Sax Zim Bog: a primordial winter retreat

Contrary to what most of my posts suggest, I do actually spend lots of time in Minnesota, exploring the outdoors mostly near home, but sometimes a fair jaunt away to the more remote reaches of the state. img_2457

This is the case with one of my latest ventures, which was coordinated with an effort to achieve three northern Minnesota Checkpoints in one day (for more about the Checkpoint challenge, see my post from last year.) But Mission One was to make a stop at one of the premiere wilderness areas in the state: Sax Zim Bog.

The bog is renowned by birders, especially during winter, for the number of boreal species that winter there, most notably the enormous and ghostly great gray owl, as well as sharp-tailed grouse, white-winged crossbills, pine grosbeaks, boreal chickadees, and a number of other rarely seen owl species. The mixture of woods and fields makes the location an attractive habitat for these birds, many of which have flown south from the far reaches of Canada and beyond. The area is also home to northern mammals such as moose, gray wolves, and pine martens.

Typically, a bog conjures images of a muddy wetland. I always envision dark fairy tales of lost wanderers stumbling blindly after malicious will-o’-the-wisps and meeting their demise in quicksand-like mud pits, or urban legends (based on truth!) about human remains that are found mummified and unnervingly well preserved by the acidic, oxygen-poor conditions of the surroundings. Really a bog is any wetland area where dead plant material is accumulated (mostly mosses), and in the case of Sax Zim it is populated by a mix of spruce, tamarack, and white cedar, in addition to nearby hayfields and sedge meadows. This offers a wide variety of terrain, which makes it perfect for the large number of species that reside there. img_2459

The bog is north of Cloquet, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from my home near the Twin Cities. We traveled into the tiny town of Cotton and went west a number of miles down a snow-packed country road to the heart of the nature preserve.

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The drive took us through Cloquet, where we passed by the famous Frank Lloyd Wright gas station.

A tiny welcome center, heated with solar energy and lacking running water, sits on the property. Nevertheless, it is kept warm inside and several birders were sitting patiently with long lenses nearby, waiting for something interesting to visit the feeders. Each year, the organization Friends of the Sax Zim Bog hosts a winter birding festival, this year to take place Feb. 17-19.

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Somehow I had a feeling this would be the only owl I’d be seeing on my visit.

Feeders containing seed and suet are placed in various places around the bog, and these are often the best spots to find bird activity. Most people simply drive slowly down the long, snow-encrusted roads, scanning for movement without ever leaving their cars. Others prefer to hike, ski, or snowshoe through the area. Our time was limited, so we asked the desk volunteer where we might spot the best activity from the warmth of the car.

She pointed out a loop slightly north of us following Admiral and McDermitt Roads. She described the area as quintessentially boggy, full of spruce trees, and recommended a drive through at dusk to look for owls. The day earlier, she said, a great gray had been spotted sitting directly on the feeder.

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Squirrels were aplenty at the Sax Zim feeders.

On our drive through, we occasionally encountered other birders stopped on the road along the way, indicating a sighting nearby. In fact, small traffic jams started to build up this way. The first of these was a really fun encounter with a ruffed grouse, which was busy peeling the bark from a few thin branches and was twisting and turning this way and that, nonplussed by the observers in the nearby vehicles. Photography is challenging in this environment because if one chooses to stay in the car, the heat emitting into the cold air from the open window will cause a rippling wave effect which can blur the picture quality.

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Ruffed grouse

Unfortunately, our drive did not result in any other species observations (other than the numerous black-capped chickadees and red squirrels that were common at the feeders.) Despite the lack of bird cooperation, we were treated to a magnificent sunset along the jagged edges of the spruce tree line; an idyllic northern Minnesota scene.

We had three other cities to get to that night, so we had to hit the road after only a few hours at Sax Zim. I hope to revisit the bog soon, to keep looking for those elusive northern species. img_2526

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The ocean and the mountaintop

Part 1: The Ocean

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When we left Sucia in the morning, everything was quiet. We were headed for our last stop on the journey – the large island of Orcas.

The morning waters were ethereal – with no wind, the surface was like a mirror. A dense mist hung overhead for a couple of hours, obscuring the tops of the craggy islands we passed along the way. We were almost silent, taking in the view and not daring to cause a disturbance with our chatter. After about 45 minutes, we started to notice the black, sickle-shaped dorsal fins of pilot whales cutting through the waters at a distance, sometimes falling back into our wake.

We didn’t sail at all – it was preternaturally still, and we sat back under the protection of the awning, which shielded us from the cold mist. It was like we were waiting for something to happen.

There wasn’t much of an alarm, but one of our group leaders got a call from a leader on the other boat, something got murmured about orcas, and then everyone was on high alert, scrambling for rain jackets, cameras, a good perch on the deck. I buttoned up my green slicker, tucked my camera in the roomy pocket so it would stay dry, and clambered into the chilly drizzle just beyond the main. I stood on the slick deck for about 20 minutes with numb hands and cold ocean spray in my face, peering hard at the horizon.

One of our group members had a family cabin on a nearby island, and her relatives had called her boat to report that they’d just witnessed a pod of orcas pass by. We happened to be very near the location of their cabin, and the info got relayed to our crew, so we diverted course in hopes of catching sight of the elusive whales. We all scanned the water fervently, watching for the slightest motion in every direction.

“There!” someone yelled from the wheel, and ahead I could just barely see what looked like four brief explosions of white water. I wasn’t sure of it at first, but as we got nearer the sporadic splashes continued, and it was clear there were some very large animals in the waters ahead.

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Before long, one of the double decker whale watching cruises arrived on the scene, along with several other sailboats eager for a sighting. We killed the motor and drifted in closer, where we could clearly see the enormous black fins, at this distance like needles among the waves. Once or twice we saw a bit more of the animals as they lunged a bit further out of the water, but mostly it was backs and dorsal fins. Sadly, one or two motorboats zipped obliviously straight through the pod, defying the distance regulations that are in place to protect wild orcas.

As the pod moved, it appeared that an adult and calf were isolated from the main body of the pod and encircled by a ring of eager viewers, including ourselves. This gave us our best view of the orcas yet. I felt a little bad that the whales were isolated among so many boats, but the day before, the whale watch volunteer had told us that the animals are used to a lot of boat traffic. I think it would have felt too commercial, too cheap, to pay fare for a whale watching boat, but the sighting seemed amazing and rare as we just happened to be sailing along. Lucky we received a tip from our crew member’s relatives – it was impeccable timing.

I still can’t believe we saw the whales. By Day 5, I was prepared to accept the fact that we probably wouldn’t, especially because the whale watching point at Lime Kiln had yielded nothing. I stayed on deck long after we’d turned away toward our destination.img_7585

Part 2: The Mountaintop

The weather soon cleared into a terrific sunny day, and we docked at Rosario Resort around noon, leaving us the rest of the day to explore the island. As we pulled in, there were families playing volleyball in the sand court, children playing a hand game, and guests splashing in the outdoor pool. The point was dominated by an enormous white mansion, which was once the extravagant home of the Moran family. It now contains a luxury hotel and spa.

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Rosario Resort marks our last stop before ending our journey.

The town on Orcas was on the complete opposite side of the island, so most of us opted to explore nearby Moran State Park. I banded up with a few others who wanted to climb up to the top of the San Juans’ only mountain, Mt. Constitution, which was located in the park.

The towel lady at Rosario gave us directions and maps, but dissuaded our group from climbing to the summit because it was likely to take three hours or more, and visibility would probably be limited due to clouds. She suggested a few alternative trails around Cascade Lake.

We hiked up a trail toward the park and zigzagged across several roads, and I lost the group almost immediately as I puffed my way up a steep hill and stopped to take a picture of a bird/catch my breath.

I thought two things: 1. If I was having this hard a time just getting to the park, I probably would never had been able to get up the mountain (never mind keep up with my energetic crew mates), and 2. I could certainly never hope to one day hike the Appalachian Trail.

Since I lost the group, I instead took my time on a stroll along the lagoon, photographing birds, deer, frogs, and interesting plants. The lagoon led to a bridge that bisected it from Cascade Lake, where lots of vacationers were enjoying every type of water activity imaginable: swimming, kayaking, paddle boating, everything. The water had that perfect

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Rosario Resort marks our last stop before ending our journey.

emerald-blue hue that lent an air of unreality to the scene. I moseyed along the rocky trail, encountering an old man with one of those ergonomic bicycles. He was pushing it along and asking for directions; I helped as best I could using the map the towel lady had given me. I rounded the lake and arrived near the park office. Nearby was the tiny flowage of Moran Creek on its way down to the lake, and a few structures that I found were an interpretive station and tiny fish hatchery for stocking trout. Just behind it was the trailhead for Cold Springs.

The Cold Springs trail rose gently uphill beneath towering cedars, before disappearing around a bend. Consulting my map, I decided to follow it a little ways, just to see what it was like on the mountainside, and whether I couldn’t make it to Cold Springs, if the summit was out of the question. The trail sign said 2.3 miles, which seemed manageable, although the map categorized the hike as “difficult.”

I spent the next two hours slogging it bit by bit up every hairpin switchback, stopping to catch my breath about every 15 minutes or so. I was surrounded by magnificent, ancient cedars, sprawling carpets of moss and ferns, and the constant trickle of shallow mountain streams in the background. I halted at a wooden bridge over a rocky ravine, where I sat cross-legged and ate a Pop-Tart. I contemplated turning back and completing my stroll around Cascade Lake, which was easy walking. Two women and a friendly black labradoodle came motoring through; one said something like “Having a quiet moment?” and I said, “Seemed like a good spot for a Pop-Tart.” The absurdity of that sentence really struck me as funny all of a sudden.

Just after they were out of sight, and the woods were still and quiet again, a second dog came rocketing around the bend and past me on the bridge without a second glance, trying to catch up. I laughed aloud at this spectacle.

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A “cyanide millipede” I found on the trail. They emit a scent like almonds, which is why they’re called that!

Anyhow, every time I was ready to call it quits and took a much-needed rest, I felt a little bit better and thought maybe I could go a little further after all. Soon enough, I ran into a few other members of my group, who had taken a rather expensive taxi ride straight to the top, where they had ice cream before trekking down. They told me that they had been hiking down for an hour, and that if I was aiming for Cold Springs, it wouldn’t be all that much further to the summit itself. The view was well worth it, they said.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll plan to be back a little late. I’m going to climb this mountain.”

It was almost another hour of rocky switchbacks, but everyone I met on the mountain was extremely nice. Even the two superhuman joggers who breezed past uphill said “thank you” as I stood aside to let them by. Every person I spoke with offered encouragement – “You’re almost there!” – and compared hike times. img_7689

The shade of the massive cedars and damp chill of the moss kept me comfortably cool, and soon I could feel the pure, refreshing ocean air coasting up the mountainside. When I hit the trail crossing I nearly shouted in relief – everything from there on was relatively easy going, and I was able to enjoy my surroundings a bit more. I passed several pristine mountain bogs and crossed the road to the last mile. To me, that last mile seemed like a mystic spirit wood, like something straight out of “Princess Mononoke.” I had a lot of time to think, contemplating the associations between mountains and wisdom, the significance of elements in spirituality, and reverence for the natural world, as well as human symbols and meaning-making. I felt a little bit like a pilgrim: a young learner seeking knowledge at the mountaintop.

I stopped to have my second Pop-Tart at the base of a cedar on the bank of Summit Lake. Near the top, the terrain changed drastically to a scrubby, lichen-covered rock face with small, witchy gray spruce and steep slopes of salal.img_7718

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Nearing the summit, this is my first glimpse of the lake and ocean below.

A short climb upward, and I was suddenly among hordes of noisy tourist families swarming over the old stone tower on the summit. Despite my fellow travelers’ promises that there was ice cream at the top, the Sugar Shack and gift shop were closed by the time I arrived.

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The hike back down took another solid hour and a half – but the downhill strolling offered a different set of physical challenges. Namely: not slipping on loose rocks/accidentally rolling an ankle, and quickly developing blisters from the repetitious pressure. Dusk was settling in, and beneath the trees it began to get chilly. I sang a few songs, kept up a brisk pace, and enjoyed the gorgeous setting, even glimpsing a few deer through the trees. I developed a sudden fierce appetite and stopped once to devour a granola bar I’d stowed in my daypack.

Sore, blistered, and dirty, I hauled myself back down the trail to the waterfront (it gave me some satisfaction to realize I’d gone from lowest to highest elevation on foot in the span of just a few hours). My crew mates were sitting around a bonfire chatting, and warmly welcomed me back from my venture. It was a wonderful way to end our last day in the islands.

You can bet I can slept pretty well that night: floating in the sheltered cove of Orcas Island.

P.S. After everything, what struck me as funny was that nothing I climbed on the mountain was nearly as strenuous as that stupid steep trail leading out of Rosario, where I lost my group in the first place. It was literally the toughest traverse of the day!

Birding for Lazy People

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Barred owl spotted on the side of the road. I’m a big fan of seeing something weird out of the corner of my eye, turning around at the next intersection and pulling up on the side of the road to take pictures.

I recently went on my first guided bird hike at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, along with a friend I’d manage to rope into the deal. On a blustery, lifeless gray day in January, our small group, outfitted with binoculars and heavy boots, hiked about a mile in the raw winter wind. Our reward for this exercise: a handful of chickadees and two ring-necked pheasants.

Even while we shivered back into the car, my friend and I agreed that sighting so few birds during the outing was hardly discouraging. Birding takes hours upon hours worth of observation–but there’s no reason you have to do it all at once.

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The species might not always be rare and unusual, but cities are also a great place to spot birds, such as this house sparrow near Rice Park, downtown St. Paul.

“You don’t even have to go out of your way to do it,” I said as we cruised down the freeway on the way home, watching a flock of crows harassing a bald eagle. You see them on light posts above the roadways, at feeders in your neighbors yards, outside your office window. If you’re watching, you start to know their habits: these chickadees live in the decorative spruce next door, the ducks visit the feeders at the dentist’s office across the street.

Birding is a recreational activity that doesn’t even require you to leave the house–but it certainly can if you’re really into it. I’ve had a background interest in birds and identification since I was a kid–I adored Stan Tekiela’s Minnesota bird guide–but until now, I never called myself a birder. This New Years, I jokingly announced my intent to do a “Minnesota Big Year.” I later heard my Dad brag about this to a woman who worked for a nature preserve, who was instantly alarmed by this news.

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Spotted these crows in my backyard before I left for work. I always take a good look around the yard before I get in the car; I can never tell if I might see something interesting.

Far from a “Big Year,” my interest in birding is more casual (if you’d refer to frequent visits to a rural pioneer cemetery in search of a rumored, rare varied thrush as casual.) Thanks to my job as a journalist, I spend increasing amounts of time traveling across landscape that is excellent territory for all manner of birds. Over the past month or so, it has become a major pursuit of mine, and I’m loving every minute of it.

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Cedar waxwings spotted at a local wildlife area.

Observing and learning about birds has even fed into my job at the newspaper. One of things that got me started birding was the unusual arrival of a trumpeter swan at a lake near my house on Christmas Eve. A neighbor I spoke to said that he planned to catch the swan and bring it into the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center because he suspected it had lead poisoning. I learned less than a week later that he had done so, and that the swan was being treated at the WRC. The event turned into an article about the danger and frequency of lead poisoning for local wildlife.

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The Christmas Eve swan brought the community’s attention to the danger of lead poisoning.

So clearly, I am not the laziest of birders, but my point is that anyone can do it at most any time, provided there’s a window nearby. You might also get some delightful photos, and maybe a reason to get out of the house and take a walk (and may I point out for those, like me, who are recent college grads, this is an activity that is completely and blessedly free.)

The annual Christmas Bird Count, which took place during the end of December, really drew my attention to thriving birding community in the area. The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up, set to take place Feb. 12-15, and anyone can sign up to participate. I’ve been on the list for more than a month.

I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation by National Geographic photographer and Minnesota native Jim Brandenburg, who is famous for his photographs of wild wolves near his home in Ely. Since I had recently learned about the Christmas Bird Count, he said something that reminded me of the way the Audubon Society had repurposed traditional Christmas Day bird hunts into a merely observational bird census, to reduce the harm to bird populations.

Quoting loosely, Brandenburg said that he had grown up in rural Laverne, Minnesota hunting throughout his youth. His transition to photography presented almost exactly the same principle as his days hunting wild game, except at the end, the animal lived and he got to keep the photo as a token of the experience.

As someone who also comes from a hunting family, I find the process of searching for, locating and photographing these birds significantly more rewarding. And as I said before, it’s a heck of a lot less expensive. There’s no need to photograph birds in order to go birding, but in case you do, the average iPhone is all you need to capture a half-decent image. A spunky Twin Cities birder named Sharon “Birdchick” Stiteler even teaches methods of digiscoping, or enhancing cameras with scopes explicitly for birding. She also hosts a monthly bird-focused social event called Birds and Beers. I’ve been trying to get to one for almost a year and a half–maybe one day soon.

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Red tailed hawk near Barron, Wisconsin.