Monday, December 27, 2010

Frosty Morning

Rising through a layer of remnant fog into a clearing sky, the morning sun infused the icy landscape with a brilliant white glow.  I knew I had to go now, before wind shook the frost from its fragile hold and the sky regressed to its week-long tyranny of dull gray overcast.  I quickly donned my anorak and cross-country skis and glided into my backyard, which had been transformed overnight into a winter wonderland. 

A decade has passed since I last skied (a gap bracketed by the wearing out of my original 3-pin boots and my recent acquisition of newly marketed "retro" replacements), but I quickly rediscovered the steady rhythm as I moved along the fencelines and across snowy lawns.

Gently pushed by a slight south wind, last night's freezing fog asymmetrically plastered crystalline hoarfrost onto bare twigs of deciduous trees and shrubs, evergreen foliage of white- and red-cedars, stiff stemmy skeletons of last year's herbs, and cold metallic strands of barbed wire strung between lichen-encrusted fenceposts. 

I finished my short ski-tour in a shower of crumbling hoarfrost crystals falling from the trees.  It felt good to experience this ephemeral winter beauty and to renew long-missed cross-country skiing, but it also felt good to come in out of the cold to a warm woodburning stove.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

2010 Hindsight

January brings bright, brisk days of blindlingly white snow under brilliantly blue skies, upstaging the the gloomy gray overcast of December.  Its chiseling cold sorts species, composes communities, and engenders ecosystems.  Its nadir of warmth evokes the zenith of winter beauty.

Lichens are the wildflowers of winter.  Photographed on February 1, this coloful collage graces a wooden post (replete with growth-rings of its original tree-trunk) bordering a parking lot on the State Capitol campus in Des Moines:  Bird’s-nest Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria fallax), Sandpapered Wind Lichen (Physciella melanchra), Star Rosette Lichen (Physcia stellaris), Bark Firedot Lichen (Caloplaca holocarpa), Clustered Rim Lichen (Lecania perproxima). 
Journal entry from a March vacation: "I just returned from a week in the Arkansas Ozarks, where I paddled the Buffalo River and searched for scenery, plants, lichens, insects, and signs of spring.  Even 500 miles south of Iowa, spring is slow in arriving this year.  Drizzle accompanied us on the drive down, clouds and sunshine staged a daily tug-of-war, and an end-of-week snowstorm surprised us and the daffodils newly emerged in the garden surrounding our friends' backwoods cabin.  Except for rare flashes of color from a very few newly emerged flowers, the woods and glades were still quite brown.  I found a single pink-streaked white flower of spring beauty in a warm woodland edge, a purple population of rose verbena clinging to a south-facing cliff, and a lone bluet peering over the edge of a moss-matted waterfall.  Insects were also few and mainly of early-emerging species (mayflies, midges, azures) or hardy generalists (mainly spiders of several kinds)...and one bumblebee.  Mosses healthily hydrated with runoff and seepage were beautifully green, however, and a bewildering array of showy lichens dotted rock outcrops and draped branches nearly everywhere.  All in all, another interesting glimpse into a natural rhythm."

This small mud tube is a turret made by a nymph of Magicicada (a "periodical" cicada) as it emerges from the ground to molt to the adult stage.  Periodical cicadas are those that emerge in mass populations at intervals of 13 or 17 years.  Does this turret portend a mass emergence this year?
A month after encountering the nymphal cicada turret, I discovered this adult.  According to, 2010 was not predicted to be the year of a mass emergence (and in fact, it was not), so this individual appeared to be part of a smaller, out-of-synch ("straggling") subpopulation, possibly a 4-year advance of Brood III due in 2014 or a 1-year advance of Brood XIX due in 2011.  We should find out this coming year!

Emerging from behind a train of severe thunderstorms, the setting sun on the sultry evening of June 18 underlit a spectacular array of mammatus clouds, in turn backlighting the wind turbine at the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) near Kellogg in central Iowa, where I was assisting with a Citizen Science Workshop.


July was split between the Project AWARE clean-up of the Nishnabota River in southwest Iowa and a vacation at Caliper Lake Provincial Park in western Ontario.


Likewise, August was split between a backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park in California and a kayaking trip around Isle Royale National Park in northernmost Michigan.

September duties took me to a diversity of habitats from fens in northeast Iowa to dry Loess Hills prairies in the west, including a sandy beach along the Mississippi River where I photographed this tiny butterfly, a Dainty Sulphur.

Lake Red Rock was lowered ten feet this fall to accomodate repairs to the gates of its dam.  The drawdown had dramatic effects on the shoreline, creating mudflats, exposing rock outcrops, unveiling old graffiti, revealing modern junk alongside 200-million-year-old fossils, and stranding thousands of mussels.  Between the initiation of the drawdown and the first hard frost, I rescued 2000 mussels by tossing them from drying mudflats into shallow water; my kayaking friends pitched in an additional 500, making a total of 2500 mussels saved from dessication, freezing, and depredation by raccoons.
My last paddle of the year on Lake Red Rock was November 27 as brash ice was forming; some friends paddled in unfrozen holes there on December 2; a few days later, all ten thousand acres were frozen solid.  November is one of the best months to paddle on the big lake because water dripping from cliffs freezes into icicles.

What do botanists do in winter?  Although trees, shrubs, and lichens can still be found above the snow and enjoyed in the cold, it is nonetheless a good season for visiting plants indoors.  This month, I enjoyed visits to the herbariums (herbaria, more properly) in snowbound northeast Iowa, where I was warmly received by curators Beth Lynch at Luther College, Scott Figdore at Upper Iowa University, and Johanna Foster at Wartburg College.  I combed their collections for rare plant species and added their records to our Natural Areas Inventory database, including ones of historical value like the beautifully preserved 1899 specimen of Tradescantia virginiana collected by early botanist Alois Kovarik.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Out West, Part 4: Yellowstone Lake

In late September and early October of 2004, I traveled to Washington state to visit my daughter Beth attending Whitman College in Walla Walla and my son Will attending the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.  Wishing to see the country and visit old friends along the way, I drove my car and brought my kayak.  I followed I-80 from Iowa to Utah, stopping for a short outing on the Great Salt Lake, then continued to Washington on I-84.  In Walla Walla, Beth suggested that I visit the Palouse River Canyon  When I reached Tacoma via I-84 and I-5 several days later, I spent a day kayaking on Puget Sound with a former coworker who had moved to Olympia.  When I left Tacoma, I headed east on I-90 into Montana and south to Cody, Wyoming, where I visited Kent Houston, a longtime friend from my college days who now works as a soil scientist for the Shoshone National Forest.  For my final adventure of my "Out West" tour, we spent a day in Yellowstone National Park and kayaked on the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.  These is the account of my outing there...


Vapor drifts eerily westward through a ghost forest of fire-killed pines while sheets of scalding water run eastward from hot springs and flow across travertine terraces.  The water trickles quietly into the cold lake where the slope is gentle and splashes over waterfalls where waves have eroded sea-caves into the geyserite shoreline.  Far across the lake loom the rugged crests of the Absaroka Mountains, bright with new snow.  A few hours ago, Kent and I drove through those mountains from Cody and wound our way along the north and west shores of Yellowstone Lake to Grant Village.  After registering at the National Park Service ranger station, we launched our kayaks and paddled northward along the coast.  We are now passing the West Thumb geyser basin, dramatically located on the shoreline of the giant lake.  The water is calm, the air is cold, and the sky is patchy with clouds and sunshine on this first day of October.

“We’re on camera”, Kent calls softly, nodding toward the wooden boardwalks that wind through the geyser basin and along this part of the shoreline.  Dozens of tourists ambling on the walkway have trained their video cameras on the two crazy kayakers just offshore and track us as we paddle past.  Several wave to us and we wave back by bobbing our heads and raising our paddle blades high on the return stroke without breaking stride.  Spying us, parents suddenly kneel down to their children, wrap one arm around their shoulders, and point to us with the other.  As she focuses her gaze on us, a little girl widens her eyes and opens her mouth in amazement, then waves; I stop paddling to wave and smile directly back at her.  She turns excitedly to her mother and points.  An old man standing alone at an overlook watches us quietly and nods his head slowly in approval; his eyes follow us as we cross his field of vision into the ambient scenery.  Our eyes meet for a moment and I feel a breeze brush my face.  He wishes he was here, I realize.  I am suddenly grateful, deeply grateful, to be pursuing my dream of exploring wild, beautiful places.  To be in the postcard, in the wilderness, in the grip of beauty.


We round a point and are suddenly paddling past a tall, green stand of unburned forest.  Missed by the big fires of 1988, this patch of mature pine, spruce, and fir is lush compared to the recovering firescape - occupied by legions of 15-year old  “Christmas trees” growing under the bleaching skeletons of their fire-killed predecessors - that we have passed so far.  It surrounds a second geyser basin, this one devoid of boardwalks and tourists, that presents a surreal landscape.  Bubbling, gurgling, and hissing sounds reach us from the vapor-shrouded land.  White sand weathered from gray geyserite forms a barren beach.  Hot, steaming water extends several meters into the lake.  We drift cautiously past the basin and pull ashore between jagged slabs of broken travertine for a brief rest.

Blue-bottomed storm clouds creep across the sky and blot out the sun as we begin our return journey.  There is thunder, then rain and hail.  Thousands of tiny water fountains erupt where hailstones strike the smooth surface of the lake.  Staccatos of stones bounce noisily off the plastic deck of my kayak.  Iceballs glance off my nylon jacket with soft, scratchy tappings.  Hunching over as I paddle, I call out to Kent to see how he is faring.  A longtime outdoorsman, he is unfazed.  “Builds character!” he quips across the squall.  The storm ends a few seconds later.  We reach the take-out point and drive a scenic loop back to Cody past Old Faithful, Yellowstone Falls, and a buffalo jam.


I headed home to Iowa the next day, leaving behind mountain waters, seacoasts, river canyons and salt lakes, but buoyed by memories of places, friends and family.  Although not featured in these kayaking narratives, I did indeed visit my daughter Beth and my son Will (the original objective of my trip out west).  I got to visit their homes, meet their friends, see their campuses, and experience a bit of their newly independent lives. I am doubly enriched: first by their welcoming of my presence in their lives and again by their supportiveness of my absences when I am out and about exploring nature. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Out West, Part 3: Puget Sound

In late September and early October of 2004, I traveled to Washington state to visit my daughter Beth attending Whitman College in Walla Walla and my son Will attending the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.  Wishing to see the country and visit old friends along the way, I drove my car and brought my kayak.  I followed I-80 from Iowa to Utah, stopping for a short outing on the Great Salt Lake, then continued to Washington on I-84.  In Walla Walla, Beth suggested that I visit the Palouse River Canyon.  When I reached Tacoma via I-84 and I-5 several days later, I spent a day kayaking on Puget Sound with John Fleckenstein, a friend and former coworker who had moved to Olympia, where he now works as a zoologist for the Washington Natural Heritage Program.  This is my account of kayaking there....

Dense fog hides the opposite shore as we leave the harbor.  The slow trumpeting of the foghorn at Boston Harbor recedes into moisture-muted distance as we paddle across Budd Inlet toward Hope Island.  John knows where we are going and leads the way toward an invisible shore.  Looking down next to my kayak, I see small white jellyfish pulsating like free-swimming hearts in the clear water.  A seal surfaces nearby, only its brown head protruding above the glassy surface, but dives before I am within camera range.  Reaching shallow water on the far shore and cruising over the cobble-covered bottom, we see hundreds of pink starfish scattered across the bed of the estuary, hunting mussels and oysters.  John nods toward a black, grebe-like bird swimming on the surface.  “Pigeon-winged Guillemot”, he says, providing me with a new addition for my life-list, a pelagic species of the Pacific Ocean. 


Hope Island looms greenly in the lifting fog ahead of us.  As a state park, its coastal rainforest is unbroken by the clearings, houses, roads, and powerlines that characterize the suburban mainland we have passed to arrive here.  The tide is out, so the island is ringed with a wide band of coarse, cobbly gravel.  Above the tideline, I recognize the frond-like foliage of white cedar and the tall, pointed crowns of Douglas-fir among the trees crowding the forest edge.  We pull ashore to explore.  Stepping out of his kayak onto the wet, rocky beach, John finds a Sunflower Starfish, nearly black in color, speckled with white dots, with fifteen short, stubby rays instead of the five, slender ones of the pink species.  Green, spinach-like leaves of kelp lay flaccidly on the wet ground, awaiting the return of the tide to restore their upright, underwater posture.  As we walk upslope, we find a narrow band of tawny saltgrass and maroon sea blite, salt-tolerant species also found on alkali flats of the Great Plains.

We hike into the interior of the island on a narrow trail through a lush understory of alder, holly, sword fern, and bracken fern under tall trees of Douglas-fir, western white cedar, and hemlock.  Everywhere I look, tree branches are bearded with pale green strands of Witch's Hair, a pendant lichen resembling Spanish moss.  Ferns and mosses thickly cover dead logs and leaning snags.  The umbrella-like leaves of thousands of vanilla-plants form a low herbaceous canopy over the spongy forest floor.  We find a patch of purple mushrooms.  Banana slugs- large yellow, shell-less snails- creep across the wet ground.  Our hike takes longer than expected, so we are relieved to see that the rising tide is still below our kayaks when we return to the beach. 

The incoming tide has reversed the flow of water through the Sound, so we must now paddle against the current as we begin our return journey.  Having previously paddled only on non-tidal waters, I am intrigued at the effects I now see.  As we round the tip of a peninsula separating two bays, we encounter a narrow seam of roiled water between the two expanses of flat water.  When we breach the eddyline, our bows are suddenly swept to the left as our sterns are carried to the right, spinning us counterclockwise.  We recover easily, but I have never seen such a sharp boundary between currents- it is as if the tide in one bay is coming in while still going out in the other.  At another point, we pass a small upland stream emptying into the bay; the incoming tidal water flows into its valley and quickens in velocity as it is constricted into the narrow channel, forming a rapids.  Having traveled almost exclusively on inland rivers and lakes, I am accustomed to seeing water flow only outward from stream valleys into open bays, so it looks to me like the water here is flowing the “wrong way”- up the valley!

The sun breaks through dissipating clouds during our return leg and is shining brightly in a full blue sky by the time we recross Budd Inlet.  John says this is a common weather pattern for Puget Sound.  To me, it feels like two days in one: a cloudy day in the morning and new, sunny one in the afternoon.  Now in bright sunshine, I begin to get hot under my wetsuit, paddle jacket, and PFD vest, so I roll my kayak to cool off.  Back in deep water, we see more seals.  A salmon leaps out of the water just ahead of our boats.  A loon surfaces nearby with a freshly caught fish and suddenly flies rapidly away, still clasping the fish in its bill; a moment later, a gull speeds past us in hot pursuit, intent on pirating the loon’s catch, but the loon escapes with its prize.  The display of wildlife continues even into the Boston Harbor marina where we see an odd, shapeless creature that John calls a “dock worm” writhing below the water surface in the lanes between wharves and crabs scuttling under the docks by the fish market.  John buys a salmon and we head back to his house for dinner.

As we pull away in the car, I glance back at the Sound.  It marks the apogee of my cross-country tour because every new mile in my journey will now be in the direction of home...with one last adventure.

Next stop: Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming

Shoshone National Forest, adjoining Yellowstone Park near Cody, Wyoming