When the cell phone alarm sounded around midnight, Mary rolled from bed and said she would check to see if the Northern Lights had mysteriously appeared. We were what Minnesotans call “Way Up North” at the Gunflint Lodge on a Northern Lights package, securely warm in a “cabin” as large as my house with a north facing window. For the third straight night my camera was set up for the show. An appropriate extreme wide angle lens. Tripod. The camera securely set on the “bulb” setting, with a shutter cord dangling to the side. When she didn’t return for several minutes I thought perhaps we were finally in luck.
Then she suddenly came into the bedroom whispering just loud enough for me to hear: “There’s a wolf right outside our window!”
Allow me to briefly describe my fiancée. Mary adds little meat and no fat to the bones of her observations, be it political, of the arts or what she sees in nature. Typically her observations are, well, true to the bone! I rolled from bed and tiptoed behind her around the hot tub and sauna to the curtained living room window.
Mary has this dream of actually seeing a wild, dancing display of Northern Lights. In a couple of weeks she is scheduled for a knee replacement surgery which will tie her up with both pain and therapy, so this package seemed to fit our schedules. Gunflint Lodge is located on a north facing lake, and wide open to the northern skies without the horrid light pollution from farmstead security lights and roving pickups of lonely prairie boys. We were told if we wished for an even more “pure” view to head to the nearby lake access. We were geared and ready.
We had brought books along to occupy our lazy days as we rested from the anticipated light shows from the heavens, an exercise broken up by meals and outings. Rick the chef would come through at lunch and hint on what he was preparing for the evening offerings. He also knew of Ortonville, and of the gastronomical offerings of our prairie region. Our Lakewood Lodge on the shore of Big Stone Lake was a favorite, and he even mentioned a “greasy spoon” serving the “best breakfast in Western Minnesota” in nearby Odessa. Since 2013, when I moved to this area of the prairie, this is the very first reference to anything in Odessa! He also spoke of fishing Big Stone Lake, and knew the approximate location of my little farm.
Then there was Charlie the barkeeper, a friendly fellow who grew up in the northeastern corner of South Dakota and knew the lakes around here intimately. He knew the “where to goes” for huge bluegill on both Big Stone and Lake Travis, and like Rick the chef, had dined at Lakewood Lodge just down the road. “The waitress actually met our boat at the dock with a menu,” he said, smiling in remembrance.
At the front desk, and sometimes a wait person, was Dani, a heavily-tressed refugee from NYC, who spends her summers in the wilds of Alaska and the winters in the Minnesota wilderness. Like Charlie, who had seen enough neon and losers of Vegas, Dani found an opening at the lodge through the internet. She spoke of her dreams, of finding a man and a spot of unspoiled wilderness where “we will build a cabin and have some babies.” She said of New York City, “How can you find room to breathe when you’re surrounded by eight million people?”
Who led the wolf to us, though, was John the naturalist. On Tuesday morning John guided a “bird walk” up through the hills above the lodge. He was an engaging soul who knew his birds. We saw a chickadee and a nuthatch, and the good-of-hearing heard several other birds. Later that afternoon he offered a fascinating lesson on the Northern Lights, mixing science with mythology. Apparently John is a bit of a Renaissance man for besides his lectures and guided nature trips, he hosted the craft lessons.
On Wednesday he and I were the only two on a “Photo Hike” again up the hill to “Lookout Point” where the view was interrupted by a cable installed for a zip line. Before our walk he brought out some guidebooks, including one from National Geographic, where I found a picture of Jodi Cobb, who I had worked with at the Denver Post, and another of David Alan Harvey, who was in my graduating class of photojournalists at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. We then spent the hour-plus hike sharing our digital views of our wilderness hike. It was as fun as it was fascinating, for John had a good eye.
Afterwards, Mary and I headed to the bark framing class where once again it was John the naturalist teaching the class … to just Mary and I. We glued bark and shared a chummy discussion about nature, art and life in general. As we were zipping our parkas to leave, John said, “Hang on a moment. I’ll give you some seeds to spread around.” He then filled two small paper sacks with sunflower seeds.
As we neared the cabin we spread the seeds on the unmarred mound of snow outside of our cabin window with hopes of enticing bluejays and skittish pine siskins closer to the window. Which is where Mary found the wolf a little past midnight. We stood at the window watching it in silhouette as it licked the snow for the small morsels as it closely kept wary eyes on the walkway for threats. We didn’t attempt to change the camera setup for fear any sudden light would scare it away. So we watched. It was much bigger than any of the dogs the guests were seen walking, and the sled dogs were tightly secured in their pens. Mary, though, was more convinced than me. “I’ll tap the window to see what happens,” I said, after several moments.
With the single tap the wolf instantly broke into a fast lope past the low lamp on the walkway into the parking lot and off toward the ice covered lake. When it passed by the lamp we both could see the grayish brown coat, and his run was perfectly “wolf like” and so much different than that of a dog. We also convinced ourselves that had it been a dog it wouldn’t have suddenly burst away so quickly, nor veered toward the ice instead of the lodge and nearby cabins.
At breakfast a few hours later we told of our chanced viewing, and no one involved with the Lodge disputed our claim of seeing the wolf. “Those things happen up here,” said Charlie as he took our breakfast order.
While Mary didn’t get to experience the wavy dance of the greenish surround of the Northern Lights, she was more than pleased having seen the wolf … even one that dipped down from more exotic offerings of deer and moose to snack on lowly black sunflower seeds from John’s small sack. We were fully assured of our treasured encounter when we saw where its weight had broken through the heavy crust of the icy snowbank next to the scattered seeds. The huge footprints, one on top of another, made it difficult to make an absolute identification had we needed one. Which we didn’t.
Volker Nobbe, an old friend from Switzerland, came to mind on our recent trip through the SE quadrant of the country, for years ago on one of his trips to the States he continually shook his head in disgust at the amount of roadside trash he found here. He then surprised us on a road trip through Switzerland when he suddenly pulled off onto the shoulder somewhere between Basel and Bern to exclaim: “Look! No trash!” His arms were raised as if encompassing the breadth of the small country. “Our highways are clean! We Swiss have pride for our country!”
Classic Volker! He would have lost his voice on our recent trip along the “plastic trail” through Iowa and Kansas, down to Texas, across to Savanna, and eventually up to Richmond and back, for we hardly drove a single mile in the 5,500 without seeing some form of plastic trash. So many single use grocery carryouts caught in weeds and branches that the possibility of counting them was useless. Drink containers flipped from cars and trucks. Occasionally there were even garbage bags with refuge laying in the median or along the shoulder. It was such a mess that we had to ask: “Can we ever do away with our dependence on plastics?” And I’m not even talking about plastic straws.
Sometimes I wonder. This morning at the local supermarket there were rolls upon rolls of pull-off single-use thinly manufactured bags throughout the produce section to conveniently use for tomatoes, grapefruit, avocados and other unpackaged fruits and vegetables. Further along the produce aisle were prepackaged leafy greens and salad mixes in plastic tubs or bags. In the coolers across the way all the cheeses and other dairy-based products were in plastic containers. Skin tight, shrink-wrapped or in tubs and cartons. All the meats were nestled flat in Styrofoam trays covered with tightly sealed plastic wrap. Breads and spices? Same thing.
Check out the convenience stores, bait shops and the big box stores. Several weeks ago some of us volunteered to package take home goods for needy students at school. Using what? Single use plastic bags donated to the cause.
You can’t get away from plastic, it seems. Or, can you?
“I thought it was bad only in the oceans,” I said at one point, recalling images of a huge “island” of floating plastics floating somewhere in the vast Pacific. Estimates say that every single day approximately eight million pieces of plastic pollution find its way into our oceans. There may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and micro-plastic pieces floating in the open ocean. Weighing up to 269,000 tons. The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP) estimates that land-based sources account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution … with 60 to 95 percent of the waste being plastics debris.
Its no better on terra firma. In Ohio, state employees, inmates and Adopt A Highway volunteers took more than 157,000 hours to collect 396,000 bags of roadside trash, including plastics in 2018. That’s 19,723 full work days that cost Ohio taxpayers $4.1 million. Alabama litter crews gathered more than 113 tons of roadside litter in the Tuscaloosa area in 2019, according to reports. If the litter were measured in plastic bottles, it would stretch from Tuscaloosa to Dallas “with a few miles to spare,” said John McWilliams, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Transportation’s West Central Region. The state’s costs to clean up roadside litter reached $200,000 in Tuscaloosa County alone, and $6.8 million statewide.
And in Washington state, a two-year study by the state’s DOT disposed of 6,075 tons of litter and debris from major roadsides across the state. The Department of Ecology estimates another 4,400 tons were collected on state and county roads at the same time.
Sea or land. We’re making a damned mess of it. In fact, we might be choking our existence with plastic debris.
What is being done about it? Not much. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York and Vermont have passed laws banning disposable bags that are set to go into effect in 2020 or 2021. Interestingly, more state legislatures, including Minnesota, have passed laws “banning the ban” of single-use plastic bags than those that have regulated against using them. South Dakota just narrowly defeated a bill that would have banned the one-use plastics before reconsidering. Rather than a narrow vote the “ban on the ban” overwhelming passed the second time through from both parties and it is now in front of the SD governor, Kristi Noem, for her signature.
It seems rather apparent that if we humans want to live in a world unchoked by single use plastics we’ll have to do it ourselves. One person at a time. And this isn’t the seemingly silly plastic straw brigade. We won’t wean ourselves totally off plastics, but we can significantly reduce our dependence. That said, I’ll admit to not being perfect for, yes, although I typically carry cloth or nylon bags to the grocery when I shop, there are times I forget and leave them in the car. My bags came from a promotion to join the Sierra Club a few years back, and they’re much roomier than the cloth bags I had previously used and much easier to stuff in a pocket going into the store.
My use of cloth or nylon bags dates back several years, and follows a trip I had made to Sweden. And, later to Germany. In both countries I found most shoppers were bringing their own reusable cloth and woven plastic bags to carry home their groceries. Indeed, our local food co-op installed pegs for extra cloth bags volunteered by members for those who didn’t have them. Recently I asked a former exchange student who now lives and works in Berlin if the use of “carry in” bags was still in practice. Apparently it is. “Either we place groceries in our backpacks or use cloth bags we bring to the store. For vegetables we use the mesh bags that used to be used in former East Germany,” she said.
This prompted me to order mesh bags for that very purpose since I’m still pulling single-use bags off the roll for my grapefruit and avocados. To discard that convenient plastic, though, I use a trick taught to me by a South Korean exchange student, Jenyoung Hwang, who told me that in her country plastic bags were knotted to prevent them from blowing.
Beyond the single-use plastic, there are other excellent ideas. A friend carries a reusable square of aluminum foil in her purse for take home from restaurants, while a woman I know in Colorado actually carries a sandwich-sized, lid-locking Tupperware container in her purse for the same purpose. Both are great ideas. If only I had a purse!
Water and coffee drinkers can use refillable containers. The ideas and lists of alternatives to plastic use continue to grow. And, this is what it will take … one person, one step at a time. The plastic problem is all around us; single use, lightweight bags blowing free in the wind, water and juice containers being flipped from cars and trucks, a random garbage bag that has perhaps fallen en route to the dump or dumpster, cigarette butts and yes, perhaps even straws. It would be ridiculous to suggest we can ever live plastic free, and that isn’t my point.
We can certainly reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use bags. For what we observed along the highways on our trip was mostly avoidable — beyond just being sloppy. It takes some initiative, and certainly some perseverance, to change to more earth friendly habits. I’m game, and hope you are as well. For I would love to calm ol’ Volker down!
via Lemonade Girl
Over the years emerging prairie naturalist Nicole Zempel has become the “lemonade girl.” Allow me to explain … using her own observations and writing.
Early last summer Zempel invited me into one of her sanctuaries. Surrounded by craggy gneiss and granite outcroppings, this was a mix of wood and prairie along a bend of the Minnesota River. It’s a stretch of the river the two of us have paddled past numerous times, although I had not entered the adjacent countryside until her invitation. Columbines, grasping nooks of the outcrops, and other forbs were in full bloom. Some in wood, others in grass. Along the course of our foray we were quick to point out our respective observations.
“Ever snap a picture of something and come to realize you are looking at yourself?” she asked. Ah, the enlightenment and wonder. The quirky laugh. The shared visions.
A few years ago Zempel ventured into the wooded prairie similar to this behind a house she had purchased. “In the woods I am fully present – absorbing the sights and sounds. My thoughts fixed only in the moment – not beyond or behind. The woods show me freedom,” she writes, then later adds, “Fear is a beast and robs us of what could very well be our most valued and rich life experiences. As with anything, the more we surround ourselves with and learn about the things (we think) we fear – we tend to fear less. Some of the most important moments in my life have happened outside of my comfort zone.”
Zempel and I first met nearly 20 years ago when she was hired as a personal assistant of a non-profit entrepreneurial organization when I was on its board. We’ve been friends since, helping one another through various personal triumphs and turmoils. We have shared the prairie and woods, paddled many of the area rivers along with opening our souls over glasses of wine. She has an incredible ability and talent to make lemonade out of battery acid; to see silver linings in the darkest of situations.
“Through out my childhood and into my twenties I carried within me an overwhelming sense I can only describe as not being at peace. Eventually this became debilitating. Today, we in the west call this anxiety and depression. These are the blanket terms we use to describe the sensations of a mind not yet still. I have often wondered if a more fitting diagnosis might be something like ‘affliction brought on by society,’” she wrote in her blog, Wild Roots MN.
Initially I was surprised when she “took to the woods” for she seemed to love and absorb a rich social life. She was often the life of the party, and there are dozens of “Nicole Moments” her friends still share. Eight years ago she purchased her house on the edge of Granite Falls that nestled against a native prairie and woodland. “My life expanded the instant that I ventured into the remnant swath of prairie land just beyond my backyard,” she wrote. “It was just a few years ago when I took my first well intended step onto the land that has never known the destruction of the plow or the intrusive, often misguided hand of man. How it has remained spared from development – I do not know. Save for patches of invasive buckthorn and other changes brought about by time – it is as it was.”
She adds, “It’s a magical place just out my back door.”
What has transpired since has been both fun and amazing. She has discovered a talent for writing — simply, poetically and descriptively, and her photography with just her cell phone has already graced the walls for exhibitions. She says it started with the prairie.
“Even as a young girl I always had an eye and was quick to see things in nature before my dad or brother on our road trips along the river. Then I literally and figuratively went into the woods for a few years. When I decided to emerge I found I had discovered another world that I wanted to share with others,” she said. Zempel entered this mysterious world with guide books, and perhaps more importantly, with wonder. That wonder has opened an incredibly diverse world for all who know her.
She writes: “When we glimpse beyond the description in a book – we begin to see and share in a more intimate relationship with our surroundings. For instance, I’m 5 ‘ 2” and a half inches tall. I have sandy blond hair, blue eyes and weigh around 123 pounds … on a good day. Does this description encapsulate me as a living being? Not even close? Why should it be any different with plants?”
Nicole was writing of her thoughts on an obscure and lone wild onion plant she had come across in her prairie. What was this plant’s history? How did it evolve right there in the little piece of unplowed land? Was it a remnant of past generations? “The spiritually charged lands of the prairie are powerfully magical,” she concluded.
From the prairie she discovered fungi and “slime mold” — all among the many wonders offered in wood and prairie, and not just in what we call the “good months.” She suggested that if you crave a little color during the winter, then head to the woods. “Sometimes winter helps us to see what is right in front of us. The unseen becomes seen.”
Like many, her mushrooming began with morels, then she discovered an expanded universe of fungi, some so small they exist in a crevice of gnarly bark. All those many mushrooms, along with the non-mushroomy slime molds and lichens … minute details that takes both observation and wonder to discover. Those mushrooms have created from her wonder and delight numerous adventures in cuisines, amazing photographs, spore prints and other art, all of which has led to gallery hangings and numerous presentations. “When things feel dark, use it. Never stop creating!” Lemonade!
Zempel says she entered the woods seeing leafy canopies. “Not any more. For reasons unexplained, in this stillness there is a heightening of the senses. Ones ability to hear seems amplified. The scurrying of a squirrel can easily be mistaken for some forest giant, the snapping of a stick will let you know that you have company, you will hear the winged motion of an eagle flying just overhead,” she wrote. “Allow nature to play you a tune … your soul will lead.”
She writes of the eagles she sees, and of the increasingly mysteries of, well, slime mold. Mushrooms are a constant wonder. She was once stopped by a spider web seen in dewy prairie grasses … “once you do you take notice of their web weaving art.”
Then this: “The bald eagle reminds us of the long view. The tree, sturdy and strong, reminds us to allow the long view to delight upon us. The river reminds us of the last of which has passed and all that is yet to come.”
Often times the author of this wonderfully written and illustrated blog, Wild Roots MN., more closely resembles Aldo Leopold than of another fellow who went off into the woods for self-discovery, Henry David Thoreau, and she readily admits being influenced by Minnesota naturalist and writer, the late Sigrid Olson.
“In these quiet moments I wonder… who once walked right here? Did that person lay in the tall grasses and watch the clouds too? I close my eyes and I imagine the land – not as a remnant swath – but stretching as far as the eye can see. A time I’ve never known,” she writes, then adds, “Any day in the woods is a good day, but some are more exciting than others. I can think of few things in this life that bring me greater joy than a walk through the woods with the warmth of the sun at my back.”
Ah, just as sweet and aromatic as lemonade.
All we could see was a singular small white blob of white seemingly meshing in the middle of the “liquid” mass of brownish, grayish sandhill cranes. We were among a growing yet revolving group of birders pulled off on the shoulder along the paved highway south of the Crane Trust headquarters near Wood River, NE, and most, like us, had binoculars and long camera lenses trained on that small patch of white.
Small? Yes, for to the naked eye the white “spot” was roughly the size of a rounded head of a sewing pin. Through our binoculars or my 600 mm lens, the patch was about the size of a pencil eraser. Though surrounded by literally thousands of sandhills, coming and going, it was this one whooping crane that seemed to hold the most interest. This was especially true for my traveling companion, Mary Gafkjen.
Fortunately this wasn’t my first sighting of a whooping crane. Years ago an organic farmer friend who I had featured in a story for Money Magazine loaded me into his pickup to drive to the edge of a dry gulch on his San Luis Valley (CO) farm. Our goal was to sneak up on the sandhill cranes he had noticed in one of his fallow fields. “Don’t slam the door, and once we’re in the ditch it’s all hand signals,” warned Greg. “They’re really jumpy.”
The gulch was sandy, so we could creep along rather quietly toward the field, and after about a quarter mile through the canopy of overhanging cottonwood limbs, Greg signaled that we should lay against the edge to peek over the gulch bank. The sounds of the cranes were voluminous and rich, and there were hundreds of sandhills milling around. Much to our shocked surprise (and later celebration) was a singular whooping crane strutting around right in the middle of the flock. It stood out from the rest in both color and size. This was in the 1970s when whoopers were much closer to extinction then than now.
Whooping cranes are still incredibly rare. In the 1930s, due to hunting and habitat loss, the numbers were estimated in the 20s. When Greg and I saw the one in Colorado the estimate was about 70. Thanks to some innovative efforts that included adoptive incubation in sandhill nests, among other ideas, the numbers now range between 500 to 750 birds. However, their wintering in the coastal marshes of Texas, Louisiana and Florida are subject to hurricanes and other threats, including rising tidal waters due to global warming. A number were killed when Hurricane Harvey, with 132 mph winds, hit their Mustang Island wintering home within the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Hurricanes are still a major threat.
Back in December when we were talking about a midwinter road trip, Mary discovered the Aransas Refuge online, learning of their wintering area along the Gulf Coast of Texas near the small town of Rockport. Further research found a boating expedition into the depths of the Refuge specifically for birdwatchers. This meant those on board might have an excellent opportunity to possibly see whooping cranes up close on Mustang Island. We quickly booked a pair of seats on the launch as well as an Airbnb in Rockport.
In his introduction prior to pushing off for the three hour boat trip, the captain (who was also a naturalist) said there was an excellent chance of seeing whooping cranes, along with a vast number of other birds on the launch. He warned us, though, that we would likely be just close enough to the whooping cranes that they would appear the size of his small fingernail. “They’re now in pairs, and quite shy. We’ll try to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible,” he said. “We should have them here in the Refuge for another couple of months before they migrate northward. Tagging shows that most of those we see will migrate to Canada.”
Along the way and into the islands numerous bird species were pointed out by both the captain and sharp-eyed birders on board. I would mark several off my mental birder list including an oyster catcher. There were curlews and ibises, and terns and gulls — all too numerous to remember. Herons and other waders, too. Then we reached the first of the many islands of the Refuge, and it wasn’t long before the first sighting of a whooper pair was made. They were slightly closer than the singular one we had seen in Nebraska. Then came the surprise, and such incredible luck.
A pair were just off shore, slowly ambling along the potholes and brackish vegetation less than 100 yards distant. He slid the boat into the muck and cut the engine, making loud whispering descriptions of what we were witnessing. Using my 600 mm I was able to get some very nice closeup images of the birds as they ambled past us, stabbing at morsels at the edges of the pockets of water.
Once they had passed, he started the engine and slowly backed us out off the mud bank to move on further up toward the end of the island. Amazingly, the pair continued coming along, seemingly paying no attention to we onlookers until there was no island left. They stopped and turned toward us, appearing to chat between themselves. They might have been 35 yards away. As the birds communicated, I pulled back on my focal length, for I sensed they were about to fly. Then suddenly, in a heartbeat, they lifted into the sky and were gone.
As they circled away, our boat captain said in a full voice filled with wonder, “We were very, very lucky. It’s quite rare ever being this close to a pair. This was just incredible.” He took off his cap and smiled before starting the engine to back off the muck. As he did so those with cameras began looking through their digital images. Mary even had some good images on her cell phone, which indicates how close we had come. What a rare and special experience.
Unfortunately, with such low numbers, whooping cranes continue to face any number of threats as efforts continue to introduce them to new and different habitats such as fresh water rice areas further inland.
In a Bird Watching Magazine article by Matt Mendenhall, Wade Harrell, the whooping crane recovery coordinator at the Aransas refuge said, “Things could get tight in terms of habitat available on the coast. I would say that’s a rather conservative model in that our assumption behind it is that (the birds) continue to just use coastal marsh habitat. Historically, that’s really the only thing that we can model on going forward. But if we look at some of our other reintroduced populations, we see them using a wider variety of habitat types, including agricultural habitats. (For example,) the Louisiana birds are using rice agriculture pretty heavily.
“The best-case scenario is not only will they use coastal marsh but that they will spread into other habitat types farther inland. We’ve seen a little bit of that during drought periods.” During a recent drought, he noted, many cranes spent several months at Granger Lake in central Texas, showing that the birds can winter at a freshwater reservoir. “So, they certainly have a capacity and capability to use other types of habitats. It’s just a matter of will they as their population pushes beyond the marsh?”
What they face along the coastal marshes in terms of rising seas and possible hurricanes are not the only threats, he added. “I’m not complacent to the fact that we have great dangers with sea-level rise, with the threat of contamination from an industrial accident and from the tar sands developments in Alberta, which are just south of Wood Buffalo National Park, with hundreds of acres of poisoned lakes created by the effluent that the cranes could land in and that the fragile arctic ecosystem could be screwed up by.”
So, yes, the bird numbers have risen from near certain extinction to still under 1,000 birds — a rare species still on the edge of extinction. Our opportunity to not only see them in person, but to see them so close was a memory for life. We were quite blessed for this was indeed a rare and special experience.