…the light of July and August is the day’s dazzle, hot light, with the season’s dust slowly accumulating and making the sky we see a giant silvered reflector.
Last Friday was probably the hottest day of this summer thus far. So, naturally, I decided to head to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR in search of bears, butterflies, and anything else I could find. Back in the old days, extreme heat would keep most people indoors, but things are different now, and as I drove into the refuge, I encountered a couple of cars already scoping things out. I also saw a turkey and a bear within my first 5 minutes on the refuge, so I figured it was going to be a good day.
Ten minutes later, I spotted a young bear in a tree where I have seen bears twice before, I stopped and stuck a camera out the window and he raised his head to check me out.
I spent about 15 minutes with this tolerant bear and then moved on so as not to attract a crowd. The bear was sleeping peacefully when I left.
I spent most of the morning slowly cruising the refuge roads. In addition to the kingsnake, I saw a Black Racer and what i am pretty sure was a Canebrake Rattlesnake. It got into the thick brush before I was close enough to be sure, but when something looks like a thick branch crawling across the road from a distance, it’s most likely a rattlesnake. Unfortunately, South Lake Road remains closed (it has been that way all year I think), so one of my favorite areas remains inaccessible by vehicle.
I drove back around to the bear tree over an hour after my first encounter and the sleepy bruin had moved down the branch a bit with its rear end braced against the trunk and was looking pretty relaxed. Once again, I didn’t stay long so as not to disturb.
As I often do on these day trips, I headed over to Mattamuskeet NWR mid-day to see if anything was going on there. To be honest, there wasn’t much happening. I saw a few songbirds, a couple of waders, and lots of invertebrates. I got out and walked two short trails and was rewarded with some beautiful spiders.
I drove back via the long series of gravel roads that pass through the part of Pocosin Lakes NWR that stretches from Hwy 94 to the south shore of Lake Phelps. You never know what you might encounter. Today’s finds included a couple of bears, some turkeys, and an abundance of dragonflies along the miles of canals that line the roads.
By mid-afternoon I was back on the Pungo Unit and spotted a mother bear with three cubs of the year ambling down a side road. As much as I love seeing the new cubs, I decided to let her and her youngsters have some quiet time without a human pursuing them, so I just took a couple of long distance photos and watched as they finally turned into the woods.
There were still cars and people on “Bear Road”, so I headed over to what I call “New Bear Road” for a little solitary saunter. I saw my first bear of the day on this road and it is usually good for a sighting or two. I walked down the road a ways and spotted a mid-sized Snapping Turtle crawling from the canal into the woods. They are so prehistoric-looking, and this one expressed its displeasure at my presence by raising up the hind part of its body in a defensive posture and looking at me in a less than welcoming manner as I waked past.
I walked down close to where another road joins and sat down along the edge of the woods, hoping something might travel this juncture. It was hot, very hot, and I sat there with sweat dripping off my forehead and listening to the chorus of insects buzzing all around me. Soon, a bear crossed far down the road and into the woods. Then, a deer came walking down the other road and paused to look at that strange blob sitting at the edge of the trees. It gave a few cautious stiff-legged steps, and stopped to make sure I hadn’t moved. It finally made its way into the woods, no doubt satisfied I was just some slow, ugly bear.
It had been a hot day, but a good one. I ended up driving more than I had intended, but my favorite times were those just sitting and watching the wildlife, from bears (my count for the day was 18) to dragonflies. As always, I left feeling grateful for our public lands and all that they provide to the wildlife, plants, and all of the human visitors that need that connection to the wild.
We should come home from adventures, and perils and discoveries every day with new experience and character.
~Henry David Thoreau
NOTE – This is the final post from our 7200 mile truck camping trip in May.
Leaving Yellowstone was the start of our long journey home. Time on the road passes so quickly and we tend to not think of home much until we turn the truck toward the East. Then, we realize the adventure must soon come to an end and we (or at least I) start to wonder how things have fared while we were away or what tasks lie ahead. My thoughts are soon bought back to the immediate as we drive through the beautiful and varied landscapes of Wyoming. You go from snow-capped mountains one minute to desert or vast areas of sagebrush and grasslands the next. Along much of our drive we saw the brilliant red “flowers” of Indian Paintbrush. The tips of the plant look like they have been dipped in red paint. The bright red is not really the flower parts, but rather flower-like bracts (a modified leaf or scale on a plant). It is a semi-parasitic plant, its roots penetrating other nearby plants to rob some of their nutrients and water.
I steered toward one of our favorite national forests in the Bighorn Mountains. We camped there on our last two trips and have been very pleased with the number and variety of camping options. We hoped to camp in a site from our first extended truck camping trip last year, one along a small stream on a rocky outcrop in a high meadow. As we drove through, we soon realized things were a bit different now as snow still covered much of the slopes at this elevation. Indeed, the road to that campsite was closed due to deep snow, so we proceeded down in elevation looking for drier ground.
After driving a couple of roads that didn’t quite satisfy us, Melissa found a route with open meadows, streams, some ponds, and potential views of high mountains in the distance. When we pulled into the area, we knew this was it. We passed only a few RVs on a long stretch of dirt road with patches of conifers, open grasslands, and plenty of beaver ponds and creeks. With a strong wind blowing, we pulled into the lee side of a forest grove to set up camp. The meadow was covered in wildflowers and we soon found ourselves on the ground taking a closer look.
Before starting the campfire, we hiked down to a pond about a half mile across the meadows. With our faces close to the water, we could see numerous water beetles and fairy shrimp, those upside-down one-inch long lobster relatives that are often found in ephemeral pools.
Our next days’ drive went from long stretches on Interstate 90 to some scenic country roads that took us through part of Badlands National Park and the adjacent Pine Ridge Reservation and eventually into the Sandhills of northern Nebraska. On the back roads, we saw some familiar wildlife like Pronghorn and vast prairie dog towns, along with two new species, both of which I had on my radar as something I really wanted to see.
There were so many prairie dog towns along this route and some were huge with what looked like hundreds of mounds. We had discussed looking for Burrowing Owls when we saw prairie dog habitat as these diminutive birds frequently use abandoned prairie dog burrows as roost and nest sites. Burrowing Owls range from Canada to Mexico and parts of Central and South America. There are populations in Florida and some islands in the Caribbean as well. Throughout much of their range, their numbers are declining due to habitat loss and decline in the populations of burrowing mammals. We kept scanning as we drove, but I finally pulled over at a large roadside prairie dog town and told Melissa to find me an owl. Lo and behold, after only a couple of minutes, she spotted one. It was way back away from the road sitting on a mound.
Suddenly, another one flew toward the road and landed on a fence post a few hundred yards from us. We jumped in the truck and slowly approached. It was on my side so I stopped and took a few pictures from across two lanes and then had to drive on as a car was coming up behind us. We turned and drove back and pulled as best we could off the side of the road.
Now the owl was much closer and on Melissa’s side. She started taking pics as the bird looked our way. I was trying to hold my telephoto and shoot past her head, but it was tough. Luckily, she caught an amazing sequence of what the owl did next. It leaned forward and looked like it was gagging and then up came a pellet!
Owls and other raptors must regularly cough up pellets consisting of indigestible parts of their diet such as feathers, fur, bones, and insect exoskeletons. It is rare to witness this behavior, yet alone photograph it! I was very happy she got this sequence (and a little jealous, I must admit:) Finally, the bird flew off and landed on the ground quite some distance from us.
Melissa then suggested we should go look for the pellet (this is how truly nerdy we are, in case you didn’t know). We found a couple of pellets at this post indicating it is an often used perch. Their diet is mainly made up of insects (it looked like a lot of beetles), and small vertebrates like lizards and mice.
Driving through this habitat for the next hour or so, we saw many Burrowing Owls associated with various prairie dog towns with several sitting on fence posts (the only high points in the landscape). I would love to go back and just hang out for a few days watching these comical and endearing birds.
Melissa guided us to Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest in the north-central Sandhills region of Nebraska. There really aren’t that many “forests” here (except for a Ponderosa Pine forest planted many years ago) but plenty of expansive rolling grasslands and an amazing abundance of ponds and lakes. In fact, there were temporary signs all along the route indicating high water may be on the road. That had us a little worried about mosquitoes, but we found the non-biting midges to be the dominant insect as we looked for a non-flooded refuge road to take for a campsite. We finally found one late in the day and set up camp in a small gap between high grass-covered dunes. Once again, we found the Sandhills are apparently maintained by grazing cattle and our site had plenty of evidence that cows had frequented the area (luckily, there were none anywhere nearby at that time). But there were plenty of wildflowers and a surprising amount of poison ivy scattered about, so we took our time walking up the hill above camp. Once on top, a fantastic vista unfolded of seemingly endless rolling grasslands bathed in the golden fading daylight.
Our next stop was originally going to be a familiar one, Brickyard Hills Conservation Area in Missouri. But I really wanted to revisit Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge (where we saw all the Monarch butterflies last Fall) and that was a full 30 minutes or so past Brickyard Hills. We didn’t want to backtrack so we settled on another conservation area near the refuge in order to drive the auto tour late in the day before heading to our last campsite. The iffy weather (cloudy and windy) made for less than ideal conditions, but we did see a few straggler Snow Geese, some American White Pelicans, a Coyote, some Muskrats, and lots of Dicksissels and Red-winged Blackbirds.
Leaving the refuge and looking at the weather forecast, we decided to make this conservation area our last camping spot to avoid predicted heavy rains the next night. That meant a marathon last day drive of about 18 hours from Missouri to home. A beautiful sunset and some deer, Coyote calls, and the distant hoots of a Barred Owl were a good way to spend our last night on this epic road trip. The next day we crossed portion of four more states and finally rolled into our home woods at about 2:30 a.m., a bit tired, but glad to be home. Now, where to next?
To those who know it and love it, Yellowstone is not so much a place as it is a concept—it is a bastion of wilderness and a beautiful,… reminder of all that once was pristine, bold, and untamed.
This is the next to last in the series of reports on our truck camping trip in the month of May. No surprise to those that know us, we ended up heading toward Yellowstone by way of Grand Teton National Park, staying with friends that have recently moved to Jackson. Sam and Bright are wildlife watchers and photographers extraordinaire so it was great hearing about their plans and the many incredible things they have observed after moving west this spring. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating as we headed out the next morning in conditions of gray skies, occasional rain and snow flurries, and lots of visitors on the park roads.
We spent the one full day in the Tetons going down some familiar roads looking for wildlife and then exploring a few dirt roads we had never traveled. A pair of Moose were being watched by 50+ people near Taggart Lake, so we stopped to take a look.
This is the type of image you get when you don’t have time to wait an hour or more for the critters to stand up and move around after a big breakfast, but we needed to move on. One of our highlights was a drive down a bumpy gravel road to Spalding Bay on Jackson Lake. Near the end of that road was a sharp curve with a pullout. A path up a swale seemed to lead to a potential nice view of the mountains so off we went. Elk scat was abundant and we soon found ourselves going to that next hill top to take a look. There, we saw a small pond and heard calling Boreal Chorus Frogs, so, naturally, we had to walk a bit further.
Later that evening, we had dinner with a former college classmate of Melissa’s that has lived in Jackson for many years. Our discussions included some of the realities of living in such an idyllic and desirable setting as Jackson – extremely high real estate prices and very long winters are a couple of the less pleasant things you have to deal with if you want to live in this paradise.
We bid our friends farewell the next morning and headed north to that place we think of as our second home, Yellowstone. While the previous day produced very few wildlife sightings, the drive out of Grand Teton National Park gave us two separate Grizzly Bear sightings and one of a family of Black Bears.
When you see this many cars (the line of parked cars stretched over a quarter of a mile), it is generally for a bear, and this time of year in the Tetons, generally a grizzly. Traffic had come to a stop, so Melissa got out and walked ahead to see if she could see anything. She finally was able to look ahead and saw two sub-adult grizzlies out along the road edge with a crowd of people waaaay too close to them. At that point, a ranger vehicle arrived, turned on its siren while driving toward the bears, and hazed them back into the woods. Rangers then started to attempt to control the crowd (it is often easier to control the bear than the people). I picked up Melissa while our truck crawled through the cars and people. She managed to snap a quick pic of one of the bears (which had walked back out closer to the road) as we drove by under the watchful eyes of two rangers.
So, that was our experience in the Tetons, bad weather, beautiful scenery, and hordes of visitors. We anticipated even larger crowds at Yellowstone, but were pleasantly surprised. After a few stops to take in some scenic views, we pulled over along the Yellowstone River to try to photograph one of my favorite birds in the park, Eared Grebes. A stunning bird, with their dark plumage, golden ear swag, and scarlet red eyes, Eared Grebes are known nesters in the park. This was a group of a dozen or so swimming upstream in the river. Most of them had their heads tucked and their rump feathers raised (which is one way they increase their body temperature, allowing sunlight to reach their dark skin beneath the feathers). Below the waterline, their legs were paddling away to help maintain their position or move them slightly upstream over time. We sat down on a boulder upstream of the birds and waited, taking way too many photos as they gradually swam past us.
We called our friend, Beth, an education ranger in the park, to try to arrange a short visit. We met her at the old schoolhouse in Mammoth Hot Springs where she was wrapping up a meeting. A few cow Elk were grazing in the lawn (Mammoth is one of the best places in the park to see Elk). Beth had seen a calf with one of the cows before we arrived, but when we went around to the back of the building, it was nowhere to be found, no doubt hidden in the sparse sagebrush on the hill. When we rounded the corner, one cow raised her head and stared at us and then glanced up the hill, probably in the direction of her hidden calf. We stood and talked for several minutes and the cow resumed grazing, occasionally looking our way and back up the hill. I kept scanning the slope and finally found the calf, given away only by a flick of its ear.
We ended up going into the gateway community of Gardiner to visit with Beth and her family for a little while and to dream of some day living here. On our return to the park, we spotted a group of young bighorn sheep in Gardiner Canyon (a fairly predictable place to see them). A few of the younger sheep started playing and ran across the steep slope, causing dirt and rocks to tumble down. It always amazes me what these gravity-defying mammals can do on these cliffs.
Being a holiday weekend, we had made lodging arrangements in Silver Gate, outside the northeast entrance, as we figured the few Forest Service dispersed camping areas near the park would be crowded. We spent the late afternoon driving through my favorite part of Yellowstone and seeing many of the park’s iconic wildlife. One of the highlights of this time of year is the abundance of baby animals, especially the baby bison, or “red dogs”.
Passing through Little America and into Lamar Valley feels like being home. We had been in the park for only a few hours and already seen Coyotes, Wolves, Elk, Bison, Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Rocky Mountain Goats, and lots of birds from Ravens to Bald Eagles. And, to our surprise, there were no crowds! As we drove through the upper end of Lamar Valley, a car going in our direction in front of us was driving slowly on the opposite side of the road. It was following what I at first thought was a Coyote off the side of road, down a slight incline. As we got closer, I realized it was a pale-colored Red Fox (giving us a “3 Dog Day” – seeing all three of Yellowstone’s canid species in one day). I attempted a pic as we drove by, but didn’t want to stop in the middle of the road with other cars nearby. We continued down the road about a half mile and pulled out at a parking area. We got out and walked over to a low ridge overlooking a small stream. We were still within sight of the road, should the fox continue along that route. The fox was trotting along at a good pace and then crossed to our side of the road and took a path along the stream. It stopped and caught a small mammal of some sort and ate it, and I figured it would continue along the waterway, looking for more furry snacks. But, it crossed over and disappeared beneath the crest of the ridge we were on. Suddenly, it popped up just below us. It paused, glanced our way, and then continued along the ridge line, passing within about 20 feet of us, seemingly unconcerned.
That was a magical moment, just us and the fox out in our favorite place on Earth, with no one else around. A short distance up the road, we watched as a small herd of Bison waded across the creek. I always stop and watch whenever I see these magnificent beasts crossing waterways. This was an easy place to wade across, but there have been times when we have seen them struggle against the swift current of a snow-melt swollen river.
The next morning, as we drove through Lamar, we could not believe how few cars we saw. This was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in one of the most popular parks in the nation, and the pullouts in Lamar Valley were virtually empty! We stopped and enjoyed watching a sow Grizzly and two cubs of the year playing and rolling on a snow bank on a high ridge across the valley (spotting scopes are a must in Lamar). Someone else with a scope mentioned seeing a Gray Wolf on the shoreline of the river across the valley. We scanned, and sure enough, a collared wolf was tugging at a carcass (probably a bison). For the next 15 minutes or so the wolf pulled off chunks of meat with a squadron of Ravens overseeing the operation. When she was done, she began to trot across the valley in our direction, and toward where we knew the wolf den at Slough Creek was located, about 3 miles behind us. Based on online images of collared wolves of the Junction Butte Pack, we think this was the female wolf called 907F. Once the alpha female, she has been replaced in that pack position by another wolf.
Somehow, the wolf managed to cross the road without anyone near us seeing it (a local guide drove down and said he saw it from another pullout as it crossed the road just beyond us). We turned, and there she was, headed up the steep slope and over the ridge. We drove over to the Slough Creek den site and pulled into a location away from the groups of wolf watchers, hoping to see her come across the road and swim the creek to head up to the den. The den is easily visible through spotting scopes, about a mile away from where you park along the Slough Creek dirt road. While we waited, we observed several pups playing with a few of the adult wolves around the den. I noticed some people just down the road looking back behind us toward a low area hidden from our view by a small hill. I thought the wolf might appear, but she did not. We later learned that those people had indeed seen the wolf come down that gap. She must have seen the people on the road and turned around. The next thing we know she is magically across Slough Creek and regurgitating a meal for the excited pups! I spoke to several of the wolf watchers and they did not see her cross the road or the creek. These wolves are very good at avoiding people. We stayed a while longer enjoying the view of the wolves, and then headed back toward Lamar Valley.
On our trip through the valley that morning we saw a small group of people sitting along the road with cameras pointing down-slope toward a large burrow. We paused and asked and they said it was a badger den. On our way back, a larger crowd had gathered and we could see the badger was out. Since there was no place to stop, we just drove by slowly and Melissa took several photos out her window. The one below is my favorite as it shows one of the cubs looking up at the adult.
Though it was very windy, we did a couple of short walks to get away from the road and were, as is almost always the case, totally alone in our favorite place.
After dinner in Silver Gate, we came back into the park and saw a couple of cars pulled over at a bridge across Soda Butte Creek. A young bull Moose was the attraction. We go out and spent a few minutes admiring it from the bridge until one person decided to walk towards it and spooked it.
Our one full day in Yellowstone had been full of wildlife sightings. We even had an elusive “octo-ungulate” day, seeing all eight of the ungulate (hoofed mammal) species in the park – Bison, Elk, Moose, Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Rocky Mountain Goat, and Pronghorn (Moose, and especially White-tailed Deer, are the toughest to see). In less than 24-hours, we watched wolves at their den, enjoyed seeing baby bison frolic in the sagebrush, had an amazing encounter with a fox, and saw almost every other type of wildlife the park offers. We wanted to make this day stretch on as long as possible as we knew we were headed East the next morning. As has happened so many times in the past, Lamar Valley put on a stunning show for us as the daylight waned. I always like to think the park is somehow thanking us for the visit and reminding us to return. And we can’t wait until we do…
For me, it always come back to the land, respecting the land, the wildlife, the plants, the rivers, mountains, and deserts, the absolute essential bedrock of our lives. This is the source of where my power lies, the source of where all our power lies.
~Terry Tempest Williams
It was hard to leave Boulder Mountain, but the road beckoned. Weather patterns were holding us back from heading to Jackson, WY, to see friends as a large rain and snow system seemed to be sitting on the Teton-Yellowstone area. We considered a trip farther west to a very under-utilized national park, Great Basin, in Nevada. But the lack of very many camping options deterred us, so we opted instead for a complete turn-around and got an Airbnb in Springville, UT (we agreed we finally needed a night in a place with a nice shower). We were very impressed by the mountainous areas of Utah as we drove through and we will certainly be back.
Melissa found some good-looking areas in the nearby Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, so we headed there the next morning, exploring some high elevation meadows with somewhat muddy roads and scattered pockets of snow, before settling on a lower elevation campsite.
We checked a couple of spots off the Mirror Lake Hwy before picking a relatively open site at the edge of a small drop-off with distant views of mountains. The rocky ledge was home to a few ground squirrels and I managed to convince them I was harmless by sitting still for many minutes.
A less cooperative resident was a new species for me, a Green-tailed Towhee, that was singing from s small shrub snag until I would try to approach for a photo. We noticed a pattern in its behavior – shortly after I would retreat, the bird would return to the same snag and start singing again. So, I finally just sat down at a distance and heavily cropped the image you see below.
I looked at the field guide description online and was impressed that the author must have known this particular bird as they said “one of the best ways to find them is to visit a shrubby mountainside or sage flat during spring or early summer. Males will spend long periods perched at the tops of shrubs and singing.”
The next day we headed to a destination I was eager to visit – Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Salt Lake City. This is a large wetlands complex that is home to huge numbers of waterfowl during migration as well as a variety of other birds throughout the year.
Two species I particularly hoped to see were American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, both of which nest on the refuge. At the refuge entrance, an American Avocet obliged and was feeding right next to the road at a boat ramp. Birds of the World Online discusses the meanings of the names for this beauty – the generic name, Recurvirostra, comes from the Avocet’s long recurved, or up-turned bill. The name Avocet is from the Italian avosetta, which means ‘graceful bird’.
We spent the next couple of hours slowly driving the 10-mile auto tour and taking in the thousands of birds scattered throughout the varied wetlands that comprise this impressive refuge. Here are some of the highlights…
As is usual, we spent more time than we planned on the refuge, enjoying the continuous display of bird behaviors. It was a windy, gray day, which gave me reason to want to come back on a sunny day and spend an early morning and late afternoon photographing the amazing variety of birds in this special place. Plus, I would love to be here when many of these species have their young. And then there are the thousands of waterfowl in migration…so many birds, so little time.
If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.
~President Lyndon B. Johnson
Just a reminder, these latest posts (and the next few) are about our truck camping adventure this past May, a month-long wandering across some of the beautiful public lands of our country, taking in what we could as we traveled. The last post highlighted one of our best hikes of our entire trip, Buckskin Gulch in Utah. It was a bonus hike in that it was high on Melissa’s bucket list and it happened on our anniversary (due, in part, to a one day delay for minor truck repairs). We ended our anniversary day on another high note with a perfect campsite on the north rim of Grand Canyon!
This iconic national park was not on our original itinerary, but when we found ourselves only an hour and a half from the north rim, we decided to go since I had never been to the park and Melissa had only been to the “Disneyland-esque” south rim. So, once we got cell service, she started googling national forest roads in Kaibab National Forest. She found what looked liked dispersed camping opportunities right on the north rim if you were wiling to drive 20+ miles of dirt roads off the main entrance road to the park. We always take a deep breath when heading out on unknown roads, especially long stretches, but they turned out to be fine. There were a few choices for turns that looked like they got close to the rim, so she picked one, and we found ourselves parked about 50 feet from the edge of an incredible view point. Not a bad way to end an already spectacular day. Once again, we were relatively isolated with only one tent camper within hearing distance (we could not see him, but we heard him occasionally close his car door). Farther down the road was the main view point with a few other campers, but we basically had this incredible vista of the Grand Canyon to ourselves! We admired a wonderful sunset and sunrise from our camp chairs on the rim, marveling at the vast story laid bare in the rocky landscape that stretched before us to the far horizon.
The north rim receives only about 10% of the approximately 6 million visitors the park receives each year (last year was about half that due to the pandemic) so we were pleased to have relatively small crowds at the lookouts we visited the next morning.
Visiting the Grand Canyon and gazing out upon its vastness, and realizing the millions of years of Earth’s history that it represents, is a humbling experience. And to do it in a place that was relatively uncrowded and to spend the night on its rim is something that will stick with us for a long time and that will no doubt beckon us to explore this grand landscape further in the future.
That afternoon, we debated returning to our rim campsite, but, with no guarantee it would still be available, and wanting to get an early start the next day (which meant not driving the entire 22 miles of dirt road) back to the paved highway we settled for a closer campsite in the national forest in a large meadow surrounded by conifers and aspens.
In talking with a woman in an outdoor store in Kanab, AZ, Melissa was torn between her desire to visit Zion National Park (it was so close) and this woman’s suggestion to skip it because it was so crowded. In the end, we opted to bypass the crowds and go directly to Bryce Canyon, another park that would be new for both of us. The drive there is incredible with beautiful vistas all along the way, including a stop at the wonderful Red Canyon Visitor Center in Dixie National Forest, not far from the entrance too Bryce Canyon. This area looks like another place we will need to explore more in future visits.
As we entered Bryce Canyon we felt the pressure of crowds at every turn, long lines at the shuttle tops, and road access to two of the major view points closed due to lack of parking (we were glad we skipped the more popular Zion, if these were the crowds here). We drove through the park on the 18-mile primary road route, stopping to take in the strange geology that has made this park so famous.
In the 1870’s, a geologist (Clarence Dutton) first came up with the idea that the geology of this vast region resembled a staircase, going from the ancient rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and proceeding through Zion and into Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bryce Canyon with a series of cliff formations (the steps) of younger and younger rocks. Bryce Canyon is the top step of that sedimentary staircase and its famed hoodoos have been created by a variety of erosional forces from the edges of the high plateau in a series of processes that proceeds from plateau edge to wall to window (or arch) to hoodoo.
A hoodoo is a tall, thin spire of rock formed by natural weathering forces (in Bryce Canyon it is mainly ice and rain). The area experiences over 200 days a year where temperatures average above freezing in the day and below freezing at night, leading to a large potential for so-called ice wedging, where water seeps into cracks in the rock and then freezes (and expands), putting tremendous pressure on the rocks and causing them to split apart. As a result of this weathering and the geology of the rocks here, Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world.
Parking areas for the popular view points were still closed when we came back down the main road but we drove up to the lodge and parked which gave us access to some of the more scenic vistas (they always put lodges close to the most iconic areas in the park). It was another very windy day, but we managed a short hike down into some of the hoodoos for a different perspective of this unusual landscape.
That night, we went to a place recommended by that same woman in the outdoor store for a take-out dinner – Hell’s Backbone Grill, a James Beard-recognized restaurant in Boulder, Utah, a town of 236 people. It was delicious and we highly recommend it, as well as the quirky, artistic Burr Trail Grill and Outpost next door. We dined in our truck (due to the wind) and camped on a desert road off the incredibly scenic nearby Burr Trail Road. The next morning, we headed for Capitol Reef National Park (another new one for us) and spent the day stopping at various view points and hiking the 2-mile round trip down the Capitol Gorge Trail to a unique geologic formation called The Tanks.
The Tanks are potholes formed by scouring action of rocks and water (they contain water most of the year I have read) in a narrow drainage down into Capitol Gorge, When they contain water they house a unique ecosystem of tadpoles, fairy shrimp, and algae.
That night we drove up onto a rocky forest service road on Boulder Mountain and found a great campsite in the aspens with a creek and meadow in view. The next morning we headed for another spot recommended by that chance acquaintance in the outdoor store, the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail. This is a well-known easy to moderate hike (6-miles round trip) to a beautiful waterfall. You are walking along a somewhat rare perennial water source, Calf Creek, along the way. The trail starts at the far end of a beautiful (but full when we were there) campground along the creek.
The water leads to a diverse riparian habitat in the desert with beaver ponds, sizeable trout, and a host of wildflowers and bird life along the trail. We saw another new species for us, Black-headed Grosbeaks, flitting in and out of the shrub thickets as well as Yellow warblers and Spotted Towhees.
Finally, you hear the waterfall and squeals of delight as the braver hikers venture into the cold pool at its base. This stunning waterfall is 126 high and drops down through a slit in a semi-circular canyon wall, forming a true desert oasis.
After soaking in the cool spray, we headed back along the same trail, taking in the diversity of life along the creek. I need to brush up on my desert/riparian plants before our next trip as there was quite a variety in bloom as we headed back to the car. By the way, the parking lot here (and at many of the popular spots we stopped) is quite small, so we ended up parking a 1/2 mile or so above the trailhead on the main road. Best advice is to plan ahead and get there as early as you can.
We returned to our campsite in the aspens (we had left a chair and table there to claim it) and relaxed the rest of the afternoon and thought about where our destination might be as we head out the next morning…
Note – Now that we are back and hearing the news of the extreme heat, drought conditions, and huge crowds of tourists descending on our Western parks and public lands, we feel extremely fortunate to have had the wonderful experiences we did back in May. It looks like another tough summer in many Western states for abnormally high temperatures (though this may become the new norm due to climate change) and wild fires. I just saw a news release stating that the entirety of Kaibab National Forest is closed to the public effective today due to drought conditions and fire danger. The Forest Service is evacuating campers and closing all roads for the foreseeable future. Here’s hoping for better conditions soon.
I will fill myself with the desert and the sky. I will be stone and stars, unchanging and strong andsafe. The desert is complete; it is spare and alone, but perfect in its solitude. I will be the desert.
Much of our time in the Southwest was spent under red flag warnings of high winds, and our first afternoon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was no exception. Luckily, the wind tends to ease up as sundown approaches.
We had a good night in the high desert and headed out very early the next morning for one of Melissa’s main goals for the trip – to hike in a slot canyon. A slot canyon is a long, narrow, deep, and meandering drainage carved through sedimentary rock (usually). The epicenter of slot canyons is southern Utah and northern Arizona where there are many famous ones visited by hordes of tourists each year. We had picked Buckskin Gulch as our destination based on a friend’s recommendation, but fate had other plans for us that morning. As we were driving the 8 miles of dirt road out to the highway, our trusty truck started making some loud noises from the rear. Melissa got out and listened and the problem was in the right rear tire, a metallic clanging when the tire rotated. It wasn’t impacting the brakes or anything else, so we initially thought it might be a rock caught in the brake cylinder area. We continued to drive and the sound varied. Once we reached the highway, it didn’t sound as bad, so we thought, let’s try it. But, as we turned off to head down the dirt road to the Wire Pass Trailhead, the sound became worse, causing us to turn around and head for the only place with any hope of auto repair, Page, AZ, a distance of more than 30 miles. Melissa called and talked her way into an early check-in at a hotel in Page and we found an auto repair place that would open at 8 a.m. near the hotel. We checked into our room (having no idea how long a repair might take) and I took the truck over to the auto shop. They took me in right away and gave me the news that the parking brake on this 18-year old truck had just come apart, and it was pieces of metal causing that terrible noise. He also said it would be 2 or 3 days to get a part, but he could just take it out and we would be good to go (just don’t park on a steep hill). So, an hour later, we decided to take in the local sights and head to Buckskin Gulch early the next morning.
Our first stop was Horseshoe Bend, a famous meander in the Colorado River not far below Glen Canyon Dam. It was a circus of tourists, but certainly is a beautiful sight. Not being used to crowds of any type, we didn’t stay long. Melissa had called the Bureau of Land Management office and got some tips from a ranger the day before who had shared a location of another slot canyon in the area that she said we would likely have to ourselves. So, we headed out and hiked in a “private” slot canyon for a couple of hours.
The same person that told Melissa about Buckskin Gulch had also shared her enthusiasm at seeing California Condors near Page at a place called the Navajo Bridge. This is an area where several condors had been released into the wild during restoration efforts and is known as a place where these huge birds return to the bridge and surrounding canyon walls to roost in the evening (especially in the spring).
The California Condor is North America’s largest land bird, weighing up to 25 lbs and having a wingspan of almost 10 ft. It is critically endangered and became extinct in the wild in 1987 when the known remaining 22 (or 27, depending on which reference you use) birds were captured for a captive breeding program aimed to help recover the species. Captive reared birds started being released back into the wild in 1991, and today, the condor population numbers over 500 birds, with around 300 flying free in California, northern Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. One of the release sites is the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness adjacent to the Navajo Bridge. Condors prefer steep cliffs for roosting and nesting so they can launch their huge bodies into the air, and online reports mentioned they also roost on the bridge structures in this location. So, we arrived close to 5:30 p.m. and started watching and waiting. Melissa walked across the bridge and saw a woman with binoculars and a camera and struck up a conversation. She was there for the condors as well, and assured us they would be there at some point this evening. We kept scanning the canyon, expecting to see them fly in from one direction or another, but only swifts and an occasional hawk flew by. After about 30 minutes on the bridge I looked over and saw the woman with binoculars walking toward us pointing up into the sky. I turned and looked straight up, and there it was, a condor! It dropped rapidly as if descending from heaven (Melissa commented that she understood how many Native Americans incorporated this giant bird into their mythology with this type of grand appearance) and soared underneath and landed on our bridge. Over the next few minutes, three more condors came in, one landing on the bridge and two more on the cliffs.
Each California Condor has a numbered or lettered tag and some carry radio transmitters on their wings for tracking so biologists can learn more about their habits and potential threats to the population (lead poisoning from feeding on carcasses shot with lead ammunition is one of the biggest threats to birds in the wild). The bird above is V7. The Peregrine Fund is one of the participating organizations in the condor recovery program and has an online database that gives you more information on each bird. According to that database, V7 is a juvenile bird (condors reach maturity at around 6 years) as indicated by the dark gray head and lack of bright white patches under the wings. It is a male, hatched in May of 2017 in the wild in Utah.
This bird soared beneath me with a clear view of its tag, #12. This bird is a female, hatched in 2016. She is attaining the pink skin on the head and has started to develop the white under-wing patches.
The only fully adult bird we saw landed a long way from us on the cliffs. It is a male reared in captivity that hatched in 2004, making it 17 years old. California Condors are one of the world’s longest-living birds and can live up to 60 years. This was, indeed, a magical evening in a stunning landscape.
Early the next morning, we headed to Buckskin Gulch. There is a fee that you must pay and obtain a permit online before going. We drove to the Wire Pass trailhead, which is also the trailhead for another popular hike to a geologic feature called The Wave, but permits are hard to get for that hike with a maximum of only 64 people allowed each day.
After entering the narrow slot, you are immersed in a fantastical world of swirls, lines, and light. We soon realized that by arriving early, we had avoided many of the people that do this popular day hike, so we had long stretches of the slot canyon to ourselves. After a mile or so, you reach a more open area that is the juncture with the Buckskin Gulch slot canyon. You want to take the trail to the right to continue down the more narrow slot canyon.
We hiked at least a couple more miles from the juncture, taking in the magic of this place and marveling at how such a feature can form. There are an average of 7 or 8 flash floods through the canyon each year, typically in July and August, that can send walls of water as high as 100 feet through the narrow canyons, so hikers are advised to check the weather before going and to not hike if rain is predicted anywhere in the region. At times, you may have to walk through water or mud, but conditions were very dry when we hiked through.
Buckskin Gulch is one of the most popular hikes in the Southwest and rightfully so. It is the longest and deepest slot canyon in North America (and perhaps the longest in the world) at almost 14 miles in length with walls soaring 500 feet above you in parts of the canyon. As we hiked out, we started passing the wave of visitors coming in we had heard we might expect. This is a very special trail and well worth a visit if you are anywhere near. And it was a special way to spend our anniversary and check off one of the few big items we had planned from our to-do list for this trip.
Looking at the maps, we decided to go ahead and make this day extra special with a couple of hour drive to the a park I had surprisingly never visited – Grand Canyon National Park. And we lucked into a very special campsite…more on that next time.
Travel is still the most intense mode of learning.
After leaving Arkansas, we headed toward Palo Duro State Park in the panhandle of Texas. We had learned of this canyon from a couple camped near us at Natchez Trace State Park in TN (they were moving from TX to KY and had brought their pet dogs and birds with them and had a separate outdoor enclosure at the campsite for their birds, so, naturally, i had to ask some questions). They said Palo Duro was a beautiful canyon worthy of a visit. It’s a long drive from AR so we spent a night at a forgettable state park in Oklahoma (our first couple of state park visits really made me appreciate even more the beautiful and well-maintained state parks back in North Carolina). Melissa steered us toward a couple more wildlife refuges and we once again, had some great birds (including more Scissor-tailed Flycatchers) at Sequoyah NWR in OK.
I’m beginning to think I understand Texans a bit more now after visiting the exhibits at Palo Duro (they are really proud of Texas, and everything is better there). This canyon is deemed the second largest canyon in the United States (only Grand Canyon is bigger they say). After visiting and googling a bit, I think it is the second longest canyon at about 120 miles (you don’t sense that when you visit for as short a time as we did). It certainly is beautiful, and you can actually drive from the rim down to the floor of the canyon in the park. With threatening weather, we snagged an Airbnb on the rim of the canyon just outside the park entrance (a tiny house in an RV Park, this seems to be a trend). The next morning, you could barely see into the canyon due to clouds, wind, and rain, so we headed out with the general thought of heading to some national parks we have never seen – Bryce, Zion, and Capitol Reef.
We took in two more wildlife refuges without much detour – Buffalo Lake and Las Vegas NWRs. And though the weather was iffy (a mix of sun and clouds and very gusty winds), we managed a few interesting species, including two new ones for us, Lark Buntings and Bullock’s Orioles.
I should mention that we really had no specific itinerary as we went along, other than looking for national forests with what looked like decent dispersed camping, and then hitting some sights along the way, especially areas that had interesting hikes. We usually planned each day no more than one day ahead and often made decisions on the fly, based on what Melissa was finding as she worked her navigation mojo. That is how we ended up heading toward Bandelier National Monument. She saw it was in the general direction we were headed and the images online looked interesting. Plus, the online information mentioned there were Abert’s Squirrels there, and we both really wanted to see one of those tufted-eared rodents (unfortunately, we never saw one).
We visited the main archeological sites along the Pueblo Loop Trail and then did a side trip to the Alcove House. The village site is down on the valley floor but there are hand dug cavates (cave dwellings) on the face of the cliffs above with stone steps leading to several for easy viewing. The creek is one of the few permanent sources of water in the region, so I can see why the Ancestral Pueblo chose this site – a strip of green in an otherwise parched landscape.
Nearby is Valles Caldera National Preserve, and the online images reminded us of another caldera we love – Yellowstone. So, naturally, we had to head in that direction. We arrived late in the day and saw that this NPS unit has some different rules from the usual park – hunting of elk and turkey is allowed (elk were reintroduced into New Mexico here in the mid-1900’s and this area now has the second largest elk herd in the state), the hours are shorter than most parks, and, as it turned out, they were opening the back country roads to 35 vehicles (first come-first serve) the next morning for the season. So, we went in to the office to get some information, and while were talking to a volunteer, a park vehicle drove up, and out gets a ranger we knew from Yellowstone (she had given our museum groups programs at Old Faithful for several years). She had just started here at Valles Caldera, so it was great catching up and getting a few insider tips.
Melissa always feels the stress of trying to find just the right campsite – ideally on or near water, high elevation, scenic views, and maybe a combination of meadows and forest. But, even though she researches the maps and satellite images, and looks for online reviews of various areas, you often can’t tell what it is really like until you drive down a potentially bumpy road and see for yourself. We had picked one site that looked good and was on the edge of a steep gorge, but as we stood along what looked like a hiking trail at the edge of the rim, two dirt bikes blasted through the site. Turns out the path was a designated dirt bike trail, so we decided to look elsewhere for a campsite. We finally came upon a forested site surrounded by huge boulders. There were several fire rings, indicating this was a popular spot, so we settled in for the evening.
Without going into too much detail, I’ll share what I saw that afternoon as I was out on “bucket patrol”. As I returned to the truck, walking between two of the boulders, something moved on the ground. It was a very impressive (and totally harmless) Bull Snake about 6 feet in length. I admired its beautiful color and pattern and took a quick video clip as it went on its way.
On our way to this location, we had passed a trailhead along the main road that looked promising, so we headed back down for a look. Being a weekday, it was not very crowded, so we hiked in and we were so glad we did. Las Conchas Trail is an absolutely gorgeous hike along the East Fork of the Jemez River with fantastic rock outcrops and a mix of meadows and conifers all along its length. Elevation here is about 8400 ft but the hike is an easy 4 mile (out and back) stroll with plenty of natural beauty to observe.
The water is crystal clear and allowed us some great fish watching. At a few points along the trail we saw groups of these fish (I believe they are Rio Grande Suckers) in what is probably spawning behavior. Groups of smaller ones (presumably males) in an area, sometimes moving gravel in the stream bottom, and then converging on a larger individual when it would come into the picture (I guess that is a female). We sat at one spot and watched them for about 20 minutes as they glided back and forth in the creek.
The next morning we were in line at the gate of Valles Caldera to secure one of the back country road passes. Most of the people in line were fishermen, although I was later amazed at how tiny the creeks were that these folks were trying to catch trout in. This is one of the newest NPS units, having been officially turned over to the Federal Government in 2014. The terrain reminded us of parts of Yellowstone with vast mountain meadows and conifers. The landscape was shaped by a massive volcanic eruption about 1.25 million years ago followed by a collapse of the volcano (the caldera). Like Yellowstone, early people were drawn to this area for the abundant wildlife and obsidian which was used and widely traded for projectile points and other tools. The land was granted to private ranchers in the late 1800’s and for decades was an active cattle and sheep ranch and used for logging, hunting, geothermal energy exploration, and more. Preserve managers are now working to restore the natural processes n this unique ecosystem.
After spending a couple of days in the high mountains, we packed up and headed into the dry desert environments of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a vast and amazing land that offer such a different take on the West. The beauty and strange (to us) landscapes of Arizona and Utah await…
My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.
On our previous two truck camping road trips, we headed due west across the plains through Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, until we hit the mountains. This trip, we had no real plans, just head west. We played with the idea of going to Big Bend National Park in Texas, but by the time we would have arrived, temperatures were already heading into the high 80’s and low 90’s (not my favorite temperature range for camping), but we did decide to take a more southerly route than before. Our first night was in Natchez Trace State Park in Tennessee, a pretty typical campground, with sites too close together for our liking (we’ve been spoiled by Forest Service dispersed camping) but with a beautiful lake and lots of bird life (tanagers, woodpeckers, thrushes, various warblers).
We had heard some good things about the natural beauty of Arkansas, so we pointed the truck in that general direction the next day and Melissa worked her navigation magic from the passenger seat by downloading Vehicle Use Maps from likely national forest units we would pass and reviewing satellite images to ground truth what the terrain might be like. She is also very kind to me in our on-the-fly planning and looked for side trips to wildlife refuges along the way (we both love viewing wildlife, but I probably need a wildlife pic fix more often than she does), so we hit Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge in TN and Bald Knob NWR in Arkansas the next day. Hatchie is a beautiful cypress swamp and had lots of warblers (especially Blackpolls and Prothonotaries).
Bald Knob was great with a variety of habitats and we soon found ourselves following waves of Bobolinks and Dicksissels as they flew up from the vegetation along refuge roads (although it was challenging to get close enough for photos). These are two species that I have seen occasionally in NC. They are both grassland species so I have observed them in migration near the coast and at the Museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation. And on the Museum’s Spring Mountain Birding trips, I have seen Bobolinks in some fields in the mountains where they are known to nest. But this was amazing, as they seemed to be everywhere along these roadsides.
At Bald Knob NWR, we came across what is now one of my favorite birds – the elegant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I had seen one in the NC Sandhills years ago but they are considered a rare migrant and even rarer breeder in my home state. We spotted two sitting on a barbed wire fence next to a road so I pulled the truck up alongside for a closer look. They were very cooperative and let us hang with them quite awhile as they scanned the skies for an insect treat.
Just look at that tail! The tail usually makes up over half the overall length in this species, with males generally having longer tails and more color on their sides. After taking way too may photos of them sitting on the wire (a very common pose we were to learn), we hoped to get a shot of one in flight highlighting that forked tail (the long tail is useful for making quick turns in flight as they pursue flying insects). I waited, and waited, and finally one took off and I just squeezed the shutter in burst mode and tried to follow it. Though not as sharp as I wanted, I was pleased with the sequence showing a successful snag of a fly.
After spending a lot of time with flycatchers, we moved on to Ozark National Forest and camped along beautiful Richland Creek for the night. I’m not sure why, but the waters in this area are some of the bluest freshwater I have ever seen.
Melissa had scoped out some trails very close to our campsite, so the next morning we walked up the road a short distance and hiked along a well-marked trail leading to Keefe Falls. The forest had been burned, probably last year, and the resulting wildflower display was amazing all along the trail.
The state motto for Arkansas is The Natural State. And after our day in the Ozarks, we know why. As we hiked, the trail split and we decided to take what looked like the lesser traveled route which climbed a slope and soon came to a cliff of loose sandstone. The trail started to disappear as we headed down-slope toward the creek and the sound of a waterfall. The last 50 yards or so were a bit dicey, with slippery soil on a steep slope, and then we rounded a corner…
I can truly say this is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. The greenery-covered walls and the aqua blue color of the water with rays of sunshine piercing the still developing forest canopy…and we had it all to ourselves!
We lounged by this pool for quite some time (someone I know took a swim), and, once again, we took way too many pictures trying to capture the beauty of this tropical-looking scene. On the hike back we encountered another couple hiking toward Keefe Falls. We told them about our find (which we now think is called Splashdown Falls) but warned them about the steepness of the last section. They shared an encounter with a rattlesnake on their hike to another nearby waterfall and told us about the abundance of beautiful falls and cascades in this forest.
On our way out the next morning, we stopped at two of the more popular roadside waterfalls – Falling Water Falls and Six Fingers Falls, and they did not disappoint. Arkansas maybe should change their motto to The Waterfall State if this one section of Ozark National Forest is any indication of what can be found elsewhere. Needless to say, we will return to Arkansas on future trips. But for now, we headed west (more in the next post).
Yep, we did it again, another awesome truck camping road trip. We just returned home Wednesday morning at 3:30 a.m. after an epic 18-hour drive from Missouri. We had planned at least one more night on the road, but the weather wasn’t cooperating and we were following a large rain-making system across the middle part of the country. After camping in fairly dry weather for almost a month, we decided to just head home rather than deal with the wet conditions. We traveled almost 7,400 miles over 29 days (see map below). We visited three state parks, a state conservation area, six national parks (including three new ones for me), a national monument, a national preserve, a national recreation area, seven national forests, and nine national wildlife refuges. I think we can safely say, we love our public lands! We did stay with friends a couple of nights in Jackson, and hotels or an Airbnb for a total of 5 other nights. The rest of the time, we camped in our truck, mostly dispersed camping in national forests. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post some more details of the trip (and probably some highlights of things going on here in our woods).
For more details on the locations highlighted on the map, see this link.
When I worked as a District Naturalist for the state park system oh-so-many years ago, one of my favorite parks was Merchants Millpond State Park in northeastern North Carolina. It is a true natural gem of our state and remains one of my favorite spots to spend some time in the solitude of a beautiful swamp. The millpond was created in 1811 by damming Bennetts Creek to construct a grist mill, sawmill, and other commercial enterprises that gave rise to the name Merchants Millpond. Today, the park encompasses over 3200 acres of cypress-tupelo swamp and beech-mixed hardwood uplands. Melissa has a workshop on the millpond in a few weeks, so she wanted to do a scouting trip and introduce some of her co-leaders to the place. She decided to take a day off for exploring before her staff arrived, so we packed up the truck and threw our kayaks on top for a mid-week adventure in this perfect springtime weather.
I contacted our friends, Floyd and Signa, that live just outside the park, to see if they wanted to paddle with us on Wednesday. They are some of the best naturalists I know and certainly know the millpond better than anyone (Floyd was a ranger there for many years). They offered to take us up Lassiter Swamp to “the big trees”, a scattered group of Bald Cypress trees that are hundreds of years old and tower above the rest of the swamp forest – heck yeah!
The 760-acre millpond is dominated by two tree species – Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum. Stumps of ancient cypress cut in the 1800’s form islands of vegetation with Swamp Rose, Wax Myrtle and a host of other plant species. Spanish Moss is draped off most of the tree branches and Yellow Cow Lily (Spatterdock) is just starting to poke its leaves out of the water surface.
Paddle to the far end and you enter an entirely different world – Lassiter Swamp. The channel narrows and winds through a maze of gnarled Tupelo Gum that have been transformed into gargoyle-like shapes by Mistletoe (a semi-parasitic plant that causes the gum trees to create odd growths as they forms “scar tissue” in reaction to the Mistletoe’s intrusion). So many trees have been disfigured by the Mistletoe that the entrance to the swamp is known as “the enchanted forest” by locals.
I have always loved Lassiter Swamp for its solitude and abundance of wildlife. And this trip provided both. As we paddled around one bend, Melissa said, There’s a Raccoon in that tree. I looked, but didn’t see it at first. It was curled up inside a giant gnarl on a gum tree. We were all impressed she spotted it.
After a few hours of paddling, we started seeing some of the really big Bald Cypress scattered about the upper end of Lassiter Swamp. One of the big ones I remembered climbing inside years ago (9 people could stand inside the hollow base of the giant) had fallen victim to Hurricane Isabelle and lay covered in moss along the creek bank. But the matriarch of the swamp is still standing. This cypress was aged by the team that designated those well-known cypress along the Black River as the oldest known trees in the Eastern United States (one has been dated to be at least 2,624 years old). This tree is much larger than those on the Black River due to the nutrient-rich waters of this swamp and is estimated to be at least 1000 years old. It is humbling to stand next to one of these giants.
As we paddled back to the launch area, Melissa spotted a large Alligator basking in the late day sun. Floyd told us about the first confirmed Alligator sighting on the millpond back in 1996. Rumors of gators in the park had been around a couple of years, but, in 1996, a fisherman told Floyd he had seen one. In fact, he had caught it while fishing and had it in his boat (he didn’t know what to do with it and had brought it to shore hoping a ranger could help). After unhooking the ~3-foot gator, keeping it in an unused dog pen with a kiddie pool, and contacting wildlife officials, the decision was made to release it back into the millpond. There are now a few Alligators that call the millpond home, including one larger than the ~7-footer we observed.
A highlight of the trip was one that did not occur on the millpond but on the uplands. Our friends shared the location of an Eastern Screech Owl roosting in a hollow tree, something I have been hoping to find for several years now (I have seen them, but only when I didn’t have a camera in hand). The owl did not disappoint. It is a gray phase (they can also be reddish in color) and has a perfect perch in the hollow of a tree. We checked the tree each time we drove in and out of the campground and it has a habit of disappearing down into the hollow and then reappearing so you never know when it will be visible. What a treat!
Another wonderful wildlife encounter was the Bald Eagle nest in a tall pine out on the millpond. The eagle is easily seen with binoculars and must be sitting on eggs still as she didn’t move much on either day we paddled.
On my last trip by the nest tree, the male eagle flew in and perched nearby, giving me the side eye from behind a tree trunk. I paddled on not wanting to disturb them.
Thursday was even warmer and turtles were everywhere on the millpond. Pickerel Frogs and the occasional Southern Leopard Frog were calling as I paddled solo up the pond to spend the day in the swamp (Melissa was with her co-workers planning the workshop). There is something magical about being in a swamp by yourself. The quiet, the sense of isolation, and yet a feeling of being wrapped in the arms of a living forest. You tend to become a part of the swamp and more in tune to your surroundings.
I passed the Raccoon tree and found it empty, but there were plenty of birds and signs of animals (otter scat, beaver lodges and cut trees, raccoon tracks in the mud) as I paddled. Finally, I saw a swirl in the water along one side of the creek and then some movement – otter! I stopped paddling and slowly drifted with camera in hand as the four River Otter realized there was something in their creek and swam out to get a better view. They bobbed up and down, snuffing and snorting as they tried to figure me out. I never got all four in the same field of view at once, but it was great spending a few minutes with these aquatic acrobats. They finally had enough of me and headed upstream.
Two gorgeous male Wood Ducks graced me with their presence as I sat on a beech slope adjacent to the creek eating my lunch. Of course, the camera was in the kayak and as soon as I slowly tried to reach for it, one of the ducks spotted me and the game was over, off they went. On the way out, I paddled along the edge of Lassiter Swamp seeing plenty of Beaver sign and scaring up flocks of Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks, along with a bunch of noisy pairs of Canada Geese.
My last wildlife highlight of the day was an Anhinga, a symbol of swamps and black waters in the south. I now see them much more frequently than when I first started paddling the swamps of the Coastal Plain some 40 years ago, but it is always a treat.
Merchants Millpond remains one of my favorites places to spend time on the water. It has a rich history, amazing wildlife, beautiful scenery, great facilities and staff, and can provide you with a sense of being one with a wild place like few other places so close to home. And seeing our friends and knowing all they know and do for the park, it reminds me how much I truly appreciate people like Floyd and Signa that have given (and continue to give) so much to help conserve and make one special wild place available to plants, wildlife, and people. That is one of the things that makes North Carolina State Parks so special, the dedicated people that love and protect them.