Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Bruce Peninsula Part I: Intro

 *Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV* *Part V* *Part VI* *Part VII*
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 -