Travel through a fog

A year before our road trip across the US and Canada, we started selecting destinations that we really wanted to see as we worked our way from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Bet you’d be surprised that little Amherst Island in Lake Ontario made our final list. It’s an excellent location to see birds, particularly raptors and owls in the winter.

This destination required a lot of preparation ahead of time: researching birds we might see, consulting the ferry schedule; downloading a map of the island with specific instructions of where to look for birds as we drove around the island; packing bird book, binoculars, and snacks as there is no place to buy food on the island.

The night before we had decided to get an early start (as birds would be up with the first light), but, when the alarm went off, we struggled to get out of bed and ready to go.  As we opened the motel room door, we stepped into a thick fog.  What a surprise!  Our immediate second thought: how could we watch birds in the fog?

By the time we got to the ferry dock the sun was up, but the fog stubbornly hung on.

We reasoned that by the time the ferry crossed the water and landed on Amherst Island, the fog would certainly have lifted.

A half hour later as we drove down our first road on the island, this was our view. We could hear birds, but, except for a few in tall grasses literally at the roadside, we couldn’t see any.

When the fog finally started to lift, moisture hung on the spider webs, creating a sparkly effect.

Birds started to appear, though not always as clearly as we would have liked.  Out of the last haze we saw a very large white bird swoop over the car and not long after a gull came by, much smaller in comparison.  We later found out we were in the area where one juvenile snowy owl has been hanging out – so maybe that’s what we saw?

Our last stop of the day was saved for the best place to see owls on Amherst Island.  The road there had a caution sign posted. A local woman had warned us the dirt road was not in good shape so we parked off the main road and walked in.

Several cedar waxwings settled on a nearby tree, and then we spotted a bronze-hued leopard frog sitting not far from a puddle.

At last, we arrived at the Owl Woods Nature Reserve.  No one else was there.  We heard a few birds calling so we walked slowly, while we carefully scanned the tree branches overhead for an owl.

It’s never been our talent and only on rare occasions have we seen an owl without someone else pointing it out.  No matter how hard we looked, we saw not a one.  However, some black-capped chickadees flew along with us.  We knew it wasn’t to console us though.  They hoped we might have brought some seed for them (a common practice of walkers we discovered in this part of Ontario).

At the end of the day, we took the ferry back across to the mainland and tallied the number of bird species we’d seen that day.  It was better than we expected, given the very slow start in the morning due to the fog.

Even though we didn’t have any interesting bird photos the entire day,…

…the next day we came across one of the most beautifully colored, ordinary birds we’d ever seen – a common grackle.

We had to laugh at our bad luck to choose a foggy day for our big trip to watch birds – and that the one wildlife photo of the day was a frog.


September 2018

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By the shores of Gitche Gumee

We finally know where Gitche Gumee is, and it took us a long time to stand on its shores.

We had to memorize lines from (important? American?) poetry in grade school.  One of the few that we (vaguely) remember is “TheSong of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written in 1855.

“By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water…”

Gitchi-Gami is the Ojibwe (Chippewa) name for Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area.

When we planned our road trip from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, we thought looping up and over Lake Superior could be a great drive.

Our first view of Lake Superior was in Duluth, Minnesota.  We took 8 days to explore the shore in both Minnesota in the US and Ontario in Canada. We visited small towns along the way, hiked in parks, ate walleye fish, and hunted for agates on the rocky beaches.

Our stop in Wawa, Ontario included a visit to Young’s General Store and a photo op.

We stopped at numerous parks along the way, and one of our favorites was ‎Lake Superior Provincial Park.

We drove for miles and miles (and then more miles) through Canada’s two largest forests – the Great Lakes/St Lawrence forest with both coniferous and deciduous trees (including birch) and the Boreal forest, mainly coniferous.

The bark of the birch tree is waterproof so it was used by Native Americans for making baskets, papering houses and canoes, and even maps.

We searched every chance we got for an agate.  We never found anything even close.  The signs at all the parks in Canada politely remind visitors to enjoy what they have seen, but to please leave the wildflowers, the plants, and the lovely rocks where you found them.

We took a long walk down a beach at ‎Lake Superior Provincial Park and collected our favorite rocks.  No agates among them.  To remember our favorites, we took their photo, and then left them on the beach.

It took us 7 days to drive from the western edge of Lake Superior to the eastern edge at Sault-Ste.-Marie, Ontario (known as “Soo” to the locals).  We celebrated when we arrived by going down to the water’s edge on the Canadian side to see the locks allowing pleasure boats to get from the eastern waterways through the St Mary’s River to Lake Superior.

We inspected the Canadian lock used in emergencies if the other locks failed. It was needed once, and it did the job. Since then, it’s been retired. Above the lock is the Sault-Ste-Marie Bridge connecting Canada and the U.S.

We walked over the lock and crossed small bridges to Whitefish Island, the outermost Canadian island in the river.  Native People used the island for 2,000 years as fishing grounds.  Despite a treaty in 1850 that gave them the rights to the land, when plans for the canal moved forward and then later a railroad, the land was taken by the government.  “A land claim was filed in 1982 by the Batchewana Indian Band, of the Batchewana First Nation of Ojibways, for the 22-acre (89,000 m2) island. After years of unsuccessful negotiations, hereditary Chief Edward James Sayers Nebenaigoching occupied the island from 1989 until the claim was settled in 1992. 3.5 million dollars in damages were paid to the tribe, and the island was returned to Indian reserve status in 1997.”

Whitefish Island has open walking trails, and it was there that we discovered the tame black-capped chickadees.

As we walked back across St Mary’s Island, we saw beaver dams and lodges, and scores of mallard ducks.

We started our trip around Gitche Gumee (Lake Superior) with thoughts of the “Hiawatha” poem and of the Indians who lived by the shore.  We ended our long drive with the sad story of the long struggle for Indians to regain even a small island by the shining Big-Sea-Water.



September 2019

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Photography: Let’s Change the Subject

We followed the highway from Grand Marais, Minnesota aiming for Thunder Bay, Ontario when we took a turn off onto a narrow, rough road in the middle of nowhere. These are the times on our trip that we wonder: have we made a mistake? Will this side trip to photograph wildflowers and watch birds be worth the effort?

Some many miles later, the road ended at Lake Superior. We’d arrived at our destination, the Hurkett Cove Conservation Area, an area well-known for its many bird species.  As we headed down the forested path, we heard birds calling. Edging the path were the same few wildflowers we’d already been photographing for several days. Suddenly, no birds appeared, and no new wildflowers were to be found. What a discouraging trip, we thought, until…

…we saw a grouping of mushrooms. For joy!

Once we spotted our first, it seemed that there were many more mushrooms, lichen and fungus in this forest. So, the planned photography outing for birds and wildflowers ended before it began, replaced by photographing what was at hand.  A total change of subject.

Are these the same type of mushrooms we normally eat? We knew enough to not even think of trying to test them out.

A metallic brown mushroom in the dark woods was surprisingly tricky to photograph.

The trees around us had their own photographable wonders.

We appreciated the pattern of the lichen on the almost black tree bark.  Could this be common greenshield lichen with a bit of oak moss (in the lower right)?  Since there are 15,000 lichen species, those are just our wild guesses.

One decaying log had an amazing growth (of whatever it was). Doesn’t it look like a sponge from the ocean? For scale, note the little pine needles in the foreground.

Fungus on a tree can indicate a disease and the host tree certainly looked unhealthy.

Most of the Lake Superior shoreline we had seen was rocky, but the water at Hurkett Cove was shallow with tall grasses and reddish sand.

With a change in the subject of our photography outing, we had lots to material to work with. That was exciting, but also challenging. Taking photos of small objects in the dark forest requires more research, practice and experimentation.

How to photograph mushrooms in a dark forest? Bringing along a little tripod would help (if we had one).  We should also experiment with throwing a little light on the subject.  Next time we’ll try the “fill flash” option on the camera.  One piece of advice was to carefully position the camera to focus on the mushroom without using any zoom.  This would require getting down on the (sometimes muddy) ground.

No doubt that the next time we make a trip out, now prepared to photograph mushrooms, the conditions and subject matter will be different.  We’ll find ourselves, once again, taking photographs of birds and wildflowers with nary a mushroom in sight. So, what is the moral of the story?  Be ready for change ahead. It’s good for a photographer to anticipate.


September 2018

Posted in Canada - Ontario | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Variations on a Theme

We often take an evening walk, and, when we travel, the scenery on our walks varies a lot.  Some nights what we see is frankly a bit boring, but other nights (like the one in Minnesota’s Grand Marais) it’s pure magic.

In the early evening, we left our lovely room at the Mangy Moose Motel and took off for a walk.

Right away, we came to old buildings with interesting painted fronts.

We photographed several other buildings as well on the walk.  This group of photos comprised the first theme of the evening.

We continued on and came across an overgrown path.  In the low light, we hesitated before continuing but then realized it led to the breakwater for the Grand Marais harbor.

We climbed up on to the breakwater and were surprised to see that large rocks between the breakwater and Lake Superior created a calm pool of water.

Several rocks appeared above the calm water’s surface.

The difference between the water surfaces became more obvious in the diminishing light. It was another variation on a theme.

We came back another night to see the town beach at sunset.  We looked out to the Grand Marais Light on the breakwater where we’d taken the earlier photos.

Sunsets were our final theme.

When taking a walk at dusk coincides with photo opportunities, there’s not a lot of time to spare.  We took our photos as quickly as we could. We tried to keep adjusting for the disappearing light and the changes in how we would photograph the water and rocks.

The quickly disappearing light gave us some of our favorite photos. Each group of images – the old buildings, the water and rocks at the breakwater, and the Lake Superior sunsets – say a lot about the great little town of Grand Marais, MN (population 1,351) and it’s long history as an outpost on the lake.


September 2018

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A garden tucked into a park

As our car zipped down the highway into Minneapolis, we saw a sign for a garden.  Not too far away, we thought.  We remembered the garden a few days later and headed back to check it out with our old friend, Dick.  We hoped this wasn’t going to be a mistake as Dick has lived in Minneapolis almost 50 years and had never heard of it.

The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary takes up only 15 acres in the 759-acre Theodore Wirth Regional Park.

We walked on all the Eloise Butler trails and were pleasantly surprised to discover that with 500 different flowering species in the garden, there were flowers blooming in September that we’d never seen before.

American Groundnut (Apios americana) have tubers that Native Americans boiled and ate like potatoes.

Both Bottle and Closed Gentian (Gentiana clausa Raf., Gentiana andrewsii Griseb) were planted in the garden.   The difference between the two can only be seen in the flower.

In a deeply wooded area, we looked down and saw these wonders.  Our daughter makes mushrooms out of meringue and dusts them with cocoa.  These looked just like hers!

Stunning lichen cascaded across the log.   The effect was so beautiful it didn’t look real.

We sat down with Dick on a bench to catch up.  We idly watched as other visitors appeared and disappeared on a distant hill. Birds and dragonflies flew by.

As we left the garden, we saw a number of red insects scurrying across the sidewalk.  What were they?

After a bit of searching, we discovered the answer:  boxelder bugs. They enjoy sunning themselves on a warm surface – which is probably why they were all gathered on the sidewalk.

After our visit we realized that the park had been aptly named: a “sanctuary”.  It was a refuge in these troubling times.  What a wonder to be surrounded by lovely flowers and magnificent trees!  This is a sanctuary not just for the birds.


September 2018



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Better than Expected

We loved our road trip through the American west!  So, Beth was a bit down as we left the western states and turned eastward into Minnesota. The western states had signified what was different for us – different terrain, culture and experiences. The north central states – part of the US Midwest (where we’d grown up), seemed like familiar territory.  We weren’t ready for anything that felt like “home.”

Our friends, Marlee and Kenton, hosted us for a great weekend in Wayzata, Minnesota and showed us a wonderfully unfamiliar place. They didn’t let us down.

We hadn’t been to a state fair since we were children.  How amazing it was to go to the Minnesota State Fair – the largest in the country!

We watched a parade, saw baby animals, ate fair food as we walked (and no, we passed on the deep fried pickles, fried cheese curds, and cookies sold by the bucket-full).  We also saw a dressage competition; visited a statewide display of arts and crafts; and definitely people watched.

We were all tired when we arrived back at Marlee and Kenton’s house by Wayzata Bay.

We walked across the lawn down to their motorboat and Kenton steered us to a restaurant across the bay.  It was a beautiful night for a boat ride across the water.

We said our thanks and hugged goodbye before heading into Minneapolis.

We’d never been to the Walker Art Center, which was only a 10-minute walk from our rented AirBnB apartment.

We headed up to the roof and contemplated “Geometric Mouse – Plan A” by Claes Oldenburg while we waited…

…to play 10 holes of mini-golf on an artfully created course.

We love mini-golf, and Beth was quickly recovering from her funk that Minnesota would be “too much the same.”

By the time we saw the wonderful rocks bathed in colorful, glowing stainless steel by Jim Hodges in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden…

…we decided our travel experience in Minnesota had been anything but ordinary.


September 2018

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Black Hills vs the Badlands

We guess if you aren’t from the area, you don’t have a clue what the differences are between the Black Hills and the Badlands.  (Many people think they are one and the same – as well as thinking this is where the Battle of the Little Bighorn was – but that’s in the  state of Montana.) With a trip to each area, we can tell you there’s a big difference.

The Badlands feature eroded hills with bands of color marking the era when the sediment was laid down.

Right across the road from where we took photos of these amazing rocks, the land turns to flat grass prairie.

The early settlers and American Indians agreed that the Badlands were a disagreeable place: bad weather, rugged terrain, and too little water.  The terrain was remarkable enough to have the area designated a national monument in 1929 and to become a national park in 1978.

West of the Badlands the terrain turns to rolling hills and plentiful trees.  These are the Black Hills.

There is evidence of 11,500 years of human habitation in the Black Hills.  The Lakota were living there when white settlers first arrived in the area.

Even though the Black Hills and the Badlands are only 70 miles (113 km) apart, our experiences in the two were hugely different.  We spent a week in the Black Hills at Custer State Park and camped two days in Badlands National Park.

Custer State Park was beautifully maintained and managed.

We visited Sylvan Lake while in the park…

…and hiked one of the trails nearby with lots of iron rails.

Badlands National Park didn’t have as many hiking trails and the weather was more challenging.

We camped under a hot sun at Badlands National Park but enjoyed the meadowlarks and bluebirds that were ever present.

We found that one of the best aspects of a visit to Badlands National Park was the ranger program (far and away superior to those at Custer State Park).  Whether it was geology, anthropology, native plants, or the night skies, the talks were informative and well presented.

We walked from our campsite one night to the amphitheater at Badlands for the evening program just as the moon was rising.

The lecture was on the Lakota sky and constellations presented by a Lakota teacher.

During our visit to South Dakota, we learned first-hand what the difference was between the Black Hills and the Badlands.  We also discovered the differences between a state park in the Black Hills and a national park in the Badlands. They were both worthy travel destinations!



August 2018

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