Each winter temporary ice formations form along the orange sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Wherever a tiny stream cascades over a cliff, or where water oozes through porous stone, ice forms upon hitting the frigid temperatures of a Lake Superior winter. These formations are reliable enough to have descriptive names given by the ice climbers who return each winter to test their skills on the frozen columns.
I have photographed the formations over several winters, but the winter of 2023 was my favorite because Karen (my wife) and I experimented with backlighting the ice at twilight and at night to give a sense of the color and translucency of the beautiful formations. I find the natural artistry of the ice as stunning as the sandstone formations of the Utah desert, but these are ephemeral and have to recreate themselves each winter. What an experience!
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located along Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Its namesake cliffs are miles long and make for great adventures all year, whether kayaking, backpacking, day hiking, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or taking a guided cruise past the cliffs at sunset.
When we go in winter, we wear Kahtoola MICROspikes when navigating sheer ice at the ice formations, and we watched many people trying to stay upright when they walked in regular snow boots. Wear them! We also take snowshoes in case there has been a fresh snowfall and the trails are buried in deep fluff, though the short trails from Sand Point Road are often packed down by climbers. We also take cross-country skis to use on the nearby groomed trails. When venturing out in winter, we always wear insulated boots, and dress in layers of merino wool long underwear, waterproof snow/rain pants, and down, fleece, and a Gore-Tex shell. Mittens are essential, and chemical handwarmers can help when it’s really cold out. Take high energy snacks. To us, navigating winter is far more rewarding than enduring the bugs of early summer in the Upper Peninsula; just be prepared.
Important information about Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:
I had an instinct that today (4 February 2023) could be the day when Amish farmers cut ice from their ponds to fill their icehouses after the cold snap of the last week, a warming weather trend ahead, and tomorrow the sabbath. We drove out into the Amish community this morning, and almost immediately saw a freight wagon loaded with ice. We drove on, and found another farm where wagons were lined up in front of a pond, where men wearing straw hats were cutting ice.
We parked at a respectful distance, watching and discretely photographing for about an hour. Then an Amish man came walking up to where we were parked along the road. He was a young man and kindly asked if we had ever seen Amish ice cutting before. We said “only at a distance,” and he invited us to come down closer to see it. I asked if it was okay if I took pictures, and he said “Yes. Just not too close.”
So we went down near to where ten men and teen boys worked as a team to cut the ice with a gas-powered circular saw and load six sleighs and wagons, each drawn by two draft horses. Assorted young boys all wearing matching dark knit hats and a dog completed the perfect rural scene.
We got to talking with the young man and his little brother, and he invited us to have a meal with them. So we sat down for a noontime dinner with the father, mother, 11 of their 13 children, and a couple of young men from a nearby farm. After a hearty meal, they went back to ice cutting and me to my pictures. Magic happens.
As I said, a gift from the universe to two shy people.
Notes from our conversations with an Amish family:
Since most English (the word used by the Amish for non-Amish people like us) know little about the Amish, I will tell you about our discussions with this kind and generous family. My wife Karen and I talked to the farmer and his wife, as well as with some of their sons, both before and during the meal, learning a bit about their lives. They have 13 children, of whom 11 still live at home. The other two are the older adult children, both married, with the son living on a small farm in an Amish community in Illinois and the daughter at a farm nearby. The children were spaced quite regularly in age, with the youngest son being two. Of their children, nine were boys and four girls. The eldest daughter still living at home now teaches at an Amish one-room schoolhouse eight miles from their house.
The Amish have not been here for as long as they’ve been in Pennsylvania. My parents moved to the area in 1980, when they built the house that we now own. A couple of years after they moved in, one of their friends said that Amish were starting to buy up the surrounding farms, and that the land was about to blossom with new activity and a flourishing of crops. The farmer in my story moved here when he was a boy, in that first wave of Amish. He said that the price of the land was good. The families here have done well, with what appear to be prosperous and beautiful farms.
The family has an extensive summer garden, where last year they planted and harvested over five acres of pumpkins and winter squash. Some of their crops are sold at a local open-air produce auction, which we’ve driven past at times when it wasn’t open. It is like a farmer’s market, open only prescribed days each month. At this time of year firewood and hay are for sale, but in summer and fall there would be a wonderful variety of produce and flowers. I remember last year seeing a horse-drawn farm wagon with clear plastic sheeting forming a greenhouse structure over the wagon. Inside there were colorful hanging baskets of flowers protected from wind by the plastic. I think the flowers were headed to the farm auction. Here is an article about this particular auction facility: Stanwood Produce Auction
The young man who initially invited us down to see the ice cutting is 18 years old, friendly, and personable. He talked about the economics of the farm. They have a sawmill, as many of the local Amish farmers do, where loggers bring loads of softwood logs. The farmer brings the logs one by one into the mill, where they are sawn into 2×4’s and other dimensional lumber that is sold to a pallet maker south of Grand Rapids; that factory is perhaps 80 miles away, so the wood has to be transported by truck to the buyer. I’m sure the sawmill is a major source of income for the family. I mentioned that there has been a great increase in the number of Amish farms in our area with sawmills and wondered about the competition. The father said that so far it wasn’t a problem, that there was enough demand and that some of the sawmills were for softwood and others for hardwood. I think they also have a maple sugaring operation, as do many of the local families.
The farmer would also grow corn and hay for feeding the livestock. In early spring he would use a horse-drawn plow (on local farms we’ve seen up to six draft horses pulling a plow!). Horses would also be used in the harvest of hay, with freight wagons piled incredibly high with freshly dried hay.
The farm has ten cows for milking, which has to be done twice each day. In fact, the purpose of this family’s ice harvesting is to build a store of ice that can be used the rest of the year to keep the milk cold. The milk is sold to nearby people who come by once a week to pick up a gallon as part of a farm share program.
We asked the son if Amish had to get jobs to make ends meet. He said that in the last few years the economics of farming alone don’t work, so it is common to have to get a job outside the community. In the local Amish community, all the farms have a small business of some sort: making rustic furniture, creating poly-wood furniture, repairing clocks, caning chairs, butchering cows, making rugs, selling eggs, making boat covers, and probably a dozen more crafts that bring in money.
On our visit there were two families working together to cut ice to fill two icehouses. The patriarch of the host farm operated the gasoline-powered circular saw used to cut the ice. This year the ice was only about six inches thick; more commonly it has been eight or up to twelve inches thick, so it would be harder to heft those blocks. The ice cutting machine is homemade, with a long lever used to raise and lower the spinning blade. He cut the pond ice almost all the way through, stopping about 1/2” short of cutting through. Then another man used a long steel pole to break off the blocks. A heavy rope stretched across the pond was used by two workers to move the floating blocks of ice to where the loading conveyor belt was located at one end of the pond. Then the men used pitchforks to prod the blocks onto the conveyer, which is also their hay lifter, powered by a gasoline motor. The Amish use some modern assistance when they deem it appropriate.
The family that owns the ice pond uses horse-drawn sleighs to transport blocks of ice to their icehouse, while young men from the farm down the road used horse-drawn freight wagons. We counted a total of six sleighs and wagons, each pulled by a team of two massive draft horses. They took turns at the conveyor machine that was lifting ice from the pond. Once one vehicle was filled with a layer of ice, the driver would quickly move it away. Another was already lined up to move into position, with the driver sometimes using the team of horses to back up the wagon to the loading chute. Managing horses to back up this way is an incredible skill and they do far better than I do trying to back up a trailer with a car! Most of the sleighs and wagons were drawn by two Belgian horses, the predominant breed in our area, which are usually chestnut-colored with blond manes. A few of the wagons were drawn by black Percheron horses. We were told that the white horse in one team was actually a Percheron, born black and then it had turned pure white.
One young boy named Neil enjoyed talking to us and telling us about his life on the farm. He asked if we had a farm, and we had to answer no, but that it looked like a lot of fun to live on a farm. He was in the fourth grade at school; I asked him what his favorite subject was and after thinking for a moment, he said “reading.” He said they were reading a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder called “Little House in the Big Woods.” He said that sometimes the teacher reads and that the children also take turns reading. He said that another grade level reads “Farmer Boy,” another Wilder book that I told him I had read as a boy. It has been many years since I read it, but I remembered that I first learned about tapping maple trees from that book. I needed a refresher about the story, so here is what Wikipedia says about Farmer Boy:
“The novel is based on the childhood of Wilder’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, who grew up in the 1860s near the town of Malone, New York. It covers roughly one year of his life, beginning just before his ninth birthday and describes a full year of farming. It describes in detail the endless chores involved in running the Wilder family farm, all without powered vehicles or electricity. Young as he is, Almanzo rises before 5 am every day to milk cows and feed stock. In the growing season, he plants and tends crops; in winter, he hauls logs, helps fill the ice house, trains a team of young oxen, and sometimes — when his father can spare him — goes to school.”
This sounds exactly like the life of young Neil: no wonder he loves the Laura Ingalls Wilder books!
I asked Neil if he milks the ten cows, and he said he was still too little for that, but that he feeds their five calves and many chickens each day. He also collects the eggs daily from two chicken coups. I asked him how many eggs: he was unsure of the numbers, but maybe 30-50 from each coup (he said the total was never 100). He pointed out the pony they had gotten and was very fond of it. We asked if they name their animals and he said “no” and he laughed; that seemed like a strange idea to him. He was really glad that this year ice cutting was on a Saturday when he wouldn’t be at school, so he could watch and be part of it. He recalled when they had a backhoe come in to dig the large bowl-shaped pond for the ice. Later we saw him riding on an ice sleigh, and it looked like it would be a day of heaven for a ten year old! Neil has an infectious smile and enjoyed telling us about his life.
My dear readers, you must be wondering what it’s like to be inside an Amish house; I know we have been curious for years. We finally got our chance when we were invited in for noon dinner. We drove into their driveway and were shy about knocking on the door, in case the Amish wife hadn’t been told of our arrival. After a moment, she appeared at the door with a small son and I walked up to say hello. She said “Will you be joining us for dinner?” So of course I said “yes.”
We went inside, and she escorted us from the entry room, through the dining room/kitchen, to the living room. The living room had a wood-burning stove and the dining table/kitchen area was warmed by the cook stove. The openings between the rooms were large, giving the feel of one big room and also helping to provide even heat to the first floor. We believe that the large room is also used for community church services, but on some farms they use the barn instead of the house. The Amish don’t have a church to go to; instead, they take turns holding services for the nearby community. Every two weeks the community holds Sunday services; each farm hosts for two Sundays, then they rotate to another farm. This family was going to host church services at their home the next day. We have seen Sundays when a farmyard is filled with buggies, perhaps 20 to 30 at a time. Recently we saw children walking home from church, the girls in their black woolen coats, white aprons, and black bonnets, and the boys dressed formally as well.
There is no electricity in an Amish home, so natural light during the day and oil or gas lamps at night are the sources of illumination. No televisions or computers, of course. And no plush furniture. Around the perimeter of the living room were wooden rocking chairs, which is where Karen and I sat while waiting for the meal. The youngest boys sat lined up on rocking chairs along one wall, reading long hand-written letters. I didn’t ask who the letters were from, but I could imagine that they could be from the family of their brother who had moved to Illinois and other distant relatives. And, unlike most English children today, they had no problem reading the letters written neatly in cursive!
The house was a comfortable temperature. The lady of the house said she is fortunate that her husband has a sawmill, because there is always plenty of wood to keep their home warm. They cooked on a huge old cast iron wood-burning stove, which also helped heat the house.
There were no family portraits or pictures on the walls, since the Amish don’t wish to have recognizable pictures of themselves, instead believing that humility is to be honored, and individuality and pride are harmful to the community. They follow the Biblical commandment “Though shalt not make unto thyself a graven image.” I took pictures after getting permission from one man and nobody seemed to object, but I was careful to photograph the activity and not the individual. No portraits.
After a few minutes, the Amish wife told us it was time for the meal and indicated two places where we could sit. As you might imagine from the size of the family, the long rectangular table was huge; I think there were 13 of us sitting around it, with the father at the head of the table. Three daughters remained in the kitchen and served the food. When everyone was seated, the Amish father bowed his head; everyone took his cue and bowed their heads as well and all thought a silent prayer for about a minute. Following that, bowls of food were passed.
Dinner was hearty; after all, the men working outside had been cutting and hauling ice, hitching and unhitching teams of huge horses, and lifting heavy blocks of ice into and out of wagons. They were hungry! There were two sets of bowls serving each of the foods because the table was so large. The young men took huge helpings of mashed potatoes and gravy. The meat entree was excellent meatballs and sauce (Karen had to poke me for initially trying to take three meatballs when she noticed that everyone else took two!). There was a bowl of mixed vegetables, a smaller bowl of cabbage salad, and a plate of sliced cheese. After everyone had their fill, two desserts were passed: a chocolate pudding pie and an apple dish that might have been apple crisp. The oldest daughter was the baker.
The young Amish men were curious about our Washington license plates, and we told them we live there most of the year. They asked about Washington state and had heard that part of the state got considerable rain. They wondered why rain and not snow, since it was about the same latitude as Michigan and they seemed to understand when we explained how the influence of the warmer ocean moderates the temperature.
The family enjoyed hearing our story from several years ago of driving an icy road and coming upon a wagon loaded with ice blocks off the road in a ditch. I stopped and asked if I could help. The young man asked me how many horse power I had under the hood of my Subaru and we all laughed. They had another team of horses on the way to help.
They wanted to know where we lived locally and what we did during the day, though what we do is less interesting than what they do! We were at a bit of a loss as to what to say we do, as it didn’t seem appropriate to tell them how much time we spend with our computers or watching television. We asked a lot of questions about their lives and they were pleased to answer. Nice people. I noticed that the school-age children said virtually nothing during the meal (perhaps something about being seen and not heard!). They also all noisily completely cleaned their plates with the sharp sound of silverware striking china. No food was wasted.
After dinner, all bowed their heads again to thank God for the meal. Then everyone disappeared to complete their ice cutting tasks, with the women and girls staying inside to clean up after the meal. In Amish life the roles of men and women are well defined and traditional.
The men had to gather up the horses, who had also been given a break from the harness to feed on hay in the barn, so they all had to be reattached to their sleighs and wagons. We said our thank-yous and goodbyes, pulled on our boots, and went back to our car. I took a few more pictures–actually, the best of the day–and we took our leave. It was an extraordinary experience for us, and it felt like the family enjoyed talking with us, letting us into each other’s lives for a few hours. I bow my head in grace for the time we spent among the Amish.
This article was completed with the kind help of my wife Karen, who contributed immensely to the memories, writing, and editing. To see many of the photographs I’ve taken over a lifetime, go to leerentz.com
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.
For more information about my photography, go to leerentz.com
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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