Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Above and below are pictures of some unusual formations I’ve come across in private caves. I enjoy exploring them with owner’s permission. The problem is finding a cave that’s not been messed up by vandals, rock hounds or just inconsiderate cavers. It would be nice if people took out what they brought in and didn’t take out parts of the cave that took many hundreds, if not thousands, of years to form. This is what is left of a drapery formation that someone broke off for its white and amber travertine many years ago. The jagged remains are quite interesting, in this case, probably helped by partial re-growth since then:
There are supposed to be about 10 caves without surface openings for every cave that has an entry. I’ve found a few entrances that look more like animal holes than caves, but some can be gotten into and end up being fairly pristine caves. The trick of identifying them is finding cold air flowing out in the early spring, or hearing running water when your ear is by the hole. Not all places that have good flow of cold air can be gotten into, though. There’s a place some locals call the “refrigerator” in northern Arkansas where cold air really blasts out, but the air exits through a jumble of huge rock slabs that probably resulted when the outer portion of the cave collapsed. There are only a few inches of space between the slabs. The owner has been digging there to see if he can find a way under, over or around the slabs, but so far, without success. In living caves, water helps stalactites and stalagmites re-grow from the stubs left by vandals, and flowstone is slowly covering the graffiti left by past visitors. The date on the wall in the photo below looks like 1935. The flowstone that has formed in the past 80 years or so, a beautiful blue-white travertine, has built up to the point of masking most of the printing. The inscription is below what is known as the “cave ghost”. She’s got an oval mouth, flowing hair, and stands about fifteen feet tall:

This feature looks like the huge face of an old man with blood running down his face from a small hole above his right eye (left as you view the photo). Some people also see an old woman’s face to the left of his, but it’s not quite as clear:

Many of the living caves I’ve been in are a bit uphill of springs, (the “refrigerator” is, too) so I always look in areas above springs for caves. Inside the caves, there often are streams and small underground lakes that feed the springs. One cave had a 20-foot waterfall that splashed down into what looked like a pretty pool until you got close and found the bottom was littered with broken glass, pieces of broken stalactites and other trash left by inconsiderate visitors. A sixty-five foot deep sinkhole (below, looking up) has a spring that shoots water out of a wall like a fire hydrant after heavy rains. In dry weather, it just dribbles. It stays really cold at the bottom – you can see your breath even in the heat of summer, and water from condensation drips everywhere. A lot of caves are blocked by mudflows back in a ways. Maybe there’s more cave behind the mud, but then again, the whole thing might be plugged up. The picture below is of a cave that’s blocked that way. The mudflow comes in from a crack in the ceiling back 50 feet or so and the mud tapers down toward the entrance. I think the entrance probably has a couple feet of mud over it, too. It’s a cool-looking cave entrance. Too bad it doesn’t lead into to a nice cave. I’ve seen a lot like that.

Unfortunately, none of the undamaged caves I’ve found have been very large or spectacular. But I’m still looking.

Please be a zero-impact caver, and happy caving!


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lakes, Bogs and Beavers

The yellow lady slippers mentioned in my earlier blog are in full bloom, so I took pictures. Converted the above to a sketch format. I usually don’t like the result, but this one is interesting.
Some blueberry plants nearby are blossoming and look healthy. Cranberries there aren’t doing as well. They seem susceptible to frost when they aren’t covered by water in early spring. The plants have spread out quite a bit since I bought them three years ago, but only a few of the runners survived this spring’s late frost. The wild cranberries I’m familiar with at a nearby lake are covered by water in early spring. The water level doesn’t drop until about the time they blossom. Beaver dams establish the lake level where the wild cranberries grow. I guess you could call it a “beaver enhanced” lake. It’s full to the top of the dams during the big spring thaw, but after that, the level drops. The wild cranberries grow on rotting logs that wick up moisture for the berries even after the water drops out of sight. Lake level comes down a foot or two in hot dry weather, but the shallow lake never gets clogged with weeds, thanks to the beavers. I used to assume that beavers ate only the bark of trees they are famous for cutting down, (infamous, if they get into your yard of orchard), but I’ve found that they eat mostly pond vegetation in the summer. Their favorite seems to be the yellow pond lily that’s called spatterdock (see picture in my earlier blog), but they like cattail roots and keep the shoreline cattails in check, too. I’ve also watched beaver families dive for hours to harvest deep-water weeds. Cedar trees need a foot or two of soil above the water table to survive, but there are a lot of old dead cedars offshore in a foot or two of water there. The trees probably grew there when the beaver population couldn’t keep up with dam repair – they may even have been trapped out for some period of time. When they came back and fixed the dams, the trees got flooded and died. That’s my guess, anyway.
Beavers have been around for centuries in most places. While hiking through a forest in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, I found an ancient beaver dam nearly thirty feet tall, but the beavers were long gone. The impoundment was solid sediment, with trees in it the same age as the rest of the forest. Apparently, the beavers had kept building the dam higher to keep ahead of the sediment, until they finally gave up. They have their own environmental problems, I guess. There were many smaller abandoned dams farther upstream. I finally found an active dam way up at the top of the mountain, in a flat swampy area at the watershed divide. I’ve taken a lot of beaver pictures, but didn’t have my camera handy when I watched a baby beaver take a ride on his mother’s tail. I was trout fishing a dammed-up stream in thick woods. There was a cloud of mosquitoes so thick that I was inhaling them regularly. The mom dived under when she saw me, and left the little one treading water for a moment or two, quite confused. Then he dove out of sight, too. You’ll have to visualize a little fur-ball baby riding at the base of the tail of the one here. It’s the best I can do. Tally

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wild Land and Laws

(Click to Enlarge)
I love the outdoors. I’ve met dear, bear, elk, pine martin, fisher, otter, beaver and many other animals face to face in the wilds of my own property. Mosquitoes, biting flies, poison ivy, poison sumac and timber rattlers (baby and mother I found last fall, shown above) are all part of that. My parents and grandfather, a lifetime farmer and avid sportsman, introduced me to the outdoors at a young age. The picture below is of my grandfather (boy, left) and an uncle of his, moving stone from a field with a pair of oxen – back in the “good old days”.
Since there’s always been plenty of family farm and woodlot land in the family, we haven’t been limited to enjoying the outdoors on public land. I acknowledge the need for public parks, nature sanctuaries and the like, but sometimes I wonder how much is enough. I’ve been notified that the minimum fee has been upped to $86.35 a year for the use of a National Forest road into my property up north, and I need to pay $100 for forest service personnel to determine if I still need to use the road. When I first bought the property, the forester I contacted asked why I wanted a “Use Permit” for the road going in. He said, “It’s what the law requires, but most people just drive in without a permit.” I guess he was hinting I should do the same. I told him I wanted to obey the law, and he sighed. It meant a lot of paperwork. The Forest Service sells timber there on a regular basis. It’s OK I guess, because their clear-cut areas grow back into young trees that the deer and other game use for food and cover, but it’s no different than a lumber company when it does that. The land is open for people to walk through, but if you want to drive legally, you’re supposed to have a permit, use a designated ORV trail, or share designated forest roads with logging trucks. I can see the purpose of protecting redwoods, geysers at Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the like. I can see protecting virgin forests, as well as examples of bogs and fens full of the remnants of wildlife once common to early settlers, but rare now. The question is, how commonplace do these things need to become? When are enough areas set aside that uses of private land need not be restricted? Many people are finding the only recourse is to sell conservation easements (or donate them for the tax benefits) to be able to afford keeping the land in their families. Without a permit, I don’t think that a person in this state would be allowed to remove a tree fallen across a beaver channel through a swamp on their own land if they want to get their canoe through the channel to the lake beyond. Dragging the canoe around the log is the only legal option. The law in this state also prohibits driving an ORV through a swamp, even on your own land. And a wetland here extends 500 feet from a pond or lake by legal definition. Agricultural activities are partially exempt. A bog can be plowed up and planted in cranberries if you want - it just can’t be dammed or drained without a permit. Beavers, of course, don't need permits. Here's one heading for a spatterdock blossom for breakfast. It’s interesting how things vary from state to state. The common wild grape, native to this country, is endangered in Maine, but prohibited in Ohio as an invasive species. It’s easy for me to consider an imported species as being invasive – like foreign troops “invading” the countryside. It’s more difficult when they are part of our nation’s heritage. If passenger pigeons had survived rather than being shot to extinction, still clouding the skies today as they did in the 19th century, would they also be called invasive today? It would be a pest, certainly, like the sandhill crane, protected in eastern states, but hunted in many western states because its migration flocks cause damage to crops. I guess if you’re a protectionist in this case, you can choose to live in the east, and if you want to put one of the beautiful big birds in your freezer, go west. We have that much choice in the matter, at least.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

ATV Comments

ATV’s I own one, but I’ve got mixed feelings about ATV’s in general, especially when people cut fences and break down locked gates to access private property. A guy came by one fall before deer season to tell me he’d done me the favor of opening an old trail into my place, and mentioned that someone had cut a fence to get around my locked gate. He’d thought nothing of driving through the cut fence to find a good hunting place. He said a neighbor had given him permission to hunt, but he preferred my place. I told him since the deer were the same on both places, he should hunt there. I fixed the fence, and to his credit, it hasn’t been cut again. Another time, four ATV’s came through a couple days after I’d done some work on a trail. Some fill in a low spot hadn't hardened up before a heavy rain made a foot of muck out of it. The ATV’s made beautiful ruts that caused me another day’s work to fix. I asked the group how they got into the property, and they described a place that had a fence across it. They denied having seen any fence, even though I’d found it intact two days before. I should put up “No Trespassing” signs, one of them told me. They were neighbors. I told them it wasn’t a “No Trespassing” issue - I’d be happy to have them walk the trails to enjoy the scenery, wildlife and the like, but they said, “We don’t walk”. I added a locked gate. Someone later attempted to pry the gate hinges off their posts, but after I fixed it and some trees fell across the trail, they’ve left it alone. There are a disgusting number of gates to maintain now, with one or two broken down every year. But I think I’m wearing out the ATV trespassers. Wildflowers are growing again on and along the trails that used to be exposed stone and dirt when dozens of ATV’s passed through every week, mostly during the night, and at high speed. Click on the picture at top right to see the wildflowers that grow along the trails, and some of the views. My small ATV is a Kawasaki Prairie 360. I use it mostly as a utility vehicle, usually in low range 4-wheel drive. It’s a good hauler, and easier on the trails than the tractor or truck. It also gets into places the truck and tractor won’t go. It hauls stone, gravel and woods dirt from some pretty rough areas for various projects, as well as firewood and logs from where trees and limbs fell during windstorms. I made a small trailer for it, and the trailer adds stability when it’s attached. When the ATV starts to tip, the load behind it holds it steady – you don’t have to be quite so acrobatic on rough terrain, except in keeping the front end down when hauling up steep slopes. There’s a winch on the front, so if needed, I can use that. The picture shows a load being hauled – trailer for heavy stuff and a big plastic footlocker for lightweight items. The box used to slide a bit the way it was tied on in the picture. Bolted in place now, it stays put. Nothing fancy.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

June in Mid-Michigan

Yellow ladyslippers are ready to bloom. I planted them four years ago in rather dry sandy soil above black plastic sheeting in a bowl shape situated about eight inches beneath. It has worked well to hold the moisture for them. Tent caterpillars are really bad on the apple trees this year. I spent most of the afternoon pulling tents off the limbs and squashing them under foot. When they're not too thick, the worms leave the blossoms alone and eat only leaves. But several trees were bare of everything because there were so many tents. I've seen starlings eat the worms, but nothing else. Possible frost tonight. Lake Michigan is back up quite a bit this spring. Instead of several hundred feet of bare rock for a shoreline, the water is back up to the vegetation that grew during the eight years the water has been below the long-term waterline. Another three feet of water height and it will be back to the treeline in our area. Heating with wood on cool mornings. Gas for the furnace is still being billed at more than twice the current price of natural gas. Maybe the billing rate will catch up with reality by next winter? Wood's nice, but a lot of work and messy. There's plenty of it here on the place, though. Hop hornbeam seems to be the best for immediate burning when the winter supply is gone and new wood has to be cut - hornbeam dies out in a mature forest and stands for years waiting to be cut. It's completely dry when it's cut. It's so hard that it doesn't soak up water when it rains. I read a description that claimed it burns like hard coal. Not quite, but it's at least as good as well-dried oak.