A Little Solo Camping
I was feeling a little stressed out last week, so I decided that I was going to go camping. The stress stemmed from the fact that I felt that my plate was a little full. I sometimes put in a little too much effort into some activist activities. For instance, I devoted more time than I should have to researching pollinators and Frida Kahlo for recent presentations. While these papers were for informal settings with friends, it made my week feel a little like finals week! I needed a little break, so I set off on a solo camping adventure. Honestly, I have never gone camping alone before. Really, until just last year, I had never even gone camping before. My first real camping experience was my trip to Africa last summer. I will be camping again this June in Central Asia. Go big or go home, I guess? Local adventures are also fun (and cheaper). For a small dose of adventure, I checked the Minnesota State Park’s website and decided to go camping at Wild River State Park because the park was hosting two birding hikes in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day.
Wild River State Park is located about fourteen miles east of North Branch, MN on the St. Croix River. I don’t recall visiting the park before, but I may have visited it while I lived in Cambridge, MN as a teen. It was about a two and a half hour drive from Duluth. I left on Friday at around noon and arrived by the late afternoon. I stopped for lunch along the way and also picked up some DNR approved firewood outside of the park. I had reserved a campsite that was several sites away from other reservations, as I wanted to be alone. Upon arrival, I checked in, set-up my tent, and read a little from the Frida Kahlo biography. The campsite was fairly busy, with many of the sites reserved. I was a little surprised to see so many massive RVs, complete with trucks, bicycles, grills, and scampering hordes children. From six to nine pm, each of the campsites seemed to be a Thanksgiving feast of grilled foods. The campground itself was a little too chaotic to be relaxing. I walked around a little to orient myself, then hiked for the next three to four hours along the various trails near the campsite. Thankfully, the trails were quiet. I only saw a handful of hikers once I was away from the campground. I was immediately struck by the bountiful birdlife. The forest was alive with the sounds of numerous birds, which flitted by with frustrating speed. I noticed several bluebirds and a rose-breasted grosbeak during my hike. I also heard an owl later on, but could not identify it. Another highlight was a pair of noisy ravens. Beyond the birds, the forest was teeming with trilliums and other wildflowers. Since it was warmer than in Duluth, the season was further along, with more flowers and foliage than in the north. I wore myself out with walking and settled back down at my campsite. I build a fire, but didn’t actually pack any foods for cooking as I was only going to be gone for less than 24 hours. Instead, I nibbled on the snacks that I had packed while watching the fire and listening to the sounds of the forest. It was very calming and empowering, since it provided me mental space from the daily demands of work and activism. It was empowering in that I felt proud of myself for hiking alone, driving there myself, setting up the tent and fire, and entertaining myself with my own company. The only downside was that it would have been nice to pack a lamp or candle so that I could have written in my journal after sunset. I also forgot to pack extra batteries. I also managed to forget to pack my glasses and a pair of flipflops. My headlamp went dead and it made using the restroom difficult. Despite these shortfalls in my planning, I enjoyed staring at the fire and remained with it until it died. I then retreated to my tent for sleep. Even after using the bathroom twice before bedtime, I inevitably awoke in the middle of the night to contemplate answering nature’s call or trying to wait until morning. My sleep was uneasy. I certainly felt worn out, but I tossed and turned. My mind was full of thoughts and ideas. I was also excited about my mini adventure. I am not sure how many hours of sleep I managed to obtain. By five in the morning, the birds were singing in full force, so I abandoned my efforts at sleeping. I woke up early, packed up all of my things, and nibbled on granola while studying bird books. I found a used book on warblers of the Midwest from the Superior Public Library book sale. At about seven in the morning, I left the campsite for the boat landing on the St. Croix river, where a bird walk was scheduled. I was the first birder to arrive. Two seasoned birders began their work listening for songs and scanning the treetops. They adeptly identified birds by their songs and picked them out even as they zipped through the sky. I was not very skilled at identification, but at least saw some familiar birds and took notes on what the others saw and heard. I am not sure how every birder I meet is so skilled. There must be beginners like me. It takes years of studying to identify birds. Where are all of the novices?
(Some of the photos are blurry, but it should depict a Scarlet tanager, black and white warbler, American red start, yellow rumped warbler, and Eastern bluebird) Once more birders arrived, we hiked around for two hours. The goal was to record all of the species of birds we saw that morning so that the data could be compared to other International Birding Day counts at the park. There were bluebirds and Baltimore orioles. We saw tree swallows living in bluebird houses. A female wood duck flew overhead. An Eastern kingbird showed off the white markings on its tail feathers. A few house wrens had taken up residence in some ramshackle abandoned bird houses. We also saw many warblers, including a blue winged warbler, yellow warbler, golden winged warbler, palm warbler, black and white warbler, and American redstart. The warblers were quick and kept to the top of the trees. A flash of yellow would sail by overhead and everyone immediately knew what it was. Faint chirps were also readily identified. I stood there, stupefied by the variety of quick moving, similar looking, yellow birds. Since this hike, I have gone out birding around Duluth and Superior and managed to identify some more warblers. Maybe someday I will know them as well as the other birders. In all, I wrote down over twenty birds that were new to my life list. The group counted over fifty birds for the total species count.
Following the count, I decided to go on a final hike. I drove to the visitor’s center, where a scarlet tanager was hanging out in a treetop. An ovenbird sang in the distance. The visitor’s center was soon visited by a young black bear. I wandered along a trail for a short final hike. Along the hike, I saw several more scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles. I also saw a yellow bellied sapsucker and a group of cowbirds. With the final hike out of the way, I set off for the two hour drive home. But, the birding adventures had helped me with my bird identification skills. For the past several evenings since then, I have tried to memorize bird songs. Auditory bird identification is not a skill that I have spent any time developing and I can see how useful it is.
Learning to identify birds is challenging. There is a lot of information that one has to gather in a short amount of time. Birds are very quick, so size, color, beak shape, flight pattern, song, behaviors, etc. are some of the data that one must collect within a few seconds. The reward is a better understanding of the inhabitants of the natural world and a keener eye for the hidden details around us (at least in regard to birds). Another bonus is the ability to add a bird to a life list. I like lists. They make me feel accomplished, since it allows me to quantify and organize some aspect of my reality. Even camping adds to my lists, as it added to my list of state parks I have visited. More than an odd obsession with quantifying my life, camping offered quietude and self-efficacy. It also offered a relatively low cost sample of adventure.