Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

This summer on the Gunflint Trail has been kind of like an everything bagel: it’s been cool, rainy, hot, and humid and everything in between. And the thunderstorms have been epic. One night I was inside staring out at the darkness; at the massive flashes of lightning; at the tiny sparks of fireflies. I jumped at every boom of thunder (that was close!) and slowly relaxed as the sound of heavy rain drummed on the metal roof. This latest storm was preceded by a little heat wave and that’s been the pattern this season: a week or so of temperatures gradually getting higher then rain following after, cooling everything down. This contrasts starkly with last year’s epic dryness and threat of wildfire. Believe me when I say that we are so happy not to be running the sprinkler system every few days and not to be in pre-evacuation mode! 

The rainfall this year has resulted in such bounty everywhere I look. Every plant is green and lush. The growth of young trees has been phenomenal. The ferns are as high as my shoulders. Last week we ate three kinds of hand-picked wild berries: strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. There’s even been a bumper crop from my salad garden and we had the luxury of dining on fresh-caught rainbow trout. Thanks for teaching Lars about the Lindy rig, Bruce and Teresa! I love summer.

Lars and I have been spending a lot of time on the water. Earlier in the spring, we paddled over to check on the osprey nest across the lake, but it didn’t look like there are nesting birds there this year. Some of our best sightings happen when we are not looking for them: I was standing at our dock one day last week, watching Lars fishing in the blue canoe when a pair of otters swam between me and the boat. As they swam by, they kept rotating in the water: first to look at me on the dock, then twisting around to look at the canoe; then turned around to me, then the canoe. They were doing a sort of a lively corkscrew swimming technique without slowing down. They are amazingly talented swimmers. They were a very healthy size, too: I was glad I wasnt swimming at that moment. 

Another day I was getting set for a solo paddle when a loon popped up out of the water close to the dock. I paused in my preparations so I could stand still and watch that strange and lovely waterbird. I was rewarded by seeing it dive and then swim underwater toward me. That image has stayed in my mind, reminding me of a Japanese woodcut. It always feels like such a privilege to witness something like that, like I’ve won a prize for something.

We’ve been hearing a black-billed cuckoo around here for a few weeks. Sometimes we hear it in the morning, sometimes in the evenings; sometimes by the lake; sometimes up on the cliff. It has a very distinctive call of three notes. We’ve heard it now many times but we have yet to see it. That honor went to Don the Duffer, who spotted the unusual bird sitting in a tree at his place. It’s a very plainly colored bird with a brown back and a white underside, but it has unique features: a long tail and a long black beak, and their eyes are ringed with red. When singing, their throats puff out.

In search of that bird, local nature guru Teresa Marrone joined me in a bird walk last week. She brought her camera in case we spotted it, and though we heard a lot of birds (white-throated sparrows, chestnut-sided warblers, and young ravens among others), no black-billed cuckoos were heard or spotted. Teresa is an accomplished photographer of birds and nature and she has taken some breathtaking night-sky photos. She is an author of many books, ranging from prepping and cooking wild game, drying food and foraging, as well as photographic guides for identifying berries and mushrooms. In short, she’s a great person to be with on a walk through the woods. She had this advice for us rookies about finding and identifying birds: 

“Birds forage on the bugs along the banks [of bodies of water]. They also often build their nests on the trees right next to the water because there’s a lot of bugs there for them to feed their young. I’ve noticed this with ruby-crowned kinglets and many other birds. Kinglets are often there.”

I asked her about other hearings and sightings of the black-billed cuckoo and she said she’s seen pictures. “That’s why I know for sure that it’s here. I mean, the sound that it makes — its call —  is so distinct that I don’t think you’d mess it up with something else. But with a lot of birds, they make so many different sounds that just identifying them from audibles is really hard to do. You have to be really sharp. But with that black-billed cuckoo, his sound is very particular.”

Teresa will be giving a presentation on August 21 on the Secret Lives of Mushrooms at Chik Wauk Museum and Nature Center. They’ve got a lot of events and presentations planned for this summer, and every Tuesday is Kids’ Day. 

~ Marcia Roepke