More Bad Ideas

88DE9DF1-2B5B-44EA-AD0D-80A6E7E6A134In spite of heavy thunderstorms in the forecast… I sought out a remote trout stream deep in the woods. The air was sweltering and thick with bugs, but I was rewarded with lots of blueberries, dwarf raspberries, and strawberries on the trek. As I was snacking on the bulbous red morsels, I looked to see other small things, bulbous and red, snacking on me. It was a matter of eat and be eaten. Mosquitoes, deer flies, and horse flies. July deep in the woods. Bad idea?

The art of fishing tiny, overgrown trout streams in the woods of Minnesota, I have yet to master or even imagine how to manage. They are so overgrown with willow, alder, and various other trees and shrubbery that it is nigh impossible to access, let alone fish it. No room to cast, especially with a 9′ rod of 5-6 wt. I’ve read it best to go with a lighter weight rod with 6′ length… but even still I don’t know how to manage it. Yet I still remain challenge-accepting. Bad idea?

After futile attempts to fish an overgrown stream in the middle of nowhere, I hit the road and drove an hour or so to a new location– or a new location for the day, but a regular place that I haunt. I wanted to get out to the bog and see if there was anything new in season, specifically to see if the pitcher plant blooms were at peak or not. I was already exhausted from bushwhacking through undergrowth and sweltering humidity, but I decided to go back into the thicket. Bad idea?

I stomped around the bog, retrieved the memory card from my trail cam on some upland, higher ground. Perspired and spiritless from the extension of my adventuring, I hiked back out of the woods, into the car, and drove three miles north for another mile hike into the woods farther up. Bad idea?

The third stop on this humid day was to try for some trout again. I hiked a mile into the woods and found a usual spot of mine. Along the way I stopped to snack on dwarf raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, all the while swatting at the swarm of ‘squitoes and flies that surrounded me. I snapped a few photos with my phone and put it in my breast pocket for easy access. I reached my spot and reassembled my rod. I hopped along the shore to the fallen tree I’d used as a pier to cast past the littoral lily leaves and watershield. I failed to consider that it had been raining for a day or two, and the air was wet with humidity, and I failed to predict that the log I had so easily navigated before might now be slick with moisture. Bad idea. A hop from the shore to the fallen pine and immediately I was deflected right over it. My muck boot filled with water, my hat floated free, and shortly after I realized a pain in my right pinky.

Gathering myself together and draining my boot, I suddenly panicked, frisking myself to find my phone. No where to be seen. I looked in the water. It was still hazy from muck stirred up by my recent disturbance. Yet I didn’t see a phone there. I hoped, seriously hoped, it had fallen out on the trail some time when I had bent over to pick a berry or take a picture. Some time had passed, and the water cleared, and my heart sunk as I saw a silver corner peeking out of some light colored muck. I had left my phone in my breast pocket when hopping out onto a littoral lying log, and it took the opportunity to go for a swim. Bad idea.

End of the day, I went home with a tired and sweaty body, a waterlogged phone that couldn’t be restored, a soaking foot with a boot that needed draining and airing, and a day off for relaxation that turned into exhaustion. Bad idea? or maybe, just enough misery and misfortune to make for a memorable day of adventure.

(Meanwhile, a month and a half later, my replacement phone already has a small crack in the corner of the screen and my possibly sprained pinky is still in occasional pain. And yet, I don’t regret the day at all.)

A Series of Bad Ideas

I decided to go trout fishing… in spite of the fact it was around 90 degrees out and it was humid. Bad idea.

I was dressed in long sleeves, long pants, and knee-high muck boots. Bad idea.

I went to a creek, where I though the fish might be more accessible than in my lake choice, but the banks were steep and overgrown, the woods were full of stinging plants and mosquitoes, and while I could see the bottom of the creek, I couldn’t see a single fish. Bad idea.

I decided to bail the location and brave the hot sun hiking back to the car. Good idea.

I found some wild strawberries, so I ate them. Good idea.

I got to the car, chugged water, cranked up the AC, and turned on the radio. Good idea.

6:30pm, I drove north to my original lake choice and trekked a mile or so into the buggy woods. Bad idea.

I set down my overpacked sack and swatted away the swarm that surrounded me. I snatched a couple of wild strawberries I found beneath me. Delicious. I enjoyed the Iris vericolor blueflags along the shore, and snapped a photo of the resident spider on one. Good idea.

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I found the lake, which I had fished on an open shore earlier in spring, but the littoral water was now covered with a dense layer of watershield leaves. I began a clockwise navigation of the lake along the steep, overgrown banks. Bad idea.

I found a few areas where the littoral water was clear of pond lilies and watershield, but there was no clearance for backcasting along the steep, tree-covered banks. I continued navigating the steep, dense banks until I reached the third large pine, fallen into the water. It was near a beaver lodge. It seemed flat enough to walk. So as I continued swatting away at mosquitoes, I assembled my nine-foot rod, strung it and tied a fly, and began walking the coniferous balance beam out over the water. Bad idea.

I cast in large arcs forward and backward, occasionally snagging a white pine standing on the shore, occasionally snagging the dead branches father out in the water on the tree that I stood, and occasionally snagging the branch stubs and bark scales with the line slack drooping beneath me. Bad idea.

The bugs were barely a concern as I stood on my red pine bridge to nowhere in the breezy air over the water. Good idea.

Because my pine pier was near a beaver lodge, I was angering the tenants. As I fished, I could see the ill-tempered carpenters pacing out in the open water and regularly heard the slap of their paddle on the water. They didn’t like me in their neighborhood. Bad idea.

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I teetered an maintained my balance as I cast my line, stripped it back in, and took frequent breaks in fishing to lean in various directions and unhook it from snags on my fallen tree. The setting sun was gorgeous and I could hear the drone of mosquitoes in the woods getting louder. It was nearing 9pm, and in the heat of the day, I’m sure the trout were deeper than my fly would go. So I packed up and headed out. Good idea.

As I hiked through the darkening woods and attempted to stay a few steps ahead of the mosquitoes and deer flies, I came across some more wild strawberries and some dewberries/dwarf raspberries. I nice treat, but almost suicidal to stop and squat for a moment and give the needle-nosed vampires a chance to subdue. Bad idea.

Out of the woods and hot, hungry, tired. Into the car, on with the air and on with Life 88.1. Into town. A stop at the grocery store. Felt something on my stomach. A deer tick. Attached. Got home. Found another tick. Attached. On my arm. Ticks removed. Mupirocin applied. Hobble to the couch. Butt down. Feet up. Beer in glass. Good idea.


Updated a week or two later, my bad ideas came to full fruition. I braved the humidity and mosquitoes to fish this lake deep in the woods. When I went to hop onto my fallen pine, however, I neglected to note the log might be slippery after a couple days of rain. I slipped right off the log, jammed my pinky, filled my boot with water, and later found my cell phone half-covered in muck and full-covered with water on the littoral lake bottom. A few hours later I had it submerged in a bowl of rice at home, hoping to revive it. Alas. We couldn’t save her.

 

Back to the Orchids

If you want to fully experience the phenological beat of the forest, it takes at minimum a weekly trip into the woods. Last weekend I had searched for orchids and found a few that I falsely assumed to be yellow lady’s-slipper. I returned to the same spot a week later to look for it in full bloom… but in that trip in the same general spot, I got distracted by an explosion of thumb-sized small yellow lady’s slipper blooms, and neglected to look again for the pink stemless slippers I had earlier found unopened.

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But first– rewind to earlier in the day that Sunday, I headed to my usual spruce bog to see what I might find out there. White seems to be the color of spring, as variations in shape displayed the versatility of whie in so many ways: Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum), Wild Calla (Calla palustris), False Solomon’s Seal, Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata).

After trudging the bog and appreciated whatever blooms I could find, I did finally stumble onto some orchids as hoped. Some stemless/pinks were there in a lightly more white variation.

I always appreciate finding pitcher plants in the bog, and I had hoped to find some of their unique blooms, which I did, but they were yet unopened. Out of the bog and into some higher ground, I stepped around many Jack-In-The-Pulpit.

I came out of the woods and joined some family for lunch, and then some friends for supper. Come evening, it was back into the woods in a new area with a buddy.

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The bluebeads (Clintonia borealis) were blooming, as were many bunchberry dogwoods (Cornus canadensis). Blueflags (Iris versicolor) were just beginning their display long the edges of a beaver pond.

We trudged around the woods, bog, and beaver pond for that wild, finding interesting plants, but not the orchids we were looking for. We departed those woods and drove to a location I had visited a week or so before, and found unopened stemless slippers. Almost immediate success, it seemed we had stepped into the slippers at their prime. Lesser Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum) were in abundance. In the mossy-floored cedar woods.

We cut through the cedar forest to make a quicker exit to the highway. Then, as we walked the shoulder back to the car, we saw clusters more of the Lesser Yellows. Again, it’s nice to see them, but just like Greater Yellows and Showy Slippers I’ve seen along the highway, it seems to slightly invalidate our bushwhacking attempts to find them deep in the woods and bogs. Regardless, working harder to find them in the woods makes it much more rewarding than finding in the ditches.

Would you believe it? A few days later a casual walk to a wooded area a few blocks from my house warranted a great find. Nearly a dozen stemless pinks were in pink bloom near the banks of the Mississippi, and I didn’t even have to brave the bogs and mosquitoes. Again,  it would seem to discredit the orchid safaris into the bush, but it’s good to see them anywhere. (Also, some Trillium cernuum were nodding their heads in the woods nearby.)

So while it is always nice to see a pretty bloom, I find the experience more rewarding when you have to encounter wet feet and swarming mosquitoes on the quest to see them.

Maplewood

State Park camping? Usually not my thing, because the thought of crowded campgrounds is the antithesis of solitude I seek in nature. I found myself in prairie/farm country for Memorial Day Weekend, however, and Maplewood State Park was the closest thing to public forest land that I could find. ..and of all the days to seek solitude at a State Park… Memorial Day Weekend is probably one of the worse choices outside of winter time.

Still– I found an open reservation for a backpack site on the south side of one of the Park’s lakes. The other two backpack sites were more remote, but already reserved, so I settled for the one albeit far from the campground was also from private. A trail grazed the edge of the site, funneling horsebackers, bikers, and joggers right past my camp. On the other side, the lake, which fishing boats found to be a popular bay for bass and panfish. Too many people in the woods for me, but still better than a campground.

Fortunately, the birds and other wildlife still outweighed the people that occasionally passed by. My little campsite by the lake proved to be a great spot for birding. A brief list of species seen:

Eastern Kingbird
Common Yellow Throat
Yellow Warbler
Baltimore Oriole
Tree Swallow
White breasted nuthatch
Mallard
Redwing Blackbird
Northern Shrike
Brown-headed Cowbird
Gray Catbird
Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
American Robin
American Redstart
Ruby-throated hummingbird

At night, I was startled by a beaver pacing in the lake out front of my camp and occasionally diving with a thunderous slap of his tail. The tree frogs and American toads thrilled a continuous chorus that sometimes harmonized and sometimes clashed with dissonance.

The next morning, I awoke to birds singing again, and then to the sight of a lady jogging the trail running past my tent. Then, later as I got out of the tent, I ignored the tubby chap who muttered sheepishly as he walked the trail past my site as I was fastening up my jeans getting dressed.

Oh, to be deeper into the wilderness and away from people… but it was good to be in the woods nonetheless.

First Orchid Hunt

I stole some time on a Thursday after work to go orchid hunting. Let me first be clear in saying that orchids are protected, rare, and don’t transplant well at all, so when I say hunt, I mean ‘find them, appreciate them, and leave them.’

My hope was to find the calypsos– early bloomers, beautiful blooms, but rare to find. Research told me they like to dwell among the cedars. I knew of a good stand of white cedar with wet feet a ways farther north, so that’s where I headed.

The weather was hot, the mossy woods humid,and the mosquitoes were thick. There were visual rewards immediately with marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), starflowers (Lysimachia borealis), and hepatica/anemones of a couple varieties.

There were a lot of mosquitoes. I lathered up in lemongrass oil, which seemed to keep them at bay, but it also seemed to sting and burn my derm. I came across some bluebead lilies (Clintonia borealis), not yet in bloom, and many moss-covered logs were sprinkled with dainty Three-leaf Gold Thread (Coptis trifolia).

I came across some delicate green flowers on a spire, and I recall seeing some orchids of that description (e.g. adders mouth and frog orchid). I was pretty sure what I found wasn’t an orchid, but it was an interesting little plant so I documented it anyway. Later research proved it to be a naked miterwort (Mitella nuda). How’s that for a name? I also encountered a lot of false lily of the valley and many white violets (there are several varieties that closely resemble each other and I didn’t distinguish which I had found).

Besides all the early swamp flowers, I did, in two spots, find some orchids as I had sought to do. Unfortunately, what I found was two communities yet unopened and a seed pod from last year’s bloom. Both communities looked to be one of the yellow ladyslipper varieties, and so I may have to try to get back out there in a week to see them in their glory. Did I mention there were a lot of mosquitoes?

I didn’t cover all of the 40 oblong acres of cedar, but eventually emerged from the lowland and crossed the highway and summitted a steep ridge of pine slope overlooking from the other side. Uvularia, wild sarsaparilla, and other plants abounded. I found a campsite shelter to later revisit and took an unplanned slide down a slippery, descending wooden walkway with occasional missing boards.

Daylight was growing short, and if the pitcher plants were blooming, I wanted to catch some pictures in the late sun’s light. I trudged back to the car and headed to one of my usual haunts. The upland forest floor abounded with blooms of strawberries, violets, jack-in-the-pulpit, and more uvularia.

I got out of the woods and into the spruce swamp and open bog. Bog cotton, bog laurel, and so many other plants. And so many more mosquitoes. The bog laurels were so gorgeous, it was almost worth the fight of a million mosquitoes to see it.

I found the beginning nub of a pitcher plant bloom coming up, but it was far from blooming height. So as daylight waned, I beat my way back out of the wild and headed home… exhausted, sweaty, and moderately successful in my quest: many interesting botanical sights, and a couple of orchid discoveries- though premature to blooming. I shall return! (hopefully in a week to see the ladyslippers in their glory).

Trout (in lakes) Opener

I love a lake where solitude can be enjoyed without the interference of two-stroke engine noise. Minnesota Fishing Opener, when most lakes are a ruckus of motor racket, is also the opening for stream trout in lakes. And so I hiked into a non-motorized area to a lake that is undeveloped, non-motorized, and solitude from society.

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Everything should be artful; fishing included. While others may have been conquering lakes with 200+ horsepower and a mortgage worth of electronic gear, I found a tranquil location to paint en plein air with a fly rod. Is it snobbish of me? Perhaps. But in fly fishing, even the lure itself is a work of art.

The scenery, the lure, the casting action, and the traditional garb and gear are all works of art in flyfishing. Come success, even the colorful pattern on the brookies, browns, and rainbows are paintings by the Creator himself.

Though I’d prefer the native brookies, I headed to a remote lake stocked with brown trout, and cast away the evening. Even in my non-motorized solitude in a wilderness area, I still couldn’t completely escape the clamor of two-stroke. Somewhere in the distance, the rumble of an ATV was still casting its noise all the way over the trees to where I stood.

The sun got lower and the celestial colors heightened. After many pendulus casts, I finally met with success and pulled in a fish. Well, ‘fish’ may be a generous name for it; for although it was the size of a small trout, in reality it was just a large minnow. Beautiful, mirroring scales glinted in the evening sun, the golden shiner was at minimum a guarantee I wasn’t completely skunked.

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Daylight vanished and I hiked back to through the dark woods with the rosy sky behind me. My wicker creel was empty, but I had met success nonetheless. I had caught some solitude, some peace of mind, and a wonderful experience; and also, not to be forgotten, a very large golden shiner minnow.

An awakening bog

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I often find myself in a black spruce bog/swamp during the winter when the solitude of snow covered evergreens is most inspiring. The soggy peat is easy to navigate when buried under an even blanket of snow. Few have been my trips into the swamp, however, when the snow is gone and the way is wet. This spring, I went where I had gone a month before, when spring revealed crimson pitcher plants gasping for air through the melting snow. Now, beginning of May, the snow and ice were all but gone and the mounds of moss fully revealed. I rediscovered a concentration of pitcher plants.

Earlier I had found only last fall’s red survivors, but now there were verdant newcomers to see. I found again more of last year’s cranberries on the moss: still edible, and still tasty.

The leatherleaf, still rusted from fall, lit the sphagnum on fire in the open clearing of the bog. I hopped high spots back into the wooded spruce swamp, and finally onto higher ground. I came across a beaver-made pond spanning two levels with a trickle filling one from the other. Ducks came, went, and passed over: woodies, green-wings, golden eyes. The chorus of peepers and leopards was pleasantly deafening. A grouse was playing percussion behind me. Spring was singing. And I didn’t want to leave.

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Spring Fishing and Camp

A buddy and I headed up to Grand Marais for a timber framers gathering– a work-related conference that we turned into adventure. When considering lodging for a weekend in early spring, only one option came to mind: camp.

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Sure, there was still over 24″ of ice on the lake and the morning temperatures were hovering in the 20’s as well, but spring is spring. I’m usually not one for ‘campground camping’, but on a crispy April weekend we expected it to be a bit less congested than usual. With ice and snow on the ground and the lake, it was no wonder that we ended up having the entire campground to ourselves.

Circling the wild grounds in truck, we saw at least three grouse. The gravel drive was still covered in ice and snow. We found a nice site on Devil’s Track Lake, crowned by tall spruce and pines.

The next day we scouted out the area for creeks and tried a couple. Most were still lined with ice and snow. We fished wet flies and nymphs, looking for brookies and rainbows.

5D44052F-987B-444B-A23C-8F92C127450EWe ran into a few other fisherman. It seemed from our experience and theirs that the trout weren’t running biting yet. Early season with a late start to spring may have been keeping them sluggish.

Nonetheless, we had a great time seeing some great scenery, casting some flies, and enjoying the crisp air. Our canvas lodging, with a wood stove burning, was comfortable enough. Though a nearby grouse, who insisting on drumming all through the night all three nights, made sure we didn’t get too much rest.

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Tap and Bog

0F227017-3A32-47F9-BCA3-AD63D40D16FCA beautiful mid-March Saturday was a weekend calling to get the first taste of spring. In northern Minnesota, spring tastes like maple.

I’ve seen pictures and videos of people tapping trees with cordless electric power drills. To me, that’s an atrocity. There’s only one way to correctly and artfully tap a tree, and that’s with a hand-powered bit brace.

With over a foot of snow still on the ground, I navigated the woods on snowshoes to drill and pound in 30 spiles. The sap was off to a slow start, but the drip had begun nonetheless. (The next few days clouded over and cooled off, so I don’t expect the sap to be off to a run for another week.)

The spiles are a combination of old and new. The dozen old ones were used for decades by my grandfather on the north shore of Mille Lacs. I’m not certain, but I’m fairly sure they were also used by his father in the same area before that.

 

After the spiles were driven, the chickadees called me further into the woods. So with snowshoes on, I headed down and up the ravine and deeper into my familiar wooded grounds. Out of the upland hardwoods and into the conifer bog I went, following my sunken trail from a couple of weeks before. I had expected the track I packed to be riddled with prints of deer, fox, and other passersby. I was surprised to still see very little activity in the woods. Some chickadees, woodpeckers, and ravens were above, and some aggressive penmanship of a pileated woodpecker, but there was scarcely a critter track on the forest floor.

Into the spruce bog I came across an exciting treat. In the shadows of the the spruce, the limp, red wrists of the leather leaf was showing more and more. Even more special, however, was revealed a cluster of pitcher plants among a sphagnum knoll. Red and erect, and even capturing its first bug of the season, I was impressed how well last summer’s pitchers had survived our brutal winter.

It’s amazing how something so tropical-looking can be that hardy for a Minnesota winter. The bog is much more difficult to navigate in the summer- given the soft ground, open water, and swarms of mosquitoes; but I hope to return in spring and summer to find more carnivorous plants, elusive orchids, and other treasures that can only be seen in their natural habitat. In the meantime, it’s back to the maples in hopes of a good sap run during the upcoming days.

Snow-Stomping in a Spruce Bog

A quick little hike about two hours long…

It’s late February, and after a long winter with mere moderate amounts of snow, we’ve had a good series of heavier accumulation.  With six or so more inches fallen on Saturday night, and a 40F forecast for Monday, I saw Sunday as the opportunity to get out in the woods before it all started melting…

Back into the woods, down a familiar ravine and back up the facing hill, I made very slow progress… with over two feet of very fluffy snow, my snowshoes seemed to do nothing. The path I was cutting sank a good foot below the surface. Yet, I’m sure without the snowshoes, I would have found it even considerably harder (but softer?) to trudge.

I checked my owl house. Still no residents, judging from the snow accumulated at the entrance and on the perch. Yet there seemed to be no residents in the woods as a whole. Where normally I might see a network of animal trails on the fresh snow- deer, squirrel, rabbit, fox, and the like- I saw no tracks at all. With all the deep fluffy snow, I imagine it was too much effort for the animals to travel, and so they were all hunkered down. No doubt that evening they would take advantage of my freshly carved trail making for easier passage.

31A1A4CA-C18B-47BA-AD71-3042F4F6FB9FI went deeper into my familiar woods into one of the black spruce bogs. There’s no tranquility like a sleeping spruce bog in the winter.

At one point, I heard the Phoebe-like call of the Chickadee. Later a raven flew over. Finally I crossed some deer tracks on high ground that looked to be from that morning. There was life awake in the forest after all.

I circled back out of the bog and found my way back to crossing my trail in. The hike out was a breeze comparatively, as I could enjoyed the freshly cut trail I had earlier stomped out. I’d like to return in a day or two and see what tracks took advantage of the new thoroughfare.