Alone in Nature

You don’t have to go far to enjoy some of the beautiful elements of nature. Often they can be found at your local parks a few miles away. I have found beautiful creeks, sweeping vistas, discovered wildflowers and some of the best fall foliage. The winter season is no exception. You certainly get a different perspective on the landscape. The one major element that stands out with visiting these parks during the winter is how desolate it can be. Often you are the only one out there and all you hear is the sounds of animals scurrying, birds chirping and the howling of the winds.

Aman Park, Grand Rapids

I spent some time in the local county parks of Kent County to explore and to see how I could capture the winter landscape with my camera. The snow had just fallen and the trees were decorated with white fluffy snow on the branches. It was quite cold and the snow was fairly deep when hiking in certain areas. When out in the winter elements it is essential to wear the proper attire. I found that out the hard way once and cut short a winter excursion. The first park that I stopped at was Aman Park off of M-45. There was hardly anyone out on the trails. I took the trail downward to a bridge that crossed a small creek. It was amazing being in the middle of a snowy oasis. The snow on the trees beyond the bridge looked like I was about to step into another world. While I was hiking through this park, I was alone in nature. It was desolate out in the middle of the forest, but at the same time extremely peaceful.

Townsend Park, Rockford

I also went to Townsend Park on the other side of Kent County on a cold morning. Snow was foretasted once again, but I caught a gimps of sun as it rose amid some cloud cover. The section of the park I went to was closed off and had to hike it in. It is also one of the more beautiful places within this park so it was well worth the hike. A few bridges span over Bear Creek as it winds through the valley proportion of the park. The sun pushing through the clouds made a nice reflection off the water. Once again, I was the only one in the park at that time. There was plenty of fresh snow and the only tracks around were mine or those of animals that had passed through earlier. I am not the biggest winter person, but this time out in the park was really special. I was experiencing the still of the morning. For that moment of tranquility alone, I would recommend a winter hike to anyone.

The Annual Do-Over

Have you made your resolution list yet? The start of the new year is always met with great enthusiasm with new goals, a chance to start fresh and hopes of making the new year better than the last one. It is the time of year for an annual do-over. The fact that most resolutions don’t come to fruition no matter how hard we try, is one reason why I never make New Years resolutions. Instead I look back on the great things of the past year and what I can look forward to in the year ahead.

The year of 2017 started a bit slow for me as I dealt with physical therapy on a major injury.. After a couple months it was business as usual starting with a trip out in Arizona. It was nice to get away from the colder weather here in Michigan and enjoy some warmth and sunshine. We were also able to see quite a bit in the limited time we had. When we got back from our trip I certainly made up for lost time with the knee injury. Between April and early November I was out exploring and seeing all the great things Michigan had to offer. I met some people with some interesting stories that made the place I was at more significant. Often we focus on the great landmarks of Michigan from lighthouses to waterfalls, but there is so much more to Michigan than these iconic places. I was fortunate to get a closer look at some of Michigan’s smaller towns and the people in them. I was fortunate to visit many scenic attractions, places of history and a few museums here and there. Occasionally I went out of state to get a gimps of some of our neighboring states natural beauty.  It was certainly a busy year.

As we start the year 2018, I have no idea what it will bring. I am excited to keep exploring our great state. I am looking forward to gathering the stories behind some of our states great attractions. It is what the Mitten Discoveries is all about; exploring the known attractions and features of our state as well as discovering treasures often undiscovered. There is always a story to unlock no matter where you are or what place you are at in the state of Michigan. That is what I look forward to in the New Year. Our first month here in Michigan is off to a very cold start. The roads have been pretty treacherous lately and it looks to stay that way at least through the first couple weeks. I would love to do some major traveling, but I think I will stay close and explore some of our parks here in Kent County. Even at the local parks there is a story to be told. It could very well be my own as I journey through some deep snow to discover nature at its finest. No one knows what the year will bring. The new year is not an annual do-over for me; it is an extension of of the adventure I had throughout the past year.

Sliding Away

Recently Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore reported that the famous Log Slide Overlook trail is closed to the public. Due to heavy snow, strong winds and dune erosion the overlook platform broke off and fell about 100 feet down the large sand dune. The overlook offered a couple different views of the area. First and foremost, you were able to see the Grand Sable Dunes off to the right. Recently shrubs and trees on the dune were creating somewhat of an obstruction to the view. To the left, you could see the cliffs of pictured rocks and Sable Point Lighthouse. It was quite the view from up there.

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The area has quite the history. The logging industry has always been a big part of Michigan, particularly Northern Michigan. Years ago loggers used to slide the logs down the dunes to Lake Superior where they would be hauled out and taken to various mills. Legend from old lumberjack stories has stated that the logs going down the chute created enough friction that the chute would catch fire. While that is just a legend, I am sure the stories from that era were fascinating. The log slide is gone, but the beauty of the Grand Sable Dunes remain.

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The dunes strike a similar beauty to the Sleeping Bear Dunes with large inclines upward from the lake. Trails nearby the overlook and at Sable Falls will take you out to the sweeping hills of the dunes. Once at the edge of the 300 foot dune going down into Lake Superior;  you can take the trip down to the lake, but it is a hard walk back up the dune. It is also about a mile walk along the shoreline to Grand Maris, so plan accordingly. Those who have health issues should not take that hike or attempt to go down the sand dune. Sleeping Bear Dunes have had similar issues with visitors prompting the Coast Guard to make rescues for visitors. This can be a costly visit to your national park if you need to be rescued for this.

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As of now the trail to the overlook is closed up. According to the park officials the dune is not damaged and if the erosion is not substantial, they will build again. This incident is a constant reminder of the forces of nature. Man made structures often cannot hold up when natures elements are in full swing. The Upper Peninsula gets quite a bit of snow, so it is easy to understand that the weight of the snow, high winds that shift the sand can cause a collapse in a wood platform built into the dune. The next time they do build the platform, I am sure they will improve the structure. I do hope they get the platform back up. The scenery from the overlook was amazing.

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The Guardian

As you enter the city of Newago there is a small roadside park that is easy to miss. I drove right past it as I was heading into Newyago, but something had caught my eye. I turned around and headed back to this roadside park. Just beyond the parking lot was a statue of a police officer with two children. It was a memorial to police officers who have not only served in Newagyo, but in the state of Michigan. I thought it was pretty fitting to be right before you enter the city. Police officers are often tasked with guarding and protecting citizens. What struck me is that this is the statue as you enter the city as if it was the guardian of the city.

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It was nice to see several flowers growing in the area and served as a nice foreground element to the statue. What I admired about this statue in particular was that the work of art showcased the softer side of law enforcement. When I was a kid I remember a representative of the police department showing up at schools talking to the classes providing tips about strangers and to come to a police officer if there was a sense of danger. I and many others always got the impression that the police officer was our friend. This was the public relations aspect to policing. The statue with the officer and the kids reminded me of those days growing up. That is what I really appreciated about this particular work of art. It showcased the softer side to police officers, something that has gone astray from how we as citizens view police to the officers themselves in how they view their role in policing.

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Beyond the statue is a trail that leads to a creek. You can hear the rushing waters cascading along some rocks and pieces of wood within the creek. The walk is a nice small walk to take and it quite relaxing. There are small outlets within the trail that will take you closer down to the creek, However, the main trail is what most people will stay on. The trail goes along the creek for about a fourth of a mile. The only issue I had was that I was there in the early part of spring and the leaves of the trees had not bloomed yet. The sun was staring me down as I was hiking the trail making it a little difficult to see at times. As with any hike, you always need to be aware of your surroundings.

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If you are in the Newaygo area, look for the roadside park. If you are taking M-37 North, the park will be on your right. Coming in the south direction look for the park on your left as you leave the city. It is a nice little park away from the city with a nice piece of public art. I am glad the statue caught my eye. Otherwise, I would have missed it and continued onward into the city.

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Seasonal Changes

There have been some signs of life around lately. I have seen some smaller flowers sprout out of the ground with a little bit of the warmer temperatures. We are still a ways away from full blooming Tulips later in the month of April, but the fact that I am seeing a few flowers come out of the ground is good enough for me. As with many, it has been a long winter. It seems as if winter tends to drag on longer each year. Naturally, when spring arrives many of us are excited about what is around the corner. Spring officially began in the later part of March, but places in Michigan could swear it felt nothing like spring.

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Each year these seasonal changes bring about a sense of hope. As a photographer, I love seeing the flowers because they tend to add a little bit of color in what has been previously a colorless season. I love that the flowers come in all different shapes, sizes and colors. What is really visually appealing to me is when I see the new life of the flowers pop up in the midst of a brown and dead environment. I have seen flowers pop up surrounded by old brown leaves from the previous fall. It showcases that the season is all about life rather than a period of dormant life.

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There are plenty of landmarks and landscapes to photograph in the state of Michigan. To any photographer, I would always recommend taking time to photograph the flowers. The landscapes and landmarks are going to be around for a while, but flowers then to have their own season during spring. You will see the crocuses first and then start to see many daffodils. By the end of the month tulips are in full bloom. The month of April is a great month to capture the different flowers of spring. The best way to capture them is getting down and dirty on the ground. Have fun with the subject and see what beautiful image you can create!

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Opening Day

Baseball has come back to Detroit. Opening day for the Detroit Tigers is in a few days, and there is a level of excitement in spite of a lackluster spring training. I guess one could reason that a new season may bring new possibilities. In a few hours people will be heading into Comerica Park bumping shoulders with each other as they make their way to their seats. Some have said that they can close their eyes and imagine they hear the late Ernie Harwell call the game out back in the glory days. The smell of popcorn, hotdogs and hamburgers fill the air as people pass the concession stands.  There is nothing like being a part of opening day. In many ways it is more about the experience than anything else.

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I can remember long ago going to the old Tiger Stadium with my family when I was a kid. Back then I was never really interested in the game of baseball. I never forgot those games that we went to though. I was in fourth grade when I first went to a game with my family. Coincidentally, my first game came the year that the Tigers won the World Series in 1984. I remember the excitement of the crowd when Kirk Gibson hit a home run. I remember the excitement of watching Jack Morris strike out the opposing team and everyone cheering all around me. I remember everyone signing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” on the 7th inning stretch. We did not have the greatest seats in the stadium, but we had fun that day. The experience of the game became more valuable than the game itself. The next time I went to a Tiger’s game was with my cousins and uncle several years later. The Tigers were not having the best game, but the elements of being at the game still remained. It was about the experience.

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The Tigers are set to open up another season. This could be another average season, or there may be some surprises with efforts breaking all expectations based on what was noticed during the spring training games. One thing is for sure. No matter what happens to the Tigers this year, it will be magical on opening day. It will be magical for a kid experiencing his first ball game ever. The score of a game may be etched in on record for years to come, but often the memory of who won or lost is fleeting to the average person. The memory created by experiencing the game will be a lasting one.

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The magic of a baseball game is not limited to just the Tigers. There are several great minor league teams in Michigan that offer the same excitement and the same experience. Grand Rapids, Lansing, Midland and Traverse City all have great minor league teams. It is a great way to spend quality time with the family. There are always plenty of entertaining breaks in between innings and some of these minor league teams are really good. Opening day is upon us. Come for the game, but leave with the great memories of the experience.

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Otter Play

Going to the zoo has always been a fun place to visit. I loved going to the zoo as a kid and seeing many of the different animals from around the world. As an adult, I still love the zoo. Michigan has several zoos throughout the state and has a variety of animals in each of the zoos. Some zoo’s are larger than others, but nonetheless you always walk away with a better appreciation of wildlife. The John Ball zoo in Grand Rapids is a place that should be on any itinerary when coming to visit the city. I have been to this zoo serveal times and each time, I leave satisfied with my visit.

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One of my favorite places to visit at the zoo is the Otter Exhibit. There is a glass wall where you can see the otters swim around under water. To the left there is a platform where you can view the Otters on the land. If you just want to sit down and relax there are benches that overlook the exhibit. it is not uncommon to see several Otters out and playing with each other. In all the times I have visited the zoo, I cannot recall one time where they were inside and away from the public. They love interacting with other Otters and will often go where the other Otters are. Occasionally you will see one of them swimming around on his own while the others are out sunbathing, but typically they are like pack animals where they stay together and do things together. When they are at play with each other seems to be when they are the most entertaining to watch.

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I do like those moments where one Otter will break from the pack and do its own thing. I have seen Otters enjoying themselves swimming or just finding a quiet place to enjoy the sunshine. When they are still and quiet, they are still entertaining to watch. Otters usually don’t stay in one place for long. I have found this to be different from some of the other animals where you could circle the zoo and come back to an animal and find them laying in the same spot as when you left them. Otters keep moving and will do something different over a period of time. That is where the entertainment value comes in with them. As a photographer, you can get quite a few different types of photographs with the Otters and actually get a sense of their personality.

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John Ball Zoo has benches to watch the animals in various places. If you have the time, I would recommend just sitting down and relaxing. There are food outlets throughout the zoo. You could even grab some food, eat lunch and enjoy watching the animals play. The Otters and Monkeys tend to be the most entertaining of all the animals there. You never know what you will see from one minute to the next. When visiting the zoo, be sure to take some time to visit the Otters. You will not be disappointed.

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Frozen Fishtown

When you think about the fishing industry, the east coast and upper west coast comes to mind. These places are the first that come to my mind when I think of the fishing industry. There is a little town in Michigan that also embraces that industry. Leland, Michigan brings a little bit of that fishing industry feel in their Historic Fishtown. You can walk along the docks along side several shanties and smokehouses. Inside these shanties are several gift shops, eateries and art galleries. As you walk along the decks you will see fishnets and buoys. You will see decorative items enhancing the cultural feel of the fishing industry. This historic town was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. During the summer this area is packed with visitors. During the winter the fish town seems deserted as most of the shops have closed for the season. Winter is still a good time to visit this town.

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I stopped by Leland as I was making my way up to Northport on M-22 on a cold February day. I had the parking lot all to myself. I ventured on the dock area toward the end of the Fishtown Docks. This is where the ferry also deports for the Manitou Islands of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. As I walked onto the dock I heard a splashing sound just beyond the end of the docks. To my surprise a couple otters were playing around. They stuck their head out of the water and then quickly disappeared beyond the National Park Service Ferry that was docked in the small channel. It was interesting to look out to the break walls beyond heading out into Lake Michigan. In the distance you could see the dark stormy skies over the big lake. It appeared that a snow storm was on its way towards the lakeshore fairly soon.

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I continued walking on the dock up toward the small dam area just below the street within Downtown Leland. All the fishing decor and relics were still there frozen over in snow or were encased in a coating of ice. The shops were closed up and it was a far cry from the activity normally seen during the summer. The only thing that could be heard was the rushing waters crashing down from the dam. It is not too far off the mark of some of the east coast fishing towns that shut down during the winter season. Many of the shops and restaurants in these towns close up during the winter since business tends to be slow. It was a nice walk just to see some of the boats docked in the channel and not a person around. I walked through a small gated area leading up toward the parking lot. From there, I could get onto the overlook of the dam giving a great view of the channel, Fishtown and Lake Michigan in the distance.

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My time at Fishtown during the winter was not extensive. I spent about 25 minutes just walking around and taking photographs there. It certainly did not have the activity as there is during the summer, but I was glad I had made this particular stop. Often we need to see things in a different way than what we are used to. The overall scene of the Historic Fishtown did not change much from the summer. However, the dynamic of what I saw did. Instead of a town packed with people, I saw a town that was desolate and tranquil. I walked away embracing the value of this historic part of this town.

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Return of the Butterflies

It is that time of year again where a trip to Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids becomes synonymous with several butterflies floating around. The Butterflies are Blooming exhibit at Meijer Gardens is an annual exhibit that draws several visitors anxious to get a little taste of spring. It is the perfect time to see this exhibit because it embodies the promise of spring after what seems to be a long extended winter. The butterflies are held in the gardens greenhouse and the environment is very tropical. It is the one exhibit that Meijer Gardens has where I see nothing but smiles on everyone’s faces.

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At the Butterflies are Blooming exhibit you will be treated with over 7,000 butterflies within the greenhouse. There are 50 variety of butterfly species. One of the most sought out species is the Blue Morpho. When it is closed it is a dull brownish color, but when it spreads its wings you are treated to a brilliant blue color across its wings. Getting the Blue Morpho to spread its wings is the hard part. I have sat nearby one for quite some time hoping that it would spread its wings, only to be disappointed. In other occasions I was just lucky enough to see this one spread out its wings. That seems to be the key to it all. You have to be in the right place at the right time. These butterflies are pretty common throughout the greenhouse, but more often you will spot them with their wings closed up.

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One of the most common species that you will see at this exhibit is the Maylay Lacewing (not to be confused with the one pictured below). They look like the smaller version of a Monarch Butterfly. There are plenty of them floating around and they like to sit on some of the leaves of the tropical plants and trees throughout the greenhouse. They are not jittery so to speak and are easy to photograph. With several butterflies, the minute you get to one, they will fly off. This species of butterfly seems to be very calm and content just to be laying on the plants and leaves. In many cases, I have seen these butterflies land on people. When this happens, it is such a great photo opportunity.

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When you go to the exhibit, plan to spend an hour or two at the greenhouse. Once you finish with the butterflies, there is still plenty of things to do at the Meijer Gardens. If the weather is nice, there is the main sculpture garden, the children’s gardens, the new Japanese gardens, and the Lena Meijer Farmhouse. All of these sections within the gardens is worth visiting and spending time at. One could spend several hours into the afternoon taking in the whole Meijer Gardens area. The butterflies are blooming, and spring is just around the corner. Now I know why so many people are smiling.

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A Mackinaw Winter

Mackinaw City is extremely busy during the tourism season from early spring all the way to the mid part of fall. it is the gateway to Mackinac Island which is a major tourism draw for not only residents of Michigan, but people visiting from other states. The city mirrors St. Ignace on the other side of the bridge, but is by far the most popular tourism draw with many restaurants, shopping opportunities, historic parks, and a lighthouse overlooking the Mackinac Bridge. I entered the city expecting to see a similar scene that I had experienced at other seasonal tourist towns where there was little to no life within the town. What I soon realized is that the city brings in a lot more people than I thought during the winter season.

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When I had visited the city during the winter a couple years ago, the Great Lakes were frozen over pretty good. The frozen waters over the Straits of Mackinac provided an opportunity for winter recreation that I had never given a second guess. Snowmobiles were being rented out and several snowmobile tours were being offered. These tours gave a new look to the city from what would be the waterfront. It provided an up close look at the Mackinac Bridge and some of the parks within city limits. A few stores had opened back up for the season selling more winter seasonal items. While most of the restaurants had shut down, there were still several restaurants still opened for business. Hotels were pretty well filled up far beyond what I had expected to see.

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I stopped by the Lighthouse Park where Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse was located. Several people were walking back and forth from the parking lot to the frozen lakeshore area. The park seemed to be a mid point stop throughout the Straits of Mackinac snowmobile tours along the Lower Peninsula. A few people gathered in the park to get a closer view of the lighthouse. They left behind their snowmobiles parked out on the ice of the lake. The ice could be seen extending out way beyond the midpoint of the bridge. As I looked out onto the Mackinac Bridge, there was still quite a bit of traffic crossing the bridge between the two peninsulas. It wasn’t long until they got onto their snowmobiles and started heading toward the docks of the ferries that during the tourism season bring passengers out to Mackinac Island. Before leaving I got a pretty good glance at the Mackinac Point Lighthouse. I too had been accustomed to seeing this lighthouse during the summer season.

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It certainly is interesting to see this city during the winter season. There is certainly more activity at this city than I had expected, and that is a pretty good thing. Often so many cities see a slowdown in the off season and it also slows down the economy for the city. When various tourist cities can flourish in all the seasons, it allows the city to bring in more businesses and keep up the parks that attract many visitors during the normal tourism season. If time allows, I definitely want to get back to this city during the winter and do a little bit more exploring than what I did on this current visit.

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