Fall Changes on the Gunflint Trail
It’s a cold breezy day, but I revel in this cool fall weather with the sun playing peek-a-boo. It’s been perfect for exploring the forest around us. Lately, I’ve been walking my dog in areas of the woods I’ve never been before and it has been absolutely magical seeing huge downed trees covered in moss. The footing can be really tricky, but I go slowly and carefully, regularly stopping to stare. I think I drive my faster-walking friends crazy. On really windy days, I avoid the parts of the forest with big standing dead birches. I’d be in trouble if one of those big ones came down. My first winter here I played a game called “find the maple trees.” My goal was to identify the maple trees in the fall when they had their leaves (easy) so I could pick them out in the winter when they were leafless (hard). There are much fewer maples and more aspen and birch where I live, unlike the thick stands of maple in the woods nearer town, at the beginning of the Trail.
The Tamaracks have been positively glowing this fall. They are a showcase tree, coming into their own glory after the maple trees have peaked. Tamaracks are such interesting trees. They are conifers but not evergreens. They have needles but are not pines. They are coniferous and deciduous. In the spring, the new growth — the young needles — have a texture like a silicone basting brush: very pliable and silky soft to touch. The needles grow in clusters of 10-20. Young tamaracks have very slender vertical trunks and grow horizontal limbs as they age. They grow very slowly and need moist, organic soil and full sun when they’re seedlings, but they can establish themselves on dry hillsides, as can be seen along the Trail. Most trees still have their golden needles right now, but their hold is tenuous and they will drop soon. They look like they are ready to go with the next big wind or rain or snowfall. When I brushed against them, the needles fell right down, reminding me of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. In the spring, tiny new cones will grow again with the needles. In my opinion they are the cutest cones in the world. The female cones look like little roses as they emerge. A few tight little brown cones hang on all winter. I love the tamarack’s knobby little stems, reminding of a gingko in the regularity of the spurs. This is a boreal tree and is known as a Larch elsewhere, and in my home state of Maine they are called Hackmatacks, which is derived from an Abenaki word meaning “wood used for snowshoes.” In Ojibwe tamaracks are called mashkiigwaatig.
A while ago I made a sound map, where I roamed around my neck of the woods and mapped what I was hearing. It’s a fun way to experience a landscape in a non-visual way. Lately, I’ve been thinking I could do a smell map of all the delicious aromas in the woods right now — alders sometimes smell spicy like cinnamon, birch can smell minty. The pines, of course, have that familiar heavenly scent. The smell is stronger in the early morning when the dew is still on the ground and at again at dusk — and strongest after a rain. The rich aroma of the loam in the forest reminds me of a fine sherry that’s been aged in a wooden cask.
Many things are changing now. The mushrooms that were so plentiful earlier this fall have all but disappeared. I see a few black slimy remnants and also some hardy tiny fungi that are hanging on late in the season, tucked into thick beds of moss. I noticed a Mountain Ash tree that had been cleaned of all berries, most of the leaves were gone and the big buds at the end of the branches were covered in a sticky kind of sap; I don’t know to what purpose.
There have been lot of wolf sightings this past month on the Trail. There was at least one wolf hanging about — very at ease in our presence and far too friendly for comfort. A lot of yelling and waving of arms was needed to convince him that he needed to move along. He was nonchalant about the whole business. I wonder if wolves are drawn to dogs. I really don’t want my dog to be a wolf’s lunch. Or breakfast. Or dinner. Hence the yelling.
~ Marcia Roepke