I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into when my cousin Meggan decided that this was the summer her crew would come to the Northwoods on vacation. Born just six weeks apart, we’d spent our childhood together with a pack of 13 cousins running wild around Grandpa’s house in southern Iowa during most holidays and school breaks. Now Meggan has six kids of her own. How would I entertain them for a few days? This same crew was part of the family reunion I attended last summer, where we caught a shimmering young spider and named her Princess Entelegyne. As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry.
I packed my car, too, and we all headed up to the campground at Little Sand Bay on Lake Superior, hoping to avoid the thickest flocks of mosquitoes. It worked. We had time to make s’mores and tell stories around the campfire before a few biters emerged from the woods, just as we were snuggling into our tents.
The next morning, after Rosemary, age 4, had finished her oatmeal, she wandered over under a tree to build fairy houses. I was helping her poke a little cone of sticks in the ground when she discovered a caterpillar. Enchanted, she encouraged the critter to crawl on a stick so she could hold them up for a better view. My heart twisted a little, and my head churned with negative thoughts.
With their pretty rows of red and blue dots, and whimsical, wispy hairs, I could see why Rosemary was fascinated with this spongy moth caterpillar. She probably hadn’t noticed the defoliated trees lining Highway 13 near Bayfield, though, and she definitely didn’t know that Bayfield County is in the third (and hopefully last!) year of a spongy moth outbreak. Even though the sugar maple tree we sat under isn’t their favorite food, it is one of the 300 species the pests will consume.
Rosemary dropped this caterpillar off in the fairy house, and then went searching for more. She didn’t have to go far. They were crawling up tree trunks, car tires, and even our pantlegs. At first, because she was putting them into the fairy house, we called the caterpillars “fairies.” That felt odd, though, since fairies usually have wings. So, we switched to calling them fairy babies, a nod to the little pale-winged adult they would become. The cute name softened my grudge against them. I tamped down my worries about the outbreak, and just enjoyed the fact that the caterpillars were such an abundant source of wonder for the kids.
After breakfast, we loaded up and headed to Houghton Falls. This relatively short, wide, gently sloping trail skirts the edge of an elegantly carved sandstone ravine with waterfalls on its way down Lake Superior. I had seen videos of spring snowmelt tumbling over the ledges in spectacular fashion, but now the stream was a mere trickle. I gave a little sigh of disappointment at the lack of show, and worried that the kids would be bored.
In no time they were braving a balancing log across a little pool to get a closer look. James, Meggan’s husband, went with them, and then stood with his back to the falls. I puzzled at his position, until Charlotte’s little two-year-old hand reached out from her perch in the pack on his back, fingers splayed, trying to catch each cool drip. Rosemary joined them and stood there catching drops with a look of thoughtful wonder on her face. They didn’t need a rushing waterfall to enjoy the touch of water.
On the hike back, after spending a few minutes admiring Lake Superior on a sunny, sandstone point, the kids were getting tired. There was a commotion, some accusatory tones, and a very sad Jerome. One of his siblings had swatted at an insect and injured it. Jerome was indignant. The insect hadn’t been hurting anyone! When he caught up to me, I examined the big horse fly cradled gingerly in his palm. A relative of deer flies, the females inflict a painful bite, then lap up the blood to fuel egg development. Jerome didn’t know that. He felt in his kind little 8-year-old heart that this fragile living being deserved respect and needed care.
Later, we got out the bug nets and swept the bushes around our campsite. Someone soon found a colony of pink and yellow common-candy-striped spiders with their net. There were enough that we could each have a spider “yo-yo” dangling from our finger on an invisible strand of silk. My rule with spiders (learned from Larry Weber, who wrote the book on Northwoods spiders) is that you can only hold them if you’re sure that YOU won’t hurt THEM, not the other way around. I knew I could trust this group.
Meggan might have brought the kids up here thinking that my naturalist knowledge would augment their homeschool curriculum. And indeed, I read them Natural Connections articles at story time, taught them the correct name for crane flies, and helped Catherine, age 10, complete the Geology Activity Booklet designed to complement the Museum’s current exhibit.
But by the end, they’d also taught me to find beauty in the spongy moth, empathy for a horse fly, and wonder in a trickle of water. Now that’s a productive vacation.
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our new exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open now! Our Summer Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.