A Northwoods Almanac for 10/26 – 11/8/2012
by John Bates
Looking for the Way Things Once Were – State Natural Areas
Last weekend while Mary, Callie, and Nancy (Mary’s sister) were cavorting in Ireland (leaving me at home with our Australian shephard, Zoey – oh, the injustice of it all!), we decided to go exploring, Zoey alert in the front seat and carefully monitoring my navigational abilities. I have on my desk stacks of maps of State Natural Areas that lure me daily, so I picked five sites in Ashland and Bayfield counties that were described as having old-growth characteristics, and off we went in the morning fog.
State Natural Areas (SNAs) contain the best remaining examples of what Wisconsin may have looked like before settlement, so they are places that excite my curiosity. They often convey a feeling, a spirit of place if you will, that I can’t find elsewhere. These are the places where I go to find a certain quiet, an historical integrity, that allows me to walk more slowly, more reverently, and thus to think and feel more deeply about who I am and whether I am living this life as I should.
This isn’t to say that all SNAs are pristine, untouched, or “virginal” landscapes. Few such places exist today, and one can argue they never did. Virgin says something is completely untouched, unsullied, or unexploited. But ancient forests are represented by all stages of life, from the seed to the seedling, from the sapling to middle-aged tree, from the old to the decaying and to the dead. These forests are not a place apart from humans, but a place where native people often modified the landscape. And even if humans somehow left no apparent imprint, then natural disturbances have left their myriad calling cards, through windstorm, fire, disease, or insects. Old forests live dynamically, and have been naturally changing in large and small ways for thousands of years.
Even were we to find a forest never touched by humans, still no Midwestern forest could be said to remain in ‘virgin’ or ‘primeval’ condition. Too much environmental change has occurred in the last century and a half, from acid rain, mercury and other air pollutants that drift from distant sources on the winds, to exotic plants, insects, and tree diseases brought with equal parts great promise and/or ignorance.
Thus, no forest today breathes as it once did, nor absorbs nutrients from “virgin” soils. So, in today’s forests, the terms “wilderness” or “primeval” stumble within their meanings.
Yet, when we walk into a forest that resonates with age, we rightly feel transported into what we believe forests “should” look like. We feel like we’re walking through a historical dream, into a book written in languages foreign yet palpable. Voices seem to speak in ancient forests to those who listen.
So, that’s the vision I at least had in my head – Zoey just wanted to go anywhere – and down the road we rambled, heading first for the least “virgin” of the five sites, the Camp Nine Pines SNA in the sandy soils of Bayfield County. Camp Nine Pines attracted me not because of what they are now, but for what they could become. The site contains a contiguous canopy of 75- to 100-year-old pines and oaks that stretches over nearly 3,000 acres and is arguably the largest block of natural red and white pine on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Like nearly all of northern Wisconsin, the forest was cut and burned a century ago, but the pine forest that sprang back up was permitted to redevelop with only minor harvest. So, this area represents the best opportunity in Wisconsin to restore a large block of old-growth pine. And while those of us living today won’t see it in its glory, perhaps our grandchildren will be some of the first to see what a forest dominated by big pines once looked like.
We then stopped at the Lake Owen Hardwoods SNA, also in Bayfield County, but supported by far better soil than the Camp Nine Stand that is only 12 miles away. The site, 1,535 acres in total, is bisected by the North Country Trail, and here Zoey and I walked awhile amidst mostly maturing second-growth hardwoods, but every so often, coming into a glade of old hemlocks that spoke an older language. The value of the Lake Owen site lies in the size of its unfragmented and relatively undisturbed current state, though again, it’s greater glory will come a century or more hence when “mature woods” have become “old woods.”
Stops at Fairyland SNA along the south shore of Lake Namekagon, featuring a half mile of undeveloped shoreline habitat inhabited by some beautiful hemlocks, at Brunsweiler River and Mineral Lake SNA, and at English Lake Hemlocks SNA all yielded flashes of old growth amidst a far larger sea of second growth forest. Still, the feeling one gets in a place that you know will be conserved and which will have the chance to flourish over time pushes one to see not only the present but to envision centuries into the future. Author Bill McKibben said this very well: “In the sense that a place is recovering, it makes the place that much more precious, as an emblem of how much recovery is possible . . . The glory of current old growth does not devalue the second- and third-growth birch and popple a quarter-mile distant. Instead, the majesty of the ancient forest makes this tentative wildness all the more valuable, for it shows what it might become someday. Old growth is not simply a marker of past glory, an elegy for all that once was. It is a promise of the future, a glimpse of the systemic soundness we will not see completed in our lifetimes but can fire our hopes for the timelessness to come.”
Catherine Lake Hemlock-Hardwoods SNA
The next day, good friend and big-tree hunter Chad McGrath joined Zoey and me to paddle a short stretch of the Turtle River to reach the Catherine Lake Hemlock-Hardwoods SNA in Iron County, a 829-acre site described in part as a “relict old-growth stand dominated by large hemlock, yellow birch, and sugar maple with the largest trees averaging near 50 inches in diameter [and with] super-canopy white pine occurring near the lake.
We didn’t find any 50-inchers, but we did find some exceptionally large white pines, two of which were nearly 44 inches in diameter, with one being 128 feet tall when measured by Chad’s hagameter. In total in one area, we found around two dozen white pines over 36 inches in diameter, a truly impressive grouping of super-canopy pines scattered within the far more dominant hemlock-hardwoods.
We only got a little ways into the stand – there’s lots of exploring left for us to find the even larger trees. We did find one yellow birch that was twisted and blown over that was likely 50 inches in diameter, but it had been down awhile.
Again, this forest varies in its age and composition, but among the six SNAs I visited last weekend, this one excited me the most. It’s great fun to take a good compass and a good topo map and go exploring in areas like these that can surprise you with their beauty. And with snow cover soon to come, it will be equally enjoyable on showshoes.
For information and maps on the 653 state natural areas in Wisconsin, just do a web search for Wisconsin state natural areas. There’s over 360,000 acres protected, or about 1% of the total acreage in Wisconsin, and I assure you, that one percent is worth exploring.
Flocks of robins continue to strip our crabapple trees of their abundance. They’ve been at their gluttony now for weeks, and I’m wondering if they’ll stay until the trees are bare, or if they’ll move on and leave a few for the winter finches we hope will visit us when the snows fly.
Robins are among our last songbirds to depart for the winter, and while some don’t go much further than southern Wisconsin, most winter further south, with some small percentage going as far as Mexico.
During the nonbreeding season, large flocks of hundreds or thousands of immature and adult birds form roosting aggregations from which they seek sources of berries. Bird banders have found that only 25% of young robins survive the first year. The longest known lifespan in the wild of an American robin is 14 years; the average lifespan is about 2 years.
On 10/18, Jane Flanigan sent me a jubilant note saying she had finally seen her first cardinal in the Northwoods after waiting six years to see one – see her fine photo.
Venus remains brilliant in the predawn southeastern sky, while Mars is the planet to look for low in the southwest after sunset with Jupiter also rising now in the northeast.
Look for the full moon, the “Hunter’s Moon,” on 10/29. On 11/1, Jupiter will ride the early evening sky just one degree above the waning gibbous moon.
And, not to be depressing, but we’re down below 10 hours of daylight as of 11/3, with 11/6 marking the midway point between autumn equinox and winter solstice. Ten hour of daylight will sound pretty good in late December.
Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call me at 715-476-2828, drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI 54547.