Friday, October 21, 2016

The Pipes of Pan

A fleeting sunset flamed through a ragged stand of jack pines across the bay. Patchy clouds provided just enough substrate to catch the color, and the faint breeze barely ruffled their reflection on the lake. A biting chill in the air confirmed a more challenging forecast ahead. Here, on a classic, rock knob campsite in the Boundary Waters, we perched above a scene of rugged beauty.

A small campfire, composed mostly of jack pine twigs laden with tightly closed cones, crackled softly against the descending dusk as I pulled a book out of my portage pack. For this trip, I’d chosen Open Horizons, Sigurd Olson’s autobiography, which is filled with just as many lyrical scenes and philosophical meanderings as his other books.

I read the first lines aloud. “The Pipes of Pan sound early before the sense of wonder is dulled, while the world is wet with dew and still fresh as the morning.” And before I could begin the next sentence, a sweet, tooting call floated across the bay. The first time I heard the regular, almost mechanical, song of a saw-whet owl, I thought it was a car alarm or back-up beep. I learned my lesson quickly, though, and now perk up my ears on the rare occasion of this simple serenade.

Saw-whets are tiny owls, only as big as a robin, who are nonetheless tough as nails. They breed in the boreal forests of southern Canada, and the conifer forests of the northern and western United States. They are variably migratory, with some owls overwintering in their breeding territories, and others, especially from the far north, heading south. Their peak migration tends to coincide with leaf-off. This guy was right on time.

The owl ceased tooting after less than a minute, but before I could return to Sigurd, another sound cut through the dusk. This time it was the messy pattering of ducks taking off, and then the breathy whistling of wind through wings as a small flock of goldeneyes relocated out of our bay. Their distinctive flight sound has earned these compact, black-and-white ducks the nickname “whistlers.”

These interruptions to Sigurd’s musings on the Pipes of Pan seemed appropriate, since Pan and his pipes represent the harmonies of nature itself. In mythology, Pan is the half-goat Greek god of the earth who makes music with a set of reeds. “What I heard there were the Pipes,” wrote Olson, “and what I sensed, I know now, was the result of a million years of listening and being aware...”

This late fall trip was one of the quietest I’ve experienced in the Boundary Waters. Few other hardy souls braved the cold snap. Many birds had either migrated or fallen silent. The sounds we did hear, though, seemed more significant in their isolation.

At about 10:30 p.m., the quiet gave way to the patter of rain on nylon. Just before dawn, the sound changed distinctly to the harsh chatter of sleet, and then the soft swish of snow. Snow! The precipitation continued off-and-on all day. Happily, we were traveling with the wind, so the sleet simply hissed against our rain jacket hoods instead of stinging at our red cheeks. Neoprene gloves helped, but did not completely warm our hands. Portage landings were awkward, given the strong incentive to keep our feet dry. This is what outdoor adventurers often call “Type 2 Fun,” defined by The Mountain Training School as “not particularly enjoyable at the time, but rewarding after the fact.”

Although, there was something about the challenge—and certainly the swing of a paddle and the balance of a canoe—that was pleasurable in the moment, even against the cold. Sigurd Olson experienced pleasure in the face of discomfort, too, writing: “but for a moment the Pipes had sounded above the crashing of the waves…”

The weather did improve a little by our final day, and we enjoyed a calm, sunny afternoon listening to the clear whistles of a couple of gray jays, the chirping of an eagle, and the low, wild roar of a rapids in the narrows. That peaceful afternoon faded into one of the quietest nights I’ve ever spent in a tent, followed by a crisp dawn with every leaf edged in lacy frost.

The lake steamed silently as we made breakfast, and a flock of geese chattered amicably in the distance—their conversation slowly drifting southward. Not in a hurry to end our trip, we sat idly watching the mists swirl, our empty oatmeal bowls forgotten. In the absolute calm, I began to notice an occasional soft rustling sound. All around our campsite, birch leaves were detaching one-by-one and drifting to the ground. Not a whisper of breeze disturbed them, but perhaps the weight of the white rim of frost was enough to break them free.

“…and the Pipes were playing softly as they always do when a man has listened to their music and followed it to its source.”

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Virginia Creeper

Brilliant blue sky and abundant sunshine greeted me at the Cable Community Farm. I’d been waiting for this—a perfect day to dig potatoes! Shovel, garden fork, and boxes clattered cheerily behind me in the little red wagon as it bumped over uneven paths. Stopping to open the garden gate, I took a moment to gaze appreciatively at the scarlet leaves of a Virginia creeper vine that had wound its way along the deer fence all summer.

A few weeks ago I admonished Albert Camus for thinking that fall needed to be a “second spring when every leaf is a flower," but Virginia creeper is a different case. One botany website describes its flowers as “insignificant.” Ouch! Honestly, though, I’ve never noticed the flowers. A quick search on Google Images shows that they are actually quite pretty, in a tiny, spritely way. The five-parted flowers are deep burgundy and pale cream, and grow in a grape-like cluster, eventually ripening into blue-black berries that are eaten by birds, mice, and other small mammals. Although, how much does their beauty count if you don’t ever see it? I just put a note in my calendar: next year, I’ll remember to look!

Virginia creeper’s fall colors more than make up for its inconspicuous July blossoms. Its starbursts of five gloriously vibrant red leaves (palmately compound leaves, technically) dominate all my memories of the plant. Growing up, we admired its color annually in the old fencerow below the house. A line of elm trees was dying and decaying in quick succession, and each tree was draped in more of the elegant vine than the last.

Those elm trees had bigger problems than a colorful vine, of course, but in some cases Virginia creeper can thread itself throughout the branches of a tree so thoroughly that it will shade the tree’s own leaves to death or add enough weight to hasten its downfall. On non-living substrates, like buildings, Virginia creeper is reported to be less damaging than non-native, invasive ivy. English ivy climbs using aerial root-like structures—appropriately called holdfasts—that wiggle their way into nooks and crannies and support themselves using adhesive nanoparticles. The holdfasts are exceedingly hard to remove, and excess moisture trapped against the wall can cause damage.

Perhaps because it is native, Virginia creeper isn’t quite so disparaged as a climbing nuisance. For one thing, it provides valuable habitat and hiding places for many small critters. The structure of its “holdfasts” also makes a difference. Its tendrils are tipped with tiny suction cups that flatten against the substrate and use the plant’s version of two-part epoxy to glue them securely in place. This structure eventually becomes woody and very weather-resistant, but is reportedly less damaging than ivy’s penetrating rootlets.

While the berries are toxic to humans and rubbing the stems or leaves on your skin may cause irritation, Virginia creeper is much less noxious than its most common look-alike. Especially when young, Virginia creeper is easily confused with poison ivy. While we all know the “leaves of three, let it be” rhyme that reminds us of a key characteristic of poison ivy, the five leaves Virginia creeper often unfurl sequentially. This means that at some point in the development of new leaf clusters they may only have three leaflets. Looking at the entire plant will help you make the correct identification.

Another mnemonic I just learned is “if it’s hairy, be wary.” This refers to the veritable fur of aerial rootlets that covers a poison ivy vine. Virginia creeper has those tendrils tipped with suction cups, but not in a density that would make it look hairy. I think we’re all pretty happy that it’s Virginia creeper and not poison ivy that’s twining itself along the deer fence at the Cable Community Farm!

A couple hours later, the little red wagon was once again bumping through the gate and under the glowing red garland of Virginia creeper. I was happy with my full box of purple potatoes, but overwhelmed by the 62 squash and pumpkins I’d also harvested from my garden plot. After loading it all in my car, I straightened my back, grabbed my camera, and went back to try and harvest just a little bit more of this perfect fall day.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Growing up before my eyes!

Water still dripped from the trees onto saturated duff, but blue sky peeked shyly through the clouds. Tired of the rain, my parents and I had taken advantage of a short break to go for a walk. Partway up the gravel road I followed a couple of mushrooms into the woods, and then looked up. Just above my head dangled a yellow and green sugar maple leaf with a squiggly line through it.

Immediately enamored (who wouldn’t be?), I plucked it down for a closer look. You may not think that animal tracking extends to insects, but you can use the same process of looking for clues that eventually tell a story. The squiggle on this leaf was typical of trails left by leaf miners, a group of insects (including moths, sawflies, flies, and beetles) whose larvae feed on the insides of a leaf between its “skins.” Some internet research and a quick email to Charley Eiseman, author of the fantastic resource Tracks & Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates, and the “BugTracks” blog, turned up a narrative we can all relate to.

The story begins near the base of the leaf, where the trail of the leaf miner starts out narrow, about the width of a felt-tipped pen. The line itself is composed of a dark center stripe and paler, translucent edges. It records the growth—essentially the childhood—of a moth larva of the species Glaucolepis (Trifurcula) saccharella.

Photo by Steve Nanz.

The egg was laid earlier this summer, maybe about a month ago, by a tiny, brown-and-white moth—wingspan 4 mm. The larva hatched, burrowed its miniscule body in between the upper and lower epidermis of the leaf, and began to eat. What is there to eat between the skins of a leaf? A juicy substance called mesophyll fills this inner space. It is full of chloroplasts, the green engines of photosynthesis.

Like a mountain path, the narrow trail of the leaf miner scribed switchbacks in the lowest lobe of the leaf near the petiole before widening and flowing like a river toward the leaf’s tip. It was fascinating to follow that widening trail and imagine the larva growing bigger as it fed.

The line of frass (caterpillar poop) down the center of the trail tells its own story. Through much of the mine the frass is just a fuzzy brown line, but in some sections a zigzag pattern becomes visible. It looks for all the world like one of the fancy stitches on my sewing machine. Charley Eiseman explained the cause of this pattern in an email. “It's mesmerizing,” he wrote, “to watch a nepticulid larva at work under magnification—the central frass line is made up of many tiny pellets, and the larva is constantly depositing them as it eats, wiggling its tail end around methodically to place them just so.”

When I read that, you can bet I added “watch a leaf miner larva at work” to my bucket list!

Looking at my leaf, I can just imagine the absolute concentration of the larva as it went about its essential business of eating, and necessary business of pooping. Occasionally, though, the pattern seems to break. There’s a slight accumulation of frass, then a thinner line, and—is it my imagination?—after that the entire mine seems to get a tad wider. I suspect that these interruptions in the pattern indicate places where the caterpillar got too big for its skin and molted, becoming a new “instar.”

Just before the end of the mine, its color changes drastically. I noticed it first on the LCD screen of my camera. I had just taken a photo of the leaf backlit by the sun. Most of the mine lit up beautifully, like a stained glass window. Near the tip of the leaf, though, the mine around the frass line became completely invisible! Turning the leaf over, I noticed that the color on the back side also changed drastically at that point. For most of the mine, it was apparent that a layer of leaf was more intact on the lower side of the mine than the upper. Then, for the last stretch of the mine, the insides of leaf seemed to be completely hollowed out. The frass line appeared thinner and straighter, too, like the path of someone on a mission. My hunch is that on the final day before its metamorphosis, the larva suddenly became a ravenous teenager and started eating everything in reach, and eating it so fast that the frass line stretched thinner, like a line from a pen swooped lightly across a page.

Finally, maybe a quarter inch from the end of the mine, the frass line ends. The mine continues as a transparent section of leaf, missing all its green. This, Charley confirmed for me, represents the length of the larva—frass marking one end, un-eaten leaf marking the other end—just before it popped out of the leaf, dropped to the ground, and formed a cocoon to overwinter before completing its metamorphosis to a moth next spring.

“Watching” the process of this larva growing bigger, and bigger, and finally leaving home to metamorphose reminds me of all the little old ladies I grew up with who would pinch my cheeks lovingly and admire how I’d grown. Then they’d hold up their thumb and first finger about an inch apart and exclaim “I’ve known you since you were this big!” If I could find that tiny larva, now wrapped tightly in its cocoon, you can bet I’d pinch its cheeks, too! After all, I feel like I just watched it grow up before my eyes.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Water Smartweed

I heard a lovely quote recently, from French philosopher Albert Camus. He wrote: "Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower." It seems to be a fair sentiment as golden leaves brighten cool, damp days. But fall has plenty of real flowers to brighten its days, too. In particular, I’ve been noticing a dark, stagnant pool just filled with hot pink flowers that rise above the glossy reflections of scarlet maple leaves. It’s on my way to work, so I’ve stopped a couple times with my camera when the evening light slants onto the scene with a particularly warm glow.

The flowers belong to a wetland plant called water smartweed, Persicaria amphibia. Its genus name, Persicaria, refers to peaches, and was bestowed because the oblong shape of its leaves resembles those of a peach tree. Amphibia is an even more telling part of its name. Amphibious, of course, means living in both land and water. Most plants choose one or the other and specialize. Water smart weed is so canny that it can change form to thrive in either habitat.

Currently, all the smartweed plants I’ve noticed when stopping to admire my roadside pool are fully aquatic. They have oblong leaves with blunt tips that float on the surface, and short, thimble-shaped clusters of shocking-pink flowers that rise above the water on smooth stems. I’m not surprised to see the aquatic form, since this particular pool rises and falls with rain events, and this summer we’ve had record precipitation. In some years, I’ve noticed this pool go almost completely dry by the end of summer. It makes sense, then, that a plant that can thrive in either a full wetland or mud would be successful here.

Its success isn’t limited to Wisconsin; water smartweed is widely distributed across the country. The first time I encountered water smartweed, my graduate school botany class was tramping along the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont. There, on the edge of the muck just barely accessible without rubber boots, we found the plant’s terrestrial form. The thick patch of smartweed stood a few feet tall on gangly stems with hairy, wavy-edged, sharp-pointed leaves and long, slender flower spikes. I never would have guessed that the floating plants in my pool and that gangly patch in the mud were the same species (for many years they did have different names), but modern botany has exposed their shape-shifting secret.
Terrestrial water smartweed 
My definition of adaptation is “something a living thing has or does that helps it survive in its habitat.” Water smartweed adapts to both its habitats. You may think that this makes it “smart,” and it would be logical to assume that’s the source of its common name. The truth is much funnier. According to the U.S. Forest Service’s plant of the week website, “the term smartweed is thought to be a more sanitized version of the original word “arsmart” for the use of the plant in medieval times to relieve itching and swelling of the human posterior.” This hot pink flower has many ways to brighten your day…

Many groups of humans throughout its wide range have found the roots, stems and leaves of water smartweed useful for medicine and its seeds useful as food. Waterfowl, marsh birds, song birds, and upland game birds also eat the seeds.

In addition to those common uses, scientists have even discovered that smartweed accumulates trace amounts of gold. Perhaps that’s why these striking flowers shine so brightly in the slanting rays of the shortening days of fall. Oh, Albert…I’ve changed my mind. Autumn doesn’t need to be a “second spring.” It has treasures all its own.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Bugling at Dawn

The sky was just beginning to lighten into grays and pinks as we gathered at the Clam Lake Guard Station to meet Laine Stowell, elk biologist with the Wisconsin DNR. Slowly rolling down Highway 77 in our car caravan, we barely noticed as dawn broke.

Our first stop was just behind the storage facility at the end of a paved road with several small homes. Riding in the truck with Laine, I’d been privy to the steady beeping that signaled a cow with a radio collar was nearby. Driving with his left hand, his right hand gripped the pole of the big receiver antenna punched through his roof and spun it slowly. As the antenna pointed in the direction of the cow’s VHF collar, the beeping grew louder. She was close, he said, between the side road and the highway.

Three years ago I wrote about how the presence of elk in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest made it feel wild. On that morning we had hiked a mile or so into the woods on a dirt road. Today’s urban adventure didn’t convey the same mystique.

Parking at the end of the lane, we all tiptoed out of our vehicles and gently pushed the doors closed, minimizing sound however possible. Gathering around Laine, we listened as he put the small cow call to his lips, and squealed out several expressive notes. When that failed to elicit a response, he continued with the longer bull bugling device. The long, flexible tube was covered in camouflage, with shiny black pieces at both ends. Putting his lips to the mouthpiece, Laine let out a high-pitched wail. Hopefully, another bull would hear the bugle and take up the challenge.

We stood expectantly: ears open, breathing controlled, arms wrapped against the morning chill. We admired the beauty of the morning light and dappling of fall colors. Silence. The elk were close, but not cooperative.

Elk were extirpated from Wisconsin in the 1800s due to over hunting and a rapid decline in habitat. In 1995, twenty five elk were released into the National Forest near Clam Lake, and the DNR now estimates the population to be 160-170 animals. Several dozen more elk are scheduled to arrive from a Kentucky herd this March. The new elk will boost the genetic diversity of this herd, and increase the population to the point where a limited hunting season can be considered.

Piling back into our vehicles, we caravanned to a couple more sites, each deeper into the woods than the last. Laine had woken up early to scout the area, and had located several cow-calf groups in the vicinity. During the rut—which starts around August 25 and can last into the middle of winter—where you find cows, you also find bulls. They were there…we could hear the beeps from their radio collars…but none made a peep in response to Laine’s calling.

As the sun rose higher, we bumped still deeper into the forest. A long, narrow clearing appeared and we pulled off to the side. This was the ELF line, and its grassy clearing is one of the main reasons that this area was chosen for the elk reintroduction in 1995. The ELF was a U.S. Navy project that used extremely low frequency (ELF) radio waves to communicate with deeply submerged submarines. The transmitter operated from 1989 to 2004, and consisted of two 14-mile transmission line antennas in the shape of a cross, with the transmitter station at their intersection. The lines were removed in 2008. Its legacy is that some of the clearing that was once mowed for maintenance is now kept open for wildlife habitat. The elk like the freedom of movement and tender new growth that the cut area provides.

We walked several yards uphill, away from the cars and the valley of the Torch River. By now the group was getting a bit restless; still hopeful, but also resigned to the fact we might not hear any elk.

Laine made another cow call, and almost immediately the haunting bugle of a bull echoed in the distance. Did you hear it? We looked around the group in excitement. Not everyone had heard. Laine called again. The distant elk bugled again, and then, after a second’s pause, another bugle sounded closer, and from a slightly different direction. We pointed in the direction of the sounds and grinned.

At least one of the bulls was pretty close, and in the opposite direction we’d been walking. Back down past the vehicles we ambled in the ELF clearing, and stopped on a knoll above the river. Laine and the two bulls called back and forth several more times. We even saw a flash of warm tan hair through the trees, likely feeding on the other side of the river.


Standing there, on land cleared by the military, admiring the cast of sunlight and listening to the uninhibited sound of animals going about their essential business of mating, I was struck by the contrast of wild and human-contrived. The elk were extirpated because of humans. They returned because of humans. We found them by using very high frequency (VHF) radio collars in an area cleared for extremely low frequency (ELF) communication—both manmade. And yet, the elk paid almost no attention to us. Their instincts, their drive to mate and survive, are the same as ever.

The wildness of managed populations is a philosophical question that isn’t resolved in my own head any more than it is decided among scientists or the public. We’ve complicated things, as usual. But still, I’m grateful for the opportunity to listen to the majestic bugle of an elk on a crisp fall morning just minutes from my home.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Rainbow of Mushrooms

Neon yellow. Brilliant orange. Lavender. Pure white (and deadly). Deep blue. Gray. Variations of red, pink, and coral. And every shade between off-white and brown. The rainbow of fungi in the Namakagon Town Hall was incredible. After just the first day of the Bayfield County Mushroom Foray we’d already found almost 200 species, and they were laid out in groups on a sea of tables.


Now, I should be clear. I didn’t identify all those species. I could tell you the common name of about five, maybe ten, of the fungi, and no scientific names with confidence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fascinated by mushrooms—how they partner with trees, orchids, and a plethora of other plants; how they decompose wood and make nutrients re-available to the ecosystem; how they parasitize insects, trees, and even us. I’ve focused on their stories, but not always their identification.

It’s a good thing, then, that Patrick Leacock, mycologist from the Field Museum in Chicago, came north with Britt Bunyard, editor of Fungi Magazine, to be our mycologists. In addition, many knowledgeable amateur mycologists from the Mycological Societies of both Minnesota and Wisconsin came all the way here to check out our amazing diversity of fungi.

After admiring the rainbow tables on the second morning of the foray, we headed out onto the trails to look for more. Entering the woods I sighed in resignation. I’m so much more confident in plant identification. Mushrooms, except for those few I know, are confusing.

The first mushrooms we saw as we entered the woods on the mountain bike trail were big, hulking, white masses just pushing up through the leaf litter. They were the perfect example of “puhpowee,” which (according to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass) is the Potawatomi word for “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.”

Always an educator, I gravitated toward the sole kid on the hike as he picked up a big white mushroom to admire its bulk. Of course René wanted to know what it was. I raked a fingernail across the gills on the underside of the cap, breaking their brittle flesh. As we watched, small droplets of white liquid oozed out of the injury. Relieved, I could identify this as a Lactarius species, a group aptly named for their milky ooze.

Many Lactarius mushrooms are smaller, and often prettily colored. One species is sapphire blue. Another species smells like maple syrup. This particular kind tastes like hot black pepper, so spicy that a single touch to the milk with the tip of your tongue releases a slow burn for several minutes (Yes, I’ve tried it). With this revelation, René also just had to try it. While he said it wasn’t too bad, he did scrunch up his nose and stick out his tongue.

(It’s important to note here that while this peppery Lactarius is not considered edible [the spicy flavor would make you sick], you generally have to actually swallow a mushroom to be poisoned by it. Some experts actually chew and spit out mushrooms to help with identification. I’m not recommending that technique if you don’t know what you’re doing, though.)

As we meandered farther down the trail, bright red, orange, and yellow waxy caps became prominent among the green carpets of Pennsylvania sedge. Holding one up for René, I had him feel the cap and gills. Their brittle flesh has a distinctly waxy feeling. Their cheerful colors brighten up grassy sections of woods.

Next we found a small patch of black trumpets. These dusty gray, vase-shaped mushrooms have thin, dry walls with no gills and often grow in clusters. A relative of the choice-edible chanterelle mushrooms, these are also considered a delicacy, and dehydrating brings out their Romano cheese aroma. Upon hearing their name, René brought the narrow end of one to his lips, and blew a little fanfare on his new “trumpet.” My kind of mushroom hunter, this kid.

While picking more black trumpets to fill his basket, René also found a little cluster of mushrooms with bright yellow stems and deep green caps. “Jelly babies,” someone had called them earlier. René held one up to his forehead like a unicorn horn. We agreed that while we weren’t big Packers fans, we both really liked those shades of green and yellow together.

The next mushroom we found was pretty non-descript. White stem, white gills, white flesh, with just a skim of soft red on the upper surface of the cap. It felt fragile in my hand despite its relatively robust proportions: a characteristic Russula. This big group is hard to tell apart, but you don’t need to know individual species to have a little fun. Instead of long, stringy fibers, these fungi have spherical cells that break apart easily. Pick one up and it will crumble in your hand more easily than Styrofoam. Throw one against a tree and it explodes in a shower of white crumbs. René and I experimented with this characteristic. Several times. Maybe this isn’t the most dignified use for a mushroom, but it sure is fun!

See the video here.

In the end, the Bayfield County Foray collected over 225 species of fungi. You can check out many of them on the Cable Natural History Museum’s Facebook page. More yet are awaiting identification by the experts using sophisticated techniques. I love knowing that our area is a hotspot for diversity. I also love knowing that even a little bit of knowledge (combined with a bit of humor) goes a long way in appreciating that diversity.

Next year, we’ll share our mushrooms with the whole country. The North American Mycological Association is holding their annual foray right here in Cable, during the weekend of September 9, 2017! Email to get in on the fun!

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Mud and Water Daughter

Growing up, my dad used to call me his “mud and water daughter.” It was a fitting title, since I spent most of the summer mixing various concoctions of mud pies under the playhouse and squirting things with the hose. As an adult, though, I am more of a “bedrock and water daughter,” and I thrive in the places where waves lap on crystalline shores.

Recently, I shared my love of such places by taking a small group of Museum members to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota, which just happens to be my favorite place on Earth. I’m not alone in my opinion. The Boundary Waters is the most visited wilderness in the United States, with more than 250,000 annual visitors.

Why do we love it so much? Many have waxed poetic about its beauty. On this trip we slipped through a meandering river lined with golden stands of wild rice, watched a sunrise through the swirling fog from a pink granite knob, and ran out from under the tarp to marvel at a rainbow that began and ended right in our bay. We paddled under towering cliffs of well-worn stone, painted by eons of dripping water and softened by an intricate crust of lichens. We marveled at the endless variety of clouds in the sky, and became mesmerized by their glimmering reflections in the silky medium that supported our thin-walled canoes.

The Boundary Waters is beautiful, but that’s only part of it. What really keeps people coming back, I believe, is the way this place helps us to challenges ourselves. When you cut out the excess, the superfluous, and the mess, and fit everything necessary for a week or two of life into a single, green pack, life becomes simple. There is an incredible sense of freedom in this knowledge of self-sufficiency. This freedom feels all the more sweet when it comes with manageable challenges and a means to test our mettle.

Portaging the canoe over steep and muddy portages is not easy. Paddling into a fierce headwind fatigues both the arms and the will. Living with our mistakes (a forgotten food item, too much heavy gear, a wet sleeping bag), can hurt our pride as much as our bodies. Our sense of accomplishment at the end of a long day isn’t due to our conquering the wilderness, it’s because we conquered ourselves. And, a hot meal and the wail of a loon at moonrise don’t hurt.

This place would be nothing without clean water. It seems obvious, but it bears repeating. Not only is the water our highway, but clean, drinkable water is our lifeblood. To dip a pot full right out of the lake and be able to simply filter, treat, or boil it to make it safe is amazing. You can’t do that everywhere. I wouldn’t do that from the river I grew up with.

In observing the six (very different!) participants on this trip, I was reminded that water doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Ed found his peace in fishing, and paddled out into a flurry of whitecaps to test his skill. We ate well from his efforts. JoAnn slipped reverently into the water each afternoon for a graceful swim along the shore. She found joy in this glassy cradle. Others preferred just to admire the sparkling view, or relax to the serene lapping of waves. I love drinking the wilderness waters, as Mary Oliver says, “flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt, the feet of ducks.”

Our first night out, we met up with two travelers who are worried about the future of clean water in the Boundary Waters. Dave and Amy Freeman—world class adventurers—are in their last month of a yearlong stay in the Boundary Waters. I have to admit, I was more star-struck in meeting these trail-worn, down-to-earth kindred spirits than I ever have been meeting a celebrity. They’ve made a dream come true, and in the process, (with the help of satellite internet and Facebook,) have brought me a window into my favorite place on Earth almost every day for the past year. For that, I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

They didn’t just embark on this adventure for a fun challenge, though. A Year in the Wilderness was launched in response to the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Dave and Amy and their scientist sources have seen that even conservative models of pollution show that waterways would carry contaminants into the wilderness. A single mine in this watershed will continually pollute the wilderness for at least 500 years. Rocks and water go hand in hand, until you start mixing them in the wrong way. You can learn more on their website:

A quarter of a million people visit the Boundary Waters each year to paddle, fish, swim, drink, and test themselves in the presence of beauty. What would we do without this vast reservoir of personal challenges and clean water? What would I do without it? As a mud and water daughter, I can’t even begin to fathom that future. Neither can Dave and Amy. They’ve dedicated a year to the fight to keep it safe. What if we all showed such a commitment to our planet?

Water reflects not only clouds and trees and cliffs, but all the infinite variations of mind and spirit we bring to it. – Sigurd Olson

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.