Saturday, July 21, 2012

Partnerships in Light and Dark

Breaking out of the dense canopy onto a rocky cliff, I glance first at the stunning view of Lake Superior, then to the shrubs around my feet. Deep blue is the color of the day. This section of the Superior Hiking Trail is known as “Blueberry Ridge,” and not without cause. Blueberries can survive in this hot sun and poor soil where many plants cannot, and in fact, this is where blueberries thrive. We saw blueberry plants in the deeply shaded forest – but not a single berry. Now, with the morning sun in our eyes, we pick steadily from clusters of wild candy.

Blueberry plants are sugar factories. They capture the plentiful sunlight energy and use it to manufacture fructose from water and carbon dioxide. But neither a plant nor a six-year old (or a berry-picking naturalist) can live on sugar alone, try as they might. In this thin, rocky soil, getting the right suite of nutrients and water for growth can be tough. The blueberry plants have helpers, though, just like many other plants in their Heath Family.

If you, or a plant biologist, were to stain a blueberry root with dye and view it through a microscope, you would see thin strands of fungal hyphae coiled within the root cells and extending in thin threads outside the root. The hyphae act like root-extensions, drawing in nutrients and water beyond the typical reach of the blueberry. The fungus, a decomposer, can break down soil components to access nutrients that are otherwise locked away. The blueberry pays for this service by giving the fungus little sugar snacks.

The blueberry’s mycorrhizal (fungus-root) relationship is wholesome compared to some of its close kin. Those shady cousins have a more deceitful way to make a living.

Back in the forest, layer upon layer of leaves filter out most of the noontime light before it reaches the forest floor. Red-capped Russula mushrooms with white stalks brighten up the brown leaf litter. The few understory species that can survive here must have low energy needs, and an ability to take advantage of sun whenever they catch a fleeting glimmer. Or they might be theives.

While your stereotypical burglar dresses in all black, one bandit shines with the translucent white glow of innocence. Sometimes called Indian pipe, ghost plant, or corpse plant, the cluster of eight-inch tall flower stalks is actually a cousin of blueberries and cranberries that takes the mycorrhizal relationship to the extreme. Indian pipe has no chlorophyll to make it green, and therefore cannot carry out photosynthesis. It does not need to make food, because this myco-parasitic plant is getting ALL of its food from a fungus.

It just so happens that some of the most common fungal providers for Indian pipe are Russulas, those pretty red mushrooms that are popping up everywhere right now. These fungi are engaged in their own mycorrhizal relationship with the trees, and are currently exchanging micro-nutrients and water for the sweet products of photosynthesis. Indian pipe fools the fungus into “thinking” they are forming a mycorrhizal relationship. Then it steals the sugars, giving nothing in return. Scientists have traced the one-way flow of sugars by introducing radioactive carbon into tree leaves, watching it flow down through the Russula, and out into the Indian pipe, where it stays.

In both sunlight and shadow, the intricate relationships of nature fill our lives with sweetness and beauty.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Magic on the River

“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace.”  -- Sigurd Olson

Just a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing six boys come alive on a trip down the river. As we launched from the Cable Wayside Landing, I could sense in them the thrill of adventure. The braided stream channels of the Namekagon River wove their magic around the boys. Every experience, from catching crayfish, to casting with fly rods, to exploring the campsite seemed to draw out the spark in them, just as they drew sparks with flint and steel.

This morning at that same landing, I launched those same red canoes with a new group of people. As the sun climbed in a cloudless sky, grandparents, parents and kids pushed off on a new adventure. Sigurd Olson believed that canoes are “the open door to waterways of ages past,” and Jean Schaeppi, a historian with the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, prepared us to go through that door.

As Jean spread out the old explorers’ and surveyors’ maps at the landing, a story unfolded, too. First were the sparse, hand-drawn accounts of early explorers with oddly-shaped lakes and blank spots enough to satisfy Aldo Leopold. Next came the neatly divided surveyors’ maps showing a checkerboard of ownership between logging companies and railroads. Finally, there were sketches from old-timers, remembering for posterity the neighbors, farms, and towns of their youth. The final map that Jean handed out was the official National Park Service map of the river, with river mileage, campsites, landings and roads all accurately marked.  

The river has gone through many changes over its lifespan. Nature is reclaiming the last traces of railroad trestles, home sites, and logging dams. Majestic pines, once seedlings in extensive clear cuts, tower along the riverbanks once more. The cultural history of this river continues to evolve, and now includes the legacy of visionary politicians who protected it as a National Scenic Riverway. Now the beauty of this place belongs to us all.

With a ten-year old as my bow paddler, and her younger brother as “wildlife spotter” in the middle of the canoe, we enjoyed the freedom of a day spent in nature. Ebony jewelwing damselflies fluttered around the canoe and along the shores. The exquisite beauty of their solid black wings and iridescence green bodies adds a spark of wonder to the landscape. Their adult form, twinkling in the bright sunlight, is in stark contrast to their immature nymph stage.

Looking for the whole story, the kids and I picked up rocks in the river’s riffles. Clinging to the dark undersides were alien-like creatures with six sprawling legs, two antennae, and three tails. These mossy brown damselfly nymphs will feed in the water for several months before climbing up a blade of grass, splitting their exoskeletons down their backs, and flying away as shimmering adults. The magic of metamorphosis is not rare in nature.

The spin of life cycles, the march of time, even the flow of a river, all remind us that change is constant. Still, we remain connected to the past. On the Namekagon, this includes early peoples, explorers, loggers, residents and recreationists, all with their own stories. Sigurd Olson believed that “When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” To me, that is part of the magic of the river.

Alan Craig, curator at the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum in Spooner will be sharing more about the history of canoeing in this region on Wednesday, July 25. at 7:00 p.m. at the Cable Community Centre.

 “The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores....There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” – Sigurd Olson

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Geology is EVERYWHERE!

I have loved rocks for much longer than I have been making silly puns with my last name. I used to pick them out of the gutters of the sleepy streets of my tiny hometown and sort them on foam trays. My categories included peach-colored pebbles, other colored pebbles, and pebbles that look like mini food items. Any vacation, canoe trip, or walk resulted in pockets full of interesting rocks that caught my eye. You might know someone with a similar addiction.

I often notice a familiar gleam in the eyes of kids (and adult kids) when they see the shelves of rocks and minerals in our Collections Room. Toddlers grasp polished agates with chubby fingers, little prodigies recite the rock cycle, and adults marvel at the size of quartz crystals.

It is fun to share stories of the rocks with visitors. Over the years, I have learned enough about geology to feel a sense of wonder at the incredible history and significance of each shiny pebble and handful of sand. Beach days have been transformed.

One of my college classmates summed it up on a trip to southeast Utah when he exclaimed, “Geology is EVERYWHERE.”

Geology really is everywhere. If you go out to your landscaping rocks, or even onto the driveway, you can find a whitish rock speckled with black. It is most likely a piece of granite. This particular rock, the one in your hand, was once as much as 30 miles deep within the Earth’s crust. Pieces that broke off as it bounced along on its way to you may now be forming sand castles on a beach in Florida. It is here in Wisconsin because of the incredible power of glaciers to shape the landscape.

Near that chunk of granite, you might find a smooth gray rock called basalt. It probably originated as lava that spewed forth from a fissure volcano in the Lake Superior basin about 1.1 billion years ago. Air bubbles in the lava, now frozen in the solid rock, provided a space for our beloved Lake Superior agates to form.

If you poke around in your driveway or landscaping, you may come across a shiny pebble with red and black stripes or small burgundy dots. This is one of my favorite rocks, if one could ever choose a favorite. Some folks call it jasper, but the geologists call it Banded Iron Formation or BIF. The layers of black and red are made of iron bonded with oxygen (hematite) and silica bonded with oxygen (chert). The iron and silica probably originated from volcanic activity. The oxygen came from the very first organisms that could do photosynthesis! Rocks and life go hand-in-hand, in ways we can hardly begin to imagine.

BIFs have an incredible story and great significance in the history of our planet. On Wednesday, July 18, Northland College geology professor Tom Fitz will tell us all about it at 7:00 p.m. at the Cable Community Centre. This free lecture is part of the Joseph Jenkins Lecture Series put on every summer. If you come, beware: your beach days may be transformed. Geology is EVERYWHERE!

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Wolf Chills

Sometimes, when the temperatures rise above 80 degrees, and the humidity hovers around 100%, I have to imagine myself in a happier, cooler place. You might be a heat-loving fan of summer, and I am too, sometimes. But when the breeze dies, the bugs flock, and the sweat drips, I find myself dreaming of a snowy wonderland.

Sometimes I’ll flip through old photographs on the computer to help jog my memories of winter. Here’s me on snowshoes, with a frozen elk leg strapped to my pack, towering mountains in the background. Here’s me, bundled so that barely an inch of skin shows, scarf and hat crusted with driven snow, sitting on the top of a butte near a spotting scope. You can’t tell from the photo, but my fingers and toes are numb.

You may think this sounds like pure misery, and I have to admit, there were moments, but it was also one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Those photos are from my month in Yellowstone National Park as a volunteer with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. Every March since the wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, paid and volunteer researchers have collected data on the behavior and biology of the wolves.

On a typical day, my team of three would wake up before the sun, and drive our Suburban into the park. The roof of the vehicle was mounted with an “omni” antenna that can receive signals from the wolves’ radio collars from all directions. If we heard a beep from one of our pack members, we would pull over at the nearest observation point and use the directional or “H” antenna to pinpoint which direction to look. Then we would set up our spotting scopes and scan the rugged landscape for the fifteen members of our pack.

Once we spotted the wolves, our job was to keep them in view for as long as possible and to record every aspect of their behavior by the minute. Talking into little personal recorders, we sounded like this: 7:02a.m. SLEEP. 7:03a.m. REST. 7:10a.m. MILL. 7:11 a.m. RALLY. 7:13 a.m. HOWL. 7:15 a.m. TRAVEL. For 50% of the time that we had them in view, our pack was either resting (heads up) or sleeping (heads down).

The excitement came when they rallied and howled. This usually meant that the pack was getting ready to travel and hunt. They loped across the hillsides single file, testing elk among the pine trees. Generally, if an elk stood its ground, the pack would pass it by. Once I watched as the pack surprised a herd of cow elk, who panicked and broke into a run. Deep, crusty snow forced the elk to run single-file in packed game trails, and the wolves gave chase. Within seconds, the wolves had brought down a cow at the back of the line, and the rest of the herd was out of sight.

After a few days of watching first the wolves and then the scavengers turn her body into theirs, we snowshoed into the valley to collect data on the kill. It was soon obvious why she had gone down: one of her legs had broken and re-healed, and her bone marrow was pink and jelly-like, indicating malnutrition.

It was simply amazing to watch nature in her finest in the first-ever National Park. Bald eagles, golden eagles, magpies, and ravens, red foxes, coyotes, and even grizzly bears all feasted off the wolves’ scraps. Herds of elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison, and pronghorns moved through the snowy hills and plains. The sun glowed red on the horizon twice a day, unless it was blotted out by swirling snow.

One of the most thrilling events took place near our observation point above Geode Marsh. I was hiking along a side hill in the swirling snow, when over the woosh of the wind I heard a mournful cry. It was soon joined a chorus of rising howls that made the very air around me tingle.

Much nicer than 85 degrees with 95% humidity!

Wolves in Wisconsin howl, too, and you can attempt to hear them with us on July 14. Adrian Wydeven and Sarah Boles, Wisconsin wolf experts, will give a presentation after dinner at Lakewoods Resort, and then guide us into the Chequamegon National Forrest to howl for wolves. Call 715-798-3890 for details and to register!

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,