Thursday, April 26, 2012

Notes From the Field -- A Spring Not Sprung

Middle of April on the Superior Basin is only nominally spring, the average high temperature being all of about 46°. March was unusually warm and some of that spilled over into April. With rumors of apple blossoms fully a month early, I headed north to see for myself.

I’d jumped the gun and knew it but planned to make a go of things, starting on the Gogebic Range then heading east along the lake to Grand Marais and the three shipwrecks that lay in the sand near there. When shooting those, low water and an offshore breeze are helpful. Otherwise it can prove a long way to travel for slender reward:

Prepping for the trip, near perfect conditions were promised for the week ahead. By the time I’d arrived on the Range the thing had turned and a day later it was plain my ship’d been sunk in the near certain prospect of high winds and roiled seas beneath leaden skies at Grand Marais.

That’s the way it goes with fieldwork...

So I stayed around the Range and covered nearly 1,500 miles over five days, scouting for spring. Mostly the woods were like November except duller and with harsher light. In April, rich colors left from the previous autumn are everywhere leached out to a resolute dull brown. Then you round a corner coming down a hill and lingering winter suddenly relents:

Bluebird skies don’t often deliver anything like perfect light, though it was good to work beneath a warming sun all the same.

Birds were active throughout the forest. Especially turkeys, which this time of year are consumed with courting & contest and don’t care who knows it. Frogs sang in hopeful chorus sometimes even during the day but all through every night, save for during the dark of the morn when temperatures dropped to freezing and the need for warmth trumps even the desire for love.

Many years ago during a September afternoon cloaked in cool mist, Johnny, Heather & I ate lunch while resting on a bed of pine needles covering the rock knob above a cascading waterfall. An eagle flew close over our heads and the day was memorable. The fir that shed those comfy needles is fallen now and the pine needles gone. Hard rock is covered with a cushy green moss, still a fine place to sit and listen to water rush by. While there I shot this:

Reindeer Moss (lichen), with a spring of Wintergreen

Track left by the imminent changing of a season is often subtle and easily missed. You must look beyond the immensity of the wilderness to nooks & crannies in order to find it. While land looking I spotted these, peeking up from heaps of winter’s detritus and reaching towards the sun:

Trout Lilly (Erythronium americanum)

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Those Spring Beauty blossoms are no bigger than the nail on my little finger and I felt lucky to spot ‘em.

I’d have returned home pretty much straightaway, but the threat of tornadic thunderstorms over the entire route kept me on the Range an extra day and as sometimes happens, unplanned fieldwork proved providential.

Cruising down a road I’ve rarely traveled, I spied an old car hard beside the ruined stone foundation of a barn on an abandoned homestead. Behind that car stands an old wall, propped up by a few aged timbers. Behind that wall hides this:

Such treasures from the past are fast becoming incredibly rare, even along the Superior Basin where there’s much that’s long abandoned and left undisturbed. Though the light wasn’t near to optimal, now I know where the thing rests. I’ll return with the Linhof during high summer early one morning, when I suspect this faded American icon will come alive in perfect light. That is, provided the protective wall hiding this prize doesn't first collapse in the swell of a fierce spring storm and finally crush the thing.

It’s sadly not uncommon to make plans to shoot some exquisite remnant only to find upon your return that time and the seasons have conspired to relegate the object of your ambition to wistful memory.

I did spy the apple tree rumored to be in bloom, by the way. A single tree not quite half in flower, having also jumped the gun in hopeful March now holding on for all it’s worth through cold, damp and windy April. It too awaits the bright days and warm nights of May when the promise of rebirth will almost certainly be fulfilled.

And somewhere in that field behind that wall while picking over the rusted but remarkably intact shard of cultural antiquity, I also picked up my first wood tick of the season. On my pants leg not my leg but still. If ever there’s a sure sign of spring…

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