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Wildersmith on the Gunflint

Fred Smith

Fred Smith
Fred Smith, a native Iowan re-located to the wilderness of border country at the end of the century, has been writing of happenings in the upper Gunflint territory for going on eight years, first with the local paper, and since December 2008 for WTIP North Shore Community Radio. Fred feels life in the woods is extraordinary, and finds reporting on it to both a reading and listening audience a pleasurable challenge. Since retirement as a high school athletic administrator from Ankeny High School, Ankeny Iowa in 1999, the pace of Fred's life has become less hectic but nevertheless, remains busy in new ways with many volunteer activities along the Trail. Listen at your convenience by subscribing to a podcast.

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.



What's On:

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: May 13

Into week two of our fifth month finds spring edging forward, seemingly with two steps forward then one step back. As this scoop hits the keyboard, the upper Gunflint Trail has been a part of extreme temperature swings.    

As last week's column aired, this neck of the woods saw the mercury soar to the 90 degree mark up at Trail's end, and in less than 24 hours, we at Wildersmith awoke to frost on the roof tops.  

All of this has happened under mostly fair skies, in spite of occasional tufts of smoke from the raging Canadian wildfire in Alberta. Fair skies obviously have left this area moisture starved with barely a few sprinkles since our return of a week ago.  

So we Gunflinters are in grave wildfire danger too. At this writing, folks remain on pins and needles wondering why responsible agencies have not invoked total burning bans in the county, knowing about 98 percent of all wildfires are caused by human actions. 

It’s particularly nerve racking remembering that nine years ago at this time, the territory was under searing siege due to a judgmental error by a lone camper. The resulting historic Ham Lake Fire torched 75,000 acres of the border country and destroyed over 140 upper Trail property structures. 

Needless to say, residents are quickly getting their wildfire sprinkler systems up and running. Yours truly has been into the cold lake placing pump lines and firing up the three units for which I have responsibility. Wildersmith is ready, hoping the need for pumping does not become a reality.  

Speaking of the cold lake, it was so cold my hands ached in a matter of seconds when dipped into the icy liquid. The rest of me was covered in deep sea wet suit protection. Going through this annual exercise is always a keen reminder of how dangerous the water can be soon after ice out. By the way, the water temp was in the mid to upper 30s as I took my first dip of 2016, brrrr!  

With cool temps and dwindling patches of piled snow, the eighth annual “Ham Run” half marathon and 5k run were celebrated last Saturday. The event, held in commemoration of human survival and forest re-birth following the horrendous Ham Lake burn of 2007, saw over 140 runners in the two events.

The anniversary of the running was a happy time, as have been the previous seven, with sunny skies guiding runners along this taxing, but most scenic course in the universe. Thanks go out to organizers, sponsors, and dozens of volunteers for making it happen. 

As May ends week two, excitement is building at the Chik-Wauk Museum site. The Museum will be opening for its seventh season. Meanwhile, final touches are being applied to the new Nature Center building project. Along with the new Nature Center exhibits and programming, the Museum is featuring a spectacular new temporary exhibit spotlighting “Birds of the Gunflint Wilderness.” Both facilities will open on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.  

I’ve had a sneak preview of the new NC facility. The exhibits are simply stunning as the Nature Center planning committee, in concert with the Split Rock Studios’ designers, have put together another splendid component for sharing more of the Gunflint story.  Gunflint Trail residents and visitors alike will want to make the historic resort site a destination choice for this summer. The new Nature Center and museum temporary exhibit is a must see. Special Nature Center programming events can be monitored on the Chik-Wauk website.         

This week's commentary finds me reporting a first bear sighting. It was a momma and her triplet cubs plotting a breaking and entering of the garbage canisters site along the Trail.

In another critter episode, a fellow reports the sighting of an adolescent moose having apparently received a snort from momma to get out on its own. This rejection must have been in favor of a new arrival. Guess the forlorn youngster was wondering aimlessly, looking as confused as a freshman going to the first day of high school.  

On a final “wild neighborhood” note, after telling of snowshoe hares making their wardrobe transformation in last week's column, I recently observed three white tails yet to have shed their winter camo. I’m thinking their copper tone summer wear is due very soon.   

Lastly, spring really becomes official this weekend with our “walleye opening day.” Good luck to all anglers and be safe in these icy cold northland waters!    

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith! Our Gunflint spring is trying to “bust out, all over.”



Wildersmith on the Gunflint: May 6

April has given way to May, and week one is into the books. The Wildersmith two are back in the woods following a trip to Iowa for my annual officiating duties at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, in addition to visiting our kids and re-connecting with many dear friends.   

The Gunflint wilderness seems so quiet and welcoming after what was a hectic time of helping our daughter prepare to relocate, and experiencing the never ending turmoil of human interaction in metropolis. We are surely blessed to have the better of two worlds, one being the ability to reconnect periodically with the civilized world; and two, being able to escape urban hubbub for the serenity of life in unorganized territory. No wonder this place has such magnetism!   

My last day at the Relays event proved to be record setting in terms of miserable weather endurance. A day in Iowa with rain, 40 degree temperatures, and 30 mile per hour winds made a brisk 40 below January segment in the north woods seem not too bad at all. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a bone chilling, and that’s saying a lot for a guy who enjoys winter as I do.    

Speaking of winter, it’s pretty much put to rest as of this scribing. But we can’t count it out for yet another couple weeks. Remnant splotches of snow in roadside ditches and shadows of the forest, along with broken tree branches, a few downed telephone poles and sagging phone lines linger as the only reminders of our past season.   

A further note on the area's advance toward seasonal rebirth, declares the ice is out on area lakes. Here on Gunflint, the progression of open water took the better part of a week, with final hard water disappearance at the east end occurring on April30. So it lasted just about as I thought it would. I’m indebted to a friend down the road who stepped up to make the official “ice-out” call in my absence.     

The water now lapping against our granite shore is every bit as joyous, as is the anticipation of those first freezing crinkles each November/ December. It’s just pretty darn energizing! And for angling enthusiasts, there will be no worry about ice in 2016 for getting after those walleyes next weekend.   

Back country roads are drying readily as run-off is back into drainage swales and culverts. In fact, my return trip found the vehicle kicking up dust instead of “mud season” goop!    

Meanwhile, the forest landscape is drab as it awaits renewal of chlorophyll production. The deciduous part of the forest is barely into the budding stage. However, coniferous cousins have regained the verdant twinkle as their juices are already running.     

Signaling spring is in full swing, snowshoe hares have just about completed their warm season wardrobe transition. One crossed our path on the county road during last Sunday's return. It was sporting the usual dusty summer coat with the only reminder of winter garb, being its snow white socks. 

In a closing tidbit, it’s always a relief to get back home after a time away. I was amused while beginning to unload the vehicle, as a couple of resident squirrels came by to greet me. Obviously they wanted a hand-out as they scurried about, chattering food service orders. Following me like a canine pet, until I threw out some seed morsels, one excitably came close to running into the house while I carried in luggage. It sure is nice to be wanted!  

This is Fred Smith, back on the Trail, at Wildersmith, savoring the Gunflint charm!

(photo by Enzik via Wikimedia Commons)



Wildersmith on the Gunflint: April 22

Spring has finally won out here in the North Country. It has taken over intensely since our last visit over the air waves.

Going from jackets, furry hats and gloves to shirt-sleeves in a matter of a few days has many of us in shock. How warm has it been, it was so warm that my first outdoor activities subsequent to snow shoveling drew perspiration not seen since last October.

Taking the warm weather wrinkles a step farther, the copious snows piling up from mid-March to mid-April have shrunk to no more than plowed roadside windrows and shoveled heaps. “Old Sol” gulped this northern snow cone like a thirsty kid at the state fair.

Border country streams and rivers are gushing wildly on their way to frozen lakes. But at the time of this recording, lake ice remains intact out this way.

Ice on the Gunflint Gal has barely broken away from our Wildersmith shoreline. With nothing scientific to base my prediction on, it is my best guess the ice here will last another week to ten days. If this prediction plays out, it will put us into the first few days of May which is near average for our ice-out.

Spring is popping out all along the Trail. Pussy willows are purring their fuzzy arrival, while trees of the forest are trying to straighten themselves up following winter's trunk bending-stress of several unusual wet heavy snows.

On back woods roads, we “mudders” are slogging through a second siege of meltdown ooze. The tepid winter gave us hope of an early “mud season” in late February and early March. However, the recent thirty day surge of snow and cold stopped all that and now we are experiencing “mud season” number two. Any desire of maintaining a clean vehicle should be put to rest at least for another couple weeks.

The forest is alive with “tweeters” and I don’t mean of the cyber variety. Robins are rampant and flickers are flocking from whence they spent the past cold season. Both seem to hang out in goodly numbers along area byways at this time of year for some reason. I get a kick out of flickers zipping up from the roadsides with their white feathered bottoms making for easy identification.

Bears have yet to make their grand entry in this neighborhood, but yours truly is taking no chances at tempting a visit. I have removed deck-side feeding stations that could be an attraction.

This of course causes issue for the area pine martens. There is no longer a facility where morsels can be placed for securing their goodies from the birds and squirrels. That in mind, marten visitors have been grudgingly scrounging through an open tray of oiled sunflower seeds.

Sharing the cafeteria line amongst martens, squirrels, jaybirds and other winged folk obviously causes many uncomfortable dining experiences. In fact, a few mornings ago, two martens wisely arrived in the twilight hour to apparently avoid the after-sunrise breakfast rush.

Sadly, this dining opportunity is soon to end as I’ll have to stop the seed distribution as bears like them, too. However, with snow cover waning, bare ground will once again provide nourishment fortunes although not accessed as easy. To all my dependent critters, see you again when the snow flies.

Martens aren’t the only meat eating critters to turn omnivorous at times. Protein can be scarce in these parts with members of the Canid family often caught hanging out under bird feeders to scarf up seed scatterings of the feathered folk.

With venison fortunes hard to come by up this way, a gal in the mid-Trail area recently shared a great video capturing a hungry wolf lapping up seeds off the avian tray near her deck.

Without question, every species on the planet, including billions of malnourished human beings, is in an on-going quest for nutritional elements at one time or another. We all need to help whenever prudent and practical!

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, watching the rebirth of our natural world!



Wildersmith on the Gunflint: April 15

There’s hope for serious spring-like temperatures as this week’s Gunflint scoop comes your way. However, while my scribing hits the keyboard, it’s snowing once more in the Wildersmith neighborhood.

For winter worshippers, things have been glorious over the past month with snow, snow and more snow. I suppose some in these parts are beginning to wonder if this recent siege will ever end.

Up to the moment, around this place we’ve now totaled slightly over 102 inches, and we’re still counting. It’s been exactly 30 days since the snow-maker slipped into high gear, giving us one-third of our seasonal total. Guess one should never count the season down and out until the “gal” (Mother Nature) in charge of things says it’s so! In the immortal words of NY Yankee great, Yogi Berra, “it ain’t over, ‘til it’s over.”

With spring out there somewhere, energies are at a high pitch for the leadership of the Gunflint Trail Historical Society. The focus of course is another Chik-Wauk Museum season and the anticipated opening of their new Nature Center building.

Finishing touches are being made on the facility as the GTHS awaits delivery of exhibits from the design “pros” at Split Rock Studios. Arrival and installation of the displays is hoped for some time next week assuming road bans allow such.

After several years of visioning, planning, jumping through hoops and fundraising, the thought of this project being opened for family friendly viewing and learning is exciting beyond the organizations wildest dreams. The Nature Center will be open daily along with the museum beginning on the Memorial Day weekend.

In addition to completion of the Nature Center building, work is being wrapped up on a small administrative/archival storage unit. Both of these Chik-Wauk additions are being fit onto the footprints of where buildings were located during the days of resort operations. In each case these structures are simple rehabilitations, not actual restorations.

Telling more of the Chik-Wauk story does not end here. Planning is already underway for the construction of an open-air structure which will display, and further tell the stories about life on the lakes along the Gunflint. It too will be located on the footprint of the original shoreline dock (across the driveway from the Nature Center, on the northeast bay) where the first resort operators had theirs.

The timber-frame constructed “marine equipment” display unit is set to be built by GTHS volunteers under the guidance of professionals at the North House Folk School, on the Folk School Campus in Grand Marais, this coming August. Installation of this facility is scheduled for the summer of 2017.

And last but not least, on the drawing board now is a rehab of one Chik-Wauk Resort guest cabin. Target for this addition is uncertain, but hopefully, as soon as design approval is procured and additional funding is raised. This too will be located on a historic cabin site.

It’s hoped all will mark their calendars for another visit this summer to share in some new Chik-Wauk magic!

Speaking of those just mentioned GTHS volunteers, as we near the end of National Volunteer Week, I would like to express my thanks to all the good folks both around the Cook County area, in Grand Marais and up the Trail for all they do to make this place on the northern Riviera the special attraction it is!

Since I reside out this way, I am especially conscious of the people of the Gunflint Community who always answer the call for whatever and whenever, without fail. Not only are you wonderful friends and neighbors, your commitment is uniquely remarkable, in making sure this byway through paradise remains an unequaled natural, cultural and historical resource.

As a volunteer myself on many community tasks, I’m rewarded by gaining far more satisfaction from serving than I actually provide in services. I would guess this attitude is shared by all along the Gunflint who continually pitch in…thank you so much!

On a closing note, as I was finalizing the first draft of this Gunflint report, we had a deck-side visit from a “real” big bird. Following a dinner of roasted chicken, I set carcass remains out on the feeding tray for the pine martens. In no time at all, a “piney” was here, feasting to its content. In a short time, it disappeared with a mouthful to be stockpiled somewhere in the woods.

Soon after, out of the heavens, a bald eagle swooped down to an unprecedented landing at our gourmet trough. Having never had this happen before, it remains a mystery whether the “great American symbol” had its eye on the poultry remains or the pine marten.

The “awesome avian” didn’t hang around long, departing without a chicken dinner. Guess it might have preferred our offering in the uncooked state, as opposed to our tasty processed gourmet version.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, enjoying what may be the last moments of winter!

(Photo courtesy of Marie Hale on Flickr)



Wildersmith on the Gunflint: April 8

It appears “old man winter” might have been in Florida with the college kids on spring break back in early March, and now he’s back. It’s a week into April and there’s no foolin’ around as the “frosty fellow” has turned up the volume, putting some dandy finishing touches on his ’15-‘16 winter inventory.

Who knows what will be on the atmospheric menu by the time this scribing airs, but the scene as of this past weekend would have one believe the “grand old ruler” of cold and snow is trying to make up for lost time. For weeks my commentary has lamented on what a meek winter this area has experienced. However, since the middle of March the snow machines have been cranked up.

More snow was added to the border country total last Sunday as another eight to nine inches fell on the Wildersmith neighborhood. Added to the late March deposits, the most recent coating brings us to somewhere over two feet during the past three weeks. And the seasonal total to above 90 inches.

I’m not complaining because any snow is good snow. Yet it would have been nice if more of these late season happenings could have occurred in November and December when the timing would have better accented holiday decorating. Nonetheless, the heavy-laden boughs of April are spectacular for one more time. And I’ll contend with the “mud season” being extended while bug season is delayed.

There’s a possibility I could be getting blamed for the last snowy occurrence, as I had the winter wheels taken off my vehicle in favor of summertime treads. My wife said I should wait a while longer, but it’s a little late now! Happily, I still have the snow blade on my Kubota machine.

Snow was not the only order of business recently. It was downright cold too! It is not impossible to have single digit to below zero readings this time of year, but we’ve been spoiled up until recently with some swell light-jacket to shirt-sleeve weather. The temp actually dipped slightly below the nothing mark around here on the eve before our weekend blitz, and then bottomed out at -21 this past Monday morning.

For folks put out about this winter resurgence, this too will pass. On a recent run to Grand Marais, my wife observed what she thought were pussy willow buds along the Trail. While in another spring thing, the announcement has been made of a “robin red-breast” sighting. So in spite of this setback, the calendar says we’re headed in the warmer direction. We might even be wallowing in the slop again as I bring you this week's Gunflint scoop.

It’s interesting how big atmospheric turn-arounds seem to energize the winged critters. With our landscape blanketed in cold white once more, there’s excitement beyond description at our deck-side feeding station. We’ve been inundated by droves of redpolls, chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches. At the other end of the spectrum, when things warm up, the same gang can be found flitting about tweeting a happy note in celebration. How awesome are the critters of creation.

It’s near birthing time for the wild canine critters in these parts with wolf and coyote pups and fox kits soon to join our “wild neighborhood.” And although bear sightings have not been reported, hungry moms and new cubs cannot be far away from ravaging our neighborhoods.

So although life in Gunflint Country is pretty much in the “slow lane” by human measure, the natural world is executing drama with every blink of an eye.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, just keepin’ on, keepin on!

(Photo courtesy of Sue on Flickr)



Wildersmith on the Gunflint: April 1

The Wildersmith two are back in the woods. It’s sure a joy to be home in the peace and quiet along the Mile O Pine. Although time spent with our daughter is always precious, being away from what’s supposed to be organized civilization for seventeen years finds us almost completely out of touch with all the urban hub-bub. Too many people and too many vehicles!  

Ten days visiting in southeast Iowa, found spring in full swing. Daffodils were blooming, grass was nearing the mowing stage and Rhubarb had perked up from its winter abode. Meanwhile, back on the northern front, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased to return to our winter character. In spite of a slushy/muddy combination while slogging down our pathway to “paradise found”, the scene of still copious white on either side of the road was encouraging after finding many stretches along the north shore drive looking crunchy dry.              

To substantiate it being quite dry down that way, during my trip back to border country this past Monday, I was shocked to see a burned patch about an acre in size right along highway 61. It’s unknown whether this was an accident or prescribed burn. Whatever the case, the scenario rekindles one’s attention to dangerous wildfire potential up this way in the days and weeks ahead. This serious situation suggests a reminder for Trail residents to be making plans for having those wildfire sprinkler systems operational as soon as open water is available.                                                                                                                                  
Just when the area appeared headed toward a serious early season brown-up, the wimpy winter mustered a fourteen inch surge on March sixteen and few more inches since has brought our seasonal total to over eighty inches in this neighborhood. The storm provided a generous addition to the snow pack of which the final meltdown will help replenish several depleted area lakes.                                                        

Regarding lake ice, the unseasonal warm rush, during the first two weeks of month three, had things cooking toward a potential new record ice-out. However, the tail end of this third segment has things back on a more normal course and lakes I passed along the Trail remain pretty well locked in crystal right up to the shorelines.                                                                                                     

Outside our back door, the ice on Gunflint Lake had several massive soggy patches of gray prior to the southerly departure, but our return finds her tightened back up for the time being. Thus, the early ice-out record of March 25 set in 2012 remains intact. Nevertheless, it’s almost certain ice will be making its disappearing act soon, rather than the usual end of April to early May.                                                                                                                  

Both ice-on and ice-out leads to much seasonal bantering and even a pool or two as to when such will occur each year. One instance of ice-out lore reflects on pioneer Gunflint mail runner, Don Brazell predicting ice-out on the Gunflint Gal following a succession of lake ice departures going up the Trail.                                                                                                                           

To recap Don’s historic account, beginning with the opening up of ice on the Brule River at the north Brule Bridge, it is said, seven days later, the Tuscarora Pond will open and seven days after Tuscarora, the Gunflint Lake will shed her winter coat. The progression then extends to Saganaga (Sag) as Gull and Seagull Lakes become players in the process with their solidarity sinking from the southwesterly direction. Lifelong resident, Bruce Kerfoot, attests to this commentary being pretty much true to form during his seventy plus years in the territory.                                                                                                                  

I would guess the key issue might be defining with some degree of accuracy whether the river opening is just a trickle or completely free of hard water shore to shore. So we’ll all be watching for one more of those celebrated, natural Gunflint adventures!                                                                                                                                                                      

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith! Savoring outdoor transitions!

(photo by mattbuck via Wikimedia Commons)



Wildersmith on the Gunflint: March 18

It’s frightful what’s been going on in the north woods since we last met on the radio. Over the past seven, with temps some twenty degrees above normal, there’s a scent of spring in the air, but it’s supposed to be winter! There’s just no seasonal bite anymore.  

All this being about six weeks early, the upper Gunflint is flat out into our icky ice and mud scene. Locally, we in the Wildersmith neighborhood are being terrorized with the worst case of slippery wet conditions in 17 years. Movement out of doors has been at no more than snail's pace, either on foot or in the vehicle, for fear of ending up on one's posterior or careening off into the woods on wheels.   

Improvements are slow to happen as areas along the shaded Mile O Pine have been spared the power of “Old Sol” to some extent. Slow melting has allowed daily oozing, which then has been refreezing to skating-like surfaces by the next AM. This is further complicated by a few open places where beaming rays have gashed the frozen surface with patches of bare road. So one moment, one can splash along safely, only to end up slip sliding along on water slick ice.

At the time of this broadcast/scribing, the Wildersmith driveway remains a slippery path to vehicle disaster with all friction applications being of little support. That in mind, the truck sits on high ground until further notice. 

The wilderness landscape has become a patchwork of white and brown. In our yard, it is interesting to assess how winter winds dispersed the snow. Spots where gusts had direct access, a thin coating has easily been whisked away by our meltdown. Meanwhile, protected places have substantial white remnants, in spite of being reduced by a considerable amount during the past days.

Observing sunrise on the morning before daylight savings time, confirmed to me spring is now in command. Beams of light lit up the forest and revealed the first return of arachnids. Their network of fiber optics is already strung between our coniferous appendages. It was quite surprising to see the filaments so soon.  

Even more startling, a couple creepy crawlers have made illegal entry into our house, yuck!  At ground level, a “murder” of crows has returned and is busy picking through winter remains while breaking silence of the neighborhood with raucous conversation.  

Another sign of more “Vernal” times finds tree juices thawed to resume the flow skyward. This is evident as the snow has melted away from the base of trees creating interesting tube-like exposures of bare forest earth in the white.

In another moment of flowing spring energy, a couple fellows down the road have tapped their way into several Mile O Pine maples. This collecting process is obviously in quest of sweet nectar for syrup making.

The fisher that had been making appearances at several locations down the road, recently made its way to the Smith place. This large version of a pine marten apparently knew its way around here, perhaps affirming a previous visit. Unfortunately, all the cupboards were bare as it arrived checking out each feeding station. With noses pressed to the window glass watching such an uncommon visitor, this ferocious critter seemingly gave a glance our way, as if to say “where’s the beef” and then scampered off into the forest.

A few days later the maple sap collectors mentioned earlier had an exciting moment when they happened upon a Canadian lynx. The handsome feline was caught in a sitting pose, either sunning itself along the county road, or doing a little hare reconnaissance. It was interesting the north woods cat did not make a move until the fellas were about six feet away before loping off into the trees toward Gunflint Lake.

In a sad note, “Dog Days of Winter” activities scheduled on Poplar Lake last Sunday, went for naught. A casualty of all this warm sloppiness, events had to be cancelled. Hopefully, energy for this event carries over to next year with hope for revival of a real “Northwoods” winter. 

Before signing off…after all this talk of spring being in the air, winter has come back.  A falling of some 12 to 14 inches of snow covered the Wildersmith neighborhood and has put things on hold once more.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith. Regretting a winter lost, but savoring a rebirth of the forest! 

(photo by Phillippa Warr via Flickr)



Wildersmith on the Gunflint: March 11

I sound like a broken record in recounting the week's upper Gunflint weather. Trail residents went through a third consecutive weekend meltdown. This past episode took on more serious connotations in terms of winter packing up and calling it a season. With a forecast of unseasonal warmth in the offing this week and beyond, it would seem “old man winter” has played his last hand.

Sadly, if such is the case, this has to be one of the shortest winters in memory. When borderland normal usually ranges from November into May (a good half calendar year), we barely experienced three months in ‘15 and ’16. Whether this is a cyclical phenomenon or another outgrowth of self-serving mankind abusing the environment, guess we might as well accept this is probably the new norm.

A brief reflection of what our season of cold and snow has been, finds snow accumulation at Wildersmith to date measures 66 inches. Most of this has fallen in minimal doses of two, three or four inches with no meaningful droppings at least in this neighborhood.

Meanwhile we did not experience the traditional multi-day siege of sub-zero in January. In fact, we had only a handful of morning low temps in the minus 25 to 30 realms. This followed a bumbling December with minimal frosty personality and February having little bitter clout as well. To further illustrate the meek north woods air, the National Weather Service sensation of wind chill has been almost non-existent. Bluntly speaking, my favorite season has been simply wimpy!

Here we are heading into the second week of March, warm, slushy and slimy slick under foot. Trail-side snowbanks are showing the look of icky urban crud, and “mud season” seems just a few more warm days off and early to say the least. Adding to our winter catastrophe, rain showers, hail, thunder and lightning pelted various places up the Trail early this week.

It would seem the Ojibwe full, “crust on the snow moon” will be inappropriate this time around. The way things are going, there may be no snow left as we reach the “Vernal Equinox” and the full lunar rising about the same time.

On another note, this coming Sunday (2:00 am) marks another instance of our society tinkering with the natural world, as we nonsensically “spring ahead” on our time pieces. To yours truly, time passes by fast enough, surely lessening the need to jump our clocks ahead every year at this time. Furthermore, the “fall back” come November is little noticed and always seems a lost cause in the total scheme of late autumn happenings.

Getting down off my “soap box” now, I’m happy to announce the annual trout fishing derby made it just under the wire as winter staggered under a beaming “Sol” last Sunday. Somewhere over 70 ice anglers registered for the competition on sloppy Gunflint Lake ice.

A big crowd of onlookers gathered to enjoy a day in the sun as they stood on the ice in ankle deep slush and water. Miraculously, there were no issues with the uncommonly thin frozen surface. Guess it was safe enough though as any number of pickup trucks ventured onto the gooey mess, and at day's end, spun their way back to the mainland.

The purpose of the day was trout catching fun, but only a few were pulled through the hard water holes. The fish, once again, had the last laugh as only five were posted by quitting time.

In the end, two Grand Marais gals were at the top of the leader board. The $500 first prize, for the largest catch of the day, went to Lynn Christensen, with Britney Trovall coming in second. Congratulations and thanks go out to the organizing Cook County Ridge Riders, on braving the difficult lake conditions for another swell event.

At broadcast time, the “Dog days of Winter” are still on the docket for Sunday in spite of the big warm-up. The dogsled derbies and skijoring will be held on Poplar Lake at Trail Center Lodge. To keep track of any possible scheduling changes due to the reeling winter conditions, check

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail at Wildersmith, savoring the thought of real yesteryear winters and looking for first buds of the next generation.



Wildersmith on the Gunflint: March 4

“Old Man Winter” remains in a fickle mood as I begin this week's Gunflint scoop. Our last weekend of February had one day of almost spring-like character and then slipped back into more normal seasonal conditions the next. 

Sunny skies and temps around the freezing mark had roof tops dripping last Saturday. Evening saw the thermometer crash rapidly and light snow was soon to follow. By Sunday morning at Wildersmith, the mercury was back near the zero mark and a few inches of fresh flocking had re-decked the forest.

February then went out like a lion, it was a real howling and not from the local wolf pack. Strong northwesterlies, the likes of which we have not seen this season, shook the house at times as “Mother Nature re-arranged our snow cover. The result is some splendid nature made snow sculptures. Talk about a capricious atmosphere!  

Strange happenings are going on deep within the bowels of our granite landscape. The normal flow of sub-surface springs into area ditches and culverts has not occurred. Thus, frozen culverts with the usual ice dam build up at the points of entry, is just not there. Although the inconvenience of these mini-glaciers is mitigated along many back country roads, it does not bid well for adequate run-off when the final meltdown occurs. The ability to replenish water levels on any number of upper Gunflint lakes looks to be alarming. 

It seemed as though the area was reasonably wet when fall was put to bed. But I guess such was not the case, as aquifers keeping liquid trickling under ice and snows apparently were drier than assumed. This scenario is also troublesome when flora begins to dry out in late April and May. We can only hope “El Nino” cools into oblivion during the next two months, and ushers in much needed rain before the June green-up. 

As it might relate to peculiar quirks of nature, there seems to be a chance the “great old man of the north” has put a spell on me. A couple weeks ago, I spent several hours cleaning heaps of snow off the roof, only to have it snow again one day after my job was completed.  Since then a few more droppings have built a lesser, but new accumulation. With the bright day of last Saturday, I decided to catch up once again. Sure enough, my clean roof job didn’t make it 24 hours this time, and more was predicted as I was keying this current report.  

Maybe Mr. Winter’s trying to get even with me for giving him such a bad time on a rather wimpy performance thus far. A connected thought comes to mind, with my kind regards for snow, if it takes cleaning off the roof to stimulate snow fall, perhaps I should spend more time on the ladder with my snow rake in hand. 

Furry weasel activity has been hot and heavy the past week. We had an after dark battle royal, apparently between two critters, leaving blood on the deck. Suppose it could have been two pine martens in confrontation over a poultry part, or maybe a marten and an un-suspecting flying squirrel. Regardless of the match-up, a winner cannot be announced. 

Two residents along the south Gunflint Lake shore report visits from a cousin of those pine martens. A fisher, or fishers, have been making nightly rounds at their places in the past few days. They could have been in this yard as well, based on some larger than usual marten-like trails around the place, but have not been observed. One neighbor shared a trail cam picture of one pilfering a chunk of suet from a bird feeding tray. The animal looked to be lush and healthy. Hopefully this guy/gal will avoid a trapper's doom.  

In spite of difficult ice conditions, the annual trout fishing derby is still a go for this coming Sunday.  Gunflint Lake ice is thick enough to support pedestrian anglers but not the usual vehicles. Fisher folks must sign in before setting out on their quest. Registration is between 9 and 11:00 am. All contest catches must be posted on the big board by 2 pm. The usual raffle, cook-off, and award ceremonies will be held near the boat launch area of Gunflint Lodge. Good luck to all!  

On a final note, speaking of fishing and angling fortunes, yours truly got an excited call last weekend from my grandson, Lane, of Sheldon, Iowa. He and his dad had been fishing behind the Lewis & Clark Dam near Yankton, SD, when he hooked into a monster. When finally pulled into the boat a 40-plus pound paddlefish was on the end of the line. What a day! “Google” tells of this finny creature being a kind of throwback to prehistoric times, but not too uncommon in some river systems. It was some kind of ugly, but certainly a fishing memory for the books.       

This is Fred Smith, on the trail, at Wildersmith!  The “March” is on!

(photo by via Wikimedia Commons)



Wildersmith on the Gunflint: February 26

Boy how time flies! Seems as though February just arrived and already we’re bidding her farewell. The February log book has passed two details since we last met on WTIP. The first marked the second full month of winter while the other was the Ojibwe, full “sucker moon.” With that, we take aim at March.

The area experienced more up and down seasonal character over the last week. The Wildersmith neighborhood went from bitter subzero to a drippy freezing mark and back, over about 72 hours of weekend number three.

During the time of our bouncing thermometer, we had flurries, sleet, freezing drizzle, snow pellets, rain, drizzle and fog, then more snow. With exception of hail, the Gunflint way pretty much got everything “Mother Nature” could offer in terms of precipitation. Ending the unusual wet weather onslaught, new snow refreshed and replaced what was lost to the near 50 degree temperature swing. 

The maddening thing about a February meltdown is what it does to roads, drive ways, and walking paths. The grit of dry snow makes moving about tolerable for most of the cold season, but when a couple warm days interrupt, making the snow soft and slick, getting around in the upright position and keeping one’s vehicle between the snow banks is nightmarish.   

So my driveway and the Mile O Pine have an icy sheen now hidden by new fluff, making navigation troublesome at best. As to my pedestrian efforts, our slick under-footing is slowing me down to a mere creeping, which is even slower than my normal old-timer pace. In short, it’s slow-going around here and will most likely remain this way until the onset of “mud season.” 

Winter activities took a hit as well. Cross country ski trails turned to mush and the slush on our already gooey lake ice was surely made worse than ever for snowmobile traffic. Now that we’ve returned to a colder side, ski trails are crusty and slick. It will take a lot of extra work to grind up the frozen layer and redress.  Groomers are busy fixing things so gliding conditions should be back to normal soon.

Meanwhile, heading into March, chances of an extended period of subzero are waning. Our slushy lake cover is likely to linger on with the insulating snow adding a dangerous cover to the water on ice status.

Difficult lake conditions make me wonder if the surfaces will be able to accommodate a couple coming events on the March calendar. On Sunday March 6, the Cook County Ridge Riders will be hosting their annual trout fishing derby here on Gunflint Lake. One week later, the “Dog Days of Winter” will be holding Sled Dog Derbies and Skijoring Races on Poplar Lake at Trail Center Lodge. Info on event status for the Trout Derby can be found by checking the CCSC Ridge Riders website, and for the “Dog Days” events see  

The weekend warm-up stimulated an enthusiastic gathering of local winged folk. Big ones and little ones of many colors energetically arrived and departed the seed trough. I happily obliged them with seeds, bread scraps, and leftover waffles. As would be expected, the blue jay gang fell in love with the waffle pieces, devouring them like a plague of locusts. 

A couple here-and-then-gone-again visitors, came back over the last week. Our transient pine martens have hit the feed rail again. 
When I ran out of poultry scraps, guess they took offense to only having sunflower seeds on the menu and thought they could do better elsewhere.

Since the Wildersmith “Colonel” has a replenished chicken cache, the cool critters seem content once more. Adding to discussion of the furry guests, it’s a good bet, if they are females, they’re fattening up for delivery of their next generation.   

Further, speaking of little ones, romance is wafting through the forest. It’s mating time for canine types in the woods. Fox, coyotes, and wolves have been in the mating mood these past few weeks. While on another note, bear cubs are probably crawling about their dens as momma catches her last winks of the slumber season.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail at Wildersmith!  Happy Trails to you, Gunflint that is!

(photo by Mary & Dan via Flikr)