Monday, October 21, 2013

Fall Raccoon Creek Paddle

Tucked away in the heart of southeastern Ohio lies the beautiful Raccoon Creek, which meanders through some of the most scenic counties in the state. Due to this region's rich supply of natural resources, Raccoon Creek has suffered from Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), sedimentation and pollution. Fortunately, the Raccoon Creek Partnership (RCP) has since emerged (2007) to provide restoration to this biologically diverse aquatic ecosystem. Prior to the 1800s, this stream was a favorite hunting area for Native Americans who sought white-tail deer, turkey and beaver. Raccoon Creek flows 114 miles from the scenic Hocking Hills region south to the Ohio River.

During the first weekend in September, my friend Grace and I decided to take one last outdoor retreat while the weather was still favorable. Despite the low water level, our plan was to spend the weekend paddling 20 miles down the stream, camping along the way. We knew it would be an adventurous trip as neither of us had paddled Raccoon Creek before and our prediction was correct to say the least. 
We arrived late Friday night at Zaleski State Forest - the most scenic portion of the creek, which is near the headwaters. We decided to hike to Lake Hope via the Hope Furnace trail to camp for the night before putting in nearby early the next morning. We fell asleep to the echoes of beaver smacking their tails all along the lake. As we climbed in our canoe and took off Saturday morning, the abrupt change from civilization to solitude was instantly conspicuous. Over 75% of Raccoon Creek is forested and very well-kept, which really creates a wilderness feel to it. At times, we would stop paddling to listen birds that were beginning their fall migration, breathe the fresh air, and take in the beautiful views.
We passed subtle signs of civilization and history here and there, including the historic and haunted Moonville Tunnel, old train trestle remnants from coal operations, and beautiful abandoned logging road bridges and cabins. We were lucky enough to find a healthy supply of paw paws along the way as well (as pictured above).  Paw paws are nicknamed the "Indian banana" and grow best in Ohio and it's surrounding states. Paw paws pack more potassium than most fruits, which provided us with an excellent source of nutrients to keep us fueled up. 
Our first rude awakening came moments after we put our canoe in the clear blue water as we came upon our first portage. We predicted a lot of portages due to the water level but couldn't have imagined the amount and size of the log jams we encountered along the way. All in all, we probably carried our canoe over forty portages! But it was well worth the effort and even added to the trip at times. By the end, Grace and I had a quick and efficient system that worked well for us. The woodland sunflowers and cardinal flower flourished along the banks like weeds.
This area was one of the most beautiful spots we came across. Here, the grade grew steepest, which created small riffles and ankle deep water. This time of year is perfect for this - little to no mosquitos, cool breezes with warm weather and water temperature. The river birch, sycamore and willows shined bright on that day, providing us with the perfect ratio of sunlight to shade. We could only imagine the diversity of darters, aquatic insects and pan fish swinging beside our feet.

After a long day of paddling (10+ miles), Grace and I pulled out canoe up onto a bank where we would pitch our tents, tell stories, and prepare our meal for the night. We couldn't wait to pour a glass of wine and reflect on what we had seen on Saturday. After taking a look at the map, we dozed off early.
Since Grace had to be home by 1pm on Sunday, we awoke very early to get a head start on the clock. Unfortunately, we realized that we had made a mistake in our planning once we had hit route 50 - we knew we had paddled a good distance past our end point. As we reached the route 50 bridge, we decided to leave our canoes and walk the road towards the area where we had parked her car. 

At the time, we were convinced that the car would appear around the next bend. But after 10 or 20 bends, we found ourselves pausing at any and every subtle sound, hoping that a passerby was traveling towards us. We began to switch our efforts to hitchhiking. By that point, we were in Vinton County. We knew that we would likely not see a car until church let out and we were right. But as soon as it did, the very first car that came around stopped. Mr. Wilbur Connely, a preacher for an apostolic church, was kind enough to take us to Grace's car - paddles and all. We were amazed at how far we paddled past our destination - 6 miles in all! But, I must say, it felt like 12 miles because Mr. Wilbur preached more than he was driving. It surely added to the experience. 

I'd recommend Raccoon Creek to anybody seeking a tranquil, scenic getaway in Southeastern Ohio. Of course, the ride is much easier during the rainy seasons but the late summer benefits made our trip well worth the effort. Cheers!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The King of the Forest

The more I begin to settle in with my new position, the less I find myself in the woods on the hunt for anything wild. But today was a pleasant surprise thanks to my good friend and botanist, Andrew Gibson (The Natural Treasures of Ohio). In fact, this isn't the first time he's pulled me out of my slump and, likewise, it isn't the first time Andrew and I have had an unusually good day as far as extraordinary finds. One of the last times he and I tromped around, we came across two orchid county records in the same day in different locations. Well, today was no different. We hit Adams and Scioto Counties for a chance to see some summer flora. We certainly got what we asked for with a handful of orchids and some extremely rare plants to boot, which I will tackle in a later post. Though, what was most exciting about this trip was our encounter with a heated snake fight. First of all, coming across any two animals fighting in the wild is just plain lucky, let along snakes. But, what made this experience especially extraordinary were the species of snakes involved.
Initially, we thought the black snake was a common black rat snake. But, to our surprise, it turned out to be the rare eastern king snake. After this bout, the name "king" makes perfect sense - trust me. After it finished the copperhead off, it retreated into the woods unremorseful.
Eastern king snakes are known in Ohio only to our most southern counties, where they are uncommon. They are constrictors that prey on a variety of things such as amphibians, eggs, lizards, and other snakes - especially venomous species because they are immune to venom. What a neat species and a great highlight to an excellent day in the field!


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Endangered Keys Island Plant Find

Earlier today, as I began to dig through pictures from my recent kayak trip to the lower Florida backcountry keys, I came across a cell phone photo that I almost forgot I even captured of a unique plant I came across on a small, remote Island. To give you an indication of how much this plant stuck out to me in a hidden, sandy corner of the island, I made the decision to turn on my cell phone and snap a photo, which was on its last leg and had outlasted my digital camera battery at that point. So, yes, the nerd in me was willing to jeopardize having the security of a cell phone on a kayaking trip in the middle of nowhere to have the opportunity to identify this plant.

Needless to say, this was the last photo I snapped on the trip because my phone died shortly after. But, I'm so glad I did because, otherwise, I wouldn't have realized that I had come across the most rare plant I've seen to date- sea rosemary (Argusia gnaphalodes). In fact, this is the only native Argusia species found in the states.

Sea rosemary can reach 6-feet tall with a 20-foot spread, which is how I found my plant. Extremely tolerant to salt and drought, sea rosemary also prefers full sun. I found this plant in a small opening on the edge of a remote island beach hidden among a patch of red mangroves. The succulent, silky tomentose leaves really stand out and the aromatic flowers, which flower intermittently throughout the year on this evergreen shrub, were in peak bloom. Today, conservation efforts for this dune stabilizing plant are increasing through cultivation.


According to The Institute for Regional Conservation: Florstic Inventory of South Florida Database, this plant has been recorded in Monroe County, which includes the island I found it on. Globally, this plant extends through the Caribbean and into South America - Florida being its northern most range.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

For the second time in six months, I visited Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarian Reserve (GTM) in Ponte Vedra, Florida. The northern beach area pictured below contains the highest dunes in Florida along with dozens of other unique and delicate communities that are home to 580 plant species - 8 of which are protected.


Most of what comprises this area is categorized as beach dunes, which are barren, xeric, well-drained soils. Much of the sand it comprised of shell fragments, which makes the sand of GTM so soft and unique. When I visited over the summer, loggerhead sea turtle nests were blockaded off for protection. 


Beach dune communities are categorized as being wind deposited mixed with wave-formed beach upland that is predominately populated with pioneer species, particularly the above-mentioned sea oats (Uniola paniculata). Beach dunes are of course in close proximity to the ocean so its plant communities must be highly tolerant of salt much like sea oats.


Another highly salt-tolerant species had me reminiscing back to my days in North Dakota's prairie cordgrass fields. This prairie cordgrass relative saltmeadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) is another indicator species of the beach dune community - again, another salt tolerant species. 


Further, another salt tolerant graminoid - saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) was not hard to spot throughout the reserve and the keys. I saw this species in North Dakota - saltgrass is also tolerant to alkali conditions. A good fodder for cattle, saltgrass is cultivated using saline irrigation systems in some areas of the country.


Traveling into the grassy barren lands of the beach dunes, you will quickly notice two cacti species - the most plentiful being cockspur pricklypear (Opuntia pusilla). You may find this one painfully by accident like I did. Unlike other cacti species, the thorns of cockspur prickly pear are barbed and can be embedded in the skin - trust me, I know :). In addition, the segments can easily detatch as a means of dissemination. This species, like other Opuntia spp., suffers from the infestation of the invasive cactus moth (Cactoblastis cactorum). 


The other cactus species you will find is the nobel erect pricklypear (Opuntia stricta). Both species are relatives of Ohio's only cactus species, eastern pricklypear (Opuntia humifusa). This species has become a serious problem in other countries and has prompted the release of the aforementioned cacti moth, which has hurt this plant in its native distribution.



Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella) can be seen throughout the beach dune community as well. This species is widespread but different from the northern species (G. aristata) I encountered in most prairies throughout North Dakota. Like its relative, G. pulchella is highly drought tolerant and prefers well-drained soil. G. pulchella differs morphologically by being more red than yellow, unlike its northern relative.


Tread softly or "finger rot" (Cnidoscolus stimulosus) is a nasty little poisonous plant of the Euphorbiaceae family. It is not a true nettle but its hairs can cause a severe rash to some. This little plant prefers well drained soils and is often found in coastal dune habitat throughout the south.


Much like the cacti, this thistle stuck out like a sore thumb among the beach dune plants. I've never seen such a robust thistle than this horrible thistle (Cirsium horridulum). Look at all those spines! It's no wonder why this species is named the way it is.

               


Guana Tolomato Matanzas will continue to keep me coming back for its soft wave-tumbled shell beaches, luch biodiversity, and vast continuum of blue-green water colors. Not to mention, this section of beach never fails to line my pockets with shark teeth. This is one of the prettiest areas I've ever been to - another hidden gem of Florida.