Friday, September 23, 2016

These Old Mountains

As my Artist-in-Residence in the Great Smoky Mountains begins for the fall of 2016, I thought that a brief introduction to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in order. The park is the star and provides the setting for my camera as summer transitions to fall. As an introduction,  I will start with an abridged description of park geology. This may seem mundane, but it is the geology along with the climate that has shaped the natural and human history within the park and made the Great Smoky Mountains as it is today.

The story of the Smoky Mountains begins approximately 200-300 million years ago when tectonic forces lifted these mountains. These are some of the oldest mountains on earth, and at one time the Smoky Mountains resembled the rugged Rocky Mountains. Millions of years of erosion have whittled down the Smoky Mountains.  It is nearly incomprehensible to imagine that mountains can be laid low by simple everyday forces of precipitation, freezing and thawing, but the aggregation of almost imperceptible erosion over 200 million years wears down even the loftiest of mountains.

The land forms resulting from these geologic forces are the foundation for all life in the park, and as well the incredible biodiversity. The Smoky Mountains were not significantly impacted by glaciers in the last ice age 10,000 years ago. As the glaciers pressed south, many plants and animals retreated from the glaciers and found refuge within the park. Many northern species have persisted in cooler climates at the highest elevations or in other cool micro climates. Elevation differences create  climatic zones which mimic the zones typically found on a traverse from south to north. These zones are compacted within the park from the lowest elevation of 875 feet to the highest at 6,643 feet (Clingman's Dome). These diverse climatic zones as well as the smaller scale climatic variations provide habitat for the more than 10,000 identified species (tens of thousands of additional species are thought to exist here).

Although it will not be readily apparent,  my photos of scenes and life in these old mountains will be  the result of the nearly invisible hand of relentless geologic forces for hundreds of millions of years.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

What We're Missing

Our modern civilization has literally obliterated
 our night skies with light pollution and most people don't know what they are missing. Where does one go to escape the multitude of outdoor lights in order to have a clearer view of the night sky? Night lights are everywhere. Shopping mall parking lots, car dealers, grocery stores, streetlights, night-lighted billboards, security lighting around our homes, business signs, stadium lights, decorative lights, car headlights and traffic lights. If you drive around at night, unfortunately you will need your headlights and will need to heed traffic lights. However, it does not take long to see the lights.

What we're missing are the aurora borealis (northern lights), planets, the milky way, comets, constellations, meteor showers, and bright moonlit nights as they can, and should, appear to us. One can only imagine what our ancestors, before the proliferation of night lighting, saw when they gazed at the night sky full of stars.

There have been a few times in my life when I looked up at the night sky and stared in amazement at the stars above. It took my breath away the first time I looked skyward while in the remote mountains of New Mexico. The same feeling of awe and wonder overcame me in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Where did all of those stars come from, I wondered? True, viewing the stars at low elevations, as I had done most of my life, is not the same as the view from the western mountains. However, even at lower elevations, in a remote area of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, I have experienced some amazing night skies.
This week is the annual Perseid meteor shower, but I cannot help but ask the question: How far do I have to go to escape the bright lights in order to more clearly see the beautiful night skies? Where can we go to gaze at the multitude of stars in a truly dark night sky and to peer into the universe beyond our small world?

We just keep our heads down as we venture outdoors at night. Why bother to look skyward, because although we may think that we see the stars and night sky as they should be, we cannot because the skies are no longer dark and starry.

My one wish is that for one night of the year all of the unneeded night lights would be turned off. Then, we would only have to step outside of our homes and look up into the night sky to see what we've been missing.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Season with the Loons

The mated pair

It is a chilly morning in early June as I make my first visit of the year to the lake. It has been almost a year since I last visited the lake with the pair of loons. The early dawn light and still air accentuate the mists rising above the lake. If the loons are back this year they are well hidden in the fog. As the sun peaks over the horizon it is time to launch the kayak into the lake. As I silently paddle into the lake, two sandhill cranes call as they lift off from nearby and an eagle flies overhead, seemingly oblivious to me. I am unable to stay unnoticed for long as a trumpeter swan honks to announce my presence to all on the lake. Too, the red-winged blackbirds guard their territory among the shoreline reeds with vocal taunts.

Paddling is easy on the still lake, and I begin to peer through the fog for the loons. Their low to the water profile and mannerisms are easy to distinguish, even in the fog, and soon I spot them near the shore. As always, I am careful to keep my distance and to make as little sound as possible.

It is obvious that they have a nest nearby and it seems to be in a swampy area that may offer protection from raccoons and other land-based predators. Even people will have difficulty approaching the nest from the shore, so the loons have chosen their nesting site well. Unlike the previous year when the loons were unable to successfully reproduce, perhaps this year will be better. I tried to memorize the grassy area where the nest appeared to be in order to make sure that I did not get too close and left the loons to their family building endeavors.

Mom and chick in fog

Since last year when I first spotted the loons on the lake, I have learned so much more about loons. Unlike most birds, they are heavy-boned and their legs with webbed feet are well back on their body. Their eyes can focus both in air and water. Even their bright-red eyes help to filter light below water so that they can see their way. This makes them well adapted to swimming and diving, even to depths of 200 feet, in order to capture their diet of fish and other aquatic fauna. Although having their feet further back on their body makes loons well adapted to water, this means that their mobility on land is cumbersome. To minimize their land stay, their nests are usually very close to the shoreline. Being heavy-boned is great for diving, but taking flight requires a long runway.  Therefore, they are usually only found on larger inland lakes.
After several weeks of occasional visits to check on the loon pair, finally the day comes when I spot the loon chick for the first time. The fuzzy chick stays close by both parents and if an eagle happens to fly over the parents corral the chick between them and commence calling very loudly.
If you have never heard a loon call, it is one of the most beautiful series of notes you will ever hear. Only the males yodel and on one particularly foggy morning on the lake the male came up behind me and surprised me with a loud yodel.

Loon dance

As the summer days grow warmer, the young loon continues to grow. Apparently able to swim from birth, it will be 12 weeks until the first flight. Both parents care for their offspring, but it appears that the female stays close by while the male may range about the lake. On the warmer mornings the loons will turn in their sides and fan themselves with their webbed foot, seemingly in an effort to cool themselves.

On some foggy mornings getting clear photos is nearly impossible. But there are days when the loons will come very close to me in my kayak as I stay as still and quiet as possible.
Other times they will preen to stretch or dry their wings, or in a similar move will do a territorial display that means that their space has been encroached upon.

On another day four or five other loons suddenly flew in and landed on the lake. Perhaps the aunts and uncles have come to check the new arrival, although junior remained well hidden among the shore grasses. Meanwhile, the other loons circled my kayak in a boisterous feeding frenzy. I was just awestruck to be surrounded by loons. As quickly as they arrived the other loons flew off and once again the lake was a peaceful oasis for the loon family.

Lily pads

By late July waterlilies on the lake have multiplied and sometimes paddling through the lilies is taxing, but the shapes and sometimes even the colors of the pads and the large white flowers are beautiful.
The middle of the lake is still open and the loons keep to these areas. The flight feathers on the young loon are now replacing the downy feathers and the chick will even make an occasional dive, although it has not shown signs of being a successful angler yet. Regardless, the parents are catching plenty of fish and their offspring eagerly accepts an offered fish.

Preening loon in the mists

Successful catch

On one visit the female leaves the young loon alone near me as if I were a babysitter and swims across the lake. Perhaps the loons have become accustomed to my presence and trust me to be a protector. Soon though she swims back with yet another small fish to feed her offspring.
By this time too the young loon has nearly all flight feathers but it does not match the beautiful bands and stripes on the neck, black and white spotted back and white underbelly feather patterns of the adults. They are truly beautiful and striking birds.

Nearly grown up

By August the summer days are starting to dwindle. The parents will soon be the first to head south to winter along the coasts, inlets and bays along the gulf and Atlantic coasts. The young and immature loons will leave several weeks later and spend the next several years along the coasts before returning to the north country as beautiful adult loons ready to repeat the cycle for a summer season on a northern lake.
Loons do not mate for life, but they do return to the same lakes each year to mate and it will be a welcome sight at the beginning of another summer to again see this truly iconic bird on the lakes of the northwoods.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Superior Photo Destination: Michigan's Upper Peninsula

If you seek a remote place for wild and scenic photographic opportunities, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, known as the UP to locals, is one of those below the radar places with something for almost any photographer. This narrow peninsula is bounded by the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan to the south and the scenic Lake Superior coast forms the northern boundary. Part of Lake Huron also frames the eastern UP. It is connected to the rest of Michigan by the impressive Mackinac Bridge (pronounced Mackinaw) which spans the Straits of Mackinac and is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world. The largest cities are Sault Saint Marie (population 75,000) to the east and hugging the Lake Superior shoreline further west is Marquette (population 21,000). The cities of Duluth, Minnesota and Green Bay, Wisconsin can also serve as bases for excursions into the UP. Many small-quaint towns dot the landscape and most will have a family run diner or other places to eat and comfortable lodging. 

Canada Dogwood or Bunchberry

With two national forests (The Hiawatha and Ottawa), over 2 million acres of state forest land, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Isle Royale National Park, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and many other state and local parks the UP has a wide range of photographic locales.

At this northern latitude summer days are long, but the summer season is very short with the peak of summer being July. Daytime temperatures are usually comfortable and with occasional cool or hot stretches, but bring your insect repellent. Mosquitoes and biting flies can be a nuisance, especially in June and July. Evenings and and nights can be cool, so bring a light jacket. 

Union River, Porcupine Mountains

For summer shooting there are over 200 waterfalls in the UP including Tahquamenon Falls, the photogenic Bond Falls and even some waterfalls that flow more than 100 feet down mineral-stained sandstone cliffs to Lake Superior at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Many waterfalls are best in spring or early summer, when runoff from melting snow supplies ample water. Several books are available to provide detailed information on almost all of the waterfalls. Summer sunrises and sunsets over Lake Michigan and Lake Superior can be incredible spectacles to photograph.

Sunrise Over Lake Superior

Sugar maple, aspen, ash, birch, oak and other hardwood trees can put on a spectacular autumn display. This may start as early as September and may only last a few short weeks. Must visit places in the fall include the Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and Council Lake on the Hiawatha National Forest. Spring, the other short-shoulder season, begins in May and can yield awesome displays of woodland wildflowers.

Winter is by far the longest season and some places receive an average of over 200 inches of snowfall. Access to remote areas is often by snowmobile or snowshoe hiking. Spectacular ice formations such as the Eben Ice Caves on the Hiawatha National Forest or the huge frozen falls at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are unique photographic opportunities.

Moose, wolves bears, deer and other wildlife inhabit forests throughout the UP, but due to the dense vegetation most people will never see many of these animals, especially the elusive wolves. The Seney National Wildlife Refuge is however a great place for loons, ducks, geese and other waterfowl.

If you want to get away from some of the crowded national parks, try Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. It is actually closer to Canada than the US and it is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Thus, it is one of the least visited national parks. However, Isle Royale National Park has beautiful rocky bays and inlets to Lake Superior, wolves, moose and trails throughout the 48-mile long island. There are no roads for cars on the island and lodging is either at the park service lodges at Rock Harbor and Windigo or in a tent.

To top it all off, the UP is one of the best places in the lower 48 states to see and photograph the northern lights. Although the Aurora Borealis can been seen any time of year, on a clear winter night in a remote area of the UP skies are plenty dark to view and photograph the northern

Presque Isle River, Porcupine Mountains

So, if you really want to get away from the crowds as well as summer heat and humidity while photographing fantastic waterfalls, fantastic sunrises and sunsets over the great lakes and other amazing spring, fall or winter scenery you may want to consider Michigan's Upper Peninsula.