Knowing When to Pull the Plug

img_3632At the turn of the last century, British polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton could have been the first human to stand at the South Pole. It was January, 1909 and after trekking on foot for over two months he and his three companions were a mere 90 miles from reaching the pole. This was Shackleton’s second attempt and the weather was turning nasty and bitterly cold. Huddled in a tent with his crew, I’m sure he wracked his brain plenty on whether to go on or not. Were the risks worth it?

He weighed the options and given that the weather was becoming more severe, their meager rations and the condition of his crew, he chose to turn around. He felt they could have attained the pole but there was too strong a likelihood that someone would have died in the effort. It wasn’t worth standing at the pole while losing one or more crew members.

Before returning to England,  Shackleton was able to send his wife a long awaited welcome letter. Succinctly he stated, “I thought, dear, that you would rather have a live ass than a dead lion.”

A handful of weeks ago, my wife Nancy and I rendezvoused with friends Charlie and Elaine and their dog Cache on the Upper Missouri River in Montana. Our last adventure together was just over a year ago when we met in Utah and paddled 100 miles of Green River into the Canyonlands.

The four of us are fascinated with the history of the Upper Missouri Country. This was an area rich in wildlife and consequently it was a preferred region for early natives to frequent.

Arguably the upper river country is best known to most folks for the famed Corps of Discovery expedition led by Lewis and Clark. Sent by President Jefferson to find out what kind of country the United States had just purchased from France. The acquisition known as the Louisiana Purchase added 828,000,000 square miles to the United States thereby doubling the size of the young nation. The bargain price was $15 million or .03 per acre or .42 in today’s dollars.

My dear friend Charlie is a mountain man, a cowboy and a desert rat at heart. Dripping wet this 82-year old kid might tip the scales at 120 pounds. And that is mostly gristle and beard. His shadow is hard to find. It’s no surprise because he eats, at most, a handful of food at each meal. This is not a good strategy while exerting yourself on a canoe trip.

img_3607

Now mind you, Charlie is tough; just like gristle. In the early 1950’s while based in Korea, he survived his stint in the army on a forward observation post near the DMZ. Later in the ‘60’s he survived a crushed hip when a refrigerator-sized boulder hurried down a slope and pushed Charlie out of the way near Hell Creek in Montana where he and other Science Museum of Minnesota folks were on a dinosaur dig. He has survived a heart attack and a close encounter with a cougar. And he survived over twenty years of working with me as I found him an easy mark for a constant diet of pranks and jabs.

We started our 110-mile trip at Coal Banks Landing after shuttling a vehicle downriver 140 miles. This late in the year, few folks are paddling the river and that suited us fine.

The first five days of the trip were full of sunshine and warm weather. I was paddling in shorts and a t-shirt. Then things began to change. We had made camp just upriver from the well-known river landmark “Dark Butte.”  This is a massive dark igneous plug that pushed volcanic magma up through the overlaying sandstone eons ago. The sky was becoming more and more overcast so I put up my beloved Whelen tarp to stow our packs have a food prep and eating area. When I crawled into the tent after supper, sprinkles of rain began to fall.

All night the rain fell as a steady percussion. In the morning I donned my rain gear over a couple of warm layers and made my way under the sodden skies to the tarp to cook breakfast. While I heated water for coffee and prepared some high caloric bacon, egg and cheese burritos, the others began to pack up their bedding and stuff the wet tents into their bags.

Our plan for this day was to paddle 22 miles so we could bank some time for a desolate stretch of really wild country downstream, known as the “breaks.” This stretch of river would give us likely viewings and hearings of elk  and bighorn sheep.

Charlie, hunched and  hooded in his rain jacket, was ready to step into the canoe when I called out, “Hey, get your rain pants on.”

“I don’t have any.”

Arghhh!

Remember it is raining and the weather front appears to be moving glacially slow. This is going to be an all-day rain. So I offer Charlie a small tarp to wrap around his legs to keep dry. He says “thanks” and proceeds to wrap his daypack and camera bag in the tarp.

Did I say “Arghhhh?”

Charlie’s paddling technique is fairly worthless. He constantly reminds me that I should have more mercy for an 82-year old man. But for as long as I have known him we each throw barbs at each other and at the end of the day we still love each other.

In paddling, Charlie prefers to lean back on the packs behind his bow seat as if he is in a recliner chair. He complained about how tired his twig-like arms were. I reminded him that the most important paddling muscles are in one’s core and suggested that he sit up and use his stomach muscles in paddling.

“I don’t have any stomach muscles,” he grumbled.

The hours of rain continued and we were planning to stop for a much-needed lunch at a designated camping and picnicking area at the Judith River Landing. I was getting concerned. I had noticed that Charlie’s paddling vigor had lessened. Paddling generates heat but you need to have fuel and Charlie’s partial burrito at breakfast had long been burned.

We came around the last bend before the Judith Landing and I was surprised to find a bridge crossing the river here. We were nearly underneath the bridge when two pick-up trucks passed overhead. One of them was hauling a canoe trailer loaded with 2-3 kayaks. Both vehicles pulled into the landing area.

We eased into shore and I immediately started assessing if there was any kind of shelter we could eat under. I always carry a few extra soups on a trip and this was a perfect time to fire up the stove and put some hot soup into us.

Charlie, whom had pretty much quit paddling the last hour before the bridge, could hardly get out of the canoe and I could see he was really shivering. This was not a good situation. The rain continued. The Missouri was turning into the “Misery.”

Charlie and Elaine went up to use the restroom while I secured the canoe. I walked up and there was a bearded, middle-aged guy shielding his lit cigarette with his hand waiting to use the toilet. I asked if he had seen an older guy and a woman come up. He jerked his thumb towards the bathroom and said, “They two of them are in there. And the older guy is really shivering.”

He took a drag on his cigarette and asked me, “Do you know the forecast?”

“No.”

“Temps are dropping. Likely snow accumulation tonight and then another 36 hours of rain. It’s not good. And there is no way off the river in the next forty plus miles.”

At this point Nancy and I knew our trip was done. Now we had to figure out how to get out of here since our vehicles were located at the starting and end points. Nancy immediately went over to scope out the guys that were loading the kayaks from the trailer on to their vehicles. Turns out they had just completed the shuttle and were loading up to head back home to Alberta. The guy with the cigarette was the shuttle driver and he said while he would not drive us to our truck (he had already put in over 200 miles of driving on this day), he would take us to Fort Benton.

There was no group discussion as to whether we push on or end the canoeing here. In the book Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales, states that in order to save ourselves from an ordeal in the wilds such as getting lost or pushing on that we must accept that where are is definitely not where we intended to be when we set out on our journey. In essence the first step in surviving is a Buddhist principle, “Be here now.”

The amygdala, the warning center of the brain, sends us “danger. . .now!” Consequently our emotions might urge us to the finish line. At this point the mental map of our trip needs to be changed. To not do so results in what Gonzales calls a “bending of the map” and that can lead to tragedy.

Our newfound savior with a pick-up truck got Charlie into the front seat of the vehicle and cranked up his heat. The rest of us quickly loaded the boats and our soaked packs into the back of his truck. Then we all got cozy in the truck and pulled away from the river. And there was absolutely no regrets in our decision.

For at least twenty miles our driver had to negotiate a road that had been gravel and now was gumbo and slick mud. He said that most of the ranchers were pretty much marooned and that there is no way a two-wheel drive vehicle could make it out.

We wondered how much traffic crossed that bridge.

Savior Driver shook his head and replied, “Today with the roads the way they are, I wouldn’t doubt that no other traffic comes by.”

Hours later, each of us were pink-skinned from our extended hot showers and we sprawled out eating two wonderful pizzas. And believe it or not, I think Charlie ate one whole piece of pizza. It was an amazing recovery for soon he was back to being one sassy piece of gristle.

 

 

img_3660

 

 

 

 

Bringing your Voice to the Candidates

images

Take a deep breath. Draw yourself a glass of cool water and step outside. Now take another deep breath. Feels better doesn’t it?

Those two resources, the air we breathe and the water we drink, are easily taken for granted. Both are absolutely necessary for us to live.

Like many other natural services (flood control, plant pollination, nutrient cycling, etc.) pure air and water are vital ingredients provided at no financial cost to us, the users,  by natural systems. Of course if we taint either water or air, there is a mighty cost in dollars and health.

So where is the political discussion and leadership on keeping those systems intact and running smoothly? As a fiscal conservative, I am all in favor of letting the natural world providing us clean air and water at a minimal cost.

In the big picture, I would argue that jobs, security from terrorism, health care, immigration, social security, education, wages, agriculture, guns, parks and other issues fall behind the need to maintain the integrity of those natural systems that ALLOW us to live. Plain and simple, the above-mentioned issues that most candidates and the electorate focus on require living and healthy humans.

So how is it that we hear very little from any presidential or congressional candidates on the need to take care of our nest, the biosphere?

The biosphere is the relatively thin layer of the earth’s crust, waters and atmosphere that supports life. If you look at a photo of the earth from outer space you get a real sense of how thin the biosphere is. You can actually see the light blue color of the biosphere. Mess with it too much and life would not exist, as we know it.

I’ve never been a big fan of the bumper sticker that asks us to “Save the Earth.” As a planet, the home orb we call earth will be just fine without humans. With or without us, it will continue it’s ring-around-the-rosy course with the sun. I want to see the bumper sticker that cajoles us to “Save the Biosphere.”

We Homo sapiens are a complex critter. We are amazingly compassionate and/or utterly evil. These are choices.

I am suggesting that we lean in towards the compassionate choices when considering our ability to allow natural systems to function as they have done for eons.

Like most creatures, we need healthy air, water, food and shelter. Seems a simple formula but we have made complex when we assigned a monetary value to each. Suddenly there are those folks who can attain their needs and those who can’t.

I propose that we let the engines of natural world do their free good works of helping us survive by moving our efforts in a direction that allows those systems to do their job without our interference.

I’ve been frustrated in the lack of discussion by any candidates, other than the Green Party, of issues that pertain to the health of our biosphere.

Climate change has hardly been discussed yet it has been deemed one of the Pentagon’s primary concerns for national and global security.

In the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, authored by the US Department of Defense,  the following was included in the first chapter entitled “Future Security Environment”:

“Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

Ignored, climate change will exacerbate the global refugee issues. Sadly, the current Syrian refugee issue will likely look like a practice swing for what might be unleashed when millions of environmental refugees flee their flooded homes.

And as far as jobs go the renewable industry is leaping ahead of the traditional fossil fuel industry. Recently an article in Think Progress  stated that “Over the last year, the solar industry added jobs twelve times faster than the rest of the economy, even more than the jobs created by the oil and gas extraction and pipeline sectors combined.”

So what can you do?

Go to a political forum in your community and demand meaningful answers on actions the candidate will pursue in addressing a healthy biosphere.

Don’t ask them if they believe in climate change. Don’t ask any question that requires a simple “yes” or “no.”

For example, you might consider asking a question like one of the following:

1 China is moving ahead rapidly in the domain of renewable energy. What steps would you take to ensure that Minnesota (fill in the state you reside in) position itself as a leader in renewable technology?

2 Numerous peer-reviewed studies show the transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy (sourced by the wind, water, and sun) is technologically possible. What would you do to help our cities, towns, states, and country make this transition as quickly as possible so all Americans have access to affordable clean energy over the next 30 years?

Given that innovations in science and technology will stoke the engines of the 21st-century economy, it is important to pin down a candidate’s policies on science and technology.

During times like this I remind myself of the wise words of a friend. “If something means a lot, you do a lot. If it means little, you do little.”

Folks, this means a lot. Finish your glass of water, take another deep breath and get to work.

Treasures of Toadstools

IMG_3488

 

Markers of late summer include the elegant, swooping migration of night hawks, the gilding of goldenrods in meadows and the buttering of wetland edges with yellow blooms of Bidens (commonly called beggar ticks). But I have a marker that is unknown to others. My neighbor will call me and pronounce, “Those toadstools you like are on one of our oaks. Come and get them if you want.”

And my predictable and wry response is, “Are you sure you don’t want to eat them?”

“No.”

With the title of “toadstool” it is no wonder that so many folks don’t want to eat wild mushrooms. It’s absurd to think of a toad sitting perched on a piece of furniture yet, that is the unappetizing image. Consequently wild mushrooms have a public image problem. Most folks wouldn’t associate them as kin to those fungi found in the grocery store packaged on a sterile bed of styrofoam and swaddled in plastic wrap,

Too many kids that ramble through yards, gardens or woods are warned “Don’t touch that mushroom! It’s poisonous.” Additionally when you grow up hearing that not only are they poisonous mushrooms but they are toadstools, that only adds to the fodder of blasphemizing the beautiful.

In the Middle Ages people really believed that the skin of toads with its warty glands was poisonous.
So poisonous fungi were christened a title evoking the image of a stool for poisonous toads.

Let’s not besmear our midwest toads for their drab and warty appearance. Catch all the toads you want. Stare into the gold speckled eyes and smile at their pudgy demeanor but then let them go and get back to work catching those insects that like to harvest your garden.

The fungus that my neighbor so generously guides me to each August is the sulfur shelf fungus. It is considered one of the “foolproof-four” edible wild mushrooms in Minnesota. They are very easy to identify.  The other three species are shaggy manes, morels and puffballs.

Non-poisonous fungi outnumber the toxic ones but some of them look similar so you need to be certain in your identification. Good field guides,  mushroom identification classes and experienced fungi collectors can help ease your fear of fungi and enhance your culinary skills. And regarding touching, none of them are toxic to touch but ingesting some can make you very sick and on occasion kill you.

Sulphur shelf is one of my all time favorite fungi to collect. It tastes like chicken. Really, it kind of does have the texture of chicken breast and tastes kind of like poultry. Not surprising, another common name to this fungus is “chicken of the woods.”

Called a shelf fungus because it grows out from its host tree like a fluted shelf. It is named for its glowing golden to blaze orange color. This makes it easy to spot in the shadows of the woods. Rainy and humid conditions seem to inspire this late fungus to suddenly appear. While I can find it in June, it is most prolific from mid-August to late September.

Collect it when it is really fresh because in just a matter of days the brilliant colors fade and scores of tiny black beetles will have deposited eggs which quickly hatch into tiny cream-colored worms that riddle the flesh with serpentine tunnels.

Upon discovering a sulfur shelf a quick glance will tell you how fresh it is. The freshest sulphur shelfs are those with the most intense flame colors. In a matter of days, after their emergence, the colors fade and a quick glance will tell you it is too late to harvest. Additionally, I always break off one of the shelflike fronds. It should break almost crisply the flesh should be firm. Closely inspect the underside and the interior of the broken off flesh for small, shy black beetles running about. I move on to seek fresher fungi if I discover tiny writhing cream-colored beetle larvae (worms) riddling the fungus flesh. They won’t hurt you and if you are willing to put up with an additional dose of protein, you could eat them.

For easy collecting, use your pocket knife and carefully cut or if you have no knife, carefully break the fungus from away from its attachment to the tree. Around my east-central, Minnesota home, oak trees, both dead and alive, are the most common hosts. It is not unusual to cut five pounds or more of this meaty fungus from the tree. I like to carry an empty paper sack or plastic will do, to carry my prize home.

After proudly displaying my find to my equally glowing wife, Nancy, I trim away any dirty or damaged pieces. This fungus stores well in the fridge for several days. We have dehydrated small slices for future use but we usually freeze slices on a cookie sheet and later bag them and tuck them in the freezer.

IMG_3492

 Our favorite way to prepare them is to  slice them approximately 1/8 inch thick and slide them into hot melted butter in a cast iron frying pan. Stir them occasionally. As the pieces turn slightly brown, you can squeeze or mix finely chopped fresh garlic  over them. One clove is good, but I like two better. Garlic salt can be added or substituted. Salt and pepper to taste and get ready for a fine treat to serve as an appetizer or a side dish.

Be forewarned, it is easy to overeat these buttery morsels and if you do you could feel the ills of indigestion.

IMG_3494

Sulphur shelf are also a delightful addition to egg and pasta dishes.

With September here, there is a good chance that I will be outdoors contemplating goldenrods and nighthawks. And that puts me out of reach of our phone.*  I can’t afford to miss my neighbor’s toadstool alert.

*(I’m a rebel and rarely carry our flip open cell phone.)

 

Our Trip was the Berries.

Handful of berriesjpg

Nancy and I paddled into Quetico Provinical Park for eight days of solitude. We had no timekeeping devises only maps and a compass and ate and slept when our bodies requested the favor.

On the last morning of our sojourn, I crept out of the tent as the sun climbed out of the eastern horizon. With camera in hand, I quietly headed off for a discovery stroll. I didn’t get far as I was hijacked by clumps of beckoning blueberries that teased me with their plumpness and sweet promises.

I like eating things that are titled “wild.” But they have to be truly wild, not falsely christened “wild.” Just because the menu offering or grocery store product broadcasts its offering as “wild” doesn’t mean that the plant, fish or beast had any aspect of a wild life.

The early morning blueberries I gathered were quintessential wild blueberries. They were glistening with the night’s wash of dew and they grew in the company of a boreal band of flora.

Admittedly Nancy bears a black belt in berry picking and she picked most of our daily indulgence in blueberries. Two favorites stand out on this trip. Of course you have to tip the hat to blueberry pancakes when the blueberries made up more volume than the batter mix.

blueberry pancakes

After living for awhile in the Yukon, in northern Canada, we learned to love the French Canadian word for blueberries. Bleuets.

I really like intuitive cooking and our colorful walleye, red cabbage, onion and garlic stir fry topped with bleuets was a four-star supper. Add any French word in your cooking vocabulary and you can fool the best of them.

Walleye stir fry cooking

On my morning walk I discovered and marveled at one tight cluster of twelve berries growing on the same stem. The heavy berries weighted the small branch to the ground. These dozen berries were immediately drafted to my team “handful.” It didn’t take long to cup a collection of sweetness. I carefully brought the foraged bounty to my mouth and poured them in. Rather than chew, I simply held them in my mouth, feeling their roundness, before I slowly lifted the mouthful to the roof of my mouth them with my tongue.

“Sweet, sweet, morning sweet” was the refrain that came to my mind as the combined juices released their nectar over my tongue.

On this morning it didn’t matter if I was getting a major infusion of antioxidants, my elevated sense of being was heightened by all kinds of sensorial stimuli that surrounded me. Red and white pines strained the morning breeze and provided string music that is never repeated; each moment is a new song. The heavy smell of fresh white cedar likely enhanced my taste buds. And somehow I want to believe that the duet of loons just offshore from this patch of blue serves to inspire the wild sugars to greater sweetness.

The low-bush blueberry was officially classified by the famous 16th century Swedish botanist, Carl Linneaus. He named over 8,000 plants and animals with scientific names using a naming or classification system that he developed called binomial nomenclature. It’s way easier to simply say “blueberry” than low-bush blueberry. And I’ve yet to bump into any berry picker referring to the year as a “good Vaccinium angustifolium year.”

Domesticated blueberries don’t hold a candle to the wild variety when it comes to pure sweetness. While smaller than their lesser, more plump, domestic counterparts, the wild blueberry contains less water in each berry, making them easy to freeze and thaw. The wild blueberry has more intense flavor and twice the antioxidants than the garden variety. These fruits are among the most rich antioxidant fruits. One cup of wild berries has about 10 times the USDA’s daily recommendation.

The medical community is continually revealing the value of antioxidants in combatting free radicals in our bodies that are often associated with cancer, heart disease, and the effects of aging.

Wild and organically grown blueberries have significantly higher concentrations of total antioxidants than conventionally grown domestic or farmed blueberries. They also have significantly higher total antioxidant capacity.

As Nancy and I were blissing out on berries, fresh fish, swimming, reading and casual exploring, two good friends were doing their own fishing and berry foraging in a lake no more than five miles from us as the raven flies. The primary difference was that the lake they were on had experienced a major burn less than ten years ago. During a wildfire, the blueberry shrub can burn but the deep horizontal rhizomes can survive. Consequently the plant vigorously resprouts and spreads. Burned over forests can become the motherlodes of blueberries. My two buddies ended up gorging on berries and bringing home eight, yes, eight, gallons of blueberries!

Even without a clock, we returned back to Basecamp, our house, on the proper day. Not long after returning home to Basecamp,  I was reading and came across a 1920’s slang expression, “the berries.” It was used to declare how great something might be.

Seems fitting, because our trip was “the berries.”

red pine clusters and clouds

Vacancy for Non-Social Bees

IMG_0607

 

 

It wasn’t just another Sabbath. This past Sunday was  “Pollinator Day” at a Twin Cities garden center. Did you miss it? So did I.

Did you forget to give thanks to the legions of bees, butterflies and other insects that pollinate much of the food we depend on?

More than $15 billion a year in U.S. crops are pollinated by honey bees alone, including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa, and almonds. And that doesn’t include the provided value delivered by other non-semidomesticated native bees, butterflies, moths and other insects. It’s one more example of how we puny primates are intricately dependent on natural systems for our survival.

How is it that not one presidential politician will make mention of this undeniable maxim?

On Sunday afternoon, I strolled confidently out to an artificial  bee nesting box to make my biweekly observations. Confidently is the operative word since most folks associate bees with stingers. But in this case I’m looking for mostly non-stinging bees, those that tend to be solitary and non-social. There was no need to don my old beekeeping protective garb to tend to this innocuous task.

One of the adaptations of social bees and wasps is that they must protect their hordes of vulnerable young (larvae). Consequently, they have evolved to defend the nest with a stinger that can inject a painful venom. Not all bees have venom.

As a volunteer bee nesting box observer for the University of Minnesota Bee Atlas project, I have agreed to regularly go out to a nearby bee box that I erected back in the spring and see if any bees have decided to move in. No efforts to census the bees of Minnesota has been undertaken since 1919. And then 67 species were tabulated. Entomologists feel that the real number of bees could number around 400 in Minnesota with over 4,000 species in North America.

The intent of the project is to help University entomologists figure out how many native bee species there are living in Minnesota. While most folks have a simple image of a bee, there are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and many of them are solitary and reclusive. They come in different sizes, colorations and patterns. Many are not social in working to create a social unit of hundreds or thousands of individuals.

Earlier this spring, I mounted the wood block of wood, deemed the bee box, onto a common wood post that hosts an old bluebird nesting box. The block of wood has a grid of various sized holes drilled into it. The idea is that scouting bees of various species will find the holes irresistible nesting cavities. Rather than see the bees that take choose these quarters,  I will likely see the fruits of their labor.

The bees lay their eggs inside the cavity. This is called a brood cell. After the egg is deposited, the adult female  will stock the chamber with nectar and  pollen. Then she will plug the entrance to the hole with natural materials such as sand and mud or grasses and small plant fibers. Unbeknownst to the motherly instincts of procuring nectar and pollen from nearby flowers, she is a keen agent of pollination.

Bee atlas volunteers submit our observations  online to the University of Minnesota. The bee blocks will be collected and sent to the university in the fall where entomologists will raise the larvae to adulthood for easy identification.

The intent of the project is to decipher the information and hopefully learn more about  species distribution and bee diversity. This will provide a base as to how to track how bee populations are changing and how those changes might affect land management decisions.

Over the past month nearly all the largest diameter holes, under the number one column, have been plugged with shaggy plugs of dried grasses. I have no clue which species but it appears to be valued real estate. And only the bottom three or so smallest of holes in column 3 are cemented by dense plugs of what looks like sand.

I wonder will August bring on the hordes for the mid-sized holes?

 

IMG_3216

Timely rains, combined with a prairie burning program has resulted in an amazing prairie flower bloom this summer. Bumblebees seem to care less about my strolling through thick lavender patches of bee balm or clumps of orange butterfly weed. They are too busy collecting nectar.

IMG_3220

The dazzling  celebrities of pollinators are the butterflies. They are far more popular to the public because not only are they beautiful and graceful andthey don’t sting.

The popularity of the monarch butterfly has skyrocketed over the past two years and recently the 1,500 mile Interstate 35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota has been titled the “Monarch Highway.”

Last month, the Minneapolis StarTribune reported, “The Monarch Highway is part of a program backed by President Obama, who formed a Pollinator Health Task Force in 2014. The group, which consists of representatives from government agencies in six participating states and private entities, is crafting a plan to protect pollinator habitats nationwide, including I-35.”

The reward for the day came when I lay down amongst the stand of black-eyed susans and light purple bee balm. Looking up into the sky through the filagree of stem and bloom pollinators were stitching their hurried selves back and forth in a parade of pollinators.

 

black-eyed susan sky

 

IMG_0667

Great spangled fritillary butterfly on bee balm.

An Arctic Fourth of July

IMG_2809

“What I’d really like to do is something for the country. I don’t mean the American flag and the president. I mean for the country.”

• “Cutuk” in the novel Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner

 

A year ago today four of us were heading down an Arctic river on a “freedom float.” For nearly a month we paddled the Utukuk River in Alaska to the Chukchi Sea at the southern margin of the Arctic Ocean.

For most of the 200 miles of paddling and hiking we felt the aloneness but not the loneliness of the vast arctic tundra. Formally known as the Naval Petroleum Reserve, this piece of real estate is the size of Indiana and has only a few native villages within it. No freeways, nor roads connecting anything other than some streets within the villages.

President Harding established the Reserve in 1923. At that time the U.S. Navy was transitioning from coal-fueled ships to those that would run on petroleum. Personally I get a nervous tick when I find the word “petroleum” used in the description of a wilderness area.

According to the Alaska Wilderness League, “the Reserve includes some of our nation’s most vital natural resources – millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands with critical habitat for migratory birds, brown bears, caribou, threatened polar bears, walrus, endangered beluga whales and more. The Alaska Native communities that live along the Reserve have maintained a subsistence lifestyle for thousands of years based on the Reserve’s living resources.”

This is a land where the river braids and snakes its way like endless ribbons of silver, off the north slope of the Brooks Range. This mountain range, over 700 miles long, is the largest in the world above the Arctic Circle. The Utukuk snakes its way out of the naked foothills onto the “arctic prairies” of the coastal plan.

This unrestrained landscape is home to the Western Arctic Caribou herd, over 400,000 animals. We missed by mere days the main passage of migratory herds as they pushed over the river heading to the coastal plains where calving would take place. Tracks and worn trails were everywhere.

It’s only natural that predators follow this moving meat market. We saw 10 grizzly bears, a handful of wolves and abundant golden eagles.

Daily we “oohed and aahed” at the blessedly mute floral fireworks. Hudson Bay Company agent and explorer Thomas Simpson explored the arctic coast from 1836-39. In his journal he referred to the arctic landscape as “party-colored” as it is crowded with stunted arctic flowers. Short in nature, their colors boldly but silently beg for the attention of pollinating insects.

IMG_2905

Arctic lupines and tiny saxifrages provided purples. Bursts of bright yellow quivered in the arctic poppies and draba. I loved the cushions of pink displayed in moss campion. In some places the bell-shaped white flowers of arctic heather grew so dense that the land appeared snow-covered.

On July 3rd, we finally got to the 125-mile long Kasegaluk Lagoon. The lagoon is home to nearly 4,000 beluga whales, over half the world’s Pacific black brant population and scores of other species of waterfowl and shorebirds, not to mention walrus, seals and polar bears. Although the lagoon was designated a “special area” in 2004 restricting all oil and gas leasing for ten years, there is no permanent protection.

Two Inupiat communities are located at each end of the lagoon. Their combined population of less than 800 people depends on the lagoon and adjacent lands for their grocery store, as they are very much a subsistence population. Freedom for these Inupiat is found in the life-rich, healthy waters and the quiet, vast landscape that provides their sustenance.

Back in the 1970s, while nearing the end of a long canoe trip in Canada’s Northwest Territories, we were surprised to hear a motor approaching our camp. A three-wheeler was carefully wending its way across the tundra. The young Inuit man pulled up, smiled and shyly got off his machine to talk with us. English was clearly not his first language.

Predictably, when one falters in trying to find meaningful dialogue with a stranger, we fall back on the predictable query and we asked him, “What do you do for a living?”

He looked confused in response to the question but then hesitantly explained, “Why I hunt. I fish. I live.”

Before he drove off, he unwrapped a good-sized portion of a fresh caribou quarter and gave it to us. With a smile and a timid wave he drove off over the seemingly infinite landscape. We stood quietly watching and suddenly became aware of liberties unlike anything we had ever experienced.

When I participate in wilderness living, my ego is set aside and the jangles, rings, roars and squeals of civilization are absent. I am gloriously made small so that I might better take in great quaffs of real freedom.

IMG_2901

 

I have had the privilege, yes, and the freedom and means to indulge in paddling several thousand miles of remote, wilderness rivers. Here in this quiet land we can forget keeping time and live simply. Here our actions are ruled only by moments of hunger or need for sleep.

But on each wilderness trip, I have felt the shackles of schedules. We had to paddle to a certain point at a particular date to get picked up so that we could make our way back to our civilized homes where we would engage in a litany of work and life schedules.

It’s absolutely true that as a consuming being, I am dependent on the noises of commerce. However, I periodically need to check into the wild for an adjustment to my soul. It is here that I experience raw, unabashed joy and taste real freedom.

If I fly a fly a flag patterned with stars and stripes am I a greater patriot than one who sacrifices and toils for a healthy land?

I would argue that poisoning and ravaging our soils and waters is an act of terrorism that threatens services that allow you and I to live healthy lives. Any act to minimize that threat should be recognized as heroic as it secures a greater likelihood of a safer and vigorous tomorrow.

After two days of paddling the brackish waters of the long lagoon, we pulled our canoes up to the Inupiat village of Point Lay. It was the 4th of July. After securing permission to set up our two tents on the beach below the village, we were invited to a celebration feast and drum dance. It mattered little that we were strangers or looked different from almost all 189 residents of the community.

Excited to perhaps eat local cuisine such as beluga, caribou, or seal, I have to admit feeling disappointment when we discovered tables covered with platters of hot dogs, burgers, salads, chips and even apple pies. It seemed wrong that most of this food was flown in thousands miles. But then I realized that much of the food I eat in Minnesota makes a similar long trip to get to my plate.

A single four-wheeler decorated with twin clusters of balloons and a flag made up the shortest parade I have ever seen.

IMG_1769

 

And that evening under the midnight sun, residents of all ages listened to the seated drummers and danced stories of ancient times. We were mesmerized by the subtle and demonstrative movements that spoke of walrus hunts, kayak paddling, celebrations and other tales foreign to our repertoire. But that didn’t stop the locals from beckoning us out onto the floor to joinnin their dance. While we moved with little of the grace that we had witnessed our efforts inspired scores of smiles.

IMG_3013

 

I challenge you to do something for the wild places that depend on humans to watch over them. One thing you can do is go to the Alaska Wilderness League website. One year ago, President Obama made a historic decision for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and called on Congress to protect it as wilderness. And believe it or not, it has bipartisan support. We have a great opportunity this year to protect the Arctic Refuge. Please join in thanking President Obama for his leadership on Arctic issues and ask him to take action to give it the strongest protections possible.   Go to http://www.alaskawild.org and click on “Sign the petition.”

Into the Nearby Unknown

IMG_0622

 

“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.

IMG_0620

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.

IMG_0630

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

IMG_2997

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sun Day Delight

 

 IMG_2974

 

The day was Sunday-slow and since it is deemed a day of rest, I decided to take it easy and stroll out to the hedge of rhubarb in the garden. I cut handful thick red stalks to render into a rhubarb cobbler. You know food for proper resting.

It seemed fitting that the day was cloudless and bright with sunshine. Got me wondering why  Sunday is called “Sunday?”

It turns out that early pre-Christian pagan Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples set aside this day to honor and worship the sun. The name is derived from an Old English word, Sunnandaeg, which means “day of the sun.”

Cultures around the world have historically and some presently honor the sun.

We would do well to pay homage to that big mass of burning gases that sits 93,000,000 miles away delivering 1,000 watts/meter of free energy at noon on a clear day. Not to mention that the sun rains photons that make it possible for plants to grow. In other words without this middle-aged dwarf star life wouldn’t exist on Earth.

Later, as Christianity spread, the church capitalized on a marketing idea to remain keeping it holy and to continue to use it as the holiest day of the week. It was simpler to get people to worship a new god than it was to get them to call the day by a new name. So Sunday remained Sunday, even when (most) people stopped worshipping the sun.

So given that it was the seventh day, it was perfect that I would be teaming with Ol’ Man Sol to bake the cobbler. Sort of a communion if you will.

Recently, we acquired our second solar oven. We had toted our first one, a different brand, to the Outpost in the Yukon several years ago and then proceeded to give it to some friends who live 25 miles down the Yukon River from Dawson and the nearest road or electrical outlet. Hopefully they are getting some use out of it.

(Go to an earlier blog to read about my first experience with that stove.)

The new oven, is a step up in cost and quality. It is the All American Sun Oven. I set up in the yard, facing south, on the picnic table where it sat in full sun. It took a minute to set it up, unfolding the reflective mirror-like wings to help direct sunlight into the oven.

The oven has a swinging grate to set the pan/pot on so the trapped heat can easily surround the prepared dish. I like the fact that there is an easy to read feature that allows you to track the direct sunlight and then move the stove as necessary for optimal cooking. It requires a slight adjustment of the stove every half hour or so.

Two hours later, the perfectly browned hot cobbler was removed and hurried indoors for consumption. The dollop of vanilla ice cream melted quickly on the steaming cobbler. Oh so good!

IMG_2988

Two days later we pulled a frozen venison roast from the freezer and put it directly into the pan with some of our carrots, potatoes and onions. There is no need to add any water as the meat and vegetables would cook in their own juices in the covered pan.

We began cooking it at mid-morning and pulled it out at 6:00 PM. It was unbelievably tender and moist. And, unlike the cobbler, we did not adjust the stove throughout the day because we were gone.  We simply aimed the glass door and reflectors to the south and left it alone.

It was so easy and we didn’t have to heat up the house with a hot kitchen oven. And the best part is that we required no fossil fuels for cooking. No coal-generated electricity, no propane and no fuel bill. . . sunlight is free.

The oven comes with drying racks and we intend to use it as a food dryer once the garden starts ramping out produce. In my world you can never have too many sun-dried tomatoes. They make great additions to any meal, good snacks and are easy to bring on extended camping trips.

One of my favorite wilderness meals is macaroni and cheese with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts.

Hmmmmm, with the reflective wings all folded into place, the cooking box and it’s  suitcase style handle make it portable.  Perhaps we need to find room in the canoe for the fuel-free appliance.

IMG_2989

Buzzing Around the Neighborhood

A lady by the name of Bombus was in the neighborhood looking for real estate. I didn’t get to have a conversation with her as she was impatient. She seemed indecisive in her back and forthing through the neighborhood.

I was mesmerized by her tireless, haphazard coursing over the area. How could she so quickly analyze a decent quarters to raise her family?

Suddenly she paused. I guess you could call it momentarily hovering. Then, just as quickly she moved on; leaving me only wondering where this fat, noisy bumblebee, whose genus name is Bombus, might find a home place.

The Latin word bombus means “buzzing;” an apt christening of this group of insects. In Minnesota there are over 20 species of bumblebees in the genus Bombus.

Bumblebees are uniquely suited for unseasonally chilly days such as today. Though the calendar reads the third week of May, I have a fire in the kitchen stove. Unlike monarch butterflies, these bees, like all species of bumbebees, have developed a strategy to put up with freezing temperatures. The bumblebee is capable of stoking her inner fires by internally generating heat.

After spending a solitary long winter hibernating underground, she is patrolling low to the ground, looking closely through her huge, multi-lensed compound eyes for a likely site to create a nursery to raise her colony of children bumblebees.

Okay so “children bumblebees” is a pathetically anthropomorphic choice of words for bumblebee larvae, but it lands better on the ears of folks who tend to shy away from bees and their kin.

Ideally, this female bumblebee, fertilized last fall, will find a small excavated hole left perhaps by a rodent or some other critter. She will place dead grasses, leaves or other similar materials in the nesting chamber and then camouflage the entrance of her nursery den with these same natural materials.

Bumblebee are very competitive for these subterranean quarters and will sometimes fight to the death to claim a nesting site. Some entomologists feel that as many as 10% of the nests are taken over by a second challenging female bee.

Once the quarters are ready, the mother-to-be, collects pollen and tucks it in the chamber. The next step is to lay eggs on the pollen. The adult bee warms the eggs with her robust, hairy body until they hatch in 4-5 days. The hatching larvae feed on the pollen and then pupate for another nine or so days before they emerge as sterile females or worker bees. These are the corps of workers that will help the mother or queen bee with the following summer broods.

By the time fall comes around, the queen will lay eggs that will develop into fertile male and female bees. They will develop, leave the burrow for a mating flight and only the fertilized females will survive the winter. All others in the colony will die.

Sadly several Minnesota species of bumblebees are in decline. Overall there are too many pollinating insects in decline. Scientists feel most of the declines are the result of humans interaction and influence on the biosphere. Issues of climate change, invasive species, poisonous insecticides and habitat loss all make life difficult for bees and untold numbers of other critters.

Last year, I spent the better part of June and early July paddling down an arctic river to the Chuckchi Sea, at the southern margin of the Arctic Ocean. As we descended the serpentine river the tundra surrounded us and the long summer days gave rise to an amazing crop of short, arctic flowers. It wasn’t unusual to have a sensorial moment of celebration when the wind carried the powerful, sweet smell from thousands of crowded arctic lupines flanking the river.

IMG_2934

Busying themselves in the parade of purple blooms, were the largest of all bumblebees, the arctic bumblebee (Bombus polaris). It would be an exaggeration to claim these robust, well-furred bees are sparrow-sized, but they seem twice the size of our Minnesota variety. And their loud buzz makes you turn and look for an out-of-place dirt bike.

The big arctic bumblebee spends up to nine months, three quarters of a year, hibernating underground. It seems so wrong that this hardy bee can tough out months of dark and frigid days and competition among themselves and yet they cannot withstand our treatment of the natural world.

The irony is that we learn so late of the importance of these tireless pollinators.

 Page 3 of 16 « 1  2  3  4  5 » ...  Last »