Tag Archives: exploring

Spur of the Moment New Years Trip

As I was finishing my day of work on New Years Eve day I began to look to the rest of the holiday weekend and wondered how to best celebrate the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017. One of the thoughts that kept running through my mind was a desire to enjoy winter. For the last couple of years I’ve grabbed the camera on New Years Day and went hiking at nearby parks. Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of good snow this year so began to explore different options for a winter wonderland to start another year.

The last sunset of 2016

Quickly I arrived at the idea of going to the North Shore of Minnesota. That should be far enough to find a snow covered landscape. While driving home I called the rest of the family and ran the idea past them to see if there was any interest beyond my own. Since it was very spontaneous it took a few moments to explain my ideas. Taking some time to digest this they soon determined it could be fun and phone calls were quickly made to take care of responsibilities at home for the next 24 hours as well as secure a place to stay.  Once I returned home from my last day of work for the year we all packed and gathered winter gear, loaded the car and hit the road for a short 2 hour drive to Duluth taking in the last sunset of 2016 along the way.

Enjoying hundreds of Goldeneye ducks

Our arrival in Duluth was met with slightly icy roads as they had just received some fresh snow that morning and a nighttime view of Lake Superior which remained mostly ice free to spite some very cold temperatures the week before. We quickly dropped off our stuff and headed for a favorite place to eat while in Duluth – Old Chicago. After celebrating the change of years it was off to bed. The next morning I awoke ahead of everyone else so decided I should grab the camera and hope for a beautiful sunrise over Lake Superior. Unfortunately, as you can see from the top photo, there was very little sun but there still was a great view as light increased on the morning. There was about a half dozen people out near the canal trying to do the same thing I was, photograph the first sunrise of 2017!

The upper frozen falls of Gooseberry Falls State Park

While the sun failed to make a bright, fiery appearance, several hundred Common Goldeneye ducks swam in the open waters of the Duluth Canal for anyone willing to be up early to enjoy. I’ve never seen this type of duck before so it was a nice treat to watch them for awhile before heading back to the room to gather up the rest of the family and continue north to Gooseberry Falls State Park. A short time later we pulled into the winter wonderland I was hoping for to bring in the new year. Surprisingly most of the waterfalls and river at this park were frozen over making for some beautiful natural ice sculptures covered in fluffy white snow. Not very many people take the time to explore these frozen falls so it was a nice treat to see them in an an unusual way.

The river is frozen over while Lake Superior remains open in the distance

After a couple of hours playing around in the snow and ice of Gooseberry we wanted to continue further north towards Tettegouche State Park. Fortunately this is not a long drive from where we were giving most of the afternoon at one of my favorite parks on the North Shore. Arriving a little while later we got out of the car, put on our winter gear – boots, hats, gloves, snow pants and began our excursion to the high falls of Tettegouche. Along this 1.5 mile trail we became enthralled with this winter landscape enveloping us all around. So peaceful and very few people around giving most of this quiet winter scene exclusively to us. I kept waiting to hear a wolf howl in the distance confirming our picture book arrival to Northern Minnesota but no such thing happened.

The low sun in the horizon shining through the tall trees

Plowing through the snow we arrived at our destination to find that this river and waterfall were also mostly frozen over allowing very different viewing perspectives than I’ve every witnessed before. Now we could walk almost right up to the falls and feel just how large it actually is while listening to the water run under thick walls of ice making us less certain about standing on what would be water during much of the year. A very serene moment looking over this tall wall of ice surrounded by mostly undisturbed snow.

Exploring the High Falls of Tettegouche State Park

As we examined the great ice wall all of the different formations started to jump out. Different clusters of icicles joined together creating an ice filled curtain concealing fast flowing water behind which was only visible in small iceless windows. Closer examination of the frozen water surrounding these falls showed how unique each one is. There were different colors, some were opaque while others almost crystal clear only interrupted by air bubbles frozen inside combined with various shapes. Many were frost covered while others where topped with snow. In other areas the ice formations looked as though they were creating a stairway to the top of the water falls although I would never climb it without proper equipment for fear of slipping into surrounding stone ledges.

Looking at some of the cool ice formations created from the water falls

As daylight began to soften we decided to take in the last bit of sunlight to return to the parking lot to avoid being stranded on icy staircases in the darkness. As the sun dipped lower into the horizon we could feel the cold seeping into our heavy layers of winter protection. Fortunately we had enough hand warmers to accommodate until we made it back to the warmth of the visitors center and our car for the journey back home.

Only a tiny portion of the river is still running free in Northern Minnesota

Minnesota’s Forest Coral

I wanted to photograph the frosty plants on a foggy November morning. By the time I got all of my gear and began hiking the temperature warmed enough to melt much of the frost and with it, my goals for this day. Kicking myself for not moving earlier I begrudgingly continued on my desired hiking route just to enjoy the day and see if there was anything interesting along the way.

Great color combinations and textures of some mushrooms

My hope was to hike to a more secluded lake and photograph migrating ducks if nothing else caught my attention before hand. As I moved along the trail I happened to see this mushroom covered log. For some reason I’m drawn to mushrooms on a log. All of these rounded little plates sticking out from a disintegrating portion of wood. Yet through a number of attempts there haven’t been any interesting photos from any of my attempts. Although I’ve not had some of the equipment I brought this time either since my original plan was to photograph frosty crystals as intimately as I could. Maybe that same idea would bring out what attracts me to these mushrooms.

The amazing texture and color of lichens contrast nicely against orange mushrooms

As I neared the log I was amazed at the incredible display being put on by these mushrooms which happed to also be surrounded by lichens putting on their own colorful display on this cool, wet late fall day. The seemingly random textures of the lichens made them very intriguing along with their beautiful variations of colors, from bright greens to light blues made them stand out among the multicolored mushrooms. When I returned home later and looked on the computer they looked just like a coral reef to me.

Stepping along some mushrooms full of great texture

Throw in a little dark green moss and it became a world all it’s own. What else lives among all these vibrant formations? Eating mushrooms or lichens, seeking shelter in the many crevices? A dew covered web confirmed this little world most of us never even know of. I loved all of the fuzzy rings stacked on top of one another creating each mushroom for the spider to climb searching for its’ next meal before succumbing to winter.

Dew covered web connecting mushrooms

As I continued to explore around the fallen branches I came across some vibrant orange mushrooms which contrasted beautifully with the dark lichen covered bark. Patterns within these mushrooms amazed me along with their shapes and waves. Add to that the green, yellow, and blue lichens and this scene is just exploding with color.

An orange mushroom showing bright in late November

Eventually the daylight was getting dimmer making it more challenging to photograph these mushroom filled branches so I packed up and headed back for the car. On my return hike rain began to fall so it was a good time to leave and pack away the camera. A great substitute for missing most of the frost covered landscape. In the picture below you can see the fallen tree that first caught my attention. Very easy to continue on walking as this is a pretty common scene in a forest. Glad I stopped to examine it closer.

Mushrooms covering an old downed tree

 

Winding Through the Leaves

Recently while exploring a local park there was a quick movement rustling fallen leaves right in front of me. It was a bit confusing at first as I couldn’t detect any wind so this leaf movement made not logical sense. After searching for a cause I spotted a snake just a few feet from me. Ahh, the reason for this leaf rustling.

Slowly moving among the fallen leaves

Expecting it to quickly disappear I planned on continuing my hike however as I moved it stayed motionless so I grabbed the camera and began taking pictures of this snake. Moving around it I crept ever closer and it stayed there without so much as a flinch allowing me to practice with the camera in such a situation.

Look through the leaves

This continued for about 30 minutes as I adjusted to take pictures from different angles until I decided I should move on and let the snake move to where ever it needed to as the temperatures where getting colder making it more challenging for the snake to get to a safe place for the night. Near the end it would begin to turn its head towards me and flutter its tongue as if to let me know it was getting more comfortable with my presence and knew I was not a threat to it. An entertaining interaction with it on a pleasant late October afternoon.

Better luck next time

 

Fall Colors

This fall hasn’t been the most spectacular display of color leaves blanketing the entire landscape in Minnesota this year. There are still some pockets of amazingly vibrant leaves to take in on a sunny, autumn afternoon. At least until the rain and wind separate them from their branches and they become a part of the forest floor.

A squirrel enjoying a snack on the forest floor covered with freshly fallen leaves

Everything in the forest is preparing for the winter, including this squirrel taking time to eat before continuing to find food to store. In many areas the leaves didn’t really turn colors much. They just browned up or fell from the trees as there has been a lot of rain during the summer and fall so far with relatively warm temperatures. It’s almost as if the trees decided they’ve grown enough this year and determined it time for winter and shed their leaves.

Sun shining through the red leaves of an oak tree

A vibrant fallen maple leaf ready to join the others laying on the forest floor

Fortunately there were still a few areas where the trees headed into all of their autumn glory provided beautiful red, orange, and yellow colors to enjoy. It may take a little exploring to find these areas but the sights are worth the effort but they only last a few days before wind and rain erase the colors from the trees.

Sun peaking through the leaves rustling in the breeze

The golden glow of a Tamarack among the sparsly covered oaks and maples

These pockets of fall colors on a nice, sunny day help distract from the realization of soon approaching snowflakes. At least for a short time. It won’t be long now so enjoying the suns warmth is a nice treat while viewing sights like this bright gold Tamarack tree.

Colors of the autumn forest floor

Red and yellow leaves showing their full glory before falling away

 Mossed covered log holding a bright red maple leaf

Even the lakes, ponds, and rivers bask in autumn colors as the leaves continue on their fall journey. While out photographing vibrant fall colors I attempted to leave the forest many times but kept getting delayed by another beautiful fall scene requiring a reach for my camera in an attempt to capture these amazing colors.

Leaves covering the waters of this saturated pond hidden in the forest

A single red and orange oak leaf floating away

Red leaves holding on while the rest have fallen

 

Exploring Flattop Mountain

Back in 2009 we visited Rocky Mountain National Park to hike to Flattop Mountain Trail and we did that successfully. Unfortunately that was done after a long day of exploring so there wasn’t much energy to continue further. I’ve wanted to attempt the trail again if the opportunity presented itself. Well, recently we made the opportunity happen and once again found ourselves on the trail. Surprisingly the beginning of the trail looks very different from what it looked like seven years ago as proven in the next two photos.

Flattop Trail in 2009

Flattop Trail in 2016

The top picture was taken in 2009 and the next one taken just a few weeks ago. I can find now similarities to them which made it a little challenging to begin this hike since there wasn’t really recognition of the beginning of the trail causing me to question if we were on the right path or not. Especially since it was still dark when we got to this point. Trusting in the trail signs we pressed onward towards the top.

Flattop Trail Head when we began our hike from Bear Lake

Our hike on Flattop Mountain began at 4:30am as we passed Bear Lake. The scene is pictured above. In the dark, armed with flashlights, our journey on this mountain trail began to climb towards to top. In a short time we began to see light on the horizon however the trail swallowed by trees continued to be dark requiring artificial light sources to make our way over rocks and tree roots as we went up, up, up, to the sky.

Sunrise from the mountain

As we continued on this trail we could begin to feel the effects of the ever thinning air making it more difficult to breath and hike at a fast pace. Increasing our breaks while we trekked higher the trees began to decrease in size indicating the approaching tree line where they can no longer grow in the cool mountain air. Daylight finally penetrated this forest trail just as we broke above the trees bringing spectacular views of the mountains surrounding us with Emerald lake in the valley below. Our climb began below this lake and now look how high above it we are. Progress.

Overlooking Emerald Lake

Marmots appeared from the rocks in the mountain to greet us as we passed their homes. They made for a more interesting hike once reaching the tundra of the alpine zone on Flattop Mountain. Watching as they climbed in and out of boulders and finally on top of them to grab the warmth of the morning sun before gathering food for the day was extremely entertaining.

Marmots came out to greet us

They would definitely not be outdone by their smaller tundra mates – the Picas. These smaller alpine mammals would give a sharp squeak but would not always come into view as they moved between the rocks and boulders. If you watched long enough there would be a glimpse of movement and out would come one of these soft Picas running across the surface as they gathered portions of plants to store in their nests giving another squeak as if to say good morning while we passed.

Picas roaming around on the tundra

After several hours of hiking and a number of breaks to catch our breath we reached the summit of Flattop Mountain. I always imagine mountains as these immovable pieces of solid stone reaching towards to sky. It surprises me as we walk the top of the mountain that the top is scattered stones and boulders showing they are not as solid as originally perceived. The elements continue to work on these mountains breaking them apart slowly over time. For now it’s a great challenge to climb to the top of these massive rock formations.

Reaching the top of Flattop Mountain

In our picture above you see Hallet Peak to the right which is the next mountain over and one we briefly discussed climbing but decided this was enough for today as the real  challenge rests in the left of this photo – Longs Peak. A hike for another day. With our goal achieved for today we spent some time exploring and taking in the sights of our amazing surroundings, and watching some of the animals as they went about their business for the day.

One of the vast views from up here

After a little rest and energizing food we ventured to the nearby Continental Divide Trail. I’ve read about people hiking this entire trail covering over 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada and wanted to walk a little of this beautiful trail. There were large cairns marking the trail most likely to show where it is during the spring and fall when snow could cover it making a more challenging hike and increased likelihood of getting lost. Further exploration on the CDT was tempting but it was time to head back down the mountain. With our destination successfully found we began the descent back to Bear Lake.

Exploring the Continental Divide Trail

 

Mystery Cave

A few years ago I searched for caves of Minnesota, after exploring Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and found Mystery Cave. This is a state park which offers tours through the largest caverns of the cave located in the bluffs of Southeastern Minnesota. We’ve attempted to plan a visit when we first discovered it but plans fell through so we kept it on a list of “someday” things to do. Fortunately this “someday” event actually was achieved this summer. We hosted a French student for a few weeks and thought this would be an enjoyable place to show some of the many faces of Minnesota. He had never been in a cave before and was fascinated with it.

Walking through the caverns carved by water

Caves are very fascinating places and this one was no different. As is common, it is cool in Mystery Cave which felt nice on a hot summer afternoon. After descending a couple of flights of stairs we were transported into another world. Here is complete darkness surrounded by layers and layers of stone carved over thousands of years of water carrying away each piece it can grab until it can no longer flow through this area. These natural tunnels continue to transform yet today as water from the surface still drips through these rocks altering their environment.

Veins of Mystery Cave

As this water drips down the stone walls it carries with it minerals from above which separate from the water as it flows down these walls creating these veins throughout the caves giving them an appearance of life. The veins of Mystery Cave give it a beautiful and amazing ambiance adding to the wonder around each new cavern. What will this cave look like in a thousand years from now? What will be the same, if anything? What did the cave look like a thousand years ago?

An underground lake

This is the first cave I’ve toured that I saw an underground lake. While it was smaller than I was prepared for it was incredibly clear and had a very deceptive depth that could only be realized by shining light through the surface and moving it around. Even then the deception required a focused realization and understanding of what you are viewing.  We continued through some of the narrow passageways returning to the beginning and climbed out to natural daylight squinting while adjusting to it once again. It was cool enough inside and hot and humid enough outside that everyone’s glasses fogged immediately upon exiting the cave making those with corrective lenses laugh as this usually happens during the winter, not summer.

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Spring is a Time for New Life

While out and about recently I’ve been privileged to see life emerging to grow and flourish in the abundance of spring. Some has been persistently pursued while others have been fortunate surprises while exploring local lakes and forests during the beautiful days of May. I feel so lucky to have been a part of life in the greening woods and warming waters to share in the lives of animals as they begin to experience the world around them.

A pair of wood ducks enjoying an evening meal together

My goal is to go unnoticed by the animals around me so they will continue about their daily routines naturally. Usually I’m unsuccessful in this goal at first but eventually I become a part of the forest over time and the life around me goes on about their business as if everything is normal. At least that’s what I attempt to do and it’s a great feeling when I’m successful at it. Usually animals begin to notice I’m there as I move the camera to get pictures of their activity but I try to be as stealth as possible.

A Trumpeter Swan persistently incubating her eggs in her large nest

This becomes more challenging because of equipment limitations. Often to get the best pictures, wildlife need to be within 20 feet of me as my zoom lens is limited to this distance currently. I struggle with acquiring more equipment at a considerable cost in many cases and accepting the limitations of what I am fortunate to have. As other photographers will often say, there is always another piece of equipment to get and another lens they would like to get to make certain pictures easier.

Sandhill Cranes protecting and teaching their young

Going through the progression of these photos, the first picture is a pair of wood ducks paired up ready to nest and lay eggs. Next is a trumpeter swan sitting on the nest for the long process of incubating eggs. Third is a pair of sandhill cranes teaching their young what to eat and how to stay safe by watching and avoiding threats. Below is a group of baby ducklings skirting across the lake grabbing food along the way. The larger photograph above is of a baby coyote exploring the forest around it’s den while mom is sleeping in the den.

Ducklings speeding across the lake

 

Meandering Through the Smoky Mountains on a Horse

Exploring a National Park by driving and hiking through it is the most common, riding a horse was something different for us and what better place to do that than Great Smoky Mountains National Park? There are a couple of horse stables in this park. The one we chose was Cades Cove Riding Stables because that was the one closest to where we wanted to explore that day.

The Rhododendrons were just starting to bloom

Our ride lasted for about an 45 minutes through beautiful forests of the Smoky Mountains so it was long enough to enjoy it but not too long where those of us not use to horses would get sore. The day began cloud covered with the threat of rain but we managed to stay dry and see peaks of sun as the ride continued making for a great summer morning while taking in these surroundings. Several of the Rhododendrons were just beginning to bloom along the trail providing for an even prettier landscape to ride through.

Beautiful scenery on a beautiful summer morning in the Smoky Mountains

The trail leader was very knowledgeable about the horses and trails and took care of any potential issues with the horses quickly. Some horses just don’t perform as well next to certain other horses so sometimes it’s best to keep them separated in a group. Once in awhile a horse wants to go at a different pace than the rest of the group and needs to be put back in their spot to follow the group for the best and safest ride for all. If your in Great Smoky Mountain National Park and are interested in spending time on horses, I definitely recommend Cades Cove Stables. And NO, I was not compensated to say that.

Riding through one of the numerous streams

The Frozen River

After a day snowmobiling through Northern Wisconsin we (my cousin and I) wanted to take in a waterfall or two coated in fresh snow so off to Gooseberry Falls we drove. That was the last weekend of the season the trails were open for snowmobiling as it worked out. How fortunate for us?! I was expecting the river to be flowing freely surrounded by fresh snow for some very picturesque landscapes. To my surprise the ice was still well intact over much of the river and waterfalls. For a comparison I’ve included a photo of these same waterfalls during the summer.

Surrounded by Ice

I’ve never been to this area during the winter to see what the waterfalls look like iced over so this was interesting to explore in a completely different perspective. Seeing the waterfalls frozen made me wonder what the process looks like during the winter as the ice gets thicker and thicker. I was also surprised how many people were visiting the falls and taking in a beautiful winter day exploring this state park.

Gooseberry Falls in the summer

Most of the visitors were hiking around the falls, which is what we were doing while some were there to photograph the ice covered waterfalls and one individual was climbing up and over the frozen portions of the falls. Taking some time to talk with him, he says this is his winter version of rock climbing, an activity keeping him out and about enjoying life. It was fun to watch as he picked through the ice with axes and cleats.

Climbing the ice walls

While hiking through the state park I discovered trails in locations I wasn’t aware of trails before. I’ve been to this state park a number of times and never discovered a trail on the opposite side of these waterfalls on top of the cliff overlooking this gorgeous landscape. The views from this newly discovered trail are well worth the extra distance required to get to them. That’s were many of these pictures were taken from. You can see the different angles between most of the waterfall photos and the summer shot.

Peering inside the layers of ice covering the river.

Because one of my goals for 2016 was to photograph snowflakes, I’ve started to look more closely at some of the details in the ice and snow this year. Especially melting ice and snow. The picture above shows the layers that make up ice covering the river as portions are beginning to melt. Some of the freshly fallen snow was beginning to melt and gliding down the ice creating interesting trickles across the several inches of ice still coating the river.

More layers of melting ice.

As we continued our hike around a portion of the Gooseberry River I found a few other locations providing a snapshot into the layer upon frozen layer of water making up this thick sheet of ice. In the above photograph you can see the layers underneath the top layer which is still coated in snow. The darkest portions are running water flowing underneath all of this ice. I believe the water depth in this area is several feet so while it looks relatively shallow, that look is deceiving.

Waterfalls frozen in place

Making our way to the lower falls you can see the magnificent rocks covered in all of this ice. in our explorations we confirmed water running under much of this as there were a few spots open to the water underneath as well as sounds of rushing water muffled by layers of ice. There were some great shapes created from the freezing and thawing during the recent days. It’s interesting to look at all these little details that combine together to make this amazing ice walls. Sometimes I forgot I was standing over running water as I was attempting to photograph these small icicles and crystals and their curious shapes.

One of the many icicles making up this huge ice wall.

Darkness was approaching on this already cloud covered light and the wind was growing colder so it was time to exit this beautiful ice river and falls. Before we did I was amazed further by the resilience of trees that grow out of these rock ledges as in the winter they are also ice covered. How they continue to grow surprises me and I work with plants almost every day. These tree roots and icicles clinging to the side of this stone wall made for a sight you don’t expect to see.

Tree roots growing through ice and rock

Gooseberry Falls State Park has a beautiful visitors center with great information about the North Shore of Minnesota but was unfortunately closed as we were exiting. In the absence of park personnel, we were sent on our way by some of the park residents. Although they seemed to prefer our departure instead of wanting to be interacted with.

Local resident deer sending us on our way

Agate Fossil Beds

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument one of the smallest national parks we’ve visited but an interesting place to explore with some surprising things to learn. Before finding this place because of the Monopoly board I had no idea that fossils have been found in this part of the Midwestern United States. Once again another pleasant surprise from our Monopoly adventures.

Some of the mammals fossils

This park requires only a few hours to explore but has much to offer for it’s size with information on the significance of the area for the Sioux as well as fossils to view both in the visitors center and along trails. In addition there are great views of the plains that make up large expanses of the landscape in western Nebraska.

Looking out at the vast prairie

One of the unique fossils which has been preserved in this national park are corkscrews dug deep into the earth by a type of land beaver that use to reside in these hills. When you see them you can’t help but wonder why they dug these burrows in the shape of a corkscrew. I question if it was to help them get in and out of their underground home. Maybe they couldn’t climb in and out of these deep holes any other way. Still, these corkscrews called, daemonelix or devil’s corkscrews, added a lot of steps each time entering and exiting these dens. A workout just to get up and go outside and retreat back into shelter. Probably worse than stairs in our houses.

There are fossils hiding in these hills