Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Eastern Adventures

American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls
As much as I enjoy Illinois’ subtle beauty, I’m always ready to travel to other places. Since it had been two years since our last family vacation, (that included my husband) I was rearing to go. We had discussed a trip to Colorado but decided to head northeast, toward hopefully cooler and moister weather. We had visited Niagara Falls six years ago and thought it would be a good starting point. Despite traffic and road construction, we made it to Buffalo in ten hours. After a dinner of local favorites—much appreciated after a long drive—we made plans to get up and get moving to visit Niagara Falls State Park the next morning, before it got too busy.

Horseshoe Falls
Starting off the day in rain, we got even wetter on the Maid of the Mist boat ride. Once the rain cleared away, we were left with beautiful views as we walked around the entire park, getting up close and personal looks at the Niagara River, rapids, and the waterfalls. I was disappointed we could not travel through and stay in Canada (since we did not get a chance to do that last time), but there’s always the next time. I think the Canadian borders opened shortly after we returned home.

Chimney Bluff State Park
The next day we headed further east, driving through the Finger Lake Region. The parks we visited featured more lovely waterfalls, but totally different than the massive Niagara Falls. The Taughannock Falls State Park was a last minute sidetrip, en route to Robert H. Treman State Park. We were glad we made the stop, as Taughannock Falls plunges 215 feet past rocky cliffs that tower nearly 400 feet above the gorge. There was also an amazing pollinator garden at the visitors center that made me feel like I was back in one of my favorite places—an Illinois prairie. By then, we thought we’d seen enough waterfalls and wanted more Finger Lake time. However, once we realized Robert H. Treman State Park was more waterfalls, we hiked to both the upper and lower falls, with amazing views along the trails of the surrounding woodlands, gorge, and falls.

Fair Haven Beach State Park

Even though we didn’t get to explore as much as the Finger Lakes themselves, though drove through the region and had beautiful views of them, we did make sure we had plenty of Great Lakes time. If you’ve read my articles before, you may remember that I’m slightly obsessed with the Great Lakes. On our Lake Ontario Day, we started off at Fair Haven Beach State Park for a neat large pebble beach experience before heading west to Chimney Bluffs State Park. Not only did we spend much time hiking along the beach near the massive clay drumlins that look like chimneys, but we had a beautiful skyline view of the royal blue waters and contrasting gray drumlins. The steep hike was well worth the view.

Adirondack Mountain Stream
The Adirondacks were next on the itinerary. We spent the next day exploring these subtle mountains of dark green trees and other plant life, plus multiple mountain lakes and streams. Though the day was cloudy and hazy, we still enjoyed getting a taste of this six million acre park. I know this area would be even more beautiful in the fall, when leaves are at their peak!

As we started for home the next day, we opted to visit Lake Erie. Stopping at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, we enjoyed the driving along this interesting peninsula park—an oasis so close to Erie. Full of beautiful beaches, inland marsh and swamp areas, and an interesting lighthouse, this park is a real asset to the area. It was nice to stretch our legs for a lakeside hike along one of the many beaches and lighthouse area before doing more driving toward home.

The rest of the trip was downhill after that, as we hit more traffic and construction than we did on the way east. Even though we tried to change our route to avoid some the areas we hit driving east, it did little to help. Still, it was a fun family road trip, and we will savor the memories for years to come.

Chimney Bluffs State Park on Lake Ontario

Friday, May 21, 2021

Spring Woodland Wildflower Wonders

Wild Blue Phlox
Wild Columbine

I think most of us look forward to spring after a cold, dark, and snowy winter. Even though our “real” winter weather only lasted for a couple of months this year, we had a wide variety of precipitation forms packed into that time period. I was happy that when the snow and ice started to melt, spring seemed to be on its way.

Snow Trillium

With spring comes a time of rebirth, regeneration, and rejuvenation. In addition to the grass greening up, trees blooming and budding, and some feathered friends returning, I enjoy taking hikes in the woods to view spring woodland wildflowers. This spring at least one of my two daughters, along with our two dogs, took a weekly woodland hike. While my daughters and dogs walked, I spent the time crouched on the ground—or even lying on the ground when it wasn’t too wet—getting up-close and personal and snapping pictures of wildflowers. From the first Snowy Trilliums to the Wild Columbines currently blooming, I took dozens—actually hundreds--of pictures. The children and dogs would wait for me to catch up, wondering what had taken me so long.

Smooth Yellow Violet

One day we even got caught in a thunderstorm. What started out as a few sprinkles turned into a drenching downpour. As I climbed the steep, muddy, and slippery hill to the final part of the trail, where my daughters and dogs were waiting, my older daughter’s eyes widened in surprise at my appearance. Apparently, I looked a little rough around the edges, with a crazy look in my eyes, raindrops dripping off the edge of my nose, my wild hair sticking out from my hooded sweatshirt, drenched to the bone, and my clothes totally splattered with mud, especially the knees of my soaked sweats, that were smeared with mud.

I have to say, the Dutchman’s Breeches photos I took that day were pretty neat, despite the challenge of trying to keep my lens from fogging up or getting wet, not to mention getting myself too wet. I think I failed in that respect, but it was well worth it. The girls, dogs, and I all had a great time, even if my car smelled of wet dog for the drive home and probably a few days after.
Dutchman's Breeches

Virginia Bluebells
Some may wonder why I continue to take photos of plants I’ve been photographing for over twenty-five years. The only reason I can find is, I can’t seem to resist! Seriously, hiking in the woods is a peaceful experience for me and helps to relieve stress. When you factor in taking photographs of beautiful plants that only bloom for a short time period, the peaceful feeling increases. From the practical perspective, I use the photos for educational and promotional purposes for the Rachel Raccoon and Sammy Skunk books and Nature Station Mysteries I write, and also use them in my job as Resource Conservationist at the Stark County SWCD.
Wild Geranium

It’s amazing to me how the same flowers I see every year manage to look even more interesting and beautiful every year. Maybe it’s because after all this time, I still notice brand new details or even discover new-to-me wildflower species. Different angles, different lighting, and the novelty of not seeming these lovely plants all the time, make them great photo opportunities, year after year. I like to think my photography skills improve a little over time, so I really need to take time to weed out some of my older pictures.

Even though we don’t often think of Illinois as being the most scenic spot on earth, we do have some beautiful areas and some unique plant species. I use the pictures to try to show others how interesting these pretty wildflowers are.

I hope you enjoy this virtual walk in the woods.

Purple Trillium


Blood Root

Friday, February 5, 2021

Winter Wonderland

As I a write this, we’ve had a month of interesting weather, with more on the way. We’ve had several forms of precipitation, leaving behind much snow and ice on sidewalks and some of the lesser travelled roads and streets. Before the latest Arctic blast, it finally starting to melt, making it easier to drive my favorite backroads to work and walk my dogs around town. Before that, I was getting tired of the babystep workout, never knowing which sidewalks would be clear, and which would be a pile of hard packed snow and ice. I just tried to remain an upright position, which was challenging at times, when we’ve had layer upon layer of several forms of precipitation, including days and days of frozen fog.

We’ve only had a few days of actual sunshine lately, which I know can be gloomy for some. I’ve learned to appreciate gloomy days as much as bright and sunny days, but even I was getting a little sick of the total fog we had for so long. From sun up to sundown, nothing but fog—assuming we could actually see the sun, which we could not. However, one day, while driving to work, I was wondering how I would ever get there with the very murky fog that morning. A few seconds later, I drove up and down a hill, the fog lifted, and the sun not only peeked through the clouds, but shone brightly. Reflecting off the snow, ice, and hoar frost, it was an amazing site.

As you may know by now, I entertain myself and find peace during these turbulent times (and yes, 2021, is starting off to be just as interesting as 2020 was!) by photographing our local natural beauty. This year I began in my backyard, taking photo after photo of almost every combination of snow, ice, and hoar frost on the trees and shrubs in my yard. The herbaceous plants had been trimmed back for the season, other than the shorter prairie grasses in my landscaping, of which I did photograph. Since we are fortunate enough to have a wind and privacy break of Colorado Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce I began by taking pictures of these conifers. Their branches laden with snow and ice, they made a spectacular site.

I then moved on to the deciduous trees. The derecho in August did a number on some of them, but I was still able snap several photos of remaining trees and shrubs.

From here I branched out. I decided to photograph my favorite trees, white oaks, that look beautiful, even leafless in the middle of the winter. There are a few in town that are single and solitary, so they have much room to really spread their wings—or branches. With the foggy background, snow, and dark branches, these pictures look like they were taken in black and white, but they were actually taken in color. I found some oak leaves still on the branches, and zoomed in on the leathery leaves, sparkling with hoar frost, even in the gloom.

The day the sun finally shone, I was fortunate enough to have my camera with me. Once I arrived at work, I snuck a few pictures of the Rock Island Trail, prairie plants near the office, and the pin oak near the back door. They were all gorgeous, with the blazing sun, blue sky, and trees and plants covered with snow, ice, and frost. 

If this past year has taught me anything, it’s to appreciate my surroundings and all the everyday things we may normally take for granted. Exploring local nature with my trusty camera has opened my eyes to the natural beauty that surrounds us, whether we notice it or not.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Hitting the Backroads

Not wanting to travel too far from home during these crazy times, other than our quick trip to Minnesota before COVID numbers started flaring up again, I have entertained myself the past several months by expanding my photograph collection of plants and other nature related subjects. I started in early spring, as spring woodland wildflowers began to bloom. I already have hundreds of photos of the same plants, but there’s something soothing about hiking in the woods and connecting with nature, even when crouching on fallen leaves to get the best angle, then having to stand back up again. My daughter and pooches accompanied me on many of these spring hikes, which made for a fun family outing.

As spring turned into summer, I switched to photographing prairie plants. I have hundreds of pictures of many of these plants as well, but still, I kept snapping pictures. I have a backyard prairie, so photo subjects were very handy. I’d snap pictures, view them on my laptop, and retake, if necessary, to get better shots. Soon, I was taking pictures of bees, butterflies, and whatever flying wildlife would sit still for a few seconds to have their pictures taken.

As the season progressed, I’d carry my camera with me to take pictures on the way home from work in areas I’d spied particular plants blooming. Sometimes I’d spend a half hour or so on a weekend, driving to a local spot to capture pictures I hadn’t during the week. Soon my photo collection grew even more, and I could see an improvement. Even though I’ve been taking pictures since I was ten years old, there’s always room to learn and grow. 

Many may think taking so many pictures is a waste of time, but it’s good entertainment for me, and since I use them for work,  and to help promote the books I write about nature, the photos come in handy for promotional purposes, and maybe even a future book cover. Besides, when I get back to organizing my pictures, I’ll be deleting photos taken several years ago that don’t cut muster.

As the growing season came to an end, and the leaves had mostly dropped, I branched out and started paying more attention to some of my favorite backroad landmarks. I don’t have to go out of my way to photograph these spots, since they are on some of my favorite backroads I take to and from work many days. I’ve taken pictures of historic barns, bridges, and even concrete fence posts along my favorite backroad that runs along a portion of the Hennepin Canal.


My older daughter will be getting her senior pictures taken in three days, and my eyes have seen local spots through the lens, so now I have some areas in mind I think will make amazing backgrounds. We’ve postponed getting pictures taken until after her braces come off in two days, so we’ve missed some of the beautiful plant life that makes great outdoor backgrounds. The two areas I have in mind still have some color and texture that should work well. Hopefully the photographer (not me!) and subject (my stubborn daughter!) agree with my ideas, but even if they don’t, my eyes have been opened this past spring and summer to the beauty that surrounds us each and every day in our area. Even though I love to travel out of state and out of the country, there’s something to be said about appreciating our local backroad scenery.

A Superior Vacation

This is not the first time I’ve written about my obsession with the Great Lakes. My family traditionally travels to Lake Michigan over Columbus Day weekend most years, but this year was an exception. I wanted to travel to a spot that wasn’t crawling with tourists escaping Chicago or other metro areas, so I looked for somewhere that would hopefully be less crowded. Because I’d heard great things about Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior, we chose that area for our trip. Though we’ve visited multiple areas along Lake Superior, we’d never travelled to that particular area.

Noting several state parks dotting the shoreline, I tried to prioritize which to visit during our short stay. While it was nice to take a fall vacation, we still had to work around our daughters’ school schedules, so we didn’t have enough time to visit all the places that looked interesting. I booked a room in Duluth, thinking that would be a good starting point for areas to the north or even if we wanted to visit the shoreline in Wisconsin. Duluth itself is an interesting and beautiful city, especially with the fall foliage dotting the hilly city, and nestled along Lake Superior, right into the Minnesota border. We visited the Great Lakes Zoo, my daughter’s choice, and also spent some time at Leif Erickson Park. We drove across the Aerial Lift Bridge. But, what I was itching to do was hit the shoreline for some spectacular scenery.

We were not disappointed. Between the beautiful fall foliage, shimmering blue water, and granite shorelines, the scenery was indescribable. The weather was perfect, and the light hitting the water, granite hills, and tree leaves made things even more gorgeous. We traveled on scenic Highway 61 northward to visit many parks—even as far as Grand Portage at the Canada border. Knowing they wouldn’t let us in, we didn’t bring our passports, but one of these days I hope to cross the border and travel all around the lake.

We started off at Gooseberry Falls State Park. As the name implies, there are waterfalls but also streams, wooded trails, and amazing views of Lake Superior along sheer granite cliffs. The view right outside the visitor’s center is a perfect photo opportunity, with birch and aspen trees framing the blue lake water in the distance—simply breathtaking!

From here, we continued north to the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. We hiked along the shoreline but decided to visit the lighthouse until the next day. My daughter drove us back to Duluth, so I could sit back and enjoy the views along the way.

The next day was more of the same. We visited the Split Rock Historic Site for views of the pristine and interesting lighthouse and grounds, not to mention the lake, then hiked down to the shoreline for views from below. The scenery from the wooded trail on the way back up were just as amazing. Continuing our journey northward, we headed to the border and visited Grand Portage State Park, where we saw more beautiful waterfalls. But the views that were even more amazing were from two scenic pull offs along Highway 61. I could have spent all day gazing at all the shades of golden tree foliage, contrasting with the rocky hills on one side and the beautiful lake on the other side. We could see for miles, as far as Canada and Isle Royale National Park.

We broke up the drive southward to Duluth by making a quick stop at Tettegouche State Park. We hiked down to the tiny bay and knew we would like to spend more time at this park but were pretty worn out by this time.

In addition to taking more time to explore Duluth, there are dozens of other parks and natural areas I want to visit or revisit the next time we make this trip. And trust me—there will be a next time!