28 Days in the Bog

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.

leaving 80-degree Florida!

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.

great gray owl

One of the best places to spot GGOs is about an hour west of Duluth, Minnesota: in the Sax-Zim Bog. 

SZB is about an hour west of Duluth, MN

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.

a lot of wrecked semis in central Illinois!

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.

“first time in the snow, eh?”

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.

Bob Dylan’s childhood home

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. 

Friends of Sax-Zim Bog birding map

Some private homeowners have set up feeders and/or deer rib cages in their front yards and welcome photographers and birders. 

downy woodpecker at Mary Lou’s feeders
smoke-morph wild turkey at Mary Lou’s

Others have “NO PHOTOS” or “PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING” signs posted. 

“No Pictures”

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. 

Lake Nichols Road

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!

our sacrifice to the Bog gods

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.

you need to always watch where you’re driving and stopping

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. 

Telegram app screen shot

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. 

you do get out of the car occasionally (note owl on the power line)

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. 

our first GGO of the trip!

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.

snowy owl
common redpoll
black-capped chickadee

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,

working on photos over breakfast

Took a nice walk in the snow,

a walk in the snow

Lunched at a local pub,

walleye sandwich and fish tacos at Mike’s Pub

And finally got the car started around 2pm.

this is crazy!

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°.

that’s not a typo — it got down to -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.

Frank Lloyd Wright gas station in Cloquet, MN

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.

porcupine!

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.

barred owl

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.

Bird Guiding Minnesota – Bird Guiding Tours in Minnesota (birdmn.com)

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.

pine marten

And three great gray owls.

one of three GGOs we saw on this day

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. 

breakfast at Wilbert’s Cafe

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.

Victory Coffee House in Meadowlands

The following Monday, the 21st, winter storm Nancy was headed our way.

winter storm Nancy (we were a smidge west of where that snowflake is on the tip of Lake Superior)

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. 

our drive to Grand Rapids
on the way to Grand Rapids

But the weather was too dicey to even think about driving out to the Bog.

message on the Friends of SZB Facebook page
not going to do much birding today!

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.

serious snow plows!
even the Bog roads are plowed quickly (Zim Road)

We wanted to photograph the Iron Man miner’s memorial,

Iron Man miner’s memorial

And the mural of Archie “Moonlight” Graham from Field of Dreams, both located in Chisholm. 

“Moonlight” Graham mural 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!”  

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.

the T-Mobile staff was very interested in our (dead) Kodak Ektra phones!

It took most of the day, but even so, we were blessed with our best GGO sighting to date.

my dream shot: a GGO in the trees

Besides more owls, by the end of the second week we had spied several new-to-us birds including Canada jays,

Canada jay

A ruffed grouse,

ruffed grouse

And a boreal chickadee.

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.

a drive north up to Grand Marais
Lake Superior

We spied a bald eagle pair,

bald eagle

A coyote, and another great gray owl along our way, but no moose.

GGO
Gunflint Trail – 57 miles each way and no moose

We also stopped at the Split Rock lighthouse for a quick photo op before returning home to Hibbing.

Split Rock lighthouse

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,

adorable red fox

We were treated to a great gray owl actively hunting directly in front of us in perfect golden, afternoon light.

GGO actively hunting

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.

she landed on a signpost 15ft from me

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”

great gray owl-5299
hover on photo to arrow through the set

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.  

photographing a beautiful old barn

Seeing our license plate the woman asked, “Are you the Florida People….the famous Tomlins who have been up here for a month???”

we’ll laugh about this for a long time!

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. 

Pepper gets a much-needed bath

Even so, we were treated to two more GGOs and the most unexpected sighting of the whole trip: a northern hawk owl!

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,

down days to due weather

And time to enjoy some of the other sights in the area.

Grand Marais lighthouse

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. 

common redpoll and pine grosbeak

We also had multiple opportunities to photograph the picturesque freight trains that rumbled along Highway 7 each day,

freight train on Hwy 7

As well as beautiful old barns and farm scenes,

lots of beautiful old barns and farm scenes around the Bog

Stunning landscapes,

Arkola Road

And breath-taking sunrises and sunsets.

Minnesota sunrise
sunset on Hwy 37 heading into Hibbing

Were we just a little bit crazy to leave sunny, warm Florida and drive 1,900 miles north in the middle of winter?  Maybe.  

call us crazy

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)

“we must not stand back, thinking of the cold and danger”

To view all our photos from this extraordinary trip visit our Flickr albums:

TG:

great grey owl-1162
hover on photo to arrow through the set

JET:

pine marten
hover on photo to arrow through the set

Author: TG&jet

Nature photographers - wildlife, landscapes, underwater; travelers; bloggers

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