Archive for the ‘michigan’ category

ICE STORM!

April 5, 2014

Icy Storm Coating Crabapples in Leila Arboretum

Sometime around 10 p.m., the temperature edged down a degree, and the light rain took on a sharper edge. The cold drops stung a bit more, and the asphalt took on a glossy sheen. The Weather Channel had warned of freezing rain, and it was arriving right on schedule.

Branches began glistening in the headlights, as the cold rain polished every surface in a thin transparent layer of ice. As the night wore on, twigs of the lesser trees began snapping, sending a cascade of crystal to the ground. Power lines sparkled when touched by headlights.

Tree limbs were tugged by gravity as the relentless weight of crystalline water accumulated. As more rain fell and ran down the branches in little rivulets, icicles started to grow at the tips as the water froze faster than it could drip. By the wee hours, the icicles at the branch tips were one centimeter and growing. As the weight gradually sagged the branches, the icicles curved, always seeking gravity’s pull.

At 5:00 a.m., the first massive maple branch collapsed on a power line, blinking out the lights and heat of a hundred homes. Then a sycamore went down, then an elm, then a hickory. All over the region tree limbs fell in the forest, and nobody heard, but when a tree limb fell across the highway the sirens blared and the red lights of emergency vehicles sparkled eerily off the crystal forest.

Our power went out before dawn, and we awoke to a slightly chilled house. It would get ever colder over the next three days, as our veneer of civilization cracked under the weight of the ice.

Meanwhile, I took pictures.

Branches and Old Leaves Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Tree Branches Coated with Ice after Freezing Rain

White Oak Leaves Dripping with Ice from a Freezing Rain

Ice from Freezing Rain on Branch in the Leila Arboretum

Icy Storm Coating Crabapples in Leila Arboretum

Eastern White Pine Needles Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Old Apple Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Twigs Coated with Ice From Freezing Rain

Tree Branches Coated with Ice after Freezing Rain

Branches Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Northern Red Oak Leaves Dripping with Ice from Freezing Rain

Branches and Old Leaves Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Branches Coated with Ice from Freezing Rain

Tree Branches Coated with Ice after Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Trees Coated with Ice after a Freezing Rain

Icy Storm Coating Crabapples in Leila Arboretum

This storm occurred in Michigan just before Christmas; I would like to thank the relatives who took in those of us without power and made the holidays special. After three days, power was restored.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL: Still Living the Dream

August 4, 2013

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Hiking down from Trap Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail on a perfect summer day, I saw a single hiker ahead, trudging up the trail toward me. It was a man of roughly my age, carrying a heavy backpack. When we met and exchanged greetings, he asked if I was with the Forest Service. I said no, but I realized that I was wearing a light green shirt and dark shorts, and it did look a bit like a U.S. Forest Service uniform.

Then he remarked on my “Michigan” baseball cap, with its indigo color deeply faded by many days in the high country, but the maize embroidery of my alma mater’s name still bright. He said he had gone to the University of Michigan as well. He asked when I attended and I said I was there from 1968 through 1972. He said he was there from 1970 through 1974. He asked what I had studied, and I said I was in the School of Natural Resources. Turns out, he was too, so our paths would have crossed many times during the two years of overlap. Alas, neither of us recognized the other’s name, but I would have been two years older, and our classes would have been different.

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In the 1960s and early 1970s, most of us entered the School of Natural Resources because we loved being outdoors and dreamed of a career that would keep us close to the forests and lakes and mountains that we loved. I loved hiking and fishing; others loved hunting ducks and deer, but all of us had the wilderness in our souls. The school had a feeling of camaraderie at the time, and I think most of us thought of ourselves as natural resource students first, and University of Michigan students second. In addition, both of us were at the school when the first Earth Day happened, so our environmental interests coincided with the awakening feeling that caring for the environment should become an urgent national priority.

He asked who my favorite professor had been, and I answered S. Ross Tocher, a charismatic man who taught park planning and nature interpretation, and who introduced me to photography and spurred my buying of a good quality camera. Dr. Tocher gave me a start on my careers in interpretation and photography through his classes, and asking me if I would like to participate in an arboretum design for Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan, along with a landscape architecture student. This was the first time I participated in a project at a professional level, and it was thrilling. Tocher later moved to the Puget Sound region and spent his retirement years about ten miles from where I now live, though we didn’t get reaquainted in later years, something I now regret, since this great man passed away several years ago.

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My new trail acquaintance had spent the early part of his career working for the U.S. Forest Service in the Monte Cristo Ranger District in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. He wasn’t a forester, but he recalled asking his forester colleagues if the timber harvest they were hauling out of the woods was sustainable. That would have been in the early 1980s, when logging was increased dramatically on Forest Service lands. They laughed and said absolutely not, but there was nothing they could do about it. One of their agency’s goals at the time was to make sure that all the old-growth timber on the district was harvested by 2010. They didn’t quite reach their goal, despite a valiant effort that left much of the Pacific Northwest with a brush cut, because the increasing scarcity of the Spotted Owl intervened and effectively cut off the harvest. Thank God and his little owl.

I told my new friend about my zigzag career path, having worked as a nature center director in upstate New York and as a freelance nature photographer in the years since, as well as shorter stints with the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. I even did three summers of challenging work fighting forest fires in the California mountains.

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He spent the latter part of his career working for Seattle City Light doing environmental projects. And he spent lots of his own time in the mountains, enjoying the glorious yearly summer respite between spring and autumn rains in this moist region.

This conversation got me thinking about others I went to school with and the paths their lives have taken. Most I lost contact with, of course, but I’ve run across the names of some through the years in various ways. My roommate at forestry summer semester went into the Peace Corps and spent five years working on natural resources in Columbia, before the drug trade turned it into a terrifying place for outsiders. He later became a craftsman, creating a company that forged decorative bronze bells. I ran into him at an art show some 15 years ago in Cleveland, where we each had a booth.

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Another friend, for whom I was an usher at his wedding, went to graduate school, and later became a professor in Arizona. I heard him talking on NPR’s All Things Considered a few years back about tourism, his specialty. Another worked at a nature center, then departed for grad school and spent the rest of his career in Wisconsin doing graphics and photography for a university.

I was in college at the peak of the hippie era, and some of the guys I knew followed their passions in completely different directions. One formed a band performing in the style of old western music: they had an NPR program for many years and did a gig at the White House for Ronald Reagan (this guy also started the “Paul is Dead” rumor that swept the USA like wildfire–though Paul McCartney just gave a dynamite performance for 45,000 people in Seattle a week ago, so the report of his death was a bit premature, or else he’s had a great imposter for 40+ years). Another man–a man with a talent for talk–became an agent booking country and bluegrass acts out of Nashville. Still another became a restaurant manager in Cleveland.

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Our lives and careers have taken many routes. But as my new friend said as we departed: “It’s good to see some of us are still living the dream.” Indeed. I cannot imagine a life without spending a great deal of time outdoors in beautiful country. I invited him to join us on a week-long hike in The Enchantments, but he declined. He had other plans, and another route through life.

One last thing: the man remarked twice to me: “I can’t believe how young you look!” Well, take off the baseball cap and you see the lost hair that once flowed long and blond, while the sunglasses mask skin damage from so many days spent outdoors in the days before sunscreen. I like my disguises and have no illusions of youthfulness.

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We departed. He headed up the trail toward the pass and I headed down the trail to join my wife and our friend on the hike back to the trailhead. Old times and early ambitions were coursing through my head as I thought about forks in the road I’ve taken. Some with regrets, but most just are what they are. At this point in life, I’m as happy as I’m likely to be, and things have turned out pretty well. Life is our own personal version of the Pacific Crest Trail, filled with adventures on a long and wandering route through space and time.

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To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

BRIDGES OVER TROUBLED WATERS: With a Dollop of Heavy Crude

February 20, 2013

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun CountyThe Charlotte Highway Bridge, built in 1886, is  now located in Historic Bridge Park near Battle Creek, Michigan

While I was young, my family had a cabin in northern Michigan that we would drive up to on weekends throughout much of the year. We knew we were getting close when our Chevy station wagon crossed the Muskegon River over a rusty steel truss bridge near the village of Hersey. The backwater pool under the bridge, with its sandy river bottom, became our favorite swimming hole and canoe launch point. While swimming there, local teenagers would sometimes climb to the top of the spidery bridge and launch themselves like bad boy Olympic high divers down to the river far below. It was a center of the community in summer.

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County

Charlotte Highway Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun CountyMore views of the beautiful Charlotte Highway Bridge

Alas, the old steel bridge was replaced several decades ago by a concrete structure that is undoubtedly stronger and wider and safer than the original bridge–but has none of the charm and grace of the older structure. This has been the story across America, as bridges over troubled waters run into trouble themselves, and are replaced with more mundane structures.

Dixon's Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIDixon’s Bridge, built in 1891 by the Michigan Central Railroad, is a semicircular stone arch bridge; Norfolk Southern and Amtrack trains pass overhead

One man saw the disappearance of iron and steel truss bridges as a sad Michigan and American trend, and he had the vision to create something truly unique. Dennis Randolph, Managing Director (at the time) of the Calhoun County Road Commission, assembled a team of staff and volunteers to move five bridges from various parts of Michigan to a small park along the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek. In a few short years, the bridges were brought in and lovingly restored by Vern Mesler and many other dedicated workers.

The park became Historic Bridge Park, and I was thrilled to walk through the park when it first opened. The old iron and steel bridges were elegant and beautiful in their engineering, and the restoration appeared to be impeccable. I know of nowhere else in America that has an outdoor bridge collection, and I applaud the people who made this possible.

Entrance Sign for Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIEntrance sign for Historic Bridge Park

Gale Road Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIToday the Gale Road Bridge crosses Dickinson Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo River

Alas, on July 25 & 26, 2010, a 30″ diameter pipeline carrying diluted heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, burst near Marshall, Michigan, close to Historic Bridge Park. Before the leak was discovered and the flow stopped, 819,000 gallons of dark crude spilled into Talmadge Creek, then flowed into the Kalamazoo River, contaminating birds and fish and the whole riverbed for several miles. Enbridge Energy, the company responsible for the spill, spent two years cleaning up the oil spill with crews and equipment working full time to restore the damaged section of the Kalamazoo River. Historic Bridge Park was necessarily closed to public use for nearly two years.

Part of the cost of cleanup and mitigation for Enbridge was to provide improved facilities at Historic Bridge Park. With these funds, new restroom and canoe launch facilities were provided, and the park got an endowment to help with future maintenance. Historic Bridge Park reopened in 2012, and it is now more beautiful than ever.

Gale Road Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIThe Gale Road Bridge originally spanned the Grand River in Ingham County, Michigan, from the time it was built in 1897

Bridges at Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County near Battle CrSix bridges in close proximity make Historic Bridge Park an outdoor museum

When I was in Historic Bridge Park, I noticed blue paint slashes on some of the trees. These are markers for a long distance hiking route: the North Country Trail. If I was of a mind to, I could shoulder a backpack and hike this trail south into Ohio, then east into Pennsylvania and on into Upstate New York, taking my last step in some of my favorite mountains: the Adirondacks.

Alternatively, I could hike the other way out of the park and head to Michigan’s “up north,” eventually crossing the Mackinaw Bridge, walking through the vast north woods of the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, then ending up in the sea of grass of the North Dakota prairie.

Alas, I cannot do either, as it is time to leave Battle Creek and fly back to Washington State, crossing the snowy winter landscape at 35,000.’

Limestone Steps in Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIBeautiful limestone steps ascend the hill so visitors can cross the Charlotte Highway Bridge on foot

Dixon's Bridge in Historic Bridge Park, Calhoun County, MIDixon’s Bridge passes under the route of the Norfolk Southern tracks

Kalamazoo River in Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, MIThe beautiful Kalamazoo River, where it flows past the park

For specific information about the bridges in the park, go to Historic Bridges.

For information about the Enbridge Energy oil spill, go to Kalamazoo River Oil Spill.

The visionary engineer behind Historic Bridge Park, Dennis Randolph, is also a prolific administrator and author. He has written a good book about community engineering: Civil Engineering for the Community.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

DETROIT METRO: Motor City Magic

May 19, 2011

Walking through the Light Tunnel at Detroit Metro Airport

Detroit was my hometown. Don’t laugh: it was a great place to live in the ’50s and ’60s. I grew up listening to Motown on the radio and saw Bob Seger live at the local teen center years before his mid-1970s success. We had the Cranbrook Institute of Science for cultural visits, and one of the best metropolitan park systems in the world. My suburban school gave me a wonderful college prep education. The Great Lakes provided summer fun, and “up north” beckoned with wonderful adventures. Many families owned cottages on lakes and rivers in this land of lakes. My Dad was an engineer at GM, and many of the neighborhood men in our leafy suburb also worked for the Big 3. It was a lively place to grow up, with the kinetic energy of the postwar boom driving an economy that had its pedal to the floor.

I remember my Dad coming home one evening, eagerly sketching out the tail fins he had just seen the designers produce for the brand new 1959 Chevy Impala. We had a new Chevy or Pontiac in the driveway every year, and the auto industry seemed like the pulsing heartbeat of America. The Corvette, Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda, and Chevy Camero were the muscle cars that all the young guys lusted after. Cruising Woodward Avenue was the thing to do on warm weekend nights.

Alas, whoever was driving Detroit’s economy applied the brakes. Hard. Early signs of trouble came with the racial tensions between blacks and whites during a decade of discontent, culminating in a major riot (which some might justifiably call an uprising) during the long, hot summer of 1967. Fires and fights raged all over the city, with the National Guard and 82nd Airborne called in to restore order. The racial divide has continued, with 8 Mile Road dividing mostly black Detroit from the mostly white northern suburbs. Hip hop artist Eminem famously referenced this road and divide in his music.

Next came the ’70s, with oil shocks and the early popularity of imports giving Detroit a two-punch warning of the beating to come. As oil uncertainties continued, the baby boomers decided that cars from America’s prior enemies were cooler to drive than Detroit muscle, which had, in any event, been tamed by new mileage standards. Jobs were starting to evaporate with cost-cutting, oursourcing, and sharing the sales with the Japanese; guys with high school educations had trouble getting good union assembly line jobs like their dads had held before them.

Whites had been abandoning the city for decades by now, and the Motor City began depopulating as opportunities dried up and the twin thugs of crime and misery held the city hostage. The road down was long and potholed, and today much of Detroit is barren of houses and business, and there is talk of farming what used to be residential neighborhoods. The story of Detroit is like a story of Armageddon, with a once-rich civilization fallen into ruins. It makes me think of Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying book, The Road.

There is no point in trying to blame anyone or any single event for the devastation of Detroit; it is what it is. All we can do is look to the future.

Which is what I did on this brief trip to the McNamara Terminal of Detroit Metro Airport. This terminal is my favorite of any airport I’ve ever been to, with a great fountain, an overhead tram, and some nostalgic shops and restaurants that celebrate the Motor City. Another point in this terminal’s favor is that my brother helped build it, including installing moving sidewalks.

The best part of a visit to McNamara Terminal is walking through the Light Tunnel, an underground walkway connecting Concourse A with Concourses B & C. The Light Tunnel, designed by Mills James Productions and featuring glass art by Foxfire Glass Works and a musical composition by Victor Alexeeff, is an experience to reawaken your sense of wonder for flying, with ever-changing LED lights behind long cast glass panels. Rather than describe it, I’ll let the pictures paint a visual impression of walking through the airport. There are moving sidewalks on each side of the tunnel, with a wide promenade for walking between the concourses. I took most of the pictures from the moving sidewalks, which kept me occupied for at least half-an-hour while waiting for my plane. Great fun!

A montage of images of the ever-changing light show

Mother and child and Boeing 747, through the lively fountain

The beautiful fountain, created by WET Design, uses laminar flow of water in ever-changing patterns; it took inspiration from the flight maps that show the curving routes of airplanes as they travel from city to city around the curve of the earth

A view showing the long Light Tunnel

Detail of lovely cast glass backlit by LED lights in the Light Tunnel

A camera’s proof that aliens live among us

If your travels take you to or through Detroit on Delta, don’t miss the Light Tunnel!

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

December 27, 2008 Into the Mystic Midwest

January 12, 2009

 

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Today I was in the middle of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula visiting family during a Christmas trip. This year the traditional white Christmas visited with a vengeance: it has been a snowy December in this part of Michigan, with nearly 40″ of snow falling during2008_mi_6648wp the cold and icy month. But weathermen were predicting a letup from the cold–a front of unseasonably warm air was blowing in, creating a certainty of fog. I love photographing foggy landscapes, so the change of weather was just perfect. Less so the roads.

With my wife and mother nervously accompanying me as I drove our rental car on back roads glazed with ice, I set out to capture the essence of fog blanketing the wintry farm fields and maple forests of central Michigan.  We did a loop from Stanwood to Big Rapids to Mount Pleasant and back to Stanwood, passing through Amish country and the kinds of Midwestern small towns that politicians love to extol as being the heart of America. Though the temperature reached 54°F as we travelled, the sun was never able to burn through the fog. Just for fun, we decided to follow the GPS unit’s voiced guidance in our rental car. In soothing tones, the female voice told us where to turn. But computer woman had never been on snowy Michigan back roads in the middle of winter, and she led us over hilly roads completely covered with ice that had yet to see a salt or sand truck. 2008_mi_6616wpWhen she tried to lead us down a road that was, in reality, an unplowed trail, we drew the line. Fortunately, she didn’t get upset at us and simply recalculated our route. Nice lady computer.

The fog was thick in the open hardwood forests, lending an atmosphere of mystery to a day in which tree trunks marched in ever-lightening shades of gray into the distance. Fog shrouds the landscape with quiet, and I think that feeling comes through in my photographs. This type of fog is known as advection fog, and it forms when warm, moist air flows over a snow-covered landscape. As this warm, saturated air chills near the cold ground, fog forms. My mind has a hard time comprehending the scientific explanation of this phenomenon which involves dewpoints at the interface of cold and warm air, but for those who need to know, there is a good website with a succinct explanation: www.theweatherprediction.com

I stopped the car repeatedly to get out and photograph, finding that the road was a sheet of  ice that threatened me with a hard fall.  But I remained upright and took numerous pictures all morning, until my wife and mother in unison shouted “No!” when I tried to park the car on an icy hill and get out one last time to take a picture. I relented under the pressure of their good sense and got back in the car. Good boy!

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The fog lasted all day, as did we on our adventure. When we drove home through the dark in early evening, a wind had come up and was blowing the fog sideways across the road at a high velocity. I’m used to driving in blowing snow, with the headlights piercing the mesmerizing and dazzling matrix of billions of big flakes. But I had never before driven through dense and blowing fog, in which the fog line kept disappearing and the headlights penetrated the mist barely a car length ahead. We never had to stop entirely, which was good because the snow was hard and crusted high on the road shoulder. We made it home, exhausted after the drive, but I was happy with my mystic Midwestern pictures of the day. 

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When I got home and looked at the photographs, I enlarged several to a high degree.  Only then did I see two White-tailed Deer bedding down in the mist, partially obscured by the trees. When I took the picture I must have been only 40-50′ away from the deer, yet they remained quietly hidden in the forest. It was a day of that kind of magic.

 

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.

June 18, 2008 Cross Fox & Family

July 9, 2008

While traveling through Lake Superior State Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I am photographically prepared for wildlife.  In the summer of 2007, I saw a Moose and a Black Bear in this forest, and want to be prepared for whatever I see.  So I travel with the camera ready with a 500mm lens with a 1.4x extender.  This is a good combination for wildlife, but I find that I still have to get close to a creature to get a good picture.  Anyway, I was an Eagle Scout, so my motto has to be “Be Prepared.”  And today it worked out well.

Late this afternoon, as I approached a sandy road cut in my vehicle, I saw movement ahead and quickly counted four kits and one adult fox playing much too close to the road.  I pulled over when I could, and meanwhile the foxes had scrambled for safety up and over the embankment and into the forest; several looking down at me from their higher perch.  Then I drove to a nearby side road and saw the family again, this time gathered in a meadow.  I stopped and got a few pictures before the family went back into the forest.  When I first parked the vehicle to try and get a picture, the adult was relaxed enough to be laying down, eyes half-closed in a squint that looks so restful.  My sequence of pictures shows the adult laying down along, then one kit coming up and nuzzling, then the adult looked directly at me.  Then the adult rose when it saw I was staying and stared with eyes wide open and intent on me and my intentions.  Eventually it decided to leave and took the kits with her.

I later went back to the main road and discovered the fox den on the other side of the road from where I first saw them, near the top of the sandy road cut.  This is the second den I have located in Lake Superior State Forest, and each one has been near the top of a steep (but not very high), sandy road cut.  In each case the den entrance was in the open, without any obstructing vegetation.  The fox knows to dig the den just below the root line of the trees and other plants; this allows easy digging but provides a stable roof of soil held in place by the roots.  This fox didn’t pick such a good den location, however, being right at the edge of an asphalt highway–upon which I later saw two of the young foxes playing.

These Red Foxes interested me because the adult was not red; two of the kits were not red; and the two remaining kits were the typical Red Fox warm golden-red hue I’ve seen before (except in Alaska’s Denali National Park, where I saw a jet-black Red Fox).  The coloration here was varied in shades of dark gray and black and reddish ochre that is known as the “Cross Fox.”  There is a black line down the back and another black line that goes over the shoulders and down the legs; I suspect that when trappers skinned out a fox of this coloration and laid it out flat, the cross looked distinctive.

As I’m sitting here at the picnic table in the campground, I’m less than 100 yards from the fox den.  In fact, twice since I’ve been in camp an adult fox trotted by.  The second time, the fox was briefly curious enough to walk up hesitatingly and check me out from about 25 feet away.

I should mention the habitat.  In this sandy soil the tree cover consists mostly of Jack Pine, Paper Birch, and Bigtooth Aspens, with a lot of bracken and reindeer lichen as ground cover.

I’ll see what tomorrow morning brings.  [Note:  the next morning I saw a single young Cross Fox outside the den in a drizzle, with the others probably warm and dry inside.]

Also today I saw a pair of fresh Sandhill Crane tracks crossing a road.  I also saw a wet path roughly a foot wide crossing a road from wetland to wetland; I’m sure it was made by either a River Otter or a Beaver.

As I’m typing this at deep dusk, a whippoorwill is calling across the lake and mosquitoes are hovering around me with their incessant whine.  It is a chilly June evening, and I’m wearing a layer of down.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

May 13, 2008 Mystery of the Misplaced Trilliums

May 26, 2008

This is a tale of that beloved wildflower family, the Trilliums.  Several years ago, while I was jogging along a floodplain trail in Battle Creek, Michigan, I noticed some pink flowers off to the side of the path.  Even without my standard issue baby boomer lineless bifocals, I could see that these blossoms were trilliums–those beautiful Midwestern spring wildflowers that start out as pure white, then fade through stages of pink into deep magenta.  Then I spotted a second variety of trillium–a yellow toadshade with leaves patterned in light and deep shades of green–that I had never seen before.  After getting off the trail, I drove back to my in-law’s home, where my wife and I were staying, then told my story and brought back reinforcements–my wife and her parents.  Together we found two more species of trilliums in the same vicinity.

Three years later, I’m back in Battle Creek, inhaling the rich aroma of corn flakes cooking at the Kelloggs factory.  It is the same time of year as before–that wonderful time in early May when Michigan reawakens from its long winter sleep in shades of bluebirds and blue skies and yellow warblers and green oak leaves newly emerging.  The same bunch, plus my mother, walked out to the trillium trail to see if the forest was as alive with trilliums as  it had been before.  It was!  We saw the same species as previously, plus we noticed enough variation that we felt there was probably some hybridizing going on among these related species.

Now for the mystery: why are these trilliums here?.  They are growing in a floodplain forest that includes such flood-loving woody species as Sycamore, Hackberry, Silver Maple, Cottonwood, Poison Ivy, and Box Elder.  When we looked at the range maps for the trillium species we identified, it appears that all could be here on their own, without any help from wildflower gardeners.  And some of these species seem to be little-known, except among botanists, because they grow in formidable habitats (as in, “watch for poison ivy!”).  But they are growing in a linear strip perhaps 20 feet wide, paralleling the trail for about 200 yards, and just off the mowed portion of trail.  The thing is, I can’t find a single trillium anywhere else along the trail.  Yet these trilliums are thriving on their own in this one location.  Were they planted as a garden club project?  Is this just the last surviving patch of the native spring flora?  I wish I had a botanist’s 911 number that I could call to help with this emergency!

The photographs below represent my best from about two hours of photography.  I used a digital SLR at ISO 400 (to help with a wind problem) and a ball-head tripod for all these shots.  In addition, I also variously used a 100mm macro lens, a 24-105mm zoom lens, a polarizing filter, and a diffusion screen to cut contrast on these sunny days.  And Adobe Bridge and Photoshop to clean up the leaves and petals.  You will notice that for some frames, I wanted every detail to be tack-sharp; for other pictures, only I wanted only the focal point to be sharp.

Like many originally Midwestern nature photographers, I started out my photography by photographing wildflowers, and I still return to the subject every year with renewed passion.  In the last decade, nature photography has fallen severely out-of-fashion, as the sophisticated crowd has moved on to European and exotic travel (think of traditional National Geographic portrayals of unfamiliar people) and still-life photography as being the oh-so-trendy subjects.  Even in outdoor magazines such as National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Audubon, photography that does not include people is considered too static–as if readers don’t have the imagination or creativity to see themselves in a wild scene.  I think this parallels American alienation from nature.  Many people call themselves environmentalists or love action sports in wild places–but few have developed a deep love of the very elements of those places.  Environmentalists too often think in abstractions and adventure sports enthusiasts too often look at wilderness as a challenging outdoor gym.  I prefer to move through the forest, camera in hand, with a sense of wonder at all that surrounds me.  And if that leaves me hopelessly unfashionable, so be it.

 

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with caption.


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