Aaron Burden
Trail Time

Trail Time – Fall on the Gunflint Trail

The Gunflint Trail is in full glory this time of year: sunny days with cool, crisp weather and golden birch leaves falling gently to the earth; maple trees glow with red, orange, yellow and lime green hues — so many colors in one leaf, so much beauty in one tree, so many gorgeous trees! I tell you, Maple Hill has never been dressed in more splendor. Before this latest burst of sun we had a string of rainy, cold and windy days. But after that, calm sunny weather arrived. One day was so windless that I heard leaves dropping, falling through the forest, and landing with a tiny plop upon the still surface of the lake.

The bears have been leaving their colorful calling cards: large piles of barely digested mountain ash berries. I admit that I don’t understand the economy of this system. It looks like it’s berries in, then berries out. And a visiting bull moose thrashed three young birch trees and gouged the earth by our woodshed. This is the time of year when bull moose make their mark on earth and trees, advertising their best qualities and attracting mates. I have always wanted to see this behavior — at a safe distance, of course. One year I nearly got my wish:

It was fall and Lars and I were paddling our canoe on Brule Lake. I had spotted a basswood tree on an island and I wanted to harvest a stem to make a whistle. We landed, clambered out, and tied the canoe up to a tree on the shore. Pushing aside bushes and saplings, we made our way into the woods in the direction of the basswood tree. We got to a little clearing and noticed the earth had been dug up,  and the soil was damp in that one spot — an odd thing to see on a dry fall day. Then we noticed the shrubs and trees surrounding us looked like somebody had slashed at them with a dull machete. We stood there looking around and saying, “Huh! Isn’t this strange? I wonder what caused that!” Then we heard a noise — a distant sound growing closer by the second, “Thump…thump…thump, thump, thump, thump” — the sound of large hooves coming our way — fast! We turned and dodged in and out between trees, running toward the canoe and jumping over logs and boulders as fast as we could manage. The canoe was quickly unmoored and we hopped in and sped  away. At a safe distance we slowed down and turned the canoe around so we could look back at our pursuer. We never saw the bull moose that day, but we definitely heard him! And, no, I didn’t make my whistle.

Looking around our autumn forest now, I see the chokecherries have lost their leaves — pin cherries, also called fire cherries, are still hanging on; the spear shaped leaves are the most beautiful shades of reddish brownish gold morphing into yellow and olive green and the dark green dogwood leaves are changing to shades of warm maroon. I tell you, five minutes of enjoying the beauty of an autumn day can really turn one’s attitude around. In a small clearing, I sat on a big rock warmed by the sun. I was basking in the sunshine and listening to the sounds of the forest all around me. I watched my dog hunt for small animals under and around some giant boulders. She ran through a patch of fireweed, loosening the spent blossoms that had dried into shiny silky fluff. The small glittering strands rose slowly into the air, looking like tiny fairies. It is heavenly stuff — so silky between your fingers and so shiny in the sun, like fine milkweed but more delicate.

Some birds use fireweed fluff to build their nests. I know hummingbirds use lichen and spider webs and maybe they use a little fireweed fluff, too.

Fireweed is called great willow herb or wickup, and it belongs to the evening primrose family. It is one of the first plants to appear after a fire; it rapidly covers woodland areas that have been cleared by humans. Its seeds can lie dormant for many years, awaiting the warmth necessary for germination.

Fireweed blooms in an interesting way. It starts with pinkish flowers at the bottom of the stalk and the blossoms open in an orderly fashion from there up to the top of the stalk. This progresses steadily throughout the summer and they say that once the blooms reach the top of the stalk, summer is over. Fire weed attracts native bees, moths, hummingbirds and butterflies. The stems were traditionally split lengthwise to scrape out the soft pith and then the tough stem fibers were made into twine and fishnets. Moose, deer, and caribou eat the leaves, and small mammals eat the seeds.

A few years ago, I was taking a foraging class at North House Folk School and one of my classmates told me she used fireweed blossoms and rose hips to make firerose jelly. And wouldn’t that be a lovely thing: a taste of summer on a cold winter’s day?

~ Marcia Roepke