One spring, I hit the nature-lover's jackpot, almost without trying.
Exploring a septet of Minnesota's scientific and natural areas, or SNAs, I found more pasque flowers in bloom than I'd ever expected to see in a lifetime.
I saw a panorama of the Mississippi as the Dakota would have seen it 200 years ago. I walked under the budding canopies of old-growth forests and listened to choruses of courting frogs.
What's so great about hiking in spring? That's easy there's so much to see.
Move your feet in any direction and you'll run across wildflowers, waterfalls and, best of all, sweeping views that last only until the trees leaf out.
Head out before summer makes its brash appearance, with walls of greenery and fleets of bugs.
Deep down, every morel hunter believes in divine providence.
There's nothing so providential as baskets overflowing with morels, and the taste is so divine hunters dream about it all winter. In spring, they offer a fervent prayer to the mushroom gods: May the fungus be among us.
Morels do taste heavenly. But it's the hunt that's so addictive it's fun to find something for free that's so expensive in stores and restaurants, and it's fun to beat the odds by finding something so notoriously elusive.
In the coulees of southwest Wisconsin, a lush green zone draws anyone who craves a heady dose of nature.
It starts in spring, when trilliums bloom along Rustic Roads, morel mushrooms pop out on hillsides and water rushes down the crooked Kickapoo River.
It's not close to any city, but people find their way. Norwegians were first to be drawn to its deep, narrow valleys, like miniature fjords.
Goldthread and gaywings. Bogbean and trailing arbutus. In Wisconsin's Door County, it's enough to make a naturalist hyperventilate.
Cherry blossoms and daffodils are the showiest spring flowers on this tourist playground between Lake Michigan and Green Bay. But it's the wildflowers, many of them rare, that provide the most joyous proof that spring has arrived.
On sandy ridges, the first flower spotted often is the once-common trailing arbutus, whose waxy white blossoms emerge in April.
In summer, you dont have to hunt wildflowers.
Theyre big and splashy, blooming by the thousands on prairie, along bicycle trails and anywhere theres sun. When everything else is green, they give us pops of color: the purple of bottle gentian, the orange of hawkweed, the yellow of tansy.
Do you like Monets paintings of Giverny?
In spring, we're all delighted by the arrival of the first spring wildflowers. Here are just a few of the best places to look for them.
State parks are obvious choices, with carpets of flowers just off hiking trails. For more unusual flowers as well as more solitude, visit one of Minnesota's scientific and natural areas (SNAs) or Wisconsin's state natural areas.
For more, see At SNAs, step off the beaten path.
When delicate spring wildflowers appear, it means winter finally is over.
No wonder we love them so much. But they're ephemeral here today, gone tomorrow.
So if you want a good dose of them, head for a place where you know they'll be.
In spring, not that many people go to the North Shore to see the flowers.
Theyre small, and the rest of the scenery is big and distracting roaring waterfalls, jagged cliffs and that mesmerizing inland sea that fills the horizon.
If you do look down, youll find them huddled in cracks on lava flows, tucked along hiking trails and in boggy patches along streams. Theyre dainty, but many are fairly unusual butterwort as well as bluebells, rock clematis along with columbine.
In May, the woods are full of people on the hunt.
Some are stalking morel mushrooms. Others are trying to bag a turkey or spot a rare warbler.
The rest of us are content to chase wildflowers. For one thing, were guaranteed success.
In late summer and early fall, bicycle trails burst with blooms.
They're a favorite habitat for wildflowers because theyre on disturbed ground and have open, sunny edges. Many trails skirt lakes and bogs, but since most are on old rail lines, fires sparked by passing trains created openings for prairie species, too.
Take the Paul Bunyan State Trail past Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota. One side is lined with water-loving plants Joe-Pye weed, jewelweed and swamp milkweed, beloved by butterflies and bees.
When the snow is gone, the fun begins.
Most of us would be happy to see something, anything, thats green. But theres no reason to wait for that before going outdoors.
Early spring is the best time to hunt for agates on Great Lakes beaches, where winter storms have tossed up a new batch of rocks. If you wait until July, when most tourists arrive, theyll be picked over.
In nature, bogs are the coral reefs of the north woods.
They're wet, spongy and seething with life that's often too small to see unless you look closely. Lean over the boardwalk, and you'll get a better view of sparkly goldthread or the lacy needles of baby tamarack.
But looks can be deceiving in a bog. Flowers that seem delicate are relentless predators, attracting flies to patterned red leaves that resemble engorged arteries, then drowning and digesting them.
Nothing is more exhilarating than the first days of spring, when the air practically vibrates with the pent-up vigor of growing things.
Warm sunlight filters down through budding forests, and the rich smell of humus wafts up from their floors. Then, amid the decaying leaves and grasses, we find the first spring ephemerals.
They gladden our hearts, those brave little blooms. But they come, and then they go.