Trail Time

Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

We have had all kinds of weather on the Trail these past few weeks. It’s been cold and gray (in the 20s and below), it’s been sunny and warm (in the high 30s!) and yesterday we had a very memorable snowstorm. It had started the day before with a gray sky and several loud booming sounds. Lars and I didn’t know what the noise was; each time we heard it, one of us asked the other, “Did you hear that?” I kept checking the news, figuring that if something exploded certainly it would be reported. Or, I thought, maybe it was the noise of a dump truck bringing gravel up the Trail and the boom was the sound of it bouncing around, echoing off the lake and cliffs. It was a mystery. The next day there was a pretty little snowfall in the morning and then the wind started gusting, the snow started swirling, and I heard another boom. I think it was a thunder boom, which is what thunder in a snowstorm is called. The wind was gusting up to 45 mph; it was wild weather. And in the middle of it, I saw a flock of common redpolls cavorting straight into it. I felt their joy in the wild windy snowfall and it echoed inside me. If I could fly, I would have joined them.

We had planned an outdoor party for the day of the storm. We had several winter gatherings last year; grilling bratwursts and hot dogs over a fire; warming the sauna so people could use it as a warming house; drinking cocoa and mulled wine. It’s a great safe way for neighbors of all ages to be together during this pandemic. This year the younger neighbors’ play reminded us older folk that snow can be a toy and a playground. I don’t have many children around these days, and it lifted my heart to see how absolutely covered in snow a kid can get and still keep smiling from the joy of winter play.

We were throwing the party to celebrate Wolfenoot, a recently invented holiday. Three years ago a 7-year-old from New Zealand dreamed it up. He told his mom that the Spirit of the Wolf visits on November 23 and leaves small gifts around the house for people who love dogs and wolves and are kind to them. He said the holiday should be celebrated with the eating of meat and cake. I thought the wild weather was entirely appropriate for a day dedicated to the Wolf and the wolves who live with us, our companions, our dogs.

This year we celebrated Wolfenoot a few days early. We eat meat because that’s what wolves eat – some guests had a vegetarian version (after all, wolves eat blueberries, fish and grass as well as meat). We eat cake because that’s what 7-year-olds prefer above all other food. We celebrate both the wisdom of the wolf and the 7-year-old. We all trooped up a hill and ended the festivities by howling together into the swirling snow. And much later that night as I looked out a window, a waning moon lit the sparkling snow, making the night appear nearly as bright as day. It’s funny, people from other parts of the world often ask me, “How can you stand all that winter darkness?” Some nights I whisper my answer into the nocturnal landscape, “What darkness?”

We haven’t seen or heard of any wolves in our neighborhood recently, but we had a little canine visitor this week: a coyote. It stood under our bird feeder, chomping away happily on the fallen seeds. It didn’t see me. I made a small noise and it froze for a second, then started eating again. I made another noise as I was trying to take a picture and it padded away unhurriedly, its coloring a perfect match for blending into the snowy woods. I don’t see that many coyotes. I saw a young one along the Gunflint Trail a couple summers ago; and one year we got two pictures of an adult on our trail camera – going up a hill and then down again, this time with a snowshoe hare in its mouth. Up until then I hadn’t known they live this far north.

One of my favorite winter sightings is the northern flying squirrel, who also visits our feeder after dusk. I was walking toward our cabin one night when I saw what could have been a dead leaf or a bird’s nest in a birch tree, except I knew it was too big for a birch leaf and that nest wasn’t there yesterday! I stood still, the mystery object moved, and I could just make out the flying squirrel with its white underbelly, climbing quickly up the tree. Then it launched – thrillingly – right towards me! It headed my way for just a millisecond, four white legs and a head making a 5-pointed shape against the darkness, then it arched into a graceful 180-degree turn and sailed for a nearby fir, disappearing into the darkness. The precision of their flight always impresses me. The first time I saw one “fly” – glide, really – I mistook it for a Canada jay because of the similar way it seemed to be floating on the air. Then I thought, “It’s dark out. Canada jays don’t fly after dark.” And then I knew what I was seeing. I crept slowly and quietly over the snow to the birch where our feeder hangs, and there it was: with those strange big eyes and that lovely gray fur with white below. And then it scampered up the tree, jumped into the night sky, swooped toward a fir tree and was gone.

Flying squirrels, joyful redpolls, wildly swirling snow, good neighbors and the happiness of children in winter: these are some of the many things I am thankful for here on the Gunflint Trail.

If you’d like to learn more about Minnesota wolves, check out: https://www.voyageurswolfproject.org/