Archive for June, 2016

Into the Nearby Unknown



“Let us probe the silent places,

Let us seek what luck betide us.

Let us journey to a lonely land I know.

We will follow a right wind; and

there’s a star agleam to guide us

and a wild place is calling. . .calling. . .calling

-Rudyard Kipling


 I needed a dose of wilderness.

We are not going to our Outpost in the Yukon Territory this summer. It’s difficult for me to find wild solitude near our Anoka Sandplain Basecamp in east-central Minnesota. There are no mountain landscapes here nor do the moose and caribou outnumber the human residents. It’s impossible to get lost around here or to bump into a grizzly.

I’m tired of hearing about senseless shootings and overblown blowhards yelling out more reasons why we should be very afraid. Meaningless Facebook prattle and over-rated, distant rumbling Harleys don’t mingle well with the lazy summer call of a wood pewee. I needed a quick civilization time-out.

In 1964, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. The act went through many revisions but the final rendition stated that wilderness “is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Untrammeled. Now that’s a criteria that I can use to find a nearby wilderness. On a recent sun-filled morning, I packed my cameras and a full water bottle into my daypack, tossed a pair of chest waders into the truck and drove a mile and a half from our house to a 20-acre wetland jungle where any trammeling would be wet and on quaking ground. People don’t go in here. One neighbor said, “The bog won’t hold your weight and you might sink out of sight. And anyway, there’s something poisonous in there that will give you a helluva rash.”

I had invited a friend to practice the buddy system. He couldn’t go but he did bid me “Happy swamping.”

The land, part of a 55-acre piece destined to become part of Anderson County Park, includes a unique collection of native trees such as tamarack, red maple, birch, white pine and even a handful of native spruce. According to the Isanti County Biological Survey completed between 1987 and 1990, this soggy tamarack swamp has some unique flora.

You might think with such an inventory of trees it would be a pleasant place to stroll. But it is the unstable, boggy substrate that makes it impossible to tread there unless the ground is frozen. Indeed the only time I had ever ventured far into this piece of untrammeled terrain was in winter.

Even then I had to watch my step, as there are numerous small springs and seeps that push warmer groundwater to the surface. Stepping into a muck hole with snowshoes on is a recipe for a wet slushy mess.

The greater obstacle, winter or summer, is the poison sumac. This woody shrub can grow up to 20 feet tall. A certain, unnamed friend, once built a duck blind using easily gathered branches of this shrub. He paid dearly for his choice of building materials and to this day is able to laugh at himself for his ignorance of flora. The resulting rash is more severe than poison ivy.

Fifteen minutes of lifting my feet from the shady bog-sucking morass, I felt sweat run a rivulet down my neck and back. I was heading due north and could see that the overhead canopy was thinning. My goal was to make my way to the small lake we grew up calling Little Tamarack Lake. It is surrounded with wetlands so is consequently protected from the intrusion of cabins or houses.

During a midmorning pause for a drink of water, I wondered if this swamp had ever been trammeled by humans. Had early natives entered this place hundreds of years ago? Perhaps a trapper might have come in here but I really doubt it. And maybe an early 20th century farmer might have wended his way into the swamp during the winter to cut tamarack trees for fence posts. The tamarack posts resisted rot better than most other trees. For that reason some of the area’s large tamarack swamps were cut up into small parcels so local farmers would have access to their own fence post timber.

I was very focused on my route as to avoid the poison sumac shrubs and the scattered patches of open water and mucky channels. Even with chest waders, I wasn’t confident that I would stay dry. The footing was terrible and at times I balanced on hummocks or downed and rotting tamaracks. Several times as I teetered, I had to quickly ascertain what to grab if I started to fall. More than any one thing, it was the poison sumac that defined my route.

It didn’t take long to make delightful discoveries: clumps of cinnamon fern, mats of wild calla lily, patches of red-osier dogwood, constellations of star flowers, a host of sedges and most surprising, a singular clump of Labrador tea. I know there are records of this typically boreal plant in northern Isanti County but I had never seen it this far south in Minnesota.


Another more northerly resident that accompanied a scolding trio of chickadees was a black and white warbler wearing its zebra-patterned finery. This small bird has an affinity for swampy forests.

It took me roughly twenty-minutes to gain each hundred yards. After my third pause I wondered if I would have to drink from the swamp as I was drinking my water more rapidly than I had anticipated. I paused to wipe my brow and take a drink when a frog plopped into a small pool covered in duckweed. I stood heron-still. I was ready with my camera when the frog popped up. It was a mink frog! While I’ve known they were around here, I hadn’t seen one in years.


The frog only let me get so close before it headed to the mucky depths. Twenty minutes later, out near the undulated lake edge I managed to catch one in my hand. It gave off a pungent smell that is the basis of its name. Mink and other members of the weasel family can emit a strong musky smell.

I returned to my truck via a slightly different route. I pulled off my waders and found myself soaked in sweat and happy for the outing.

Who would know the unknown could be so close to home?



Sex in the Woods



I suspect that sex in the woods is nothing new to most folks. But recently the neighbors have been a little bit too noisy in their peals of passion. It happens every spring about the time the  bridal wreath spirea bushes are in bloom. It’s as if the hundreds of  clusters of small snow white flowers are the signal for the honeymoon.

Let me set the scene. I had been busying myself in the yard with some mindless task when I heard a nearby chittering.  Its nearby proximity snapped me to attention and I instantly knew this was no masked raccoon, which has its own distinct trill. Nor was it a bird. It was a tree frog; to be exact a male tree frog. Like the other frog tribes, and most birds, vocalizing is a male task, necessary if he is to successfully mate.

Tree frogs, like birds, often sing or call from an elevated perch. Off the ground the mating call can carry further and reach a potential mate.

In Minnesota there are  two species of tree frogs:  Gray and Cope’s tree frogs. Both are similar looking but each has a distinct call. The Cope’s trill seems more urgent and is faster.Both species also differ in the number of chromosomes they carry, but that is irrelevant since our feeble vision cannot pick up this difference. (For the record, the Cope’s has twice as many chromosomes as the Gray.)

The boys in the brush around here are Gray’s tree frogs. The males sit in their arboreal pulpits beseeching hallelujahs of horniness to any nearby female tree frog congregants. Indeed it could be said that their begging appeals are the stuff of the Bible’s Song of Solomon.

It was hard to pinpoint the frog’s location.  Not a bad strategy for a small, vulnerable animal that is knowingly making a racket that could target itself as food  for a predator.

Like a sneaky voyeur, I investigated  the mock orange bush and the nearby ferns and iris. Of course my intrusions to this most sacred of acts turned off the frog songs.

Then from the woods behind me, I heard another tree frog. Was this simply a neighboring male that was letting the first one know his frog music was more appealing or was the chortling call making a mockery of my poor stealth?

 I strolled out to our garden to cull some rhubarb to make a cobbler. A tree frog clung to a leaf, perfectly matching the rhubarb’s color. Leaning close, I could easily see the knobby tips of the tree frog’s toes. These sticky pads allow the frog to climb up vertical surfaces.

 Among the Minnesota frogs, tree frogs are the “chameleons of the frog world.” They can move from plant to plant and in relatively short order, blend amazingly well with each different shade and color of plant.

Specialized skin cells, called chromatophores, contain or produce pigments or reflect light thereby giving them amazing cryptic powers. Scientists have discovered that tree frogs can change colors faster with higher air temperatures.

It is the tree frog that we often see climbing confidently up the sheer window surface on a summer night. They are not window peeping, spying on our sexual practices or trying to figure out how to get in. They are positioning themselves in an ambush to hunt the insects that are attracted to the indoor lights.

It saddens me to think that this group of unabashed animals, so willing to sing songs of seduction, are currently the most threatened group of organisms in the world. No other class of animals, whether it’s birds, mammals or insects, are facing such a major risk of worldwide extinction.

The primary threat to frogs comes from the minute spores of one of the more than 1,000 different chytrid fungi species that live in water or moist conditions. The fungus is devastating frog populations in North and South America and is now found on all continents that have frog populations. In other words the only continent that lacks the chytrid fungus is the Antarctic.

The fungus is no newcomer, it has been around for a long time but us human types are responsible for the vicious spread. We have altered over half of the planet’s land surface and as humans have embraced a global economy, countries can easily and quickly ship products that are contaminated by microscopic fungal spores.

Consequently, the long-lived fungal spores are easily transported thousands of miles. And in areas where the fungus is a newly introduced, frogs cannot evolve fast enough to resist the deadly ramifications. There seems to be no escaping the reach of the fungus.

Frog populations are also threatened by other human actions. These include the toxic soup of poisons that include pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that we apply to lawns, agricultural lands, golf courses and other areas.

Could it be that the frogs that brazenly climb on my windows are wanting me to see them? If I want to enjoy  future tree frog acrobatic and sexual antics around the yard and in the woods, I better pay attention to my own actions. And speak loudly on behalf of those neighbors who aren’t able to call for help.