Trail Time

Trail Time – Events and Phenology on the Gunflint Trail

It’s definitely fall on the Gunflint Trail. Many aspen and birch have lost their leaves, and the weather is cool and damp. Unlike spring, with its gradual unfolding, autumn loveliness arrives quickly. Two days ago day I saw the limbs of a birch tree covered in shimmering yellow leaves, reaching toward the clear blue sky; the next morning almost all the leaves were lying on the ground, like a puddle of gold, like a slender dancer had just let her silk dress drop to her feet. The whole of last week was magical, with the warm sun sparkling on water and gauzy little fairy-like bugs floating around in the air. At first I mistook these incredibly tiny insects for gnats or ash, but I managed to catch a few – very gently, for they were so easy to squash – and looked them up online using the search term “tiny blue insects with fuzzy butts.” I got answers immediately. They were woolly aphids. It seems there are as many kinds of woolly aphids as there are trees, with at least 15 different kinds in Minnesota, and some sources said that there are probably more. The adult woolly aphid sucks tree sap and produces a waxy white covering that looks like minute downy feathers. I had never seen them before. I wonder if it was the unseasonable warm weather which brought them out. For a few days, whenever the weather warmed, you could see these little fairy bugs floating by, wafted by the breeze.

Last week was unusually warm for October, and Lars and I took good advantage of the fine weather by driving down some dirt roads we hadn’t explored before. We had a canoe on top of the car, lunch, paddles and life jackets packed and even a thermos of hot tea along. It felt so civilized. Lars and I had spent the evening before comparing maps and negotiating where to explore. We meant to leave early the next morning, but with one thing and another we didn’t get on the water until 9. It was early enough for mist to still be floating above the water with the morning sun shining through. The day was sunny and nearly windless, and our first stop was a favorite lake for a quiet farewell paddle. It was a lovely way to say goodbye until next spring. There was one other canoe on the water, and we quickly lost sight of them. We saw and heard many kingfishers, darting across the water and swooping up into nearby snags and fir trees. A few times we saw them hover before diving headlong into the water to catch fish. These birds have such unusual proportions, with a head that seems outsized to its body, long stout beaks and very short legs. Everything about them seems direct and no-nonsense except for those wild shaggy feathers on their heads that look like punk hairdos. They are such a gorgeous shade of blue, with white necks and bellies and black markings around their eyes. The female has an additional rusty band of feathers across her chest, like a too-tight waistcoat. They nest mostly in dirt banks after digging a tunnel that can range from 3 to 6 feet long. They lay 6-7 eggs, with both male and female sharing incubation and feeding. The Belted Kingfisher is the only one which summers this far north.

I had a front-row seat to a Battle Royale between two kingfishers a couple summers ago. I was sitting in a second story balcony and they went round and round the building chasing each other and chittering that distinctive call. They were flying so fast and calling so loudly! I’m not sure if it was a mating ritual or warfare, but they looked like they meant business, whatever their intentions, and they were moving too fast for me to distinguish between male and female. Kingfishers must be late migrators for us to see so many of them in October. They fly south to spend the winter on open water. I always love spotting them.

Lars and I said good-bye to the kingfishers at that first lake and paddled back to the landing, then headed down the Gunflint Trail to find a new lake – one that had intrigued us during our map reading of the night before. We headed south of the Trail, went down a dirt road and found the entry point. After we filled out a day pass, we made an easy portage to the next lake. Once more, we had the place mostly to ourselves, paddling quietly down the shore, heading to anything that sparked our interest. I saw what looked like a small raft of reeds and dry grasses and paddled over to investigate and noticed a brown furry body in motion. I thought it was an otter, but as I got closer I saw a naked tail — there was a pile of two or three muskrats sitting on top of this raft. One of them looked up, wrinkled his nose at us and then they all slipped into the water. Maybe they were building a house, getting ready for winter. It was a gorgeous day of paddling and nature watching to end this canoe season.

This is the end of the season for Chik Wauk Museum and Nature Center as well. This weekend is your last chance to hike the trails, gaze at the moose pond, view the exhibits in the museum, or shop in the gift shop. Sunday is their last day for this year, and it is predicted to be a sunny day. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see a moose!

This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail