Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kayak Craziness...with a Purpose

CanoeSport Outfitters' Casey Holmes showing off her balance

Capsizing is the last thing kayakers want to happen unexpectedly... which us why we practice capsizing on purpose!  Time spent upside-down during practice and play ensures that we will react instinctively to get rightside-up when the unexpected happens.  Recovery from capsizing is actually a last resort, preceded by bracing to prevent capsizing and by balancing to stay upright in the first place.  And what better way to practice balance, bracing, and recovery than by purposefully getting off-balance, tipping, and dumping?

Rolling practice!
(photos by Peg Pearson)

In a recent entry on her blog, my friend and co-kayaker Diane Michaud Lowry posted a video collage showing that off-balance, upside-down, and very wet practice, far from being stressful, can be a source of great fun and entertainment: look at those smiles and hear that laughter!  Even when... no, especially when things, um, don't go as planned: video clip #7 shows a bow roll rescue gone awry... but succeeded by success in #8.  (Videos #1-4 are pool sessions with the ISU Canoe and Kayak Club; #5-9 are of yours truly in the yellow sea kayak at Lake Red Rock.)

Sculling brace... yes, I got back up!
(photo by Diane Michaud Lowry)

Bow roll rescue...rotating the capsized blue kayak upright
(photo by Diane Michaud Lowry)

Rolling and scull-bracing
(video by Steve Parrish) 

In a continuing effort to improve my skills, I am heading to Duluth, Minnesota this weekend to seek ACA (American Canoe Association) training and certification.

About to roll over and get in over my head...wish me luck!
(self-portrait with deck-mounted camera)

Oh, and why do we do this at all?  Because, beyond the fun, it enables us to venture into and return safely from places of great natural beauty.

Heading home

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Walk through the Glade

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)

Passing through eastern Iowa last week, I explored rugged bluffs along the Maquoketa River contained in the Indian Bluffs Wildlife Area.  Most of the landscape is wooded with typical upland forest, dominated by white oak, red oak, sugar maple and basswood on loamy soils, but scattered along the rim of the bluffs overlooking the canyonesque river valley, dolomite bedrock protrudes from the soil and creates a unique habitat.  Thin, droughty soil limits development of vegetation to a savanna-like community known as a glade.  With a lower density of trees - many of them old cedars stunted in height or girth - the glade environment allows more sunlight to penetrate the canopy, in turn allowing many prairie plants to flourish.  During my visit to several of these small, but very interesting spots, I found colorful displays of shooting star, wood betony, blue-eyed grass, hoary puccoon, and yellow stargrass.

Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis),
overview (above) and close-up (below)

Yelllow stargrass (Hypoxis hirsuta)

Blue-eyed grass
(Sisyrinchium campestre)
Hoary puccoon
(Lithospermum canescens)

I also found several forest wildflowers growing alongside the prairie plants: wild geranium, wood anemone, and showy orchis.

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia)
Showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

(Erigeron pulchellus)
Interestingly, I also found species that I often find in "in-between" habitats such as glades: Seneca snakeroot, Robin-plantain, and colombine.
Seneca snakeroot (Polygala senega)

Colombine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Although comprising a tiny fraction of the landscape, glades harbor a significant biodiversity.  Their steep, rugged, rocky, and often remote locations make them difficult to access, but I always seek out the glades whenever I am in bluffland country.  Enjoying their "atypical" flora and their high vistas of the surrounding landscape are always worth the effort.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 21 at 6:01 PM, Red Rock Lake



Addendum, May 28, 2011 - I posted this photo series last week as my quiet refutation of the dire "Judgment Day" prediction that the world would end at 6:00 PM on May 21, 2011.  Instead the moment passed and ushered in another lovely evening on this beautiful Earth which my friends and I enjoyed by kayaking on Lake Red Rock in Iowa.  Recognizing that future readers might not make the connection with the failed and forgotten prediction, I added the Wikipedia link above to place this post in its historical context.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Walk on the Prairie

Continuing my search for rare plants on state forest lands, I traveled to the Loess Hills State Forest, centered in the Loess Hills landform region of western Iowa.  This "forest" is unique in Iowa because a large percentage of its rugged landscape is composed of native prairie on ridges and steep slopes.  Although once comprising over 80% of Iowa, prairie was extensively plowed for agricultural production in the late 1800s and early 1900s and is now very rare with only 0.1% remaining of its original extent.  Nearly 99% of that 0.1% is concentrated in the Loess Hills, where steep topography prevented its loss to plowing.  Although the primary purpose of my visit today was to visit and evaluate forest sites slated for management, I was able to stray onto prairie ridges as I hiked between stands of hillside forest.  It is always rewarding to walk on the prairie.

Looking south
from Murray Hill
Looking north
from Murray Hill


Located at the western extent of eastern forest and the eastern extent of western prairie, natural vegetation in the Loess Hills is a complex of forest in moist valleys and cool north-facing slopes and prairie on dry ridges and hot, south-facing slopes.  This effect was dramatically displayed during my visit to the the Murray Hill Scenic Overlook, where views from this high vantage point to the north were predominantly of tawny, still-dormant prairie on south-facing slopes while views to the south were dominated by newly greening forest on north-facing slopes.

Prairie burned in November, regrowing in May
At the nearby Loess Hills Scenic Overlook, the prairie had been burned last fall and now sported a haze of short green, regrowing grass studded with many flowering forbs, including groundplum (Astragalus crassicarpus), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre).  Prescribed burning preserves prairie vegetation by stunting the growth of trees and shrubs, whose encroachment into grasslands has now replaced agricultural plowing as one of the most severe threats to the remaining prairies.

An explosion of groundplums on the regrowing prairie
(close-ups of flowers, leaves and fruits below)

Blue-eyed grass
Hoary puccoon

Burning also stimulates the flowering of prairie plants, which in turn serve as sources of nectar and pollen for prairie insects.  However, insect conservationists have expressed concern that burning harms insects that depend upon unburned plants for egg-laying and for sheltering larva.  Prairie managers face the conundrum that fire which preserves the prairie may also be damaging some of its most interesting inhabitants.

One way of using fire to enhance the prairie while protecting its fire-sensitive species is to burn only a portion of the whole prairie at a time, ensuring the preservation of unburned refuges.  Leaving unburned prairie immediately next to burned prairie allows fire-sensitive insects to easily recolonize burned areas. 

Unburned prairie (foreground) adjoining burned prairie,
Mt. Talbot State Preserve in Stone State Park

During my visit to the prairies in and near the state forest, I found few insects on either burned or unburned prairies, likely due to the hot, windy weather that day.  Furnace-like heat and a buffeting wind suppressed the activity of most flying insects, but coral-winged grasshoppers that I did find appeared unfazed, flitting lightly across the hot, dry, windy prairie on flashing red wings.

Coral-winged grasshopper (Pardalophora apiculata)

Lichens were among the others organisms that I encountered during my walk on the prairie, ranging from a colorful mosaic of orange sunburst lichens (Xanthomendoza) and rosette lichens (Physcia) on the low branches of trees extending into the prairie edge to the non-descript brown, but still fascinating cryptobiotic crust formed from a concoction of cyanobacteria and tiny terricolous lichens on barren prairie soil wherever clumps of bluestem grass were widely spaced.

Lichens on stump in prairie
Cryptobiotic crust on prairie soil

Lichens on tree branch overhanging prairie

And everywhere I wandered, I encountered expansive vistas of the surrounding country and exposure to the pervasive prairie wind.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Walk in the Woods

False Turkey Tail fungus on dead log

 I spent a day walking through the woods, actually several tracts of woods scattered across Stephens State Forest, itself scattered across  the Southern Iowa Drift Plain.  While the main purpose of my visit was to search for rare plants as part of an effort to manage our state forests ecologically, the bountiful blooming of the spring flora made it easy to enjoy a wider array of plants.  Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) had recently finished, but the "jacks" were standing in their "pulpits" in Arisaema triphyllum, addressing a congregation of woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) and yellow violets (Viola pubescens) in their "Sunday Best".

Yellow Violet
Woodland Phlox

While I enjoy seeing spring flowers, I am always on the lookout for "wildflowerish" things that are not wildflowers.  Although not as conspicuous as eye-catching flowers, they nonetheless display color and symmetry that extend the aesthetic experience of of attentive naturalists.  Examples abounded in the woods this week.  On knee-high seedlings, the newly flushed, anthocyanin-soaked, thumbnail-sized leaves of white oak (Quercus alba) and red oak (Quercus rubra) resembled red-tinted petals while terminal clusters of them resembled entire flowers.

White oak leaf

Red oak leaves

The swollen terminal buds of shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) resembled small tulips about to bloom while the yellow anthers of diminutive sedge (Carex pennsylvanica) flowers adorned inflorescences that loomed large only under magnification with a hand-lens.  Surrounded by the green foliage of snakeroot and strawberry, scarlet basal leaves of mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla) stood out conspicuously on the forest floor of a grassy opening (but only if you looked down at your feet).   And setting aside prejudices from past bad experiences, who cannot admire the dark maroon spring foliage of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)?

Shagbark hickory bud

Sedge flowers

Mullein foxglove
Poison ivy
Peering at ever-smaller things reveals an ever-increasing realm of organisms that further bend the concept of "wildflower".  Viewed with a loupe, mosses on a rotting log "bloom" with sporophytes and resemble a miniature forest.
Moss on rotting log

Reindeer lichen

Lichens on the forest floor also contribute to a "wildflowerish" display of visual diversity, ranging from the intricately branched masses of reindeer lichen (Cladina cf. rangiferina) to pintsized pixie-cups (Cladonia cf. fimbriata) and pygmy pegs of turban lichen (Cladonia cf. pezizformis).  Other non-plant organisms such as false turkey tail fungus (Stereum cf. ostea, pictured at top of page) contribute eye-catching color and symmetry as well.

Pixie-cup lichen
Turban lichen

During your walks in the woods, enjoy the wildflowers and watch for the "wildflowerish" things around them.  Broadening one's attention to leaves, buds, sedges, mosses, lichens, and fungi will extend your appreciation of the total beauty of nature.

Note: All of my lichen and fungi identifications are tentative and require observations of features not represented on these photos (underside pores, chemical tests, etc.).  I appreciate the assistance and instruction given to me by friends who are mycologists and lichenologists, but they cannot keep up with all of my errors!  So, gentle readers, please regard the IDs of these species as a "best guess", not a confirmed fact.