Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time – Land of Slush

Land of Slush

This has been such a weird winter season on the Gunflint Trail. We’ve had very little snow — our road has be plowed only twice all season. It has rained on and off for the last two days and now the sun is shining on the melting expanse of our lake. The blueish-gray slush extends in patches from shore to shore, with low drifts of white marking the deeper snow and the darker gray and deeper blue denoting pools of water on top of the ice. If the sun keeps shining until the cold temperatures arrive, which they will, this Land of Lakes will have turned into the Land of Slush and then transform into the Land of Ice. The upside is that maybe there will be good skating conditions again.

The downside of no snow lands on those who depend on a good snowfall to make their living, like lodge owners, lodge workers, and those who plow the many private roads on the Trail. With no snow comes no skiing, no snowshoeing, no snowmobiling, no ice-fishing and no plowing.

The lodges on the Trail have done a great job coming up with alternative activities, like a lodge-to-lodge scavenger hunt and a lodge-to-lodge luau party. Bearskin Lodge has been harvesting snow and then distributing it where it was needed on their ski trails.

The lodges’ tough break can be measured in real dollar losses. The heartbreak of those people who come alive when they ski, snowmobile, fish and snowshoe is immeasurable. For those of us who live on the Trail, this winter is one of unparalleled pleasant weather with an undercurrent feeling of loss for those normally dependable gorgeous winter days and the dismay we feel for our neighbors’ loss in income. It is a disturbing feeling.

Hiking is the best solid option, if you’re like us and live to be outside no matter the weather. Don’t venture out, though, without micro-spikes on your boots! Best to bring a hiking or ski pole too, to help get you out of icy tricky situations. There are many great hiking trails up and down the Trail.

I remember another February like this, about 20 years ago when Lars and I and a friend were heading out on a winter camping trip. All our gear was packed, we had food and a camping stove and our pulks lashed to the top of the truck, ready to go. Lars and I had been on three or four winter camping trips together by then, and we were ready for more. This time, we rented a cabin near the entry point for the night before our trip was to begin. We arrived after dark, already imagining the trek into the Boundary Waters the next morning and dreamed that night of smooth trails and starry nights camping on the lake. We were stoked! The next morning we woke up to the worst sound a winter camper can hear: raindrops on the roof and the drip drip drip of melting snow and ice all around the cabin. We had been so excited to introduce this friend to the joys of winter camping. We were so disappointed as we looked out at the gray rainy mess outside. We headed back to our own cabin and I remember spending the weekend reading a John Grisham novel. Not a bad way to spend a rainy winter weekend, but a poor second compared to the trip we had planned.

What makes for an easy winter for one creature makes for a hard winter for another. The weather affects the animals and birds of the boreal forest too, of course. The snowpack is so minimal that I wonder if the mice, voles and shrews have a hard time just staying alive even with the mild temperatures. Those smaller mammals depend on the subnivean zone — the area between the snow and the ground, to keep them warm and to search for food in relative safety. That zone is minimal to non-existent this winter. Most of these little animals don’t hibernate, but use various winter coping strategies, like the shrew, which shrinks itself in preparation for cold weather — even its brain and skull gets smaller, by about 20-30 per cent, so it won’t need as much energy to survive the winter.

I imagine that birds make out the best in a winter like this: they’re not losing the calories that they would if it were twenty below zero and food is still relatively easy to find with the meager snowpack. But there is the fact that, like the small mammals, they can’t always hide from their predators, especially the silent hunter, the owl.

Even with a deep snowpack, an owl can find its prey using its extraordinary hearing ability. Owls’ faces are formed in a kind of dish shape, which acts like an antenna. A barred owl’s right ear is higher than its left ear. Hearing from two different angles helps owls pinpoint the location of prey.

February marks the beginning of the mating season for some owls. During the coldest months of the year, owls are nesting and mating. They choose nests — they don’t build their own — usually an abandoned cavity originally made by a Northern Flicker or Pileated Woodpecker. Once the right nest is selected, and a successful mating achieved, the eggs are laid. If all goes well, they will hatch 28 to 33 days later. Their young will arrive just in time for the spring arrival of bird and rodent babies and then their hunting lessons begin, with owl parents demonstrating their hunting techniques and bringing live prey to the babies.

We mostly hear Barred Owls this time of year on the Trail. I’ve heard saw-whet owls mainly in the warmer months and I spent a wonderful night in a camper near Duluth listening to two Great Horned Owls calling to one another for hours. The most mysterious owl up here, the Boreal Owl, remains elusive to my efforts to hear or spot one. One early spring night, I thought I heard a Boreal Owl, and went out at dusk, following the sound to a cleared area near some tall pines. What I saw there in the gloaming was no owl, but a winnowing woodcock, flying high into the air above the pines then spiraling back to earth making its eerie mating sound with its wing feathers. The calls of the two birds are somewhat alike, and believe me experiencing the woodcock’s flight (and later finding one on its nest) was a true thrill, but I hope for the day it’s really the tiny Boreal Owl that I find at the end of my search.


~  Marcia Roepke