Thursday, September 29, 2022

Journey Through Fall

Every year, when the air turns crisp, the dogbane leaves glow lemony from the ditches, and the ash leaves fade to mustard in the swamps, I feel the urge to travel.

I’m not the only one.

Speeding along the highway with a yellow canoe strapped to my car, more shades of gold swirled upward from the roadsides. Yellow-shafted northern flickers are one of our only migratory woodpeckers, and right now they’re heading from Canada to the southern U.S.

While on the ground, flickers’ smooth brown back with black bars and dots blends in well with soil and leaf litter. As they startle, handsome yellow feathers are visible under their wings and tails, and yellow feather shafts show through from above and below. Their white rump patches flash brightly during short, undulating flights. Flickers catch ants and other insects with their long, sticky tongues, which means they’d better head south before frost kills their food and snow covers their buffet.

My cousin Heather and I flushed up flickers for an hour as we drove west of Ely, MN on the Echo Trail. Then we launched my canoe into the Little Indian Sioux River. The channel meandered back and forth in a wide valley, and we meandered with it.

The stream showed almost no sign of flow, except at the portages where we carried our packs on narrow paths beside beautiful, tumbling streams. As we emerged into Upper Pauness Lake, the water widened but the channel narrowed—cradled by tawny thickets of wild rice. When I daydreamed in the stern and the canoe got off course, our paddles caught the stems and an audible shower of rice grains pattered into the boat.

Photo by Heather Edvenson.

Finally reaching open water in the main part of the lake, we sized up a pale granite knob that seemed a likely campsite, and puzzled at two smaller white shapes along the shore. The shapes rose, arched graceful necks, and became swans.

Trumpeter swans are traveling now, too. Pairs who nested farther north, as well as the locals, will all feast on the wild rice and prepare to head farther south—to where the lakes don’t freeze. These—the largest of our native waterfowl—form pair bonds that can last for life, and unlike many smaller birds, they stay together all year long.

Later that evening, as we watched sunset from the granite knob (it was a campsite—the best one on the lake!), the sounds of a trumpeting conflict erupted from the lake next door as two pairs disputed some territory. Splashing came next—the sound of huge, webbed feet down a 100-yard runway, and finally the rush of air through feathers as the displaced pair appeared over the tops of the trees. Having cleared that obstacle, the swans stopped flapping, arched their wings, and glided down toward the dark lake before sending up a line of glittering spray. Silence descended as the moon rose.

The Moon and Jupiter rise in the east while we enjoy a cozy campfire.

The next morning, we portaged past bur oak trees and paddled north in the wide channel of the Little Indian Sioux. The raucous calls of blue jays cut through the calm. While only 20 percent of blue jays migrate in any given year, that still means as many as 6,000 of them pass through a migration hot spot like Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN, on a busy day.

As we emerged into Loon Lake, the appropriate silhouette was there to greet us. The loon dove and hunted while we paddled by, and white whiskers on their face foretold of more seasonal change. Loons have started their migration toward the Gulf of Mexico, but some will take their sweet time. They can’t molt any flight feathers before they reach the ocean, though. They are already on the edge of not being able to get airborne, and just a few missing feathers could mean the difference between liftoff and iced in.

Our campsite that day was another, even taller granite knob with a commanding westward view of the lake. As we sat around the fire grate eating lunch, activity in the trees caught out attention. The movements of a flock of small birds blended in with the fluttering of leaves in the breeze. Brief glimpses of drab yellow and olive-green feathers told me that these were “confusing fall warblers”; birds without distinctive plumage who I rarely attempt to identify.

The sounds they were making didn’t help either. I can identify plenty of birds by their unique songs meant for attracting a mate and defending a territory, but their sweetly whistled contact calls all sound about the same to my ear. Except for chickadees. Their namesake call was comfortingly familiar. Chickadees stay local all year round, and migrating warblers are known to seek out chickadee flocks to find food and safety as they pass through unfamiliar territory.

These warblers are headed south for the same reason I go north this time of year: bugs. As the mosquitoes, black flies, and other insects who tortured campers all summer prepare to survive the winter in some form of dormancy, the birds who depend on them for food follow their instinct to move out. I, on the other hand, revel in the lack of buzzing in my ears, and unmolested hours outside.

On our last morning, a V of geese honked across the pale pink sunrise. We’d spent only four days in the north instead of four months, but still, it was time to pack up and join all of the restless southward travelers on a journey through fall.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Glacial Refugia

By Cade Campbell
Summer Naturalist Intern at Cable Natural History Museum

Cade Campbell is from Bristol, Tennessee, and is currently studying Biology at East Tennessee State University. An avid naturalist, he spends most of his free time outdoors, and has both worked and volunteered with the Blue Ridge Discovery Center as a naturalist, and as a field technician elsewhere. Cade recently finished his tenure as a Summer Naturalist Intern at the Cable Natural History Museum.

Lush hemlock boughs with tiny, thimble-sized cones wavered in the gentle breeze as I strolled along the crunchy gravel road behind the Forest Lodge Nature Trail. On the ground, familiar friends like wild sarsaparilla, Mayflower, and moccasin-flower were unleashing their vernal beauty. It felt like an evening back home in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. These are fragments of plant communities I know intimately from Appalachia, over a thousand miles away from Northwest Wisconsin to the south.

So why are they here?

During the last glacial period (which ended around 11,000 years ago), the inescapable Laurentide Ice Sheet wiped out all life in its path. Some northern inhabitants made their way south, beyond the ice. The mighty Appalachian Mountains, once the tallest mountains ever to exist on the planet, provided a suitable place where these northern plants, animals, and fungi could survive alongside southern counterparts in protected valleys and ridges. The Southern Appalachian Mountains became a “glacial refugium.”

“The mountains have provided a fortress: support and strength to survive” wrote Helen Matthews Lewis, the great Appalachian sociologist and activist, in her poem “Redbud Trees.” Without Lewis’ proverbial “safe place,” much of the beloved life now and formerly indigenous to the Northwoods would not have survived the last ice age. When the glaciers receded, plants, animals and all life spread back across the scoured continent from the mountains and other unglaciated areas. The confluence of two ecosystems prevented the last ice age from exterminating the species we know and love in the Northwoods today.

As I continued ambling down Lost Land Lake Road, starflowers and bunchberries illuminated the mossy knolls. The overwhelming fragrance of sweetfern, the satisfyingly curly sheets of peeling paper birch bark, and the lonesome spires of black spruce indicated that this was a very different place than the distant mountains. These plants survived glaciation in the Appalachian Mountains, but none of them grow in Southern Appalachia anymore.

Bunchberry is a boreal wildflower that survived glaciation in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, but is scarce there today. Photo by Cade Campbell.

Some northern and southern species are still mingling on high-elevation peaks in Appalachia, as the climate and habitats change. Black bears, ruffed grouse, and trillium are equally at home in both the Northwoods and the Appalachian Mountains, despite regional eccentricities. Bears do not spend the winter hibernating in most of the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains, and nodding trilliums have diverged into slightly different species. Genetically, they remain long-lost relatives.

Many more species, now common in the north, have been transformed into rarities by time and climate, stranded on cooler, wetter “islands in the sky” in Appalachian refugia. Black-capped chickadees, wood lilies, and any kind of spruce or fir trees are familiar friends in the Northwoods, but increasingly rare in much of Appalachia.

While leading a Junior Naturalist program for the Museum this summer, I watched a snowshoe hare creep from the woods mere feet away from our group. I was just as excited as the kids, if not more! Later, while driving at dusk, I straddled multiple hares with my car as they bolted across the road. Amazingly, none were harmed. But even if I’d run one over, there are plenty of hares deeper in the forest.

In contrast, snowshoe hares were likely extirpated from the southern mountaintops during my lifetime; the climate can no longer support them. They are just one of the species who have disappeared entirely. With each missing member, the health of the ecosystem is drastically weakened.

Where species once migrated south to escape a wall of ice, they must now escape in the opposite direction to avoid excessive heat. My beloved Appalachians are being inundated by wildlife from much farther south. Locations with habitat similar to the Northwoods mere decades ago host life more reminiscent of habitats in the coastal Carolinas or Georgia. Cold-adapted species are forced north or to an untimely local extinction.

This means the Northwoods are receiving new waves of southern species, from great crested flycatchers to swamp darner dragonflies…and for a short time, me. As I prepare for my own migration back south after a summer in the Northwoods, I’m saying goodbye to spruce and fir, black-capped chickadees, and the scarlet clusters of bunchberries. To the wild sarsaparilla, Mayflower, and moccasin-flower I can just say, “I’ll see you at home.” …At least for now.

A Great Crested Flycatcher in a cherry tree outside of the author’s window in Tennessee.
Their range is rapidly shifting northward into Wisconsin. Photo by Cade Campbell.

Millennia after glaciation, the Northwoods of Wisconsin have become a refugium for species trying to survive a modern climate. Only time will tell if life is able to survive heat as well as it escaped ice.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Bear Who Gave Us a Sunset

Here's a our "Boundary Waters with a Naturalist" group, in our second-to-last campsite.

The voices filtering through our Boundary Waters campsite were so calm and sweet-sounding it took me a minute to process the words: “Hey, bear.”

Lake water dripped from my swim shorts, and I continued toweling off in the sun while the meaning sank in. “Hey, bear!”

Looking across the wilderness campsite, where a group of colorful tents lined the woods on the way back to the latrine trail, I saw a fuzzy black shape in their midst. Ally and Caleb, a young couple who’d been resting in a hammock, were calmly talking to the bear, waving their arms, and doing all the right things to let the bear know that camp was full of humans without startling it. The bear did not care.

Likely only two or three years old, his fuzzy back was barely taller than Caleb’s waist, and he showed neither aggression nor fear. He looked healthy. And he kept walking forward, having learned through experience that he could stroll right up and grab some tasty food if he ignored the humans diligently enough.

Although this was the first time I’d ever had a bear in camp, I didn’t feel like we were in danger. Black bears rarely attack humans, especially if they’re not surprised. So I calmly hung my towel on a tree branch and headed over to help, stopping by the fire pit to grab a couple of lids from the cook set. The metallic banging alerted Peter, who had been napping, that the voices weren’t just part of a dream. He popped out of his tent, just as the bear was walking past. “Don’t run!” called Ally (a wildlife biologist), with some urgency in her voice. Running away can sometimes trigger a chase.

Peter didn’t exactly run, but his sudden appearance and quick steps away from the bear, combined with Ally and Caleb’s increased shouting and steps forward, did turn the bear down into the woods beside camp. He circled around, and popped out on a narrow nature trail leading off into magical glades full of blooming twinflower and fairy-fan fungi we’d admired on an earlier walk. Where had the bear been then?

Bob, the most experienced participant in our midst, came to stand beside me as I banged on the pot lids. The bear didn’t retreat. Bob took a step forward, and the bear backed up one step in a long-distance dance. Then a softball-sized rock bounced in front of the bear’s nose. I turned to look just as Ally’s second rock followed the first. Now the bear turned, perhaps with a smarting nose, and slowly disappeared into the woods.

The eight of us—mostly strangers—brought together on this Cable Natural History Museum-sponsored trip, all gathered in the center of camp to make a plan.

First, we celebrated. This had been a pretty successful bear encounter. No one panicked. Everyone helped drive the bear away. The bear wasn’t rewarded, because our food was stored properly.

Being bear aware is always part of a Boundary Waters trip, but we’d been on high alert. As we’d loaded packs into canoes at Rockwood Outfitters just a couple days before, Mike had mentioned that Gaskin, a bigger lake nearby, had problems with a persistent bear in campsites earlier in the summer, but that the bear hadn’t been seen since the blueberries ripened.

Then, the evening before our encounter, two parents with two kids still small enough to sit side-by-side in their aluminum canoe had paddled past our campsite late in the day. Those two shots we’d heard earlier, explained the dad, was him firing his gun as a bear invaded their camp and came too close for comfort to their kids. So alerted, we locked our blue plastic bear barrel up tight, put the cook set on top as an alarm, and fastened the shoulder straps around a tree so it couldn’t be dragged into the woods.

Here’s the blue plastic bear barrel that kept our food safe from the marauding bear. It’s not 100% bear proof, but if you attach it to something so the bear can’t drag it away, the durable seal gives you more time to scare off the bear before he snatches all of your s’mores fixings. Photo by Jill Joswiak.

Now, though, the bear was real, food-focused, and not easily scared. I looked at my watch. 4:30 p.m. There was some discussion, some disagreement, and then a decision to seek a campsite on the next lake. We had our tents packed neatly into our portage packs and the last boat pulling away from the landing 40 minutes later. As Jill and I ducked under the curtain of cedar branches that framed the landing, she looked backward from her seat in the stern of the canoe. “The bear is coming down the landing trail!”

I turned around in the bow to look at her. “Are you joking? Really? Seriously?” It would have been a good joke. Instead it was absolute justification for moving camp away from this pest.

Having previously practiced our paddling and portaging skills all morning on a day trip, the group moved like a well-oiled machine. Tossing the canoe off my shoulders on the far side of the portage, I gazed out across the lake. The slanting rays of evening sun shone on a classic rocky campsite—unoccupied. A hallelujah may or may not have been playing on the wind.

Soon we were relaxing on that beautiful rock with bowls of warm food in our hands, as a magnificent sunset played across the smattering of clouds. A fingernail moon peeked out, too. Pretty soon, the Milky Way splashed a path across the dome of stars, and beetles darting on the quicksilver surface rippled Jupiter’s reflection.

Our new campsite, chosen after the bear invaded our previous one, offered up a gorgeous sunset.
Photo by Peter Marshall.

Our previous campsite, cradled by trees, had been perfect on the gusty day we chose it, but without much of a view. Now, as the wind finally subsided, the bear gave us a site that matched the sunset perfectly. We reveled in our good luck as the Big Dipper rose behind us.

Photo by Peter Marshall

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Fall Colors Revealed

We’re lucky to live in this swath of the continent known as the Northwoods, where fall colors are spectacular. Go a little south, or head farther north, and the forest changes. According to John Pastor, Professor Emeritus from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, we have the extremes of our climate to thank for this autumn show. There’s something about the contrast of hot summers followed by frigid winters that encourages diversity in the shapes, colors, and lifespans of our trees’ leaves.

The view from St. Peter’s Dome in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest becomes a kaleidoscope of colors in fall. Photo by Emily Stone.

At the risk of being a killjoy, I’d like to remind you that fall colors are all about death. We’ll start with a sort of obituary then—an explanation of the leaf lives we lose every fall.

As soon as leaves emerge in early summer, the trees begin again to form new buds. The basic cells for leaves, as well as shoots and flowers, are neatly organized and packed tightly within protective scales or thick fur. When warmth and light return next spring, those buds burst and the leaves expand.

It takes a lot of resources to grow a new leaf, and then maintenance costs continue as long as the leaf is photosynthesizing. I envision a worksheet full of math problems. Each species-specific equation contains different negative numbers representing the costs of tissue construction, maintenance, and reproduction. They also include various positive numbers of productivity. The answers, though, would all be the same: something just above 0.

Leaf shape is part of those equations. In his book, “What Should a Clever Moose Eat?” John Pastor put a number on it: 80% of deciduous species in the Northwoods have leaves that are either toothed or lobed. The correlation between leaf teeth and cool climates is so pronounced that paleoecologists use the percentage of toothed leaves in fossil plant communities to back-calculate prehistoric temperatures.

On the surface, it seems like a pretty random correlation. But scientists have determined that toothed leaf margins rev up their sugar factories faster in early spring than smooth leaf margins, thereby extending the growing season. The teeth also lose water at a higher rate. That isn’t usually a problem during our Northwoods mud season, but during this dry summer I noticed that birch leaves were turning brown from lack of water. When leaves crumple from drought, we see brown tannins in the membranes of dead cells.

Leaf lifespan is another variable in the equation. The more it costs to build a leaf, the longer it takes to pay off the overhead. Evergreen trees invest significant energy into building needles that can withstand harsh weather, photosynthesize at lower temperatures, and ward off pests. Pine needles live 2-3 years, and spruce and hemlock needles last 4-10 years. In contrast, cheap, flimsy birch leaves last just a few months. Neither way is necessarily better. Each strategy finds success.

As sunlight wanes in late summer, it’s time to close down the photosynthesis factories of leaves. Now the trees must try to salvage what they can. Nitrogen and phosphorus are sucked back out of the leaves and into the twigs, where they’ll remain on-deck to fuel next spring’s leaf growth. The tree benefits from storing N and P above ground, because the twigs thaw long before the frozen Earth releases her nutrients.

Finally, we’ve arrived at the onset of fall colors. Of course, they were there the whole time. All summer long, vibrant green chlorophyll was the star of the show, and outshone all the rest. As chlorophyll breaks down and is resorbed, though, its trusty sidekicks are revealed. Orange carotene pigments captured wavelengths of light that the green chlorophyll could not, and then transferred that energy over to help fuel photosynthesis. Yellow xanthophyll pigments absorbed dangerous excess energy in the leaf and dissipated it as heat. This prevented cell damage, and warmed the surrounding environment.

Tree leaves contain many colorful pigments that each play a role in photosynthesis. Once trees pull green chlorophyll out of their leaves, their yellow and orange pigments shine through. Photo by Emily Stone.

Red comes next. Once the phosphates have been resorbed into the twigs, sugars in the leaves break down and form anthocyanins. Anthocyanins absorb UV light, especially at low temperatures. Like sunscreen, the pigments protect the leaf cells while they finish sending their nutrients back to the twigs. They can be blue or purple, but their most conspicuous form is red. Red is the only fall color that is created and not just revealed.

Red maples leaves manufacture a red pigment called anthocyanin. Photo by Emily Stone.

To create anthocyanins you need lots of sugars, which means a summer with dependable soil moisture. This year, that may only have occurred in select habitats with naturally wetter soils. In contrast, cool, dry fall weather is essential for good colors, because rain literally washes the color out of the leaves—leaching pigments and sugars from dying cells. This year, I’ll take muted colors if it means more soil moisture going into winter.

While the forest becomes a rainbow, the deciduous trees are quietly growing several layers of cells across the base of the leaf’s stem where it is attached to the twig. Jack Frost doesn’t kill the leaves, because the trees themselves do. Finally, the abscission layer weakens the leaf’s hold on the tree just enough that a stiff breeze can whisk it away. That’s it. The Northwoods slides into the gray depths of winter, brightened only by the highly invested evergreens. Summer can’t last forever, but neither can fall, winter, or spring. Next year, we’ll get to watch the kaleidoscope of colors play across the landscape all over again.

Portions of this article originally appeared in Northern Wilds Magazine and this column.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Purpose of Ghost Pipe

On one of those drippy, foggy mornings recently, I took a wander down my driveway. The moss on the steep bank was happy at least, although the weather made me feel cooped up. The mosquitoes, too, emboldened by the calm humidity, buzzed too close and triggered a sort of annoyed claustrophobia.

But something glowed in the gloom up under the hemlocks. A cluster of pure white stems beckoned. The cut bank was steep there, the base of the stems at eye level. It took some careful foot placement and big, heaving steps to land myself next to them.

While someone thought that each nodding flower on a simple stem looked like a pipe—hence the name ghost pipe (previously known as Indian pipe)—they make me think of seahorses. The pipe is probably a more accurate shape comparison, but swimming here in the dark, damp shadows under the pines, the luminous, almost translucent clusters of stems feel more like deep sea creatures than inanimate objects.

Ghost pipe is a plant, but these stalks, with their oval bracts climbing upward and the single, bell-shaped flower that emerges directly from the terminus of each stem, have no leaves and contain no chlorophyll.

Chlorophyll, of course, is the green stuff that allows plants to make sugars through the process of photosynthesis. Green plants are known as autotrophs—they produce their own food using carbon dioxide, water, and energy from the sun. Auto = by oneself, and trophic = pertaining to nutrition. Like seahorses, ghost pipes are heterotrophs. Hetero = other. They can’t make their own food, and so must acquire it through the food chain from other plants and animals.

Ghost pipes get their sugars from the trees they live beneath, but the flow of energy isn’t direct. Have you heard of the Wood Wide Web? Beneath the forest duff, 90% of plant species on Earth are in relationships with fungi that extend and connect their roots. Green plants may be able to produce their own sugars, but they need fungi to help them gather water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and more. This mycorrhizal (myco=fungus; riza=root) network is robust and thickly woven. So thickly, in fact, that scientists say you could find seven miles of fungal hyphae in a pinch of dirt, and hundreds of miles under a single footstep.

Ghost pipes engage in mycorrhizal relationships unique to their taxonomic group, where the hyphae of mushrooms form a sheath around the plant’s roots, and then short fungal pegs penetrate the outer cells of the roots. The plant grows finger-like projections around each peg, and the roots become a dense mass that somehow facilitates the grabbing of sugar, water, minerals, and more from the mushroom.

Ghost pipes are very picky about who they form this relationship with and seem to connect only to Russula or Lactarius mushrooms. The fungi aren’t so picky, though, and connect also with the roots of pines, oaks, beeches, and other trees. The mushrooms provide water and minerals to the trees and receive sugars from the tree in return.

Ghost pipes take advantage of their mutualistic symbiosis, somehow tricking the fungus to channel sugars from the tree into the pure white plant. Ghost pipe is generally declared a parasite, but radioactive phosphorus first injected into ghost pipe was later found in neighboring trees. Nature is rarely as simple as we think.

A few days after spotting those first white flowers, when I shared this relationship with a group of Wisconsin Master Naturalist students, they were indignant. Our culture loathes a mooch. “What good is it?” they asked. “What’s its purpose?”

The purpose of any living thing—at least from its own perspective—is to make more of itself. This flower is surely doing that. I could tell my students weren’t satisfied, though. We’re always looking for a benefit to US, or at the very least, a benefit to the ecosystem. “Its beauty isn’t enough?” I countered with a smile.

In fact, that beauty may be important. It improved my mood on a gray morning, but that’s not all. Those luminous white bodies are designed for visibility in the dark woods. The bell-shaped flowers hang down to protect their nectar from dilution by rain. As bees and other insects visit the nectar wells hidden deep inside the flowers, they access sugars created by a tree and dispersed by a mushroom. With their unique lifestyle, ghost pipes are able to bloom in deep woods where little else can.

Who else uses ghost pipe? After I posted my photos from that drizzly morning on iNaturalist, a researcher from Purdue University messaged me asking for help. They have found thrips—small flower feeding insects—on ghost pipes and are trying to discover more about the plant/insect relationship. Under their instruction, I picked a few flower stalks from my woods, packed them in 70% ethanol from the Museum’s collections department, and shipped them off on an adventure. Now, we wait for the results.

Meanwhile, the rest of the ghostly flowers in my woods will entice bees to transfer their pollen, raise their flowers up toward the sky, sprinkle their seeds through slits in the blackened, dried-up structures, and stand through the winter as little monuments to curiosity. Surely, we can find some value in that.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.