Sometimes, the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.
~Angela N. Blount
Driving away from the grandeur of the Tetons, we passed through some impressive landscapes along the Hoback River valley. Once we broke out of the mountains, the landscape shifted dramatically to an almost flat, endless expanse of sagebrush.
All throughout this type of habitat, we saw oil and natural gas extraction and the occasional wind farm. Wildlife visible from the highway included numerous Pronghorn, various raptors, Ravens, and Black-billed Magpies.
Melissa set our course for Medicine Bow National Forest in a high elevation mountain range just west of Laramie. The forecast was for more snow, so we reluctantly decided to drive across the pass and find a campsite at a lower elevation. The highest points along the road reminded us of the Beartooths, with scattered conifers, rock outcrops, and lakes set below towering peaks.
We found a small campground with a few campers and decided to pull into a spot next to a beautiful creek. A couple of inches of snow covered the ground and light flurries soon started to fall. By now, we were getting used to the chilly nights in the back of an open truck but decent sleeping bags are essential gear.
The next morning we hit the road again, headed out into the flat plains once more. Melissa took a turn driving and I was searching for some interesting side trip/stop for our time in Nebraska. I searched online for natural areas in Nebraska and came across their Visit Nebraska web site which I had already contacted when we were planning our pandemic-postponed trip to see the Sandhill Crane migration last March. I decided to try to call a human and ask for their input rather than searching endlessly online. I stumbled across someone with the interesting title of Adventure Travel Specialist, and gave her a call. Jenna was very helpful (and sounds like she has a great job). One of her favorite areas are the Sandhills region up around the town of Valentine. That would mean a couple of hours of detour from our eastward trend, but, after hanging up and discussing it some more, we decided to just do it. We turned north toward Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the detour did not disappoint.
There is something about the Sandhills that captures your imagination and heart. The Sandhills cover almost 20,000 square miles in northern and central Nebraska and parts of South Dakota. They range in height up to 400 feet and are the largest sand dune system in the United States. The soil is not suitable for growing crops, so most of this vast area still support grasslands and wetlands critical to wildlife. In the past, herds of bison grazed here, now over 500,000 head of cattle call the area home on large ranches. Melissa was particularly stricken by the desolate beauty of this place and waxed poetic about somehow acquiring 500+ acres, having a tiny house (or maybe two, one for food storage since it looks like it is a long, long way to a grocery store), and a few head of bison to maintain the prairie grasses. We’ll send you the address if that happens.
There are over a million acres of wetlands in the Sandhills and many lakes. This is due to the presence of the vast Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest underground water sources in the world.
We camped at a wildlife management area (allowed throughout Nebraska) with thousands of swallows (barn swallows?) settling at sunset into the extensive marsh grasses across the adjacent lake.
The next morning we had to hit the road as it was a long drive to our next camp in Missouri. But, we also wanted to check out some prairie preserves, so we made slight detours to visit some remnant prairies, including one that apparently has never been plowed. At the Gjerloff Prairie, we hiked a short distance, once again admiring the great diversity of native wildflowers and grasses that define these habitats.
Our final stop had us once again pulling into the small campground at Brickyard Hill Conservation Area in the loess hills along the Missouri River (we camped here on our way out). Once again, we had the place almost to ourselves (only one other camper). The small prairie hill was swarming with over a hundred dragonflies ( mostly Green Darners, I think). After this, only one more night on the road…
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.
When they heard we were planning this trip, a few friends automatically said they knew where we were going. We insisted we had made no definite plans and would let the road lead us wherever we needed to go. Well, it turns out, all roads do, indeed, lead to Yellowstone (at least for us). We realized we were going to end up there about day 4 of our trip as we drifted away from the route to Michigan and turned more to the west. The magic of Yellowstone calls to us, especially this year when both Melissa’s and my scheduled trips with groups had been canceled due to the pandemic. Now, we were a bit worried about the timing of this visit as it looked like we would be arriving on Labor Day weekend and figured it might be hard to find a campsite. We came in through Sunlight Basin and tried a forest service road a few miles from Cooke City. At first, RVs were as expected – densely packed into the available sites. Then the road started getting worse and it was mainly truck or SUV campers with the occasional hardy RVer. We finally managed a spot near a marshy lake with a few free range Black Angus cows.
This is grizzly country, and as we settled in, I pondered what I would think or do if, when I got up in the night to go to the bathroom, I encountered a large dark object nearby – cow, or bear? Oh well, I spotted neither during the night, and we were off at sunrise the next morning.
We headed into the park and saw our first wildlife within ten minutes – a pair of moose! A couple of other cars had stopped, but it was quiet and the moose were not paying attention to us as they browsed.
We still didn’t know where we would stay, though we now hoped for one or two nights near the park. As we drove past Pebble Creek campground, we saw a couple of cars in line at the entrance. Pebble Creek is a place we both have always loved (beautiful creek surrounded by towering mountains and close to the heart of prime wildlife watching) but every time we have been by it in the past, the campground sign said FULL. But, Melissa knew that this is a first come, first served campground. People line up in the morning and, if sites become available, you can get in. We turned around and decided to give it a shot. Unbelievably, there were vacant sites because people had already left early that morning. We were second in line, so we had our choice of 6 campsites after the first car picked theirs. The campground host said the area had only been open a couple of weeks due to Covid closures and that might explain the lack of a larger line – people just didn’t realize it was open. On the spur of the moment, we decided to reserve it for 3 nights, realizing that on the second night things might change dramatically – the forecast called for snow!
Our first couple of days in the park were spent driving through Lamar Valley and Little America, watching wildlife (bison herds, sandhill cranes, pronghorn, and wolves). We visited (socially distancing) our friends in Gardiner and Silver Gate and did a couple of short hikes. The park was as crowded as we have ever seen it, with huge groups of wolf watchers out in Lamar and Slough Creek (and the wolves were very cooperative).
We opted for what we hoped would be a less crowded route on the 6-mile one way dirt road, the Blacktail Plateau Drive. Even that was crowded, but we got lucky, and at one point saw a badger run across the road in front of us. There wasn’t a car behind us so we pulled over and got out to see where it had gone. It had a hole right next to the road and had been digging, probably searching for aestivating ground squirrels, on both sides of the dirt road. While we were standing there, the badger poked its head out and stared at us, then retreated back into the burrow. We parked the truck, grabbed our cameras, and sat down a safe distance from the hole. We spent 30 minutes or so with this guy and watched as it would come out, check us out, then run across the road (out of our sight) to dig and then run back whenever it heard another car approaching. The fact that we sat still and didn’t stare at it the whole time seemed to put the badger at ease (maybe those two are just scrawny bison) and it soon paid us little mind.
We didn’t want to cause a badger jam (attract others to stop and disturb the badger) so, when we heard a car approaching, we would put our cameras down and pretend to be taking selfies or landscape shots with our phones. As soon as the car passed, we would get ready, as the badger would soon pop back up, glance at us, then scurry out to hunt. We finally had to move on, leaving our furry friend alone in his beautiful back yard.
Sunday afternoon was hot, as hot as it gets in Yellowstone. At 6 pm it was 88 degrees. The next day, with the prediction calling for falling temperatures and snow, we headed to camp early to set up and wait out the storm. By 6 pm Monday, the temperature was 38 degrees and snow and sleet was falling.
There was about 2 inches of snow on the ground and the temperature was 18 degrees as we drove into Lamar the next morning. What a change from the heat and humidity of home. Lamar was beautiful with fresh snow and the wildlife didn’t seem bothered. Th biggest change we saw was a group of Sandhill Cranes strolling in the flats of the valley flipping buffalo chips (poo piles). There is a large community of invertebrates associated with buffalo scat and several species (I have seen Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Clark’s Nutcrackers, and Ravens) will flip over the drying chips looking for an insect snack. The cranes methodically made their way through the garden of chips, flipping them over, and occasionally pecking at something underneath.
We had visited our friends, Dan and Cindy, the day before and Dan had asked if we wanted to go with him to check on some camera traps he has set up outside the park. Dan is a wildlife photographer and his stunning photographs appear in a new book called Pika Country, about how climate change is impacting one of the most fascinating small mammals of the high mountains.
He is also a filmmaker and guide and is working on a new project about the Beartooths, the incredible mountains outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. We have had many adventures with Dan over the years, so we said sure. It turns out he had set camera traps on a squirrel midden, an area where Red Squirrels bury cones for their winter food supply. Other critters, most notably Black and Grizzly Bears, search out these middens and steal the pine nuts (especially Whitebark Pine Nuts) hidden below ground by the industrious squirrels.
Dan had seen bears in this area and was hoping to capture some on camera. But he is wary of going into that area alone. He casually mentioned this is a little like visiting a carcass (a no-no in grizzly country), in that it is a food supply for hungry bears, so having several people (all with bear spray) is a better idea. We drove out to the site, parked, and headed into the trees, making a lot of noise as we walked so any bears in the area would hear us.
The area around the midden was dug up in several places and one camera had been jostled by something, knocking it loose from its strap. When we got back to the car, we played the cards on the laptop and got footage (you’ll have to wait for his film) of both Black Bears and Grizzlies digging up the cones. And there were fresh Grizzly tracks in the snow!
The next morning was cold (15 degrees) and clear as we drove south through Yellowstone headed for Grand Teton National Park. I love Yellowstone, but the Tetons are certainly one of the more majestic landscapes I have ever seen. The Tetons seem to jump out of the flat sagebrush plains that surround it and reach for the heavens. There are 8 peaks over 12,000 feet in this range which stretches about 40 miles. One of the most iconic views is from Oxbow Bend, an old meander cut off from the nearby Snake River. We passed through mid-afternoon (it is best viewed at sunrise and sunset) and crowds were lining the pull outs enjoying the scenery and perhaps hoping for a view of the park’s iconic Grizzly mama, #399, and her four cubs. There were large flashing road signs warning drivers to use caution as this zone is a bear crossing area (never seen that one before). By the way, 399 is probably the most famous bear in the world and has her own Facebook and Twitter accounts!
Now i know how most tourists feel that have only a short time in a park – so much you want to see and do, but you must keep moving. Our incentive was finding another camping spot for the night and there were a few forest service roads we needed to check out. The snowfall was heavier here and left lots of broken trees and mud on the formerly dusty roads. Luckily, we passed a forest service ranger driving in the opposite direction who kindly stopped to chat when I waved him down. He advised us to not head any further up this road as it was very muddy and some trees were down. He suggested we follow him to a nearby road he was going to check that had some marked dispersed campsites. That was a very lucky encounter as it no doubt saved us a lot of time and hassle, and the campsite we found proved to be not too shabby, especially the view!
One of my other highlights from the trip that lacks a photographic record (like the elk that night in the Bighorns) was the sky that night. Even with a little haze from wildfire smoke, the night sky was as brilliant and filled with stars as I can ever remember. At daybreak, we broke camp and turned the truck toward the East.
Looking at the maps, we hoped to find another area of national forest within a days drive of the Back Hills. An article I had found online on scenic road trips had mentioned an isolated mountain range with the appealing name of Bighorn Mountains. In looking at maps on the web, Melissa saw this area has plenty of dispersed camping and some high elevations. Sounded good. As we had learned, driving past where the road is easily passable means no RVs, so we kept driving on a likely forest service road until we came into a beautiful meadow, surrounded by conifers, and with a view of a mountain range in the distance. Exactly what we were looking for.
We had crossed a cattle guard in the fence line on top of the hill which meant we would have none of the free range cows we drove past keeping us company. That is one of the things you have to get used to in national forests in the west – they are very multi-use with grazing, 4-wheeling, camping, hiking, and hunting near the top of the list this time of year. Though there was a noticeable lack of large fauna to be seen, we did find some moose and elk scat in the woods near the truck.
We broke camp early the next day after having a slight scare during the night. Melissa smelled smoke and I made a statement about someone not obeying the ban on campfires. But, as it grew stronger, we realized this was from forest fires, not campfires. For a little while, it was a bit uncomfortable breathing, and we were lucky to have just enough cell service to be able to search the web for indications of any local fires. It turned out the smoke was from fires burning far away in eastern Montana and was being blown into this region by shifting winds. Such is life in the west, especially in recent years, as climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires.
We decided to hike a short section of trail to a lake in the Cloud Peak Wilderness not far from our camp. This is part of an extensive trail system in this part of Bighorn National Forest and it was just beautiful. This looks like an area that is well worth exploring further on a future visit.
Looking at our downloaded maps, we headed for another forest service road, this one a bit rougher right from the start. I was starting to have my doubts when we passed a “road work ahead” sign and hit a section that was freshly graded. The road was very manageable after that and we suddenly came out of the forest into a vast expanse of sage and grassland. We drove past a very scenic rock outcrop a ways off the road, then stopped and turned around. It looked like a perfect campsite. Melissa read that dispersed camping is allowed up to 300 ft off the road, so we paced it off to the top of the rock outcrop…300 feet! Down below was a babbling stream with dense willow flats all along its length through the valley. On our way in, we had passed one bow hunter on a 4-wheeler, but, besides that, there was not another human in sight.
This was the idyllic type of spot we had hoped to find on this trip. We sat out among the boulders, admiring the views, listening to the wind, insects, and birds. As the sun set that evening, we talked it over and agreed, we want to spend another night here…
It was a chilly night and the next morning, after breakfast, we wanted to see what lay over the rocky hill across the stream. We did a leisurely hike for a couple of hours, exploring the stream, climbing the boulders, and walking through a dense conifer forest on the very top of the hill. There we found evidence of lots of use by elk and deer. I was glad to see that as it seemed the only thing this remote area lacked was the abundant wildlife I have grown accustomed to in the western mountains.
We managed a nice chilly bath in the stream that afternoon and settled in to enjoy the end of another beautiful day. The sunset was striking and an almost full moon illuminated our landscape as we drifted off to sleep under our opened sleeping bags and blanket. During the night, we had one of my highlights of the trip. Melissa raised up in bed because she heard something outside. She woke me and we listened to sounds of movement and the occasional high-pitched grunt of cow and calf elk. Then the unmistakable bugle of a bull elk not far away. We had our binoculars in the back with us (wait, don’t you sleep with your binoculars?) and looked out onto an amazing scene. It was a large herd of elk moving past us in the moonlight perhaps only 25 yards from where we slept. It was hard to tell how many there were, but there were a lot. The herd settled into the willow flats and started feeding, but the dominant bull had his hooves full trying to keep watch and bugle his cows into place. Meanwhile, a couple of other bulls could be seen and heard clacking their antlers in combat. That sight and those sounds under a moonlit western landscape was more than thrilling – it was cathartic, cleansing my brain of some of the messiness of the news and what is happening right now in our country. We sat, mesmerized, listening for quite awhile before settling back down and falling asleep. We awoke before sunrise and could still hear bugling and saw about 50 elk still in the willows with some starting to move up the hill toward the trees. I am guessing the reason we aren’t seeing the expected megafauna in these national forests is that they have had to change their typical behaviors and are more secretive (and more nocturnal) due to hunting pressure. I am so glad we decided to stay that extra night!
The drive out of the Bighorns took us past some incredible scenery (more rock pictures) and in the direction of one of our favorite places…
My favorite thing to do is to go where I’ve never been.
There is a lot of flat land out there in the middle of the country. And not many national forests to disperse camp in it turns out. But, after leaving IL, we drove up along the Missouri River corridor and stopped at a place Melissa had found – Brickyard Hill Conservation Area, in MO. Melissa used a variety of apps and web sites to search for good camping sites. Her favorite, and the one that led us to Brickyard Hill, is iOverlander.
This area is preserved because of its unique geology and plant life. It is part of a region known as the loess hills. Loess (pronounced in a couple of ways it turns out, Luss or Low-ess) refers to fine-grained sediment that is formed by the accumulation of wind-blown soil particles. The explanation for this long line of undulating hills along the eastern edge a stretch of the Missouri River floodplain is that during the last Ice Age, glaciers ground rock into dust-like particles in this region.With warming temperatures, the meltwater deposited huge mud flats along the river. As the mud flats dried out, strong westerly winds moved huge amounts of this fine-grained silt, forming large dune fields. These dunes eventually became stabilized with vegetation and have been gradually carved by erosion into the undulating, and often steep topography we see today.
We drove to the pond access and there were some fishermen and several RVs. We decided to give the other location a try even though it was a few miles away. But, we were glad we did. This camp area was located atop a hill with a circle of designated sites (all empty), a pit toilet, a small prairie grassland in the middle, and was surrounded by forest and a bit of a cornfield on one side. It was perfect (so much so that we stopped again on our way back). The circle of open area above the prairie also gave a great view of the night sky. We fell asleep that night to Coyotes yipping in the distance and a Barred Owl calling nearby.
At this point, we had decided to head toward a national park that would be new to us, Badlands National Park, in SD. Our route took us by DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River. We drove the auto tour road and had a couple of brief wildlife encounters. We pulled into a parking lot and there was a group of three Wild Turkeys strutting across the pavement. One was doing more than strutting – it was pursuing and pecking at a small rodent (I think it was a vole). The turkey was zigging and zagging and stabbing at the scurrying mammal but looked up when it noticed us and its prey escaped. I have never seen a turkey go after a mammal!
The other bird sighting of note was a large flock of American White Pelicans. It is always a treat to see these giants on the wing (about a 9 ft wingspan!). We would see these magnificent birds in several other places on our trip.
Driving on, we passed through a lot of corn and flat land. Melissa had found a spot to camp just outside Badlands National Park frequented by RVs and other dispersed campers. It sounded like it was an area right along the edge of some cliffs and canyons. We pulled in kind of late and were disappointed to see a sea of campers spread out along the rim.
As we would soon learn, however, the big advantage of our 4wd truck is that we can drive past where most RVs fear to tread and in doing so managed to secure a nice perch around the bend from most of the other campers.
Views from our campsite were amazing, and a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep kept us company and even bedded down less than 100 ft from the truck as we learned the next morning.
Badlands National Park is a stunning area and surprised us with a number of excellent wildlife sightings, including Pronghorn, Bison, Bighorn Sheep, and Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. We spent much of the morning driving through and taking short hikes to explore the rugged landscape. Below are some of the highlights…
Prairie dogs were once an integral part of the western landscape – estimates are that, before 1800, prairie dog populations may have been in excess of 5 billion
Original range has shrunk to about 5%
Prairie dog populations were greatly reduced by settlers that saw them as competing for forage (new research shows they improve the nutritional quality of vegetation by their trimming of grasses and other plants in their colonies) and due to the accidental introduction of Sylvatic Plague by shipboard rats into the U.S. in the early 1900’s. Plague is deadly to prairie dogs (and can be transmitted to humans, where it is called Bubonic Plague, by bites or fleas from an infected animal)
Prairie dogs live in colonies called towns with the largest ever recorded estimated to cover a land area greater than the size of the state of West Virginia
Prairie dogs are keystone species: they are important food for many predators, they enhance vegetative communities where they feed, and they provide shelter for other species (like Burrowing Owls) by digging so many burrows
Prairie dogs have a very complex system of communication, perhaps one of the most complex ever decoded. The park web site states they can apparently alert the colony to the difference between a dog and coyote approaching, and some speculate they may not only be able to communicate that a human is entering the colony, but they can get as specific as, “A tall human in a blue shirt is approaching rapidly!”
We reluctantly departed for the Black Hills, looking for future camping spots online as we drove. Since we were close, we drove by Mount Rushmore, but were disappointed in the “touristy” nature of the entrance and decided to pass by with just a look from down the road. We made a detour to see (again from the road) the Crazy Horse Memorial, the monument being carved in another mountain as a tribute to the Lakota Chief.
We camped on an isolated dirt road in the Black Hills National Forest that night and headed out the next morning for our next destination – Devils Tower National Monument. When we let some friends know our location, we got back two cryptic (to us) notes about sculpting mashed potatoes and were a bit perplexed until we googled it (we watched Spielberg’s classic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this week to help us better understand the reference).
Many American Indian tribes of the region held this geologic wonder as a sacred site and their oral histories recount many origin stories and tales of the significance of the tower. Translations of Indian names for the site include Bear Lodge, Bear’s Tipi, Tree Rock, and Gray Horn Butte. President Theodore Roosevelt set it aside as the first national monument on September 24, 1906.
The tower is 867 feet from its base to the top, about a mile in circumference, and the area at the summit is about 1.5 acres (the size of a football field). We walked the paved trail in face masks as the park was very crowded. Signage along the way explained the tower’s formation as an igneous intrusion (hardened magma) into surrounding sedimentary rock layers some 50 million years ago. Erosion over millions of years removed the softer sedimentary rock, exposing the tower we see today.
The rock type has the strange name of phonolite porphyry derived from two characteristics – a small slab of the rock rings when struck; and its texture, containing large crystals of feldspar. The greenish cast you see on many of the columns is from layers of crustose lichens growing on the rocks. Melissa (the geologist turned naturalist) commented that she had never seen me taking so many rock pictures…I’ll agree, this trip was especially heavy on cool rock formations.
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the picnic area, watched some more prairie dogs along the entrance road, and then headed west.
Look at life through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror.
Okay, now to cover some of the highlights of our journey. We had roughly 3 weeks and dispersed camping was a high priority, but, other than that, not much else was planned. We had kicked around some destination ideas and the last thing we had discussed before heading off for a stop at my mom’s in southwest VA was perhaps a drive up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We thought about maybe WV or KY as starting points. Then the weather threw us a curve…Hurricane Laura decided to make landfall a couple of days before our departure, which meant the remnants would be bringing rainfall (perhaps lots of it) to a swath of area we had hoped to camp in. The day before we left, it looked like our earlier initial camping spots were going to be wet, very wet. So, we decided on a plan B, drive through the remnants of Laura and camp on the other side, wherever that might be. So, off we went.
We initially decided to head to southwest IL, but, as we drove and the storm changed position, we opted for a closer stop at Land Between The Lakes (LBTL) in KY. There looked to be a lot of dispersed camping and I had always wanted to check out the area because this was the source for some of the elk that have been reintroduced into our own Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We stopped at a Visitor Center for information and immediately got sidetracked by their native pollinator garden and signs of chewed leaves on an elm sapling. First wildlife find of the trip – a caterpillar (should be no surprise to those who follow this blog).
Melissa mentioned in her post last time about our “incident” in trying to navigate to our first campsite – a mud hole in the road that turned out to be much deeper than anticipated, forcing a decision to abandon that road and look elsewhere. We settled on the end of a paved road that ended where the man-made lake had flooded it years ago. It looked like people had used the area a lot, but it was late, and since the rains had just stopped, we figured no one would show up to bother us. Besides, camping on the edge of a lake has its benefits in terms of critter visitors.
It was a quiet night, and we hit the back of the truck (aka our bed) after an evening swim. We figured we had better “get clean” anytime we could because the long-range forecast for areas north and west looked a bit chilly. During the night we awoke to some chewing sounds (somewhat alarming given the history of mice that have found their way into the truck cab in recent months), but it turned out to be a beaver chewing on a tree on a little island not far away. The next morning, the sun was out, and birds and other critters were stirring.
We headed out with a stop at what was advertised as the wildlife prairie to hopefully see elk and bison. It turned out to be a bit disappointing as it is a large fenced-in area that requires another fee (we had to pay online to camp in LBTL). We saw no elk (no surprise due to the warm temps) and a few bison, all of which had open wounds for some reason. And, to be honest, we have been spoiled by large herds of free-roaming pure-bred bison in Yellowstone.
Our next stop was a relatively short (few hour) drive to Shawnee National Forest in IL. I had just googled good natural areas in IL and this was one of the places that came up and it looked promising (besides, there aren’t that many national forests in the mid-western states). We ended up staying in a Forest Service campground close to one of the popular visitor sites, Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area. The main attraction we learned is a large rock face with an easy climb to a jumping off spot into a huge deep water hole. That area was packed on a hot Saturday afternoon so we just looked from afar and then walked the trail, a much quieter destination.
After our hike, we were pretty sweaty and decided we need either a shower or a swim. We had been on another road leading to a smaller pool earlier in the day, so we decided to head over there. It turns out there were a series of beautiful spring-fed pools all along the trail and only a couple of cars in the lot.. We took our chairs down and had the area to ourselves for a few hours in what can only be described as one of the most idyllic swimming spots I have ever seen.
After a restful night, we hit the road north (or west, or…).
The open road is there, it will always be there. You just have to decide when to take it.
I guess we finally decided to hit that open road. The lack of posts these last few weeks is due to our first major truck camping road trip – 18 days, 11 states, 5816 miles. Melissa made a rough road map of our travels. Click this link for an interactive version of the map below.
The truck was my father’s – a 2003 Chevy Silverado, for farm use with only 23,000 miles. We took the rear seat out and have done a few things to try to make it more livable and useful for long trips. More on that in a later post.
The photo above is from our first night camping in a Forest Service campground in Shawnee National Forest, IL. This was one of only 4 campgrounds we stayed in on our journey (we spent roughly $80 on camping fees for the whole trip). The rest of the time we did was what is called dispersed camping – finding a spot on public lands (that allow it) and setting up camp wherever. Dispersed camping is free, and, if you have a 4wd like us and drive past where the RV’s can travel on the often rather rough dirt roads, you can be totally alone.
We weren’t sure where we were headed after visiting my Mom in the mountains of VA, but we turned westward and made most decisions on the fly as we drove (turns out the internet with a mobile hot spot, when available, is faster than ours at home).
The trip was a great way to see parts of this country as we drove through. In normal times, we would have explored more, eaten at funky local restaurants, and interacted with people throughout our route. But now, we tried to isolate, wore our masks whenever we were near people, and enjoyed a wonderful selection of meals that Melissa had prepared with many hours spent using our dehydrator before we headed out.
In the next several posts, we will share some of the highlights from our excursion and give some pointers on how to truck camp your way to some beautiful places across our country. We learned a few things that we might need to upgrade and are looking forward to another adventure to parts unknown in the near future.
There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.
This past Thursday evening, Melissa participated in a Science Cafe hosted by her workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. She joined a couple of other staff that had been authors of chapters in a book released this spring entitled, 30 Great North Carolina Science Adventures, edited by April C. Smith. Melissa had written a chapter on one of her favorite places, the Lower Roanoke River. I enjoyed watching the Cafe and learning more about the book from April. I had also written a chapter for the book on two of my favorite outdoor areas in our incredibly diverse state – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges (no surprise there to any of you that read this blog regularly). For a great overview of some fabulous natural areas to visit across North Carolina, I highly recommend this book (and we don’t receive anything for plugging it as it was all done on a volunteer basis).
As it turns out, I decided a couple of days before the Science Cafe that it was high time I visited my favorite place in North Carolina again. So, I headed east to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). My last trip was in late January so I was way overdue for a day in the wilds of eastern North Carolina. Summer is a great time to see bears, so I was hoping to spend some time observing them as they feed in the crop fields and as new mamas teach their rambunctious cubs the ways of the world. Melissa had to work, so it was just me, with no agenda other than to hang out and enjoy the beauty of this special place.
I didn’t get as early a start as I had hoped, so it was almost 10 a.m. when i drove into the refuge. But, it was only 5 minutes down a dirt road that I had my first bear encounter. I didn’t get a photo (unfortunate, because it was a beautiful bruin) because it was a bear that stood up across the canal as I drove by, then retreated back into the corn when I stopped.
Soon, I was seeing clouds (or maybe cloudlets) of butterflies – primarily two species, Sleepy Oranges and Zebra Swallowtails. As I have mentioned before, this refuge, and nearby Pettigrew State Park, are two of the best places in North Carolina to see one of my favorite butterflies, the Zebra Swallowtail. They are abundant here because of the large stands of their host plant, Pawpaw, in the understory.
My next bear was one I spotted down the road ambling toward me when I turned a corner. It was a few hundred yards away, so I pulled over under an overhanging limb as far off the road as I could (which wasn’t that far) and got out and sat in front of the car. This was a large bear, most likely a male, and he sniffed the ground and nearby vegetation as he slowly made his way toward me.
When he was about 100 yards out, he suddenly realized that something was in his path (my car) and he stood up to get a better look. Impressive! The heat waves made for a slightly soft image with my telephoto lens, but I always love to see these magnificent animals stand to check things out. He did this two more times as he walked and then decided that, yeah, that is something up there, and headed into the vegetation. When viewing the images at home, I saw something I had not noticed in the field. Another bear crossed the road far behind the one I was watching, and I was so intent on photographing this big guy, that I missed it.
Each winter, I spend hours at a particular marsh impoundment on the southwest corner of Pungo Lake observing the thousands of Tundra Swans and other waterfowl that rest and feed in its shallow waters. This time of year, that area is packed with water lilies, frogs, and wading birds like egrets and herons.
The marsh and roadside canals are also home to thousands of dragonflies. I noted 6 species while driving along – Halloween Pennant, Needham’s Skimmer, Blue Dasher, Great Blue Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, and Slaty Skimmer.
Around 3 p.m., I headed to North Lake Road. A fawn grazed along the roadside until I got too close, then vanished in the tall grasses. I parked and started strolling down the path that I have walked hundreds of times in the past 35 years. I was lucky, there were no other cars at the gate, so I had the walk to myself (an increasingly rare event). One of the things I like most about Pungo is the quiet, the almost total lack of human sounds (most days).
The soybeans and corn are at their peak now, so a bear can easily disappear in the crops or the tall roadside vegetation. It was hard to keep an eye out for the large critters when there were so many small ones all around me on the path. Butterflies, lizards, songbirds, and even a Bald Eagle accompanied me as I walked.
After taking a few butterfly pictures using a telephoto, I looked up the road and saw a bear headed my way. I sat down as the bear stopped to scratch and look around. It was visibly panting from the heat and definitely had an itch as it would walk a few steps, then stop and scratch. It walked from side to side in the road, sniffing, scratching, and occasionally nibbling at vegetation. Finally, it wandered off the path and into the woods. I waited, hoping it would return, but, after a few minutes, I continued my stroll.
I stopped to look at some tracks in a mud puddle, and when I stood back up, I saw a bear coming out of the woods behind me. I got down on my knees and the bear caught my movement and stood up. I thought it might be the itchy bear, but it stared for a few seconds, then slowly lowered itself and went back into the trees. Again, I waited…
The wind was in my favor so I was hopeful. About a minute passed, and I saw the dark head of a bear coming back out. But now, she had two little ones trailing her.
She sniffed, looked in my direction, and headed down the road away from me, the cubs tightly on her heels. Twice, she stood and looked back, presumably making sure that blob in the road was not a threat to her little ones. She finally led her cubs into the canal and across to the corn field and disappeared for her evening meal. Again, after looking at the sequence of images, I saw a bear I had missed seeing (the dark blob in the photo below) cross the road way beyond the mother and cubs.
After that encounter, I continued down the road until I was a little over a mile from my car. I sat for about 30 minutes and watched and listened. No bears, but a satisfying peacefulness that comes from being in a wild place by yourself. On my way back, frogs started calling, and the phenomenal big sky of the flat lands of eastern North Carolina put on a colorful show as developing thunderheads were tinted pink and orange by the setting sun.
A couple of hundred yards from the car, I noticed something dark in the soybeans. It was the top of a bear’s head. The bear swung its head around, nose pointed up, mouth open, sniffing the air. I stood still, hoping it would stand. But, it just sat there, panting and sniffing, occasionally turning more towards me, but seemingly unaware of my presence. The air was still and I was at least partially hidden behind some tall goldenrod. After several minutes, I was surprised when another bear stood up behind the one I was watching.
After a few looks around, it dropped and disappeared in the soybeans. Finally, the first bear stood up, glanced back and forth, and sat back down. That one moment in good light was a great way to end the day. I shouldered the tripod and camera and headed back to the car for the long drive home.
The standing bears and seeing the cubs were definitely highlights of the day. I ended up seeing 6 cubs for the day, 21 bears in total (I’m not counting those two I did not see until I reviewed images at home). Along with the birds, butterflies, and serenity, it was a pretty good return to Pungo. It felt good to be back.
A rainy day is a perfect time for a walk in the woods.
I am finally getting around to posting about our trip to one of our favorite backpacking spots, Mount Rogers, VA. My backpacking and camping queen (you know who I am talking about) has been chomping at the bit to get out on the trail since the pandemic has caused us to hole up at home. So, after spending a few days helping my mom in her home in southwest VA, we planned to do an overnight to the nearby high country of Mt. Rogers. Since it was a weekday (and there was a less than ideal forecast), we were able to secure a spot in the overnight backpackers lot at Grayson Highlands State Park without having made online advance reservations (definitely required for weekend trips). We hit the trail after lunch and planned to do a short 2.7 mile hike to an area just off the Appalachian Trail on Forest Service lands. The cool temperatures made for a pleasant hike, and the overcast skies enriched the colors of the woodland details. As is usually the case on our backpacking trips, I did not carry my camera gear, so all accompanying images were taken with an iPhone.
Frequent rains make for a lush forest floor in the highlands (click photos to enlarge)
Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum)
A huge mushroom with a world of invertebrates in its gills
The highlands are home to numerous fruit-producing trees and shrubs like blueberries, blackberries, hawthorn, and mountain ash
It started raining about halfway on our journey, lightly at first, but then hard enough that we sought shelter under a spruce tree for a few minutes before marching on. Fortunately, we arrived at our campsite during a lull in the precipitation, so we were able to get the tent set up without much problem. But, as we started to put up the all-important tarp, the skies opened and our spirits dampened (along with everything we owned).
That look you get when you have been waiting to backpack for sooooo long, and it rains on your parade
The tarp is a life-saver on this kind of trip (once you manage to get it set up)
We finally got the tarp up and ate dinner, but dove into the tent as the torrential downpour began. It rained most of the night and continued past first light the next morning. It eventually eased up enough to encourage us out of our still dry tent and into the wet world. With the normally expansive vistas shrouded in low clouds, it encouraged us to focus more on the small beauties along the way. All in all, not a bad way to spend a rainy couple of days.
A Maple Looper, Parallelia bistriaris
The wild ponies help keep the meadows open
The highlands are home to amazing textures and colors of lichens…
…you just need to pause and look closely
The green colors of ferns, mosses, and lichens were richly saturated in the gray skies
Patterns and textures everywhere
The upright fertile shoots of the Fan Clubmoss contain the spores. In prehistoric times, some clubmosses reached the height of trees and often dominated the landscape.
We spotted a single Turk’s Cap Lily ((Lillium superbum) on our hike
Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), as the name implies, has been used to treat a variety of ailments in the past
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum sp.) were found scattered across the high balds
A view as the cloud bank started to lift (barely)
We lifted a few rocks in a tiny rivulet along the trail and found three salamanders
The highlands are home to an incredible variety of fungi. I believe this is a Pigskin Earthball, Scleroderma citrinum
This beauty was growing on a fallen log…probably the Upright Coral Fungus, Ramaria stricta
I love the names of this one – Eyelash Cup (Scutellinia scutellata) – also called the Molly Eye-winker, the Scarlet Elf Cap, and the Scarlet Pixie Cup. Look closely and you can see the fine fringe of filaments resembling eyelashes along the edge of each cup.
As we left the park, the weekend crowds were starting to arrive, the clouds were lifting, and the ponies were doing what they do, adding a touch of glamour to the most beautiful mountains in Virginia
The real jewel of my disease-ridden woodlot is the prothonotary warbler … The flash of his gold-and-blue plumage amid the dank decay of the June woods is in itself proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa.
This final post on our recent swamp trip is about one of spring’s most enjoyable wildlife experiences, the return of the warblers. As my high frequency hearing has waned, I rely more and more on Melissa’s abilities to hear their songs and locate them. And on this trip, she was hearing them throughout our paddle. And she had her spotting skills in high gear as she came up finding what I thought were the trip highlights – a swimming Mink, two Barred Owls close enough to photograph, some cute Raccoons, the flying squirrel, and a few nesting birds. My challenge was to try to photograph them. And I find warblers to be a particularly challenging subject.
My usual warbler image, mostly of where one used to be – note tail feathers exiting top left of image (click photos to enlarge)
But this trip had waves of warblers moving through the swamp at times. On our second platform at Three Sisters, we had birds all around us our last morning, including a swarm of migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers. The rather drab colors we see on this species in winter have now been replaced by bold black and white and intensified yellows. A throng of butter-butts came though our camp that morning, but most were either obscured in the thick understory brush or high in the tree tops, foraging on insects.
Yellow-rumped Warbler showing off its spring attire
Melissa heard and then found a Prairie Warbler just off our platform and I finally managed a few pictures in the dappled sunlight.
Prairie Warbler skulking through the brush
Northern Parula Warblers were everywhere in the swamp, but difficult to photograph on this trip
It turns out, the real photographic test was shooting warblers from a moving canoe. I had my 300 mm telephoto and 1.4x teleconverter on my older camera body with us. Needless to say, I was trying to be careful with the gear and, when paddling, often had it secured in a dry bag in front of me. When we saw something, I would have to open the bag, pull out the camera and then try to shoot from a wobbly canoe (usually in a current) while Melissa positioned us. For some shots, I carefully passed the gear up to her if we could not get the back of the canoe into position. Prothonotary Warblers were singing and displaying all along our route, but when she spotted one carrying nesting material, we pulled over and steadied the canoe on a log in the shallows. The bird did not disappoint.
This bird really liked the moss on one particular tree trunk and made several trips to gather a beak full while we watched.
Most trips back to the nest were quick, with a brief landing, and then darting directly into the cavity. On this one though, he (I think it is a he because it is very brightly colored) paused on top of the snag for just a moment.
After depositing the moss, he would come out, look around, and then fly off for more. This time, he stuck his head out far enough so that the sun highlighted his face.
On one exit, he noticed a little piece of moss just below the cavity
My favorite pose
Male prothonotaries arrive first on the breeding grounds and begin setting up territories which they defend. They will select a few choice nesting cavities (and the swamp is full of potential nest holes) and gather and stuff them with moss, hoping a female will approve. We wished him good luck, and moved on as this was a big paddle day for us.
The current was stong and the wind was at our back out on the river proper when Melissa saw what she at first thought was a Northern Parula exiting a clump of Spanish Moss dangling on a low branch over the river (their preferred nest site). We turned and started paddling back upstream when she saw the bird return – it was a Yellow-throated Warbler!
A Yellow-throated Warbler bringing material back to its nest site in a clump of Spanish Moss
This beautiful warbler is one of Melissa’s favorites, but frustratingly so, since they tend to be treetop dwellers and, though she hears them often (even at our woodland home in Chatham County), we rarely get a decent look at one. And here she finds one nesting, and down low. Cornell’s excellent online Birds of the World resource (for a subscription fee, but well worth it), states It nests and performs most of its daily activities high in the canopy of these forests. The exact location of nests is usually hard to determine.
Melissa did a great job keeping the canoe in place while the bird came and went with nesting materials
A good view of that brilliant yellow throat that gives this warbler its common name
Entering the entrance hole in the Spanish Moss with nesting material (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Peeking out of the nest entrance (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Our final look at an extraordinary bird
Research shows they usually nest out on horizontal branches high in the canopy in mature forests. In coastal areas with Spanish Moss, they prefer to nest in clumps hanging below branches (like Northern Parulas). But the nests of Yellow-throated Warblers tend to be an average of 30-45 feet above ground in coastal swamps. I’d say we were pretty lucky to find this one at about eye level from our canoe. As it turned out, we didn’t have a decent look at another of these beauties on our entire trip. So, thanks for a special moment in a very special place.
Simply wait, be quiet, still. The world will freely offer itself to you.
Yesterday’s post mentioned the excellent birding we experienced on our recent paddle trip on the Roanoke River. When we arrived at our second camping platform, Three Sisters, the late day light was gorgeous and the sky was filled with all sorts of birds. After setting up camp (and shooing away the vultures dining on the fish skeletons) we sat out on the small dock by the creek for over an hour watching the parade of birds go by. I decided to practice some birds in flight photography to see what I could capture. Here are a few of the results…
The distinctive cross-shape of Anhingas soaring overhead was a common sight on the blackwater tributaries of the Roanoke (click photos to enlarge)
An Anhinga flying low over the creek. We commented on how many of these unusual “snakebirds” we saw on this trip compared to our previous outings.
A female Wood Duck blasts past our dock in late afternoon light.
Almost all the ducks we saw were in pairs. This is the male Wood Duck escorting the one above.
The real challenge was tying to photograph Chimney Swifts in flight. As you can see, I never really got it right as they are just too darned fast and erratic. It is comforting to know that they are no doubt nesting in many of the giant hollow Bald Cypress trees scattered throughout the swamp.
A Great Blue Heron flying to roost.
We saw more Great Egrets on this trip than in the past. This one’s wing bones showed through its backlit feathers.
As the sun set, large flocks of White Ibis started flying in to the next creek and surrounding wetlands.
I had planned to do some more dock sitting the next morning, but after the water came up during the night, I ended up strolling the short walkway to the platform and trying to photograph the many birds that were active all around us.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are always a treat to see up close.
This male Summer Tanager sang for much of the morning from high atop a partially defoliated Water Tupelo.
A White-breasted Nuthatch knocked off some bark that fell on my head, alerting me to his presence right above me.
A male White-eyed Vireo was loudly singing in thick brush out near the creek. I kept stalking him, hoping for a clear shot.
He finally obliged and came out on an open twig for a few notes of pick up the beer check quick, before disappearing back into a thicket.
These images represent just a fraction of what we saw on this trip. Below is a checklist of species we observed/heard during our time in this magical swamp. Tomorrow, I’ll share some highlights of our warbler watching.
Birds: Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; White Ibis; Spotted Sandpiper; Double-crested Cormorant; Anhinga; Wood Duck; Mallard; Canada Goose; Turkey Vulture; Black Vulture; Red-shouldered Hawk; Bald Eagle; Osprey; Barred Owl; Belted Kingfisher; Great Crested Flycatcher; Blue Jay; American Crow; Fish Crow; Common Grackle; Red-winged Blackbird; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; Pileated Woodpecker; Chimney Swift; Barn Swallow; Eastern Towhee; Northern Cardinal; Mourning Dove; Gray Catbird; Swamp Sparrow; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; Carolina Wren; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; White-eyed Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Yellow-throated Vireo; Eastern Bluebird; White-breasted Nuthatch; Summer Tanager; Yellow-billed Cuckoo;Northern Parula Warbler; Black-and-white Warbler; Prairie Warbler; Prothonotary Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Common Yellowthroat; Yellow-rumped Warbler