Photos of the Week – November 12, 2020

Tuesday morning, we woke up to a glazed and slippery scene. Thick ice coated trees, fences, lawns, and (urgh) windshields. We had a decent-sized branch down in our yard, but felt lucky compared to some of our neighbors with much bigger clean-up jobs. Once we got the kids to school, I sat down at my computer to get some work done – while keeping an eye on the sky outside. The forecast called for some sunshine after lunch and, if that happened, I wanted to take my camera Lincoln Creek Prairie before the ice melted.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and ice in our backyard prairie garden. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/200 sec at f/13.

At about 9:30 AM, I convinced myself the sky had brightened somewhat and that I should probably at least do a little photography in the yard in case the ice melted before the sun actually did come out. I got a few decent photos in the prairie garden, but I had a hard time finding enough contrast and texture to make me happy. I needed sunshine. I went back to my computer and tried to focus on a couple projects. Finally, at about 11 AM, the clouds started to thin for real and I grabbed my camera and drove (carefully!) across town to the prairie.

I played with this little patch of black-eyed Susans in our yard for a while because the little bit of color helped counteract the dim light from the cloudy sky. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/640 sec at f/13.
One more from the yard. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/640 sec at f/13.

When I got to Lincoln Creek Prairie, I had to give myself a quick pep talk. From prior experience, I knew that ice storms like this create so many photo opportunities, it is easy to start acting like a dog when you throw him three pieces of popcorn at once. You know, except with a camera. And photo opportunities. Never mind.

I took a deep breath and started walking slowly along the trail, trying to pick out the most spectacular, or at least interesting, close-up images.

Indiangrass seeds (Sorghastrum nutans). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/1000 sec at f/10.
Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/640 sec at f/11.
There were a billion examples of this same shot and I captured a decent percentage of them. Here’s one… Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/800 sec at f/16.

I ended up shooting largely from the mowed trail, which is unusual for me. Normally, I wade into the tall vegetation in search of the best photo subjects. On this particular morning, I quickly discovered that heavy ice makes ‘wading’ a lot trickier. Every step I took started a domino-like cascade of ice-weighted grass stems and all my photo subjects crumpled and fell. Even setting up my tripod became a test of agility as I tried to very gently extend my tripod legs down through the fragile frozen plants without knocking any down. I don’t even want to think about all the great photos I missed because a leg (either mine or the tripod’s) barely bumped ONE STEM and caused an entire patch of plants to fold agonizingly down to the ground.

Once I forced myself to slow down and stay (mostly) on the trail, I had better luck, though I still had to be really careful. I quickly started homing in on seed heads of Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). Indiangrass was great because it had a nice golden color. Switchgrass was a little less colorful, but had fantastic drooping chandelier-like branches of seeds. Rather than showing you the dozens of Indiangrass and switchgrass photos from my hour or so at the prairie, I tried to narrow them down to a few favorites.

Indiangrass. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/640 sec at f/13.
More Indiangrass. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/1250 sec at f/11.
Switchgrass. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/1250 sec at f/13.
More switchgrass. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/800 sec at f/16.

Just before the cloud canopy closed back up again, I found a beautiful stalk of pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) – one I’ve probably already photographed several times this year in various stages of flowering and seed production. By playing with angles, I was able to find a perspective that captured some of the last bits of blue sky in the ice. Then I packed my camera back in the bag and crunched my way back to the truck. The sun didn’t reappear during the rest of the day, but neither did the temperature rise enough to melt the ice. As a result, I got to make a return trip to (another part of) the same prairie on Wednesday morning at sunrise. I’ll save those photos for another post!

Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/500 sec at f/14.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Dat Discovers Western Nebraska Backpacking

This year’s Hubbard Fellows are nearing their final stretch with us. Dat has been a joy to work with this year. Coming from the east coast, he has thrown himself enthusiastically into the Great Plains, working hard to become familiar with both the ecosystems and the landscape in general. He has grown tremendously as a prairie land steward and contributed significantly to our conservation work in a variety of ways. Stay tuned for results of a research project he conducted to evaluate our wetland restoration efforts. In the meantime, this latest post is an example of Dat’s eager exploration of the Great Plains. All photos were taken by Dat.

If you google “backpacking in Nebraska”, there aren’t many resources available on the topic. Most of the results are short hikes that can be done in a few hours, with no options for primitive camping or water sources. Usual backpacking trips have reviews and ratings, guides, maps – I found nothing. I desperately wanted to go backpacking and explore Nebraska and the fact that I couldn’t easily find any information made me even hungrier. After a good amount digging and some help, I found an opportunity in the Panhandle of the state. 

Driving into Fort Robinson State Park, escarpments cut through the landscape. Many years of erosion carve the landscape, and continue to do so. Down the gravel road, past all the trailheads and Johnson Lake, hides the National Forest – Soldier Creek Wilderness. This area used to be a sprawling Ponderosa Pine Forest, before a large wildfire wreaked havoc on the landscape in 1989. The area is mostly grassland now, but the pine trees are slowly recovering. Right before entering the campground and wilderness area, a shallow stream flows across the road – passable only with the toughest and most durable of vehicles. I was able to pass in my trusty Honda CRV without difficulty.

The Trooper Trail + Boots and Saddle Trail are two adjacent trails that combine to be roughly 18 miles – the perfect distance for a backpacking trip. I planned my trip to be two days and one night of backpacking. When I arrived at the trailhead parking lot, it was clear I wasn’t the only one eager to explore. As hinted by the name, horses and their riders often frequent these trails. The trailhead parking lot was filled with horse trailers as several people were preparing their horses for adventure.

My journey started at the Middle Fork Trailhead and gradually led me counterclockwise on the Trooper Trail. The trail starts with a short ascent through and above the pine trees. To a view of canyons and rolling hills that dominate Trooper Trail for the next several miles. For most of the trail, I was on top of the ridge staring into the canyons and across miles of wilderness. Across the landscape, scattered burnt and fallen trees are accompanied by pockets of young Ponderosa Pine trees, hinting at the future generation of this recovering forest.

Ponderosa pine.
Trail marker post.

There’s a distinctive charm to autumn in grasslands. I couldn’t help but stop often to look around at the mixture of senescing grasses, seasonal foliage, and shorter shrubs added to the crisp autumn air. Coming from the vibrant autumns of the East Coast, I was amazed at the subtle yet beautiful grace of autumn in the grasslands.

Autumn color.

The few miles after the cattle stock tank were my favorite. A short stretch of hiking along the top of a narrow ridge offers an inspiring view of the grasslands, recovering pines, and cottonwoods. Cottonwoods overwhelmingly colored the landscape as I descended into the lowlands and hiked along the streams. The yellow and orange hues of the cottonwoods complimented the dark greens of the pines and mixed hues of the grasses. As the sun slowly sunk below the rolling hills, I set up camp near the peaceful trickle of the surrounding creeks and prepared for the second half of my journey.

When I woke up the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised by the soft blanket of white that painted the ground and frosted the trees. I packed up camp and eventually made my way to the South Fork Trailhead. Now back at the campground, I proceeded counterclockwise along the Boots and Saddle Trail so I could see the Trooper Trail from the opposite direction. The first mile or so of this trail had several narrow stream crossings with the widest one right at the start of the trail. Inspired by my outlandish dream of becoming an Olympic long jumper or really just someone who could touch a basketball rim, I “elegantly” clambered my way across each crossing. Once I was out of the lowlands, I returned to the top of the world with rolling hills and valleys extending far beyond what I could see.

Overnight snow.
Stream crossing.

Wooden posts are the trail markers. It’s important to always be on the lookout for these posts, especially on the Trooper Trail, because sometimes the “trail” ends up being a cattle path or vehicle 2-track. The Boots and Saddle Trail, to me at least, seems to have more hoofed traffic so the path is clearer. I’ll admit that I lost the path several times but was able to find wooden markers to guide my way back.

When I made it back to my car, I was disappointed that the trip was over, but elated that I had this opportunity to backpack and explore this part of Nebraska. I find something oddly liberating about leaving everything behind and carrying just the essentials on my back for a few days. This experience was especially liberating because I got to explore a place not often visited by others. Nebraska certainly offers these escapes and I’m excited to keep finding more.

My route with map (there are real maps located at the South Fork Trailhead) –

1) Start at the Middle Fork Trailhead and take a left to go on Trooper Trail going counterclockwise

2) 2.5 miles to intersection and 5.1 miles to windmill stock tank – dominated by rolling hills

3) Rolling hills continue for another mile or so before switching to steeper canyons

4) Mile 7-10 lowlands, cottonwoods, and creeks – perfect place to find a place to camp since it’s flat and close to water

5) Back at the South Fork Trailhead (at this point you can restock or switch out whatever gear at your vehicle, stop completely, or keep going)

6) Continue on to the Boots and Saddle Trail going counterclockwise (sneakily hidden east of the campsite by the Middle Fork Trailhead)

7) Cross several creek crossings for next mile or so

8) Ascend to the top of the hills, rolling hills for most of the Boots and Saddles Trail (in my opinion steeper than the Trooper Trail)

9) Another good camping spot I would recommend is near the first stream crossing closest to the intersection between the 2 trails – flat areas near pine trees

9) Reach the intersection between the two trails, 2.5 miles until the Middle Fork Trailhead