little more closely – at the flowers in bloom, the curious insects that cross my path, the riffles of water babbling over bedrock. Now that the flush of spring and the annual “newness” of nature is fading into the laziness of summer, I’m going to turn over a new leaf (so to speak), and profile my travels a little more. To kick it off, on this rainy day, I’m going to do a little dreaming about my next vacations – some shoe-ins (I already have the plans in place), some a bit more of a stretch (might be years down the road). I heartily welcome tips for travel to these locales, features not-to-be-missed, and ideas for great road food along the way!
1. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – Upper Penninsula of Michigan. Natural wonders, backpacking trails, and if it’s timed right, swimming in Lake Superior! I hope to get there in mid- to late-August of this year, when the water is as warm as it’ll get (though it still takes my breath away)!
2. The Everglades, Florida. I wanted to see it before the wetlands were consumed by the rising sea levels, but it appears that the Burmese Pythons have beat climate change to the destruction of this global treasure. The sooner the better, to see the amazing flora and fauna of these swamps. I hope to schedule a trip this winter for a 7-10-day exploration of the area – at a time when the heat is at a minimum!
3. Central America. At this point I’m thinking of the Dominican Republic, to combine some eco-tourism with Caribbean beaches and tasty Latin food, plus exercising my Spanish a little bit. Can I do the Everglades and the Caribbean in one winter? I doubt it, but we’ll see!
4. Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River, Idaho. I loved this place from the first moment I saw it – and I got to see it for a full 24 hours, because my car broke down and needed some new electronics installed in Ketchum (in 2001!). I’ve been working on finding the time to head back there, plus a partner for a wilderness backpacking trip, ever since. I’m ready to actually put some energy into it now, and am hoping to get something in place for next summer.
5. The Carolinas. North or South, it doesn’t much matter at this point, because I’ve never been to either… working on that quest to hit All 50 States. Plus I have heard they are beautiful. Suggestions very welcome for this one!
6. Ashland, Wisconsin and the Bayfield Peninsula. Until a year ago, I had never been to this cool town and awesome natural areas surrounding it and jutting out into Lake Superior. Then I went for a day for work, and whetted my appetite. I hope to get back this summer or fall for a long weekend, maybe to take in some music at the Big Top Chautauqua or just camp, hike, swim, and check out the historical and cultural attractions in the area.
7. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee? Yes! Every time I go there, I have fun and get to see something new. I want to spend a good 2-3 days there and have some a couple nights on the town. It has all the culture, history, and charm of an old industrial Midwestern city, but it isn’t quite as big and bustling as Chicago! Great food, great beer, lovely lakeshore, good music, museums, and baseball!. I already have plans to head there in July, so keep watching for updates! Recommendations on favorite restaurants are particularly welcome here – I have loved the Comet Cafe every time I’ve been (you should try their bacon pancakes -delish!), but want to try something new!
8. Louisiana. I went to New Orleans for the first time a few years ago, to visit my sister and explore the town. It was great fun, but I want to explore some of the natural areas in the vicinity a bit more. I’ve always wanted to go to Tab Benoit-sponsored Voice of the Wetlands concert – blues all-stars uniting for the preservation of Louisiana’s bayous and traditional culture. I’d love to rock out to great blues music, dine on oysters, and explore the amazing natural treasures on our southern coast! If not this year, then next!
9. Is it #9 already? Man, what to choose? Or, more specifically, what not to choose? Can I cop out, and make this spot into a whole category? Well, sure I can – it’s my blog, I make the rules! So I’m going to choose “Places I want to revisit” – and include Berlin, Germany; south-central Alaska; and the southwest desert all in one! Since I don’t have any of these vacations even mentally in the works yet, they’ll have to get separated out more once a few more of the destinations above get knocked off. I’m looking forward to it, though!
10. A new continent. Yes, another cop-out. Technically, I have never been to most continents. But if I can get to one new one in the next 5 years, it’ll make me happy. Asia and Antarctica top my list of potentials, but I wouldn’t sneer at a free trip to Africa or Australia, either! It appears that I only have “A” continents left in my never-visitied category…
How about you ? Where to next? Or must-see places that I left off my list?
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!
On Monday night, I had a nice dinner that featured some very good, but very rich sausage on a cheese flatbread. As a result, my digestive juices were still working on it the next morning, and everything that reminded me of those sausages seemed to give extra vigor to the process. That wouldn’t seem to be a problem, but as I was driving through south-central Wisconsin, I was assaulted by signs like this in, approaching, and around nearly every town:
I decided that, sausage signs notwithstanding, a leisurely road trip through the area would be in order, hopefully to be capped off by a hike when I was feeling more lively. As I pulled into Lodi, WI, I thought that I might grab a bite to eat (at a small cafe just down the street from this meat market… and involving no meat products), and take a trip down memory lane. We used to come to Lodi occasionally as kids for two reasons: so that we children could see Susie the Duck, and so that my mom could go to the antique shop. I noted on the way in that there were new banners on the lampposts approaching downtown that touted Susie, so I swung by to say, “hello” for old time’s sake. Alas, although she is still present as an icon in the town’s
signage and collective consciousness, she is no longer a downtown fixture herself. “Susie,” used to be ensconced in a nest box at the point where Spring Creek flows through downtown Lodi, at a little park between two underpasses. We would go and watch her sit there, or maybe swim around a bit, and if we were lucky we could talk my mom out of a dime so that we could split a handful of corn toss for her. The park has been renovated, the nesting box removed or repurposed, and I saw only male mallards swimming in that stretch of creek. Her sign still stands, though, and Susie the Duck day continues to be an important part of Lodi’s calendar!
There are a few other, much more accommodating, parks in Lodi, all along the creek that has been channelized to flow along the main street (appropriately named Water St.), through downtown, and out the other side. And my mom would be pleased to know that, although it has changed ownership a few times, the antique store in an old church is still there (I didn’t go in, though, because I have too many memories of the hours spent there as a young’un)!
Of course, then I had to hit the other attraction that we usually included on the day trips to Lodi: the Merrimac Free Ferry. The actual purpose of the ferry is for transportation across Lake Wisconsin, and I have used it to that end as well, but yesterday I was pretty much just taking it for fun. The boat is pulled from one side of the lake to the other on a cable, and the trip takes less than ten minutes. About 15-20 vehicles can fit on, but some are usually larger vans or trucks (or towing boats). Yesterday was extremely windy, and the choppy “seas” might have been too much for me if it had been a longer journey.
Once on the north side of the lake (actually a dammed flowage of the Wisconsin River), I thought that, being so close and all, I might just take a swing up to Devil’s Lake State Park. The park is always amazing, but the real impetus this time came from a fellow blogger – Bob Zeller’s Texas Tweeties has been writing about the escapades of fledgling Great Blue Herons, and I wanted to see how one of our local flocks was coming along. At the foot of the south face of East Bluff, a few dozen heron nests perch in the top of dying pines sandwiched between the CCC Parking Lot and the Outdoor Group Camp. If you have never been in a Great Blue Heron rookery, you should definitely find one near you and check it out – the noise alone of all those big
birds is remarkable, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see them (or the chicks!) go about their daily routines. Yesterday was extremely windy, with the tree-tops (and the nests in them) swinging well over 10 feet from side to side in the gusts, so the birds weren’t moving around too much. I couldn’t find any chicks peeking out of the nests yet, but I would expect that many or most have hatched by now. I drove out of the park to the north, and headed on my way.
Next stop, a few more miles down the road, was Baxter’s Hollow, a 5,000-plus acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy in the Baraboo Hills. Dogs aren’t allowed in the preserve, so I stayed on the paved road with mine, looking at a couple of different species of native honeysuckle (uncommon in these parts) twining along the road, the babbling Otter Creek, and more. This is the time of year when the early spring flowers are done and the summer ones haven’t yet bloomed, but I enjoyed my botanizing nonetheless. If you head to Baxter’s Hollow (which I recommend), I suggest you take along a good and detailed map or atlas that shows all of the small rural roads in the neighborhood. This area of Sauk County is beautiful, and a meandering trip along those roads can take you past century farms and amazing rock formations, over creeks and through wooded groves, and along some steep and winding roads.
I certainly enjoyed my meander over to the town of Plain and the small family-owned Cedar Grove cheese factory. This is another spot that was a favorite jaunt for my family as kids, and we tried to get there while it was in production so that we could actually see them making the cheese through the big display windows. Have you ever been to a cheese factory? If so, then you would also have recognized the distinctive smell that greeted me when I walked in, even though cheesemaking was done for the day – it is somewhat sour and acrid, and would probably be a bad smell if I didn’t associate it with great things like fresh cheese curds! I perused the cheeses – from specialty to scraps – in the shop and picked out a couple for gifts for the hosts I would stay with later in the week (and that I hoped they’d allow me to sample in their home!). The Cedar Grove factory installed a “living machine” around a dozen years ago, which allows them to process all of their wastewater by using hydroponic plants and microbes to break down any additives before returning the water. If you decide to head that way for some of their delicious cheese, I’d take a tour of the factory and living machine while you’re at it, because they’re pretty interesting.
Where is your favorite road trip? Any special places in south-west or south-central Wisconsin that you love to explore? Check out a map of my trip to get your own ideas!
Shortly after returning from my big trip a year and a half ago, I took a new job and moved to the northeast corner of Wisconsin – a land of tall pine trees, clear waters, and primal predators. Living in the land of wolves, Wild Rivers, and old-growth hemlock has its perks, but I alternated between exploring my new territory and missing the cows, prairies, and delectable local brews (and cheeses) of the southern portion of the state. I’ve had a lot of questions about what I’ve been doing up here (and, from the skeptics, what there is to do up here), but new friends have also been asking me about the trip I took, and one of the first questions out of everyone’s mouth is, “So, what was your favorite part?” In light of that, before I jump into my “new” adventures, I thought that I would present a post on my “Favorites” from the cross-country travels that inspired this blog.
That proved to be a little more difficult than I thought. There are a few places that stand out as #1 or #2 on my list, but when I try to expand that to a Top 5 or Top 10, I find myself asking, “Well, Favorite what?” Places, people, and things might be highly memorable for only one reason, but not qualify for the overall “Favorite” distinction. Since they say that people today like easily-digestible, prescriptive information, I thought that I would provide a few different summaries of such things as my favorite foods and beverages, wildlife and plant experiences, music and radio stations, and of course the overall cream of the crop.
I’ll start with a list of places that may or may not have made my overall favorite list, but that might have if I’d given them a better fighting chance. I call it:
Top 5 Places I Want to Go Back to and Explore More
Some of the other places on this list might think that it isn’t fair to include this, since I’ve been hoping to plan a trip out here ever since I first saw the area in 2001, moving between Alaska and California. I made a conscious choice not to spend time in the Rockies on this last advenure, because I felt like a week-long backpacking trip needed more specific planning. I wasn’t even planning to go to Idaho, until I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to follow Louis and Clark’s tracks over Lemhi Pass. My one night on the Salmon River was not only a breath of cool air between the heat of central Montana and that of the coastal Central Valley, but the babble of the blue river was a relaxing break between two long and winding days of driving. I’m hoping to get back to the general vicinity sometime in the next two years for a more in-depth experience.
I also decided not to spend a significant amount of time in the desert Southwest, since I had spent over a week there in 2003, moving back from California. I did, however, take a more southern route, and the plants of the desert astounded me more than the red rocks of northern AZ and NM had years before. I dragged my feet a little bit through Arizona, trying to take it all in, but I never had a chance to spend much time in any one place. Specifically, I would have liked to spend more than 18 hours in Tucson, visiting family and getting to see some of the artistic side of the town. I would also get slightly out of town to get to see the more wild and undisturbed portion of Saguaro National Park, and to get a better understanding of desert ecology and plant life. I hope to get back there sometime in the next five years, maybe for a springtime blooming of the desert.
3. Gulf Coast
When planning my travels in Texas, I didn’t even think of the ocean and beaches, so the time I spent there was short, but enjoyable. I wouldn’t mind spending a couple days lounging on a beach, eating oysters on the half-shell, and learning about the coastal ecology that is so valuable to the healthy function of our hemisphere. A couple years back I went to New Orleans for a weekend, and I remember thinking that, if I had scheduled it better, I would have saved some time for the coastal bayous, as well. I’ll probably get down to somewhere along the Gulf coast in the next few years for an informative, tasty, and relaxing few days!
Unlike every other place on this list, Oregon was an integral part of the planning for this cross-country journey. I had never been there, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. During my week there, I had the opportunity to look at most of the more exciting parts of the state, but each portion only briefly. I could spend a lot more time in the mountains of the Cascades and the Coast Range, exploring the neighborhoods of Portland, and dipping my feet in the Pacific. It would be fascinating to give myself a rigorous course in volcanic geology while driving around the state. Most of all, however, I’d like to do a focused survey of the fresh-hop beers that are tapped late every summer. I got a small sampling when I was there, but I was a little late for the peak season, and I hadn’t planned on touring brew houses. Next time I go back, I’ll make sure to be better organized and have a clearer direction to my visit. It might be a good idea to trek the mountains before I start the beer tour, though!
5. Big Thicket
If you recall my recent post on the Big Thicket National Park, you’ll remember that I was very excited about this ecological melting pot, but didn’t even have time to enter the park proper. I’d like to spend several days in this north Texas/north-western Louisiana area with a few good field guides and maybe even a local naturalist to lead the way. Not sure when I’ll get back there, but there’ll be some good botanizing when I do!
To all my fellow adventurers out there – have you been to any of these places or done any of these things? Do you have suggestions for off-the-beaten-path exploration when I finally get a chance to return?