Escape to Silver Mountain

April has flown by, and I can’t believe that it’s been over a month since I last posted. It’s not like anything too out of the ordinary has happened—there was work travel at the beginning of the month, maple sugaring on the weekends, and a lot of time getting our cottage up and running for spring—but I’ve been pulled in more directions than normal the past month and not able to write.

The weather has been yo-yoing between nice and not-so-nice. We’ll occasionally have a beautiful spring day, which will invariably be followed by days of cold, rainy weather.

When I looked at the weather forecast this week, Tuesday was supposed to be the best day of the week and so I planned to meet Sara at Silver Mountain to go for a hike and deliver some gardening goods. The “mountain” (which is only about 250 feel tall) in only about a half hour from my house, so it’s someplace that I seem to go about once a year. Usually I go there  in the fall to see how the colors are shaping up; I don’t know if I’ve ever been there in the spring.

View from near the top.

It was a gorgeous early spring day, with the temperature warm and near 70 degrees. The trail was pretty dry, and we meandered around the top of the mountain catching up on everything that was new since we last talked in the fall. The scenic views aren’t particularly exciting this time of year since the trees are only just starting to bud out. The real action this time of year is in the forest understory, where plants are just starting to pop up and flower.

Trailing arbutus.

As we walked along, Sara told me how Silver Mountain is amazing because its made out of the lava that used to be the center of a volcano. She told me this repeatedly, and each time we’d stop and try to imagine how where we were standing would have been somewhere inside of a volcano. Later on, we hit an area where the rock was smooth and undulating, almost like waves on water. A small sign tacked on a tree said ‘glacial striations’ to point out this phenomenon. I couldn’t help think that Glacial Striations would be a really good band name, and imagined a group of gray-haired individuals strumming guitars and signing upbeat oldies music

A particularly interesting patch of mosses and lichens.

We kept meandering and found a trail that seemed to lead down the mountain on the south side. Neither of us had ever been that way before, so we decided to go that way since it would be a slower route back and give us more time to be outside. We worked our way down the mountain, from rock outcrop through oak and pine and down to the bottom of the mountain, which is northern hardwood forest.

First trout lily flower of the year.

The spring ephemerals are just starting to come out, which is always exciting. These plants are visible for just a little while, popping up around the end of April or early May and only sticking around for a few weeks. I’ve been seeing wild leeks starting to come up since mid-April, but it’s only now that the other plants are starting to show and flower.

Bloodroot.

The trail we were on wound around the south side of the mountain and then curled northward back toward the parking area. It was not far from the parking area that we encountered a stretch of sheer cliffs. I’d heard that there were some cliffs on the mountain, but never seen them. A friend just recently mentioned that the area is becoming more popular for rock climbing, and I could immediately see why after seeing this clean, rock wall.

The east-ish side of Silver Mountain.

I feel a little silly that I’d never seen this part of the mountain before, even though I’ve probably hiked to the summit about 15 times in as many years and these cliff faces are not more than a quarter mile from the parking area. It’s a good reminder to explore places a bit more and not be in such a rush to get to the top. And, also, to revisit familiar places at different times of the year since a different season will make it a different place.

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.

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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.

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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.

Meandering Rivers and Roads

I went home to visit my family in south central Wisconsin last week, but this time it was a bit different because I was coming from Minneapolis. Despite growing up just four hours from the city, and it being one of the closest cities to my current home in the U.P., I’d only been to Downtown Minneapolis once before: for a National Honor Society field trip in high school.

When my work in the city was done, I started to head home. The original plan was to go home directly via the freeways and arrive in about 4 hours. But I thought that it would be a good idea to find a spring and load up on artesian water before heading to the sandy farmlands of central Wisconsin. Instead of staying on the freeway, I headed south along the Mississippi River.

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In the small town of Prescott, Wisconsin, I stopped at a park that overlooked the merging of the substantial St. Croix River into the even bigger Mississippi. A train traveled north on the tracks located at the bottom of the bluff, and I talked with two nice old men who were out watching birds at a small nature center.

I continued my trip along the river. The spring didn’t pan out; it was on heavily-signed private property and inaccessible. But by that point I was captivated by the oak bluffs and river views along the road. I continued south along the Mississippi on the Minnesota side until I was close to the crossing in La Crosse, Wisconsin, adding at least one hour onto my trip by taking slow roads and making a few stops.

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When it was about time to turn east into Wisconsin and leave the Mississippi River, I turned west and drove a few extra miles to Great River Bluffs State Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time left to reach my parents’ house before dark and so I couldn’t linger as much as I wanted to.

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I wished that I’d planned my day better so that I’d been able to spend more time along the Mississippi, and in Wisconsin too. I finally headed east to Wisconsin, driving down from the river bluff forests into rolling farmlands. I also wished that I’d read the appropriate sections of Wisconsin’s Ecological Landscapes so that I’d had a better sense of what I was driving through and could appreciate it more. Regardless, I enjoyed seeing new places and extending my mental map of the landscape a little farther westward.

That wasn’t my only meandering trip. After spending a few days in my hometown, I had to drive south to Madison. Again, my original plan to take the most efficient highways and freeways was tossed aside when I realized that I could wander through some new places. I took the county roads south, winding through the Amish country that I had visited the previous day with my brother.

I stopped at a bridge that crossed the Fox River. I grew up on the Fox River, but much father downstream where the river is 100 yards wide and an eerie opaque green color from flowing through miles of farmland. Here near the head waters it was just a small creek, flowing through mostly woods and marsh. I had not thought much about the Fox River upstream of where I lived, only it’s northeasterly path downstream to the paper mills and factories stretching from Appleton to Green Bay.

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Not far down the road, I was given another reminder of the Fox River, as I passed the location where Marquette, the Jesuit priest, portaged the short distance from the Fox to the Wisconsin River, before continuing on to the Mississippi. I’d been to this spot and to the nearby historical buildings during a field trip in fourth grade, but I don’t remember much from that. If we were taught the river’s looping upstream course in school, I remember none of it. From this point, I passed into the Wisconsin River watershed and into a different landscape of large, flat farm fields on soils more suited to agricultural production. And then into Madison.

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I’m always struck by how much I love the landscape where I grew up. I don’t think I could live there ever again; I feel too crowded by people and roads and private land when I visit. But I love to visit, and see the place where I grew up with fresh eyes. I love the small, rolling hills and the marshes and the oak forests (although not the buckthorn that has taken over the understory). I picked a part of the U.P. that has some of these characteristics to be my home now; I just hope that I can learn the characteristics of this place without having to move away.

Getting to Know the Adirondacks

I only had a quick trip to the Adirondacks, so I had to make the most of my time. To see the forests, I did a turbo hike up Ampersand Mountain in the afternoon. The hike started out easy, with the flat trail cutting through northern hardwood forest. It was fairly familiar forest—mostly maple, hemlock, and birch growing on shallow, sandy soils—but not exactly what we have back home. There was also hobblebush (a viburnum) and American beech, two plants we don’t have in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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The trail was nice and mellow for about a mile, but it was also gradually getting a steeper as I went. Eventually the trail became much steeper until it was eventually a staircase made of stones.  Continue reading “Getting to Know the Adirondacks”

Microadventures

Let’s be honest: adventures are fun and exciting, but they can also be exhausting. There can be a lot of planning involved in launching the adventure. And then, if you really do it right and live it up, you can feel completely exhausted afterward (i.e., the dreaded vacation hangover—when you need a vacation from your vacation!).

But what if you could do smaller, more bite-sized adventures between the 9-to-5 daily grind?

Adventurer Alastair Humphreys proposes one solution: microadventures.

Think of microadventures as the expresso of all adventures Continue reading “Microadventures”

Long Walk

Last week I was in Vermont and had the opportunity to check out Shelburne Farms, and impressive historic estate that’s now an educational center for farming. Being early December, much of the place was closed for the winter, including the historic home (truly a mansion!), the barns, and the Children’s Farmyard with actual animals.

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The historic home from a distance, on the shore of Lake Champlain.

The trails and property were open, however. Stepping outside of the Welcome Center at the property’s old Gate House and looking at the map, a woman approached and asked, “Do you know where you want to go? I come here all the time.” Continue reading “Long Walk”

Layover

If I were to pick out one photo to sum up this past week, this would be it:

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I took this photo in Downtown Chicago at the beginning of this week. There was a big snowstorm last weekend that grounded all flights into O’Hare and left me sitting in the Boston airport for 4 extra hours. We eventually did get to the airport once the weather cleared, but I missed my connecting flight and was stuck in Chicago for an extra day.

In the photo, ice hangs on a crabapple tree after the storm. There were a number of trees outside of The Art Institute of Chicago drapped in icicle, which made a very seasonal scene. And it was appropriate: even after returning home, it’s been a cold and icy November week. Continue reading “Layover”

Hiking with… Pack Goats!

I haven’t been backpacking in ages. In fact, it’s likely that been avoiding since the last time I went backpacking for fun. That was ten years ago, when friend and I did a great 14-mile loop at the Porkies but ended up doing the entire thing in one day, instead of the two that we had planned, which meant that we’d schlepped our packs filled with overnight gear that entire distance for nothing.

I was excited to try backpacking again, especially when my friend, Sara, proposed trying out pack goats. Continue reading “Hiking with… Pack Goats!”