A Northwoods Almanac for November 11 – 24, 2011
Kadunce River Gorge
Last week, Mary, Callie, and I spent four days on Lake Superior’s North Shore, and the highlight of the trip was a hike we did along the Kadunce River northeast of Grand Marais. We had hiked this trail last summer, and were greatly impressed by the sheer walls of the river’s gorge as it neared Lake Superior. The river was running well then, and when we could see down into the gorge, there was plenty of whitewater.
This fall, however, water levels along the North Shore are way down, and the Kadunce was much quieter and often pulled well back from the walls of the gorge. So, when we began the hike we thought we might be able to hike a little ways up the gorge itself. As it turned out, we were able to go a long ways, frequently having to hop on rocks to get to one side of the river or the other where there was a little exposed shoreline to hike, but enjoying the challenge. The vertical walls of the gorge were maybe 50 feet high on average, and the gorge frequently narrowed to perhaps 15 feet, though we read that the gorge at some point narrows to only 8 feet wide.
We were eventually stopped by a waterfall and had to turn back, but what a great adventure we had for a half hour or so working our way up the gorge. The rivers along the North Shore are truly spectacular, having cut paths through sheer rock canyons. It’s rugged and steep country, a hiker and sightseer’s paradise.
We’re always very happy to come home from any trip, one of the many gifts of living along the beautiful Manitowish River. But, we all would have stayed far longer if we could – there’s a lot of country to explore up there.
Mountain Ash Berries
We were surprised at the bounty of mountain ash berries that were present just about everywhere along the North Shore. In the Lakeland area, we’re at the southernmost edge of the normal range for mountain ashes, so we seldom see them growing wild here.
Mountain ash dresses up late autumns with its big yellow fronds of leaves and its hundreds of shiny red berries. This little tree, which seldom reaches 25 feet in height, often gets lost in the understory during summer’s abundance of foliage. But once the other deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, the mountain ash takes center stage and holds it for the rest of the winter if the birds don’t strip the tree of its berries.
We’ve planted several of the red-berried native American mountain ashes in our yard to attract birds during the winter, in particular bohemian waxwings and pine and evening grosbeaks. The problem we often have is that robins migrating through find the berries to their liking as well, and we just don’t have enough berries on our two young trees to withstand their appetites.
Called the rowan tree by many, the name derives from the Old Norse name for the tree, “raun”. Linguists believe that the Norse name is ultimately derived from a Germanic word “raudnian” meaning "getting red." Rowan grows throughout the British Isles where it has a delightful array of English folk names including Delight of the Eye, Quickbeam, Rune tree, Thor's helper, Whispering tree, Wicken-tree, and Witch wood tree.
Odd Fungi and Slime Molds
Some mighty odd fungi exist in this world, and Mary and I have been trying to not only take note of them but also really appreciate them. One unusual species is called “Orange Jelly,” a fungi which grows as a gelatinous mass and feels kind of like a slimy juicy fruit candy. It grows in dense clusters on conifer logs or stumps, and lives off the decaying wood.
A very similar fungi wonderfully named “Witches’ Butter” grows on dead hardwoods, and dresses up in vibrant yellow. Another relatively similar species, “Lemon Drops,” is also brilliant yellow, but deviates from merely being a blob like the others and takes the shape of tiny shallow cups that look like a colorful place setting for a sophisticated chipmunk tea party.
Then there’s the perfectly named “Dead Man’s Fingers” which looks like, well, something out of a Hitchcock movie. They’re typically attached to below-ground rotting wood of maples, birch, or basswood.
We’re also really quite enamored these days with slime molds. They’re not fungi per se, but exist as an amoeba-like organism called plasmodiums. They move very slowly by oozing their way along while consuming bacteria or other microorganisms.
These guys are way out there as a life form. Slime moulds are not fungi, not plants, not animals. They don’t flower, don’t pollinate, they crawl around and live on living matter without killing it. They begin life as amoeba-like cells and multiply if they find food like bacteria. They can then mate and grow into plasmodia, which can grow to be meters in size. One variety often seen is a slimy yellow network on rotting logs which lives by engulfing microorganisms. Though I’ve never seen this, if watched carefully, the plasmodium can stream and can be seen to slow, stop, and even reverse direction. When the food supply depletes, the plasmodium will migrate to the surface of its substrate and transform into the rigid fruiting bodies we commonly see. They will then release spores, which hatch into amoebae-like forms to begin the life cycle again.
I don’t pretend to understand them, but I sure enjoy just how bizarre they are. And you’ve got to love some of their common species names like chocolate tube slime, red raspberry slime, tapioca slime, and a host of others.
Beavers are mighty busy right now building their winter food caches before ice-up. They’ve got to “put-up” enough food to last them over the five months or so of winter ice that we commonly experience, and that’s a lot of branches to cut. The cache is usually built out about 10 to 15 feet from the lodge, and is comprised of a dense array of branches that the beavers will later swim out under the ice to procure for a given day’s meal. Beaver seem to most prefer aspen and willow cuttings, though the cache’s composition generally reflects whatever is most available, and still edible, along the shoreline.
In the spring, the sprawling network of unutilized branches often provides a great basking spot for painted and snapping turtles as well as northern water snakes that want to get out of the cold spring waters.
Beaver dams also have to be reinforced prior to winter because the dam may be all that’s holding back enough water for the beavers to swim under the ice to get to their cache.
So life is a lot of work right now for beavers, but once the ice is on, they will have little to do but hang out in their lodges, grab a cutting when they’re hungry, and wait out the winter.
There’s not much color left in the woods in November, but on occasion one can see the fruiting stalks of either red or white baneberry, both of which produce fruits that look a lot like doll’s eyes. As you might guess, the red baneberry produces red fruits with little black eyes, and the white baneberry produces white fruits also with little black eyes but on bright red stalks.
The berries are strikingly pretty but also the most toxic part of the plant; hence the “bane” in baneberry. Eating as few as six berries will cause nausea, dizziness, increased pulse, severe gastrointestinal discomfort, and can possibly lead to cardiac arrest. As few as two berries may be fatal to a child, so enjoy this plant with your eyes only.
On 11/12, look in the southwest at dusk for Mercury 2 degrees below Venus. November 15 brings us less than 9.5 hours of daylight.
The peak Leonid meteor shower occurs in the early mornings of 11/17 and 11/18. The Leonid meteor shower is famous for producing some of the greatest meteor storms in history with rates as high as many thousands of meteors per hour. These storms sometimes recur in cycles of 33 to 34 years, but in most years, the Lion has a very modest roar, averaging 15 to 50 meteors per hour. The Leonids ordinarily get going after midnight and display the greatest meteor numbers just before dawn. This year, however, the last quarter moon will be shining near the radiant point of the shower in the constellation Leo. The presence of the moon will likely wash-out much of the 2011 Leonid display.
We’re not too far from ice-up – the average date on many of our small lakes is around 11/26.