Trail Time

Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

We had quite a snowfall last week on the Gunflint Trail. Loon Lake had about 12-15 inches on the ground by the time the snow stopped blowing. The temperature clocked in 15 below zero the day following the storm. The gusting wind created drifts in some places and windswept bare spots in others. I usually notice deeper snow mid-trail around Poplar Lake and this storm was no different. I imagine the Laurentian Divide has something to do with the differing snowfalls along the Trail, but I have zero science about that to share today. I’ll get back to you on that topic.

It’s been steadily warming up since the latest storm. Yesterday the thermometer hit 36 degrees above zero and today it might reach 48 degrees! It’s drippy and misty; the far shore of the lake is obscured by fog. I love the mystery of it – it feels like the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes story, but I am not looking forward to the ice that will certainly cover every surface when the weather turns cold again in a few days. God bless the inventor of micro-spikes! With them strapped onto our boots, we can conquer most icy patches without fear of falling.

In between our winter snowstorms I am seeing a lot of birch seeds scattered over the snow. The little brown fleur-de-lis and the winged nutlets make a delicate pattern across the white micro landscape between my snow boots. Whenever I notice seed showers throughout the winter it makes me think about what a marvelously designed delivery system of moisture, nutrients and seeds layered over the earth. When the snow melts, the water moistens the soil as it releases nitrogen and other minerals to feed these tiny seeds.

I heard from neighbors up and down the Trail this week about ice status on a few lakes. Loon Lake still has open water, and as we’re heading into colder weather this weekend, there might be some fine wild ice for skating next week if a snowfall doesn’t gum it up. Shar from Gunflint Lake tells me that she can see just a little bit of shore ice right now. As it is such a big lake, it is one of the last to freeze over. The east bay of Poplar Lake had over 7 inches of solid ice under 8 inches of snow, soft ice and slush – at least it did before this latest warmup. Tucker Lake Annie reports that they had some lovely skating on Poplar Lake during the first week of December. They were skating over 6-8 inches of ice and heard “gentle mumbling and rumbling as the sheet thickened.” Ann of Little Iron reported the same. Dave at Clearwater Lake said that it froze “in a snap” last week. By December 6, Rene observed that Seagull Lake had iced over with two to three inches of snow covering slush lines. Sadly, no black ice this year for Seagull. (And what a wonderful few days of skating we had last year on Seagull! There was such a happy crowd of skaters taking off from Blankenburg Beach; the sun was shining, and in those pre-vaccination days, it was one of the jolliest social events of the year.)

We don’t have any skaters flocking to our lake this year, and a good thing, too, because the ice is not safe yet. But we do have winter birds flocking to our feeders. We see the usual crowd of Nuthatches, Chickadees, and Blue and Canada jays. The Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are enjoying the suet cakes, too.

We received several visits from some Evening Grosbeaks this week. Their colors appear tropical compared to the other winter birds. The males sport a beautiful combination of mustard yellow, jet black and the whitest of whites. The females wear a more sedate wardrobe, but it is all understated elegance. Unlike the Pine Grosbeaks, they are very wary birds, constantly checking their surroundings and flitting off quickly at the smallest disturbance. Their huge bills look so oversized they must make very efficient seed- and nut-crackers. When they fly in a flock they are happiness on wings.

Yesterday a loud sound stopped me in my tracks. There was a black and white woodpecker flitting between a fir and a birch tree making an unusually strident call. For a moment I thought it might be a Black-backed Woodpecker but a quick trip indoors to check my bird books and bird app stilled my enthusiastic rush. Apparently Black-backed Woodpeckers are common here, in the southernmost part of their territory, but, alas, the markings and the song of the bird by my cabin were wrong for that species. It was most likely a female Hairy Woodpecker. I am convinced I saw and heard the black-backed variety on a Boundary Waters trip with Lars years ago. We had just paddled into a small, enclosed bay, and the “Pik!” of the call sounded nearly electronic as it echoed off the water and the steep wooded hills around us. We spotted the distinctive bird right in front of us, midway up a tree beside the bay. The evening was still, the water smooth and the bird’s call filled the air. I think it filled me that day, too, because a little of that song is in me still; a song from summer that plays on inside me while outside is the silence of winter.

This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail, where simply living is a winter sport.