Trail Time

Trail Time

My good friend and neighbor Dharma Dave stopped by last week. He reported that everyone on the Gunflint Trail has been talking about two things: wildfire sprinkler systems and cutting brush. With the almost constant presence of smoke from the Ontario fires, wildfire is very much on our minds. The sprinkler systems only do part of the job: creating a defensible green zone. The brush cutting makes sure the water gets where it is needed. In the absence of rain, these systems can make a huge difference.

The Gunflint Trail remains at very high fire danger right now. But if you were to suddenly be transported to the Trail from far away, you might not think that the woods look very different from a wetter summer. This points to an interesting fact: the woods can be dangerously dry and still look green. Looks can indeed be deceiving. All campfires are banned now in the Superior Forest and the Boundary Waters. Fuel stoves with on/off switches are allowed. We all need to be extremely careful.

After we’ve done what we can to prepare for a fire emergency or evacuation, we still find time to enjoy the ever abundant beauty of this special place. The lucky ones among us, like my neighbor KC the sunshine gal, don’t even have to get out of bed to have the luxury of watching a bull moose saunter down her drive.

For me, one of the many joys of life on the Trail is the pursuit of nature knowledge. I love trying to identify what it is I am seeing: birds, bird songs, animals, scat, frogs, insects, plants and especially bumblebees. I’m not a naturalist but I’m a lifelong observer and nature learner.

Bumblebees are a particular favorite of mine. They have such a fascinating life cycle and inhabit a unique niche in pollinating the plants of the north. Their colonies are very different than the more familiar honeybee. Only the bumblebee queen survives the winter in her hibernaculum, a chamber that is often a former mouse nest underground. Bumblebees pollinate wildflowers, blueberries, raspberries and our garden tomatoes. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees are native to North America.

There are about 10-12 different bumblebee species listed for this area on my Bumblebee Watch app. I have successfully identified the grand total of one species. But I keep trying! And I find many interesting things while I’m poking around.

While I was attempting to capture some bumblebee photos a few days ago, I came across an enormous bright green caterpillar. It measured about 4 inches long. It was so bright against the dry grass, I could hardly believe that is was going to survive for long. I believe it was a Polyphemus moth larva. There seems to be a lot of moths and butterflies this summer, despite the dryness. A bounty of butterflies; a plethora of moths! While I was photographing a butterfly (could it be a Compton Tortoiseshell?), right behind it was a large parasitic wasp with a very long ovipositor. I would have missed it if I hadn’t seen the butterfly.

Some summer flowers spotted lately are Jewel Weed, evening primrose and that tiny little happy flower, Eyebright. I was very surprised to find the striped Coral Orchid growing in its usual place, despite this dry year. The raspberries are still ripening but they’re small and seedy. We picked enough for a pie earlier this summer but I’m leaving the rest for the bears. They’re going to need it. The blueberry crop is mighty meager this year.

Even though the food supply for some animals is low, whatever creatures eat grasshoppers will be getting fat! They are clacking and filling the air in the sunny places. I’ve seeing more bird youngsters more recently too. Late summer is always marked for me by the raucous cries of the juvenile ravens. “Mom! Mom!” they seem to be saying.

One evening we were paddling our canoe away from the sunset and a raven family of five were having one of their first flight lessons. The low sun shone against a rocky cliff high above the lake as the ravens aimed for the top. When they got close to the cliff, five ravens became ten as the sun doubled the number with their shadows. They became five once more as each raven merged with its shadow and landed on the top of the cliff, some of them more elegantly than others.

Our neighborhood young osprey flew over by himself a few days ago, calling the whole way across the lake, flapping so hard. The parent flew silently far behind him, just gliding. To me it seemed like the moment a kid learns how to ride a bike and the parent lets go of their steadying hand. Time to fly alone, little one.