My wife and I made a decision long ago that we enjoy the dramatic cycle of seasons in the north, so we avoided the rush of our generation to move to Florida or Arizona. I’m paler as a result, but am especially enjoying winters in central Michigan because of the snowfall. In fact, when the fat flakes are softly falling, I will often venture out on foot or in the Subaru to see what I can find to photograph.
The pictures here, taken over the last six years in Michigan, the Canadian Rockies, Newfoundland, Iceland, and a few other places represent my passion for falling snow. I love how the thickly falling flakes dissolve the landscape into what seems like molecules, where I get a glimpse of the fundamental nature of the universe. Nothing is as solid or as stable as it seems, and everything we know and love is made up of infinitesimal and fundamental particles buzzing around each other in the void. My glimpse into the great mystery.
You can click on any of the photographs here to see it larger and to view all of them using the arrow on the right. Each is available for $100 in a 12 x 18″ print that you can mat and frame however you like. Free shipping in the USA and each limited edition cotton print comes with a Certificate of Authenticity and a description of the photograph. Contact me at email@example.com for information; you can also go to http://leerentz.com for more options, including metal prints.
I awoke last night at midnight to flashes of light from a motion sensor floodlight on our deck. I wasn’t thinking of prowlers, because I suspected the flashes of light were triggered by Southern Flying Squirrels coming to visit for the sunflower seeds I had tossed out just before going to bed.
I crept downstairs and carefully opened the sliding door, letting in frigid February air. The deck light came on briefly, enough that I could see the tiny squirrels dashing up through an opening in the deck around a huge Northern Red Oak. Each squirrel would come up, grab a sunflower seed, then dash down the tree trunk out of sight. This happened so fast that I couldn’t see how many squirrels there were, though at one point I saw three. There may have been more. On this night they were nervous and did not stop long enough for any photos.
We’ve had Southern Flying Squirrels at our home in Michigan each winter, and I’ve photographed them at night several times using incandescent lights on the deck. They made for good photographs, with their gray-brown fur and a cuteness factor of huge bulging eyes and little pink lips, but their coloration was subtle to my eyes and essentially no different from most mammals, which are colored for camouflage rather than display.
Then scientific knowledge suddenly changed. About four years ago a Wisconsin forestry professor, Dr. Jonathan Martin at Northland College, was in the woods at night looking up toward the forest canopy with an ultraviolet flashlight for lichens and other fluorescing lifeforms, when a hot pink missile glided overhead. He identified this as a Northern Flying Squirrel, and its normally white belly lit up hot pink in ultraviolet light. He found this astounding, and asked a colleague to investigate flying squirrel skins in a couple of museum collections to see if the phenomenon could be confirmed. It turned out that in those collections, the bellies of all three species of North American flying squirrels–Southern, Northern, and Humboldt’s Flying Squirrels–glowed bright pink under UV light. Even specimens over 100 years old. Male and female, young and old, they nearly all glowed.
Since we have easy access to flying squirrels at our home in Central Michigan, I decided to observe this phenomenon for myself. I obtained a 365 nm UV flashlight that is powerful enough to look almost into the treetops and began looking at these squirrels on nights they chose to come to our feeding station. They don’t come every night, but when they do I often get up in the middle of the night to observe and try to photograph them. It isn’t easy to photograph little nervous squirrels by a relatively dim (to our eyes) UV light, but I’ve had some success represented by the pictures here.
Why do flying squirrels glow? That is still unknown. What is known is that at dusk, dark, and dawn, the air is bathed in proportionately more ultraviolet light and far less light from the visible spectrum than in daytime. This UV light–when converted to visible light by fluorescence–makes the flying squirrels more visible to each other. This is even more true when snow blankets the forest, since snow reflects UV light. It also appears that flying squirrels’ eyes, unlike ours, can see into the UV spectrum, so this ability may also be involved.
Again: why do they use biofluorescence and UV light at night? There are a couple of possibilities that spring to mind. Based upon the three flying squirrels I observed on that recent February night, I think it’s possible that the squirrels use their bubblegum pink undersides to keep track of each other at night. These squirrels are highly social, with reports of 25 to 50 Southern Flying Squirrels roosting communally in a hollow tree. So why wouldn’t they follow each other to food sources? Some of my pictures show them sitting side by side, dining quietly together on the sunflower seeds I put out. They seem to enjoy a more peaceable kingdom among their kind than do the daytime Eastern Gray Squirrels and American Red Squirrels we also get in Central Michigan. Feeding together also means more big eyes to look for predators–much as goldfinches and other songbirds feed communally as a strategy to detect hawks.
There is another tantalizing possibility for the pink color. Three large owls that also live in this region–Barred, Barn, and Great Horned Owls–also have bellies that fluoresce hot pink under UV light, though their coverings are feathers rather than fur. These owls are the chief predators of flying squirrels. Do the flying squirrels mimic the owls to fool the predacious birds into thinking they are seeing other owls when in the air? Maybe. I find this possible. The fluorescing fur is mostly on the belly and undertail of the squirrels, with just a minor hint of color change on the back and virtually none on the tail. Once a flying squirrel lands on a tree trunk, its back and tail make it almost invisible to predators because the glowing belly is nearly hidden.
Alternatively, perhaps the owls are mimicking the flying squirrels, fooling the little squirrels into thinking they are seeing others of their own kind. This would allow the owls to silently approach the flying squirrels and suddenly grab the little creatures.
Or perhaps all three of these mechanisms are in play: bubblegum pink signals the presence of flying squirrels to each other, but also both disguises them from owls and identifies them to owls, if any of that makes sense. Coevolution at work.
Biofluorescence also extends to the Virginia Opossum in this region, but is apparently unknown in other mammals here. It turns out the phenomenon is new enough that the chemical and physical mechanism is still unknown. I suspect this will be studied in coming years, with possible applications for industry. Or not. Knowledge is its own reward.
I will be watching these creatures over the coming weeks and years, both with and without the assistance of UV light. The mysteries of nature are an ingrained part of my life and I find observations and photography endlessly fascinating.
The photographs above are a good representation of the Southern Flying Squirrel in UV vs visible light. The final photograph shows the deck setting at night where all the pictures were taken, and includes one flying squirrel for scale. Click on the photographs to see them larger.
Here are some other sources that examine this discovery:
The Amish live close to the land, necessarily incorporating seasonal rhythms into their lives. After all the plowing and planting and nurturing and harvesting, the landscape breathes a sigh of relief as the world enters winter dormancy.
But not the Amish. Their lives are still busy with the daily rhythms of farm life. The horses and chickens must be fed. The children must walk to their one-room schools. Ice must be harvested. Laundry must be washed and then dried out on the line. The sawmills continue operating. Wood must be cut for warmth. Barns are built. Quilts are sewn. Sunday worship is not to be missed, as the believers gather in one home, converging from nearby homes by foot and by buggy.
It is a life apart, and that’s what those of us viewing from the outside find enchanting and ultimately unknowable, because we can only view the surface.
The photographs here represent six winters of quietly and respectfully observing these families at an undisclosed location in central Michigan.
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The first leg of the journey was the drive to Burgeo, a fishing village accessed by Route 480 from the Trans-Canada Highway near Stephenville. The wild and beautiful landscape was covered with deep snow, and the conifers were magically encrusted with a thick layer of hard snow so that, in places, they looked like snow elves. We kept our eyes alert for Woodland Caribou, but didn’t see any on the drive. When we reached Burgeo, we stayed at a small motel that would be convenient for catching a ferry the next morning.
We packed what we would need for the trip in two suitcases and left the rest in the car, since we couldn’t take a car on the Marine Voyager ferry. These communities have no roads and no cars, so all that is needed is a foot ferry, albeit one that can carry enough cargo to meet a small community’s daily needs. We walked up the ramp on the ice-covered boat, then descended into a room for the passengers. Comfortable seats, round portholes, and a soap opera on the television – what more could we hope for? We paid our fee of $6 per passenger, which was clearly subsidized by the government, and settled in for our sailing along the coast.
There were only a couple of other passengers, and they lived in the villages of Grey River and Francois (a French name Newfoundlandized to “Fran-Sway.”) We were invited up to the bridge for a front-row seat and visit with the captain, who was a lifelong resident of Francois. One of the other passengers, a younger man named Cody who owned a fishing boat, introduced himself to us as well. He was also a lifelong resident of Francois and he told us about the community and what he liked about living there.
Hesitantly we asked the captain if he thought the ferry would be running two days later when we wanted to make our return trip, which would give us enough time to drive back to St. John’s and catch our flight back to the USA. He said this was the first time the boat had sailed for a week because of storms but that the weather looked good for our return trip. We had two nights at Francois and could enjoy ourselves. We had been watching the marine forecast every day for the past two weeks of our trip, trying to find a three-day window of weather when the ferry would be running; there were high winds and high seas every day and then finally the forecast looked good.
The south coast of Newfoundland has a series of fjords, which provide sheltered locations and harbors for fishing communities. The village of Grey River was the first village we came to, and was located partway up a fjord. We motored through pancake ice and past colorful houses to the dock, where about ten people were waiting for the boat. All these people helped unload bread and beer and Amazon boxes full of the stuff a small community needs. Snowmobiles and ATVs were the transportation in town.
We soon set sail again, with no new passengers – after all, who would go from Grey River to Francois in the middle of winter? The sea was rough and it started to snow, and was just about dark when we carefully navigated the narrow fjord that ends at Francois. By this time the wind was howling and the driven snow stung our exposed faces. We didn’t know where our rental place was, but the captain and another man showed us the way and took our bags for us on a snowmobile. We settled into our place for two nights, and ventured outside briefly to get a feeling for the town.
We spent the next day wandering the village along its boardwalks and pathways – remember, there are no roads needed in a town with no cars or trucks. All the houses are connected by these paths. The town is small, but has Sharon’s Place, a grocery and liquor store that is open morning, afternoon, and evening, with breaks for lunch and supper. There is a church that sits above the rest of town, and a large school that currently has six students and one-and-a-half teachers. This must be one of the smallest schools in the world in terms of the number of students! But education also arrives by computer, with courses available to older students online. There is a medical clinic, but no permanent doctor in town. There is a helipad used during emergencies.
Colorful houses are a feature of the town, with red and purple and turquoise tones mixed together in a delightful jumble. In winter some are occupied and some are not, with some people leaving for part of the year for jobs. There are stages along the waterfront: small buildings on stilts where fishermen stored gear and later processed the catch. These are a distinctive and wonderful feature of all the Newfoundland coastal towns.
We walked past one house just as a lady in perhaps her late 70s was leaving the house on this snowy morning to meet for morning coffee with two other ladies who were 84 and 85 years old. We spoke with her briefly, and she told us she had lived her entire life in Francois. There were 89 people living in this little town in 2016, and we met perhaps eight of them – all of whom had lived here nearly their entire lives, except for time spent in the military or going to school. This lady was really concerned about the dwindling population of Francois.
As the snow continued to fall, we met up again with Cody from yesterday’s boat ride when he drove up on his Ski-Doo (the Newfoundland name for all snow machines) and chatted with him about the town. After graduating from the town’s school, the St. Simon & St. Jude Academy, he went to work on his father’s fishing boat. Later, he bought his own boat and now fishes for crabs, lobster, scallops, and sea cucumbers with his wife and up to five crew members.
Cody’s diverse fishing activity is a big change from the past, when the fishery was based upon the seemingly never-ending cod supplies. Alas, every time people think that a natural resource is unlimited, they use it up, and Newfoundland’s fishery was no exception. It was devastated by overfishing of the once common cod, a harvest made possible by technological advances utilized by both Canadian and foreign companies. In July 1992, with cod stocks down to less than 1% of historic levels, the Canadian government abruptly shut down the 500-year old cod fishery in order to try and save the fish. This instantly put 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work and devastated local communities. In the years since some, like Cody, were able to diversify and found a path to the future. Others found a future in tourism, which is starting to take off in Newfoundland. The cod has since rebounded but the fishery is extremely small and limited compared to the good old days. Just try to get fresh cod in Newfoundland most of the year!
A bit later we ran into another man on the boardwalk who was driving his Ski-Doo. He stopped to talk and told us that he was also a lifelong resident, but he didn’t make his living on the open ocean. He was a helicopter pilot who had worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, but now owns his own company and ferries a lot of people on remote hunting trips, mostly for Moose.
As I mentioned, the houses are scattered all around town seemingly randomly, with no clear lot boundaries. We asked one man about this, and he said that all the houses are built on Crown land, which is government land. People own their houses, but not the land under them.
We met another man driving his Ski-Doo who we had seen shoveling snow off a boat, which turned out to be his uncle’s boat. He works fishing for herring, crabs, lobster, and sea cucumbers. He was also a lifelong resident … are we beginning to see a pattern here? People are born here and live their whole lives here, though with a strong tether by ferry and by the internet and television to the larger world. When we asked Cody about his fellow citizens, he said that most everyone gets along well in town, but over time some people are moving away and the population is getting smaller.
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has had a decades-long effort to move people away from the outports, which require huge government subsidies for ferry and helicopter transportation and education and medical care. By now, most Newfoundland outports have been abandoned, with the people voting to disband their towns and move elsewhere, but Grey River and Francois have been exceptions. In Francois, the question has come up for a vote twice over the years, but both times it was defeated (the latest in 2013) and the people remained. I understood that if the people voted to move out, the government would pay each homeowner $250,000 to compensate for the abandoned homes. It still could happen, but it is wonderful to see a few of the outports still hanging on against the tide of modernization.
I continued to photograph the buildings and waterfront and falling snow to my heart’s content on this wonderful day, when we talked to more strangers than we usually talk to in a week. Newfoundlanders are like that … they go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome, and we did.
There is even a good story that might be mostly true or wholly true about a German submarine that entered the fjord containing Francois during World War II. It came to quietly get fresh water for its tanks at a waterfall entering the sea. It was on a Saturday night and there was a dance at the community center in town; some handsome but unknown young men showed up who knew little English and who danced the night away with the local girls. The young women apparently thought that these might be Basque fishermen who often fished nearby, and didn’t realize that the men were German sailors.
The next morning we prepared to leave Francois for the voyage back, and the ferry Captain came to retrieve us. The morning showed a bit of sun and good weather for an ocean trip, so we went down to the dock and prepared to leave. The trip back was stunningly beautiful, with morning sun kissing the snow-covered headlands. And we got back in time to make the long drive to St. John’s to catch our flight.
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Sweeping through the sky, driven by cold fronts and the coming snows; heading southward and westward to the central California coast, where sunny days and mild breezes await. The journey is treacherous, with predators and sudden storms poised to take a toll, but many get through, ending up in a few coastal towns in a few parks and on a few trees, where they roost by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.
As a fifth grade student back in Michigan, now many decades ago, my teacher, Mrs. Triff, took us on a field trip to see migrating Monarchs at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada, which sticks down into Lake Erie like an arrowhead. There the migrating Monarchs are stopped in their flight path by the barrier of Lake Erie and concentrate there until the winds are favorable to continue the journey to Mexico’s mountains. The extraordinary experience of seeing so many beautiful creatures in one place never left me, so I jumped on the chance to see them again.
In January of 2020 we traveled to Santa Cruz and Pismo Beach to see the winter gathering of Monarchs. We had read about it for years, but there is nothing like seeing a magnificent gathering in person. These pictures are from the two balmy days we spent along the California Coast.
In Santa Cruz, we got directions to where the Monarchs were gathered, which happened to be next to a large surfing competition for young people (what could be more Californian than a sunny day filled with surfers catching the waves rolling in?). Meanwhile, the 2,500 or so Monarchs were tightly clustered on two individual trees: a Monterey Cypress and a Blue Gum Eucalyptus. In the clusters the Monarchs hung upside down, their wings tightly overlapped and the exposed wings were the undersides, so there were patterns but with the subdued colors more suitable for camouflage. When a Monarch flew into the roosting group, several butterflies had to resettle themselves to accommodate the newcomer, briefly flashing the vivid orange-and-black patterns on the tops of their wings. We found the experience extraordinary, but local old-timers (our age!) who walked or cycled by said that this was NOTHING compared to the butterfly gatherings of their youth, when apparently the California coast was a Woodstock for butterflies. But then Jimi Hendrix died and the world went to hell and all we have left is fond memories of our youth. But I digress …
The butterflies apparently come to the same trees each year, which is extraordinary, since NONE of the butterflies here this year were here last year. When they start their migration, the generation of butterflies heading south and west from all over the western states and western Canada are bigger, stronger, and brighter than the Monarchs of summer gardens. These SuperMonarchs are able to fly up to thousands of miles to those few trees guided by what: Genetic memory maps? Scents left on trees? Scientists don’t agree on the mechanism, although day length and perhaps the drive for food as the north gets colder in the fall are the triggers for starting the migration. For a fascinating discussion of the theories, go to Monarch Butterfly Migration.
After leaving lovely Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, we drove south to another winter Monarch gathering of about the same size in Pismo Beach. Here the Monarchs were gathered on a few eucalyptus branches, with an endless stream of people migrating toward them on the path below, and pausing in a cluster to look up in wonder. Some of the Monarchs were getting in the mood for mating. An aggressive male would force a receptive female to the ground and laboriously try to pick her up. When he did, he would take her on a maiden flight into the treetops where, as the volunteer tour guide explained to the children, “they went for their honeymoon.” Extraordinary!
When spring approaches, the Monarchs begin their northward journey. The fact is, unless their summering grounds are near their wintering grounds, NONE of these individuals will make it. They procreate along the way, leaving eggs to hatch on milkweed plants. Then the hatched caterpillars voraciously feast on the milkweed, gaining nourishment and toxins (to repel predators), followed by the miracle of entering a chrysalis with golden stitches and eventually emerging as butterflies. Then the new butterflies head north, and repeat the whole process several hundred miles on, and so on for three or four summer generations. Then, come fall, the whole cycle repeats as a new SuperMonarch begins the migration south. And my sense of wonder is refreshed.
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There are places where experiences are so profound that they draw you back time after time. Olympic National Park’s Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches is such a place for me. The words in this story are from our 1991 field notes of our first visits to this transcendent place, illustrated with new and old photographs presented in a nostalgic style.
January 18-21, 1991
With a weather report of sunny weather for Western Washington through the long Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we made a quick decision on Thursday to leave Friday for a three-day backpacking trip along the coast at Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches. Little did we know it would be the most spectacular weekend trip of our lives.
We drove to Kalaloch on the Washington coast Friday night and camped in the Olympic National Park campground along the shore. Clear skies, with intense starlight, were followed by a heavy frost the next morning.
Arising early, we drove to Neah Bay and the Makah Indian Reservation. The road between Clallam Bay and Neah Bay hugs the twists and turns of the coast. Along this stretch of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we observed four immature Bald Eagles perched in the trees between the road and the water. Additionally, a male and female Harlequin Duck perched together on a small emergent rock. We also observed loons and scoters offshore, as well as Double-Crested Cormorants.
Neah Bay, the heart of the Makah Reservation, is like a small town on the Newfoundland coast, with scattered houses strung along the shore, a small fishing fleet, and no pretense of being a tourist town. These Indians had a centuries-old tradition of whaling from open canoes.
We followed a convoluted route to the trailhead, through town and along some potholed roads. Along Waatch Creek, we came upon wintering Trumpeter Swans. The brilliant white swans made a wonderful sight as they swam across the peaceful river surface, which reflected the pale blue of the winter sky. Their resonant trumpeting provided a sound track for the experience.
The two-mile hike to Shi Shi Beach was a muddy challenge [much improved in recent years], but the sounds of the roaring surf urged us on.
At our first ocean overlook, we watched waves crashing through the offshore sea stacks. As we started eating lunch, we noticed two mature Bald Eagles majestically perched together atop a high sea stack. Looking through binoculars at the ocean’s expanse, while enjoying a trail lunch of summer sausage and Wheat Thins, I spotted the spouts of three Gray Whales offshore; these were unmistakable columns of mist going straight up from the ocean.
As we shared a chocolate bar, Karen noticed that a “log” rocking on the waves was, in reality, a Sea Otter. Floating on its back, it was holding a Sea Urchin up to its mouth with its front paws. The back paws were stuck up in the air. The otter floated like a cork over crests and troughs of the waves–except when a giant wave toppled toward it–then it would plunge into the wave and emerge on the other side.
Hoisting our packs, we continued down the trail and in a few minutes descended to the beach. We were surprised to see a young man running along the beach and through the surf in shorts, sans top, and barefoot; his girlfriend sat in the sand and watched and shivered at the thought of it.
We decided to set up camp near the Olympic National Park boundary, at a place where a Raccoon-proof cable was strung between two trees [currently ALL overnight visitors are required to bring bear-proof canisters].
Then we hiked north along the beach we had examined from above. From the shells on the shore, it was evident that there were extensive California Mussel beds offshore. We also saw a few Razor Clam and Butter Clam shells; opened and empty, but (like the mussels) the hinges still held the two shell halves together and flexible. A Common Loon dove just offshore, as did a Surf Scoter; we saw the Sea Otter’s head poke up a few times as well. An occasional Bald Eagle sailed overhead.
Karen went around the next small point to the north and saw parts of an old shipwreck. Two large rusted hulks were on the beach, one large section out near a sea stack with a “gun turret” point projecting, and other pieces of metal scattered through the bay. Karen continued north to the beginnings of a cave being formed, and then further to a deeper cave which was still inaccessible because the tide was not low enough. The sun was setting though, so it was time to head back to camp.
When we returned to camp, we discovered that a Raccoon had unzipped Karen’s pack and investigated all its contents. We knew immediately that the culprit had been a Raccoon (and not a person), since Karen’s driver’s license and credit cards lay prominently on top of the pile spread across the ground–the Raccoon apparently didn’t have much use for Master Card. It had chewed up part of a roll of toilet paper, but otherwise no damage was done, since the food was strung safely up on the wire.
We crawled into our sleeping bags at 8:30 pm, and fell asleep shortly after. At midnight, we awoke to the sound of packs being rifled. Lee checked with a flashlight and caught the eye shine of two Raccoons. He crawled and chased them off. Undaunted, they returned a few minutes later, so Lee crawled out again and escalated the conflict by tossing sticks and stones at the creatures. This worked for a time, but they were back again a couple of hours later. This time Lee was running around barefoot in his underwear yelling and throwing stones at the guerrillas.
Lee awoke to the screeching and snarling sounds of a Raccoon squabble a little while later, but soon the action quieted down and the rest of the night was peaceful.
Waking up groggy and grumpy the next morning, Lee had a hard time getting started–as might be expected. After hot instant coffee and cold granola with powdered milk, we started down the beach in the cold gray of dawn. Again, there was frost whitening all the drift logs and grasses on the beach. The sand above the high tide line was frozen.
Shortly we came upon a dead seal washed up during the night’s high tide. The 5-foot long seal appeared freshly dead; one eye had been pecked out by crows or gulls.
Far down the beach we spotted a live Harbor Seal wiggling its way from the high tide line toward the sea. Obviously uncomfortable on land, it moved vigorously with ripples of fat rolling like ocean waves down its body. It would rest briefly, then struggle on. It finally reached the water and prayed for a big wave to carry it off–one of which arrived several waves later. We examined the tracks, which showed the lines where flippers made their marks, perhaps 2 feet apart. One flipper consistently dug in deeper than the other–perhaps indicating an injury that would have made movement more difficult.
The beach was relatively free of human detritus, though there were the usual fishing net floats, lengths of bright polypropylene rope, and tattered net fragments. At the highest wave line, there was a sprinkling of tiny bits of brightly colored plastic–which looked like plastic confetti. This was the first time we’ve seen such plastic bits. The larger pieces break into small pieces from the incessant pounding of the Pacific.
Never still (even on perfectly calm days under an intense high pressure zone like these days) the Pacific shore here always has the hearty roar of the surf as kind of a white noise in the background. Lee remembered talking with Dad on the phone, when he mentioned being at Kalaloch during the 1970s, and turning the car so its headlights struck the ocean, and being astounded and (if I may read something into this midwesterner’s memories) a bit intimidated by the churning, pounding, roaring surf that never ends. His memories of the violent Pacific were vivid, having stood watch in a crow’s nest atop a WWII destroyer during a big storm at sea.
As we stood among the sea stacks, on rocks exposed by low tide, we were awed by the pulsing power of the surf as it crashed into the monoliths and surged into the bays. The rocks absorbed the power and broke up the waves, thank goodness. Note that the big waves came in surges of a half dozen or more high peaks, followed by a period of relative calm. Reading Ricketts and Calvin’s Between Pacific Tides, the authors say that being within 20 vertical feet of the ocean is actually risking one’s life; clearly we need to be prepared for these big wave surges.
As we sat down for lunch, Lee saw a falcon hunched on the beach just above the wave line. It remained for a minute or so, then took off with powerful wing beats and flew past us along the beach. It was a Peregrine Falcon, the Pacific Northwest dark phase of the bird.
We spent the late afternoon on the exposed rocks, watching the scene and photographing the sunset colors playing among the sea stacks.
We waited until dark to start back toward camp, and enjoyed an enchanting 1-1/2 mile walk along the beach by the bright light of a winter moon. The dance of moonlight on waves, the sound of surf, the call of a distant foghorn, the rhythmic ray of the Tatoosh Island lighthouse, and the Milky Way and stars shining intensely overhead all made for a memorable night walk on the hard-packed sand at low tide.
Another dread night of the living Raccoons lay ahead. This time they attacked even before we got in the tent; but Lee savagely counter attacked with driftwood missiles. After a couple of half hearted sorties around the tent, the Raccoons retreated, granting us peace the rest of the night.
Morning dawned with a light mist over land and sea, and we headed down the beach again.
When we got to Point of Arches, we scrambled out on the exposed rocks. Karen discovered that there were indeed a great many starfish, despite the initial feeling that few were there. A few bright orange individuals stood out from their hiding places because of their brilliant color, but most of the sea stars were camouflaged by their subtle red-purple coloration, which perfectly matched the shade of the red algae covering their hiding place. Scores of them were tucked under ledges in shallow pools.
Another sea star was astounding! With 22 legs and an 18″ legspan, the reddish-purple Sunflower Star moved rapidly (for a sea star) over the rocks as it hunted. It had an orange central (or almost central) spot on the top side of the body.
Karen also noted the abundance of Hermit Crabs: when we walked up to a tidepool it would be alive with movement for a moment, but then everything would freeze and the pool would appear lifeless. In reality, nearly all the shells were inhabited. Karen saw two hermit crabs fighting over a rock overhang. Neither were inside shells, but one of them had two small shells on its smaller claws–like boxing gloves–and it really looked funny.
Two Black Oystercatchers perched on a nearby rock, one facing one way, one the other. They often stayed on rocks that the incoming tide surged over, perhaps finding these conditions ideal for feeding.
We then wandered south along the beach while the tide was still low, exploring sea caves and arches along the way. A mature Bald Eagle patrolled the beach overhead. On the next point there were vast, flat exposed tidal areas.
The highlight here was seeing two male Harlequin Ducks in exquisite low-angle sunlight. They were perched on a rock in the middle of a tide pool, both facing the same direction. Lee grabbed some quick pictures, but scared them into the ocean, where they were joined by another male and two females. These birds float over the crashing surf with ease, ducking under a cresting wave when need be.
We decided that there are up to three hours on each side of the low tide mark when it is safe to round the Point of Arches. Next time we want to spend more time exploring the next point south, which has many arches; we walked through one.
There were Deer and Raccoon tacks on the sand, and people occasionally see Black Bears and Cougars on the beach. There were a few exuberant people sharing the beach these couple of days, and I think everyone felt that it was a special time to explore this most wild and glorious of places.
We found a size 3-1/2 women’s Nike tennis shoe with Gooseneck Barnacles inside. Further down the beach, Karen found the mate to the shoe, also with barnacles inside. There was ship that lost a container of Nike shoes off the coast, and they show up occasionally.
The trail guidebook says the total round trip to Point of Arches and back is 7 miles. There were quite a few campsites along Shi Shi Beach, even fairly close to Point of Arches, and water was plentiful. At a dry time of year there would always still be water available at a stream 2/3 of the way toward Point of Arches. Even though it was sunny, it was relatively cold. Saturday Karen wore jeans, but Sunday and Monday it was wool pants, long underwear, and wearing almost all of the layers we brought. In the shade the heavy frost never melted on Sunday and Monday. With our winter-weight sleeping bags we stayed cozy and warm at night.
Lee ran out of film on this trip; he said it will never happen again.
We hiked back to the car, feeling ecstatic about the wildlife and wondrous landscape we had experienced.
February 15-18, 1991
We camped at Kalaloch campground on Friday night, then left at about 8am and headed for Neah Bay. We saw 20 Bald Eagles on the winding road between Clallam Bay and Neah Bay. A River Otter was sprawled atop a low rock on its stomach, eating a sea urchin or sea star. On a tall rock just 5 feet away, an immature eagle was glaring down at the otter. When the otter finished eating it slid into the water and disappeared.
On a rock surrounded by waves we observed Surfbirds for the first time, with Black Turnstones among them. There were lots of cormorants, with their wings spread to dry them; there were also a male and a female Harlequin Duck swimming at the edge of the water.
We watched a raft of about 200 Bufflehead, mixed males and females, just offshore. The raft moved here and there randomly. Individuals within the group would dive and then “pop” up, but there were no group dives. Also in the surf we observed Common Loons, and White-winged and Surf Scoters.
Along the trail to Shi Shi Beach we took a side trail down to a sandy cove located just beyond the first projecting headland. We observed ten Black Oystercatchers together on one rock, with cormorants drying their wings on the top of the rock and oystercatchers below. It was a beautiful small beach, very secluded. A couple of campsites, but on the Makah Reservation. From the beach we spotted our first group of Sea Otters, rafted together. From that vantage point there appeared to be 6 or 7 Sea Otters [Note that this route has since been closed to hikers, and there is now no trespassing allowed].
We took the next side trail, which led to an old concrete military bunker overlooking the ocean towards the south. From high above the secluded cove we had just visited, we watched nine Sea Otters below us. Five of them were rafted together, floating on their backs, with their back feet sticking straight up. Two of them were diving, going after Sea Urchins in the kelp beds. We watched one come up with an urchin, eating it while using its stomach as a dinner plate. The urchin was purplish-red in color, with numerous delicate spines; when it was broken open, the interior was brilliant orange. A Western Gull watched the Sea Otter eat the urchin, hoping for scraps.
The Sea Otters were extremely sociable, with one gray-faced adult swimming around, coming up beneath the others and touching them; a behavior that we also noted with one darker individual. When they were rafted together they were often touching. We watched a mother with its baby, which was probably one-third the length of the mother. The baby often floated beside the mother, in the area next to the mother’s head. A couple of times the young otter climbed on top of the mother’s stomach and rested there for some time.
We saw a seal off of Shi Shi Beach. After hiking 2/3 of the length of the beach, almost to the stream that flows into the ocean, we set up camp in a nice exposed location overlooking the whole beach. The next morning we awoke at 5:30am. Hit the snooze alarm three times, had granola and coffee, then set off down the beach just before sunrise. It rained off and on lightly all day. There were lots of people, including a Boy Scout troop from Tacoma, whose leader said they usually take the boys to the mountains, but can’t at this time of year. Although last month they had snow camped.
As Lee photographed a couple in bright red jackets sitting on a rock in front of the sea stacks, we talked to them briefly. They seemed so sad; this was their last trip to Point of Arches before moving to Iowa the next week for a job opportunity.
We observed River Otter tracks on the beach; one time the otter tracks appeared on a beach that we had walked a few hours before; they hadn’t been there earlier. We saw two Raccoons running around the point ahead of us, then later saw another running along the base of a sea stack toward the ocean. We observed an eagle on the beach eating a fish or other prey. Half a dozen crows gathered around and two other eagles sailed overhead, while the eagle tried to eat its meal in peace. One crow even went so far as to try to sneak up from behind and snatch the prey from between the eagle’s legs. That was the last straw, and the eagle flew up to a tree with its meal clutched in its talons. We watched it tearing off pieces flesh and eating them.
We also watched as a male Peregrine Falcon zoomed up and down the beach, then landed in a tree perhaps 150 feet away from us and 60 feet above the ground. This is the same area along the beach where Lee observed a Peregrine Falcon in January. It was the best view we had ever had of this falcon; we could see the barring across its chest and its distinctive head patterns.
We watched a raft of 4 or 5 Sea Otters in the bay just south of Point of Arches. These were in rougher water than those we had observed on Saturday.
That night we had a sliver of moon overhead, and could see the Big Dipper, North Star, lights of crab boats working far offshore, campfires down the beach, and the light from the Tatoosh Island Lighthouse.
We awoke early again the next morning and headed down the beach. The day was gray, with leaden clouds and a more persistent rain than we had had the day before; but we still enjoyed periods without rain. We hiked to Point of Arches and arrived at low tide; it was a lower tide than we had seen before at Point of Arches.
Then we decided to hike on to the second point, arriving as the tide was coming in. We knew we didn’t have much time, but were fascinated by all of the arches we found; many of them multiple, complicated arches. At the furthest point we scared up a large group of Black Turnstones. They have a beautiful, bold, black and white pattern when they fly, but when they land their camouflage allows them to blend into the rock. We saw hundreds of Ochre Sea Stars (which are actually in vivid shades of orange, ochre, and purple) clinging to the rocks as the waves crashed.
Yes, the waves were crashing and we knew we couldn’t stay long, though it was an exciting spot. We saw a few groups of barnacles and then Lee discovered a Blood Star, small and bright red. Karen convinced him to photograph it, even though it was so dark and he had trouble focusing.
When we packed up to head back we discovered that we had dallied too long, the tide had risen and cut off our return to the beach. It seemed that the tide was rising very fast, so we waded through a thigh-deep channel; getting our boots full of water and our pant legs wet. Walking on the kelp-covered (i.e. slippery) rocks is a challenge with heavy packs, demanding a good sense of balance and careful attention to the placement of each foot.
We continued to be fascinated by the tide pools, which seem alive with hermit crabs scurrying around everywhere in all sizes and shapes of shells. Where are shells with their owners to be found? There are all sorts of kelp too, as well as anemones, mussels, and barnacles.
We hiked back, stopping for lunch at the campsite closest to Point of Arches. This campsite had a large (6′ long) wood sculpture (totem) of a bear or beaver [and is no longer there after the ensuing decades]. Under the trees we were protected from the rain and ate brownies that Lee had baked.
Back at camp we changed into dry socks and Karen put dry pants on; making the hike out a little more comfortable. The hike out was in a steady rain and the route back to the car was long and muddy. Lee discovered that singing helped to shorten the distance and lighten his mood. We were glad to reach the car, though.
We are so thankful for this seaside wilderness!
If you wish to hike to Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches in 2018 or beyond, you will need to check out the current regulations and permits needed. Here are some links to get you started with obtaining the necessary permits:
Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Camping Permit. You can get this permit and a mandatory bear canister at Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Information Center at Port Angeles. The cost is $8 per person for overnight wilderness camping as of 2018.
Makah Nation’s Recreation Permit. As of 2018 this was a $10 per year hangtag for your car.
Parking Permit Bring cash of $10 per dayas of June 2018; this link also has great detailed information about the hike.
In addition, you really need to know how to read tide tables, both for safety and to get the most out of a coastal hike. Go to tides.net as a place to start, using the nearby Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery tide charts. We prefer to explore tide pools when the tides are minus tides, such as -2.3 ft. or thereabouts. Read up on tides.
This is one of the premier nature hikes in North America: GO!
We were staying in a log hut during a Seattle Mountaineers trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, one of the dramatic high country huts in the Canadian Rockies, when it snowed one night. The next morning, Karen led an effort to create a snowman that reflected the changing seasons. It had a rain hat and a warm woolen scarf, as well as an evergreen mouth, a traditional carrot nose, and eyes of still-flowering purple asters that a Pack Rat had cut in front of our cabin. Making this “Hippy Chick” snowwoman took our minds off the Grizzly Bear tracks that were left overnight on the trail that went right by the hut.
The guy staying in the hut next to ours had been camping about a mile away, but a bear invaded his camp in the night and scared him, so he moved into the cabin. Perhaps our snowman worked as a talisman to ward off hungry grizzlies.
When backpackers unexpectedly encounter a group of, ahem, older hikers, making a snowman along a trail, they are delighted. After all, snowmen take us back to the days of carefree childhood, when playing in the snow was simply what we did in the winter, bundled up in snowsuits, woolen mittens, and warm boots. During those winter days of long ago, those of us growing up in northern climates would also make snow angels and erupt into spontaneous snowball fights–reflecting the sweet and agressive sides of our childhood natures.
Karen Rentz started creating snowmen during backpacking trips at least a decade ago. Gradually her friends came to expect that when they came to a remnant snowfield during a summer hike, they were going to be roped into making a snowman, and that it was a fun distraction from the exertion of hard hiking. Almost everyone pitched in, gathering hemlock cones and fallen lichens and twigs and leaves and whatever other natural materials were at hand, sometimes supplemented–long enough to take pictures–with mittens and hats.
These are sweet-tempered snowmen, unlike the snowmen that sprang from the mind of Bill Watterson’s Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (which I still miss): Calvin and Hobbes. Karen’s snowmen usually smile through a twig mouth and they have funny hats or hair and are gentle spirits, reflecting her soul.
All snowmen are ephemeral, of course, and that is part of their charm. When Karen and friends make a snowman, it some times lasts an hour or two, perhaps for another day or two, with sunshine and gravity taking their inevitable toll. But the short lives are okay, for none of us lasts all that long on this earth, and they are a reminder to stop and smell the roses: for that alone, making a snowman is worthwhile.
On Mount Townsend we built this snowman on the top edge of a very long snow slope that descended several thousand feet at a steep pitch, so we had to be careful not to slide off. On this spot once stood a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout cabin built in 1933 to watch for fires in Olympic National Forest, but it was destroyed in 1962.
This Mount Townsend snowman was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. We found the old spoon at the edge of the snow field, and believe that it was lost when the lookout cabin was destroyed. The eyes, nose, and buttons are made of small rocks that had been broken off the bedrock when water trickled into cracks in the rock, and then froze. These rocks originated millions of years ago on the Pacific Ocean floor, then were thrust up above the ocean to form the rugged Olympic Mountains. But enough of geology. The hair is made of fallen branches of Mountain Hemlock.
Karen Rentz with the Mount Townsend snowman. Cold knee!
While backpacking in The Enchantments of Washington State, there was a bit of remnant snow at the time the golden Alpine Larch needles were falling in October, so we gave this hula snowgirl a Hawaiian skirt, thinking about how much warmer it would be to be hiking in the islands.
There was just enough snow left over on that Enchantments hike to make a snowman’s head about the size of a big man’s fist; cones make up the eyes.
We built this snowman along the Pacific Crest Trail, at the very place we met a hiker who had already come all the way from Mexico and was going all the way to Canada. He was unique in that he was quite a dapper hiker, wearing a Panama hat, a neatly trimmed beard, and a necktie (really!); he said he was between jobs and wanted to be ready in case someone wanted to interview him for a job along the trail. Hey, I’d hire him for his sense of humor!
This Pacific Crest Trail snowman had pretty lupine flowers for hair, Mountain Hemlock cones for a nose and buttons, pine needles for eyebrows, and a happy twiggy smile. This snow field was located in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, a place where there once towered a volcano on the scale of Mount Rainier. It sits directly between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, named for the founder of the national forest system who worked in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.
Karen and I were driving through Yosemite National Park one fine autumn day and came upon a patch of snow that hadn’t yet melted from an early autumn snowfall. So, we just had to make this cute little snowman with Lodgepole Pine cone eyes. One of our photos of this snowman was featured in an article about quirky snowmen on NPR’s website several years ago.
We hiked with two friends around Gold Creek Pond in October of 2012, when the first heavy snows were starting to blanket the Cascade Mountains above Seattle. The last of the autumn leaves were still vivid, but the first major snow of winter had deposited enough snow to make a snowman. Gold Creek was also enjoying a Kokanee Salmon run, so while Karen did most of the work on the snowman, I did some underwater photography of the salmon, which were the color of burgundy. The underwater photography was so cool that I returned the next day to do some more. By then, the snowman was looking a bit under the weather, but I would be too if I had to stand in the same place all night. The second day, a young gold miner walked by and chatted with me (remember, this is GOLD Creek Pond); he carried some mining equipment–as well as having an exposed pistol on his belt. Mining is a serious activity, and that fall the price of gold was shooting upward, so a guy had to be prepared for outlaws.
We used vivid Vine Maple leaves for the hat, and Douglas Fir cones for the eyes. Gold Creek Pond is located near Snoqualmie Pass above Seattle in the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest.
Karen and I hiked up to Melakwa Lake at the end of July. It was a cold, foggy backpacking trip to one of the high mountain lakes located closest to Seattle, and at the beginning of the hike the trail leads under a beautiful elevated section of I-90 (it is elevated to allow avalanches to pass safely underneath). We created this handsome snowman, which we named “Misty Melakwa,” atop a remnant snow field. The hair is of a Mountain Hemlock branch that had turned yellow, perhaps after being buried for nine months under the snow, and the buttons and eyes are of hemlock cones. The spiky hat is a piece of old, weathered wood that might have been a hard knot from a rotted tree. “Misty Melakwa” has a bit of the devil in him, or so it looks from the crooked smile. Melakwa was an Indian word for “mosquito,” so we’re glad the weekend wasn’t warmer, allowing those pesky devils to swarm.
Karen Rentz with her creation. Our snowmen are not big, and they don’t live long.
Lee Rentz during one of his occasional beard phases (it would be much whiter today).
During a hike to Mount Fremont Lookout in Mount Rainier National Park in August, we started making a snowman a little ways off the trail on a remnant snow field. In this national park, the volunteer park rangers are adamant about staying on the trail, and we were several yards off the trail. I saw a ranger coming up the trail, and figured I would head her off at the pass by chatting with her about the trail. But she saw my comrades making the snowman and wondered what we were up to. I guess she figured that a group of older people making a snowman in late summer was a harmless, though slightly eccentric, activity so she let us off with a warning: “Please make sure you take a giant step onto the snow field to make sure you don’t crush any tiny plants about to emerge at the edge of the snow.” Duly noted. And done. (Though it should also be noted that a group of volunteer rangers was gathered off the trail around the lookout in lawn chairs, where they were having a party.)
With the lovely pink hat and fashionable scarf, this snow lady is definitely a girly-girl.
Karen, Joan, and Junko make up the trio of ladies who built this lovely creature.
A trail shelter at Boulder Camp in Olympic National Forest was our destination for this day hike. The trail shelter must have enjoyed divine intervention, because giant avalanches had frequently thundered down the surrounding mountains, but always seemed to miss the hut. We built this friendly snowman, with his carefully parted lichen hair, as a talisman to bring us good luck during our visit. He certainly looks friendly, and he is standing atop a tree that had been toppled by a long-ago avalanche.
Boulder Camp is located in the deep Upper Dungeness River Valley below Marmot and Buckhorn Passes in the Olympics. There aren’t very many of these shelters in Washington State’s mountains, but they do provide a dry place to get out of the rain when the weather takes a turn.
With hair and arms of Wolf Lichen, this snow woman is dancing atop a precarious snow bridge over a tiny creek. Wherever a creek flows under a snow field in the mountains, it melts the snow from underneath. Careless hikers can plunge through the thinned snow if they’re not careful, and that’s probably what happened to this little snowman after we left. RIP, tiny dancer!
A happy snowman made by Karen Rentz and Linda Moore along the Grassy Knoll trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Mount Hood points into the sky in the distance. His happy feet look to be made of Douglas Fir branches, with cones for toes.
Our most recent snowman, made in October high in The Enchantments above Horseshoe Lake, was in a meadow that still sported a few late summer wildflowers and lots of Pikas running around gathering winter hay in the meadows around the rocks. Pine hair and chartreuse lichen details make the snow guy look a bit crazy. This was created by Karen, Junko, and me.
Reason #1 for carrying an orange trowel is to scrape hardened snow off snowbanks in order to build a snowman. Reason #2 is, well, digging holes for #2. This happy hiker gal was enjoying the cool snows of summer in Mount Rainier National Park.
Made in Canada, this snowman features a fine rock hat, as well as nice rock body parts.
On Mount Rainier, even snowmen need ropes to climb the 14,410 foot high volcano, and this one has stylish ropes of red and purple.
The hat is made of layers and decorations of volcanic rock, while the scarf was made of flagging tape (removed before we left, of course). This was along the Skyline Trail near Paradise.
The Snowman Project will be continued, as long as there is snow to shape and trails to walk and bodies that can make the journey.
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