Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time – Fall is here

Mornings have been misty up on the Gunflint Trail recently. A few days ago, I got up at dawn and lit a candle in the darkness. I watched the fog rising above the lake, cloaking the far shore except for the tops of the tallest pines, a ghostly silhouette hovering high above the water. It looked like a dream.

As the sun rose, I could see more proof that fall is here: the fireweed is finished blossoming; the leaves of the birches are turning yellow; and the Moose Maple shines out from its neighbors in shades of red, pink and orange. The hazelnuts are gone from the hazel bushes. I had planted some American Hazel about seven years ago. The native Beaked Hazel is what you see growing everywhere along the Trail. It is ubiquitous. I watch this plant carefully from flower to nut (If you listen to this show regularly, you know I am nutty about hazels). Almost every year there is one day when I see the nuts fully-formed and nearly ready for picking and the next day — poof! — animals have taken every last one. This year is the first year that the American Hazels bore fruit, and I wondered if the squirrels would recognize them as food since they look so different than their beaked cousins. Evidence now suggest that the squirrels and chipmunks had no problem. None are left. I felt a little silly I had even had that thought.

We started our first fire in the wood stove this morning. The weather forecast says this is going to be a cool and rainy week, so it’s the perfect time for soup- and stock-making and indoor projects. Lars has winterized the sprinkler system and cleaned the chimney just in time for today’s cozy fire. When the rain stops, I’ll head outside once again and start working in the woods: clearing deadfall, widening paths and I still plan on transplanting some ferns. We’ll see if I can do that before the first hard frost hits. Fall is such a great time to work in the woods, especially after leaf fall. You can see further, the bugs are gone and you can work hard without overheating. 

I was hanging out at Chik Wauk Nature Center last week and I met an interesting person; I’ll call him the Professor. He was going to take a water sample from the little bay on Sag. I asked him what he was looking for and he said diatoms, which I had heard of before but had completely forgotten what they were. He explained that they are single cell amoeba that live in water everywhere. I looked them up later and read that that live in houses of glass. I am not making that up — that is the enchanting definition offered by Diatoms of North America, from which I quote: “Diatoms are the only organism on the planet with cell walls composed of transparent, opaline silica. Diatom cell walls are ornamented by intricate and striking patterns of silica.”  You can see from the pictures online that all that is true. Diatoms use photosynthesis to transform sunlight into energy. They also are super useful for assessing water quality. Diatoms produce 20-30 % of the air we breath and also produce molecules that feed the whole food chain from the tiniest creature to the biggest fish. As the Professor told me, “When we eat a fish, we’re eating diatoms.” And here’s an exclusive news flash for WTIP listeners: he is quite sure he discovered a new species of diatom in a small unnamed lake just off the Gunflint Trail.

I wonder how many more canoe trips we can manage before the weather  gets too cold, although one year we paddled in November when there was new snow on the ground. It was sunny and the air was warm — it was a super fun day, sliding the blue canoe over the snow down to the water. 

Last week we put a canoe on the car and headed down the Trail to paddle a few lakes into the BWCA. We spent the day paddling and portaging and stopped on an island for lunch. Canoeing back that afternoon, we saw some splashy antics in a little bay by a portage. Was it an otter? A beaver? a duck? A merganser? At first, it was hard to fathom what was making such a ruckus. As we paddled closer, we recognized a juvenile and an adult loon fishing in a small bay, diving down quickly, over and over again. They they were so busy took no notice of our presence, It looked like they were possible driving a school of fish into the little bay and then gobbling them up.We kept our distance and just marveled at this water show.

Closer to home, the loons have been singing nearly every night. One night last week there was a long performance by a loon trio. Up and down the musical scale, they ran through three kinds of loon calls: the Tremolo, the Yodel and the Wail: first one loon sang, then another, then the third took up the tune in a call and response that lasted for a while and echoed up and down the darkening lake as the sun set.

~Marcia Roepke