Lessons from Travels: Newfoundland Whales

by Carl Strang

My 2002 vacation trip was a driving tour of Newfoundland. It took three full days of driving to reach the ferry port, then a full day’s ferry trip, to reach that subarctic island. I left my sea kayak at home, but I knew there would be guided tour opportunities. One came at a bay on the eastern side. I spent much of the morning watching humpbacked whales feeding in the bay, and then joined an afternoon tour from Bay Bulls, the harbor town there.

Preparing to launch.

Fortunately I was able to take a single, which gave me more maneuverability and flexibility.

The shore provided a scenic backdrop as we set out.

Our guide was experienced and sensitive to the whales’ needs. He led us into a very slow approach, and kept us from getting too close.

This paddler backed off and the humpback was undisturbed.

Our whale gradually worked out of the harbor, leading us to the more open sea. The enormous animal, seen from water level and close enough to get a good sense of it, provided an indescribable expansion of my understanding of the range and potential of life and evolution.

Out into the north Atlantic.

Our departure from the sheltering bay was not at all frightening on that calm day. After all, the opposite horizon isn’t visible in the Great Lakes, either. In fact, it was more soothing than a Great Lakes paddle. The swells have a longer period, and hence a more slow and relaxing rise and fall.

Another less experienced guide arrived with another group, led them right up to the whale, and the cetacean immediately departed for good. We headed back to explore the coast.

Kittiwakes rested on the cliffs, having completed their nesting season.

There was even a small sea cave.

One of the advantages of kayaks is access to such tight places.

A few days later I took a seabird and whale tour on a large powered boat. The captain, knowing tourists expect to see a whale’s tail lifting, brought us too close for the whale’s comfort.

The kayak tour guide referred to this as waving bye-bye. The whale only lifts its tail like this when bothered, and departing via a deeper dive.

Appreciating the physicality of the ocean, and the immensity of a whale, requires direct experience as close to the water as possible. I advocate the kayak experience. Television, and even the powerboat trip, can’t provide this perspective.


Lessons from Travels: Isle Royale Moose and Wolves

by Carl Strang

My short list of greatest adventures always will include my circumnavigation of Isle Royale by sea kayak in the second half of August, 1996. Isle Royale is the big island in northern Lake Superior that, to me, looks like the eye in the lake’s wolf’s head shape. The paddle around it is a 100-mile journey. I got there by ferry from Houghton, Michigan.

There was plenty of room in the hold for kayaks and camping equipment.

On the way out I had a happy encounter with Rolf Peterson, a fellow graduate of Purdue’s wildlife program, who took over the Isle Royale wolf-moose study from his mentor, Durward Allen. It turned out I was able to help. With my kayak I could reach a few moose carcasses Rolf had spotted from the air during the winter surveys but which were in remote places. There were some data and samples that needed to be collected on the ground.

I never had seen a moose, and Isle Royale is one of the best places in the U.S. to find them. I encountered around a dozen during this trip.

This fellow walked right through camp one morning.

Isle Royale is better known as a backpacking destination, but I’m really glad I did it by sea.

This is the kind of trail the backpackers must negotiate in places. I felt a mixture of respect and pity as I watched them staggering into camp at the end of the day, when I had done my relatively easy paddling in the morning and could explore the trails with a light day pack.

A sea kayak can carry everything one needs for a two-week trip. A micro-filtering pump allows one to strain the lake water for drinking and cooking.

I still have this tent, though it got a tear during a storm on a later sea kayak expedition. Shortly after taking this photo I lost the camera remote I was holding in my left hand.

Along the way I saw occasional moose skeletons previously inventoried by Rolf and his students.

Wolves and weather have scattered some of the bones.

In the southwest quarter of the island there are no established camps, so I set up on the beach that night. There I saw my first wolf sign.

The tracks were very fresh, but I knew my chances were slim of seeing one of these shy canids.

This was a very remote location, with only the occasional calls of golden-crowned kinglets to break the August silence. The following photo, which I took just before pushing off the next day, conveys some of the eerie mood of the place.

I liked to make an early start, so as to have as much of the afternoon as possible for day hiking.

The following camp at Huginnin Cove, on the north shore just east of Isle Royale’s tip, provided the next clue to the presence of wolves.

Stinkin’ fresh wolf scats on the trail near the campground.

There is a long stretch of the north shore which provides no good landing for a sea kayak.

Here you can see why.

Nevertheless, one of Rolf’s moose was there, just inland from a little break in the shoreline. I found the spot, wedged Water Strider (my kayak) between a boulder and the cliff, and climbed up carrying my tow line/anchor rope.

The little waves gave Water Strider some scratches from the rocks which she bears to this day.

After some searching I found the carcass, a female, and I bagged the smelly sample for transport to Rolf. I dubbed her Miss Moosie, and she was my companion for the remainder of the trip.

Moose were part of the northeast Illinois fauna in the wake of the last continental glacier, and wolves still were here in historical times. It was a pleasure to share a landscape with them for a while, and to imagine the days when such creatures left tracks and deposited scats on trails now occupied by Ogden Avenue and Army Trail Road.

Kayak at Last

by Carl Strang

I was beginning to wonder if I would get the opportunity to put a paddle in the water this year, but circumstances allowed me to run my dragonfly monitoring route on the Des Plaines River at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve this past weekend. Of course, in the context of this blog the monitoring is the main thing, but on a personal level it’s been hard to go almost a year without paddling. My sea kayak has taken me through north Georgian Bay.

It’s given me sights like this, Devil’s Island in the Apostles of Lake Superior.

On Sunday afternoon the sea kayak Water Strider was my vehicle yet again. I found no new species, but was interested to find that the counts for various species fell between the values for last year’s August 2 and September 3 counts, despite other measures of phenology generally placing this year earlier than last. Common whitetail and eastern amberwing dragonflies were closer to the August 2 count, though both exceeded any of last year’s counts for those species. Powdered dancers and stream bluets fell between the counts of last year’s dates. Familiar bluets were closer to the September 3 count. Many, like those in the following photo, were ovipositing.

Skimming bluets showed a significant increase, with 10 counted on this trip against 1 for the entire 2009 season. In contrast, jade clubtails were missing this time, and orange bluets were few. I wonder if their seasons are done for this year.

Back to the River

by Carl Strang

Last week I made my fourth dragonfly monitoring excursion of the season by kayak on the Des Plaines River (last updated here ). It was a pleasant, early autumn day. Practically nothing was happening over the center of the river, but there was more action near shore. I found only two dragonfly species. Eastern amberwings remained common, and I also saw a few jade clubtails. Here is one of the latter.

Jade clubtail 3SEb

September 3 is a late date for that species. Damselflies were common, and in general were the same species I had seen on the previous outing in early August. The only new species was a tiny skimming bluet, which perched for a time on my deck line.

Skimming bluet 3SEb

Otherwise, highlights included patches of halberd-leaved rose mallows,

Halberd-leaved rose mallow b

and the best surprise of all, a single sandhill crane hunting in one of Waterfall Glen’s marsh streams.

Sandhill crane 2b

I hope to get on that river at least one more time this year.

Dragonfly Monitoring Update

by Carl Strang

Earlier I described  my first venture into dragonfly and damselfly monitoring by kayak. I have been out on the Des Plaines River twice since then. There has been some variation in the count of species and individuals each time, but most seems unremarkable. I’ll focus on a couple high points. The biggest surprise was a transition in the damselflies. The slender bluet was the common black type bluet my first time around.

Slender bluet 5JL 1b

Bluets are a group of small to medium sized damselflies. Black type bluets are so called because their abdomens are nearly all black as viewed from above. On my second and third outings, the slender bluets were replaced by stream bluets as the common black type bluets. Here is one of the latter I rescued from the water.

Stream bluet 23JL09 1b

Note that, in contrast to the slender bluet in the top photo, the stream bluet has a slender blue shoulder stripe with a wider black stripe below it. “Eye spots” on the back of the head are smaller in the stream bluet, and there is less blue in the abdomen tip. Stream bluets were largely in tandem pairs and actively laying eggs on floating vegetation during both recent outings.

Stream bluets tandem b

The other surprise is the relatively large number of orange bluets. Here is one sharing a photo with a stream bluet.

Orange and stream bluet b

I’m not saying that the river is swarming with them, but in my experience a count of 13 orange bluets in a 2-hour outing is a lot. A final note is that eastern amberwings have become the most abundant dragonflies, despite my seeing none on the first outing. Here is a photo of one from 2007.

Eastern amberwing male 2b

I have decided to limit my monitoring to the stretch of river that bounds Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. This gives me a span of stream between the launch ramp and the preserve in which I can practice another type of inquiry, to be featured tomorrow.

Dragonflies on the Deck

by Carl Strang

I have been part of the regional dragonfly monitoring program since it began in 2003. I started counting dragonflies and damselflies at Willowbrook, Songbird Slough and Waterfall Glen Forest Preserves, in recent years focusing on the last two. Though I continued to find new species from time to time, the past couple of years I have felt the need to try something new. The major gap in my knowledge was in river species, so this year I decided to combine my loves of kayaking and dragonfly monitoring by trying out a river route. Water levels have been high, and cool weather has been suboptimal for monitoring, so I didn’t make my first excursion until last weekend. I launched my sea kayak from the forest preserve boat ramp at Des Plaines Riverway, and headed downstream into Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

Des Plaines monitor view b

Experienced kayakers know to tie everything to the boat. I didn’t want to risk wetting my digital voice recorder, so I tied a waterproof notebook to a deck line, tied two pencils to the notebook, wore my waterproof small camera and binoculars, and tucked everything else into my yellow deck bag.

Monitor deck 1b

I used the strongest current in the center of the river to go downstream, taking moments along the way to enjoy sights such as scattered great blue heron nests.

GB heron nest Des Plaines b

The only American rubyspot of the day made it easy by landing on my bow.

American rubyspot kayak b

Dragonflies were tougher, however. The low, seated vantage point made flying dragonflies look different, and it took a while to recognize even familiar species. They were flying fast over the center of the river, making photography impossible, and even tracking them with binoculars was very difficult. My frustration was limited by the low number of insects active in the center of the river that day. I reached a convenient turn around point after an hour, and started back following the sunlit north shore. (Current is slower near the bank, making the upstream paddling easier.) Odonata were much more abundant along the edge. Some damselflies continued to land on the boat. Here a powdered dancer and a blue-fronted dancer chose to land on the deck bag, providing a comparison shot.

Dancers kayak 1b

Other damselflies kept their distance, landing on sticks or debris. The small camera’s telephoto was adequate to get shots of the abundant blue type bluets, which proved to be familiar bluets.

Familiar bluet 5JL 1b

There also were many black type bluets, which I identified as slender bluets.

Slender bluet 5JL 1b

The most abundant dragonflies were jade clubtails, some of which liked my deck.

Jade clubtail kayak b

I was pleased to see a Cyrano darner along the way, though I was unable to get a photo. Toward the end I got a nice view of some Illinois roses.

IL roses Des Plaines b

All in all there was a nice variety of species, most of them familiar but some I missed. I look forward to a continuing learning experience as I return to this route on future weekends.

Goodbye, Old Friend

by Carl Strang

My friends know that I’m a hopeless nature nerd. If you know me only through this blog, that has been evident enough. But I have my emotional side, and I can get sentimental about what to others might seem to be ridiculous things. The time has come to say goodbye to my old Saturn station wagon, and I’m sad about it. The car made a cameo appearance in the early days of this blog, when I described my pilgrimage  to trace the route of the Lake Michigan lobe of the latest continental glacier.

Watershed sign 2b

That was the last significant adventure the Saturn and I shared. It was not, however, the greatest. That trip would have to be my journey to Newfoundland in 2002. Newfoundland is, of course, an island province. The car made the crossing in the hold of a ferry much like this one.

Newfoundland ferry b

I drove all around Newfoundland. This photo of a caribou calf I took through the car’s window.

Caribou peekaboo b

In that car I went as far south as Mobile, Alabama, and as far west as the southwest corner of Kansas. I drove all around lakes Superior and Huron in 2004, scouting for good kayaking possibilities that set up my crossing of northern Georgian Bay in 2006. Here the car and kayak sit in the Ontario town of Killarney as I feast on the evening before starting that adventure.

04b Car in Killarney

Of course there were innumerable shorter trips. Here is my campsite at Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park, where I discovered a new northern range limit for the broad-winged tree cricket.

Wyalusing 4b

But, as my arthritis increasingly reminds me, all things wear out and ultimately must end. That car made it past 190,000 miles and 11 years, but was completely worn out and no longer reliable. I no longer could trust it for longer trips or for carrying my boats. At the end of May it broke down so significantly that I could not justify the cost of repairing it. So now I feel the sadness of saying goodbye to an old friend. Thank you, Saturn, for carrying me all those miles. And thank you, readers, for indulging me in this cathartic posting.

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