Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Trip to See Wolves and Bears

I was going to a 40th annual college reunion with a group of guys I have stayed connected to for more than 40 years. Wow, time flies. Eleven of us were renting a house boat on Birch Lake in northern Minnesota for a long weekend of cards, fishing, hanging out and reminiscing. Kathy and I decided to head up early to do some camping and site seeing in the north woods.

Our destination was Bear Head Lake State Park near Ely, Minnesota. Ely is a small town known as a gateway to the famed Boundary Waters/ Quetico Canoe Area Wilderness which straddles the U.S./ Canadian border in Minnesota. Ely has a long, contentious history in the story of timber and mineral extraction, the eventual creation of the wilderness and now in a fight over sulfide mining. It is also a charming town with interesting businesses catering to those drawn by the wilderness and north woods.

Along the way we checked out a small forest service campground on Sand Lake near Isabella for future reference. It was on our list because it has only 2 campsites adjacent to the lake which is largely surrounded by forest land. Unfortunately, the campground was overused and looked more like a local party spot than the remote camp we were seeking.

Our rig at the Sand Lake campground (click photos for a larger version).


It turns out that The Great Lakes School of Log Building is also located on Sand Lake.



We checked it out a bit. The enterprise runs courses in log building and stone masonry. Over the years, quite a few log structures have been built by students of the craft and now are used for lodging  and a rustic resort. Looks like an interesting place to visit again and maybe rent a log cabin for a winter weekend retreat. More info here: http://www.schooloflogbuilding.com/

One of the attractions that drew us to this locale was the International Wolf Center. http://wolf.org/wolves/  Located just outside of Ely, the Center houses exhibits on wolves and has a resident wolf pack which can be observed through a glass wall in the museum when the wolves cooperate and make themselves visible (which is not all that frequent). We enjoyed the exhibits, including a recreation of Sigurd Olson's writing studio. Olson lived near Ely and was an influential writer in the movement to create the BWCA and other wilderness preserves. http://www4.uwm.edu/letsci/research/sigurd_olson/

A diorama at the Wolf Center showing various wolf behaviors.

A sculpture depicting wolves on the chase.


The wolves, however, were not in evidence. One of the staff members told us to return around 4 pm when they would be calling the wolves in for some medications that one of them needed so we decided to make a quick trip into Ely and then return. When we did return, the wolves were hanging around as promised and we enjoyed seeing them up close and watching them interact. Although they are captive, they are still obviously quite wild.




We reached the campground in late afternoon and made a quick camp. On the way there, a young black bear crossed the highway in front of our truck, foreshadowing our field trip of the next day. Dinner was wild rice/ wild salmon croquettes with a salad and toasted baguette slices. Very tasty.

Wild salmon and wild rice croquetts- yum.


















We enjoyed a nice sunset and a campfire and went to bed.



The next morning we had a lazy breakfast and then set off for our next field trip, this time to the North American Bear Center located on the other end of Ely from the wolf center.  http://www.bear.org/website/ Very similar in concept to the wolf center, the bear center features exhibits and some resident bears which can be observed from the exhibit area. It became famous for its webcam inside a bear den which showed a bear giving birth to a cub. The webcam became a worldwide sensation.

Taking a morning walk in the woods by the pond.


While less polished than the wolf center in its execution, the material presented was very interesting. Lynn Rogers, the principal researcher behind the Bear Center, has been been in a public spat with the DNR over his research methods. His approach is similar to that of Jane Goodall with the chimps- go out in the woods and hang out with bears. He has become controversial due to his approach of feeding the bears in the wild by hand to build trust and gain familiarity with them. Some people fear he is habituating bears to human food and interaction, thereby potentially creating problem bears. There really isn't any research to support the fears, but the DNR at one point cancelled his research permit in response. It has since been reinstated after some negotiations.

video



Because the researchers spend so much time with bears in the wild, the center is able to show many videos of bears doing their thing. We found the bear center to be much more engaging and interesting than the wolf center as a result, although the resident bears seemed more tame than their canine counterparts. Maybe it's just the difference between black bears and wolves. Wolves remain a bit of a mystery, since people don't get to hang out with them in the wild for extended periods. I admit to being influenced by the bear center to think more about the possibility of having deeper relationships with wild animals, rather than seeing them as somehow separated from humans in all aspects.

After the bear center visit, we returned to our campsite for an afternoon of exploring the park on foot and some relaxation.



















 

Large Leafed Aster

Red Pine seedling

White Pine seedling







For dinner we made a wild rice and vegetable stir-fry. We cooked the rice at home before the trip and took a big container with us. It made a great meal. The skies were threatening rain so we cleaned up our camp in the nick of time and spent time in the camper reading and listening to the rain and distant thunder. When the rain had passed, we emerged to have our typical evening campfire.

Wild Rice and Vegetable stir fry- and the best wine you can get in box.


The morning dawned clear and chilly with temps in the low forties. We made breakfast and decided to explore the lake by canoe. Bear Head Lake is entirely within the state park and provides a canoeing experience very similar to the boundary waters wilderness where we have spent countless days over many years.




















We came upon a large beaver lodge with evidence of active beavers present.


Large beaver dam and lodge

A full larder

This stick was stripped clean of bark- a tasty beaver meal.

We saw fish swimming but didn't catch any (didn't try very hard). We returned to camp for another hike to stretch our legs and let Rocky have some exercise. Evening brought a pasta dinner, a walk and a final campfire for this trip. Skies were clear and it would be a chilly night.

Tried and true pasta with baguette croutons.

Is that a red wolf?


In the morning, we packed up and drove to Ely for a good breakfast at the Taste of Ely- good food, pleasant service and a great soundtrack, a fine ending to our visit in the north. We had had an enjoyable time and learned a lot about some of our north woods wild neighbors.

After breakfast, we drove to Birch Lake where I was to meet my college friends for the houseboat adventure. Kathy dropped me off and headed home. The boat trip was a fun time capped by a memorable group golf game (a reunion tradition) on the way home.

Home for eleven guys for 3 nights- an RV on water!

Incredible sunrise in fog.

Another sunrise shot.

Sunrise panorama.




Saturday, August 24, 2013

New Storage and an Inverter Outlet

When we bought the camper, we had two gas can carriers installed on the rear wall. The Tacoma has a relatively short driving range and we wanted the ability to travel in remote areas without worrying about running out of gas.















 











We used this extra fuel capacity to our advantage in Nevada, when we were able to avoid paying a high price for gas at a remote location by having filled the gas cans at a less expensive fuel stop. It also gives us peace of mind for exploring back roads without having to watch the gas gauge.

However, we are often traveling in areas where running out of gas is less a concern. I have been thinking of ways to use the gas can carriers usefully when we don't need to carry extra fuel. Military surplus ammo cans provided an answer. I found some 25 mm size cans at a local surplus shop that were in good condition and fit well in the carriers. The advantage of ammo cans is that they are sturdy and have a secure latching system with a waterproof gasket. Things stored inside are well-protected from moisture making them ideal for storing tools and other items.

The gas can carriers, made by Adventure Trailers, are designed to hold standard gas cans securely with an aluminum strap that locks into the carrier.























The ammo cans I used are a bit shorter and narrower than the gas cans, so I had to fabricate new aluminum straps to hold the cans in place. 


I lined the new straps with some closed-cell foam I had lying around to hold the cans securely. I needed to add a bolt with a wing nut to the new straps to get the secure hold I wanted. The straps can be locked with padlocks for security.



One can holds my tools and the other holds a water hose, an electrical extension cord and other miscellaneous items that we use infrequently. This frees up space in the exterior-accessed cargo cabinet in the camper for items that are more frequently used. The ammo cans ride very securely and are easily accessed if the contents are needed.




Another modification to the camper is the addition of an outlet in the camper connected to the 120 volt outlet in the bed of the truck. The Tacoma comes with an inverter that converts 12 volts to 120 volts and supplies the 120 volts to an outlet in the bed of the truck. Earlier, I had wired an outlet in the cab to the factory inverter so we could run the computer and phones in the cab.




This latest modification allows us to pull 120 volts off the truck in the camper. I had cut an access panel to reach the bed outlet from the camper earlier. Because the access panel was usually hidden behind the toilet bucket and other stuff, I decided to wire an outlet into a more accessible location in the camper. I bought a weather-proof extension cord with pigtails on the other end and wired it into an outlet box that I mounted in the camper. It is normally plugged into the bed outlet but can be unplugged by reaching through the access panel. We probably won't use the outlet that much, because the truck ignition has to be turned on for it to work, but it is there if we want to use it.



Friday, August 16, 2013

Forestville State Park

In contrast to our last trip, this one went off without a hitch. We had the best weather and camping conditions we have experienced in a long time. Temps in the 70s, sunny skies, no bugs and an interesting place to visit. All we could ask for.

A panorama of the sky and fields in Southeastern Minnesota.
(Click photos for a larger version)

The destination was Forestville State Park, about 125 miles southwest of Minneapolis. We had a leisurely Monday breakfast, packed up and hit the road about 11 am. As is our custom, we looked at the map for the smallest roads we could find going in the general direction of our goal. We were driving through some of the prettiest parts of Minnesota farm country and with abundant rain this summer, the fields were in fine shape. We passed through or near towns with evocative names- Northfield, Hayfield, Blooming Prairie, Brownsdale, Grand Meadow, Spring Valley- arriving at the park mid-afternoon. Being Monday, we had our choice of campsites. We picked one closest to the river. Fishing was on my mind and the sound of the running water was nice to hear in camp.

South Branch Root River

Forestville State Park is known for 3 things: the abandoned town of Forestville; Mystery Cave, the largest cave in Minnesota; and trout fishing- 3 of the state's top trout streams converge in the park. Kathy and I both remember childhood visits to the cave, and we took our kids there as well. So that was not on the agenda this time.




We made camp in record time. We placed a few leveling blocks under the front wheels and pitched the awning and screen room. We took a short hike to check out our surroundings. We had this section of the campground all to ourselves. The river was flowing well. There were no bugs! It was time to test out the hammock that was a gift from my sister in Spain on our visit last summer.


The hammock is a great addition to our camp setup.

We didn't need the screen room this trip- no bugs.




A plate of Frank Raymond's flies.





After dinner, I decided to try my luck at fishing. I am a novice fly fisherman, having just picked up the sport again in the last year after inheriting my uncle's fly collection. Frank Raymond was a well-known fly tyer in Northern California back in the 60s and 70s. Kathy and I had a memorable trip in 1974 with him and his wife to the Mcloud River Conservancy which he helped to set aside. His daughter gave me his flies on the condition that I use them. So I have taken up fishing again. 






The park contains a section of the south branch of the Root River. The south branch gathers runoff from the fields west of the park before sinking into the limestone underlying the region. Its path through the rock serves to chill and clean the water. It flows through Mystery Cave, emerging downstream at Seven Springs as a cold water trout stream. Just inside the park boundary, Canfield Creek flows into the south branch, creating the most productive stretch of the river. Forestville Creek enters 2 miles further downstream. Both creeks flow from caves at 47 degrees keeping the south branch cool and ideal for trout.

Read more: http://www.flyfisherman.com/2012/08/29/minnesotas-south-branch-of-the-root-river/#ixzz2c5ftqrVC






Our camp was on the bluff above the river. I scrambled down the bank to a point where I could walk across the stream to the far side. I had scouted the river from above before hand. I wanted to cast back across to some deeper water along the bank under our camp. There was no surface activity. I had a good time practicing casting but caught no fish. I stepped into a hidden deep hole trying to pass a branch sticking out into the stream. Suddenly, from water that had been at my knees, I sunk like a rock up to my chest and water flowed into my waders. It was cold! I managed to regain my footing before it became a serious situation, but that and pending darkness put an end to that fishing session.

If you look closely under the big log you can see some nice fish hanging out.






I went back to camp and changed into dry clothes. I hung the waders to dry. We took a walk in the dark to look for shooting stars. The dense forest canopy offered few glimpses of open sky but what glimpses we got were filled with stars. We saw fireflies and heard owls hooting. Back in camp, we started a fire and dried my clothes while we watched the flames. Campfires are an integral part of our camping experience. With all the concern about invasive insects, state rules no longer allow you to bring firewood into the parks. It must be purchased on site. This adds a bit to the expense but I guess it is worthwhile to help save the forests.



The next morning, I resolved to have better luck fishing. I decided to fish upstream until I reached Canfield Creek. I would return in time for lunch. I left  Kathy in camp and proceeded to the river. I walked quite a ways upstream looking for good trout water. When I finally found some, there was already a guy fishing. Since the river was taking a turn there, I decided to cut around him through the woods thinking there would be a path. No path. The brush was thick. I went to the base of a ridge thinking it might be easier walking. I ended up taking an extended bushwack to get back to the river. With no compass and no map, I could have gotten myself good and lost, but I knew I had the park road somewhere on one side and the river on the other. I figured I would run into one or the other eventually. As it was I managed to find a pretty deep bramble patch, some deer beds and some pretty nice forest openings. Eventually I found my way back to the river and some nice spots but still no hatching insects or even many flying around. I eventually reached Canfield Creek. There was a large tree down in the river at the junction and I climbed out on it to see what I could see. There were large trout again hanging out under the trunk and no way to get a fly in there. Along the way I tried every kind of fly I had- cahills, tricos, midges, nymphs, ants, beetles, and more, but again was not successful in landing a fish. I think they just weren't eating. But that's what all the unsuccessful fisherman say. In truth, the disappointment was not too deep. I had a great time trying.



I walked back to camp with my waders over my shoulder and enjoying the beautiful summer day. Kathy had had a good time in the hammock and walking Rocky. We ate our late lunch and settled in for a lazy afternoon of reading and hammock testing. I had a cold beer from the fridge, a much appreciated camping luxury! The campground had filled up a bit during the day. We now had neighbors consisting of a grandpa and four boisterous teenaged boys. This is the hazard of camping in state parks and why we much prefer wilderness settings. But they are few and far between here. A spirited game of football was soon underway in the campground road. It was not a quiet afternoon. But they eventually wore each other out and things quieted down. We had a good dinner and relaxed with another nice campfire.

Rocky chillin in the sun.


The next day we had to pack up and head home for those darned responsibilities like jobs (Kathy's) and home maintenance (mine- never quite accomplished though). We decided to visit Forestville and take a long scenic drive home.

Forestville is an interesting place. It was founded in the 1850s by William Meighen beside the Root River. Meighen opened a fine brick general store in 1857. His son, Thomas Meighen worked in his father's businesses. The town thrived until the arrival of the railroad. When the railroad bypassed Forestville in favor of other towns, the town slowly declined until the store closed in 1910 and Forestville as a town ceased to exist.

While this is probably a common story for small towns of the time, what makes this one interesting is Thomas Meighen's dream to see the town site become a state park. He was a successful businessman. Over the years of decline, Meighen had become the owner of the entire town. With the park dream in mind, he preserved the buildings and the store, including the inventory remaining in the store at the time it closed. It took until almost 30 years after his death in 1936 for his dream to become reality. The park was established in 1963. The Minnesota State Historical Society now operates a living history museum there on weekends in the summer, set in the year 1899.

http://sites.mnhs.org/historic-sites/historic-forestville/history

We visited the site in the middle of the week and we were all by ourselves. We enjoyed poking around the town, imagining the life in the 1800s. I found a shutter to the store was unlocked which allowed a peek inside. Putting the camera against the glass, I managed to get a couple of dim photos. The shelves are stocked just as they were in 1899. The buildings are well-preserved with nice period details. It was a fun visit.
 
The Root River at Forestville

An historical view of the town.

The bridge is closed to vehicles and makes a nice entry to the town.


Meighen's Store.

A peek through the window into the store.

These bottles caught my eye.


















The drive home took us through Minnesota Amish country. Harmony, Minnesota is the center of a large and thriving Amish community numbering several hundred families. The Amish practice a non-technological culture that preserves a way of life from times past. Their neat farmsteads and horse buggy transportation are a tourist attraction for many people. And the Amish benefit from the market for their crafts including quilts, furniture, basketry, produce and other items which they sell from their homes to people passing by. We took the back roads and enjoyed seeing the well-tended homes, fields and gardens. We pulled over to let a buggy pass on a very narrow road more suited to the buggy than our truck. We saw families dressed in the distinctive Amish manner. Generally we did not take photos as the Amish find photos offensive to their religion. We did take a distant snap of a buggy on the highway through the windshield, rationalizing they couldn't have been aware. I have to admit a certain longing for the simple lifestyle they practice, although I know little about their culture. The landscape and glimpses of a different culture made for a very satisfying journey.

Amish farm. Fun to see the handcrafted stacks- no machines.





















Scenes of Minnesota bluff country.


























We stopped for lunch at Beaver Creek Valley State Park. Beaver Creek emerges from the side of a limestone cliff making an instant creek. The water was cold and crystal clear. Evidence of a recent flood event was apparent throughout the park.


Cold, clear water- 4 feet deep here.
Beaver Creek


The creek flows out of the rocks on the right.













We drove through Caledonia, a small town where Kathy's grandmother grew up. We ended our trip by driving up the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River valley. It is a scenic drive of epic proportions, at least for the midwest. The various Corps of Engineers dams create vast pools and wetlands across the broad valley edged with limestone bluffs. Charming small towns with names like Alma, Pepin, Stockholm and Maiden Rock entice you with cute shops and tasty looking cafes. Most were closed by the time we passed on a Wednesday evening. We stopped for pizza in Prescott and made the last leg home. A good trip it was!


Mississippi River Valley