Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

Elephant Face Off

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Thursday, September 6th, 2012
Elephant's Head wildflowers

Elephant’s Head © Lisa Densmore

Elephant Face Off by Lisa Densmore

Location: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana

Have you ever faced down two dozen elephant’s with a single stare? I did, and I wasn’t on an African safari. I was backpacking in the Beartooth Mountains in the expansive alpine area near Moon Lake. Among the garden of alpine gentian, buttercups and laurel, I found a wildflower that looked like short, pink lupine from afar. Upon closer inspection, I found a stalk of miniature elephants looking back at me. It was sure obvious why this pretty alpine flower is called Elephant’s head! Each flower bears an uncanny resemblance to the head of an alert pachyderm with its trunk raised and its ears flared.

Elephant’s head (Pedicularis groenlandica) is a type of lousewort which is part of the figwort family. While “groenlandica” in its scientific name refers to Greenland, the plant is not native there. Scientists believe it was first discovered in Labrador. Today, it can be found in the damp alpine, subalpine and montane regions of western North America.

Elephant’s Head likes wild, wet meadows. Though mid-summer and during a severe drought in Montana, the area where I hiked was above 10,000 feet. Huge patches of snow still melted into the small tarns that dotted the area. True to form, the Elephant’s Head was amidst other alpine wildflowers as it is partially parasitic on the roots of its neighbors. If you tried to transplant it, it would likely die.

Elephant’s Head has fern-like leaves that grow in a clump at the base of its stem and then sporadically to the flower. It can reach 20 inches tall in the right conditions, though the more severe the environment, the shorter it grows. The tallest ones I saw in the Beartooths poked a mere four inches above the earth.

Have you seen any wildflowers that resemble something else? This is the first one for me.

The Trek for Sheep Laurel

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Friday, July 20th, 2012

The Trek for Sheep Laurel by Lisa Densmore

One of my early summer delights is spotting a patch of Sheep Laurel (kalmia angustifolia) on a mountain when its showy pink flowers are blooming. Last weekend, I found some while hiking with my family up Catamount, just north of Whiteface Mountain, in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. I’ve always loved the hike up Catamount. Though I put it in my guidebook, Hiking the Adirondacks (FalconGuides, 2010), it remains off most hikers’ radar because it’s summit elevation is under 4,000 feet. I don’t mind having the route to myself. It’s an entertaining climb with lots of rock slab to traverse and many rock chimneys to scramble up and down. Now I love it even more upon discovering one of my favorite wildflowers near its top.

Sheep Laurel Trees

Sheep Laurel © Lisa Densmore Location: Catamount Mountain, Adirondacks, NY

Sheep Laurel is technically a flowering 3-foot tall boreal shrub. It’s native to eastern North America from Ontario and Quebec south to Virginia. Though it has narrow green leaves rather than needles, it is evergreen similar to its relative Mountain Laurel and to Rhododendron.

Its 3/8-inch pink cupped flowers are bee and butterfly attractors. When blooming, its flowers grown in clusters below the end of each stem, making the plant look like it fell out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of it, but only to look at it. Most of the plant contains andromedotoxin. Sheep Laurel has been known to kill both wild and domestic grazers, hence its nicknames, lambkill, sheepkill, calfkill, pig laurel and sheep poison. Don’t worry. I do not have plans to eat it.

Lewis Monkeyflower

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Wednesday, May 9th, 2012
Wildflowers

Lewis Monkeyflower or Pink Monkeyflower by Lisa Densmore

Location: Sylvan Lake, Montana

I was looking through some photos from a hike I did two summers ago to Sylvan Lake, a remote mountain tarn in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. It was a 5-mile hike to the lake where I caught my first Golden Trout. The journey proved as colorful as the goal. The entire mountainside was abloom with wildflowers. It took an extra two hours to get to the lake because of all the photographs I took. One of the showiest trailside species was this Lewis Monkeyflower (Mimulus lewisii).

Also known as a Pink Monkeyflower or a Great Purple Monkeyflower, these vibrant perennials common to mountainous wetlands in the Sierra Nevadas, northern and central Rockies and western Canada were first recorded in 1805 at Lemhi Pass, Montana during the famed Lewis and Clark expedition. Meriwether Lewis did not name the plant. It was named after him about 10 years later by Frederick Pursh, the botanist who identified most of the plant species the expedition discovered.

I’ve always found this flower’s name, monkeyflower, to be curious considering there are no monkeys in North America. It’s Latin genus, “Mimulus”, comes from its five petals which resemble the lips of a grinning mime. Its common name, “monkeyflower”, may be because Lewis or Pursh though it looked like the smiling lips of a monkey.

Of the 100 plus species of monkeyflowers, 70% are native to California and are either tender annuals or bright yellow. Lewis Monkeyflowers are easy to recognize due to their large pink blooms that come back year after year.

I’ve since come across Lewis Monkeyflowers on backcountry camping trips in Montana’s Crazy Mountains and in Banff National Park. They are among my favorite wildflowers. Though it’s barely the first week of spring, I’m looking forward to this summer and seeing more of these lovely blooms when hiking near backcountry lakes and streams. Do you have a particular wildflower that you can’t wait to see?

Bringing Nature Indoors

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Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
Trees Foliage Nature

Fall in Michigan by Josh Haas

We all have amazing stories creating by simply being outside. For some it’s the family trips each summer, for others it’s seeing their first Pileated Woodpecker on a bird hike. Regardless of our different connections, having reminders every day of these connections can often relieve daily stresses and bring us back to times that have helped shape our existence.

One way to bring these memories inside is to hang imagery on walls either at home or the office that offer constant reminders of the connections that really make us happy. Most of our readers probably know that for me, the connections are “bird” heavy and many of the images in my offices are my bird photographs. It’s not just pictures of birds; however, the stories behind the images are what come to mind every day. In Michigan, a popular family destination is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The numbers of folks that come in our Michigan Art Show booths each year consistently connect with our Sleeping Bear imagery and those that take pieces home are sure to be reminded of those family trips for years to come.

Bald Eagle Trees

Bald Eagle by Josh Haas

Think back to some of the hikes and trips you’ve been on and look back at some of the photography you’ve taken on hikes and trips. Maybe it’s time to get some of those images printed and put on the walls to remind you of your journeys taken throughout the years. One tip when printing and framing is to first think about the frame and/or mat you might put with the image. Always make sure to size your prints right to fit in a specific frame. Matting and framing is like anything else, the sky is the limit. It can get quite expensive but a trip to your local frame shop may be worthwhile. Many stores also offer standard frames that include mats. Many times, these kits are user friendly so don’t be afraid to try them. The goal is to get some work on the walls you see every day to continue connecting with nature, even indoors.

Morning Stroll

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Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Black-and-white Warbler by Rosemary Allen

I took a stroll last week past an oak hammock, down towards the edge where the willows meet the pond cypress swamp, near my home in SW Florida. While the lone Wood Stork flew overhead and Turkey Vultures rode the thermals, I walked through the still bare-leafed cypresses laden with their catkins full of pollen and their smaller female cones ready to receive. The pollen fluff from the willows greeted me first while warblers flitted and called, eating as they jumped, flew or crawled from branch to branch. I stood among stands of tall coastal plain willows mixed with Red Maples, dahoon holly and wax myrtle, the result of a wet prairie evolving into woodland after years of no fire.

Black-and-white Warbler by Rosemary Allen

There were more than enough clouds of gnats, swarms of flies and assorted larvae to feed this hungry flock of mixed songbirds. Finding my spot and being careful to avoid the fire ant piles, I sat and watched the Black-and-white Warbler work the willows. This bird appears to be very successful at finding food between the furrows of the bark, along stems, and under leaves with ceaseless movement. Just as quickly as he appears into my view in front of the willow trunk, he disappears behind. And for just a moment I have an opportunity to look at him straight on. I waited patiently for him to reappear but this time it was near the base of the small shrub. Now, this bird was hammering into the bark. For a fleeting second I wondered if he had learned this skill from the woodpeckers he hung out with and then, of course, I realized this was the woodpecker he was hanging out with, a Downy Woodpecker to be precise. Often when I am birding I only have a chance to glance at the head , back or wing, so I have learned to catch on to some identifiable characteristics. Both are bark foragers but in this instance the giveaway was the behavior. The warbler is more like a vacuum cleaner, hopping and creeping with his tail held up; the downy is more like a pneumatic drill sitting back on his tail. But they look so similar with their small size and their black and white coloring! Both of their heads are striped but there is a white stripe on the Downy’s back and the belly is white, not striped. The absence of a red patch on the head identifies it as a female. The warbler’s strong contrasting black and white stripes with the white eye stripe and white wing bars identify it as a male. And as I looked closely at their beaks, the warbler’s was thinner when compared to the chiseled beak of the woodpecker. Although identifying them at last gave me satisfaction; their behavior was far more interesting to observe.

Downy Woodpecker by Rosemary Allen

When I first arrived 12 years ago, this land was still a wet prairie and the wading birds were the ones to see here with flocks of Roseate Spoonbills, egrets, herons and ibis. For the time being, the songbirds and woodpeckers are the stars of the show filling their bellies and of course, the hawks and eagles are close behind waiting to fill theirs.

Downy Woodpecker by Rosemary Allen

Solomon’s Seal

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Friday, February 24th, 2012

Solomon’s Seal by Lisa Densmore

Location: Yellowstone National Park, WY

For Christmas I gave my sweetheart a set of all four Indiana Jones movies. We watched the first one last night in which Indy found the Arc of the Covenant, the Holy Arc that held the 10 Commandments. In the movie, the last known location of the arc prior to Indiana figuring out it’s desert resting place was King Solomon’s temple in ancient Jerusalem. In the midst of the holidays and with the movie’s reference to King Solomon, I thought of a plant that combines a little of both, Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum commutatum). The plant and the ancient Hebrew king share the same name, and the plant’s scarlet berries seem Christmas-like, though I found the one in this picture on Labor Day while backpacking in Yellowstone National Park.

Smooth Soloman's Seal

Perhaps Solomon’s Seal is more closely related to Easter, as it is in the lily family. This woodland perennial grows two to three feet tall. Its elongated four to six-inch leaves grow to either side of a single stem, which often bends in a graceful arch as it gets longer. Its small white or pale yellow flowers hang below each leaf. The flowers last about three weeks in the late spring, then give way to berries that turn from green to red (shown in the first photo) and finally to a blue-purple.

Starry False Solomon's Seal © Gerald & Buff Corsi, Focus on Nature, Inc.

Like other lilies, Solomon’s Seal forms colonies, spreading from its rhizomes as well as from its seeds. It thrives in light shade and fertile, loamy soil. Though its flowers aren’t particularly showy, bumblebees and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are attracted to them for their nectar. Whitetail deer gladly browse the foliage, and various upland birds and grizzly bears eat the berries. But you would be wise like King Solomon to munch on nearby huckleberries, raspberries or thimbleberries, as Solomon’s Seal berries are poisonous to people.

The Cold Light of Dawn

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Thursday, December 29th, 2011

There are few things that lure me from the warmth of home to view the sunrise outdoors at this time of year. I might greet the dawn after arising early for a late-season deer hunt. To be among the first in the lift line at the local ski area, the wheels on my car need to be turning about the time the tired sun heaves itself above the eastern horizon. It’s not that I don’t relish the dawn. Sunrise, here in the mountains of Montana in winter, is just too cold.

But paradoxically, the coldest mornings seem to spawn the most beautiful daybreaks. The eastern sky lightens from inky black to a dull gray, and then brightens into bashful hues of amber and coral. Faraway mountaintops, mantled in a colorless blanket of white, appear pink and lovely in the first rays of dawn, seemingly closer and warmer in the clarion cold.

I’m sure there’s an explanation for all this, a scientific statement that empirically elucidates the processes by which my watering eyes perceive such beauty in the cold light of dawn. But my heart is warmed more thoroughly by the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, there was something deliberately woven into the fabric of cosmos that inspires the human eye to find much loveliness in the world’s harshest environments.

Treasure Hunting on Two Wheels

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Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

There isn’t a kid around that doesn’t dream of being on a treasure hunt. In this day and age, there is kind of treasure hunt where kids of all ages can get outside and enjoy the search for items with possibly a bit less value.

Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. When geocaching started, it was necessary to have some sort of handheld GPS. With printed sheets containing coordinates for different caches and the GPS in hand, people could go in search of these caches for the shear fun of it. While older GPS technology was cumbersome and not as accurate, the thought of a modern day treasure hunt still caught on. With today’s smartphones containing GPS technology, it’s even easier to go geocaching. On a recent trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we made sure my iPhone had the geocaching app which meant no pre-work before leaving on the trip and better yet, no printed sheets. Everything is built in and uses location technology running on the phone. To make things interesting, we also decided to find all geocaches by tandem bike.

Simply opening the app and searching for nearby caches, within seconds we had a list to chase. First on the list, a cache called “Rainbow Trail.” It would end up being about a 5-mile bike ride, followed by a ¼ mile hike. Riding moderately hilly but smooth roads, we followed the running map on the iPhone app to get as close as possible by bike. After locking up the tandem, we followed the map by foot to a point where we were very close. We started searching spots in the forest where little boxes could be hidden. After a short search, we found it! In this case, it was a small plastic container inside a hollow tree stump. In true geocaching style, finders can leave a trinket, take a trinket and also make sure to sign the log book. After signing the book and placing the container back, we were able to update our status in the app to show we found it as well as post a picture on the fly (see picture above, bottom left). After “high-fives” and “woo-hoos” for what we accomplished, we hiked back to the bike. At the end of a return 5-mile ride to the cabin, our first geocaching adventure for the trip was over. All in all, we found 6 different caches that week and all 6 were found by bike. Who would’ve thought something involving so much technology would get us outside participating in several outdoor activities.

Columbian Ground Squirrel

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Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Location: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Two weeks ago, while backpacking in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, a flash of grizzle-gray fur caught my eye. I was hiking across a long broad meadow filled with paintbrush, alpine daisies and other wildflowers, staring down as much to concentrate on the path as to check out the blossoms when I saw the movement. A Columbian ground squirrel (Spermophilus columbianus) scurried across the path about 20 feet ahead of me. It paused just long enough for me to take one photograph before it zipped down its hole. I’ve seen lots of squirrels in my backcountry wanderings, but never one quite this big nor this color. Its body was 10 inches long, with red-orange fur above its nose, legs and belly and a white-tipped tail.

Columbian ground squirrels inhabit a modest geographic area though they are common within that area. They live mainly in the Canadian Rockies along the Alberta-British Columbia border, Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington and Oregon. Sometimes called “red diggers”, they are avid burrowers.

The obvious hole in this photo does not likely contain young. Nesting holes are well camouflaged and plugged at night. A typical red digger will expand its tunnels up to 13 feet annually, impressive considering these portly squirrels are only truly active about three months per year during which time they must also stash winter food – they eat flowers, berries, nuts and insects – and raise their young.

A highly social species, Columbian ground squirrels greet each other by “kissing”. That would have been fun to see, but this fellow apparently didn’t have any friends nearby. He wasn’t too concerned about me either. If he felt threatened he would have chirped loudly to warn the rest of his warren.

Mud Season

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Monday, April 25th, 2011


Location: Hanover, New Hampshire
I made a delightful discovery a week ago. While walking from my condo into town, I passed a sign for the “Angelo Tanzi Natural Area” on a tree just off the road. Curious, I walked past the sign down a muddy dirt road, which soon became a trail leading to Mink Brook. The brook flows through the much larger Mink Brook Nature Preserve.
Mink Brook swelled with early spring run-off. The footing was surprisingly good, mainly on old corn snow. Mink Brook is in a sheltered, heavily treed valley which doesn’t receive much direct sunshine this time of the year, so the area around it is a little slower to melt out. I regretted not wearing something higher than my below-the-ankle hiking shoes, but at least they had Gore-tex in them. I plowed ahead, excited to find an access to Mink Brook though perhaps exploring my favorite trails in this local conservation area wasn’t my driest move during mud season.
Mud season, that period between late winter when the world is still frozen, and late spring, when the trees have leafed out and the forest floor dries out, is certainly messy. The snow melts, and the rain showers down, but the still-frozen sublayer of the ground prevents the run-off from soaking into the soil. The streams overflow their banks. The ground becomes saturated and many low-lying areas flood. This isn’t all bad. Flooding is one of nature’s mechanisms for flushing impurities and for spreading nourishment.
Yesterday, while walking to town, I looked longingly at the Tanzi trailhead again. Things had changed dramatically in a week. The snow was gone. The mud was much deeper, and there were large pools of standing water in the woods. I reminded myself that tromping on a hiking trail, not just here but any hiking trail, was not healthy for me or the trails at the moment. If I managed to stay upright on the slick mud, and keep both shoes on (don’t laugh; I’ve walked out of them before), my steps could damage the path. Trails are most susceptible to erosion before Memorial Day, at least in northern New England. But I’ll keep watch. As soon as the woods dry out, I’ll be back by Mink Brook.