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Liberty, a rescue bald eagle, on show at Alton Visitor Center

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The Illinois River was mostly frozen over in early January 2018

WINTERING BALD EAGLES ON THE MISSISSIPPI and ILLINOIS RIVERS

A privilege and a thrill to watch the US national bird

Don’t forget your binoculars!

Eager to see an eagle? Well, you can watch our national bird, the Bald Eagle, soaring on six-foot wings, diving down at 100 mph to snatch a fish from the water’s surface, or perching on a tree branch. And Midwest residents don’t have to travel to Alaska (or Florida) to do that. Bald eagle sightings have increased along the Mississippi River this winter, on locks and dams in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Just one hour north of St Louis is a great spot to see large numbers of these magnificent birds in winter, which we recently did in spite of the extreme cold.

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P2040054.JPGAround Alton and Grafton, Illinois, is an area bounded by two rivers, the Illinois River and the Mississippi, with a third, the Missouri River, a few miles south. (In the native language of the then-local Illini tribe, ‘grafton’ means “gathering of waters’). State Parks and Wildlife Management Areas, Federal lands, and Nature Conservancy areas along these rivers recognize the importance of this area. Cliffs, bluffs, woods, wetlands, bottomlands and prairies provide a paradise for a wide variety of flora and fauna. This area is on the N-S bird migratory flyway, so it’s frequented by many migrating birds at different times of the year.

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P2050074.JPGFor most people, the most famous visitor is the bald eagle, which is attracted here by large bodies of water with adequate food supplies and large land areas with minimal human disturbance. This is the second largest wintering ground for eagles flying from their nesting places in the Great Lakes States and Canada (the largest is in N. California and S. Oregon) and the chances of seeing eagles improve as the number of bald eagles continues to increase as a result of improving numbers. As our guide joked, “This is the eagles’ Florida”.

The bald eagle was on the Endangered Species List: Their numbers were down to as few as 417 nesting pairs in the 1960s, because of loss of habitat and widespread use of harmful pesticides, especially DDT. Banning DDT and increased habitat protection under federal law have led to a significant increase in the number of nesting bald eagles, so in 1995 the eagle’s status was downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’.

It is thought that this area supports an estimated winter population of 2500-3000 eagles, and the birds are spotted daily. The wintering eagles use large trees on the river banks for daytime perches, as food is readily available in the open water, especially near dams (they enjoy the fish that are confused/thrown up by the locks and ferries), but they prefer large trees in the nearby sheltered valleys and ravines for night roosts.

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Woodlands in Pere Marquette State Park

mapThe 15-mile scenic Great River Road between Alton and Pere Marquette State Park is very accessible to eagle-watching enthusiasts. Here the road runs along the base of limestone bluffs that rise almost 200 feet above the Mississippi River. Early French explorers (such as Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet) called these ramparts “broken castles” and the scenery alone makes the drive worthwhile.

In winter, many Eagle Events are planned (such as Bald Eagle Days from Pere Marquette State Park Visitors Center: reservations required) or you can plan eagle-viewing yourself with the aid of a pamphlet, “The Eagle Watchers Guide”, which you can pick up at the Alton Visitors Center, Pere Marquette Visitor Center, or the National Great Rivers Museum. Or more information at www.visitalton.com 

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Like wolves and lions, eagles have captured people’s imaginations over the centuries. The Native American Indians revered the eagle as a messenger of the gods and, as your eye is drawn ever upward to admire its graceful soaring, you can understand why, and realize that actually legend is not a match for the reality (eagles have been tracked flying as high as 30,000 feet and because they fly so high is why the Indians thought they were delivering messages to the gods). Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey as the national bird, but the eagle was chosen in 1782 because it’s a true American species (the only other endemic eagle in North America is the golden eagle) As we watch this magnificent bird, we’re very glad the turkey wasn’t chosen!

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Pere Marquette Visitor Center

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Liberty, a rescue eagle is 26 years old and very comfortable with crowds of people

Start at the Visitors’ Center in Pere Marquette State Park, a few miles beyond Grafton on Highway 100, the Great River Road (You can also begin at the Alton Visitor Center, which doesn’t have as many displays but did have a live rescue eagle on display this January). They have good displays on the flora and fauna and natural history of this area and lots of information on eagles, including an informative movie. (See Fun Facts about Bald Eagles in the next article). The Center offers its own Bald Eagle Days program on some days in the season, which you need to sign up for when there, or call 618-786-3323. We took part in this one Sunday, and it was excellent. A State Park interpreter leads the program, driving some people around in a van while others follow in their own vehicles.

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We also saw trumpeter swans

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Our guide, Scott, sets up a ‘scope and points out eagles and their nests

frozenriver3But, to do a viewing trip yourself, drive north from Pere Marquette about 8 miles on 100 to Fuller Lake Wildlife Management Area. Stop and look around at the trees along both sides of the river, and you may see eagles resting on the branches. Turn and retrace your steps past the park, keeping your eagle eyes open! You may see other cars stopped, which probably means they’ve spotted something, and if there’s a place to pull off the road, you can do the same. Just before Grafton is the free Brussels ferry over the Illinois River. It’s fun to drive your car onto the ferry and cross over to the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, where you may see bald eagles, pelicans, white geese or trumpeter swans. Cross back (the ferry runs 24/7, every 10-15 minutes so long as the river is not ice-bound) and drive along the Mississippi, watching out for the birds, past Alton to the National Great Rivers Museum at the site of Melvin Price Locks and Dam. You can often see eagles in flight and feeding around this massive structure, or resting in the trees along the river. This January, for the first time in our experience, we saw that the Illinois River was mostly frozen over. Quite amazing to see that!

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So much ice!

frozenRod

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Casey, a red-shouldered hawk

On the opposite side of the river (drive over the big bridge at Alton and turn left) is the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary (aka the Audubon Center), one of the best locations for eagle viewing. They (in conjunction with the Alton Visitor Center) were hosting the Alton-Audubon Eagle Ice Festival the day were were there, with fun activities for kids and a live red-shouldered hawk on display. It was also fascinating to see an artist carving an ice sculpture of an eagle from a huge block of ice at the Alton Visitor Center and to see some other finished ice sculptures there and at the Audubon Center. The weather was so cold that the sculptures didn’t melt even a little bit out in the weak sunshine!

 

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SStrmmarketPere Marquette Lodge in Pere Marquette State Park has rooms in the Lodge or cabins in the grounds. For reservations call 618-786-2331or visit www.PMLodge.net . I’ll write more about Pere Marquette, the PM State Park and PM Lodge in a later post.

Other lodging options are listed at www.VisitAlton.com . Many restaurants in Grafton and Alton provide tasty lunch breaks. We really liked State Street Market in Alton.

NOTE: An alternative site in Illinois for eagle viewing is Starved Rock State Park on the upper Illinois River, much closer to Chicago.

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A magnificent African elephant about to start a sand bath int he river bed

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Collection of pretty gourds in Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis

So many people are shocked, angry, stunned, grieving at the outcome of the November  USA election. “Whatever will be, will be” after this and events will run their course. But, living with anger and grief is not a good thing for anyone, so I thought this might help for a while.

Mother Nature is a wonderful thing, and usually getting out into Nature (in any form) can be very soothing. (Let’s just hope the new administration doesn’t reverse some/any of the good that’s been done to help our environment—might be a rather forlorn hope, I’m afraid).

I found this poem by Wendell Berry, and it does offer some solace.

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A misty fall day in a park in northern Hokkaido, Japan

I’m also going to try and find a photo of ours of something beautiful and wonderful in Nature for the next few days, to try and help soothe some souls.

Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry, a farmer, poet, essayist from Kentucky

“When despair grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting for their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

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Fall on our street

fallThe glorious fall colors around our house in Urbana always get us “oohing and aahing”, especially on a sunny day when the light makes the leaves seem luminous. Cameras come out as we try for that elusive perfect photo on our tree-lined avenue that becomes an autumn-hued tunnel.

As we took these photos I realized that we’ve done the same for the other seasons, and I thought it would be fun to put up a kind of collage, with a comparison of our avenue at different times of year. And the back of our house through the four seasons too. What a difference a few months make!

This also makes us realize that we’ve actually come to love the four seasons and their changing, even though we are originally from southern Africa where the change of seasons isn’t at all well marked.

Please scroll through and enjoy!

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The cycle begins

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Beautiful greening begins after the bare winter

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Late spring

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A green tunnel in summer

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Doesn’t look the same in winter!

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A blizzard hits our street

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Our neighbor’s magnolia is gorgeous in spring

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In summer everything gets very lush

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Our back yard in fall

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Back of our house in winter

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Icicles above our front step

 

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hailsignHonoring the Mohawk Native Americans

Reaching out with Hope

When we attended a family wedding in the Berkshires this October, one of the things I was determined to do was visit the “Hail to the Sunrise” Statue on the Mohawk Trail. Luckily we were staying nearby, so it was quite possible. And we were not disappointed.

The Mohawk Trail is a 63-mile winding road stretching east from the Massachusetts/New York line, close to Williamstown, to Millers Falls on the Connecticut River, just beyond Greenfield in Massachusetts. It runs through part of the well-known Berkshires, and is especially beautiful to drive in fall when the fall colors are truly glorious.

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You can just see the Chief directly behind the circular pool

chiefRodThe Mohawk Trail began as a trade route for the Native Americans of the Five Nations and connected Atlantic tribes with tribes in Upstate New York, hundreds of years before European settlers arrived. They used it to pass between the Connecticut and Hudson Valleys. It followed the Millers River, Deerfield River and crossed the Hoosac Range in the area that is now northwest Massachusetts.

Hail to the Sunrise” is a lovely monument just outside the town of Charlemont, Mass, about halfway along the Trail. The Monument consists of a prominent statue of a Mohawk Indian and a reflecting pool, and is the main feature of Mohawk Park, a roadside park on the Mohawk Trail. It was sponsored by The Improved Order of Redman, and Degree of Pocahontas.

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The monument honors the peoples of the five Mohawk Nations that inhabited western Massachusetts and New York State. The Mohawks who traveled this trail were said to be friendly to while settlers. Today the monument is a reminder of the area’s Native American heritage.

The bronze statue depicts a Native American man in traditional garb

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Note the arrowhead-shaped inscription stone

looking eastward across the Deerfield River with his arms uplifted in supplication. He faces the direction of the rising sun and is greeting the Great Spirit. The bronze statue, created by sculptor Joseph Pollia (1893-1954), rests on a 9-ton boulder. It was unveiled in October 1932, attended by more than 2000 people. The arrowhead-shaped tablet on the base of the statue reads: “Hail to the Sunrise—In Memory of the Mohawk Indian. The Mohawks of the Five Nations began to settle in New York State in 1590 and for 90 great suns they fought the New England tribes. The New York Mohawks that traveled this trail were friendly to the white settlers.”

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One of the inscription stones

The pool is lined with 100 inscribed stones from various tribes and councils from throughout the US. The grounds are open to the public and the park is a welcome stop along the scenic highway. It’s a great place to stop and contemplate Native American culture and history and how these peoples were so badly treated overall by the white settlers. For me, the man’s pose gives cause for hope, like he’s reaching out for a better future.

Charlemont is an old town, first settled in 1749. Every summer, the Mohawk Trail Concerts take place in the old, acoustically-perfect Charlemont Federated Church. They have been held here since 1970, founded by Arnold Black, a violinist.

 

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One of the many lovely vistas on the Mohawk Trail

This historic trail is on the US National Register of Historic Places and is perfect as a Weekend Getaway and to view Fall Foliage

The US boasts an incredible variety of different terrains and scenery, wonderful National Parks of all kinds, and many national treasures. To enjoy some of them, there are numerous great scenic drives, from coast to coast, past mountains, valleys, forests, canyons, coastlines: think of the Blue Ridge Parkway (Virginia, North Carolina), San Juan Skyway (Colorado), 17-mile drive (Carmel, California), the Overseas Highway (Florida Keys), the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) in California past Big Sur, Route 66, and the Great River Road along the Mississippi River.

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“Hail to the Sunrise” in Mohawk Park

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Rod M and “Hail to the Sunrise”

These are the ones traditionally on the list of “most scenic drives” but you can find beautiful stretches of highway just about anywhere you look.

New England has numerous drives, especially lovely during the fall, and one such is the Mohawk Trail through the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. This large highland region is a broad plateau dissected by hills and peaks and cut by river valleys. Geologically very old, it’s linked to the higher Green Mountains of Vermont. The main North Berkshires region (according to the local map we got) is around the towns of Williamstown, North Adams and Adams.

We were there one weekend in October for a family wedding and found it

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View from Whitcomb Summit Inn to the Elk statue

enchanting. It’s a very pretty part of the country and the fall colors were gorgeous. It’s not densely populated, with little towns strung out along the river valleys. It’s interesting to know that this is where Indian tribes used to live and hunt and that as we drive along the Trail we are, in a way, following in the footsteps of the first people in this area.

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The Elk statue

The Mohawk Trail began as a trade route for the Native Americans of the Five Nations and connected Atlantic tribes with tribes in Upstate New York, hundreds of years before European settlers arrived. They used it to pass between the Connecticut and Hudson Valleys. It followed the Millers River, Deerfield River and crossed the Hoosac Range in the area that is now northwest Massachusetts.

These days, the Trail is part of Routes 2 and 2A, following much of the view2original Indian trail for about 69 miles, from Williamstown (home of Williams College) in the west, to Greenfield in the east. When it was incorporated in 1753, Greenfield was the northern frontier before the Canadian border. The Berkshire Mountains are easily visible from some places and many people think this is the most beautiful drive in Massachusetts. There are stopping points along the way, with scenic viewpoints, roadside attractions (notably the “Hail to the Sunrise Statue” at Mohawk Park in Charlemont—a tribute to this Native American heritage), and gift shops.

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The famous hairpin bend

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Golden Eagle restaurant at the hairpin bend

The Trail is very tourist-oriented now, but you can imagine those old traders passing through. The road is narrow and winding, and the multiple layers of rolling hills, ablaze with color at this time of year, are generally quite gentle, although there is a steep climb up to Mount Whitcomb, the highest point of the Trail at 2173 feet. On the western side of the summit is the popular hairpin bend and look-out at Western Summit (called Spirit Mountain by Native Americans) over the city of North Adams and to the Taconic Mountains. On the eastern side the highway descends steeply down the slope of the Hoosac Range, following the Cold River and then the Deerfield River. Note the “Elk on the Trail” statue at Whitcomb Summit.

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Walking on the trail in Natural Bridge State Park

foliagesigncloseEach new vista around a sharp corner had us all “oohing and aahing”. The prettiest section (we thought) was between North Adams and east to Charlemont, where often the road is winding along the edge of the Deerfield River. If you stop at some of the roadside lookouts next to the gently gurgling river the sound of water is very soothing. The river is gentle now, but gets much fuller in spring and summer—full enough for tubing and whitewater adventures, popular pastimes. Many of the outdoor activities were not open now, as it’s out of season, although winter sports season will begin soon. In summer, camping, hiking, horse riding, fishing, zip-lining etc are offered. We passed a couple of ‘Bear Crossing’ signs, and wondered how often bears are still seen around here.

It’s a spectacular drive, always lovely I’m sure, but especially now. We tried to absorb the scenery, to imprint it on our minds, as we know it’s fleeting and will be gone in a few weeks. Perhaps it’s that transitory/fleeting element that makes it even more precious.

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Part of the gorge in Natural Bridge State Park

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Rod M pointing out part of the natural arched stone bridge

Besides the recreational and nature possibilities and fall foliage tours, the Berkshires (Hills or Mountains) are popular with tourists because of the vibrant visual and performing arts and music scene. There are a number of good museums (for example, MASSMoCA in North Adams); performing arts institutions like Tangelwood; America’s first and longest-running dance festival, “Jacob’s Pillow”; and it’s the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to name but a few.

The name Berkshires came from Sir Francis Bernard, the Royal Governor in office 1760-1769, who named the area “Berkshire” to honor his home county in England.

Besides the Native American history, this area has other interesting

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Susan B Anthony Birth House in Adams

historical tidbits. For example, during the American Revolution, a Continental army force under Henry Knox brought captured cannons from Fort Ticonderoga by ox-drawn sleds south along the west bank of the Hudson River from the fort to Albany, where he then crossed the Hudson. Knox and his men continued east through the Berkshires and finally arrived in Boston. This feat, known as “the Noble train of Artillery” was accomplished in the dead of winter, 1775-1776.

NAdamssignAdams is also the birthplace of Susan B. Anthony (in 1820), the famous suffragette, and you can visit her birth house.

If you only have a few days, here’s what we suggest.

Where to Stay:

—at the Whitcomb Summit Retreat, 229 Mohawk Trail (about 15 minutes out of North Adams, and just next to the Elk statue). You can easily drive to places from there. www.whitcombsummitretreat.net Their logo is “stay at the top” and the views out are spectacular.

—or you could stay in North Adams at the Holiday Inn, 40 Main Street.

Where to eat In North Adams?

A good breakfast place is Renee’s Diner, 780 Massachusetts Ave (on

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Brewhaha Cafe

FaceBook). A lovely coffee shop is Brewhaha, 20 Marshall Street (on FaceBook).

We had excellent meals at Public Eat and Drink, 34 Holden Street in North Adams (www.publiceatanddrink.com ), and at the Golden Eagle, right on the famous hairpin bend, at 1935 Mohawk Trail (www.thegoldeneaglerestaurant.com ). MASSMoCA has a café, called Lickety Split, and a restaurant called Gramercy Bistro.

What to Do:

First, do the drive between North Adams and Charlemont and stop to visit the “Hail to the Sunrise” statue, a memorial to the Mohawk Native Americans, sponsored by the Improved Order of the Redman. Also stop at the Elk Memorial on Whitcomb Summit.

If you have a clear day, visit the Natural Bridge State Park, just outside of North Adams. It’s an easy, pretty walk and well worth the view of the only natural water-eroded marble bridge in North America, created by the Hudson Brook. It’s about 550 million years old, and is 30 feet wide, spanning a chasm about 60 feet deep.

Drive a little south to Adams and visit the Susan B Anthony Birthplace Museum, 67 East Road, Adams, www.susanbanthonybirthplace.org

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MASSMoCA

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An amazingly detailed mural

In North Adams, visit MASSMoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the largest Contemporary Art Museum in USA), and then check out the colorful murals on the wall nearby, on the underpass of Route 2.

A must-see is the Western Gateway Heritage State Park, right in the center of North Adams. This freight yard district has been restored and has a variety of historical attractions, including an exhibit on the building of the Hoosac Tunnel.

North Adams was a railroad and manufacturing hub, using power generated by the Hoosic River (producing textiles and shoes), with many huge old mill buildings (MASSMoCA is in the largest now). Many of the others have been converted into art spaces, galleries, and little shops (most closed during winter).

North Adams has a Fall Foliage Festival at the end of September/beginning of October, and there’s a Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, close to the MASSMoCA.

 

 

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Now for something very light-hearted.

What do Yaktrax look like? Something like the tracks of the elusive Bigfoot from North America, or the Yeti in the Himalayas—creatures that some people swear they have seen? Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, is supposedly a cryptid ape-or hominid-like creature that lives in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman, is also an ape-like cryptid that lives in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal and Tibet.

Maybe Yaktrax look like this?

In deep snow

In deep snow

tracks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, we’ve unearthed the secret of the Yaktrax, but the mystery of Bigfoot and the Yeti still remain. Scientists say the existence of these creatures is a combination of folklore, misinformation and hoax. And yet the stories persist.

Recently, we’ve had some very snowy and icy weather where we live, making walking outside a bit treacherous. My husband prefers to walk to his lab at the university, so we decided to buy him some removable, strap-on cleats to make walking a little less hazardous.

Rod's Yaktrax before he strapped them on

Rod’s Yaktrax before he strapped them on

Yak on steep path

Yak on steep path

Voila the Yak Trax, a very clever play on Yak Tracks. And the YakTrax work very well.

Yaks are bovids (Bos grunniens and Bos mutus), part of the cattle family. They are known as animals that have an amazing ability to walk and climb in the Himalayas, at high altitudes and in snow. Supposedly they are very nimble, so someone who can have tracks like yaks will hopefully also be more nimble in winter weather conditions.

 

Driving up into the mountains of Yunnan, we stop to let the Jeep cool

Driving up into the mountains of Yunnan, we stop to let the Jeep cool

Rod M with our Chinese hosts in the meadow with some of the Gayal cattle

Rod M with our Chinese hosts in the meadow with some of the Gayal cattle

We have not been to the Himalayas, but we have been high in the mountains of Yunnan Province in China, bordering Tibet—but only in summer. On the way up to a research station, where my husband was going to study their herd of domesticated Gayal cattle (bos frontalis), we saw a few domesticated yaks, climbing up a steep path off the steep road, and lower down we saw a couple on a large meadow, decked out with colorful panniers.

The Gayal are found in northeast India, Bangladesh, northern Burma and Yunnan, usually in hill forests. The Gayal are not the same as yaks, but still very interesting, and they are also pretty nimble. As far as I could tell, they look very similar to yaks too, except the horns are flatter and straighter.

A handsome beast

A handsome beast

 

A herd of Gayal cattle

A herd of Gayal cattle

 

 

 

 

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Icicles from the roof melt partially in the sun and drip onto a bush, to freeze into lovely patterns

Icicles from the roof melt partially in the sun and drip onto a bush, to freeze into lovely patterns

Winter of 2013-14 will probably go down in history as a memorable one, for many reasons in many different places–warmer than usual in much of western Europe; the wettest on record in England, with a flooding Thames and pounding coastal waves; extreme cold (we have a new phrase now, “Polar Vortex”) and heavy snow and ice in much of the USA, especially the mid-west and upper mid-west. Cabin fever sets in, and everyone is waiting for spring.

Here in Illinois, it has been awful (we’ll say no more!). But, today I want to share a few photos of the prettier side of the season. There is beauty, even in the nuisance and sometimes danger of excessive ice and snow.

Criss-crossing squirrel tracks in the snow on our deck and lawn make an interesting pattern

Criss-crossing squirrel tracks in the snow on our deck and lawn make an interesting pattern

Sparkling ice formations in our kitchen window bush

Sparkling ice formations in our kitchen window bush

Some roof icicles---pretty but don't have one break off and fall on you!

Some roof icicles—pretty but don’t have one break off and fall on you!

 

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