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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:
Black Bear

Wildersmith May 25

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 A nice upset of atmospheric conditions occurred last Sunday up and along the Trail. Miracles will never cease, it rained, marvelous rain!

After going two weeks with barely a sip of water for the moisture-starved forest, Mother Nature finally coughed up some critical relief. Timely is an understatement as the territory was on the verge of hosting another flaming tragedy.

The fact remains that although the wilderness gulped up the heavenly droppings like a dry sponge, the inch or so received in most places is only temporary, unless there is continued follow-up. So we residents are keeping our fingers crossed.

With near flaming disasters in recent days near Hovland to the east and Ely to the west, this nervous area, in between, nearly had an event of their own last Saturday. A resident in the area noticed smoke oozing up along North Gunflint Lake Road (County #46).

A quick response from our Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department found a smoldering log that surely could have erupted into something serious if it had been discovered much later. It turns out that human smoking remains were found in close proximity and most likely can be attributed as the cause. Whew, we dodged a bullet; that was a close one!

Prior to the late weekend rains, what a contrast from one day to the next. Saturday last was muggy, hot and windy with temps in the 70 to near 80 degree range at Wildersmith, with windows open wide and fans a-whirling.

Then by late day Sunday, temps were hanging out in the high 30s to low 40s after falling most of the day under gloomy rain-laden skies. Thus, windows closed and sweatshirts back on.

The big 24-hour swing surely had all plant life in the territory basking in the cool shower. I too shared in the glory, as the cold day gave us a reprieve from the black fly onslaught. Surely makes me wonder where those mini-munching monsters go on days like that.

While contemplating the weather contrasts, another divergence comes to mind. In a few short days, the naked character of a winter forest around Wildersmith has suddenly bloomed to summer fullness. The green curtain of our seasonal rebirth has closed us in, shrouding this little place in the woods like a tiny virescent cocoon.

Hummingbirds have made their initial landing at our sweet nectar station this week, although they had been reported in other area locations several days prior to the Wildersmith arrival. Other winged returnees are the loon pair at Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. Presently they have been just scoping out their ritzy new platform digs and are not yet sitting on eggs.

Speaking of Chik-Wauk, the museum opens for its third season this coming Saturday, May 26 with daily hours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The manager and a number of volunteers have been busily putting winter away while cleaning and stocking the facility for summer visitors. Several new items are featured in the gift shop including DVD re-productions of the museum video kiosks featuring Gunflint pioneer characters and Gunflint businesses.

Meanwhile, on nature’s side of the Chik-Wauk facility, a mass of volunteers organized by Kathy Lande, Michael Valentini and Jim Wiinanen gathered this past Thursday to perform more heavy-duty clean-up work on the old Gneiss Lake Trail. Clean-up and marking of the Trail continues in hope of having it ready for some visitor usage during the coming season. Thanks to all who pitched in on this big task!

Bear visits continue, all along the Trail, mostly unwelcomed and uninvited. One night this week found a momma bruin and her cubs paying a visit to the Wildersmith deck.

They didn’t stay long as Momma Smith inside heard their clumsy arrival and quickly dispatched them by lighting up the yard. Since then they have left some of their unsightly calling cards, indicating that they are still hanging about the neighborhood.

Keep on hangin on, and savor a visit into the lush Gunflint!

Airdate: May 25, 2012

Photo courtesy of dalliedee via Flickr.


Wildersmith May 18

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Spring has really sprung in the upper Gunflint territory! Since we last met over the waves of space, many more wilderness characters have popped out.

There are so many shades of green throughout the land that they are countless. A panoramic scan over the rolling granite landscape portrays mosaic tints ranging from pale sage to lime, to moss, to deep-sea aquamarine. They are just spectacular!

Closer up at ground level, we are celebrating more vernal rites. While domestic daffodils have been on the scene for some time, they are now being joined by a number of their wild cousins. The buttery faces of marsh marigolds are lining streams and swampy ditch banks. They are matched by their higher ground golden “dandy” lions and, over the past day or so, the forget-me-nots have once again forgotten us not.

Meanwhile the coniferous partners of the wilderness flora are sprouting buds into candles to become the next generation limbs, and those wondrous tamarack have bloomed their 2012 silky replacement needles in just a few short days.

Things are just a buzzin’ too! The annual fishing opener has brought out the drone of watercraft up and down area lakes with anglers seeking those first walleye sensations.

Added to this human hubbub is the hum of a zillion flying insects. Last weekend saw the area engulfed once more with the beginning of the two-week terrorist training for bitin’ bugs. Yes, the black flies have emerged from whence they come and seem infuriated for no apparent reason. It would seem simple that they might just go on about their blueberry pollinating business and leave us alone, but such is not the case.

The other nippers are here too, also seeming not in the best mood. The sad part of this whole gnawing scenario is that the skeeters will be in our midst for many weeks to come.

There’s no beating them, so it’s cover-up time. Bring on the Deet and netting apparel as we re-examine our torture tolerance level. Yours truly is already in the mood for a good freeze, sorry gardeners!

The reference to blueberries a few sentences back brings to mind that several folks have already been out exploring their favorite picking patches. The early canvas tells of what looks to be another great crop, based on the bloom. All we need is rain at the right time and plenty of sunshine.

It would appear, however, that rain will once again be an issue. The past week has passed with little to no moisture in the upper Gunflint reaches. As would be expected, the area is again in high wildfire danger mode with warm temps, drying winds and no ban on wilderness campfires!

It would be well for all wildfire sprinkler systems to be put into the stand-by mode. Further, running the system to dampen things down every few days would make good sense.

Let’s hope that common sense usage will prevail in regard to visitors needing a campfire when coming into the wilderness, and that lightning is a minimal factor when accompanied by substantial rain.

A few reports of black bruin activity are trickling in, but with no apparent tales of confrontation or amazement. One bruno is said to have learned how to open the topper door on a neighbor’s pick-up truck, climb in for a little grub exploration and vacate with no harm. Now if it could only learn to shut the door behind itself.

There has also been an observation of the first moose calf of the season. This sighting was down in the Greenwood Lake vicinity. Let’s hope this is the first of many!

While the south side of Chicago has its White Sox, the south shore of Gunflint Lake is not to be outdone. We have our own rendition of what I’ll call the Minnesota White Sox.

Those snowshoe hares are now clad in full summer camouflage except for their pure paws. And they are daredevils of the woods, paying almost no attention when crossing vehicular paths, often hopping within inches of becoming rabbit burger.

On a final note, there’s a lot of squawking going on out this way, nothing political mind you. A pair of crows have set up nesting about 10 white pines to the west of Wildersmith.

Their housekeeping chores now seem to include rearing youngsters, as the uproarious clamor is pandemonium pretty much from daybreak to sundown. I’ve even reached a point where I often catch myself yakking back at them. Ohhh, the babbles of new forest arrivals!

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor the sights and sounds of the season.

Airdate: May 18, 2012

Photo courtesy of Ian Britton via Flickr.

"Checking a couple examples along the Mile O Pine, I find that the new bud growth appears to be green and OK..."

Wildersmith May 11

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The north woods have been quite gloomy most days since May took over. With only a few peeks of sun for the first 11 upper Gunflint Trail conditions have been almost cold at times, though not too unusual. It would seem that we have finally returned to a more normal atmospheric setting.

It is still hard to imagine that for most years, the ice would have just gone out in these parts. We are now going on over six weeks since the hard water departure from the Gunflint Gal.

The overcast has helped provide a brief respite from fire danger. Although moisture droppings have not been overwhelming, the off and on showers have accumulated to about an inch at Wildersmith. A combination of gray skies, wet offerings and cool temps has kept the territory delightfully damp.

Unfortunately, the obscure sky caused our northland to miss out on the viewing of the “super” full flower moon last weekend. Since this was the closest the old lunar fellow has been, and will be for awhile, it is too bad, as the full rounds over our northern paradise are always extraordinary. This one was sure to be stupendous, but it was what it was!

That hot spell of month three has a lot of folks just sick in regard to what’s going on with a couple coniferous species on both private lands as well as many spots in the Superior National Forest along the Trail. A large number of spruce and fir trees took a real hit with the extreme warmth of March and then the sudden near zero temps during early April.

The sudden contrast has shocked huge numbers of needle bearers with an apparent kill of their needles. They range from a progressing yellowish tinge to completely brown. A forest service expert confirms that this is winter kill that can often happen. However, I’m sure that this area perhaps has not seen it to this extent before.

It will be of interest to see if this leads to a permanent killing of the entire tree, or just a setback from which recovery is possible. Checking a couple examples along the Mile O Pine, I find that the new bud growth appears to be green and OK, but I’m no tree expert. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see. One thing for sure, a large number of these trees are going to look pretty naked for some time if survival is in fact in the offing.

On the subject of trees, the fifth annual Gunflint Green-up came off with a fine turnout of enthusiastic outdoor lovers. Seventy-five planters took to the forest around the Chik-Wauk Museum site and put another 3,000 trees into the ground. Clearing was also done in some areas of previous years’ planting efforts.

This years happening brings the total to just fewer than 115,000 trees since the first Green-up in 2008. A hats off is extended to the fine organization and leadership offered by Gunflint Lodge and experts from the U.S. Forest Service.

In concert with the effort, a crew also did some planting along the old Gneiss Lake Trail. This is another step in the partial re-opening of the trail that was de-listed after the 1999 blow down. Work is progressing to clear the Trail as far as the scenic Blueberry hill, about a mile into the forest.

The US Forest Service has entrusted the clean-up and subsequent Trail maintenance to the Gunflint Trail Historical Society. When the clearing project is completed, a formal announcement will be made when it is open for hiker use. In the meantime, visitors are asked to not attempt a hiking journey just yet.

The second day of last weekend’s area events saw a record number of participants in the annual Ham Lake half marathon and 5K runs. Two hundred fifteen folks of all ages, shapes and sizes hit the Trail from either Seagull Fishing Camp on the 5K or from Gunflint Pines Resort for the half marathon.

Winners in the 5K were Jerry Erickson of Duluth in the men’s race and Michelle Aysta from Hermantown in the women’s race. In the half marathon, Jay Arrowsmith-Decoux of Grand Marais was first in the men’s section while Ashley Lykins of Duluth led the women’s finishers. Congratulations to all the participants for making it a great day!

Typically very well organized, the event was another great Gunflint community effort! Thanks go out to all who pitched in to make it happen!

In closing, the Gunflint community is reminded that the first Gunflint Trail Historical Society meeting of the season will be held this coming Monday, May 14. All GTHS members, as well as wannabes, are invited to gather at the Gunflint Lodge Conference Center at 1:30pm. Treats will be served!

Keep on hangin’ on and savor a happy fishing opener, and Mother’s Day weekend!

Airdate: May 11, 2012

Photo courtesy of Arthur Chapman via Flickr.

"As we enter the month for blooming flowers and such, feelers for rain are still being extended to Mother Nature..."

Wildersmith May 4

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It’s great to be back in the woods after a run southward to visit friends and family. The trip also included another stint as an official at America’s Athletic Classic, the Drake Relays.

Sure is amazing that as warm as the Midwest has been during the past few months, the three days of that track and field extravaganza in Des Moines found conditions to be quite up-north-like during late April. Cloudiness, cold temps and threatening skies were a cause for considerable whining, but for yours truly and my dear wife, we felt pretty much like we were right at home by the lake.

A check of the rain gauge upon my return found that nothing much has changed during our absence, still dry as a bone in border country (only four one-hundredths of moisture for the past seven at Wildersmith).

So as we enter the month for blooming flowers and such, feelers for rain are still being extended to Mother Nature. Further, I was surprised to find some splotches of white remaining in the ditches along the Trail, and a mini-glacier still tucked back in the woods on the Mile O Pine. So temps have remained on the cold side as well.

As April ended, following the warm temptations of March, leaf-out in the area continues to have stalled. Thus, phenology for this part of the universe remains logical, that all growing things will happen only when the DNA of these worldly beings says it’s OK.

Among those many creatures of the woods are black fly terrorists that have been held at bay (thanks goodness) with a cool month four. I suppose that if we are going to have May flowers and green leaves, those bitin’ buddies are sure to be just around the corner, so I’m bracing for the coming onslaught.

The trip homeward along the beautiful Gunflint Trail last Sunday evening was enhanced with another rite of spring. Our first black bruin of the season was observed. It was a big old Teddy that meandered across the black top near county road 92.

We were immediately welcomed home by a bunch of hungry neighborhood squirrels, an equally voracious pine marten and a hammering pileated woodpecker. Based on their habitual rapid appearance upon our returns, I’ve got to think that any number of wild neighborhood critters have become accustomed to the sound of our vehicle coming down the driveway or to the sounds of an opening garage door. It’s so nice to be wanted!

The fifth annual Ham Lake half marathon, 5K and runts run kicks off the first of many warm season events along the Trail on Sunday the sixth.

This is a growing event marking the five-year anniversary of that tragic wildfire event in 2007, which scarred 75,000 wilderness acres and affected the lives of numerous upper Trail residents. Several events are scheduled in concert with the running feature. Check for more details and get out in support of the runners.

Complementing the run, another Gunflint Green-up is also happening, Saturday, May 5. This event is under the leadership of the Gunflint Lodge folks and focuses on planting more trees in the burned out area near Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, plus the release of trees planted in previous Green-up endeavors. It’s not too late to get involved, but hurry, time’s a wasting! Check the Gunflint Green-up website,, or call Gunflint Lodge 218-388-2294 for last minute details, all hands are welcome!

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor an adventure in the wilderness!

Airdate: May 4 2012

Photo by: Stephan Hoglund

"Yes, loons have come back to Gunflint Lake during the past week..."

Wildersmith April 27

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The universe, north woods included, is about to bid farewell to month four and ascend into segment five of the year 2012. By our next meeting on the radio/website, border country will be well into May, and about to celebrate the full “budding flowers moon,” (Zaagibagaa Giizis) on day six.

My how April flew by! Everything transitional in the northern outdoors has retreated somewhat, now proceeding more or less normally, following the warmest March in memory. The walleye spawn has slowed and deciduous buds have gone into a holding pattern.

With samples of winter raising its ire as we journeyed through the past 30 days, we forest dwellers got a little bit of everything Mother Nature has to offer. It’s time to settle things down from that up and down passage into a real spring.

With shoots of green reappearing through the dwindling snow, this is a time for the reality of rebirth to get going in earnest. Mallards are hatching and next generations of foxes, wolves, otters and many other wild creatures have been coming into the world. Meanwhile, spiders, caterpillars, beetles and a million other crawling creatures are popping out just in time for the return of hungry avians. I even observed a beetle-like critter crawling over the new snow.

I’m told that the first wood ticks are out and about, although none have found yours truly during early outdoor chores. Beyond those nasty pests, a more pleasant announcement signals the true vernal return, the birds of Minnesota have landed. Yes, loons have come back to Gunflint Lake during the past week. I’ve heard that some were back to other area lakes the week prior, but regardless of the timing, it’s great to hear those sweet northwoods calls.

As the last snow moved on, leaving a smooth forest blanket, we at Wildersmith were paid a visit by at least a part of the Gunflint/Loon lake wolf pack. We did not see them in the flesh but had fresh track evidence that they were snooping about the yard during the nighttime. We also had a fox in the mix sometime during those same bewitching hours.

Maybe they were brought near by the animal version of the moccasin telegraph passing word about an unusual visitor in the neighborhood, that of the Wildersmith raccoon. Whatever it was that prompted the Canid visit, those tracks in the white afforded us another intriguing wilderness adventure to contemplate.

Regarding that masked critter saga, the final chapter for it at Wildersmith has come to a close. Finally after nearly two weeks of being a no-show, the return happened a few nights after the big snowstorm.

This visit turned out to be its last, as curiosity for a piece of bread and jelly brought surprising incarceration. After several dark hours of fruitless escape attempts, it was pretty much worn out and docile by the time it was bid farewell into happy hunting grounds elsewhere.

Up to this point, none of its kin have come by, but one has to figure that this one didn’t just come to the Gunflint Territory as a solo tourist.

So it’s goodbye to the first one-third of the year, and welcome to the month of growth. It is hoped that the allergens are not too bad and that we all break out with a rash of spring fever!

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor the goodness of nature around us!

Airdate: April 27, 2012

Photo courtesy of Adam Knowles via Flickr.

"It’s “tweener” time in north country..."

Wildersmith April 20

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It’s “tweener” time in north country, the period of each year when Gunflint residents celebrate quietness, separating winter activities and the mad rush of our fishing opener, along with ensuing summer vacationers just over the horizon.

At this keyboard exercise on Monday, April 16, the Wildersmith neighborhood is experiencing a winter storm. We are getting it all, blizzard conditions with snow, gale force winds and temps in the low teens.

For the second consecutive week, we started off with a white landscape. This winter shot left anywhere from three to five inches of fluff depending upon where one is located up the Trail. Many think of spring vacations along about now, but for the situation in border country, it’s spring that has suddenly taken a vacation.

All of this mixed-up weather happens just as the first wildflowers peeked out of their buds in the yard at Wildersmith. The tiny violet-like blooms, along with aspiring rhubarb shoots and budding lilac branches, are probably in shock, but hopefully not ruined for warmer time’s resurgence.

And, I might add, the first mosquito was buzzing me a day or so before the “s” word made another return. I hope that it froze its little tush off!

As clouds of the winter storm built, the preliminary act was some much-needed rain. In fact, before the rain gauge froze during the ferocious main performance, liquid in the amount of three-quarters of an inch filled it up.

This was a welcome refresher, at least temporarily stifling wildfire danger. Coupled with the new layer of white that is soon to be melting away, we should feel safe for the next few days.

My saga with the Wildersmith raccoon extends without resolution. The decision to live trap and dispatch the masked intruder to another heavenly place has produced no results.

The trapping experience has outraged a couple pine martens in the area, though. Baiting appetizers of bacon strips and ham have excited the curious critters. Thus, they are the only ones to have been incarcerated to date.

No plea bargaining required, but releasing the angry animals has been an experience in itself. With long arm-covering leather gloves, I was a little nervous about what to expect upon opening that trap door for the snarling wild creatures.

A friend shared an unintended otter trapping experience where the animal darted out of the trap, went a short distance away to apparently compose itself, and then came back and bit the releasing jailer on the boot before heading off into nature. So I was un-sure of what might happen in my situation.

Following considerable angst of growling and jumping around trying to get at me, I found it amusing that once the cage door was opened, the escape to forest freedom seemed hard to figure out. I would have expected it to zip out of that temporary jail like a shot from a gun.

Once released however, in both cases, the lush brown animals casually meandered away and perched themselves on a deck rail close by to check me out. Guess maybe I wasn’t such a bad guy after all!

Meanwhile the Wildersmith folks continue to undo the winter preparations in spite of current atmospheric happenings. Deer protection fencing around baby trees is coming down and freeze-protecting straw has been pitched from the septic mound. The usual clean-up of fallen forest debris continues, never ending. I’m confident that others throughout the area are in the same mode. So when warmer days are here to stay, we’ll be ready for deck/dock reflecting and bug swatting.

Keep on hangin’ on and savor the greatness of the northern outdoors!

Airdate: April 20, 2012

Photo courtesy of Tundra Ice via Flickr.

A hungry squirrel, captured near Gunflint Lodge

Wildersmith April 13

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With April rapidly reaching its half way point, the boundary country weather has leveled off into being more typical. Following that record breaking March, we have experienced some stunning spring days with warm sun, and nighttimes where some good hard frost sparkled from morning roof tops. The Smith’s even awoke to another white landscape this past Monday morning, snow is still stunning!

Moreover, a few days saw a skim of ice on shallow ponds and Mile O Pine road side puddles froze solid. It is sad that conditions now are right, but too little, too late for the maple sweetness producers. This should have happened about a month or so ago.

After a week of wetness there were glowing hopes for drought improvements. At the upper end of Gunflint paradise however, the past week has reverted back to dry times with little moisture to which we can get excited. Wildersmith counted only sparse amounts in a couple shower attempts since our last radio/website visit.

County-wide burning restrictions now in place, has not calmed the nerves for yours truly. With the ability to still have camp fires out in the woods, the area remains as an accident waiting to happen. Folks out this way will never forget how that Ham Lake tragedy might have been averted if camp fires had been nixed during arid times like now.

I have proceeded to get into the lake and set neighborhood wildfire sprinkler system lines for which I’ve assumed responsibility. As soon as comfort is reached that we will not have another bitter cold snap, systems will be primed and fired up in readiness with hope that they are never summoned into an emergency mode

By the way, getting into the lake for that job was no real treat. Donning my wet suit and scuba boots made it tolerable. However, bare hands found the liquid numbing cold in a matter of seconds. The Gunflint water at that time was a cool 39 degrees.

I would caution water craft enthusiasts to play it safe during these early open water conditions. An accidental dip in the lake at this time of year can be catastrophic!

Organizers are gearing up for the annual Ham Run Half Marathon. The event which also features a 5K and little runts run will happen Sunday, May 6th @ 9:30 am. For entering and more details, check out the website or it’s the “Race without a Trace,” greenest in Minnesota.

In the ever evolving warming of our north land, critters that don’t usually habituate these parts continue to move in and make themselves at home. One species that’s becoming more and more prominent are those masked bandit raccoons.

We had one visit the Wildersmith deck last fall then didn’t see it again all winter. Thinking I had a bear checking things out on our deck over the past weekend, it turned out that this ring-tailed bandit has found his way back.

I would have thought that it might be a cold season wolf snack, but guess not. It some how survived and is in fact, quite pig like in size. These animals are about as welcome as those annoying, but more common, woodchucks and skunks of the northern forest.

The chore at hand is how to humanely rid the neighborhood of this menacing pest. If anyone has a recipe for raccoon stew, let me know and I’ll deliver, if and when.

Keep on hangin’ on and savor a wilderness critter happening!

Airdate: April 13, 2012

Photo courtesy of bdearth on flickr.

Snowshoe hares are making the transition to spring along the Gunflint

Wildersmith April 6

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This first weekend in April finds the north woods celebrating the full pink maple sugar moon. During the fourth mature lunar experience of 2012, spring is full speed ahead throughout the upper Trail region.

A minor set back to the vernal movement occurred as March bade farewell. The territory had an unexpected return visit from the “old man of the north” as he dropped by with what will probably be his last calling card for the next several months.

At Wildersmith the frosty old devil deposited just shy of three inches while areas in the mid-trail snow zone looked to get considerably more. The drab gray/brown earth was white for about three days, and now we are back to getting on with our green-up of the Gunflint.

Speaking of green-up, the fifth annual Gunflint Green-up is taking on new character for this year. Leadership and organization for the event is coming from the folks at Gunflint Lodge.

If you are interested in the continued recovery from the Ham lake wildfire, find details on the Gunflint Lodge website home page. I’m told that the focus for green-up activities this year will be around the Chik-Wauk Museum & Nature Center site and the revitalization of the old Gneiss Lake Trail as far as Blueberry Hill.

It’s appropriate that with Easter Sunday at hand, the north woods bunnies are beginning to get in tune with the traditional fashion parade. With the surprise disappearance of winter, most were caught in their lush white coats and nothing to hide behind.

Our trip to Grand Marais last weekend for Palm Sunday services found the Smith’s encountering any number of the hares along the roadways. With multiplication in their DNA, the “wabbit” population is going to have the local lynx and fox seeing more than double in months to come.

They were observed parading about in turned coats of anywhere from dirty white to almost warm weather brown. As fast as they are transitioning, next week should find them well into summer garb.

That Palm Sunday trip to town turned out to be quite reflective. For once, the air currents were still, and trail side open waters were mirror smooth. It was a great occasion to see the lake side forests upside down in a double exposure mode.

Although the total green-up of the forest is still a ways off, the coniferous reflections on the polished liquid surfaces were a sparkling renewed green, indicating that warm time juices are flowing early.

Our spring migration has found several species here and gone from border country. This weeks’ feature has involved hoards of juncos. The lively slate colored critters have been busy sorting through the leftovers from the nearly three hundred pounds of sunflower seeds that winter birds and squirrels have scattered beneath the feeders.

Another avian gang has also been busy sorting through winter remains. For the past two or three weeks, it has not been uncommon to have a dozen or more crows yacking around the yard each morning. Their conversation is often quite annoying, but their ability to clean up and loosen the forest duff for potential new plant re-birth makes them at least half way tolerable.

One more natural treat happened my way after the surprising snow. Regardless of the winter season, early or late, fresh snow always makes for great animal tracking. During the most recent such event, I came upon some not often seen imprints of paws, and what looked like a single sled runner.

At first, I was not tracking, no pun intended, when suddenly, I realized what I was following was that of an otter. Prancing foot prints and a dragging tail, how neat, made me wonder what it was up to, probably some adventuresome prank. I never did get a glimpse of the jovial one, but ahh, the mystique of winter, captured one more time!

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor springing ahead!

"Sol...exploded over the panorama with an eye-catching bronzy autumn-like sunset"

Wildersmith March 30

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As the northland wraps up an unusual March, there has been a lot of speculation and excitement about ice-out on upper trail lakes. Needless to say, as the last of the hard water sinks into oblivion, folks are reflecting on when was the earliest they have ever seen this happen.

This broadcast/column comes together with barely a chunk of ice left anywhere in the territory. The Gunflint saw her winter coat become official history during the nighttime hours of March 24-25. This date is the earliest by 16 days over the past 30 years. It also beats the old gal’s average by some five to six weeks.

The only report of remaining ice came from Poplar Lake and one patch on Seagull that I observed last Sunday morning. I can’t help but think that these last vestiges will not be around by the time this Gunflint news reaches your eyes or ears.

Reflecting on the winter that wasn’t, it got started about a month late and ended about a month and a half early. We were definitely gypped out of our usual six to seven month bragging rights. There are many that scoff at the global warming phenomenon; scoffers should wake up and take a good look at what’s been going on!

The territory finally got some much-needed moisture since our last visit on the radio. Although the rains did little to ease the dry conditions for the long term or add to shrunken lake levels, the inch or more that fell into my rain gauge over the past seven days did dampen the tinder forest at least momentarily.

It seems prudent, now that lake ice is gone, that there be no procrastination about getting wildfire sprinkler lines out into the water and pump engines ready to be fired up! Our current damp conditions will surely not last long with the powerful spring sun and those perpetual southerly winds that ended winter so abruptly.

So the wilderness is all about bunnies, buds and bears now that April’s on the horizon. With very few manmade piles of snow remaining, the only real element of white on the landscape is snowshoe hares, and they are probably a bit confused with this premature seasonal behavior.

A few days ago, I counted just shy of a dozen of the white fur balls along the South Gunflint lake Road. They were a stark white with barely a bit of color, indicating that they were not prepared for the exit of their winter camouflage. Standing out like a proverbial sore thumb against the drab gray/brown background, they were out en masse nibbling on the first green tidbits peeking out of the soil.

As to the buds and bears, both are making appearances sooner than expected. Green tips are on the lilacs, high bush cranberries and even a few young birch trees. I even got a peek at some minute open leaves on pin cherry trees, while pussy willow buds are so advanced they have popped their protective husks.

I’m told that some have observed the emergence of our black brunos, although none have shown around Wildersmith to date. With that in mind, I have taken in some of the avian feeding structures so as to avoid temptations. I make the same recommendation to others around the area. No need for us to create a nuisance bear! Skunks have also awakened from winter slumber and the first chipmunk is skittering about our yard.

Disappointed as many of us north woods folks are regarding the winter flop, I must say that border country is still offering up splendid natural wonders. Such was the case last Saturday evening.

A short walk down to the Gunflint shore to confirm the ice-out status found me intrigued with what was going on up and down the waters. Characters from every season were beckoning my attention.

To begin with, most of the lake ice was gone, and brisk northwest winds were rolling the lake into a summer day’s frenzy.

At the same moment, a mass of crystal shards were pressed against the granite shoreline tinkling in melodic harmony as the wind wept currents played the icy leftovers like a huge xylophone.

Glancing down the lake, old Sol was dropping out of a dark cloud bank. In moments it exploded over the panorama with an eye-catching bronzy autumn-like sunset.

As my focus scanned lower, surveying the lake surface, a thin layer of ghost-like vapors hung over the cold liquid, and the sun lit up the gauzy fog in 24-carat splendor of the new season.

During those brief moments, shivers overcame my being. I don’t know if they were caused by falling late day temps, or by the exuberance of beauty before me. With all the magnificence going on at that moment, guess I can’t be holding a grudge against Mother Nature for short-changing us on winter! We’ll just give her another chance in several months.

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor some wilderness time!

Airdate: March 30, 2012

Photo courtesy of Ryan Harvey on Flickr.

"The early advance of May in March has the pussy willow buds just a-purring in the powerful sun..."

Wildersmith March 23

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Once more, the Smiths are back in border country. It’s great to be home after a swell 10-day break visiting with grandsons in Iowa.

Again many thanks go out to the “nosey pup” from over on Hungry Jack Lake for subbing in my absence. I was back in time to catch her last week’s commentary. It sure was great to hear her hearty voice bringing you up to speed on the Gunflint Scoop.

The transformation to our season of rebirth got under way in both a premature and earnest way this past week. Who would have thought we’d be out of the “w” season so quickly? Guess I won’t have to be mentioning the white time of year for several months now.

In fact, with the meager snowfall of the season past, our next north woods season, that of “mud,” is not going to be too extensive and obnoxious. Looks like the northland might be in for a long hot summer if the past week is any indicator, yuck!

The early advance of May in March has the pussy willow buds just a-purring in the powerful sun and crows have returned in raucous cacophony. Also observed our first robin tweeting about Wildersmith, and I don’t mean on the cyber screen.

After dark, the beams of manmade light are already reflecting off several moth species in their aerial acrobatics. I suppose we could be in for an early arrival for those black fly terrorists if the streak of hot humid continues. This dictates a double yuck, yuck!

Noticeably absent from the avian cafeteria are the hundreds of red polls and dozens of pine grosbeaks, all of which have headed north to summer destinations. Meanwhile, the busy whitetail crew that has been pruning around the neighborhood all winter has all but disappeared. They’ve headed to greener munching, and preparation for maternal happenings, on southern exposures far, far away.

The gurgling sound of creeks and rivers rushing toward depleted lakes is music to our ears. However, these natural melodies will only be temporary until the snow melt ends, unless of course, much needed rain comes soon.

Speaking of our lakes, a trip to the Chik-Wauk Museum recently, for a regular security check, found me in awe of the low water level in the bay. I’ve never seen it that low in my short time around here. It looked as though the USFS’ floating dock moored there, could well have been sitting on the bottom, and huge rocks are showing above water in new places not seen before.

Obviously, Saganaga as well as Gunflint and any number of other lakes in the upper Trail territory are experiencing terribly depleted water levels. These seemingly unending drought conditions, going on now for what seems like several years, just have to get turned around.

Our sudden turn to summer-like warmth is taking its toll on the lake ice as well. Fisher folks are still traversing to their favorite fishing holes, mostly on four wheelers, but have to stand in considerable watery slush above the ice.

As of late last week, I’m told there is still some 14 to 18 inches of ice on the Gunflint. I’m thinking that can’t last too much longer as the surface has taken on that darkening gray color. Gunflint ice out might easily happen before April. This would be an all-time record over the past three decades, for which I have records.

Needless to say, with the increasingly dry conditions, many of us in the area are nervous about increasing wild fire danger. The forest is a combustible accident waiting to happen. It’s hoped that governing agencies will act soon to invoke TOTAL burning bans instead of having to react after a tragedy ignites.

Common sense would indicate that NO manmade wilderness fires should be allowed in border country until the area gets a whole lot wetter. Sadly, it must be realized that “common sense” is not so common anymore, so a ban seems an absolute necessity.

Keep on hangin’ on, savor this place and do a little rain dancing!

Airdate: March 23, 2012

Photo courtesy of Zixii via Flickr.