A Royal Walk: Hiking across Isle Royale

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The Sun Rises Over Isle Royale

 

It was the middle of May 2018 when I first landed on Isle Royale. That storied island—that mass of rock isolated in northern Lake Superior. So far away it seems logically like it should be part of Canada, yet it belonged to Michigan—the only National Park in my home state. The mystery of that island beckoned me from maps with its geography and isolation. Long had I wanted to discover what this coveted gem had in store.

At long last, I finally visited the island after spending a winter and a spring teaching environmental education in northern Minnesota. By that time, I had become quite familiar with the boreal northwoods from all those hours teaching kids in the wilds. The northern forests, hence, were not all that different from my everyday existence.

Given my years of anticipation, Isle Royale was bound to be something exceptionally different than what one could experience on the mainland, I believed.

As it was, my first trip to the island was a simple, short overnight stay, ferrying in from Grand Portage, Minnesota to the Windigo Visitors Center on the western end of the island. As far as landscapes go, the flat, forested, mixed-conifer forests of Windigo are not spectacularly different than the Minnesota Northwoods I had become accustomed to.

I was a bit underwhelmed.

I didn’t even bother to take any pictures (incidentally, my camera had broken earlier that trip).

 

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Arriving at Washington Harbor at Windigo

 

I left Isle Royale that trip convinced that I had seen the island in the wrong way. A simple overnight trip was no way to do the island ecosystem justice. If I was ever to return to Isle Royale, I thought, I would do it in the right way: I would hike the island from end to end, slow enough to absorb the ecological transitions, to understand the essence of what makes the place, and to enjoy immersion in the vast isolation of Isle Royale.

As chance would have it, in the summer of 2019 I was selected to take part in a volunteer restoration crew on Isle Royale’s Rock of Ages Lighthouse. I would be returning to Isle Royale sooner than I had thought, and this time, I would be staying on to hike across the island afterwards.

 

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The Rock of Ages Lighthouse

 

I started my hike on the western end of the Island, at Windigo, the widest part of the island. Here the forest commands the land and the coastline is smoother, less jagged. I made my way to the Greenstone Ridge trail, the hiking path that transects the middle of the island. Despite its name, the Greenstone Ridge at this point isn’t much of a ridge at all. The trail slowly climbs uphill under the cover of a mixed-forest—conifers, but also maples and even the warm-and-dry loving oaks. I spent my first night at the interior campsite of Island Mine, the site of an 1870’s copper mine that peaked and was abandoned in only a few years.

 

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Broadleaf forests found more commonly on the western end of the island

 

Mining history would be a big theme of the hike, and copper was the resource of value. It wasn’t just white Euro-Americans who were mining the island either: the Ojibwe, the indigenous people of Isle Royale, had mined the island for thousands of years. Archeological evidence suggests that as early as 4500 years ago, indigenous people harvested copper by using stones to hammer off chunks of native copper from outcroppings in the bedrock. As their technology progressed, they began to mine deeper in the bedrock by building large fires over ore deposits, then quickly dousing the fire with water in order to crack the bedrock. Small indigenous mining pits can still be seen throughout Isle Royale today. By the 1840’s the Objibwe had been duped into ceding their lands to settlement and development for the resource-hungry Americans. Speculators flocked to the island to make their riches, but mining on Isle Royale was always boom or bust. Island Mine organized in 1874 and extracted over 200,000 pounds of refined copper. Three years later, the company went bust. All that remains now are scattered pieces of rusting equipment and mounds of tailings.

 

 

Day two saw me continue east along the Greenstone Ridge. After a few miles of hiking through the shady canopy, I began to get my first views from the ridge: small, rocky clearings at first with scrubby oaks and small shrubs partly obscuring the views. First the clearings were few and far between, but then they became more abundant. From the ridge one could begin to see some of the inland lakes that dot the island, including the scenic Lake Desor, near the summit of Mount Desor, which at 1,394 feet is the highest point on the island. From clearings further along I could even see Ryan Island in Siskiwit Lake, the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake.

 

 

With the gradual opening from shady forest to open ridge, another fun thing happened: berries. Up on the ridge, the sun beats down and the soil becomes dry. The seasons progress quicker than by the lakeshore where Lake Superior tempers the weather. Whereas the thimbleberries at lower elevations were still hard and green, up on the ridge I began to encounter a progression of ripeness: first, an isolated red berry, then a few on a bramble, and finally whole thickets of the bright red berries. Thimbleberries are a thornless, velvety cousin of the raspberry, with shallow bright red berries which are so soft and juicy that they can only survive the journey from the hand to the mouth.

After gorging myself on snacks of thimbleberries and taking a mid-afternoon swim in the cool and clear Lake Desor, I made my campsite at Hatchet Lake.

The clear summer weather finally took a turn for the wet on my second night. It was a constant heavy rain that slowly drenched me. I awoke (did I even sleep?) with about an inch of standing water in my tent. I later learned that at Windigo they recorded nearly two inches of rain in that overnight.

I would start my third day soggy. Today I would be leaving the Greenstone Ridge trail for the north shore of Isle Royale and the infamous Minong Ridge. I reached Lake Superior at Todd Harbor, a picturesque cove with a mélange of water-smoothed rocks. I took a short side hike to the former open pit of the Haystack Mine, and then followed a trail just a little bit further to find a small waterfall that was the cause of some bubbling noise off in the distance. From Todd Harbor I took the Minong Trail towards McCargoe Cove. The Minong Trail, though it never reaches as high elevations as the Greenstone Ridge, deserves its reputation as a knee-destroyer. The Minong Ridge is a series of exposed escarpement ridges: a rocky, uneven gradual climb up the bare basalt, followed by a steep dropoff on the backside. Then repeat, again and again. On a hot day, it wears you out, as it wears out your knees.

 

 

I reached the deep and slender McCargoe Cove by mid-afternoon, and after such a soggy night, I was eager to rest and dry out. This afternoon, I finally got a shelter at one of the island’s campsites. They are spacious lean-tos, screened-in, and with the perfect combination of both scenic views and isolation. I dried my clothes off and basked in the sun.

 

 

Though McCargoe Cove was my favorite campsite of the hike, there were not many people there at all. Isle Royale consistently is the least visited national park in the contiguous 48 states. In 2017, this National Park had only more visitors than Lake Clark, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, all sites in remote interior Alaska. With only 28,196 people even paying a visit in all of 2017, more people visit parks like Yellowstone in a single day than all of Isle Royale in an entire year. The great benefit of Isle Royale’s lack of popularity is its solitude. The trails and campgrounds never feel crowded. With fewer folks around, you also develop good connections with your fellow travelers quite readily. At McCargoe Cove, I spent the evening around the campfire chatting with our only neighbors: a group of fishermen from Chicago and a pair of ladies from the Twin Cities. Trail community seems to come easily here.

 

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McCargoe Cove: Some Hike, Others Canoe

 

McCargoe Cove was also the harbor used for the Minong Mine, the most prolific mine in Isle Royale’s history. Like other island mine sites, indigenous people had harvested surface copper deposits here first. In 1872, modern mining operations had commenced at Minong. This mine produced some incredible finds, such as a 5,720 pound nugget of almost pure copper. Finds like this nugget, and several other massive nuggets, added fuel to the mining fire. Two shafts were dug, up to 300 feet deep, as well as several drift tunnels that followed the ore veins. As tunnels were dug, tailings, or waste rock, began to fill in the adjoining marsh that leads to McCargoe Cove. A boomtown known as Cove sprang up at Minong, housing upwards of 150 people at its peak. Along with its railroad, stamp mill, and blacksmith shop, Cove even boasted a post office. Indeed, the prospect of permanent settlement on Isle Royale seemed so promising that Isle Royale even became its own county in 1875. By 1885, however, all mining operations on Isle Royale came to a halt for good. The grade of the ore dwindled and the price of copper fell; Isle Royale proved to be too isolated and the winters too harsh. Eventually, even though over 4 million pounds of refined copper were removed from the island, all mining ventures proved too non-economical to continue. Island boomtowns were abandoned. By 1897, with no permanent population left, Isle Royale County was re-absorbed into Keweenaw County.

 

 

On my fourth day, after very much enjoying my single-night stay in the shelter, I was off to hiking again. This time I decided to traverse the island from north shore to south shore, hiking astride several interior lakes along the way. I had been told that these interior lakes were hotbeds for moose activity. As storied and prolific as the moose population on Isle Royale has been, I had yet to see my first moose on the island. I knew they’d be around, as I had already seen plenty of moose scat and browse sign.

The scenic and shapely-named Chickenbone Lake proved of no avail for moose, though it was a Mecca for giant dragonflies. The next lake over, at Lake Ritchie, I got my first far-off glimpse of a moose browsing in the aquatic vegetation far across the lake. With the gradual decline of the predatory wolf population, the numbers of moose on Isle Royale have skyrocketed in recent years, with an estimated 2,000 moose inhabiting just over 200 square miles of island (learn more about Isle Royale Wolf-Moose dynamics here). I would only end up seeing one other moose on my trip. After losing the hiking trail on some bedrock, I wound up following a moose trail into the woods. The moose trail petered away until I reached a swamp. Suddenly, a large startled moose crashed away from me through the brush!

Though I had seen two moose, as far as their illustrious predator the wolves went, I had yet to see any. When I had visited previously in 2018, there was just a pair of wolves left on the island, simultaneously a brother-sister pair and a father-daughter pair (you do the math on that inbreeding!). In the winter of 2018-2019, four more wolves were introduced to reinvigorate the existing wolf population. For anyone, seeing a wolf is a rare treat. Alas, I never had a wolf encounter on the island; the closest I got to seeing the wolves was the island cabin of well-known wolf-moose researcher Rolf Peterson.

 

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Moose researcher Dr. Rolf Peterson’s Rock Harbor cabin

 

Once at the south side of the island, I camped at the large harbor of Moskey Basin. Completely different from the small, sparsely-filled campgrounds I had been staying at, Moskey Basin was filled to capacity with both families and large groups, and its vast expanses of exposed bedrock and its picnic tables made this site feel luxurious and tame. But I should have expected that, visiting in high season after all. Even in high season, though, Isle Royale is not that busy, and getting all of that wilderness ambiance while hiking was a treat not to be taken for granted.

The cove at Moskey Basin was a sight to behold—layers of exposed bedrock outcroppings running right into the water. I hadn’t noticed it too much before, but the island was becoming rockier and rockier the further I traveled east. The exposed rocks left plenty of good places for sunbathing and also proved to be a prime habitat for blueberries (thimbleberries, unfortunately, had all but disappeared after leaving the Greenstone Ridge). Also without my noticing, the broadleaf tree canopy had disappeared too. Thin soils could no longer support the large broadleaf trees seen more westerly on the island. Instead, the forest was becoming more a stunted array of firs and spruces.

 

 

With a clear night ahead looking promising, I made a commitment to staying up to see the stars. This being mid-summer in the westernmost Eastern Time Zone, the sun did not set until near 10pm, and the stars did not emerge until well afterwards. After a full day of hiking, I was usually in my tent well before the stars came out in their full glory. But I stayed up tonight and was treated to a show on an absolutely moonless night. Being miles away from any human settlements, the stars on Isle Royale are absolutely amazing!

 

 

My last day on Isle Royale would take me into the primary tourist outpost at Rock Harbor. Rather than hugging the shoreline trail to my final destination, I once again went inland to take the Greenstone Ridge home. The trail up to the Mount Ojibway Fire Tower was never too steep, provided uninterrupted views, and proved to be premiere blueberry habitat. The whole climb up I had a constant handful of blueberries as a power snack. The Mount Ojibway Fire Tower, unlike its much squatter kin at Mount Ishpeming, actually provides visitor access to the base. Climbing the tower provides views of the entire island from north to south.

 

 

 

The Greenstone Ridge continued its path northeast across exposed rocky and grassy balds. By the time I reached the Mount Franklin lookout, it was clear I was encountering a different area. The overlook was populated with day-tourists hiking up from their various Rock Harbor lodgings. I left the viewpoint and went on the downhill to Rock Harbor and my hike’s end. At the eastern end of the island, Isle Royale’s tilted geology splits the island into many narrow peninsulas and long bays running towards the northeast. I walked along these deep harbors right along the trails by the edge of Superior’s turquoise waters.

A sign for campsites signaled that I had made it into Rock Harbor. I could now bask in the luxuries of this tourist depot. Modern settlement at Rock Harbor started with a few unsuccessful mining ventures in the 1840’s, then moved into the realm of commercial fishing, as Scandinavian immigrants built their fishing shanties after the copper booms. By the early 1900’s, these fishermen were guiding pleasure-seekers around the island and accommodating throngs of tourists in cabins. Several resorts eventually popped up, having their heyday in the 1920’s. The Great Depression and changing societal tastes caused a drastic decline to tourism in the 1930’s. By 1940, Isle Royale had been declared a National Park, and the National Park Service began the process of buying out and shutting down the remaining tourist resorts and removing fishermen from the island. Gradually, this formerly logged, mined, and settled island would be transformed into a 99% wilderness park with no permanent population.

Today Rock Harbor boasts a store where one can buy fresh vegetables as well as craft beer, hot showers ($6 for a five-minute shower), laundry, a restaurant, rustic cabins, and even a few hotel rooms. For this wilderness traveler, it was a world apart from the Isle Royale I had just experienced. The development at Rock Harbor was a foil to the isolation of the island. Though I milled about the Rock Harbor Village for a while, it just wasn’t what I needed. I made off to a quiet edge of Lake Superior and took a long, cleansing swim in her waters. For me, that is what Isle Royale is about.

 

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Rock Harbor Lighthouse

A Week on the Rock: Restoration Volunteer at the Rock of Ages Lighthouse

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Vintage image of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse (image from Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society)

 

Northwestern Lake Superior, May 27, 1933, 6pm—The passenger steamer George M. Cox plies briskly through the frigid waters at full steam ahead, despite a heavy fog having settled over Lake Superior. On her maiden voyage after an elegant and expensive refit financed by New Orleans businessman George Cox, the Cox is bound for Port Arthur, Ontario carrying a load of 127 prominent guests, passengers, and crew. The captain and owner of the Cox need her to make good time on this voyage in order to impress her passengers and to show the Cox’s viability against other steamer lines in the lucrative vacation travel business. In the heavy fog enveloping the lake, Captain Johnson and First Mate Kronk can hear the fog signal from the Rock of Ages Lighthouse—they know they are near Isle Royale, but continue onward at 17 knots. Suddenly—a jarring jolt and the sound of scrapping metal. The George M. Cox runs full speed into the Rock of Ages Shoal, lifting 110 feet of her bow out of the water and giving her a dangerous list to port. The command to abandon ship is immediate.

 

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The wreck of the George M. Cox (image from Ampers)

 

On watch from the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, head keeper John Soldenski hears the crash and lowers the rescue boat to race off to the scene of the wreck. Though the wreck of the Cox was spectacular, there were no major injuries and Soldenski is able to tow all the life rafts safely to the lighthouse. At this cylindrical lighthouse on an isolated rock outcropping no bigger than 50 by 200 feet, all 127 passengers and crew onboard the Cox would spend a bitter and cramped night. The rescued crammed into the spiral stairwells of the Rock of Ages, or alternatively took turns huddled against the cold on the rock itself to avoid the overcrowding. The next day, rescue ships removed all George M. Cox passengers and crew with minimal injuries sustained and no loss of life in the wreck and subsequent rescue. As for the Cox herself, insurance declared her a total loss and she sat beached on the reef for months. She became a tourist attraction in her own right, and local Isle Royale fishermen brave enough to enter found many luxury goods to plunder. October storms later that year broke the Cox in two, and she slipped quietly to the depths of Lake Superior.

Despite this history of heroism and lore of rescue on the high seas, technological advancements and automation eventually led to the end of the keeper era at Rock of Ages. In 1978, the light was automated and the final keepers said their goodbyes. The lighthouse itself was prepped for its abandonment—windows were filled in with cinder blocks, doors and fixtures were removed, and all the interiors were coated with semi-gloss white paint—even the remaining light bulbs. In 1985, Rock of Ages’ magnificent 2nd order Fresnel lens—a lens that allowed a flame to shine for 29 miles—was removed and replaced with a much smaller solar-powered lantern. The door to the lighthouse was locked. The magnificent beacon that is the Rock of Ages was left to weather the elements alone.

But such an iconic and storied lighthouse could not be left alone to weather away indefinitely. A group of citizens, concerned with the fate of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, formed the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation society with the mission of restoring the lighthouse to its 1930’s appearance and to opening up the light to public visitation. Restoration work has been undertaken on the light since 2014. In July of 2019, I was able to join in these restoration efforts for a week of volunteer service at the Rock of Ages itself.

 

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Getting dropped off for the week

 

The crew was led by two-time lighthouse volunteers, the Nebraska couple Josh and Heather: odd-job experts, and woodcraft miracle workers. Joining them were me and Dakota Dirk, a professional historical restoration carpenter from Minnesota and an avid collector of antique oddities. For five nights, we stayed at the Rock of Ages itself. Our project goal for the week was to finish installing the 3rd floor hardwood flooring and to install window, door, and baseboard trim on the 3rd floor galley and the 4th floor keepers’ quarters. I would be staying in the unfinished 5th floor assistant keepers’ quarters.

 

 

 

The Rock of Ages Lighthouse is located more than 20 miles off the North Shore of Minnesota, and another five miles southwest of the Windigo Visitors Center on Isle Royale National Park. Upon arriving at Windigo on our first day in service, we immediately took a smaller, former NPS patrol craft to the shoal on which the Rock of Ages sits. Seeing as how Lake Superior is rough and unpredictable, and how the lake has claimed many larger ships throughout the years, the length of our stay would be determined by when the weather was favorable to access the light. It is a situation still the same as the keepers of old; during the active years, the keepers’ tours of duty would be subject to the mercy of Lake Superior. Keepers could often be stranded for days or weeks until weather would allow a ship to remove them at the end of the season. One crew of keepers was down to a single can of tomatoes for provisions when they were finally removed from the lighthouse. Hopefully our restoration crew would not suffer the same fate; we packed plenty of extra peanut butter just in case.

 

 

At the dock on the Rock of Ages

 

Our first day on the Rock of Ages was spent exploring the place that would serve as our home base for the next five days. The rocky reef on which the Rock of Ages sits is a jagged piece of basalt that emerges from nowhere and drops precipitously off into the azure waters of Lake Superior. No wonder this place posed such an immanent threat to shipping traffic. The Rock of Ages Light was built to mitigate the hazards of this reef. Construction began in 1908, when workers blasted a 50-foot diameter hole in the rock down to water level, in which the foundation of the lighthouse would be laid. The first two levels of the lighthouse, encased in steel and concrete, were finished in 1908 and served as storage areas for the Light. Being at water level, these two levels were constantly battered by waves and exhibit a characteristic clammy dampness. The remaining eight levels of the Light were completed in 1909. The main floor of the lighthouse was the third level up, and contained the engine room. From there, the spiral staircase leads past the 2nd floor lounge and office, 3rd floor galley and mess hall, 4th and 5th floor keepers’ quarters, 6th floor watchroom, 7th floor service room, and finally the 8th floor lens room. A journey up the lighthouse’s 149 steps will take one past various unrestored levels with peeling paint and blocked-off windows, as well as a few freshly finished and yellow-hued rooms. From the panoramic views of the lens room, 117 feet up, one can look out on Lake Superior and see the buoys that mark the wreck of the ill-fated Cox, along with the 1877 wreck of the Cumberland and the 1898 wreck of the Henry Chisholm.

 

 

 

Our volunteer work focused on installing flooring and trim work in the 3rd and 4th floors. Restoration crews in prior weeks and years had previously demoed and painted these levels in order to make them habitable for work crews staying out at the lighthouse. Our job was to wrap things up by installing the finish trim. This was no simple task, as all our trim pieces were straight, and the entirety of the lighthouse is circular (not to mention that water damage and exposure had rotted out much of the underlying structural wood we were nailing into). Using a variety of construction techniques, some woodbending, lots of trial and error, and perhaps some voodoo magic, we as a crew were able to finish most of the trimwork on these floors. Adding the trimwork really tied the rooms together. And being period appropriate too, all the trimwork was a fancy compilation of early 1900’s-style solid oak. Despite being such an isolated lighthouse, the keepers at Rock of Ages were blessed with quite ornate woodwork.

 

 

 

Even though the restoration crew put in long hours on the restoration project, there was still plenty of time to enjoy spending at the lighthouse itself. With so much restoration work actively going on, the lighthouse was a great place to play architecture sleuth. One of my favorite down-time activities was roaming the floors of the lighthouse trying to piece together its history—its construction, its changes, and its restoration. Hanging out in the lens room was the best location to feel the immensity of Rock of Ages’ isolation. To the east is a view of the entirety of Isle Royale; to the north is Minnesota’s North Shore and the Sleeping Giant of Ontario; to the south the endless expanse of Lake Superior. My favorite spots to watch the sunset were in the lens room and on the 7th floor catwalk. With favorable weather most of the week, we were always treated to spectacular sunsets and to watching seagulls fly in the wind.

 

 

 

 

Blow Ye Winds!

 

Despite the lighthouse’s isolation, we had several visitors stop by throughout the week. Maintenance workers from NOAA stopped by to maintain weather equipment, and the National Park Service had groups of protection and maintenance rangers stop by. Our daily break was also timed around 2:20, when the Sea Hunter III would pass by with day-trippers to Isle Royale who all took pictures and waved.

 

 

 

Our friends also included the many seagulls who called the Rock of Ages home. Their calls intermingled with the wind to provide the constant background music of Rock of Ages. In high winds, from the lens room, we would watch as the seagulls had a heyday soaring in the breeze. There were also several fledgling seagulls born on the Rock that we watched in anticipation, waiting for their first flights down to the water.

 

 

 

 

Our other constant friends were the midge flies. Every object outside the lighthouse was coated thickly with a layer of midge flies and other insects taking shelter from the constant wind. On the few occasions that the Lake Superior winds ceased to blow, the midges would take flight, forming an airborne swarm. I, as well as everyone else, inhaled too many midges to count.

 

 

 

 

At last, it came time to leave the Rock of Ages. The final two days of our volunteer period had thunderstorms in the forecast; we would need to leave the reef while we had a good weather window. Though I find it disappointing that we never experienced the extreme weather that the old-time keepers had experienced (with waves crashing up to at least the 6th floor ), it was a spectacular week on the Rock nonetheless.

 

 

 

 

If you are interested in learning more about the Rock of Ages Lighthouse restoration project, volunteering, or donating to the cause, please visit the Rock of Ages Lighthouse Preservation Society website.

Aboard the Good Sloop Clearwater

After serving four months aboard the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, it is incredibly difficult to summarize the experience in any amount of words. I served as a crew member as the good sloop plied the Hudson River from the post-industrial valley town of Kingston to the bustling shores of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Along the way we sailed past historic bridges and lighthouses spread out over ninety river miles of the scenic Hudson River Valley. We enjoyed rain and rainbows, sunsets worthy of a Hudson River School painting, and city lights off in the distance of many unique Hudson Valley towns. The crew busied ourselves with teaching fourth graders all about their river ecosystem on schooldays, and with entertaining guests on chartered sails on evenings and weekends. Our crew played music together, played games together, slogged through the rain together, and all made sure that this 50 year-old replica of a historic cargo vessel sailed safely from dock to dock and would keep sailing for 50 more years. Mere photos of the ship can never do justice to the myriad of tasks that are involved in operating a historic tall ship, or to the vibrancy of the community aboard the vessel.  But as my tribute, here is a photo montage of the fine and splendid sloop Clearwater that has served as my workplace, my home, and my community for the spring and summer of 2019.

 

 

Geographical Oddities

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For those of you interested in some of the irregularities of state political boundaries—for instance, why Michigan is separated into two large peninsulas, why Oklahoma has a panhandle, or why Colorado is just a boring old rectangle—there is a great book to read. That book is How the States Got Their Shape by Mark Stein. In detail, Stein explores each state’s border—explaining the various social and political forces, many oft-long forgotten, that went into the making of each state’s boundary. It’s an easy and entertaining read, and it is quite surprising to learn how often petty disputes (i.e. Missouri’s southeast corner) or rudimentary surveying mistakes (i.e. the Kentucky/Tennessee border) made America’s state geography much more complicated than it ideally should have been.

For some folks, it is simple enough just to read about peculiar political boundaries. For others, it is necessary to visit them (think about the 4-corner intersection of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, which is a modern-day tourist attraction. The allure of being in four states at once is well worth the three dollar entrance fee!)

 

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The Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona 4-corner border. Yes, I’ve been there.

 

And, as American political boundaries rarely follow logical physical geographical boundaries, the result is some absurdities in state physical geography extremes. Recently, I spent a weekend exploring some geographical oddities near me; in particular I went to Mount Frissell, a mountain in Massachusetts which oddly enough is also the highest point in Connecticut.

What drew me to this particular non-descript mountain in the extreme southwestern corner of Massachusetts? Well, it was a form of geographical tourism known as highpointing. Simply put, highpointers are people who try to reach the highest point in each state or region. Now personally, I had previously climbed the tallest mountain in a few states before, but I had never really made highpointing more of a goal until I picked up a guidebook of state highpoints at a library used book sale last year. Being somewhat of a geography nerd, I thought it would be a fun travel project to undertake (at least to all the highpoints in which ropes and glacier travel are not required!)

 And hence I learned about Mount Frissell. Though the mountain has its own scenic merits and was quite a lush walk through the deciduous Connecticut uplands, I would have had incredibly little reason to ever visit otherwise.

 

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Mount Frissell

 

My approach to Mount Frissell came from the Connecticut side of the mountain, where an inconspicuous town road out of Salisbury eventually leads to the trailhead destination. I drove northwards out of town, up a narrow dirt road lined with verdant shrubs and trees. Immediately after hitting the state border marker with Massachusetts, I was at the trailhead. Oddly enough, I would not enter Connecticut on this trip again until I emerged at its state highpoint!

The trail to the summit begins deceptively flat and effortless. A quarter mile in, though, as East Coast trails are prone to do, the path shoots straight up the bedrock slopes of Mount Frissell. Fortunately, the trail was short enough, the views rewarding, and in less than an hour I was at the summit of Mount Frissell, elevation 2,454 feet.

Though I was at the summit, I still had not accomplished my highpoint goal for the day (nor was I at the highpoint of Massachusetts. That honor belongs to Mount Greylock at 3,489 feet, just a couple hours’ drive north.) Fortunately, my climbing portion was done. All I needed to do now was to descend about 300 yards down Frissell’s south slope until I reached the Connecticut border.

A rock cairn and a humble state survey marker are the only evidence that you’ve made it to Connecticut’s highpoint, a modest 2,379 feet. The area itself looks little different from the surrounding forest, and, being on a slope, the views are fairly obscured by vegetation. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being the highest person in the state of Connecticut for awhile, as I rested and perused the trail register notes left by fellow highpointers.

 

 

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For geography bonus points, continue walking west on the trail for a few more minutes. Soon you will come upon the tri-state boundary for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. As you stand there deep in the woods, maybe you’ll wonder to yourself ‘why in the world did people bother to put this giant stone obelisk in the middle of the forest?’ Well, that’s geographers for you.

 

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The New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Tri-State Boundary

 

Other nearby state superlatives of note: Bash Bish Falls, measuring nearly 200 feet in a series of separate cascades, is Massachusetts’s highest waterfall. Well worth the visit.

 

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Bash Bish Falls, Massachusetts’s Highest Waterfall

 

 

Nature’s First Green is Gold

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Forest Path in Spring with Bright Green Trees (c) Matthias Hauser

 

It was an inconsequential day, about ten years ago now. A fresh, bright, day in May; the sun shining kindly and the air full of perceptible warmth for the first time since winter.

Spring fever had struck. We were a group of high school seniors, expectantly awaiting the impending days of graduation, summer freedom, and the privileges of adulthood. Academics, that lynchpin of education, were no longer the most important thing on our minds. Conversations instead turned to commencement and the life beyond. Mrs. Aupperlee’s 4th Hour AP English class reflected this sentiment: though it had been a particularly social class all year, the excitement of spring days had amplified its gregariousness.

We enter the classroom early, each filing into his or her own chosen seat to commence the pre-class banter. Fourth Hour was the last obstacle before lunch. Attention spans would wane, and the classroom atmosphere would become casual. Typically we would have to edit essays or practice for the upcoming AP exam, but our class knew what subjects to broach to get Mrs. Aupperlee off on a class-long tangent about things little related to English literature.

Today was just going to be another ordinary school day to get through, once again.

The bell rings and Mrs. Aupperlee takes attendance. Unexpectedly, she announces that everyone should get out of their seats and follow her. Today we would be going outside. We follow, through the double glass doors, out onto the lawn that surrounds the school. Mrs. Aupperlee continues on, in the bright May sunlight, to the very edge of the lawn. She pauses at a tree which, until now, none of us had ever given particular attention. Standing still to draw us in, she produces a piece of paper and proceeds to read: Nature’s first green is gold,/Her hardest hue to hold…

 We listen to the poem as we stand outside. The tree’s freshly budded leaves wave golden in the light breeze. Some of us notice this, as the verses of poetry glance past our ears and the wind tussles our hair. Yet, standing there, some of us also wonder inaudibly why we came out here today. The poem was simple enough. Was the arboreal visual necessary to understand Robert Frost’s words? Isn’t it more expedient to just read poetry indoors? And who even really cares about looking at trees anyways? Our English class, to this point, had only been taught in a classroom. And besides, what even did Robert Frost have to do with our curriculum at the moment? Personal erudition, as lofty as it may be to high-minded intellectuals, has little to do with the forthcoming world of AP Essays and standardized tests. Why were we spending our class time this way?

As that high-schooler, I can’t recall exactly what I was thinking in that specific moment. Being the ambitious, productivity-minded student that I was then, I was likely questioning the value of walking around outside during class period. I had enrolled in this course, after all, primarily because it was an additional AP credit, and not from an inherent love of literature or poetry. English was one of those necessary evils of high-school education, one I had long endured with much chagrin. My future, too, was headed in a different direction; I had been accepted into an engineering program in college already. I expected AP Literature to be my final English class and that I would leave writing behind altogether. I saw little need then for the frivolities of poetry.

And now here I am ten years later. Though the particular details of what I thought on that late May morning have distinctly vanished from memory, our class’s spontaneous visit to the budding tree, along with the poem we shared, still remains clear. In retrospect, all the other things that I thought relevant and important ten years ago—homework assignments, AP test scores—are now antiquated and defunct memories. What remains with me now is the fact that we did go outside and that we did read a poem while crowding a tree. That single small classroom exercise, though it lasted just a few trivial minutes in duration, was influential enough to hold fast in my memory even a decade later.

From time to time, I find myself pulling out that memory, particularly when the first leaves of spring emerge. Without much conscious thought, I’ll suddenly be quoting Robert Frost, if not to my traveling companions then internally to myself: Nature’s first green is gold…

In the ten years since high school, I have changed substantially from the person who I thought I was then becoming. It was small events like reading the poem by the tree that slowly molded me into the person I would become. There was no way I could have realized it at the time, since the poem had no immediate impact on me. However, the power of the poem shared by the tree would lay latent in me for years, until, slowly, it would compound with other life experiences until I realized just the direction I had been traveling in and the person those events had been shaping me to be.

In part, thanks to that high school English class, I take notice of the trees now. Whereas before trees to me were mere background scenery, common and forgettable, I now take notice of their delicate intricacies. The changing of the seasons has become vitally important to my inner well-being, and poetic works like Frost’s serve as reminders to pay attention to the daily acts of beauty that are occurring all around us. I now can’t see the first leaves of spring without also thinking of Robert Frost.

In the time since high school, I have also found my niche in the work of environmental education. My primary occupational duties fall along the lines of educating and exposing individuals to the outdoor world—biological, geological, ecological. To those who I instruct, I primarily give facts and explain complicated ecological interrelationships in the most scientific sense. But more than just a rote recitation of facts, I aim to use my capacity as an educator to teach people a new, ethical perspective of how we relate to the natural world just as how we relate to each other. In my job duties, I now take individuals outdoors to different environments—to the world outside of the classroom where didactic instruction may not be as practical but the lessons learned become all the more memorable and valuable.

As I have now become an educator myself, I think back to the point that Mrs. Aupperlee was trying to impress upon us by taking her 12th grade English class outside on that May morning. More than teaching us facts about grammar or even exposing us to a new poet, I now believe that Mrs. Aupperlee was teaching us something of higher accord. She was trying to affect our ethical bearings, educating us to be observant, to notice things, to be citizens of the world. Inevitably, facts fade. But who we are remains. That day, on the lawn surrounding the tree, ours was not a factual lesson in 20th century American poets or even in tree biology. It was a core lesson in paying attention. It was a practice that told us, as young people, that indeed we should be able to notice the significance of the world around us, and that indeed we can stop and reflect in its beauty and be all the richer for it. It was a lesson in how we need poetry in our lives. In my capacity now as an environmental educator, this is the ethos which I try to cultivate in my students. This is not part of an education of facts and figures, but of a higher order of education, an education for citizenship.

Ten years later, I still remember that day in Mrs. Auperlee’s English class. It’s testament that a single lesson, no matter how small, can leave a lasting impact.

 

Nothing Gold Can Stay
Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

 

 

ha ha

Minnesota Winter Time-lapse

A compilation of time-lapse sequences shot in winter in Minnesota. Enjoy!


 

Sunrise at Grand Marais Harbor, with the schooner Hjordis. December 2018.

 

Total lunar eclipse of the Super Blood Wolf Moon, January 20, 2019, as seen from West Bearskin Lake, Minnesota.

 

Sunset at Camp Menogyn Sauna, with Fisheye Lens. January 2019.

 

Temperance River. December 2018.

 

Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge at Night. November 2018.

 

Nightfall over the City of Duluth. November 2018.

 

Sunrise shadows across Hungry Jack Lake, as seen from Honeymoon Bluff, Superior National Forest. February 2019.

 

Hooking up the dog team during Fall ATV training at Amarok Kennels. November 2018.

Glamour Snoots

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The Dogyard

 

What better way to showcase my canine comrades than with a glamour shoot with a fisheye lens. Enjoy the snoots!

 

Counting by Counties

An item on many people’s bucket lists, including mine, is to visit every one of the fifty United States. It’s a large task, considering the vast size of our country…but then again, it’s not too challenging when one considers how large most states are and how merely transiting around this country will often result in unintended visits to new states and to new places. As for me, before I reached the age of 27 in 2017, I had already set foot in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Mapped out, it looks like I have visited most of our country:

Year of First Visit to State

 

But for how many people, is visiting every single county in the United States on the bucket list? Instead of a mere 50 states, the total list extends to 3,142 counties*. For fellow alumnus of Calvin College’s Geography Department Tom Byker, this was a very intentional goal. Byker started his earnest quest to visit every single American county after beginning college, and this county-visit project was one highlight on his resume that helped him in landing a job at the navigational company TomTom. Tom recently brought his county visit project to a close after visiting his final county in Hawaii in 2017.

Inspired by the fine-scale travel goals of Tom Byker and the other ‘County Collectors,’ I decided to make my own map of county visits, mainly out of curiosity of where I’ve been in each state. I have never kept a formal list of counties that I have visited, so the entire map is based off memory of past travels I have been on. The majority of county travel has occurred during college and beyond, but I did try and reconstruct the county locations of some early family trips. And yes, I did count driving through a county as adequate for a visit. Here is what my county-scale map looks like:

 

US County Visit Map_2

 

And what can I learn from the county-level map?

  • In total, I have visited 924 of 3,142 counties, which is about 29% of all counties.
  • Despite visiting 48 of 50 states, there are still large swaths of the United States that I have not visited, namely the South and the Southeast.
  • It becomes quickly apparent in which counties the interstates are. Interstates 94, 90, 80, 70, 44, 40, 35, 55, 57, 65, 69, and 75 all readily pop out, as well as U.S. Highway 2. Can I say, ‘Road Trip?’
  • It’s easy to tick off county visits in the Western U.S. Not only is the West a great road trip destination, but the counties are also much larger. For example, Wyoming’s counties average 4,257 square miles while Georgia’s counties average only 373 square miles.
  • I have visited every single county in two states: Oregon (completed in 2014 after a 2012 summer internship and lots of Grad School fieldwork in the state) and Massachusetts (completed in 2017, which included visits by ferry to both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Islands, which are their own respective counties).
  • Broken down by counties, the states I have seen the least of are Louisiana (<5%), Arkansas (<3%), and Texas (<2%) (excluding North and South Carolina, which I have not yet visited).
  • I have visited less of my own home state of Michigan than many other states. I have visited 71% of all Michigan counties, which ranks my home state as only 12th on my list according to percentage of counties visited.

 

*Here I use the term county broadly to include all U.S. counties or county equivalents. Most states are divided into counties, but Louisiana is similarly divided into parishes, and Alaska is similarly divided into boroughs. Additionally, several states (although primarily Virginia) have cities that are independent of any county. All of these categories are combined to get the number 3,142.
Maps generated are courtesy of mapchart.net

 

Here is the state-wide data on visits to each state:

State # Counties # Visited % Visited
Alabama 67 16 23.88%
Alaska 29 3 10.34%
Arizona 15 5 33.33%
Arkansas 75 2 2.67%
California 58 52 89.66%
Colorado 64 26 40.63%
Connecticut 8 7 87.50%
District of Columbia 1 1 100.00%
Delaware 3 1 33.33%
Florida 67 10 14.93%
Georgia 159 24 15.09%
Hawaii 5 2 40.00%
Idaho 44 40 90.91%
Illinois 102 44 43.14%
Indiana 92 36 39.13%
Iowa 99 21 21.21%
Kansas 105 18 17.14%
Kentucky 120 9 7.50%
Louisiana 64 3 4.69%
Maine 16 13 81.25%
Maryland 24 8 33.33%
Massachusetts 14 14 100.00%
Michigan 83 59 71.08%
Minnesota 87 32 36.78%
Mississippi 82 25 30.49%
Missouri 115 22 19.13%
Montana 56 34 60.71%
Nebraska 93 19 20.43%
Nevada 17 9 52.94%
New Hampshire 10 7 70.00%
New Jersey 21 15 71.43%
New Mexico 33 7 21.21%
New York 62 25 40.32%
North Carolina 100 0 0.00%
North Dakota 53 20 37.74%
Ohio 88 26 29.55%
Oklahoma 77 13 16.88%
Oregon 36 36 100.00%
Pennsylvania 67 40 59.70%
Rhode Island 5 4 80.00%
South Carolina 46 0 0.00%
South Dakota 66 18 27.27%
Tennessee 95 12 12.63%
Texas 254 5 1.97%
Utah 29 13 44.83%
Vermont 14 7 50.00%
Virginia 133 14 10.53%
Washington 39 34 87.18%
West Virginia 55 6 10.91%
Wisconsin 72 49 68.06%
Wyoming 23 18 78.26%
Total 3142 924 29.41%

Gone to the Dogs

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Becoming a teacher of dogs

 

Whereas most of my previous jobs have been working as an educator for humans, my latest job has me working towards the education and training of dogs. All of a sudden I find myself thrust into the task of tending and training a pack of 41 Alaskan Husky sled dogs as a musher and a kennel hand. Walking into a kennel is much akin to being a substitute teacher and walking into a classroom and trying to figure out the social dynamics that are in place. Much like humans, all the dogs have their own distinct temperaments and personalities. A dog-kennel, in a sense, represents a microcosm of humanity—one that is just less inhibited in their behavior such that no one feels shame at eating their own poop or dry humping in public.

Meet my canine classroom:

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Pearl: a member of the Mean Girl Clique

 

The Mean Girls: Frenchie, the leader of the Mean Girls, is outwardly vocal and confident but inwardly insecure and in constant need of approval by others; Elsa is cool and stand-offish; Rizzo is the attractive girl who teases all the boys with her flirting; Pearl is the preppy girl; Zee hangs out with the mean girls not because she’s a mean girl at heart, but because she thinks it’s better to be in the in-group than to be an outsider;

Flight is the small, introverted, artsy girl who is a dreamy soul and is the recurring target of the mean girls’ jeers;

The Jocks: Danny is the football stud who always wears his varsity jacket and pushes smaller kids into the lockers in the hallway; Tuff is the very popular meathead tight end on the football team who is a total bro; Peddler is the boy who excels at sports on the virtue of being precociously large;

Lindy is the exemplar scholar-athlete who excels in track and field;

Daisy and Skyee are the tomboys;

Duchess is the girl who could beat up any boy she wants to;

Tude is the punk girl sitting in the back of the classroom purposely making you aware that she is ignoring you;

Affirmed is the boy who acts really nice to the teacher, then slaps the other boys when the teacher’s back is turned;

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Affirmed acting nice to the teacher

 

Toby is the mischievous boy who always gives the teacher that gleam in his eye that he just did something naughty and got away with it;

Bo is the skinny nerdy boy who doesn’t realize that people are sarcastically making fun of him;

Hula and Jazz are the set of fraternal twins who most people will think of as identical and similar until they actually get to know them;

Forrest is the kid who is incredibly nice and all his teachers think of him as a ‘sweetheart’;

Joe is a kind-hearted soul who is incredibly reliable and hard-working, but has a life plagued by sheer bad luck and he ends up taking crap from everyone without ever dishing any himself;

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Poor ol’ Joe

 

Rascal is the kid who knows how to get an easy A without much effort, but still willingly obliges when the teacher asks more work of her;

Rani is the teacher’s pet who always serves as an example;

Titan is the dull boy sitting in the back of the classroom who is mindlessly drawing circles on his math worksheet for reasons even he doesn’t know why;

Aileron is the painfully shy boy who will never come out of his shell;

Smokie is the bookworm;

Roscoe is the extremely extroverted boy who greets everyone with a hug whether they want one or not;

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He’s a Hugger: Extroverted Roscoe

 

Mambo is the boy with raging ADHD who gets easily amped up on sugar or by games;

Ozark is the boy who wants every classroom topic to be taught using a kinesthetic exercise, regardless of what subject;

Clark is old beyond his years and is the class’s grouchy curmudgeon;

Brownie is the girl who has overcome her physical disability to live fully and capably in a way where it’s no hindrance to her bubbly outgoingness;

Ike is the boy who really wants to join in with what the others are doing, but who has to wait nervously on the side watching what the others do first before joining along;

Wonka is the boy who transferred to this school from an elite private school on the East Coast, and who wants to flaunt his family’s wealth and status to all the ladies, but who just comes across as self-absorbed and aloof;

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Elwood the Loner (left) and out-of-touch Wonka (right)

 

Bea is the good girl who doesn’t make any waves;

Duke is the kid who will spend his entire school career trying to match up with his older sibling’s accomplishments;

Brule is the skater girl;

Rockstar is the kid who really digs into her work without making a fuss;

Sandy is the girl who is just a little odd and will most likely grow up to be a crazy cat lady;

Reece is the girl who asks to use the restroom at the start of class, then spends the entire period wandering the halls only to show back up a few minutes before class is dismissed;

Luke is the boy in the classroom who the teacher will forget is even in the class from time to time;

and Elwood would rather everyone just left him alone.

 

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Gym Class. All Day. Every Day.

Everyman’s Right

In many European countries, particularly Northern and Eastern Europe, there is a modern culture and deep history of rambling around the countryside in uninhabited or pastoral lands, regardless of the ownership status of the land—whether privately or publicly held. This ability to freely roam and travel comes with an implied responsibility for the user; wanderers have an ethic to keep—to act courteously, to not disturb the land-owner, and to refrain from exploiting the land or its resources. The travelers have to leave no trace of their passing through, save for the beaten paths of the various travelways that develop along common routes. This freedom—this right to travel—provided a means for the landless commoners of European society to travel and recreate, and neither were landed classes excluded from such benefits of access. The freedom to travel dates back to antiquity as a right of the masses. It survived medieval feudalism, it endured the changes wrought by the industrial revolution, and it thrives today in modern European societies. Known by various different names in their home countries, the common translation for this freedom is the ‘Everyman’s Right.’ Alternatively known as the ‘right to roam’ or the ‘right of public access to the wilderness,’ the Everyman’s right provides every man (as well as every woman) the right to free movement on lands and waters for leisure or recreation.

The European land model of access (or sometimes in-access) developed based on feudalism and the lands known as the commons. In the feudal system, feudal peasants—i.e., the commoners—had property rights to small plots of land only when they were actively being cultivated. Once the crops had been harvested, the land reverted to being part of the commons. In general, the commons were lands that were commonly held by the people, and could thus be exploited by anyone for subsistence or for economic gain. Commoners could graze livestock or harvest plant resources from such common land within established feudal limits, just as well they could freely travel and recreate on such land. However, starting in England in the 15th century, manorial lords sought to increase their harvest of crops and thus began a practice of enclosure, whereby common lands were enclosed by hedgerows (primitive-day fencing) as a means of keeping the common benefits to themselves permanently. The act of enclosure removed the commoners’ access to benefit from the land resources economically, as well as creating a physical barrier for public access. Land enclosure progressed steadily in England until the late 1800’s when the start of the industrial revolution provided a momentum-boost for enclosure; just like the mindset of the industrial revolution, latter-day enclosure was commenced to create greater agricultural efficiency in production. The practice of enclosure eventually spread to continental Europe as well, and by the end of the industrial revolution, most enclosure on the continent—particularly Germany, France, and Denmark—was complete. The commoners of Europe found themselves displaced from the rural landscape and largely forced to migrate to large cities to work in the centers of industry. Though enclosure forced the end of commoners being able to benefit economically from common land, the practice of traveling through common land was retained as it was historically as a right to free movement. In modern Europe today, since the rise of the leisure class has given ample recreation time to the masses, the right to roam underpins the concept of using privately held lands for personal recreation. Though historically a de facto right, the Everyman’s right has only recently been formally legalized as a wave of European countries codified this practice into protected law, starting with the Nordic countries in the 1950’s and more recently with countries in the United Kingdom in the 1990’s and 2000’s.

I have never been to Europe. I have never gotten to practice the Everyman’s Right as it is the culture on that continent. Instead, I live in America where a different land access model developed. Unlike Europe, where residents lived since antiquity off the commons until the commons were enclosed, most American lands were systematically surveyed, partitioned, and essentially given away for free to private citizenry by a strong federal government all for the sake of rapidly settling this expansive country. And the land seemed inexhaustible in the early days of our nation. The outlook at this time by these Euro-american settlers and their government was that these lands were empty and owned by no one, free for the taking for whoever could claim and settle them (never mind the cruel fate of history where indigenous peoples were forced from their ancestral lands, often violently). Private property ownership was a draw for those European immigrants, displaced by the land reforms in the industrial revolution, who wanted land of their own and could find it plentifully in this country. And unlike Europe, where the commoner’s right to travel across land was respected, private property in America developed with the right—indeed the expectation—to exclude others from accessing their privately held lands.

It was not until some visionary leaders around the turn of the 20th century decided that America should hold back some of its lands from settlement to instead be held in the public trust for the good of the people. The influential works of these leaders included the environmental prophecy of John Muir, the scientific land management principles of Gifford Pinchot, and the political resolve of Teddy Roosevelt. John Muir, perhaps America’s greatest wandering vagabond, had a philosophy about land access that reflected his wanderlust-filled Scottish heritage and his first eleven years of life spent in Scotland; Muir’s penchant for free travel would be the underpinnings of his advocacy for recreational travel on wild lands. Political figures like Roosevelt and Pinchot worked to create the Forest Reserve act of 1891, which gave the president sweeping power to set aside vast swaths of public domain lands as forest reserves, and the Antiquities Act of 1906 which granted the president power to preserve public lands deemed as significant archaeological or public resources. These reserved lands would later become our national parks and national forests, the crown jewels of our public land system. As of today, approximately 27.4% of the United States land area is owned by the federal government, primarily administered by four large land management agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; many other agencies also manage smaller parcels of public land. These lands are held in the public trust for the “greatest good for the greatest number for the greatest time (Gifford Pinchot).” When Pinchot uttered those words, however, his intent was for the economic good of the people based on conservative resource extraction. Recreation on public lands as a good in and of itself, and as a governmental priority would not develop in earnest until post-WWII.

 

Federal Land Distribution

Federal Public Lands in America. An astute observer will notice that lands administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are shown. Though owned by the federal government, these lands are held in trust for the tribes and leased to individuals in the tribal nations. These lands thus are not universally publicly accessible. Similarly, Department of Defense lands are also shown, which have restricted public access. Lands managed by both agencies constitute a small percentage of all federal lands.

 

As landlord, the federal government makes the laws and regulations pertaining to the use and access of public lands. The vast majority of these lands are open to the public for travel and recreation with few exceptions (see text in the above graphic); the public is free to use and enjoy these public domain lands usually free of charge, or sometimes with a small fee to cover land management costs. As an American proud of the natural heritage of my country and in admiration of the earlier efforts of the heroes to preserve it for the perpetuity of the generations, I look at my nation as a shining example of preserving lands for public use. I am proud at how over a quarter of my country’s area is protected for the good of the people.

But as proud as I am of America’s public land resources and as much as I have enjoyed them first-hand, there is a great and obvious disparity in geography. While more than 27% of America lies in the public domain*, 96% of this land area lies in Alaska and the 11 western states. That means that just four percent of federal lands are shared among the remaining 38 states. This includes states like Connecticut and Iowa where only 0.3% of the state’s land area falls under the purview of the federal government, and thus free public access is limited to those small holdings of land. And, even though the majority of the land in the Western United States is public, not all of it is accessible due to private property rights. Public lands in the west are often interspersed in a matrix of private land ownership, preventing access to some lands in the public domain. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ‘checkerboard’ lands which resulted from governmental land grants to private corporations in the 1800’s.

 

Who owns the West

There is an obvious geographic disparity when it comes to the distribution of federal public lands.

 

Checkerboard Aerial Forest

The ‘checkerboard’ landscape. It’s not hard to guess which of these square-mile land parcels are publicly owned and which ones are in private hands. Due to trespassing laws on private land, the checkerboard lands, though public, are largely inaccessible.

 

As a Midwesterner, growing up in a landscape of privately-held farm and forest parcels, I am used to a paucity of large expanses of public wildlands. But drawn to where the public lands are, I have spent abundant time exploring our public lands in the western United States. My latest trip in the west, my 463-mile canoe trip down Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah’s Green River, put public land access on the forefront of my mind once again. Though I’ve studied federal land policy quite a bit in college, nothing puts such study directly into practice like trying to plan a long-distance river expedition over a matrix of public and private lands.

Enshrined in the United States Constitution, under Article 1, Section 8, is the Commerce Clause, which establishes the doctrine of Navigable Servitude. The Commerce Clause establishes that the United States Federal Government holds the property rights of all the navigable surface waters in the United States, and Navigable Servitude stipulates that these waters be held in the public domain for the sake of interstate commerce. Later case law—in a 2013 decision by the 4th Circuit Court—determined that paddling is not a federally protected right. Yet, where not specifically prohibited by law, boating is an acceptable action on public waterways. The land underlying the surface of navigable waters, however, does not fall under the purview of the Commerce Clause, and as such is able to be privately owned. Thus, on my Green River expedition, so long as I was paddling on the surface of the river, I was on public property.

The challenge of a long canoe trip, though, is that a paddler can’t spend the entire time canoeing. Eventually you have to land to take care of basic biological needs and to rest. On the Green River, in the very upriver-most sections where the river flows through the Bridger-Teton National Forest (i.e., federally-owned public land), it was easy to paddle the river and always land on public domain lands which were open to recreation. But once the Green left the National Forest, it entered a matrix of publicly and privately owned land, and in those upper reaches there were long stretches of river with no access to public land. Wyoming state law extends private property ownership rights to the land under the river itself (remember, the river itself is federally owned). So every time I stepped my foot out of my canoe, I was technically trespassing!

Fortunately, with me through this challenging mosaic of private land was my ever-heedful friend Jon, who is extraordinarily conscious about not trespassing. Though along this stretch of river we saw few people and even fewer buildings, most of this land was still privately-held rangeland. Whereas I personally had fewer reservations about stopping to rest on an isolated cow pasture, Jon was adamant about not infringing on the property rights of others. Though it was a constant challenge and concern, we were able to find parcels of public domain lands every night to camp on. And thanks to the tone set by Jon’s vigilance, all 24 nights I spent on the river ended up being on some sort of pubic domain land. In these areas, the federal lands fall to ‘shared-use’ management policies, which meant that grazing interests had a right to use the land for economic exploitation just as much as I had a right to use the land for personal recreation; the result was that my campsites were often shared by grazing cattle. Identifying the federal land in the upper stretches of the Green River proved not to be too difficult either; while the majority of the river corridor was flat rangeland, there was the occasional steep, unvegetated butte that always lined up perfectly with the land ownership boundaries. These public lands were of those administered by the Bureau of Land Management, colloquially known as ‘the lands that no one wanted.’ Paddling down the river, it was easy to see why certain land parcels ended up in the public domain.

 

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In the headwaters of the Green River in Wyoming. Take a guess as to what land in the picture belongs in the public domain.

 

On my Green River Expedition, I successfully spent each night camped on federal or state land instead of on private land, which is a small moral victory in terms of doing things legally. However, the view from the ground showed little distinction between public and private lands. Sure, there were a few derelict fences marking boundaries. But cattle grazing occurs on both public and private land, and little to no structural improvements were seen on the private land along the course of most of the river. The type of place the Green River flowed through, even if it was completely private land, would have been such that I would have felt comfortable traveling and camping on such land despite its private ownership status. If the Green was a European river, it absolutely would have been the kind of place where recreational access would have been granted under right to roam laws.

In America, where right to roam laws do not exist, I have had to practice my own right to roam access where public lands are not as plentiful. I try to avoid this whenever possible, but the few occasions I have resorted to this self-granted right have been on biking or hiking trips in the eastern U.S. where sections of private land are expansive and public resources hard to find. Instead of benefiting from a universal right to roam granted by the United States government, I call my practice guerrilla camping, where I bed down for the night hidden away on private land. My knowledgeable and intentional trespass onto private property is not done without its own moral code, however; akin to the ethics codified in the Everyman’s Right, I camp as far away from development as possible, do no damage to the land, and leave no trace of my ever being there. In the few dozen times I have had to resort to guerrilla camping, I have never been caught in the act, and I remain doubtful that the landowner is any wiser to my being there. It is my own first-hand experience that an Everyman’s Right is feasible in America.

 

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Finding public land to camp on in agricultural Illinois is a bit tricky

 

But Americans still have certain attitudes towards private land ownership and its use that is not shared by their European counterparts, particularly where the freedom of passage is concerned. In America, where private property ownership is a near-virtue, we think about possessing the land. We take the libertarian stance that we are free to do as we like to our private property. But we don’t often think about the limitations that are already placed on land ownership; environmental laws and building codes all limit a land-owners freedom to dig a strip-mine or to build a citadel on their land. At its essence, private land ownership is not so much the physical possession of the physical land itself, but a bundle of rights of what one can do on and to the land. For example, private property rights entitles the land-holder to the rights of harvesting plant, animal, and mineral resources found on the land for economic gain within existing legal regulations; likewise the land-holder has the rights to modify the land and to make improvements on the land itself within the bounds of civil building codes. In America, also included in this bundle of property-owners’ rights is the right to exclude others from one’s property. This right sets up a system where trespassing becomes possible and punishable on private lands; this property right to exclude others is often the first right that comes to mind when an American thinks of private property. In European countries, where there is a traditional right to roam, the right to exclude others from property is not a right conveyed by private property ownership.

To the American mind that is accustomed to the notion of private property being the physical space where one can exclude others, the ability to limit the access of others is held sacrosanct. And, it is incredibly easy to distrust others and fear for the worst of what might happen if the right to exclude others from private property is out-legislated like it has in Europe. However, the code of ethics built into the Everyman’s Right legislation should alleviate fears of lawlessness and mass trespass should an Everyman’s Right be passed in America. Everyman’s Right legislation specifies limits to the right of public access. Access to lands and waters are generally only permitted for non-motorized recreational uses such as walking, cycling, and horseback riding. Camping on private land is limited to one night in most places, and most laws specify a certain distance that any recreational activity is to have away from homes, structures, and maintained lawns and gardens. Excessive noise is discouraged and most fires on private property are forbidden. Visitors are in general restricted from harvesting plant and animal resources that are found on the land, and visitors are encouraged to stick to existing pathways while on private property. Lands that can be ecologically damaged or sensitive croplands are also excluded from this right to travel. While the rights and responsibilities codified in these right to roam laws vary according to the specific country, the general theme is to allow public access while limiting infringement upon the property-owner’s rights. Just because the public gains access to your land doesn’t mean they are automatically permitted to start camping in your front yard and harvesting your vegetable garden.

Fortunately there is progress in America as states and localities are gradually making moves towards this more European-style right to roam land ethic. Coastal states like Oregon, California, and Florida have made much, if not all, of their coastal lands and beaches free to public access. States are also passing liability legislation to reduce land-owner liability for injuries sustained by other parties while on private land; such legislation is designed to encourage landowners to open up their land to increased public recreational access. Many non-profit organizations, such as the Land Conservancy, are working with private land owners to grant public access to private lands through conservation easements; such easements are one big step toward allowing limited public access while maintaining the rights of private landholders. As Americans, we cannot rely solely on our legacy of federal public land protection to provide wildland access to all the people in our country. We must continually seek to make free access to land a priority. On the Green River in Wyoming, despite the riparian zone being privately owned, many easements have been granted by private landowners along the river to permit the use of fishing access. It is a good step for ensuring equitable access to our nation’s land and water resources.

I would like to see the day when the United States adopts its own right to roam legislation. I would like to see a future where everyone, regardless of where they live, will have access to travel through our nation’s wild lands. I would like to be able to travel and roam myself and not have to worry about breaking trespassing laws when looking for a place to camp for the night. Until the time comes when America adopts its own right to roam law, we ought to start re-envisioning the greatest good for the greatest number for our privately held lands as well as our public lands.

 

*Additional public lands exist at the state and local government level, which get excluded from this analysis which focuses on federal lands due to various public access differences and due to lack of statistics on other public lands distribution.