In February 2022, we embarked on our most ambitious road trip to date: a journey that would take us as far north as Hibbing, Minnesota for four weeks followed by a stay in Allouez (ALL-oo-way), in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. All in all, we would be away from home for seven weeks.
Most of our Florida friends questioned our sanity traveling to northern Minnesota in the middle of winter but we wanted to photograph the legendary great gray owls. They are one of the largest owls, with a perfectly round head and beautiful circular face. Ever since I first saw a photograph of one, I’ve dreamed of capturing that image for myself.
One of the best places to spot GGOs is about an hour west of Duluth, Minnesota: in the Sax-Zim Bog.
Encompassing more than 300 square miles, SZB is a mix of habitats that attracts not only great grays but a wide variety of owls, other birds, and animals.
The only area we ran into any traffic on our three-day drive north was around Atlanta – a total mess – but otherwise, we drove 70mph the entire way. The roads were clear and judging from the number of wrecked semis in Illinois, it looked like we had missed a bad winter storm by a couple of days.
We arrived in Hibbing late afternoon on Sunday, Feb 6, and spent our first full day stocking up on groceries and getting organized for our upcoming photo safaris.
We had arranged for an Air BNB for the four weeks we would be spending in Hibbing. The 500 sq ft basement apartment was tiny but efficient and proved to be a good base for the duration of our stay.
A fun bit of trivia was that our little apartment was located just a few blocks from Robert Zimmerman’s childhood home. We drove by the house every time we went to and from the Bog.
Sax-Zim Bog is so unique it’s hard to explain. It’s a combination of private land, homes, fields, some government land, and some owned by the non-profit “Friends of SZB” all mixed up next to each other, so you don’t quite know who owns what.
Some private homeowners have set up feeders and/or deer rib cages in their front yards and welcome photographers and birders.
Others have “NO PHOTOS” or “PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING” signs posted.
So, you just drive around on the public roads, looking for interesting things. It’s a lot of being in the right place at the right time.
The roads were icy and covered with snow on every drive we made. There are deep ditches on either side, for where the plows put all the snow that accumulates (and never melts), and you don’t know for sure where the shoulders end and the ditches begin.
And yes, we got stuck one time!
You must watch where you’re driving and where you’re stopping, also watch for the locals, who will drive by you at 50-60mph. It would be very difficult to watch your driving AND animal-spot at the same time! So, if you’re planning a visit, bring along a buddy or hire a guide.
I had done a ton of research in preparing for our trip – if you dig around enough you can find a lot of information about the Bog, such as what is being spied on any given day and at what time, where various locations are in relation to each other, and tips about owl-spotting and driving in general.
Besides the SZB website, there are Flickr albums, Facebook groups, and a Telegram app that all share useful information. The Telegram was especially helpful beforehand in learning the roads, distances between various places, and whether “chasing” a sighting would be possible.
But practically speaking, the app was not much help once we were there: the Bog is too big of an area to get anywhere fast. We barely used it during our four-week visit.
You stay in your car most of the time — we did get out occasionally but not for long, it’s just too cold to be standing or walking in the snow.
We set out for our first visit on Tuesday morning, Feb 8. It is said that in order to see great gray owls at Sax-Zim Bog, you should allow 3 or 4 days for each sighting … we saw two separate owls on our first visit.
By the end of that first week, we had spied multiple GGOs, a snowy owl, a barred owl, a porcupine, plus many of the regular winter birds.
Before we went to bed on Friday night we checked the forecast, so we knew the weekend was going to be brutally cold. We woke to below zero temps and a dead battery, so we relaxed in the morning,
Took a nice walk in the snow,
Lunched at a local pub,
And finally got the car started around 2pm.
The following morning it was so cold we turned the car around and decided to wait until it warmed up a bit to go out – at its coldest, the car thermometer read -38°.
By mid-afternoon, it had warmed up to a balmy 8°. Crazy to have a 46-degree temperature swing and still not hit double digits! We drove to Cloquet, home to the only gas station ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Opened in 1958 as the R.W. Lindholm Service Station, it is still in operation today and is run by a grandson of the original owner.
On Monday, Valentine’s Day, we drove to our porcupine area and were delighted to see him again, this time actively circling the tree, gnawing at the bark like he was in a bark eating contest. Not knowing much about porcupines, we wondered if he stays in one area until he’s eaten all the bark and then will move on.
After our fun time with the porcupine, we stopped to chat for a moment with some nice people. One gentleman told us about a barred owl not too far away.
It turned out the nice gentleman was a guide by the name of Judd Brink. I had communicated with him briefly while planning our trip but had decided against hiring a guide. We felt that given the amount of time we would be spending in the Bog it wouldn’t be necessary. But Judd is as knowledgeable as he is kind and generous. I would recommend him to anyone looking for a guide.
Tuesday ended up being another once-in-a-lifetime day. I had in my head I wanted to find a pine marten and, of course, see owls.
We found a pine marten.
And three great gray owls.
Near the Bog, there is a delightful little restaurant called Wilbert’s Cafe. It’s a great place to warm up with breakfast or a cup of hot chocolate.
Another fun stop is the Victory Coffee House in Meadowlands. It is a community center, and you pay only as much as you feel is fair.
The following Monday, the 21st, winter storm Nancy was headed our way.
TG’s phone died that morning, and we made a quick trip to Grand Rapids to get him set up on an old backup I use as an alarm clock.
But the weather was too dicey to even think about driving out to the Bog.
Finally, on Wednesday it cleared up enough to venture out. St. Louis County takes their plows seriously and although it was still very cold, the roads were driveable.
We wanted to photograph the Iron Man miner’s memorial,
And the mural of Archie “Moonlight” Graham from Field of Dreams, both located in Chisholm.
Afterward, we drove out to the Bog and had another surprise. The conversation in the car went something like this: Me “what’s that running up ahead, a cat?” TG “maybe a dog?” Both of us in unison “OMG it’s a bobcat!”
The following day my phone died. Both of our phones died within a week of each other! Not willing to risk another month with only a single old backup, we drove to Grand Rapids for a second time to take advantage of T-Mobile’s free trade-in program.
It took most of the day, but even so, we were blessed with our best GGO sighting to date.
Besides more owls, by the end of the second week we had spied several new-to-us birds including Canada jays,
A ruffed grouse,
And a boreal chickadee.
That weekend we took a mini road trip north up the Lake Superior coast to Grand Marais for a sunrise drive on the Gunflint Trail. I desperately wanted to see a moose.
We spied a bald eagle pair,
A coyote, and another great gray owl along our way, but no moose.
We also stopped at the Split Rock lighthouse for a quick photo op before returning home to Hibbing.
Tuesday, March 1 ended up being a most extraordinary day. As if playing peek-a-boo with an adorable red fox wasn’t enough to send me over the moon,
We were treated to a great gray owl actively hunting directly in front of us in perfect golden, afternoon light.
She would swoop across the snow, then fly off, then land close, again and again.
At one point she flew directly at me, landed on a signpost no more than 15 feet from where I stood, and looked me square in the eyes. Later someone said it might have been because of the faux fur trim on my jacket’s hood. In any case, to be that close to such a majestic creature took my breath away.
We left after 45 minutes, and she was still entertaining the small group of humans who had gathered with us on the side of the road.
THAT is why we drove 1,900 miles in the middle of winter to the north woods of Minnesota: to have the chance to experience something like that. Truly a “Once in a Lifetime”
There are several different Facebook groups dedicated to SZB, and TG and I had each joined two. Over the four weeks, we had posted “highlight” photos, which might explain what happened the next morning. We were photographing an old barn, and a truck stopped to ask what we were watching.
Seeing our license plate the woman asked, “Are you the Florida People….the famous Tomlins who have been up here for a month???”
We were leaving for Allouez on Sunday and another winter storm threatened. We decided Friday would be our last run out to the Bog. But first, we gave Pepper a much-needed bath and then stuck to the clearest road, Hwy 7.
Even so, we were treated to two more GGOs and the most unexpected sighting of the whole trip: a northern hawk owl!
Our four weeks exceeded all expectations. We saw everything we had hoped for along with quite a few surprises. By giving ourselves so much time, we had built in enough down days due to weather or dead cellphones,
And time to enjoy some of the other sights in the area.
Final count: 25 GGOs, 8 barred owls, 4 snowy owls, one northern hawk owl, 8 bald eagles, two pine martens, multiple porcupine sightings, one bobcat, one red fox, and all the regular winter birds at the Bog.
We also had multiple opportunities to photograph the picturesque freight trains that rumbled along Highway 7 each day,
As well as beautiful old barns and farm scenes,
And breath-taking sunrises and sunsets.
Were we just a little bit crazy to leave sunny, warm Florida and drive 1,900 miles north in the middle of winter? Maybe.
But then again, “to do anything in this world worth doing, we must not stand back, thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in and scramble through as best we can.” (Sydney Smith)
To view all our photos from this extraordinary trip visit our Flickr albums: