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First Colors of Spring in Michigan

It’s happening. Michigan’s annual procession of spring wildflowers has begun at last. In April, all it takes is a day or two of blue skies and warmer temperatures for the waiting buds of bloodroot, spring beauties, hepaticas, trout lilies, anemones, and other jewels of the hardwood forest to open.

Yesterday, with temperatures in Kent County finally hitting the seventies, I found the year’s first pioneer blossoms gracing a trailside along the Coldwater River. With the sun shining gloriously again today, the ranks of the springtime color parade will swell considerably. And within a week, a veritable explosion of wildflowers will litter the forest floor with whites, pinks, purples, and yellows.

I love this time before the trees leaf out, when the maples are a wash of tiny, red flowers, the lawns and fields turn from brown to green, and the forsythias transform themselves from bare branches into visions of buttery yellow.

In the wilds, it all starts with the lowly skunk cabbage—an odd and remarkable little plant that I’ve written about in a previous post . Skunk cabbage blooms when the snows are still on the ground, generating enough heat to melt its way through the frozen earth and thrust up its peculiar, pointy hood in the swamps and wet woods. Normally the hoods are a wine red mottled with green. But yesterday, walking along the Dolan Trail in southeastern Kent County, I spotted a striking, pure lime-green flower. Skunk cabbage is not a plant one would normally describe as beautiful, but this one was a work of art.

It’s not the only one, though. Skunk cabbage may lead the procession, but other wildflowers are beginning to lean in and lend their colors. The dogtooth violet—otherwise known as the trout lily because its attractive, copper-and-olive leaves resemble the camo coloring of trout—is unfurling its sunny yellow flowers here and there in the open woods. In the same vicinity, the bloodroot is opening its snowy, eight-petaled blossoms in the sunlight. Pull up one of these plants by its root and you’ll see how the bloodroot derives its name: the bright red sap makes the root look like it’s bleeding.

The main attraction of the Michigan Nature Association preserve where I was hiking had not yet put in its appearance. The Virginia Bluebell is one of the rarer wildflowers in our state. It’s also one of the showier ones, but it is presently just starting to poke its clumps of lush foliage up in the colonies that, in another week or so, will grace this tract of woods with masses of fragrant, sky-blue flowers.

In the meantime, the pageant of the spring is unfolding in other ways all through the sanctuary. Patches of duckweed, one of the world’s smallest flowering plants, are rising to the surface of the wooded pools. The Dutchman’s breeches are hanging out their first creamy, miniature pantaloons. In another few days, you’ll see them by the hundreds.

And the show doesn’t stop with the flowers. On an old log, I spotted a small but strikingly attractive shelf fungus whose brown, orange, and yellow banding reminded me of tiny turkeys spreading their tails.

If you’ve been hunkering down indoors waiting for the winter to end, hunker no more. Now is a time to head for the woods, the trails and the streamsides. The trout fishermen are out, the birds are singing, the wildflowers are blooming, and Michigan is burgeoning into mid-April. What are you waiting for? The sky is blue. Get out and smell the flowers!

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Written by Dave.

Paul Henry Trail on the Thornapple River May 16 08

You’re liable to see just about anything along the Paul Henry–Thornapple Trail in Middleville.

Swans patrolling the old millpond.

Muskrats diving in the backwaters.

Fishermen hauling smallmouth bass out of the Thornapple River.

Walkers strolling beneath an archway of trees.

Cardinal flowers lighting the late-summer swamps.

Sandhill cranes nesting out in the marsh.

What’s particularly nice about the Paul Henry Trail is, it’s easy. Easy to access, easy to walk, easy on the eyes, easy in every sense of the word—and that makes it a joy to explore.

I’ve been walking the trail myself since before rocks were born, back when it was still just an old, abandoned railroad track winding along the Thornapple River through some of the most beautiful, richly varied territory imaginable. The Thornapple Trail Association has done a magnificent job of converting the tracks into a linear parkway that respects the needs of both the public and the environment.

To be honest, I was at first dismayed when this stretch of the trail was paved and opened to hikers, bikers, and in-line skaters. In my overall outdoor experiences, I’ve encountered far too many empty beer cans, snack wrappers, and paper cartons in the middle of nowhere, left there by thoughtless individuals who had no problem hiking such objects in when they were full, but who evidently lacked the stamina to carry them out when they were empty. I shuddered to think of that happening along the Thornapple Trail—but my fears have been alleviated. I’m pleased to say that Middleville residents seem to genuinely appreciate the treasure that lies just outside their back doors, and to respect and maintain it accordingly.

Park your car behind the police station on East Main Street, next to the little park on the east side of the Thornapple River. Once on the trail, you can see the first of two old trestles bridging channels that connect the river to the millpond and marshes on the east side of the trail. If you make it only as far as the second trestle, you’ll already have seen enough to make your visit well worthwhile.

But why stop there? The entire three-mile stretch of paved trail from the center of town to Irving Road is beautiful. Treat yourself to at least a mile, especially in late August, when the impossibly red spikes of the cardinal flower glow incandescently in the floodplain forest. Or bring your bike or in-line skates and take the full tour.

Personally, I like walking best. It slows you down and gives you time to see. And there are things worth seeing. An owl peering down at you from a high branch. Soft purple phlox blooming by the trailside. A solitary swan prowling the backwater…a pileated woodpecker calling from the swamp…other birds you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. Indeed, you’re in the heart of a bird watcher’s paradise.

Take your time. Look. Listen. Did you bring your camera? You’ll find no lack of subjects. Great shots practically compose themselves for you along the Paul HenryThornapple Trail. It’s the crown jewel of one Michigan small town—a pleasant hike lined with splashes of Eden.

 

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Written by Dave.

Predator Plants of Michigan may 30 08

You have to dodge the poison sumac before you can get to the pitcher plants.

Oh, yes, and watch out for rattlesnakes, and bog holes that can swallow you up to your waist…or worse.

But if, like me, you’re a connoisseur of the Michigan outdoors, you take the hazards in stride. They’re just part of the package when you set off in search of some of our state’s strangest, most literally captivating flora: its carnivorous plants.

Yes, they grow here in Michigan. They’re every bit as exotic as you might imagine, but you don’t have to travel to an Indonesian rain forest to see them. In fact, you probably don’t have to venture more than a few miles to find native wildflowers that, in a fascinating reversal of the food chain, lure, capture, and consume insects. The reason you’ve probably never encountered Michigan’s predator plants is simply that most folks don’t normally go traipsing about in the places where they grow. Peatlands are not exactly user-friendly. They’re wet, miry environs with some very real risks for the uninitiated.

But they’re also very beautiful places, home to feathery tamaracks, white-tufted cotton grass, and a broad variety of wild orchids—and, of course, to pitcher plants and sundews.

From late May through early June, you’ll find the wine-red blossoms of the northern pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, dotting the sphagnum bogs and prairie fens. A semi-evergreen, the plant retains its old leaves through the winter and sprouts new leaves around the same time as its flowers emerge.

Look closely at the inside of the lid at the top of one of the tubular leaves and you’ll notice a bed of stiff, curved hairs pointing toward the interior of the trap. These escort ants and other insects downward toward a waxy area, where they lose their footing and plunge into a pool of water mixed with digestive enzymes.

Studies have shown that of the eight species of North American pitcher plant, some—perhaps all—exude a narcotic nectar that attracts and then stupefies insects.

While the pitcher plant uses a passive, pitfall-type trapping mechanism, the sundew employs an active, flypaper approach. This small, jewel-like plant is aptly named. Sprouting in a rosette from the base, the petioles swell at the end into flat discs or blades, each covered with numerous red hairs tipped with a tiny droplet of clear mucilage. In the sunlight, the plants really do look like they’re covered with dew—but don’t let that fool you. Touch a single droplet with the end of a toothpick and watch it pull out like taffy. This is a deadly dew, more than capable of miring fruit flies, gnats, ants, and other tiny insects for the leaf to smother and digest.

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Of the four species of sundew that grow in Michigan, the two you’re likely to find in lower Michigan are the roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) and the longleaf sundew (D. intermedia). The former grows in sphagnum bogs and fens, while the latter confines itself strictly to the wettest raw peat in bogs.

This Thursday I took a hike in a prairie fen south of Middleville where the predator plants grow thick. It had been a good five or six years since I’d visited the place, and in that time, an infestation of beetles had decimated the once lush ring of tamarack trees that lined the small lake. But many of the trees had survived, and now younger tamaracks were springing up to take the place of the old guard.

Stepping warily around poison sumac sentinels just sprouting their spring foliage, I emerged into a narrow, grassy corridor that opened out onto the marl flats.

The unmistakable, madder flowers of the pitcher plants waved above islands of sedge—here, a solitary blossom; there, a trio; yonder, a quorum, bowing like purple-cowled monks. It was a sight to see, and one I hadn’t seen in a while. Most Michiganders never see it at all—but it’s there for the seeing. Like all of God’s gracious gifts, it comes without charge to those who care to look a little deeper into the rich treasury of our Michigan landscape.





 

 

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Written by Dave.

Most of us have an image of Pleasantville tucked away somewhere in our minds.

Remember Pleasantville from your first grade reader—that idyllic community of gracious lawns, a sunlit body of water, and a perennially happy neighborhood where John and Jean romped with Spot, their dog? Your introductory reader may have used different names, but you know the town, you know the kids, and surely you remember good old Spot. (See Spot run. Funny, funny Spot!)

There are views in Portland, Michigan, that I’d swear come right from Pleasantville. Not, mind you, that the entire town is the stuff of my old elementary school reader, but parts of it catch at something inside me and sweep me back to that long-ago, mythical setting on Pleasant Street. A view from across the river at a picture- book yard…the chatter of softball players and spectators of every age (Portland is the ball-playingest community I’ve ever seen!)…a beautifully conceived system of paved trails, complete with a couple of renovated railroad bridges, that hug the banks of two rivers…

Walk those trails, and, trust me, you’ll find yourself in Pleasantville.

Until you get to Duke’s Cafe.

Duke’s Cafe is not Pleasantville—the food has too much attitude. But Duke’s is most definitely Portland.

Situated at the confluence of the Looking Glass and Grand Rivers, Duke’s is a destination place if you love Cajun cooking. We are talking here of unapologetic bayou food—of rip-your-lips-off gumbo, unrepentant andouille sausage, and eye-popping jambalaya that takes no prisoners and feels no remorse. This is stuff you have to kill twice and then drown with a Killian’s or a frosty glass of ice tea.

Of course, if you prefer less drama in your meal, Duke’s offers plenty of milder, more traditional fare. Whatever your taste, the porch is the place to kick back and enjoy your dinner on a clear, mellow evening in June, with the Grand River flowing by on one side and the Looking Glass on the other.

Afterwards, take a stroll down the river walk, stop and watch a few innings of one of the ball games, and then top off your expedition with a trip to the ice cream shop just across the bridge from Duke’s. Grab a cone or a tin roof sundae, sit in the shade on the porch, watch the river glide past you, and listen to the chatter of voices drifting across the water. You can’t find a more pleasant way to conclude a lazy summer evening.

But then, what would you expect? You’re in Pleasantville.

 

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Written by Dave.

Railroad Magic June 20 08

What’s the railroad to me?
I never go to see
Where it ends.
It fills a few hollows,
And makes banks for the swallows,
It sets the sand a-blowing,
And the blackberries a-growing

but I cross it like a cart-path in the woods. I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing.

—Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau could have given the Fitchburg Railroad which ran near his Walden estate a little more credit. But then, having by his own admission never taken an interest in where the tracks ended, Thoreau clearly missed a great deal of what lay along the way. That’s a sad loss to one widely credited for clarity of vision—because railroads are magical.

Oh, the magic is a humble kind, but it grows on you. It’s the subtle magic of rekindled senses. Walk a mile or two on a railroad track out in the countryside in the late afternoon, and you’ll be gently swept into an unforced progression that opens your eyes, clears your mind, and deepens your capacity for enjoying things that are simple and free.

Railroad magic starts with deceleration. You slow down—first with your feet, down to the pace of a walk, and then inside yourself. What’s the hurry? There is no hurry. michigan railroad magic

You start to notice things you normally don’t pay much attention to. The slant of the afternoon sun burnishing the landscape. The smell of newly mown fields stretching toward the tree line under a blue vault of summer sky. A grove of sunlit poplars dappling the foreground with dancing shadows. A woodpecker tree standing like a soldier at attention near the woods edge.

But now, stop…listen. Hear that drawn-out, distant sound of a horn? Train coming!

You step off the track, well off to the side, and wait. Soon, you hear the horn again, louder this time. The train is approaching the crossing a quarter mile from you. You can hear the gathering rumble of the engine, the squeal and the rush of freight cars…and now, here it comes, closer…closer….

..and with a roar, a cloud of smoke, and the smell of diesel fuel, it’s upon you, racing past you with a clatter…

..and just like that, it’s gone.

Railroad magic is a magic of contrast. It sets drama and peacefulness, life and death, within mere yards of each other. The tracks are a boneyard, marked with the remnants of deer, raccoons, and possums whose last thought, on seeing the headlight of a locomotive rushing at them in the night, must have been, “What the…?”

Yet, there in the austere setting of the railroad bed, life boldly flourishes, stubborn and brave under the June sun.

Arteries of the nation that connect town to town and commerce to commerce, railroads wind through places the highways will never take you. In their own way, they’re as much a part of the Michigan landscape as our lakes, fields, and forests.

Can you hear that far-off horn? It’s sounding an invitation from the place where civilization kisses the countryside, calling you to slow down, listen, think, and deepen your life.

That’s railroad magic. Go take a walk down the tracks and let it do its work.

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Written by Dave.

Showy Ladyslippers June 27 08

They’re easy to find provided you know what you’re looking for. A short walk down a public walking path through a fen on the south side of Middleville brings you right to them. If you’ve got a nature eye, you’ll recognize them immediately.

I’m talking about showy ladyslippers (Cypripedium reginae). Mid June through early July is the time when this crown jewel of Michigan’s native orchids blooms in the wetlands. It is aptly named. Growing up to three feet tall, this is among our state’s more spectacular wildflowers.

From the jewel-like twayblades and the diminutive, globally endangered nodding pogonia, to the tall, luminous spikes of the orange fringed orchid—from the striking, checkerboard leaves of the rattlesnake plantains to the leafless, saprophytic coral roots with their chestnut-brown flowers—wild orchids are a treasure of the Michigan outdoors. But they’re a treasure most of us are unfamiliar with, for a variety of reasons. Many of our native orchids don’t look particularly eye-catching or orchid-like; you’d walk past them without giving them a second glance, or even a first. Others, such as the dragon’s mouth and grass pink, are strikingly beautiful, but they grow in places most people normally don’t care to go. And many are so rare that your chances of finding them range from small to subatomic.

If the showy ladyslipper is guilty of any of the above, it’s the matter of living quarters. This is no shy, retreating plant; the Latin species name, reginae, means “queen,” and a queen it is, tall, stately, and unabashedly splendid. You’re not likely to overlook it if you happen upon it. Moreover, while all wild orchids are uncommon as a rule, the showy ladyslipper is not one of our rare species. The distribution map in Frederick Case’s Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region shows it occurring in fifty-three Michigan counties and two of our Great Lakes islands, and that is doubtless a conservative figure. However, few of its wetland homes are as benign as the Middleville fen, which is equipped with a trail that takes you right past the orchids. Usually, if you’re going to find this plant, you need to set out with that goal in mind, know your habitat, and be prepared to get your feet wet and dodge poison sumac.

Speaking of sumac, if you do find this ladyslipper and feel inclined to pick a few flowers for the vase on your kitchen table—don’t. Besides being illegal, harvesting this plant is liable to leave you with a rash similar to poison ivy. This queen of the wetlands is not without her defenses.

Photographs, on the other hand, are totally permissible. This photogenic plant is well worth the effort. It practically composes your pictures for you. The next screensaver image on your computer may be blooming right now on a lake shore near you.

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Written by Dave.

Stormy Weather July 18 08

It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest—FST! it was as bright as glory, and you’d have a little glimpse of treetops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you’d hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs—where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.

“Jim, this is nice,” I says. “I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here.”
—From the book Huckleberry Finn

I agree with Huck. There are few places I’d rather be than smack in the middle of a savage ripsnorter of a thunderstorm. I love a good storm.

I think most of us do. Weather is integral to the ambience of outdoor Michigan, and thunderstorms are all about ambience. The foreboding rumble of distant thunder; the malevolent scowl of an advancing arcus cloud; the sizzling intensity of lightning; the wet blast of the foreward-flank downdraft; the fresh smell of rain-washed air as the clouds roll off to the east…nothing grips the senses quite like a storm.

You know it’s true. When you were a kid, your mother told you to stay away from the window during a thunderstorm, didn’t she. But now that you’re grown, where is it you go when the thunder rumbles? Right—you head straight for the window. And who can blame you? A good storm is well worth seeing.

But not all storms are created equal. Here in Michigan, thunderstorms commonly line up in a squall line along an advancing cold front. Squall lines are prolific breeders of straight-line winds, intense lightning, and pea-size hail. Shorter squall lines may bulge out in the center, forming what is called a bow echo; the fiercest winds occur in these formations.

During the summer, warm air masses with mild winds aloft also favor single-cell thunderstorms that form and rapidly fade in the late afternoon. These popcorn storms are fairly benign diversions, and those with only an occasional, grudging flash of lightning practically beg you to take a walk in the rain.

On the other end of the spectrum is the supercell, the tornado breeder of the spring months. The isolated ones are the most dangerous, and relatively rare. More common in Michigan are supercells embedded in a squall line. Either way, forget about a walk in the rain. Think instead about a trip to the basement.

When a big thunderstorm is rolling in, though, chances are you’re not contemplating storm classification. No, you’re anticipating the experience. You’ve got a front row seat on a grand spectacle of the atmosphere, and the show is about to start. Overhead, a thin, milky canopy of cirrus has been gradually thickening over the past hour, deepening into gray. Above the distant hilltops, the skies look dark, and you can hear the first far-off mutterings of thunder.

(Look for part two next Friday.)

 

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Written by Dave.

Welcome to the Timbers! Aug 1 08

The Reuben sandwich is the acid test. At least, that’s what I told my waitress at the The Timbers Inn southeast of Rockford, and I think it’s a darned good standard.

Think about it: when have you ever found a restaurant that served a truly fabulous Reuben? I don’t mean an acceptable one or even a decent one—I mean a Reuben you’ll go out of your way for, with flavorfully marinated, home-cooked corned beef that holds together obediently between slices of toasted, marbled rye bread, but that falls apart the instant you bite into it. That’s the kind of Reuben sandwich you’ll find at The Timbers, and it’s an excellent indicator of the overall quality of food that awaits you.

But the food is just part of the attraction at The Timbers Inn. Ambience, my friend—it’s about ambience. If you’re the outdoorsy type, you will love the feel of this place. From the time you set foot in the door, The Timbers sets the tone and draws you in with its warm, hunting lodge atmosphere.

To the left is the main dining area, with its gracious, natural wood environment, chandeliers, and large fieldstone fireplace in the center to warm your spirits during a snowy Michigan winter. I’ve eaten here many times since the restaurant opened fourteen years ago in 1994—often just by myself, sitting in one of the window booths with a plateful of wild game casserole, a glass of Scotch ale, and a good book.

On this occasion, however, I took a right from the foyer and headed into the tavern, where I found myself a booth with a window overlooking the patio. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday, and apart from a foursome sitting at a table, I was the only diner.

 

It’s hard to describe the tavern, but I’ll start by saying that it is designed to appeal to the senses. The tavern is a winsome combination of spaciousness and clutter, elegance and roughness, and the overall effect is comfort. Taxidermy abounds, from the large moose head presiding over the massive bar, to trophy fish suspended from the ceiling, to a black bear taking a startling leap out of the side of a fireplace. As in the main dining room, you’ll also see a scattering of wildlife paintings and outdoorsy knickknacks and curios—not commanding attention, but inviting it.

Mandy was my waitress—friendly, conversational, attentive, and the bearer of a truly stellar Reuben. Yes, the Reuben really was just that good. And that points to the menu as a whole. From the wild rice soup and buffalo chili, to the various Angus beef and buffalo burgers, to entrees such as blackened shark, Canadian walleye, and Szechuan roasted duck, you simply can’t go wrong. As for beverages, while the wine list appears ample, my own qualifications are those of a beer aficionado. In that capacity I can speak credibly. I’m pleased to report a sufficient supply of local microbrews, some worthy imports, and worthwhile on-tap selections such as Founder’s Pale Ale, Guinness Stout, and Newcastle Brown Ale.

The Timbers Inn Restaurant and Tavern. Dress up or dress down; take your mate on a date, or head there with your buddies after a day of fishing or hunting. Whether in the gracious interior with its rustic elegance, or outdoors on the patio with scents from the herb garden drifting by on the breeze, this is the place to go when you want to make the Michigan outdoors a part of your dining experience.

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Written by Dave.

In Search of the Orange Fringed Orchid aug 8 08

Sandwiched between trains rumbling by to the west and lawnmowers buzz-cutting suburban yards to the east lies the Bishop’s Bog Nature Preserve. Featuring a well-maintained, minimal-impact walkway through otherwise pristine territory, this remarkable tract in Portage, Michigan, is one of the brighter jewels in the city’s greenspace program. The bog’s exceptional quality was noted many decades ago in Clarence Hayne’s venerable book The Flora of Kalamazoo County, which cited the place as a wetland of unusual richness and floral diversity.

A three-quarter-mile hike takes you through varying territory, ranging from open sedge mat, to hardwood swamp, to blueberry thickets, to tamarack forest, to a leatherleaf bog dotted with small tamarack trees that give it an orchard-like appearance. In late May through early June, pink ladyslippers bloom by the hundreds beneath the huckleberry bushes. Carnivorous plants grow here as well, including two species of sundew and the northern pitcher plant.

But the pièce de résistance of Bishop’s Bog lies tucked away in the sunny interior. Where islands of feathery tamarack punctuate broad stretches of leatherleaf, you’ll find the orange fringed orchid. Early August is the time when this spectacular plant hits its zenith, splashing the rust-colored landscape with flamboyant, Crayola orange flower spikes.

In his masterful guidebook, Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region, acclaimed Michigan orchidologist Frederick W. Case writes, “The [orange] fringed orchid is perhaps the most brilliantly colored of our native orchids. Its rich orange is nothing less than tropical.”

Tropical. Yes, that’s an apt description. With its raceme of luminous, miniature flowers that look for all the world like little orange birds, this plant is as exotic and vivid—not to mention downright casino holland beautiful—as any macaw that ever flitted through a South American rain forest.

Find the orange fringed orchid and you can truly say you’ve seen something special. Platanthera ciliaris is rare as Michigan orchids go. You can search through many a bog before you find it. The West Lake preserve, a mere half-mile away and joined by the same trail system, offers identical habitat, but it doesn’t contain the orange fringed orchid. That is a specialty of Bishop’s Bog.

Don’t get discouraged, though. The orchid has locations throughout southern Michigan, including Kent County. And its equally lovely and only slightly less uncommon sister, the snowy-colored white fringed orchid, forms a line across the western side of the state from Van Buren north through Kent, Ottawa, Montcalm, Newaygo, Lake, and other Lower Peninsula counties all the way up to the Mackinac Bridge. Numerous other members of the Platanthera clan range across Michigan as well, from the nondescript to the bedazzling and from the extremely rare to the relatively common. So keep your eyes open. Sooner or later, if you spend any significant time outdoors, you’re bound to get lucky. If you enjoy trout fishing, for instance, you stand an excellent chance of encountering the purple fringed orchid along some shady streamside. Provided you’ve got at least a basic appreciation for native wildflowers, trust me, you’ll find the experience rewarding.

But when it comes to pure spectacle, the orange fringed orchid is king, and now is the time of year when it reigns. Look for it along wild lakeshores when you’re out fishing, or amid the tamaracks in a sunny glad when you’re hiking. The Michigan outdoors rewards those who keep their senses dialed in, and you never know what you’ll find…you just never know.

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Written by Dave.

Stars over the Northwoods Aug 22 08

If you want to really see the stars, you have to drive north.

In other parts of the country or even this state, that direction may change, but here in West Michigan it holds true. The ambient light from nearby towns and developments washes out the the deep, brilliant blackness of the night sky, concealing the ghostly magnificence of the Milky Way with man-made luminescence.

But north of Kent City and Cedar Springs, beyond the reach of city lights, an extravagance of stars crowds the sky, and you don’t have to travel terribly far to see them. You can’t know the difference until you see it. When you do, you can get lost in it.

How can the night be so multidimensional, or pitch blackness so filled with light? Suspended in the void, the constellations stand watch like shepherds of the stars. To the north, the Great Bear stalks the heavens beneath the Little Bear, who hangs by his tail from Polaris. To the east, vain Cassiopeia sits on her throne combing her hair as her husband, Cepheus, strides through the firmament with his starry crown. From horizon to horizon, the entire sky is lit with a crush of gleaming silver chips and braided with the faint radiance of the Milky Way.

This is the true night of Michigan’s great outdoors—the night of voyageurs and Indians, lumberjacks and hunters. This is the sky alight with Abraham’s promise. What was it like for that ancient desert wanderer to hear the voice of God calling him out of his tent, and to sense a mighty presence enfolding him, speaking to him of generations to come as he gazed up into an infinity of stars and possibilities? The constellations may have been different, but not the wonder and sublimity of the night sky.

Tuesday night, I found myself standing on a side road east of Grant in Newaygo County. The broad, flat expanse of the surrounding muck farms provided an unobstructed view of the August heavens. With a high pressure system presiding over the region, not a solitary cloud marred the starscape.

I had driven out here with my friend Barb, who lives nearby across from Half Moon Lake, with the intention of taking some sky photos. As a newcomer to photography, I’m learning the ins and outs of my Canon DSLR, moving beyond the automatic settings to explore RAW files and the fully automatic mode. Tripoding my camera, I took a series of time exposures. I captured the view to my south, to my north with Ursa Major, to my east where Cassiopeia sat poised atop a power line tower, and overhead.

My novice status as a photographer is all too apparent, I’m afraid. When I reviewed them on my computer at home, most of my photos proved to have been out of focus. That was a disappointment. But the overhead shot turned out well and gives a sense of the skyview; that’s the photo you see toward the top of this post. And even though it’s a bit fuzzy, I think the shot of the high tension tower framed by the constellation looks pretty cool.

Evocative, and beautiful, the starry sky calls to the child within us, inviting us to step outside and experience the black-and-silver marvel of the Michigan night.

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Written by Dave.

Maher Audubon Sanctuary Aug 29 08

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Woodschool Road and 108th Street lies one of Barry County, Michigan’s best-kept secrets. The eighty acres of forest, wetland, and upland field deeded as a gift to the Grand Rapids Audubon Club by Dr. James Maher in the late 1970s are miles away from anywhere—and that’s just fine. Seclusion is a good way to keep places like the Maher Audubon Sanctuary from being loved to death.

Out of the way doesn’t mean poorly maintained, though. The trail system here is well conceived, with solid boardwalks and two benches where one can pause, rest, and look. And this unique Michigan landscape invites plenty of looking. I’ve been coming here for at least ten years, and I never cease to marvel at the beauty of this many-faceted sanctuary. Season to season reveals different aspects of the place, emphasizing its rich biological and ecological diversity. According to the Grand Rapids Audubon web page for Maher Sanctuary, “Yellow-breasted Chats have been found near the marl pond. Screech Owls have been found roosting in several locations. Common Snipe may be found ‘winnowing’ over wetlands in spring. Some of the best sightings here are plants, not birds.”

Being a plant man myself, I’m certain that last statement is true. I’ve got a pretty good eye for high-quality habitat, and the Maher Audubon Sanctuary is prime, a fascinating tapestry of hardwood forest, upland, prairie fen, and shrub swamp, through the heart of which flows Caine Creek. I’m struck by Calvin College biology professor Fred Warner’s assessment of the sanctuary following a botanical inventory conducted in 2002: “I cannot overemphasize the beauty and conservation significance of this parcel…sections of this property have likely been unaltered from presettlement times. A notable element of this survey is that a total of 67…species have not officially been recorded for Barry County.”

All that to say, when you visit the Maher Sanctuary, you may wish to bring a wildflower guidebook, and you’ll definitely want to keep your camera ready and your eyes peeled.

For an easy route to the site, take Alden Nash south from I-96 to 100th Street. Head east half a mile, then turn south on Baker Road to 108th Street. Turn west on 108th and look for the little parking turn-off with a sign board on your left about a quarter-mile down the road.

You’ll find the trailhead right next to the parking area. Plan on an easy walk of roughly one mile. How much time? It’s up to you. You can easily walk the entire loop in half an hour. But what’s the rush? Slow down and open your senses. That’s why you’re here, right? Places like this reveal their treasures to the patient. So pause and savor the spiced wetland air…the striking, crimson blossoms of the cardinal flower and the spikes of its cousin, the great blue lobelia…the primal ratcheting of sandhill cranes…the red berries of Jacks-in-the-pulpit at summer’s end…the play of light on Caine Creek, filtered through a canopy of maple leaves. Cross the stream, ascend a hill, and you’ll find a bench with a view—an overlook of the broad fenland stretching below.

A little farther, and another boardwalk takes you across more wetland, then ushers you onto the last stretch of trail, past a small pond and through the woods back to your car.

Take one last, savory breath before you climb inside and head home. One for the road to tide you over till next time—because there will be a next time. Trust me, you’ll be back.

 

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Written by Dave.

September Gold Sept 12 08

I recognize this light. It is the mellow light of a late-summer afternoon, the slanting rays that gild the landscape of golden September. Streaming out of the soft blue sky past shining cloud rims, this is the light that burnishes Michigan’s fields and forested hills as lush August gives way to the wise, ancient autumn.

September is the golden month.

Now—when the soybean fields turn yellow and the green-clad corn changes to flaxen—now is when the hidden processes of the leaves start to show, when their mysterious, light-activated alchemy lends an aureate glow to the trees.

Have you noticed the goldenrods? They are everywhere, lining the roadsides and dotting the meadows with splashes of buttery brightness. I remember goldenrod from my childhood; it was one of the more entertaining plants that grew in the field next to our burn barrel in Niles, Michigan. The yellow flowers ripen into fluffy, cream-colored seed heads that make fabulous tinder and a cheap form of incendiary amusement for nine-year-old-boys superintending the burning of trash.

Not everything about September is golden. The pokeberry, fecund with dark purple berries set against exuberant, emerald leaves and ruddy stalks, stands like a harlequin against a mellow backdrop of gilded fields and aging corn.

Yesterday I took a drive down the backroads of northern Barry county, south of Middleville toward Hastings and then west through the Yankee Springs area. The coffers of September were open, glowing beneath an azure canopy daubed with delicate cirrus. The first autumn-gold leaves hung from the roadside trees like Spanish doubloons, tall rows of yellowing corn stretched into the distance, and goldenrod crowded the verge in boisterous clusters. Tiger-orange monarch butterflies flitted among the plants, girding themselves for their remarkable southern migration.

 

In a spot where the curvy road wound between a green-and-yellow hillside of alfalfa on my left and an army of corn on my right, I pulled aside and grabbed my camera. This is a time of year in Michigan, from now through October, when nature overflows with images worth capturing. One good location is all you need, and I had found such a spot.

I snapped photos to my heart’s content, a strange luxury for one brought up on film photography. Digital single lens reflex cameras are a marvel! But a decent picture can still require a bit of work. There was no way I could do justice to a solomon’s seal growing by the field edge without getting down to its level.

The result was worth the effort. For me, it is the crowning touch of the day, and a fitting emblem of September gold.

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Written by Dave.

The Hummingbird Feeder Sept 19 08

I’m sitting by the screen door to my balcony, watching two hornets jousting for position at the hummingbird feeder. They jockey in mid air, lock together in conflict, then tumble together in a ball into the blue canvas seat of my camp chair. You’d think there would be a more cooperative spirit between these little clowns; instead, they’re like shoppers the day after Thanksgiving.

The hornets are amusing, but hummingbirds are the reason I’m parked here in the September sunlight with my camera, which is tripoded and focused on one of the feeder’s red nectar dispensers.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a hummer patrolling the collection of southern pitcher plants that I keep on my deck. Attracted to the long, tubular leaves, the bird was doomed to disappointment. A pitcher plant doesn’t offer much in the way of sustenance to a hummingbird. But the little guy kept coming back anyway, evidently refusing to accept that anything which seemed so promising could deliver so little.

Hating to see that kind of hope and perseverance dashed to pieces, I finally drove to Wild Birds Unlimited and bought the feeder.

I now have hummingbirds dining on my balcony. There are at least two of them. I know this because every now and then both will show up. When that happens, like the hornets, the birds will squabble over rights to the feeder. With four separate nectar dispensers, there’s room for all at the table, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Ask a hummingbird why he needs all four dispensers to himself and he’ll tell you, “I don’t know—I just do. You got a problem with that?” Hummingbirds may be small, but they’ve got attitude.

Today is day three of my hummingbird photo shoot. This is the closest I’ve ever been to the birds, mere feet away. I’ve taped off three of the four nectar dispensers, limiting the birds’ options to the one dispenser on which I’ve got my camera trained. You’d think it would be a cinch to get some great shots. Guess again. The birds are anything but cooperative. For all I’ve heard about how feisty and unafraid of humans they are, nevertheless, if I reach for the remote shutter too fast, they’re gone. The click of the shutter spooks them as well. And when they take off, I can count on waiting a while before they return.

When the birds do make an appearance, they have a way of materializing out of nowhere and catching me off guard. I’ll wait for half an hour or more, get immersed in my writing, then instinctively glance up from my computer screen, and there will be a hummer at my feeder. I reach slooooowly for the remote…trip it, click!…and in a molecular instant, there’s nothing but air in front of my feeder, and the bird is streaking like a compact missile across the parking lot and off into the blue.

Please, Lord, puh-leeeeeze…just one good shot with the sun illuminating those iridescent feathers; one high-speed snap that freezes the blur of those lightning wings; one truly transcendent photo that captures the marvel and beauty of this magnificent little creature.

Day three has turned into day four. I’ve shifted the placement of both feeder and camera. Let’s see what happens.

Here’s a hummer now. He’s jockeying into place…maneuvering in front of the perch, wings buzzing furiously…oh, man, he’s in just the right spot…

 

Click!

YES!

At last! I think I finally got what I’m after. Close to it, anyway.

Thank you, Lord!

In another week or two, the hummingbirds will be gone. I’m told they disappear just like that. Meanwhile, I will enjoy them while I can. With my camera setup now removed from the deck, they’re all over the feeder. I can look up from my easy chair as I key in these words and watch the birds flitting in and out, their tiny bodies silhouetted against the soft blue sky. There’s one now, chasing a hornet away from the feeder, pursuing it like a miniature F-15, the only bird I know of that possesses such tight, twist-for-twist maneuverability. Amazing. He’s after another one now. And another. The little guy is a one-bird hornet patrol.

I will miss the hummingbirds when they leave. But they’ll return in the spring, and I will be glad to see them—bright, feisty flashes of color beneath the Michigan sun.

 

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Written by Dave.