North to Churchill, Day Four

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 4, 2018
When we first decided to drive to Winnipeg to catch the plane (Calm Air, a name we hope is accurate) to Churchill, we thought it would be a great opportunity to spend time in the tallgrass aspen parkland, one of Minnesota’s four biomes, which only covers about 5% of the state. Hayes Lake State Park, where we hiked yesterday, edges on the tallgrass aspen parkland, but now we are in the heart of it, where trees and prairie fight it out.

On the drive to Lake Bronson State Park we pass many showy lady’s-slippers in the roadside ditches, two sandhill cranes (for which tallgrass aspen parkland is prime nesting habitat), and a sign that says “Old Mill State Park 11 miles.” On a whim we take the turn.  Old Mill State Park showcases the history of area pioneers complete with an old mill and settler’s cabin, but it also has a wonderful path that winds along the edge between prairie, aspens, oak trees, and pines.  In the prairie grasses we spot prairie sage, milkweed, wood lilies, harebells, yarrow, daisy fleabane, small blue lobelia, purple prairie clover, and bergamot, all in bloom. Under the shade of the trees we’re surrounded by the susurration of wind in aspen leaves. Out in the prairie once again, we see purple leadplant blooming not far from a line of aspen.

At Lake Bronson State Park we head for a prairie where wind ripples the grass and we see purple prairie clover, prairie rose, bergamot, the bright orange of wood lilies, leadplant, rough blazing star budding, milkweed, and puccoon, along with a startled coyote who disappears into the trees at the edge of the grasses.  Farther down the road we hike a mile and a half into a Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).  Along the way we pass white prairie clover, black-eyed Susan, harebells, Canada anemone, Canada milkvetch, camas just budding out, milkweed, wood lilies, purple prairie clover, and yellow paintbrush.

At last we come to the SNA where we decide that if tallgrass aspen parkland is a battle between prairie and trees, then here the trees are clearly winning out, with aspen and willow saplings filling in the grassy open spaces.  We do see blue eyed grass, yellow star grass, marsh skullcap, swamp milkweed, goldenrod, and, behind the barbed wire of a nearby field, one western prairie fringed orchid shining in the sunlight.

So far on our trip we’ve been seeing at least an orchid a day, and today that one bright bloom, along with the showy lady’s-slippers, makes our quota.  We drive on north to Winnipeg for our 7:30 a.m. flight to the place we’ve been heading toward all along.

Tomorrow, Churchill.

 

North to Churchill, Day Three

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 3, 2018

Today we are grateful for bug shirts, a GPS, and waterproof boots because we’ve decided to head into Pine Creek Peatlands Scientific and Natural Area (SNA). Our directions send us along roads near the Canadian border, then tell us to walk .5 miles to reach the SNA.  They don’t mention that the .5 miles is through thigh-high grasses that hide deep runnels of water.  We slosh on toward the black spruce trees we see in the distance, clutching at horsetail and aspen saplings for balance.  When we reach what looks like higher ground we discover it consists of broken branches, stumps, and sawdust where our footing is even more treacherous. By now we’ve reached the bog forest, but between the dense growth and the hummocky ground we can’t find anywhere to enter under the trees. When we hear the first roll of thunder, we prudently decide to slosh back to the car.  We make it just as rain begins to pellet down.

Even though we never actually entered the bog forest on our attempt to go in we saw showy lady’s-slipper blooming along with Canada anemone, tall rue, swamp milkweed, fireweed, tufted loosestrife, Labrador tea, bunchberry, marsh skullcap, and three-leaved false Solomon’s seal gone to seed.

What did we learn? That when we are headed into an unfamiliar wild place, it might be wise to ask someone who’s already been there about the best way in.  Maybe that best way was indeed our slippery slog, but maybe another way would have led us in among the trees where we might have found the linear leaf sundew we had hoped to see. When we are headed into a wilder place that we have ever been, it never hurts to ask advice from someone who’s already been there. But, even with slogging and squelching, we’re glad we tried.  Next time (and chances are there will be a next time) we might actually make it into the trees.

Hayes Lake State Park is a contrast to Pine Creek Peatlands: roads lead us into and around the park, paths lead us under the tall pines to a bog boardwalk where we find lots of tiny pyrola and one northern bog orchid (we are still trying to figure out which).  The stillness under the pines, the green light after rain, birdsong and butterflies all make us think we have arrived at the beginning of the world.

Along the road to a walk-in campsite we spot several lesser rattlesnake plantain almost in bloom, along with showy lady’s-slipper blooming and lots of pipsissewa. We drive back to our hotel under a sky that stretches in every direction, knowing that native flowers bloom in places both wild and protected, and we are grateful for this chance to see them wherever they grow.

 

 

 

North to Churchill, Day Two

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 2, 2018

Yesterday we were grateful for our bug shirts. Today we’re grateful for bug shirts and Kelly’s new Garmin GPS as we make our way into Iron Springs Bog, a place where it’s easy to get turned around and not know the way out again–something that happened to us once before. We’ve stopped here on our way up to Winnipeg in hopes of seeing orchids, and we’re  not disappointed. Within five minutes Kelly  has spotted a blooming round-leaved orchid and I’ve found an early coral root gone to seed.  A few minutes later we see tall northern bog orchid and northern green orchid, and not long after we find bunches of showy lady’s-slipper. Stemless lady’s-slipper has already gone to seed, and one small heart-leaved twayblade is bravely blooming in the moss. Tiny lesser rattlesnake plantain is almost hidden in the deep sphagnum moss next to even tinier one-sided pyrola.

When we’ve had our fill of orchids (along with gold thread, bog buckbean, and three leaved false Solomon ‘s seal gone to seed), we followed the GPS back to the car. Soon we leave peat lands behind for a wide prairie sky as we look for the western prairie fringed orchids that we’d seen last year in a ditch alongside a wildlife management area. We drive along the edge of the area peering deeply into ditches until finally we jubilantly spot three western prairie fringed orchids. While Kelly takes photos I wander up the other side of the ditch to discover a prairie full of the bright white blossoms of over fifty more orchids.

“When you’re done there you might want to come up here,” I call. “I think you’ll be happy you did.”

She does, and she is. While Kelly takes picture after picture of orchids from bud to full bloom I wander, grinning, among more western fringed prairie orchids than I’ve ever seen in my life.

Finally we head  farther north at the end of a day filled with orchids.