Clouds are for Everyone

Although it’s still winter, there are signs that spring is on its way. A week of unseasonably warm weather made me start a gardening project in February and we’ll be making maple syrup before too long. Like most years, I slipped into a bit of a funk starting sometime in November, which lasted into January. I think I fought it less this year, allowing myself to be lazy, to hibernate, and to explore winter in new ways—very slowly, and generally on snowshoes. By late January, I felt my energy start to go back up.

Light is a tremendous part of this. I definitely get a little bit S.A.D. in the winter with the short days. By late January, the days are lengthening so that there is some daylight left after work—enough that it’s easier to go snowshoeing or skiing, and a headlamp is optional rather than required.

But I think that the change in light conditions has as much to do with clouds as a longer day length. The clouds are much different now than during the darkest days of winter. Rather than the constant, overcast gray clouds that bring the lake-effect snow, there are more white, patchy, billowy clouds that let the sunshine be visible during the day.

I just finished reading The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the the Cloud Appreciation Society. It’s a great book, and I definitely recommend you check it out, as it described the major types of clouds and conditions under which they form.

One time I was in southern Illinois in the spring and participating a competition to identify trees. I had no idea what one was and so I just wrote down “the tree with pretty pink flowers.” Of course, that was not the correct answer,  and all of the foresters from southern states giggled that us northerners were so clueless to not know such an obvious tree (it was a redbud, and I’ve never forgotten it since). That pretty much sums us my relationship with clouds: I’ve known that there is a difference between the fluffy white clouds and the thick gray ones and the patchy pretty ones that look really nice at sunset—but I could never tell you what they were called (stratus? nimbus? the ones that look like animals… Der…).

But now I know the different clouds… or at least I am learning them, and have a better appreciation for them.

I went to the cottage over the week to continue my tree-cutting project. It was about 20ºF and cloudy, with a bit of lake-effect snow falling. There was a strong wind from, oddly, the southwest that was blowing right in my face as I was cutting trees. It was not the most pleasant day to be out, but I was already at the property and figured I should cut at least one or two trees down. I cut most of the smaller trees already and upgraded to a larger saw for the remaining big trees, so each tree takes longer.

I was cutting down one tree, about 14 inches in diameter. While sawing, I was thinking about how boring it was to saw this tree, about how sluggish I felt, and about how my arms got tired after a few minutes. I stopped to take a break, and looked up to see the sunlight start to peek through the clouds.

Of course, pictures never look as nice as in real life.

I’ve been thinking that lake-effect snow clouds, our most common winter clouds that can cover the sky for days and days, are probably status clouds—the low-lying, formless clouds that are essentially a layer of thick fog only a few thousand feet in the sky. It was nice that the sun was visible at all, a sign that the strong winds were breaking up the cloud layer. I watched the wind move the clouds around a while, the patch of sunlight moving accordingly, and then when back to sawing. When I was ready to leave, the clouds had opened more to allow more beams of sunlight through.

This is an exciting amount of sun in the winter sky.

The sky continued to open, and by the time I trudged back to my car, there were even patches of blue sky. The wind and warmer temperatures had changed the clouds. I’m still learning, but I think these new clouds were probably stratocumulus—large, billowly rolls of clouds that are half-way between the thick, shapeless stratus clouds and the cotton balls of white fluff that are cumulus clouds.

Meh. Another blurry photo… Sorry about that!

During the past few years I’ve really been trying to spend more time appreciating nature (which is really where this blog comes from), and I think one of the biggest changes that I’ve made is that I’m routinely paying more attention to the sky whenever I’m outside, even at night. I spent a lot of time last fall looking at the sky and enjoying the clouds in general, and that was nice. Now I’m looking forward to looking at the clouds with a bit more knowledge, and expecting that I’ll appreciate them even more.

What do your clouds look like?

What I Found When I Went Looking for a Moose

My neighbor’s have been hearing a strange bellowing noise by Mud Lake, and they think it might be a moose.

It’s not entirely impossible. There’s a population of about 400 or so moose in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula, although these are found quite a ways south and east of here in Baraga, Iron, and Marquette counties. During one of the years that I lived in the town of Alberta, the lake was drained to do some repair work on the dam and there were a lot of moose tracks in the muck that had been the bottom of the lake. That’s only about 20 miles away from here as the crow flies (and perhaps as the moose walks?). A moose was even seen another 15 miles to the northwest of here (i.e., even farther away from their normal location) a few summers ago.

It’s not entirely impossible, so I decided to go looking for a moose in our neighborhood.

It was a really nice morning to get out. It was colder, about 11 degrees F, so I bundled up and grabbed my snowshoes. If there were a moose, it would probably be on the north or west side of the lake away from my neighbors’ houses. Also, if there were a moose, it seems like it would be more likely to be hanging out among the conifer trees that ring the edge of the lake since most of the other forest is primarily maple and other hardwoods.

Approaching the lake
Approaching the lake

I took our dog, Bailey, with me.

Bailey and me walking the lake edge
Bailey and me walking the lake edge

We flushed a few grouse, and I heard crows and chickadees. Other than that, it was pretty quiet. We didn’t even see any squirrels.

Something lives here
Something lives here: probably a squirrel.

I didn’t think that I’d actually see a live moose, and was just looking for tracks. There were few tracks overall: no deer tracks, just a few squirrel tracks and a two trails of what was likely a coyote (the snow was fluffy and didn’t retain much detail).

A beaver took away this whole tree.

There were no moose tracks. There were no patterns that looked like moose tracks that had been covered by snow. Nor were there any noticeable amounts of herbivory, from moose or deer.

Check out this cool fungus.
Check out this cool fungus.

So, I didn’t find a moose or solve the mystery of the weird noise. But I did have a nice winter walk, and that was good enough.

Getting Ready for Maple Syrup Season

Groundhog Day was last week. I have no idea what the groundhog’s verdict was this year, but it doesn’t seem relevant around here when the snow can stick around into April or even May. But, come to think about it, perhaps Groundhog Day does hint at one sign of spring:

It’s about six weeks until maple syrup season begins around here!

In fact, we just had a meeting this past weekend to make our neighborhood group of “sappers” into a full-fledged cooperative effort. This year, tapping day will be on March 11 or 18, depending on the weather between now and then. I wonder what the Groundhog would say about that.

Maybe you live in a place where you can start making maple sooner. Regardless, if you’re thinking about it, I thought you might be interested in this series of articles that I put together to help get you started:

If you’re looking for more information, the Tap My Trees website provides some more details for beginners. The Extension programs at Cornell University and the University of Vermont also have tons of information, especially for larger production systems.

Happy sapping! I’d love to hear about your maple syrup season!

Foraging… no… Superfood Hunting

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and the Rich Roll podcast is one that always has inspiring guests discussion interesting ideas at the intersection of health, performance, and spirituality. Given that my two most recent posts have been about foraging (here and here), I was really happy to see that Rich Roll interviewed superfood hunter Darin Olien.

I really can’t describe Darin’s expertise sufficiently well, except to say that he’s the “Indiana Jones of Superfoods” and goes around the world to find medicinal plants and bring them to market. It’s super-interesting stuff and you can get it all from the podcast:

Here are a few takeaways that I got out of it. If you have more to add, let me know!

1) Many wild plants (and mushrooms) contain incredible compounds for nutrition and medicine. As soon as you harvest the plant, however, these materials begin to degrade—this makes it so important to get fresh or quality ingredients, and be wary of things in packages.

2) Eating well is tough, but it’s absolutely essential. Start small rather than trying to change everything at once. Darin suggests starting out by drinking more water (good water, not sketchy “processed” water) and eating a giant pile of vegetables for one meal a day. Start there, and add more later. That sounds do-able, so I’ll try that.

3) Calling oneself a “superfood hunter” is a whole lot sexier than being a “forager” although I’m not entirely sure what the difference is. Perhaps if I’m on the fence and not feeling up to going out to look for wild plants, I can reframe it as superfood hunting, put on some khaki, and head out to the woods.

Winter Foraging: Chaga

It was only a matter of time before I tried chaga. After all, my friends had offered it to me several times and raved about how good it is. It was a gentle, adult form of peer pressure where the primary benefit was not being cool or getting a thrill like it was during the teenage years; nowadays it’s about participating in the latest health trend, like chia seeds or Cross-fit. Among my friends, chaga is where kombucha was three years ago.

Chaga, if you haven’t been introduced to it yet, is a fungus (Inonotus obliquus) that parasitizes birch trees in northern forests. The fungus enters the tree stem through a would or old branch stuff and sends fungal threads into the tree in order to access the tree sap. Meanwhile, the fungus produces a crusty, browish-black growth (the chaga) on the outside of the tree stem. In forestry school, I first learned of this fungus as “bear shit on a birch tree” because of its ugly appearance.

Chaga on a snowy yellow birch.

But over the last few years, its been reintroduced to me as a dark, tea-like drink made from this funky mushroom. Chaga is a folk medicine used by native peoples across the northern hemisphere to treat a wide variety of ailments, including stomach disorders and cancer, although the scientific evidence is still incomplete due in part to a lack of animal and human studies. There’s a good amount of evidence that suggests it might be beneficial and nothing that says that it is harmful.

So, after years of offers, I recently tried it. At a friend’s house, a concoction of chaga and cinnamon was kept warm on the wood stove. The flavor was mild, similar to a black tea or a weak coffee, but with no bitterness. It was not bad, and seemed like something that would be good mixed with strong blend of chai spices.

We decided that it would be fun to do a little winter foraging and find some in the woods. We discussed three potential locations near our house, all northern hardwood forests with some yellow birch. I advocated for a place a few miles from our house, where the ground slopes down to a creek and ultimately the river a mile or so away. I haven’t spent much time in this area, so it was a good excuse to go there. I had a hunch that it might have more yellow birch than the other areas we were considering, and it turns out that I was right. There were tons of yellow birch trees in the snowy forest.

Looking for yellow birch trees (and chaga) among the hemlocks.

We went out on our cross country skis, although snowshoes probably would have been more efficient in the deep, powdery snow. The forest had a lot of yellow birch, as well as hemlock, but we didn’t see any chaga for a long time. We’d meander from birch tree to birch tree, occasionally using our ski poles to knock clumps of snow off the bole and see if anything was underneath. But nothing was underneath and the snow would just fall into our faces or down our collars.

Eventually, we found chaga on a few trees. We used a hatchet to remove it from the tree (which doesn’t hurt the fungus or the tree if done correctly) and put it in a backpack to bring home. Lately, we’ve been having chaga tea in the evenings. Hopefully the claims are true and there are health benefits, but it’s a nice little evening ritual regardless.

Foraging Starts in Winter

I’ve had aspirations to forage for a long time. I have a copy of Edible Wild Plants that I bought sometime while I was in high school. It’s one of the oldest reference books that is on my shelf, and yet I haven’t used it that much. While I know that many of the plants that I frequently see are edible—like cattail and wintergreen and nettles—I generally haven’t gone through the effort to find, collect, prepare, and eat these plants. Beyond berries and other wild fruits, my foraging efforts to date have been pretty limited to a handful of trips to gather wild leeks and search (generally unsuccessfully) for morel mushrooms.

Wild leeks in spring.
Wild leeks in spring.

I want to forage more this year, but there isn’t much available in the middle of winter with two feet of snow on the ground. It will be about two more months before the maple sap starts to run, signaling the beginning of the new year from the perspective of a plant or hibernating creature.

In the meantime, I am taking time during the long winter to locate foraging opportunities for later in the year. The snow makes it easy to get around in the woods (with snowshoes) in places that are too wet or brushy to easily get to during other times of the year. Plus, the lack of leaves on deciduous plants makes it easier to see longer distances in the woods, some plants to stand out. Ostrich fern is one of these notable plants because it leaves its fertile fronds out in the winter. These poke through the snow and point to where to look for fiddleheads this spring. I noticed abundant ferns during the summer, and now I’m looking for more locations where they are particularly dense. Yellow birch and burdock are other plants that are in my sights these days, so hopefully there will be more foraging in the future.

Ostrich ferns in the winter.
Ostrich ferns in winter.


Ax and Saw: A Project for Fall and Winter

There are two quirks of my personality that have a habit of sabotaging me this time of year. One is my natural tendency to want to hibernate as the days get colder and darker, and I’ve written in the past about how I struggle in the fall to keep up my positive attitude and maintain healthy habits. The second is that I always want to be doing something productive. It’s hard for me to convince myself to go outside to take a leisurely walk on cloudy cool days because it doesn’t feel productive; I might, it feels like, as well stay inside and get something done around the house. For these reasons, I don’t go outside as much as I would like to in the fall, which also means that I don’t get much exercise either.

So this year, I conspired against myself. There is a row of box elder at the property, running along a tall bank on the edge of the old river channel. The trees are short and mangy, which is pretty much the standard with box elder. As we think about the work we want to do on the land, we see opportunity to plant different trees in this place.

Row of box elder along the old river channel.
Row of box elder along the old river channel.

I decided that my project for this fall and winter would be to take down this row of trees so that we can plant something else (probably oaks) there in the spring. Also, I decided that I would do as much of the work as possible using hand tools. Hopefully, I thought, having something productive to do during the cold months would be a convincing way to sidestep my tendency to cocoon this time of year. A few weeks ago I bought a small double-bit ax (which turned out to be more like a large hatchet) and small bow saw with an extra blade made for green wood. Then this weekend was the time to test it all out.

Overall, it was a good start to the project. I cut down a half dozen or so box elder trees. Some were only a few inches in diameter and it only took a few seconds to saw them down. It was interesting to see that box elder trees have pink wood at the boundary between the heartwood and the sapwood. This is a known trait of the species, but I just learned it while watching the saw kick out pink shavings as it cut through fresh wood.

Small box elder stump.

I knocked down several smaller box elders and dragged the tops into the woods, piling it up to make homes for little critters and decomposing organisms (aka rabbitat). I also cut down some tag alders along the shore that seemed likely to compete with the future seedlings for light. Some of the tag alder I dropped directly into the old river channell, presuming that beavers will appreciate them once the water is fully iced over. Others I temporarily placed in a pile along the shore—in a week I’ll come back and see if beavers have taken advantage of the easy food source (and saved me some work of dragging the brush elsewhere).

The last tree that I decided to knock down that day was also the largest. It was about 8-10 inches around, and it took me a half hour of work to get it down. I alternated between using the ax to make a notch in the direction I wanted the tree to fall, and sawing on the opposite side. Much of the time I would saw while kneeling on the ground, making in easy to take small breaks, look around, and enjoy the day. After it dropped, I sawed off the smaller branches of the crown and carried them into the woods, leaving the large bole on the ground to deal with later. While picking up the last of the sticks, I heard a funny sound across the old channel and stopped to look and figure out what it was.

It was an otter. I quickly grabbed my tools and hurried the dogs to the cottage, and then came back with binoculars. Hiding behind the newly-fallen tree, I watched the otter feed in the old river, which was skimmed in a thin layer of soft ice. The otter would swim in the breaks between the ice, dive down, and resurface in another opening.

Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.
Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.

When I decided that I was going to cut down the trees by hand, some of my friends laughed at me a little and asked why I wouldn’t use a chainsaw. While I was dragging tree limbs into the woods, I could imagine my husband pointing out that we have a tractor that could make the job easier. I knew it would be hard, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. But in just a few hours, I removed about a quarter of the trees without too  much difficulty. It was exactly what I wanted: an excuse to go outside and work, so that I could really play.

Weekend Warrior in the Keweenaw

We stayed pretty close to home this summer on account Sexy’s broken ankle (better now!) and getting our very own camp.  We’ve also been especially busy at work the past few weeks. Because we haven’t had a lot of time to play, we decided to head to the Keweenaw for the weekend for a series of small adventures.

We started out by visiting an undisclosed location so that Sexy could see how suitable an area would be for deer hunting, which involved about 3 miles of walking on Saturday morning. It was a gorgeous fall day with bright colors.


From there, we went up to Copper Harbor and I raced the first day of the Keweenaw Cup—a two-day cyclocross race that’s part of the Upper Peninsula series. I started off way to hard and burned myself out early in the race. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to finish because I was feeling really sick. Once I started feeling a little better, I fell on a tight corner. I scratched up my knee, and I had to fix my chain, which had fallen off my bike. Later, I realized that my front wheel was loose (probably from the fall) and had to stop and fix that. And then later in the race I had to do it again. But I did finish! Continue reading “Weekend Warrior in the Keweenaw”