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Bighorn Sheep in Badlands National Park

In National Parks, South Dakota, Wildlife on September 9, 2012 at 1:35 am

I remember the first time I saw bighorn sheep in the wild: It was June 25, 2004 — the last day of a week-long vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado, with my Dad and his wife and my two younger sisters. Each day we’d drive into Rocky Mountain National Park, looking for wildlife. And we saw plenty: moose, elk, pikas, golden-mantled squirrels, American dippers, magpies, Steller’s jays, and a coyote. But we were particularly keen on seeing bighorn sheep, the park’s symbolic mascots. On that last day, we drove back over Trail Ridge Road one more time, and around 10 a.m. finally encountered a herd of bighorns — 10 ewes and 5 lambs — near Horseshoe Park/Sheep Lake, right where the guide books told us to look for them. We watched them come up a hill after they’d been grazing on the mineral-rich soil around the banks of Sheep Lake, nervously trot across the park road (safely blocked by rangers) and practically pogo-jump up the steep rocky hill on the other side, with the lambs occasionally snatching a suckle from the ewes as they balanced on precarious ledges. It was one of those amazing wildlife encounters I’ll remember forever!

Years later, in summer 2010, I had another memorable encounter with sheep — but this time it was Dall sheep in Alaska’s Denali National Park. So, by the time summer 2012 rolled around, I was hoping I’d be able to tap into my good sheep karma again — this time on our cross-country roadtrip to Oregon. As it turned out, we were lucky enough to have two close encounters with bighorn sheep on that grand odyssey! The first happened as we were driving out of Badlands National Park at the end of the day. As daylight dimmed, a herd of ewes and a few rams were grazing on one side of the road, and we watched as they crossed over to the other side of the road (immediately in front of our white van!), where one by one they walked along the land’s edge, flanked by spectacularly purple-tinted Badland rock formations. The setting sun illuminated their coats with a douse of golden-orange, resulting in some pretty amazing photographs — and more great wildlife memories to store away for future reminiscing.


Badlands National Park

In National Parks, South Dakota on September 8, 2012 at 8:38 pm

When I was 10, our family borrowed a van and pop-top camper and drove all the way across the country — from Dayton, Ohio, to Vernonia, Oregon — to visit our Grandma Mary. There are parts of the trip I remember quite well — connecting with relatives in Nebraska, engaging in a mid-summer snowball fight near the Continental Divide in the Rockies, seeing Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota and Multnomah Falls along the Columbia River Gorge, visiting South Dakota’s Corn Palace and Wall Drug — but I must have been snoozing when we drove through the Badlands. Even if I was preoccupied with drowsiness or pre-teen angst at the time, I couldn’t have possibly seen such beauty and dismissed it!

I wouldn’t see this part of the country again for three decades. This time around, I was buzzing with excitement. I could hardly fathom the geological spectacle that rolled out before our eyes as we explored Badlands National Park. In just the span of a day, we watched the landscape spin through a charismatic cycle of colors, from a soft-edged morning warmth to the blinding brightness of mid-day to an alluring afternoon horizon preparing itself for an evening decked out in pink and purple hues. The Badlands were seriously, undeniably, unbelievably beautiful! We kept speculating what it must have been like for those first westward-moving explorers who had been traipsing along the constant flatness of the Great Plains for weeks and then suddenly came upon this impossibly vast valley, textured with the jagged ridges of these striking geological formations. It must have been a sight. And, trust me, it still is. 

Prairie Dogs in South Dakota

In South Dakota, Wildlife on September 8, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Just east of Badlands National Park in Cactus Flats, South Dakota, we stopped at the Ranch Store, a little souvenir joint famous for its large prairie dog town and its even larger — 12-feet-tall and weighing 6-tons! — concrete mascot that towers over the gravel parking lot. For 50 cents, we could have bought a bag of unsalted peanuts to feed the lil’ buggers, but they were so busy with all the peanuts left by other visitors that we just walked around and took pictures of them as they filled their already round bellies with more food. They’re clearly used to having humans around, and we were able to get quite close before they darted into their holes. (You just had to wait a minute or two, and then they’d pop back up again, driven by their endless desire to eat more peanuts, eat more peanuts, eat more peanuts.)

It was brutally hot ,and stepping inside the air-conditioned Ranch Store to buy some cold drinks and postcards brought us blessed relief. Our shirts were sticking to our backs, but we didn’t care. Who doesn’t love the antics of chubby little prairie dogs (plus a speedy little rabbit, to boot)? We saw prairie dogs several other times along our journey through South Dakota — and when we drove back east through North Dakota, too — but we had our closest encounters with the amiable, peanut-lovin’ squirts in Cactus Flats, under the merciless High Plains sun. 

Green Swamp Preserve

In North Carolina, Wildlife Preserves on September 3, 2012 at 6:35 pm

On our way to Ocean Isle beach in North Carolina, we stopped at the Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick County, a 17,424-acre area managed by the Nature Conservancy. We hiked along a meandering, sandy path through stands of long-leaf pines — the kinds favored by the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (which, unfortunately, we did not spot — although we did see several sparrows. None of them held still long enough, though, for me to see if they might have been Henslow’s or Bachman’s sparrows — two rare types that have been identified in this area).

We were eager to get to the beach, and we didn’t stay long enough — it was hot! — or hike far enough — OK, it was really hot!! — to get to the areas where we might be able to see some of the swamp’s alligators, but given how hot and dry the summer had been, we weren’t really seeing any swamp-like conditions on our little excursion, anyway. So I think are chances of seeing alligators were pretty slim.

The closest thing we saw to a frightening alligator was a tiny, carnivorous pitcher plant, one of the swamp’s 14 insect-eating plant species — which include the Venus flytrap and the sundew. We also saw an assortment of far less aggressive plant species — flowers, mushrooms — and a tiny bright-green lizard that held as still as the plant stalk he clung to, wondering, I guess, if the two-legged species that were staring at him were a lizard-eating sort of beings. We weren’t, of course, and once we’d photographed the little creature, we hustled back along the pine-strewn path. We could practically smell the ocean, and we were eager to jump in the waves and begin our week-long stay on the beach!

Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge

In National Wildlife Refuges, North Carolina on July 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm

After spending a week in the Smokies last summer, my sister DeDe and her kids and I were headed toward Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina when we stopped at Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge in Wadesboro. DeDe had been poking some well-deserved fun at me for my nerdy upkeep of my little Blue Goose Passport book, where I dorkishly collect ink cancelation stamps from all of the national wildlife refuges I visit, but I nevertheless managed to convince her that we should make a quick stop to explore Pee Dee. (Perhaps it helped that the refuge’s name sounds almost exactly like her own? Believe me, I tried to work every angle to get her to stop there. This involved some begging/whining/cajoling that I’m not terribly proud of, but it got the job done.)

I think she secretly enjoyed our little jaunt along the interpretive road loop as we drove through marshes and bottomland and mixed pine woods. I’m not saying she’d rave on and on about it for hours, or, like, spend time creating a blog post about it — as some nerdy types would do (ahem) — but our short visit was a worthwhile diversion from the road. We drove along with the van’s side door open so our lungs could get a break from the air-conditioning that we’d been appreciating in the July heatwave, and the kids seemed to have fun snapping pictures out of the open door. (Although, if I remember correctly, Quentin’s pictures were all of the streaky glare of the backseat window, which he thought was so hysterical that he took, oh, like 20 of them.)

We did spot tons of birds on our quick drive through the 8,500-acre refuge, and I managed to capture a few of them with my camera — a beautiful male indigo bunting and several great egrets posing in the marshes or fluttering away to the trees as we approached. Sadly, my longest camera lens only gets me to 200mm, which just isn’t enough for any serious bird photography.

Have I whined about my extreme lens envy before? I’m dying to upgrade to something with serious zoom capacity that lets me get really close — you know, like National Geographic close — but I just can’t justify the expense. I don’t have that kind of frivolous cash to spend on such a luxury. And those amped-up longer lenses are mighty expensive. So, until that day, I’ll have to be satisfied with photos that require me to explain that the bird-shaped spec of blue you see is, in fact, a male indigo bunting, or that the graceful great egret you’re seeing was really far away from us, which he was. In the meantime, though, I’ll continue to covet a lens that is so powerful that it enables me to count individual eyelashes on an elk cow or investigate the curly swoops of a bison’s rangy mane. A girl can dream, right?


I had slightly better luck trying to photograph a dragonfly that let me creep up really close to him on the ground. I managed to get his bulgy, space-invader eyeballs in decent focus, which, I guess, is saying something. Now if only I could get this close to an indigo bunting, I’d be happy as a lark. (Ooh! Or maybe as happy as a lark bunting! That black-feathered beauty of the Great Plains seems to be a right happy fellow.) 

Land Between the Lakes

In Kentucky, National Recreation Areas, Tennessee on July 7, 2012 at 4:00 am

Most folks visit the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area — a strip of public land stretched between two large lakes in the western corner of Kentucky and the northwestern corner of Tennessee — to participate in, well, recreation: fishing, boating, water skiing, canoeing, pontooning, swimming, camping, hiking, picnicking, etc. My mom and I came for (shocker!) … birdwatching. (Hey, we’re legit. Birdwatching is listed as one of the area’s officially recognized recreational activities.)

Some quick history: The Land Between the Lakes was not born of natural means. In the decades following widespread regional flooding in the 1930s, engineers compounded the parallel-running Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, eventually resulting in two large man-made lakes: Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. The strip of land between them became a national recreation area in 1963, intended to boost the region’s tourism industry.

It worked. The 170,000-acre Land Between the Lakes recreation area is now a $600 million tourism hotspot, visited by an estimated 2 million people each year.

We saw tons of birds during our visit on a sunny weekend in November 2010, long past the peak of summer when the LBL area is jam-packed with those hordes of outdoor enthusiasts.

Mostly we saw songbirds — Eastern bluebirds, American goldfinches and the like — but we spotted numerous waterfowl and a few hawks soaring above the lakes. (The area is home to roughly 100 wintering bald eagles, with an average 12-16 nesting sites each year, but we didn’t spot any eagles during our visit.) We couldn’t stay long — we had a full itinerary and needed to get back on the road — but with more time, we would have hauled our bird guides out of the back seat, scoped the lakes for hours with our binoculars, and probably added a few new birds to our repertoire. We vowed to come back for some camping and fishing the next time (Mom loves to fish!), and I imagine that someday soon, we will. 

Rogue River Gorge

In National Scenic Rivers, Oregon on July 7, 2012 at 2:35 am

Oregon is full of natural wonders, and because my two younger sisters live in the Rogue River Valley near the southwestern corner of the state, I love visiting the region. The Rogue River National Forest stretches from just south of Crater Lake National Park and encompasses parts of the Cascades and Siskiyou ranges, covering nearly 1.8 million acres and bumping up against Umpqua National Forest to the north and stretching south nearly to the California border.

During a visit to Oregon in March 2010 (for my sister Mims’s wedding!), my sister Katie, my mom and Katie’s then-8-month-old daughter Cora visited the Rogue River Gorge, a scenic overlook spot where the aptly named Rogue River rushes through a narrow chasm, churning madly and cascading in a number of small waterfalls that we saw as we walked along a half-mile paved interpretive path.

The views were amazing, but the sound was just as impressive; the river’s roar was constantly accosting our ears as the water bucked and twisted between jagged rock walls below us. I couldn’t help but contemplate how bad it would be if a person toppled over the railing into the rushing water. Pretty much, it seemed like a very bad idea. One dunk, a swift knock on the noggin, and then you’re sucked into an underwater lava tube. Adventure over.

The walk along the paved path, luckily, was mild and safe. From her pack on Katie’s back, little Cora peered around in wonder with her lake-blue eyes; I wondered what she thought of all this. I guess as long as she felt warm and protected, she didn’t spend much energy thinking too much about things like falling over railing into raging scenic rivers. Smart kid.

Interpretive signs along the walkway explained how the Klamath Indians and other native tribes likely stopped here at the gorge as they traveled through the wilderness. How some national forest sign-writer knew this factoid is anybody’s guess. But I suppose it’s plausible that any wilderness traveler, at any point in time, who stumbled across this gorge would stop and stare in wonder at the rowdy river coursing through the narrow pass.

At the end of the path, we reached the level top of the gorge, where the Rogue River behaved much more politely, confined to a long trough that led back into the woods. But you could feel its urgency and impatience, as it rallied its rushing currents for the sharp spill over the rocky edge of the top waterfall.

We stood at the top a while, letting our various ruminations on nature and wildness soak in our brains, snapping pictures in an effort to capture the moment in some kind of keepsake, and then turned back down the path toward the trail head. Cora’s little head happily bobbed along as we walked, keeping rhythm with the pulsing water below. 

Mom and Katie (with Cora in her backpack) at the top of the Rogue River Gorge.

Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge

In Indiana, National Wildlife Refuges on July 6, 2012 at 11:45 pm

My mom and I fell in love with sandhill cranes a few years ago when we took a trip to Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in the northern Indiana town of Medaryville — specifically to see the cranes that gathered there in large numbers during spring migration. Each fall, we’d listen for cranes flying over her house in southern Indiana, and — like clockwork — we always spotted them in flight on Thanksgiving weekend. As our interest in these graceful wading birds grew, we sought out destinations where we could see the cranes along their migration route.

That’s what brought us to Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge near Seymour, Indiana, in February 2011. The refuge was a convenient roadtrip for both of us — just an hour north of Louisville and about a 90-minute drive from Cincinnati. It was cold and wet, but we’d experienced worse conditions on birding trips before, and were bundled up for the weather.

The 7,724-acre refuge (named “Muscatatuck” for the nearby river, which got its name from a Native American word meaning “land of winding waters”) is a mix of wetlands, marshes, ponds, bottomland forests and grasslands. Like many refuges we’ve visited, it’s an important feeding and resting area for migrating waterfowl along the Mississippi Flyway. River otters swim in its ponds, wood ducks nest in tree cavities and a pair of nesting bald eagles have raised broods on the refuge for more than a decade. (We spotted a huge nest in a tree that certainly looked like the work of eagles!)

We saw plenty of cranes gathering in one of the marsh areas that we could see from the four-mile loop of road, but they were pretty far away to get good photographs, and we didn’t want to venture too close for fear of disturbing them. We watched them land in waves, and when we returned to the same area later in the afternoon, and saw that hundreds more had gathered there. If you’ve never heard the sound of cranes gathering and socializing, you’re missing out. I’d try to describe it, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it justice.

Although we didn’t see the cranes up close, we had some closer encounters with Canada geese, which we found in pairs near many of the refuge’s marshes and ponds. I’ve got a sweet spot for these black-necked beauties; I know lots of birders probably think they’re a boring find and plenty of suburban types would call them pests, but I love their elegant masked faces and their telltale honking calls.

Like many birds, Canada geese mate for life, and the pairs stay together throughout the year. At Muscatatuck, we watched various pairs feed, squabble with others in the flock, and take off for who knows where, their wings syncing up in the sky. Sure, it was cold and wet, but it was a great day for birding, as so many days are. 

Elk & Bison Prairie National Recreation Area

In Kentucky, National Recreation Areas on July 3, 2012 at 1:42 am

One of these days, I swear I’ll save up enough money to take one of those awesome volunteer vacations to Yellowstone National Park, where you shell out big bucks to help researchers track wolves or collect bear scat or band birds or some such biological blither blather. Yellowstone was the first place I ever saw bison, on an epic family roadtrip from Ohio to Oregon in 1982. On a return trip to Yellowstone in 2001, I was amazed again at the sight of the great hairy beasts. When it comes to charismatic big fauna, bison don’t top my list; I think bears and moose and wolves are far more interesting. But you gotta give it up to those misnamed range-roamin’ buffalo: They’re magnificent, scrappy giants that flaunt a fantastic “see-if-I-give-a-crap” aura amidst all the animal-jam road traffic and camera-snapping tourist gawking at a place like Yellowstone. There’s something quite cool about their mellow indifference.

And to think, you can see them in Kentucky! That may sound like crazy talk, but at the Elk & Bison Prairie in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, you might be as lucky as my mom and I were on a roadtrip in 2010, when we saw a whole herd of bison lounging in the road as we drove the 3.5-mile loop through the 700-acre enclosure. We spotted them as we came over a small hill; really, there was no way not to see them, as several were camped in or right next to the road, preventing us from driving any farther. That was fine with us, as we were in no particular hurry, either.

We stopped the car and settled in for a quiet observation of the serene creatures. There were several calves in the herd, and we watched as one big calf tried to nurse from one of the cows, nearly lifting her rear feet off the ground (I’m not making this up!) as he jostled her around with his aggressive head jabs to her abdomen. For some reason, she put up with his shenanigans.

Seeing bison up close is a stupefying experience. They might appear to be as docile as domestic cattle, but their body mass is ridiculously off the scale — 2,000 pounds propped up on ballerina-thin ankles. And you can’t shake off the feeling that, if a bison wanted to, he could spontaneously charge at you and gore you all the way into the next county. I’m all about giving big creatures plenty of space. Thank goodness for long camera lenses!

The back story to Kentucky’s Elk & Bison Prairie is a good one: When controlled burns of public land in this national recreation area resulted in the surprising growth of native prairie grass, it convinced biologists that western Kentucky had once been the eastern edge of the Great Plains ecosystem, and would have supported great grazers like elk and bison. So the biologists nursed the habitat back to its natural prairie origins, and re-introduced bison and elk in the mid-1990s. And while the 700-acre enclosure of the Elk and Bison Prairie is no Yellowstone, it is a decent, miniature substitute — especially for those of us who are earnestly saving up for our next great adventure out west, where plenty of  buffalo still roam. 

Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge

In National Wildlife Refuges, Tennessee on July 2, 2012 at 12:58 am

You might think, “Gee, you’ve seen one wildlife refuge, you’ve seen them all, right?” — particularly if we’re talking about multiple sites within a single region. But when Mom and I visited five refuges in the Southeast on our Southern Fall Bird Tour in November 2010, we found different, memorable experiences at each one. And, considering that wildlife and birdwatching are activities that you can never predict, duplicate or accurately plan for, it makes sense that we’d discover something different at each site we explored.

“These aren’t, you know, like zoos,” I remember telling a friend of mine who wondered why in the world we would plan a roadtrip based on the locations of birding spots and wildlife refuges. “We don’t know what we’ll see….and there’s no guarantee we’ll see any wildlife at all.” For many people, such unpredictability in a trip is a deal-breaker. But for me, it’s perfect. Spending quiet, reflective time in a place of natural wonder, taking in the scenery, scanning the trees or meadows or lakes with binoculars and just wondering what kind of animal or bird might appear — all that is fun to me. And luckily, my mom gets into this scene, too. What fun we have together on these birding trips!

One of our later stops on our journey as we circled back north was the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, a 51,358-acre refuge that stretches for 65 miles along the Tennessee River, encompassing forests, wetlands, grasslands, farmlands and reservoirs, and divided into three units — the Duck River, Big Sandy and Busseltown. We spent some time exploring the Duck River area, south of Big Sandy and north of Busseltown — right in the middle of the refuge’s stretched-out acreage.

Like other refuges we visited on this odyssey, the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge is an important stopover and nesting place for migratory neotropical birds and tons of waterfowl. More than 300,000 ducks and 20,000 geese winter here every year. It’s a real fall/winter hotspot for wood ducks, American black ducks, king rails, mallards, gadwalls, American widgeons, blue-winged teals, American green-winged teals, lesser scaups, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, northern pintails, canvasbacks, ruddy ducks and ring-necked ducks.

Mom and I saw none of those. Or, if we saw them, we weren’t sure what we were seeing, because our birding repertoire up until then had mainly consisted of basic backyard and songbird species. Oh, sure, we’d been working on identifying birds of prey, and I was determined to figure out how to differentiate all those look-alike LBBs (little brown birds — the sparrows), but ducks? Ducks were wholly unknown to us, and, pretty much, every duck we saw looked like another mallard. (That’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.)

We did see gloriously still and uninhabited stretches of water, at various times of day, decked out in whatever hues the sun was throwing at that particular moment. And we saw great blue herons, those lovely leggy waterfowl whose ID we had downpat from seeing them so often along creeks and rivers back home in Kentucky and Ohio. We spotted a hawk — most likely another red-tailed — in a leaf-stripped tree and watched as he took off in flight, soaring over a grassy field.

Despite not seeing boatloads of wintering ducks and geese, or catching a glimpse of the refuge’s more elusive and rare visitors — the wood stork, the piping plover, the bald eagle — we enjoyed our leisurely acquaintance with this Tennessee refuge. We stayed long enough to watch the November sun slink down behind shoreline trees, leaving Mom, me and those great blue herons, familiar friends of ours, in the cold and dark.