For anyone following along on our epic 5 1/2-month road trip, you know I’ve been chasing a dream photo of a bighorn ram … a male with a magnificent head of “curls.”
We saw ewes on our first drive through the Badlands back in September. And a juvenile ran across the road in front of us in Big Sky. But even with a trip up to the Rio Grande Gorge, all we managed to spy were some fresh tracks in the mud.
So, we decided to cut short our time in New Mexico and spend three nights in Rapid City, S.D. on our way to Canada. A ranger at the El Morro Visitor’s Center had assured us that bighorn sheep sightings were almost guaranteed in the Badlands.
We’ve gotten into the habit of shorter drive days to build in time for sightseeing or weather delays.
The wind gusts through northern New Mexico were 65+ mph, and we took our time carefully driving past blown-over semis.
Checking the map, we realized that a slight detour would take us directly through the Black Hills National Forest,
And past the Crazy Horse monument. The on-going work is 100% privately funded and the expected completion date is 2050.
The road heading into Rapid City is lined with attractions – most of them cheesy tourist traps.
And I had forgotten that fossils were such a big thing in this area. The famous T-Rex “Sue” at the Field Museum in our hometown of Chicago was discovered right here in the Black Hills of South Dakota!
Sunday morning was clear with a bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine. We arrived at the Badlands’ west entrance at 8:45 and headed straight to Roberts Prairie Dog Town. On our way, we passed several bison standing close to the road.
Just as we reached them, the prairie dogs were waking up and we got some fun shots as they popped out of their burrows into the early morning sun.
As we turned back onto the main park road, I spied something up ahead and quickly grabbed my binocs: two bighorn sheep!
While we were photographing them, a third ram came over the hill. Three bighorn sheep, complete with curls! And off in the distance, I spotted another pair – a ram and a ewe. Make that five bighorn sheep within the first hour of our visit!
I could not have been more thrilled as we continued our drive. We stopped to photograph more of the prairie dogs that dot this section of the park.
On the other side of the road, across a deep ravine, were three more rams. Eight bighorn sheep!
As you drive east, the landscape changes from open prairie to iconic Badlands: high pinnacles and buttes, otherworldly rock formations with beautifully colored sediment layers.
We spied several groups of mule deer as we drove along.
We stopped at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center to chat with the rangers. They told us that a year ago the park’s bighorn population had been decimated by pneumonia. They lost 86% of their herd, which currently numbers around 50. 50?!?
I was grateful we learned this after we had spied our eight. If I had known beforehand how truly rare they have become, I fear I would have given up before we even started.
We drove to the east entrance and then turned around to retrace our drive back west. It was a beautiful day, and the park was almost empty.
We stopped along the way to capture a little of the Badlands’ magic.
Just as we reached the Pinnacles Overlook, we spied our three big rams again – this time close to the road. They were making their way across a ravine to the ridge on the other side.
They seemed to be enjoying themselves, head-butting a little before standing side-by-side.
I turned around to see a group of six females and one male coming down the hill behind us!
What?!? Without double counting the eight we had spied earlier that was five new females! Thirteen total including six ewes and seven rams with full heads of curls. What a BIG surprise!
As we watched, there appeared to be some drama between the two groups. The rams across the ridge were on high alert, eyeing the female group.
A ewe left her group, crossed the road, and stood watching the three bachelors.
Her mate followed after her and gradually persuaded her to join the rest of his herd.
The three bachelors made their move, crossing the road and approaching the herd from different angles.
The valley reverberated with the sound of their magnificent horns clashing as they competed against each other.
We shared this special sighting with two women who were hoping for this type of action.
Passing cars occasionally stopped to capture a quick photo but only the four of us were privileged to watch the whole story.
Then, as quickly as the drama started, it ended.
Monday morning we awoke to snow, so we decided to leave any exploring for the afternoon when the forecast called for clearing skies.
Rapid City’s most well-known attraction is Mount Rushmore. Here’s what TG had to say about our visit:
“I find it ironic that when we visited The Badlands and all its natural magnificence, we were blessed with a stellar day of clear and sunny weather, especially for December. The next day, when we planned to visit the man made “wonder” that is Mount Rushmore, we get gloomy, overcast skies and snow, with fog surrounding the sculpture…”
But Mount Rushmore isn’t the only place to see presidents in Rapid City. Life-size bronze statues of every past American president stand along the downtown streets and sidewalks, and we stopped to photograph my hero, Teddy Roosevelt. We found him wearing a knit cap and looking for all the world like Robin Williams in “Night at the Museum.”
I wanted a bighorn ram with full head of curls but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see thirteen so close and with so much drama! Our three nights in Rapid City exceeded all expectations and were indeed a BIG(horn) surprise!
You can view all of the photos from our unforgettable day in the Badlands here:
In November of 2021, we spent a wonderful month at a little Airbnb in Lemitar, New Mexico.
It was located about 30 minutes from the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, where over 100,000 sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other migrating birds winter each year. So, when we returned to Casita del Cranes this year it was like coming home. We arrived late afternoon on Wednesday, November 2, and were settled in long before bedtime.
When we left Grand Teton, winter was right around the corner. A week later they had a foot of snow and temperatures had dropped to below zero. It was nice to return to autumn in New Mexico where the aspens and cottonwoods had just started to peak,
And we tracked the color changes over our month’s stay.
On this visit, we spent a lot of time just relaxing at Casita del Cranes.
It is the last house on a quiet road and the only sounds are the birds
And occasional freight trains that rumble by day and night – something we found charming.
Oscar and Maddie loved going for sunset walks along the ditch road,
And checking on Pam’s chickens!
And we loved all the photo ops right outside our door.
We heard the calls of the sandhill cranes every time we stepped outside.
And often found them in the nearby fields or flying overhead.
The Bosque del Apache is a combination of wetlands and agricultural fields, and the planted/flooded areas are rotated each year. Last year the birds were close to the roads and easy to photograph from the various observation decks.
This year the Wetland Roost, an area alongside the road heading towards the main entrance, was flooded and we got some wonderfully close shots of the snow geese
And sandhill cranes,
Along with the coyotes that regularly scouted the shoreline in the early mornings.
We also managed to capture several of the Bosque regulars: an adorable least bittern doing her best to shoo away an American coot,
the many duck species,
And dozens of TTB’s (tiny twitchy birds).
In addition to a 14-mile scenic driving loop, the Bosque maintains twelve hiking trails of various lengths and difficulty. Instead of spending all of our time looking for birds, we hiked several trails.
Some, like the Desert Arboretum, are short and easy.
It shares a parking lot with the Visitor’s Center and Gift Shop, making for a convenient stop on your way to or from the Bosque.
Others, like the Canyon National Recreational Trail, require a bit more planning.
It is a 2.5-mile trail through a canyon where we found animal tracks in the sand
And nests tucked into crevices high up on the cliffs,
While winding our way up to the top of a ridge with a glorious bird’s-eye view of the refuge.
The Bosque is not just about birds. Many other animals call this area home including javelinas,
And multiple species of reptiles.
You can view all of our bird and wildlife photos here:
We had such an incredible time in 2021 that we did not feel under any pressure to get “the shot” on this trip. We visited other wildlife refuges and explored the beautiful state of New Mexico.
One day we drove east to Tularosa and on our way, happened upon the Valley of Fires.
According to the BLM website, 5,000 years ago Little Black Peak erupted and flowed 44 miles into the Tularosa Basin, filling the basin with molten rock.
The resulting lava flow is four to six miles wide, 160 feet thick, and covers 125 square miles.
The lava appears black and dead but take a closer look and it is full of life
On another day we drove south and west to Silver City, stopping at the VLA.
The VLA (Very Large Array) is comprised of twenty-eight enormous radio telescopes and is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
It also makes for some excellent photo ops!
Catron County in western New Mexico has a population of over 12,000 elk. We did not see any elk on our drive, but we did see mule deer, a roadrunner running across the road (where else?), a coyote, and a beautiful golden eagle.
We passed the Chino (aka Santa Rita) Open-Pit Copper Mine, the third largest in the world
And something you must see to believe!
We drove through the Gila National Forest with its astounding beauty
And exhilarating hairpin curves,
Stopping at the Emory Pass Overlook for a panoramic view of the mountains and forest.
Ride along with us for 30 seconds as we head down the mountain. Unless you get dizzy easily – then skip the video!
On yet another day we drove north to the Rio Grande Gorge
And the High Bridge, located about ten miles west of Taos.
At six hundred feet above the Rio Grande, it is the tenth highest bridge in the United States, and a bit unnerving for even the most intrepid!
I wanted to photograph the bighorn sheep that are common in this area, but all we managed to find were some fresh tracks.
We detoured home via Ramah, with prehistoric cliff dwellings dating back to 1200-1300 A.D.
And stopped at the El Morro National Monument where a waterhole hidden at the base of a sandstone bluff made it a popular campsite for hundreds of years.
We did not take the time to hike to the ancient campsite to see the over 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs carved into the sandstone walls. Instead, we enjoyed a quiet picnic lunch in the Cibola National Forest before pointing ourselves back towards Lemitar and Casita del Cranes.
You can view all of our landscape photos from both the Bosque and our day trips here:
One day we drove to Gallup to visit the historic El Rancho Hotel. Opened in 1937, it was the base for many Hollywood movies filmed in the surrounding area and is full of movie star photographs and memorabilia.
We had so much fun and took so many photos that this visit deserves its own Flickr album!
Although we celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary back in October by splurging on a week at the McReynolds Blacktail Cabins in Grand Teton, the day we officially said “I do” was in November. We celebrated this special day with a long walk along the dirt road in front of Casita, dinner at the only restaurant in town open that day, and a night out shooting stars while being serenaded by howling coyotes. It was, indeed, a Happy Anniversary!
During our month-long visit we sampled some of the local cuisine: huevos rancheros in Tularosa,
Frito pie – which is shredded lettuce, tomatoes, beans, and cheese on top of Fritos mixed with red or green chile sauce – and considered a specialty in these parts.
Piñon coffee – a “must” for coffee lovers in our opiñon!
We also drove east and north to the tiny town of Corona for a delicious lunch at the El Corral Cafe, where real cowboys (complete with Old West hats) strolled in for their pick-up orders.
When ordering any dish with chiles, you are always asked “green” or “red.” We overheard a guest at El Corral say, “make mine Christmas-style.” And with December right around the corner, that is the perfect ending to our month in New Mexico!
Coming Next: Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Mini Episode 3.5: “The BIG Surprise”
When we were planning the Grand Teton leg of our 5 ½ month road trip, TG happened upon a most unique accommodation: two cabins located inside the national park boundary and only 1.5 miles from the famous Mormon Row and Moulton Barns.
McReynolds Blacktail Cabins looked like the perfect place, but TG said, “it’s a little out of our budget.” “Wait a minute,” I replied, “isn’t this 2022??? It’s our 40th wedding anniversary this year!”
Forty years of marriage is certainly worthy of a Grand Splurge celebration, don’t you think?!? TG inquired and the West Cabin was available the last week of October.
If you haven’t already read Episode 1: Walk on the Wild Side, you can click here to open a new tab and read all about our 32 nights in Big Sky, MT and Yellowstone National Park.
We left our Airbnb in Big Sky on Monday, October 24. It had snowed non-stop since early Saturday, and there was somewhere between 18-24 inches on the ground. It was a bit edgy going the nine miles down the mountain, but thanks to TG’s great driving we made it safe & sound.
Any drive through Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park is a potential photo safari so we always keep our cameras within easy reach. On the Rockefeller Parkway we saw two cars stopped on a bridge up ahead. Did they spot a moose? No! OMG!!! A huge grizzly bear was crossing the river!
We quickly parked the car, and we got some wonderfully close shots of this magnificent animal as he lumbered by. We found out later that the locals have nicknamed this grizzly “Huck,” for the nearby Huckleberry Mountain. He is extremely elusive, so this was a rare and very fortunate spy.
Watch “Huck the Magic Grizzly” slowly walk by!
Thus began our animal count for Grand Teton NP. In addition to Huck, we also saw a coyote in the beautiful afternoon light,
A skunk, a badger, and a lovely herd of pronghorns.
We pulled into the driveway at McReynold’s West Cabin a little after 4 pm.
The cabin was perfect, with everything we could need, and an incredible view of the Teton mountains.
We woke up early Tuesday morning, excited to begin our week inside the park. As predicted, the sky threatened snow, so we headed to the Snake River Overlook to channel our inner Ansel Adams – aka concentrate on black and whites on this cloudy, gray day.
This is approximately where the famous photographer Ansel Adams took his iconic image of the Snake River and the Tetons rising above it – and helped convince Congress to designate this area a national park.
After a picnic with a view,
We drove to the Chapel of the Transfiguration, another iconic park image. This tiny rustic chapel was built in 1925 and provided local ranchers as well as tourists a place to worship close to home.
It is a spiritual place, with beautiful stained-glass windows in the foyer
And a view of the mountains behind the altar.
At the back of the chapel is a book for prayer requests. I am not a particularly religious person, but I wrote a special prayer in the book. It seemed the right thing to do in such a sacred space.
Within walking distance of the chapel is the old Menor’s Ferry. This was the only way across the Snake River before they built the steel truss bridge in 1927, making the ferry obsolete.
Wednesday morning started out cold. From the coziness inside our cabin, we could see that the clouds over the mountains were dramatic.
After a quick breakfast, we buddled ourselves up and spent some time photographing the Mormon Row barns.
While TG concentrated on his long-exposure panoramas,
I entertained myself with the adorable little chipmunks that scurried about the old, wooden buildings.
You can see all of TG’s beautiful Mormon Row Historic District photos here: (click on link to open in new tab)
Thursday morning started clear, and we drove the loop road, stopping to admire the beautiful sunrise along 191,
And the Willow Flats Overlook.
Along the way, we spied the largest herd of elk we had seen yet. There were at least 200 cows, all herded along by three or four large bulls. We could hear the bulls bugling, which sounds like something between a painful scream and a horse neighing and is part of their mating ritual.
We stopped at the Jenny Lake Overlook,
And checked out the Taggart Lake trailhead. The clouds had started to move in, obscuring our view of the mountains, so we decided to leave the hike for another day.
By nightfall the clouds were gone, and millions of stars lit up the sky.
The Big Dipper was perfectly positioned above the Teton mountain range, so I set up my tripod for a star stack.
As I broke down my tripod 90 minutes later, I heard a loud rustling in the tall grass and the distinctive sounds of something (big?) crossing the small stream that runs through the property. A moose? A pronghorn? A coyote??? Whatever it was, it wanted nothing to do with me and given the number of mule deer we saw around the cabin, I’m guessing that’s what I most likely heard.
Friday was another cold but clear day. We found a nice set of black bear prints and TG may or may not have taken off his shoes and socks for a bear feet/bare feet photo op.
We took advantage of the beautiful weather for another photo shoot at the Moulton Barns,
Went for a drive around the park,
And captured the last vestiges of autumn before heading home for an afternoon nap.
That night the stars once again filled the sky. Around 9 pm, we drove the five minutes back to Mormon Row to capture the Milky Way rising above the famous T.A. Moulton Barn.
Before we arrived in the Greater Yellowstone/Grand Teton area, it was my dream to see a moose and we had already spied 35. After all of our great animal sightings over the past month, we started Saturday with no expectations.
We decided on an early morning drive on the Moose-Wilson Road and no sooner had we turned the corner when we came upon two beautiful bull moose grazing in the meadow very close to the road.
On our way back, a cow had joined them! Make that 38 moose — so far!
The beautiful Teton mountain range lined the west side of our drive as we made our way north.
A large group was pulled over at Oxbow Bend and as we hopped out of the car, we spied a bald eagle on the ice. TG managed to capture the eagle in flight along with a little beaver sitting nearby, hoping no one would notice him!
The afternoon warmed into the balmy mid-40s with plenty of sunshine. We decided to hike to Taggart Lake – something we had been looking forward to all week. This beautiful glacier lake is a 3.2-mile round trip hike and is rated “easy” on the park website.
The trail crossed through flat, rolling sagebrush and past a little waterfall,
Before beginning a slow, gentle climb through aspen-covered moraine and pine forests.
The lake is stunning, and we could not have picked a more perfect day. The water was like glass, reflecting the Teton mountains rising above it.
Despite it being so late in the season, there were plenty of hikers on the trail, meaning we did not see much wildlife besides chipmunks, squirrels, and a few snowshoe hare tracks.
It was simply a beautiful day for a lovely hike!
You can see all of TG’s beautiful landscape panoramas here, including Taggart Lake:
After a fun morning with the muskrats and beavers at Oxbow Bend, we relaxed on Sunday afternoon. We had been going pretty much continuously for the past six weeks and needed to ready ourselves for stop #3 on our road trip: New Mexico.
We did enjoy a lovely last supper at Dornan’s Pizza & Pasta Company.
It’s nothing fancy, but it has a million-dollar view and was a relaxing place to enjoy the sunset.
Our road trip thus far had been extraordinary. Between the two parks we had enjoyed 29 photo safari days and already a lifetime of memories!
You can view all of our wildlife photos from Grand Teton on the Flickr link below:
Most locals say that fall is a perfect time to visit the Yellowstone-Grand Teton area. There are far fewer people and a 50/50 chance of decent weather year in and out. In our six weeks we only had two days of what we would consider “bad” weather.
And McReynolds Blacktail Cabins was the perfect “Grand Splurge” for our 40th anniversary! It is a charming cabin and its location inside the park is priceless.
You can view all of our Grand Teton landscape photos on the Flickr link below:
As we left the Grand Tetons in our review mirror, our feelings were bittersweet. We were sad to leave this place, with its astounding beauty, but also excited to continue our journey.
Coming next: Westward Ho(ly Cow) Episode 3 “Back to the Bosque”
After months of tweaking the itinerary, we were finally ready to head west on our epic, 5 ½ month road trip. We pulled out of our driveway in Okeechobee, FL early Sunday morning with the plan to arrive at our Airbnb in Big Sky, MT on Thursday.
We built in a little extra time for sightseeing, including stops in Tupelo, MS at Elvis’s birthplace, a Graceland drive-by,
And the 27-mile scenic tour of South Dakota’s Badlands.
You can view photos of our quickie trip though the Badlands here:
It was a long time to be in the car, but there was no traffic and 2,800 miles later we arrived in Big Sky as scheduled.
Domenick’s condo could not have been more perfect for us AND Oscar & Maddie. We had plenty of room to spread out and since it was a corner unit, plenty of privacy.
It was located at the base of Lone Mountain, which offered us gorgeous views every time we stepped outdoors.
You can find Domenick’s condo on the Airbnb website here:
It proved to be an excellent way to navigate around the park and also hear enriching facts and stories as we drove along.
According to our Gypsy guide, the Madison River sees over 200,000 angler days per year –that’s an average of almost six hundred anglers Every. Single. Day! p.s. We named the narrator “Edward” after our wonderful guide in South Africa.
We also spent one day driving around the west side of the Tetons, over the pass, through Grand Teton NP, and then home via Yellowstone.
Given my absolute terror of heights, it was all I could do to snap the few pics I did while on Teton Pass. I was too busy breathing into a paper bag and eating crybaby pie.
It made for a long, nine-hour day (O & M are SUCH troopers!!)
But we were rewarded with gorgeous views of the mountains from both the west and east sides.
And at the end of the day, we spied a group of male moose grazing in a meadow alongside the road. Just that quick, my life count for moose jumped from zero to three!
The first thing most people think about when they hear “Yellowstone” is Old Faithful. But the park is made up of over 10,000 hydrothermal features including geysers, beautifully colored hot springs, steaming fumaroles, and boiling mud pots. The land is truly wild! Instead of racing through the park, trying to see as many features as we possibly could, we chose to visit places we had targeted to thoroughly explore:
Upper Geyser Basin, which has the most concentrated grouping of hydrothermal features in the world, including Old Faithful.
We stayed long enough to see Old Faithful erupt three different times, from three different vantage points.
On our 6-mile hike around the Upper Basin, we also saw Anemone, Spasmodic, and Beehive Geysers erupt.
We walked as far as Morning Glory Pool, which is sadly fading due to all the coins and other items people keep throwing into the center.
Midway Geyser Basin, home to the Grand Prismatic Spring, third largest hot spring in the world, and Excelsior Geyser.
We even managed the one-mile hike up to the Grand Prismatic Overlook.
A beautiful afternoon at the Fountain Paint Pots in the Lower Geyser Basin, with views of all four of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features: geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles.
And a full day at Mammoth Hot Springs, with its amazing travertine terraces.
You can view all of our hydrothermal photos here:
Of course, Yellowstone is also all about the wildlife! I kept a count of all the animals and birds we spied and for “too many to count” I put an “X.”
By noon on our first day, bison were already an “X.” They are everywhere!
One afternoon we received intel that Yellowstone’s celebrity grizzly bears, “Raspberry” and her cub, “Jam” had been spotted in the eastern section of the park. Raspberry is a 15-year-old sow with a history of keeping her cubs longer than usual. Typically, around two years bear cubs are on their own so that the mother can mate again, but in the spring of 2022, Raspberry and 2 1/2-year-old Jam were still seen together.
After a bit of detective work, we determined the general area. As we rounded a curve, we knew we were in the right place: a crowd of 150+ armed with big-lens cameras and binocs were all pointed in the same direction.
Sure enough, Raspberry and Jam were there – a good 200 yards away and in harsh mid-day light but a thrill, nonetheless.
And as if that were not enough, on our drive home we spotted a mountain goat, grazing high up on the side of a hill. What a magical, mystical end to our day!
TG had been battling a cough and a friend suggested it might be allergies. So, one Sunday afternoon we drove down the mountain for some local honey – a good home remedy. And on the way, we came upon a moose family grazing right by the side of the road!
Besides beautifully terraced hot springs, Mammoth is also home to dozens of elk who like to hang out around the buildings and nicely manicured lawns. But that doesn’t mean they are in any way tame. Rangers are posted everywhere, reminding you to keep your distance.
On our way home that day we spied three more moose: a bull who was doing his best to hit on two cows, neither of which wanted anything to do with him. But Oscar and Maddie had been in the kennel since early morning, so we had to hurry home before the grand finale — if there even was one.
You can view all of our wildlife photos here:
Between all the rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and deep canyons that make up Yellowstone National Park, there are wildly beautiful landscapes everywhere you turn.
Artist’s Point is an iconic “must-photograph” image. It is a glorious waterfall that drops 308ft into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Hayden and Lamar Valleys have sweeping open plains with huge herds of bison and other animals,
Firehole River was named by early trappers for the rising steam which makes it look like it’s on fire.
And is one of only two places inside the park where you can actually swim!
And Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake above 7,000 feet in North America. Research has found that if one could empty all the water out of Yellowstone Lake, the bottom is similar to what is found on the land: geysers, hot springs, and deep canyons.
We also spent a day driving to Upper Mesa Falls, located about an hour west of Yellowstone. A wooden boardwalk lets you get so close you can feel the mist from the spray!
And another delightful afternoon hiking to Ousel Falls, located in Big Sky.
You can view all of our landscape photos here:
“Animal Jams” are a quintessential part of Yellowstone. The animals in the park roam free, and that means they sometimes use the same roads we drive on.
On any given day, at any given time, in any given place you are likely to encounter stopped traffic. But it’s all part of the park’s experience so you just enjoy it — and try not to get frustrated!
We had been in the Yellowstone area for a month and thus far blessed with unseasonably mild weather: warm days with plenty of blue skies and bright sunshine. But the forecast for the weekend of Oct 22 and into the following week did not look good. We decided to take advantage of what might be our last warm, sunny day and drive down to Grand Teton for some landscape shots.
It’s a long 4-hour drive in good weather so we also booked an overnight at the Cowboy Village in Jackson.
We spent all day Friday in the park, shooting landscapes
And all the wildlife we happened upon. In that one day of driving around, we saw a big male grizzly bear, a very dark gray wolf, a bald eagle, nine different moose (yes!!), a coyote, a ruffed grouse, and a little black bear.
Old Man Winter showed up with a vengeance on Saturday morning.
It took us 7 1/2 hours to get home. Part of that was driving below the speed limit on snowy, mountain roads. But we also sat for an hour in a “snow jam.” Someone had slid off the road and the rangers stopped traffic in both directions while we all waited for the tow truck. When the guilty car finally came by (his “drive of shame”) we saw it was a Range Rover of all things! I guess the guy got overly confident.
In spite of the wild drive home, it was well worth the trip!
Before we left Florida, I had already penciled this episode as “Walk on the Wild Side” for the “Wild West” and “wildlife” connotations. But between the wildly fantastic hydrothermal features of the park,
All the wildly beautiful landscapes,
All the wildlife we saw, and the wild weather our last time driving through the park, our 32 nights in Yellowstone were indeed a Walk on the Wild Side!
If you haven’t gotten enough photos, you can also check out our entire Flickr albums, which include pics not in any of the above categories as well as all of TG’s beautiful panoramas.
In June of 2022, we found ourselves in a bit of a predicament. We had a confirmed reservation at an Air BNB outside of Gardiner, MT for a month-long visit to Yellowstone National Park in September. As wildlife photographers, visiting the park was high on both our bucket lists: TG had never been and I was too young to remember much of my family’s visit in the early 1960s.
But unprecedented flooding caused the park to close, with not a lot of hope that the north (Gardiner) entrance would be open any time this season.
To salvage the Yellowstone portion of our trip we had a lot of boxes to check: the dates had to work as we were due at our next stop the third week of October. It had to be within an hour’s drive of one of the park’s entrances, it had to be dog friendly, and the price needed to be within our budget.
As luck would have it, we found a condominium in Big Sky, MT that fit the bill. It was located about 50 miles from the west entrance and was dog friendly.
Something about the host’s Air BNB profile rang a bell. Could it be the same Domenick that owned and operated the Quito Inn & Suites in Tababela?!?
Sure enough, it was! After the new international airport opened outside of Quito in 2013, it was the only place to stay those first few years and we met him on several of our trips to Ecuador.
After catching up on old times, Domenick offered us the Big Sky condo at a considerable discount. Yellowstone, followed by eight nights in Grand Teton, was back on track.
Our original plan was to head to New Mexico the first week of November for the sandhill crane migration at the Bosque del Apache before heading home in early December. But we thought as long as we’re this far, why not just keep going?? So we added … and added … and added …
After the Bosque we drive north to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to spend the holidays photographing the aurora borealis, then back south to Fargo, North Dakota for a chance to spy saw-whet owls, and finish with another month in the Sax-Zim Bog with the great gray owls.
By the time we’re back home in Okeechobee, Oscar and Maddie will have added six more states to their already impressive count (23 total), plus 3 Canadian provinces.
Blogging a trip this long must be broken up into several parts (“Episodes”) which I will post as we go. Travel along with us – or wait until we’re back home and binge-read them all at once. Either way, it should be quite the ride! So fasten your seatbelts and hang on as we hit the road – again.
Coming next: Westward Ho Episode 1 “Walk on the Wild Side”
Every summer humpback whales make their way up the coast off South America from Antarctica to breed and give birth. We have traveled to the small fishing village of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador multiple times to photograph this migration and after a three-year hiatus due to Covid, we were finally able to return in August 2022.
International air travel has changed since the last time we flew: there are new health forms to fill out, the airports are crowded and disorganized, and the planes are packed.
But our flights were relatively on time and our luggage arrived with us, so our travel was easy compared to some of the horror stories we’ve heard!
Puerto Lopez is a three hour drive north of Guayaquil airport and our pre-arranged taxi was there to meet us at midnight. Years ago, on our first visit to Puerto Lopez, we discovered Hosteria Itapoa, a delightful bed & breakfast, and have stayed there ever since.
It was like coming home to find our bed in cabana 16 ready for our 3 am arrival!
The gardens at Itapoa grow more beautiful each year and every morning at breakfast we tried to capture a few of the birds that flitted around us.
The dogs are still there, including “Pelican”, who we first met as a little puppy!
The town of Puerto Lopez has changed a lot since our last visit. Many restaurants and shops did not survive the pandemic but we were happy to find a few of our favorites still in business.
We also discovered some new gems.
Where there were once just a few ramshackle beach bars spaced quite far apart, there is now a continuous strip of competing, brightly decorated full-service restaurant/bars, each blaring loud music and lit up at night like the Las Vegas strip.
The fisherman still come in at the southern end of the beach in the early mornings — the same cacophony of colors, sounds, and smells.
Years ago we found Palo Santo Travel, one of the many whale-watching tour companies in town.
We were impressed with the respect with which both the captains and guides treated the whales and found out later that the owner, Cristina Castro, is affiliated with the Pacific Whale Foundation.
The Pacific Whale Foundation partners with various research programs and Palo Santo allows guests to accompany them on scientific outings.
This year’s project is part of the Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale Sentinel Program, out of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. Tissue samples are being collected to study organic pollutants as well as determine the size of the fat cells in the whale’s blubber — an indication of their food supply.
PWF’s Juliana fearlessly stood on the bow of the boat collecting samples from the massive, 40-ton animals, looking for all the world like Xena, the Warrior Princess.
While Luna watched from above, taking photos and meticulous notes on which whales were biopsied, the GPS coordinates, and the weather conditions.
It was exciting and interesting to watch and learn – plus it gave me a new appreciation for the courage of scientists in the field!
Each day the two Palo Santo boats traveled to Isla de la Plata, an island located approximately 25 miles from Puerto Lopez. We looked for whales on our way to and from.
Once on the island, we had the opportunity to enjoy the many green sea turtles swimming in the bay,
And then hike up to the top of the hill
to enjoy the blue-footed boobies,
And the many other birds that call this “Poor Man’s Galapagos” home,
Along with gorgeous views from high up on the cliffs.
There is always time to snorkel in the bay and I have loved diving down to listen to the whale songs or photograph the fish and turtles.
But this year the water was too cold for this wimpy South Floridian, so I passed my underwater camera to Silvano who had fun snapping pics of what he spied.
In past years we have been treated to amazing breaching activity – part of the whale’s mating ritual.
And although we saw an occasional breach and plenty of mothers with calves, we had yet to find a good “jumper” on this trip. We were starting to feel a little frustrated with our photos thus far.
We are early risers and were ready for coffee long before Itapoa’s 8 o’clock breakfast so each morning we walked down the beach to a spot open at 7 am: Jouser.
It was at Jouser that we met a tour operator named Winston Churchil. (Yes, Churchil with one “L”)
Winston arranged for us to go out on a small panga with Miguel, a local fisherman.
There are five things needed for perfect whale photos:
(1) Good light at your back – which is tough in Puerto Lopez as it’s almost always overcast in July and August.
(2) The boat must go slow and steady as possible.
(3) Patience – a lot of it!
(4) A good captain who knows whales and knows the waters.
(5) Luck – although a good captain can make his own luck.
We hit the jackpot with Miguel. The sea was calm and the light was beautiful. For once the sun was shining and the sky was blue. Miguel puttered along at a rate so slow we were barely moving.
It took some patience but in the end we were rewarded with a beautiful baby humpback breaching over and over and over. It was magical.
Another change this year was that our favorite captain, Jaime, was no longer with Palo Santo. He was the best captain we’ve ever had and we sorely missed his expertise on the boat.
One morning Jouser was closed so we backtracked to Spuma del Mar, an open-air restaurant on the Malecon. This turned out to be incredibly fortuitous.
While sitting at a sidewalk table at Spuma, a passing car suddenly slammed on the breaks and the driver hopped out. It was Captain Jaime and what a joyful reunion we shared! He now runs his own boat and agreed to take us out for a private tour on Monday morning, our last full day.
As expected, it was off the charts. Captain Jaime delivered not one but two jumpers. We had a whale breach right next to the boat 43 times – 43 ½ if you count a spy hop.
And as one was jumping right in front of us, we had another whale in the distance that also breached — 11 times!
Captain Jaime and I kept count, whooping and shouting out the numbers until I finally said I need to switch to English as it’s too hard for me to keep track of both jumpers and also remember how to count in Spanish!
When it appeared that the whales were finally at rest, I asked if we could look for the “lobos marinos” (sea lions) on Salango Island.
It was a bit of a detour but Capt Jaime readily agreed and beelined us to the island where we found six big, beautiful sea lions sunbathing on the rocks.
It was everything we could have hoped for and we could not have scripted a better end to our week in Puerto Lopez.
We’re already dreaming about going back!
You can view our complete Flickr albums by arrowing through the below images.
Milky Way season runs April through September in Florida but there’s no guarantee that you will be able to photograph it. More often than not, clouds block out most of the night sky. Even when it’s clear the amount of moisture in the air can make the stars look like they’re under a layer of rippling water.
All that being said, one of the best places around here to see and photograph the Milky Way is Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. So, I took a chance and booked two nights over the new moon in May.
We knew that tent-camping with the pups was not an option. So, we agreed that TG would help me set up and drive out for dinners, but otherwise he would stay home with Oscar and Maddie while I camped solo.
When we arrived on Sunday afternoon the clouds to the north looked ominous and we raced to get everything organized before the rains started.
Fortunately, it never did rain and once everything was ready, TG was on his way.
After a quick dinner, I went for a short walk.
I didn’t see much in the heat of the late afternoon but did spy a chatty, red-shouldered hawk,
And iconic Kissimmee white-tailed deer and turkeys!
One of my favorite things to do while camping is a sunset drive through the park. The daytime crowds have gone home and I eagerly look forward to what I might spy as dusk turns to dark.
Over the years I’ve spied everything from alligators to bobcats to (gasp) a 6ft Eastern diamondback rattlesnake slithering across the road.
I headed towards the main entrance around sunset. As I drove along, groups of five or six dark-colored birds kept flushing just ahead of the car. In talking to a park ranger the next morning, we determined that they were common nighthawks. These birds migrate through KPPSP and are only here for a brief time. I was lucky to see them!
By the time I turned around it was almost dark. I counted three different barred owls and a little burrowing owl that fluttered to a fence post for just long enough to snap a quick photo.
Once back at camp, I set up for a star stack but the clouds rolled in so I called it a night.
I was awakened at 3 am by the “who cooks for you” call of a barred owl directly over my tent, and then again at 5:30 when a cacophony of owl calls filled the campground. I was wide awake and decided to take advantage of the cool morning for a hike on the Prairie Loop Trail.
This trail is a 4.6-mile loop and takes you through open prairie and wooded hammocks.
I enjoyed some time with a tom turkey,
Plenty of red-winged blackbirds and Eastern meadowlarks,
A common yellowthroat,
And rare spy: a Bachman’s sparrow!
As I headed towards the hammock, I snapped a photo of a vulture looking quite pretty for once,
And a pair of swallow-tailed kites far off on a tree snag.
By the time I got back to camp, temperatures had soared and I was tired. I rested until TG arrived and then we drove over to check out the alligator pit. At least a couple dozen lay in and around the water, not doing much of anything.
After dinner, TG headed for home and I went for another sunset drive. You can usually spy bobwhites scampering along the side of the park roads but they are skittery and difficult to photograph. I was able to capture one by staying far enough back and zooming in with the long reach of my little Nikon P900.
I scanned the area for deer,
And spotted a wild hog grazing in the meadow, not at all interested in me.
Up ahead I saw the unmistakable shape of a four-footed animal – a bobcat or small coyote – but it vanished into the darkness before I could be sure.
I spied burrowing owls, three more barred owls, and quite a few snakes.
As I turned the corner to head back towards the campground, my headlights picked up a barred owl sitting in the middle of the road. She immediately flew to a nearby pole.
I put the car in Park, lowered my window, and just as I got ready to take a shot, she turned to look at me. Hello, Gorgeous! She was still sitting there as I thanked her and went on my way.
Once back at camp I set up for a star stack. This technique is a composite of 100+ images taken over an hour or more, and then stacked together in a free program called “Star Stax.”
It was wonderful to sit alone in the dark, listening to the night sounds around me. Suddenly out of nowhere, three little furry things came bounding towards me. They were baby raccoons and mama was not far behind! Upon seeing me, they ran across the road but I could still see their black outlines scurrying back and forth beside the scrub palmettos.
I woke during the night to footsteps crunching in the leaves outside my screen window. I grabbed my flashlight and peered out: a little opossum waddled into the woods behind my tent.
Unfortunately, the sky did not give me the Milky Way opportunity I was hoping for this visit. But it’s only May and I have the whole summer ahead of me.
You’ll know where to find me: alone again, nature-ally!
In February 2022 we left sunny, warm Florida for four weeks at the Sax-Zim Bog in Northern Minnesota. We wanted to photograph the legendary great gray owls – which we did and then some! You can read all about it in my blog “28 Days in the Bog.”
In the spirit of “since we’ve already come this far” we added another two weeks in Allouez, (AL-o-way), located in the Keweenaw (KEY-wee-naw) Peninsula, which projects nearly 70 miles into Lake Superior on the northern side of Michigan’s U.P.
When conditions are right, the Aurora Borealis are visible across the open expanse of the Big Lake.
The Northern Lights were high on our bucket list, especially after canceling our trip to Finland at the beginning of the covid pandemic, and we hoped for the best during our two-week stay.
Our Air BNB in Allouez was a palace compared to our tiny basement apartment in Hibbing.
There was a spacious kitchen with a table big enough to spread out two laptops and a lovely view across the backyard.
A separate living room with a comfy wrap-around sofa,
And a flight of stairs leading to two bedrooms and a half bath on the second floor.
Before we arrived, our host had told us to leave the water running in the downstairs bathroom. There was a “Let it Run” order in place due to a deep freeze. I guess when your water comes from the third largest freshwater lake in the world it’s ok to “let it run!”
We couldn’t have asked for a better place to spend the last two weeks of our road trip. You can find the Old Mining House on Air BNB here:
We scouted several locations for our late-night aurora forays,
And settled on the bayfront at Eagle River. The view to the north was unobstructed, and we could wait and watch from the warmth of our car.
Unfortunately, conditions were not favorable for the duration of our stay. Although we had beautiful blue skies on many days,
Evenings turned overcast almost every night.
But we were there for two weeks so we made the best of it. The whole peninsula is an outdoor enthusiast, nature lover’s paradise. Not only is it surrounded on three sides by Lake Superior with its lovely beaches,
It offers hundreds of miles of snowmobile and hiking trails,
State parks, scenic drives,
And beautiful waterfalls.
What we were NOT prepared for was All. The. Snow – especially this late into the season!
Keweenaw averages 208 inches of snow per year, and as of March 9, 2022, they were already at 284.5.
Lake Superior keeps the area warmer than Northern Minnesota but also dumps a lot more snow. Although we had plenty of layers to keep us warm, the amount of snow made it challenging to do many of the outdoor activities.
Most of the area’s attractions were closed for the season, and others were accessible only by snowmobile (above our pay grade) or snowshoes, which we rented from Cross Country Sports in Calumet for $10 a day.
Our neighborhood consisted of a small cluster of houses off US 41, a busy main road, so there was not a lot of opportunity for walking close to home.
We did manage a hike to Hungarian Falls,
Home to five waterfalls with the highest one having a 75-foot drop.
This time of year, everything was frozen, but it was still a lovely hike in the woods. We saw multiple tracks – including some fresh snowshoe hare. The only hare we saw, however, was an illustration in the children’s book “The Cross-Country Cat,” the pages of which were affixed to trees along the trail.
The Keweenaw Peninsula was the site of the first copper boom in the United States, which led to its moniker “Copper Country.”
And we spent a lot of time exploring the quaint little towns that dot the area.
Allouez is about four miles north of Calumet, which boasts a beautiful cathedral and lots of historic architecture.
We also enjoyed lunch at Carmelita’s and sampled their famous Thimbleberry Margarita. Thimbleberries are similar to raspberries and are a favorite among local residents.
Lake Linden has some wonderful old churches,
And fun restaurants.
But it was in Laurium that we were introduced to pasties.
Pronounced “past-ee”, it is a folded pastry case with a savory filling, typically seasoned meat, potatoes, and vegetables. The travel-ready meal came to Keweenaw by way of Cornish miners who migrated to the area to work in the copper mines in the 19th century.
The pasty is a point of pride among the residents of the U.P. and debates range far and wide on which is the best.
Donna at the Visitor’s Center gave us a list of places where we could try this delicacy but added that none would compare with her mother-in-law’s!
There is even a “Keweenaw Pasty Trail” that lists the area’s best locations – each with its own, unique spin on this beloved little pie.
One day we drove up to Copper Harbor, located at the very northern tip of the peninsula.
Most of the shops and restaurants were closed for the season, so we stopped at the Mariner North for lunch.
As we waited for our food, the restaurant gradually filled. It suddenly occurred to us that we were the only – and I do mean ONLY – patrons not dressed in snowmobile attire!
The countryside is full of photographic gems, even in the winter. We found picturesque barns,
Old dams, and historic copper mines – some of which are purported to be haunted!
We had stopped to photograph the abandoned Quincy Dredge #2, currently sunk in the shallow water of Torch Lake. Just as we got out of the car, we spied a little red fox crossing the ice!
In scouting locations for our aurora watching, we stumbled upon two interesting sites in Eagle River. The first was the Church of the Holy Protection, a monastery under the jurisdiction of The Ukrainian Catholic Church.
This stunning piece of architecture sits on the shore of Lake Superior, about five miles outside of town.
The monks devote themselves to a life of prayer, music,
And work, including making jams, coffees, and other baked goods at their sole source of income: the Jampot bakery.
Unfortunately, the Jampot is only open during season, late May through mid-October, but many of their products are available online.
There is no phone listed on either the monastery or Jampot website, but they do have an email. So, we inquired about their Saturday evening Solemn Vespers service and received this reply:
We are not regular church attendees, but in these troubling times we could not pass up an opportunity to pray for peace with Ukrainian monks.
The Solemn Vespers were unlike anything we had ever experienced. The entire 90 minutes was sung – even the chosen scriptures of the day.
The monks sang acapella, in three-part harmony, and their strong voices filled the small sanctuary like a heavenly choir.
TG and I were the only attendees and as we sat listening it occurred to me that this beautiful service would have happened with or without us. We were merely bystanders in one of the most genuine – and profound – acts of worship either of us had ever witnessed.
On another day while driving through Eagle River we noticed a sign for the Emil Dyni Memorial Deer Feeding Park. Whaaat??
In the winter deer travel from miles around to Eagle River where they are fed – by anyone who has brought the proper food.
They flock here by the hundreds and through the years have learned that the yard is a safe place to eat and bed down.
This park was on the same road that led to the Eagle River bayfront, so each evening when we went out aurora-hunting we passed the deer, peeking above the snowdrifts as we drove by.
The two weeks did not give us exactly what we had hoped for, but we were able to explore an area of the country that neither of us had visited before. The more we travel in the U.S.A., the more wonderful places we find to go. The Keweenaw Peninsula is absolutely beautiful and a great place to visit – anytime of the year. Just be sure to pack your snowshoes!
To view more photos from our stay, visit our flickr albums.
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:
Two weeks before Christmas I found myself sitting in the Okeechobee County Courthouse, serving as a juror on a criminal trial. It was a complicated case, with no clear right and wrong, and the only thing that kept me sane was knowing that we had reserved ten nights camping at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.
Dec 23 couldn’t come soon enough. Since we were planning to be there for so long, we set up two tents – one for sleeping and the other as our “commissary.”
We fell asleep that night to the hoot of owls while coyotes howled in the distance.
Christmas Eve morning I went for a bike ride and TG worked on photos.
I was happy to spy a beautiful, black-crowned night heron
And a female northern harrier enjoying the early morning sun.
Later I hiked the Prairie Loop Trail and managed to capture a belted kingfisher, notorious for flying off the moment you even think “camera.”
I was almost to the campgrounds when I came upon an 8-point buck, far more interested in grazing than in me.
One of our favorite things to do while camping is late afternoon drives around the park. The day visitors are mostly gone and the animals are beautiful in the golden light.
This crested caracara loves this spot and more often than not you can find him sitting here in the late afternoon.
That evening I drove the park road again. An owl swooped in front of me, and I spied a second one in the trees, too far away to even think about getting a shot.
Christmas morning, we woke up early to enjoy the peace and quiet before heading back home to Okeechobee.
We were invited to spend Christmas evening with our neighbors and we chose to sleep at home rather than drive back out to camp that night.
We had already noted that the campground was more crowded this year than in the past, and the vibe was different. Oscar and Maddie were stressed, which was stressing us out. We didn’t dare leave them alone in the tent, even inside their kennel, as the park was full, including several loose dogs.
That night we drove to our favorite spot for a star stack. We set up our camp chairs by the car while O and M slept inside and our cameras clicked away. We could hear, but did not spy, barred owls hooting in the trees above us.
On Monday morning we decided that TG should take O & M home while I stayed at the camp. Since we live only 45 minutes away, he would make the drive 2 times a day to spend time with me, enjoy the morning and dinner together, and build a nightly campfire.
As a bonus, my friend Tim and his 7-year-old son were staying two sites away beginning that night. I’ve known Tim for over a decade and we were looking forward to spending time with them.
Later that evening Tim sent me a text “You have a macro lens?”
They had spied a black widow spider in the bathhouse!
TG came back early the next morning and the four of us went for a hike.
We didn’t see a lot, but we did spy a beautiful buck bounding through the prairie
And a big banana spider.
When we got back to camp a large tom turkey was pecking on the hubcap of our car – he could see his reflection in the chrome and was not backing down!
After TG left that evening, I intended to go for a hike but only got as far as the Prairie Loop trailhead when I heard the snuffle-grunting of a wild pig. By the light of my flashlight, I spied a mama with three babies. She snorted at me and I decided it was best if I turned around.
Wednesday morning, we said goodbye to Tim and Carlyle and took a drive with the pups. After TG left that evening, I went looking for owls.
Much to my delight, I found one,
Then his mate.
And they even “bonded” a few times!
Thursday morning TG met me early. We had been contacted by a local rancher to take photos for their new website and we wanted to walk the property together.
That night I shot another star stack at the corner.
Friday morning, I hiked the Prairie Loop Trail again. There was a nest in a tree I wanted a better look at but the fog was so thick I couldn’t see much of anything!
I still managed to spy a grumpy yellow-rumped warbler,