During the past three spring breaks, I've been fortunate to explore one of the prettiest areas in the country with a total of ten people. The backcountry keys are home to dozens of small uninhabited islands that are packed with wildlife, serenity, and a front row seat into the universe at night. As part of the subtropics, the backcountry experiences little variation among temperature and precipitation, especially during the dry season. I couldn't think of a better place to camp! Each year brings a set of new people, a different kayak route, and a fresh set of destinations along the drive back home. It's always most rewarding to see beginner outdoor enthusiasts accomplish the strenuous 20+ mile paddle, and gain a deeper love for nature. That's the real secret purpose of this trip :)
Ode to Thomas Lewis, who braved this untamed land in 1742 to conduct a survey of Lord Fairfax's property boundary. He encountered steep precipices filled with flora that made travel nearly impossible. And to early hunters who would enter the tangled laurel brakes only to never return -- lost to the labyrinth of spruce, oak, and large swaths of heath. Ode to the German Dalhe family who grazed their sheep in the mid-1800s on the wind-swept grasslands shaped by lightening induced fire, persistent westerlies and harsh winters. Oh, how lucky were they to pioneer such a beautiful and rugged area. Since then, this area has seen logging, railroads, and a barrage of artillery from World War II training exercises. Fires decimated topsoil, exposing the erosion resistant Pottsville conglomerate sandstone, and wiping out the majority of red spruce that once carpeted this area. Today, the introduced balsam wooly adelgid is killing much of its native host plant. But Dolly Sods is resilient. She persists even through the most blistering westerly's, record precipitation, and decades of human impact. The toughness of this place in conspicuous and makes its atmosphere even more mysterious.
In 2011, I was lucky enough to visit Dolly Sods on a short solo backpacking trip, and I've been there five times since. The first week in October is surly the best time to visit as chlorophyll vanishes from plant leaves while their colorful pigments remain. Here's a tribute to one of my most memorable and long standing traditions since moving to the midwest seven years ago. I've had the opportunity to share this place with some of my favorite people and look forward to bringing others in the future. Cheers!
Shiny clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum) and a cairn along the way.
I was excited to see my first whitch-hazel in full bloom (Hammamelis virginiana). Of course, this tree, along with most others we encountered, is stunted from constant exposure to the harsh conditions that make Dolly Sods what it is.
We were lucky to find a great camp site along red creek, where edible teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) and cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) grow along the oligotrophic creek bottom.
And Bear Rocks never disappoints, with vista views along the Allegheny Plateau. The white sandstone geology has a bleached look to it, with quartz deposits meandering through heath barrens to provide excellent contrast.
Autumn always hits this area early as the weather is much more fierce here due to elevation, converging jet streams and the rain shadow that it creates.
Alexa scoping out a red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) tree, which are uncommon in Ohio. Unlike black elderberry, this species is NOT edible.
If you visit early enough in October, you will be graced by a slough of cottongrass sedge (Eriophorum angustifolium)along the bog-lands.
Alex and Kaitlyn sitting amongst a woodland full of stunted cherry trees (Prunus spp.) filled with lichens. Lichens are an indicator of pollution - the more lichens, the better the air quality is.
Though spruce trees carpet much of the land of Dolly Sods, there were once many more prior to logging. Spruce was at one time the dominant climax species and are successionally making a come back.
Destini checking out red creek and the surrounding beech-maple woodland complex.
Bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia) or "scrub oak" is very uncommon in Ohio but loves the acidic soils and harsh environment of Dolly Sods.
The geology, botany, climate, and ecology of this beautiful place has me coming back every year with new people. If you'd like any information of itinerary details, feel free to contact me.
On this long weekend, I sit on my wood floor with the candles lit, windows open, rain pattering, chili stewing and thoughts swirling as I enjoy the first weekend of being home in over a month. Ahhhh I've never been so excited to sleep in, make breakfast and clean this neglected apartment. Reflecting on my busy, adventurous month, I am sore and beaten down but fulfilled with a sense of accomplishment. Why work hard to travel, explore and learn on the weekends? Well to me, there is nothing in the world that makes me feel more alive than being out in the element learning about the ecology and culture of a new place. I love being submersed in the unknown and I absolutely love adventure. But with that, I also travel to learn of places that I'd like to bring my future children and family. I can't help but to think ahead - it motivates me.
On this trip, I was seeking a bit of solitude after a busy couple of weeks. I decided to head north alone to explore South Manitou Island, which is located in the lower peninsula of Michigan. The tall dunes, chilly breeze, and miles of shoreline to backpack lured me in.
Red skies at night, sailor's delight; Red skies by morning, sailor's take warning. After twelve hours of driving north, the road I was on brought me to this beautiful place - Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan. En route, I passed many sleepy towns, including Glen Haven, which is where this gem lays. Lakes and water sports, cherry stands, mom-and-pop restaurants, vineyards, and a constant breeze could sum up my drive.
Glen Haven was founded in 1851 and housed a saw mill, cherry cannery and Coast Guard life saving station. I was in awe as I pulled up to such a well-restored town in an area with such a small population. I'd imagine it looks very similar to how it did during the 17th century.
On my way up, I passed through Traverse City where I bought a map to plan my trip and a sandwich to keep me fueled. Miles later in Glen Arbor, there was a campground area but I was so tired that I decided to drive right through into Leland, where the ferry was set to depart in the morning. Luckily, the lot was part of a lighted marina, which had wi-fi. I always bring a blanket and pillow for emergencies so I hunkered down for the night with the windows cracked to let in some of that fresh Lake Michigan air. I slept in, brushed my teeth and headed over to the ferry house to grab a sandwich and my ticket. The weather was nice at the moment but changing quickly as a layer of fog billowed over the glassy calm water.
From Leland, it takes about one and a half hours to reach South Manitou Island. Still groggy from my make-shift sleeping situation the night before, the old over-zealous Italian ferry-mate seemed to understand, picking fun of me from across the vessel. I think he thought I was hung over so he insisted that I try their "world famous" bloody Mary. I complied and needless to say, it was as world famous as it could get in a red solo cup, deluded with alcohol. Rise and shine!
As we reached shore, the Island park ranger gave his spiel and we were off. Of the 30+ visitors, I was the only person to request a pass for the furthest campsite on the island - Popple camp site. He warned me that the winds would be very strong that night and to lay low when I arrived.
Popple camp site ended up being well worth the hike. I passed an old farm and a lush beech-maple forest full of wildflowers along the way. There was a strong scent of wild onion along the hike. I set up camp and went against the ranger's advice to check out some of the tall perched dunes the island had to offer. The photo to the right shows a view of North Manitou Island from my campsite. The Manitou Islands are known for their tall perched dunes and the vista views that they provide.
After climbing several hundred feet to see the tall perched dunes, I decided to hike east past the campsite to Gull Point. The very tip of the point is normally closed off to backpackers because it is a breeding ground area for the endangered piping plovers. The name "Gull Point" made complete sense as there were bleached bird bones strewn about. The mixture of sand, bones and lake tossed granite and limestone was artistic. I hung out there for almost an hour before heading back to cook dinner. The winds, scents and chilly breeze had me reminiscing about growing up near the ocean.
On the way back to the campsite, I caught a couple of familiar sites. Hoary pacoon and green milkweed are common plants throughout the native prairies of North Dakota where I worked as a Biological Science Technician during the summer of 2011. They thrive in sandy, acidic conditions of the north and were a nice site to see among the dune grasses.
On my final day, I woke early to catch the sunrise before hiking over 10 miles of beach back to the dock. Along the way, I passed an old weather station, the wreck of the Morazan (1960), and the South Manitou Island lighthouse. Also, I found dozens of dead waterfowl species washed up likely from the abnormally cold weather we've had recently.
I spent the weekend looking for a gift to a friend that I had learned about in Traverse City when I overheard an old couple talking about Michigan's claim-to-fame, the Petoskey stone. This rock is really an ancient lithified coral formed over millions of years. They are mostly limited to upper Michigan. I always try to bring back pieces of my trip as gifts because I think it's important to pay your blessings forward whenever possible. This trip surly was a blessing and I'm anxious to show South Manitou Island to friends and my future family one day soon. Cheers!
I admit, moving from the east coast (Massachusetts) was pretty tough and, at times, I'd do anything to be back. There's just something unforgettable about driving up to Cape Cod with your good friends for a night of striped bass fishing off of a jetty overlooking Woods Hole. The sights, sounds and smells of the full moon above, waves crashing below and the electric splashing of herring in the distance turning on like the flick of a light switch, as they fend for their lives from the predators below. Slack tide has arrived in the "Great Harbor."
But there is something unforgettable about any place, really. Despite what some of my hometown friends say, the midwest ain't nearly as bad as they think. The cost of living, sense of community, scenery and the close proximity to pretty much anywhere else in the country is second to none here in the rolling hills of Southeastern, Ohio. And having lived here for seven years, I've been fortunate to keep that perspective fresh as I take full advantage of the endless opportunities around me.
In the past seven years, I've been blessed to see many different areas in a number of states; yet, two places have stood out to me like no other. One of them is the backcountry keys of Key West, Florida and the other is Dolly Sods Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. When I truly gain a love for an area, there's a good chance I'll be back. So, the backcountry keys have taken the place of my spring break for the past two years and Dolly Sods has been my autumn destination for the past three years, with a handful of trips and memories there in between. There's just something amazing about this place in the fall that keeps me coming back with different groups of friends each time.
During this past fall, I was lucky to finally have the same weekend off as three of my favorite travel friends - Alexa, Alex and Lakota (the Germain Shephard). Alex spent summers in the north woods guiding boyscout groups through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and through Quetico, Canada. Alexa has traveled all around the country to research bats as part of a private consulting company. It's always great traveling with Alexa because she is so laid back and Alex is completely full of survival information and great stories. On down the road, four and a half hours fly by as we become taken back by the increasingly growing and colorful hills mixed with a slough of good bluegrass tunes from each of our playlists.
As I picked up on at an early age, no matter how many times you visit the same place, or look up at the same sky, the only thing that will remain the same is the memory that you've kept from before. Otherwise, you have no idea what to expect the next time. That held very true during this trip as we were consumed by a dense, refreshing fog throughout most of the hike. And to many, this might put a damper on an ordinarily scenic trip like this, like trips I've experienced there before; however, it only made the area come to life in a different way -- everything changes. This old wind blown cherry tree tells a story, perhaps many, as it it protected from encroachment of other trees by a sea of azalea and blueberry shrubs. I know one thing: this would be a sight to see had I lost my compass as the wind blows from the west in the Northern hemisphere, hence "westerlys." Perhaps it's telling me to head east, back home?
Dolly Sods sits along the Allegheny Plateau and is made up of many of the same temperate plants and animals found here in Southeastern, Ohio. This makes complete sense since we are so close to West Virginia. Although, what makes this place so surreal and unique from the rest of the midwest is its elevation. Everything is stunted here and there is little tolerance for hardwood forests because of the harsh climate from being of the subarctic tundra. Although, when you do finally come across a woodlot, my oh my! The beeches and maples and mist and northern birds had me dreaming of the very place I was standing at.
As we traveled from Blackbird Knob trail (the usual meander from year to year), the crew decided to veer off for a trek via Daubenmire Glade. For those that don't know, a glade is basically an area of vegetated land that sits right on top of bedrock; which, in this case, happens to be white sandstone made up of quartz, making it light in color. At first, it reminded me very much of that granite back in Massachusetts. But notice that weathering of the boulders. Granite endures abrasion much better than sandstone because it is an igneous rock (created by heat or lava) as sandstone is sedimentary. I always love finding plants for the first time in far off places that I've only read about, like this red elderberry. This plant is native in Ohio but not common and inedible, unlike some of its relatives.
In years past, I've been lucky to kick up a flock of ruffed grouse, a vibrant mud salamander, and even bears on forest roads leading into the wilderness. Some say to travel here during parts of the summer to see black bears foraging on the miles of blueberry and huckleberries. I don't think there's anything better than homemade blueberry pancakes under an old stand of pines...mmmm. So we happened to find this fat guy on the trail. He needs to lay off the blueberries for sure.
And even more common than the abundance of wildlife that we see is the many edible plants that we find. I already mentioned blueberry and huckleberries. We also trip over our fair share of teaberry, cranberry, and edible mushrooms along the way. Rose hips and pine needles provide a huge vitamin-c boost as well.
And finally, during our last night in the wilderness, we bumped into some fellow ohioans and shared some whisky and lies over the damp fire. Apparantly I woke up in the middle of the night screaming at the top of my lungs haha. I don't know what that was about but everybody thought there was a bear in the campsite when I didn't answer the first time, until it kept happening of course haha. But hey, back to the point of the story --look at the view from that campsite!!! What a great trip with excellent company. I feel blessed to have this one on my belt.