colorful rivers

Well, not so much the color of the river per se, but it was the color along the river last week in Wisconsin and Michigan during the peak of the fall color show that was impressive.  Some examples, seen between rain showers:

wolf river, wisconsin-

Along the Wolf River on the way to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, the sumac is intensely red, and maples have turned a brilliant yellow, orange, or red.

Wolf River, Wisconsin

Places like this are where you wish you were in a canoe, drifting down a lazy part of the river, gazing at the glorious color along the shoreline.

wolf river, wisconsin-

Not a huge waterfall by Lake Superior north shore standards, but a pretty scene nonetheless.

We know that warm days and cool nights of fall stimulate plants to break down their chlorophyll, unmasking all the xanthophyll and carotene photo pigments in the leaves, and those changes in leaf metabolism produce the yellow, orange, and red colors.  I have written more about the chemistry of leaf color change earlier — (“you know it’s fall when…”).  But what accounts for the synchronous color changes of rural northern hardwood forests, compared to the more prolonged sequential color changes we see in urban landscapes?

Summit peak, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

Synchronous color change in mature beech-maple hardwood forest, Porcupine Mts., Michigan.  You don’t see sights like this in many urban areas.

Lots of factors might be responsible:  urban areas are generally warmer with a less homogeneous climate than surrounding open countryside; plants in a natural forest most likely respond to climatic changes in similar ways, whereas planted urban trees, often non-native, adapt to a mixture of environmental cues with different schedules for leaf fall.  Leaves might change color more slowly and stay on trees longer in the urban environment simply because temperature and moisture conditions there are so different from the surrounding countryside.

Fall color in the “Porkies”

I’ve always wanted to visit the Porcupine Mountains in northwestern Michigan, and fall is the perfect time to take in the color change in the forest, as well as the dramatic cliffs in the park.  Rising to a peak of just under 2,000 feet and lining the southeastern shore of Lake Superior, they provide great views of the most extensive old growth of northern hardwood forest west of the Adirondack forest in New York.

Lake Superior from Summit Peak, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

A view from the 75 foot observation tower at Summit Peak on the southern edge of this 31,000 acre park.  The climax forest of maple, basswood, yellow birch and hemlock stretch beyond what the eye can see. Lake Superior is in the far distance.

Observation tower at Lake Superior from Summit Peak, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

An extensive series of boardwalks, platforms, and an observation tower ensures great views of the forest landscape.

One of the star attractions of the park is Lake of the Clouds, so named for its mirror reflection of the sky. But equally impressive are the sheer cliffs of ancient volcanic rocks that form a long escarpment on the northern side of the park. These are the exposed remnants of the volcanic action that formed the mid-continent rift that runs from western Lake Superior all the way down to Kansas.

Lake of the Clouds, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

Lake of the Clouds, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

Outflow from the Lake of the Clouds also reflects some of the sky.

Lake of the Clouds, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

Glacial action has polished the surface of the volcanic rocks here, making them almost slippery.

On the western edge of the park, the Presque Isle river churns through volcanic deposits scrubbing out holes and undercutting cliffs.

Presque Isle river, Porcupine Mts., Michigan

The river is lined with hemlock forest where trees are so close together, barely any light makes it to the forest floor.

Hemlock forest, Presque Isle river, Procupine Mts., Michigan

Well-marked trails and wonderful scenery make this an exceptional place to visit, especially during the peak of the fall color season.

Ridges and Swales

It might sound like this is about a fashionable department store, but beach ridges and the shallow, watery swales between them are natural features of the Great Lakes shorelines. We hiked at one example of this complex ecosystem at the Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor on the eastern side of the Door peninsula.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The entrance walkway to the Sanctuary crossing over a swale, with the shoreline lighthouse at the end.

Ridges and swales are most likely to develop where coastal land is uplifted or where lake levels fall, which is probably what has been happening here in the past 10,000 years since the last glacial recession.  Sediments are deposited with gentle wave action against the shoreline in a protected harbor, leaving behind a low hill of sand and gravel in which hearty colonists establish themselves.

Map of The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Map of the Ridges Sanctuary, showing the parallel rows of beach ridges separated by low-lying wet swales.  Black lines are the trails through the area.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The most recent beach ridge on the shoreline is being colonized by 3-foot tall conifers and grasses, which will slowly add humus to the sandy matrix, improving conditions for further growth.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Between each of the Ridges, is a low, wet area (the swale) where sedges thrive, and assorted moisture-loving plants, like orchids thrive.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Raised walkways guide hikers across the swales and provide views of wildlife and exotic plant species along the edges of the ridges.

The variation in environment from dry to wet, or coastal to inland makes this an extremely diverse ecosystem, home to more than 500 species of plants, 60 some species of birds, and more than a dozen mammals.

Fringed Gentian, Ridges Sanctuary, Door County , WI

Fringed Gentian is one of the 500+ plant species to be found in this diverse ecosystem.  Summer blooms include at least 25 species of native orchids, along with bog species like pitcher plant and sundew.

Fringed Gentian, Ridges Sanctuary, Door County , WI

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The ridge furthest from the coast begins to look more like mature coniferous forest, with tall red pine, white cedar, and fir trees. The path here is spongey, needle duff rather than sandy gravel.

The Ridges Sanctuary was founded in 1937, becoming Wisconsin’s first land trust, designed to protect the state’s most biologically diverse ecosystem.

Door county sights

The Door county peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan north of Green Bay, Wisconsin seems to enjoy a different climate than the surrounding part of the state.  Stepping back a couple of weeks from the peak fall color of central Wisconsin, trees are just barely tinged with red and gold, and the weather is balmy instead of chilled.  Maybe it’s the lake effect.

We hiked along the limestone cliffs at Cave point county park on the eastern edge of the peninsula and marveled at the way the trees could seemingly grow right out of cracks in these 400 million year old rocks that have been polished smooth by glacial action.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Pounding waves undercut the limestone bluffs and create caves along the shoreline.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Water near the rocks is crystal clear and a beautiful jade green color.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

A mixed forest of white cedar, alder, beech, and maple is mostly stunted in its growth because of the lack of soil covering the limestone.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Water runoff from waves or rain/snow fall removes a lot of what little soil accumulates, and most of the trail along the shoreline involves walking over exposed tree roots.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

In a couple of weeks, the fall color here will be stunning, just as advertised in the Door county brochures.

Whitefish Dunes state park, Jacksonport, WI

Adjacent to Cave Point park is the much larger Whitefish Dunes state park, which runs the length of the sandy shoreline here.  Plant life here faces a different challenge than growing through cracks in limestone, namely establishing roots in a shifting surface of sand with little subsurface moisture.

but as always, wherever you go, life seems to find a way…

North Shore color

And so it begins, the slow march toward another winter.  But first we are gifted with the brilliant colors of fall.  We traveled to the north shore of Lake Superior to get our first glimpse of this year’s color show, and weren’t disappointed.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (2)

Arriving in the evening at Lutsen ski area, I wasn’t sure we would get any good views of the fall color on the hills.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (3)

But the weather cleared up for at least a couple of hours early the next morning.

And the hike around the trails on Oberg mountain was definitely rewarding.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (4)

Trails were muddy and slippery, but colorful.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (5)

View of Oberg Lake from the north side of the mountain trail, looking northwest where the color change was most evident.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (6)

Next to Oberg Lake was an enticing wetland area that should have had ducks, loons, or at least one moose.

ake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (9)

Lake Superior in the distance was overcast and gray instead of its usual brilliant blue which makes such a nice contrast with the orange and yellow of the hillsides.

With the recent rain just days before we arrived, the rivers and waterfalls were overflowing with rapidly rushing water.

Ray Bergland wayside park, Lutsen, MN-2

Even the smaller creeks had rapids. It’s easy to see how trees get swept downstream with high volumes of water flow that wash away the soil around their roots.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-4

Cascade Falls, south of Grand Marais always has impressive waterfalls, but their volume and noise level after recent rains was remarkable.  The water is coffee-colored from the leaching of leaf tannins in the wetlands upstream: the more extensive the drainage of wetlands, the darker the amber brown color of the water (and waterfall).

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN

One point in the waterfall trail gives you a view of three of the six or seven cascades in Cascade Waterfalls.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-2

Another view of the cascade with a slower shutter speed.

a beautiful riverside wildflower garden

What a surprise to find a lush wildflower garden growing in the damp soil at the edge of the St. Croix river at the Arcola Bluffs trail.  A trail along the river’s edge led me through dense clumps of Cardinal flower, Blue Lobelia, Obedient plant, and Prairie Ironweed.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

There were hundreds of individual Cardinal flower stems growing here in the semi shade and moist forest soil along the St. Croix river.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

With this many attractive red flowers, you would expect to see hummingbirds, and sure enough they showed up right as I began noticing the dense flower patch.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-on-cardinal-flower-1

Shot earlier in my backyard wildflower garden, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do love this plant.

white cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis

Among the hundreds of individual plants, there was one genetic mutant, a white form of the Cardinal flower.

White mutants of brightly colored animals or plants are usually genetic recessives, and are rare in the population. I imagine hummingbirds might skip over the nectar resources in this plant (wrong color to attract them), so it might not set much seed, which further contributes to its rarity.

Blue Lobelia - Lobelia siphilitica-

Another Lobelia species, the Blue Lobelia, was also growing in the riverside wildflower garden, although in much lower density.

Obedient plant - Physostegia virginiana-

I spotted just a few individuals of Obedient plant in this “garden”, although this plant is usually an aggresive colonist of open spaces in my backyard wildflower garden.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Prairie Ironweed seems to like the wet river bottomland as well as it does the open prarie habitat. It’s large flowerheads were particularly attractive to honeybees.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Has this lovely wildflower garden always been here? Did I just happen to hit it during its peak flowering? Other wildflower enthusiasts have reported lush blooms of cardinal flower along the backwaters of the Mississippi and St. Croix recently (late July-early August), so maybe I have just never discovered these little patches of colorful diversity along the rivers.

Tired is a state of mind

Hiking at high altitude is hard work. Carrying a pack more than 1/4 of your body weight at high altitude is seriously hard work. Hiking uphill with said pack on your back at high altitude is not recommended unless you have a deep desire for hurt. So, when engaging in this unthinkable activity, I have to believe that feeling tired is just a state of mind…

Tired hikers

which can be relieved in a number of ways when that tired feeling hits during a long, hard uphill climb.

Camping at high altitude

Each day there is a new and beautiful place to sleep and rejuvenate.

High Sierras, Hoover Wilderness

We are alone in this vast wilderness…at least it feels like it. I love that feeling of smallness in this vast expanse.

High Sierras, Hoover Wilderness

There is a new vista to explore around every corner.

Family hike, High Sierras

Below 9000 feet, we can have campfires. What a difference in your mood a campfire makes! (That’s me on the far right)

Family hike, High Sierras

The pains of a hard hike are shared, and we keep each other going.

Family hike, High Sierras

Remembering these antics around the fire keeps me going all the next day.

Family hike, High Sierras

We made it! Shoes got wet, but we crossed another rushing river.

photos by Becky Chaplin-Kramer

Natural Wonders

Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.

View from Summit Pass, Hoover Wilderness

Landscapes like this view from 11,000+ foot Summit Pass, in the Hoover Wilderness in the eastern Sierras are a natural wonder to me.

Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.

Wild flowers in the Hoover wilderness, eastern Sierras

Wild flowers were especially vibrant this year after the mammoth snowfall in the mountains last winter.  This year they will leave a lot of seed behind, which may take years to germinate depending on conditions in the next years.

Fireweed

Fireweed is a colorful pioneer in disturbed areas until other bushes and trees eventually outcompete them for light and water.

Lichen on red fir

life growing on life — fruticose lichen on red fir

Lichen on red fir

The lichen combination of Cyanobacteria and Fungi is also lush this year, after a banner year of snowfall.

Pinedrops

You wonder how life can spring up in the middle of rocky dirt. But Pinedrops plants are parasitic and derive their energy and carbon from the mycorrhizae fungi that surround the roots of other plants.

Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail.  The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.

Glacial polish on granite

Small rock cairns mark the trail on exposed granite surfaces. In some areas the granite has been polished smooth by glacial movement of sand and rocks.

Bodie days

It only happens once a year, the celebration of the life of the founder of the infamous ghost town, Bodie, California, a once, prosperous, if a bit unlawful, mining town in the eastern Sierras.  And what a celebration — complete with a funeral procession to honor the bones of the man who gave the town its name but didn’t live to see prosperity boom there, people dressed in period costume, acting out their various roles in the town, an historical museum full of artifacts of the period, and a big crowd ready to take it all in.

Bodie, California

Bodie boasted a population of 7-8,000 in the 1880s, when gold was finally discovered there after about 20 years of prospecting for it. The town had 65 saloons, two churches, and a jail.

Bodie, California

The industrial side of town contained the stamp mills that crushed the raw ore, and smelting furnaces to separate out the precious metals. Gold, silver, mercury, and other metals were mined here, but the boom lasted less than 10 years.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Bodie days celebrants lined Main Street waiting for the “funeral procession” and listened to speakers talk about the life of WS Bodey, the town founder.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

First came the musicians

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Then the hearse, pulled by a pair of beautiful black horses.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Followed by an assortment of wagons and riders in a long parade of original equipment.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Ladies in costume posed in front of the dress shop. This building must have been built much later in the towns history, because it was composed almost entirely of men during boom mining days.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Riders in period costumes with cell phones!

Life in Bodie was fast and furious, but the town suffered a population decline in the late 1800s as mining booms in Montana, Utah, and Arizona drew the “strike it rich” young men away.

Now Bodie is a designated national historic landmark, and a popular tourist destination for those who want to see what life was like back in gold rush days.

Bodie hills

What the Bodie hills looked like before the mining boom here in the 1860s.

Blue lakes, purple flowers, and pink snow

Our scouting trip to find a pass over a ridge between two sets of lakes was unsuccessful, but we encountered some gorgeous scenery on the almost 8 mile hike around Saddlebag Lake on the Tioga pass road over the Sierras of California.

Saddlebag Lake

The water is quite chilly, but the fishing seems to be good on Saddlebag Lake

Saddlebag Lake

Wild flowers are still in their full, blazing glory. It was a late summer this year because of all the snow. I think the purple flowers might be Monk’s Hood, a showy plant containing highly toxic alkaloids.

Saddlebag Lake

You couldn’t ask for a better trail. Unfortunately, it ended quite a ways before climbing into the pass over the ridge just below the pointed peak, and the way up looked much too rocky a traverse to take young hikers (or old grandparents, for that matter).

Ridge between McCabe lakes and Saddlebag Lake

End of our good trail…these lakes are above 10,000 feet and only recently free of ice and snow.

Pink snow

What?! Pink snow?

Yes, it really is pink snow, colored not by leaching minerals but by the growth of the green alga (yes, it really is green under the microscope), Chlamydomonas nivalus. If there is one thing we have learned about life on earth, it’s that microbes can thrive just about anywhere, and here’s proof of life on the ice.

The algae are actually in a metabolically quiescent state, awaiting appropriate conditions, like lake water, to begin growing.  But to protect themselves (and their chlorophyll) from the damage of intense radiation at high altitude, they synthesize a protective sunscreen of carotenoid pigments (yes, the same ones that make Cardinals a bright cheery red).

Pink snow

And so, these green, but appearing red due to carotenoids, algae slide down  the snow banks toward fresh water to begin a new cycle of growth.