Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Wild and Wonderful Bruce Peninsula!

As mentioned in my recent posts since coming back from the blogging dead, I have more than enough topics to catch up on. The biggest one of all is my sensational week long trip up to Ontario's Bruce peninsula last early June. In fact, I was up there at exactly this time last year and figured what better time to reminisce than now? I have tons to share and have decided to break them up into a series of posts that will make them easier to digest and enjoy. I'll be sure to link each and every one at the top and bottom of each post for easy movement between them.

View from atop Cave Point on the Bruce's rugged eastern shoreline. 

This first post will set the table for the rest of the series and serve as a nice introduction. I first discovered the beauty of the Bruce peninsula, or 'the Bruce' as I'll come to call it from here on out, back in mid June 2011. I had an incredible time that only whetted my appetite for more with a promise to return sooner than later. I missed out on a number of plants I had the highest hopes of seeing and resolved to arrive earlier in the month to catch them all this time around. I certainly achieved that and so much more!

Location of the Bruce peninsula within the Great Lakes region (courtesy Google Maps)

When I mention the Bruce to most folks, their first question is usually where in the world is this place? The Bruce is an extension of the geologically significant Niagara Escarpment that helps separate Lake Huron's main body and the Georgian Bay on its southern end, as seen in the map above. The peninsula's southern end is comprised of a mostly flat landscape with some rolling hills and dominated by pasture and agriculture, while the more wild northern end is dominated by forest and countless wetlands. The Bruce provides southern Ontario with its largest remaining tracts of forest and natural habitat and contains two national parks and numerous nature reserves protecting priceless globally rare habitat.

Closer look at the Bruce and major areas of exploration during my trip marked on the map (Courtesy Google Maps)

The aforementioned Niagara Escarpment is a major geological player in the Great Lakes basin and forms the backbone of the peninsula. The escarpment's bedrock strata is comprised of dolomite limestone, much like my beloved Adams County, Ohio's prairie barrens, that is of Silurian Age in origin and laid down over 400 million years ago. Despite being thoroughly scraped and carved flat by glaciers over the millennia, the Niagara Escarpment has provided the Bruce with some stunning topography in its dramatic lakeside cliffs/bluffs, rugged shorelines, alvars, and waterfalls as you'll come to see.

Pit stop at a bog in SE Michigan to see the Dragon's Mouth orchid (Arethusa bulbosa)

The trip started with your narrator making the initial drive up to Detroit, Michigan to pick up good friend and fellow botanist/trip member, John Manion at the airport. John lives/works in Alabama and had it planned to join me for the rest of the drive up to the Bruce after flying in most of the way. It was a good thing he did, as our quick, albeit out of the way pit stop at a wonderful sphagnum bog near Ann Arbor produced a life plant for John in the mesmerizing dragon's mouth orchid (Arethusa bulbosa). It was a harbinger of amazing plants, places and things to come!

The Bruce Crew! L to R: Stefan Weber, Drew Monthie, Rob Routledge, John Manion, and your narrator

The rest of the crew met up at our lakeside cabin we'd rented for the week. All four other gentlemen were exceptional field botanists/naturalists and even better human beings! I can honestly say having the pleasure of experiencing the Bruce's splendor with all of them and the memories, laughter and camaraderie shared was second to none. Each one of us brought something unique and valuable to the table, but I must single out John's penchant for cooking as perhaps the best of all. We ate like royalty while up there and all pitched in to take his dish and meal ideas from paper to plate. I can't recall a better week of eating before or since. John, I'll never forget those honey drizzled, prosciutto-wrapped stuffed figs. Bliss!

One of our daily tributes to Jackie for being unable to join our trip due to a sudden knee injury

The only dark cloud to hang over our trip was the loss of our friend, Jackie. She was originally part of the Bruce Crew but suffered a fall and shattered her knee cap shortly before our departure that required surgery and lots of rest. Jackie is a dear, dear friend of mine whom you may recall has her own splendid blog, Saratoga Woods and Waterways. She's also graciously opened her home and favorite areas of upstate New York to me on two trips that I often still think about years later. Jackie was never far from our mind and we made sure she knew that by arranging her name in a variety of different items each day and sending her a get well email. My favorite was the one pictured above made of forget-me-not blossoms that abounded outside the cabin (no worries, it's a non-native species, so no harm done picking the plants!).

Our secluded cabin right on the Lake Huron shoreline nestled among the cedars, pine and spruce

I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to show off the location of our dreamy rented cabin. It resided in a secluded area on the western shorelines of the peninsula's northern end near Dorcas Bay. The interior was nicely furnished, comfy and quite spacious but nothing could beat the huge back deck and its phenomenal view. The surrounding coniferous woods and cobble shoreline was full of exciting flora and the morning serenade of warblers galore singing their hearts out outside my window is an alarm clock I'll never best or forget.

Keying out plants while drinking a beer was a favorite evening activity of mine

That gorgeous back deck saw lots of action with several nights of expert grilling by Rob; plenty of beer drinking and cigar smoking (at least for Rob and I); and provided a scenic spot to work out the day's unknown plants we collected/came across.

The Bruce Crew's combined naturalist library

Speaking of figuring unknown things out, our group was hardly in short supply of relevant literature and/or resources while up on the Bruce. Between the five of us, our combined library was impressive and came in handy. If anything, it provided a hands on chance to check out books I've yet to add to my naturalist bookshelf. In many cases, at least one of us already knew what most anything was others drew a blank on but with so many books it seemed like a lock we'd be able to nail down an ID on any mystery organism, no matter its place on the tree of life.

The adult sand hill crane is an obvious spot but can you find its little chick too?

The Bruce isn't just a botanist's dreamland but a birder's, too! I'm a casual birder at best most of the time with my attention usually fixated on the ground. It's easier to focus on plants and merely pay attention to the songs and calls filtering down from the canopy than actively seeking birds out with my binoculars. But I'd been a fool to not take advantage of the returned neo-tropical migrants and northern species rarely seen/heard in Ohio while up in Ontario. The highlight for me was stopping along a grassy meadow to observe a pair of sand hill cranes, only to realize they had two chicks with them! That was a new experience for me! Can you find the chick in the photo above?

Lake Huron sunset from the back deck of our cabin. Not too shabby, eh?

I know this wasn't the most exciting or captivating of posts but rest assured the next half dozen or so to follow will more than show just how unique and majestic a place the Bruce genuinely is. It's one of eastern North America's best kept secrets but certainly famous and popular with those who know and experienced its beauty. I hope you'll stay tuned and come back as I reminisce on one of the most fun and rewarding weeks of my life. Thanks for stopping by!

- ALG -

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Flashback to Fall in the Dolly Sods Wilderness

Dolly Sods is so nice why not visit it twice? As promised, I'm back to share some photos from my backpacking trip to eastern West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness and Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area last fall. Your narrator had every intention of getting this out last October but it just never happened. So as I usually say on here: better late than never! I hope you enjoyed following along with Kara and I's trip to the same spots this past Memorial Day weekend in my previous post. If you missed it, I encourage you to go back and check it out for a depth of detail and history on this fascinating landscape. This time around I'll let my photos do most of the talking and just caption each one with a brief description. With that being said, I hope you enjoy this photo gallery of one of the eastern United States' most stunning locations to see autumn's glory at its peak.

* Remember to click on each photo to see it larger and in higher resolution! *

The wind-swept heath barrens and boulder fields of Dolly Sods' high plateau come alive in the most vivid of ways
come autumn when the chokeberry, blueberries and huckleberries are at their most scarlet!

Blackwater Falls State Park is an absolute must when in the area regardless of the time of year.
However, fall is especially nice when the gorge is spotted with the orange and gold colors
 of changing maples and birch trees.

Blackwater Falls from the other side of the gorge. The red maple at
peak autumn glory was an especially awesome touch!
Closer look at Blackwater Falls and its red maple. Definitely
one of the more stunning views of the entire trip!

Rolling forested mountains in peak fall foliage that go on and on and on.....

There's a special color of blue reserved for the autumn skies. I assume it's a matter of the sun's angle in
the sky combined with low humidity but whatever it is, it's always spectacular. Especially when above
such a setting as Dolly Sod's heath barrens.

I could never get tired of this landscape and its ephemeral beauty this time of the year.

Ripened cranberries (Oxycoccus sp.) abound in the boggy muskegs.
Stiff clubmoss (Spinulum annotinum) and its spore-bearing strobili. 

The Sods' tundra-like plateau is covered in boggy wetlands known as muskegs that harbor a whole wealth
of disjunct northern flora. Most everything had bloomed and set to seed long ago with only the white tuffs of
tawny cotton-sedge (Eriophorum virginicum) and ruby red pockets of sphagnum moss adding much to the scene.

However, with some careful searching there was still some of the conspicuous
narrow-leaved gentian (Gentiana linearis) blooming out in the muskeg meadows.
This was a life plant for me and one I was extremely satisfied to find still blooming!

Northern bog clubmoss (Lycopodiella inundata)
spore-bearing strobili hanging above its
sphagnum mat home.
Zoomed out view of the bog clubmoss and its
trailing vegetative stems with vertical strobili.
Such neat plants!

Phenomenal peak foliage under a perfect blue sky on the eastern edge of the Dolly Sods plateau. This view faces north
towards famed Bear Rocks of the wilderness area.

Dolly Sods showing off as if it were the Fourth of July.

The upper reaches of Red Creek on the northern end of the plateau. This small stream quickly grows in size as it
drains the entire Dolly Sods plateau and flows into a deep gorge at the southern end. 

Looking southeast over the mountain ridges and their corresponding valleys from the Bear Rocks area in the
golden light of early evening. Sort of makes you feel like you're on top of the world.

The golden light of the evening soon turned into a spectacular sunset with low light bouncing off the mountains.
This was easily one of my favorite captures of the entire weekend. Such incredible scenery.

A classic Dolly Sods sunset behind a pair of red spruce out on the heath barrens and boulder fields of Bear Rocks.

Clear cold nights and no light pollution made for some spectacular
star watching. The streaks of the Milky Way were easily visible as well.
If you  click on these night time exposures and view them in a larger format
 you can see the Milky Way even better and in higher resolution.

My friend, Tanner and I awoke early our last morning there to watch the sun rise above the Virginia mountains from
atop Bear Rocks. It was windy and freezing cold but nothing could keep us from enjoying one of the most
spectacular views in my entire life!

The fog-filled valleys and intense colors were awe-inspiring to say the least. I'll never forget this experience.

Champe Rocks emerging from the fog and mist, ensconced in autumn's finest.

Famed Seneca Rocks rocketing nearly 900 feet above the valley floor. The previous Champe Rocks photo and
 this and the next ones of Seneca Rocks were taken in 2014 but deserve their place in this post since we
 drove past these very places in the same foliage conditions but with intense light in the wrong places, 
making for poor photography conditions.

The entrance to another world through which a small stream flows at Seneca Rocks.

Tawny cotton-sedge (Eriophorum virginicum) filled bog meadow along the margins of Spruce Knob Lake.

I know I used this photo and view in my last post but I had to use it again from the actual trip it occurred on.
This view from atop Spruce Knob, West Virginia's tallest peak at nearly 4,900' was taken October 11th and while
the rest of the region was at peak foliage, here already looked like winter.

Our trip ended as it began with perfect fall foliage and clear blue skies. We took
the long way home through the Gandy Creek valley on the backside of Spruce Knob and
could not have enjoyed the bumpy gravel road drive more.

Needless to say, the foliage and weather cooperated perfectly for last fall's trip. It was easily one of the most photogenic weekend's of my life and I'd put even more photos in this post if it wasn't packed with them already. If you haven't taken the hint yet and need to have it spelled out for you: go visit Dolly Sods already! I don't know what else could be holding you back if you live within a day's drive. Hopefully these last two posts have proven just how special and magical a place it genuinely is. Spring, summer, fall or winter, you have to experience the Sods!

- ALG -

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Memorial Day Weekend in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia

The Buckeye Botanist lives! It's been an absurd amount of time since I was last active on here and for that I apologize. I could go into any number of reasons or excuses but suffice it to say life gets hectic and busy. As usual, I have more than enough topics and adventures to share on here and have a long back log going all the way back to this time last year to catch up on. But there's no better time than the present and with a phenomenal long Memorial Day weekend in the rear view mirror, I find it best to go ahead and reminisce on it now with the details fresh in my memory.

Flame azalea in full, spectacular bloom in rural West Virginia 

My partner Kara and I have different work schedules and don't have weekends that coincide entirely with one another very often. Memorial Day weekend is the rare one that allows us to get out together and we took full advantage this year with an adventure to the wonderment that is the Dolly Sods Wilderness in eastern West Virginia. If it sounds familiar, I posted on its fall splendor a couple years ago. In fact, I loved it so much I went back with a good friend of mine last fall and still need to do a post on that trip some time in the future, but one thing at a time.

Misty mountains in the Dry Fork of the Cheat River valley

Kara had never been to Dolly Sods before but heard me gush over its beauty countless times so it was an easy sell as a destination. We couldn't have had more fun even if the weather didn't fully cooperate. We saw a lot of the region's other natural attractions and highlights, too as you'll see coming up. Kara came away more than impressed and excited to return to dive even deeper into the region's splendor and wonder.

The nearly four hour drive down was more than scenic on its own with spectacular mountain and valley views, along with fantastic spring wildflowers still hanging on at higher elevations. It was especially nice to see favorites like rose-shell azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) and umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) doing their thing along rural forested roadsides.

Blackwater Falls, a scenic waterfall outside the small village of Davis and the Canaan Valley

Not far from Dolly Sods is famed Blackwater Falls State Park, and a must-visit when in the area. The falls was easily audible from the parking lot and had a much higher volume of water than my previous viewing last fall. Between Blackwater Falls and Dolly is Canaan Valley: the largest high-elevation valley in the eastern United States. The valley itself is covered in extensive wetlands and streams, and all come together as the Blackwater River that drains the valley through this falls.

Lindy Point overlooking the dramatic Blackwater River gorge downstream from the falls

After flowing over the falls, the Blackwater River cuts an ancient course through a dramatic gorge with some incredible views from the rim. This particular view from the Lindy Point overlook is exceptionally popular for its sunsets and unbeatable view west down the valley. A handful of miles downstream from Lindy Point the Blackwater River empties into the Cheat River, which flows north as a major tributary to the Monongahela. This of course combines with the Allegheny at Pittsburgh to create the Ohio River. It's fun to think that the same water flowing over Blackwater Falls eventually flows past me as I look out across the Ohio River from my beloved Adams County in Ohio.

Red Creek as it flows down from Dolly Sods high plateau

The Dolly Sods plateau is likewise drained by a single watershed in Red Creek. Red Creek quickly cuts itself into its own deep, impressive gorge on the south end of Dolly Sods before flowing into the Dry Fork of the Cheat River. I love seeing waterways in their wild form; rocky and swift. No dams or taming oxbows when this high up in the mountains and away from their lazy lower stretches.

View across the Allegheny Mountains from Bear Rocks atop Dolly Sods' high plateau

Dolly Sods Wilderness is located within the immense Monongahela National Forest and is one of the state's most iconic and well-known natural treasures. It sits atop a high plateau on an escarpment known as the Allegheny Front, which acts to separate the Appalachian Plateau and the Ridge and Valley physiographic regions. The plateau rises some 2,700 to 4,000 feet above sea level in the Dolly Sods area and creates some of the most charismatic landscapes in the state. Wind-swept boulder fields, heath barrens, stunted trees, ancient sphagnum bogs and an association of disjunct northern flora and fauna all merge together to make Dolly Sods as diverse as it is distinct.

Residing at a high elevation combined with sitting on an exposed escarpment, Dolly Sods gets more than its fair share of intense and inclement weather. Rain, sunshine, snow and fog can all happen at a moment's notice and often in fast-shifting combinations. The wind adds another layer of atmospheric complexity to the landscape and never, ever seems to stop blowing. In fact, the Allegheny Front is said to be one of the most consistently windy places east of the Mississippi.

Kara enjoying the view east across the rolling mountains ridges and deep valleys

Spring is late to arrive at such a high elevation and harsh climate. The landscape still looked somewhat winter-like in the Bear Rocks boulder fields and heath barrens but for the deciduous trees beginning to leaf out and early blooming shrubs just putting forth their first flowers. Kara was instantly dazzled by the view out across the Allegheny Mountains towards Virginia from atop the plateau's eastern edge. I told her to wait until she visited during peak fall foliage; it's on a whole other level!

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
Minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa)

The harsh, highly acidic nature of the plateau's landscape makes it a haven for hardy, cold-tolerant shrubs from the heath family (Ericaceae). A quick five minute walk around can reward the astute observer with well over a dozen ericaceous species such as lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), velvet-leaved blueberry (V. myrtilloides), azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) and cranberries (Oxycoccus spp.). The most exciting denizen of the heath barrens for this botanist is the Appalachian endemic minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa). Its foliage is reminiscent of the deciduous azaleas but its flowers a unique yellowish-orange bell like that of a blueberry.

Open rocky heath barrens and pockets of spruce forest atop Dolly Sods' plateau

Dolly Sod's plateau was formally an extensive old-growth red spruce forest dotted with cranberry sphagnum bogs, heath barrens and rhododendron/laurel thickets rather than the much more open landscape it is today. Intense logging through the 19th and into the early 20th century removed just about all of the spruce forest and burning practices kept the newly-opened areas as grassy meadows used for grazing. Over the decades much of the northern hardwoods forest has returned with species like red oak, beech, sugar maple, basswood, yellow and black birch, cucumber magnolia, and hemlock prevalent throughout. Red spruce has come back in scattered spots but not even close to its former grandeur. I can only imagine what that magnificent spruce forest must have been like with specimens five plus feet in diameter and nearing 100 feet tall. It's been said the primeval red spruce forest of the upper Red Creek valley (modern-day Dolly Sods) was the finest of its kind in the world.

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)
Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

Before heading out for our weekend of camping and exploration, I held onto the slimmest of hopes some of the elusive painted trillium (Trillium undulatum) would still be in good shape. While the vast majority I found had already replaced their flowers for a maturing fruit capsule, a few were in prime photogenic shape and the best botanical find of the weekend. This species is excruciatingly rare in Ohio and one I've laid eyes on precious few times, so every encounter is met with ineffable joy. Kara can attest I practically skipped the whole way back after discovering these treasured beauties.

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)

Another Ohio rarity that calls Dolly Sods home is the adorable bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). This creeping woody sub-shrub is predominately a species of the Great Lakes region and Northeast but occurs at high elevations in the Appalachians and sporadically out in the Rockies. Here in West Virginia it's at its southernmost distribution in the east, a relic of the last glacial epoch that brought it this far south.

The sights from atop Dolly Sods never get old no matter how the season or how many times you see them

Our weekend started off sunny but was overcast and eventually rainy for the second half. Fortunately, Kara got to see the vista views before the rain and fog set in and shrouded the landscape in mystery. My first time at Dolly was in a steady rain and pea soup fog, making views anything more than a hundred feet or so in front of me non-existent.

Wild Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra eximia)

If it weren't for the aforementioned painted trillium, the surprise discovery of wild bleeding hearts (Dicentra eximia) in excellent flower would have taken the botanical cake. Many may recognize this plant as something you see in the garden and/or landscape setting but is actually an indigenous species to the Appalachians. It's rather uncommon throughout its limited range and most prevalent in the Virginias. It was a life plant for me and a beyond exciting find. Best of all is the fact that Kara is the one who saw it! She called me over to see a "really neat pink flower we hadn't seen yet", which made me ponder what it could be, as this wasn't on my radar for this trip. It was nestled in a mossy crevice between boulders and an impressive spot by her. I think she's developing quite the sharp eye for plants!

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

A short time later it was my turn to point out a thrilling pink flower in the pink lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule). We ended up seeing quite a few over the weekend and it was quite rewarding to share a beloved orchid of mine with Kara that she'd only seen in my pictures. Her first impression of it was the kind of flower Georgia O'Keeffe would have enjoyed painting. I wouldn't disagree!

This past winter I got really into the mosses and have only grown to love them more and more. I plan to do a fun post on the topic at some point, sharing the great diversity of species I've come across so far. One that really grabbed my attention while at the Sods this weekend was the scads of knight's plume moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis) all over the pace. It's an extirpated species in Ohio but a common moss in the northern boreal forests and high elevations further south. I'm sure to have seen it before but never knew its name, let alone noticed so this time around I was able to properly make its acquaintance and put it on my life list.

Looking out over a large expanse of muskeg atop the Dolly Sods plateau

It wouldn't have been a proper trip to the Sods without a bit of exploring the plateau's extensive muskeg complexes. The bog landscape is even slower to wake up from its winter slumber and still had a deadened look to it. However, it won't be much longer before it greens up and its summer time flora comes alive and paints the saturated sphagnum with color.

Few-flowered Sedge (Carex pauciflora)
Sphagnum moss with spore capsules

The few signs of life within the muskeg were emerging sedges, including the rare and extremely disjunct few-flowered sedge (Carex pauciflora). It's almost solely a species of the northern peat lands but for this small area of eastern West Virginia hundreds of miles to the south. Yet another example of a glacial relic perched atop these special bog-laden mountains. Despite most all the other sedges barely starting to bloom, the few-flowered sedge was already showing maturing perigynia.

The ever famous and impressive Seneca Rocks

As our weekend at Dolly came to a close, I decided to take a long, scenic way back to catch a few other places I wanted Kara to see and experience. First up was a quick stop at the ever-impressive Seneca Rocks not far to the south from the Sods. Had there not been rain on the horizon or us already exhausted after a long weekend of hiking and exploration, I would have convinced her to make the hike to the top for an unforgettable view. There's always next time!

Your blogger atop Spruce Knob last fall

We continued on from Seneca Rocks and made the long, winding trek up to Spruce Knob, West Virginia's highest point at nearly 4,900' above sea level. The weather conspired against us and by the time we reached the summit the clouds, rain and fog had moved in making any extended views impossible. So while we struck out, I'll save face by sharing a photo of your narrator atop Spruce Knob from my visit last autumn. Definitely an alpine feel, at least for being in the East!

We ended our tour of the region on a misty scenic drive down the backside of the mountain into the Gandy Creek valley, following it 20 some miles on a gravel road back to the main highway. I asked if Kara was impressed and would ever come back with me and she responded with a resounding, "Yes!". Music to my ears as I could come back to this area of eastern West Virginia time after time and never grow tired or weary of its charm and unbelievable scenery. I'm already planning a return trip later this summer and again in the autumn. Speaking of autumn, I'll have to post on that trip sometime in the future. It's well worth my time writing and your time reading! I certainly hope to get back in the spirit of blogging more often and sincerely thank all my valued readers for your patience and understanding!

- ALG -