Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail
As I write this I’m sitting indoors in a cozy spot looking out at the darkening sky. Snow is forecast tonight for the Gunflint Trail, and although I always think I’m ready for it, the changes that come with winter surprise me each year. I watch the skim of ice come and go on the smaller lakes and rivers as the cold weather ebbs and flows. And when the ice comes to stay, it’s accompanied by the winter song of the lakes as they groan and moan and roar and snap and make Star Wars light saber noises.
This time of year also brings back a lot of birds we haven’t seen since spring, chief among them being the juncos and snow buntings. I love it that the buntings leave their summer breeding grounds and fly to a warmer place to spend the winter – here! They breed in the far arctic tundra, with some birds traveling all the way to Greenland. While here they mainly eat seeds from grasses and weeds. I spot them each winter in their little flocks by the side of the road, flying up as cars approach, but yesterday was a special day. A bunting went for a walk with me. The little bird caught my attention when it was foraging in the dry leaves on the side of the gravel road. At first I only detected movement out of the corner of my eye. I had to stare for a while to finally discern the shape of a bird. It was so well-camouflaged, at first I thought it was a mouse or vole. It fluttered away, then landed and trotted up the road ahead of me with the staccato gait of a sandpiper. Whenever I walked too near, it flew further ahead, though sometimes it let me get surprisingly close. They are very beautiful birds with the subtlest of colorings: tawny browns, charcoal and palest white in this, their non-breeding season. The spots on their heads and cheeks are almost cinnamon colored. As soon as the bird’s back was toward me, its shape was invisible against the brown leaves and gravel, but then the bunting took wing, and there – right before it landed, was that telltale flash of white wing patches that merge into the white tail markings. And then – bip!— when it landed, it would nearly disappear again. I think it walked with me for a quarter of a mile or more. I never thought a snow bunting would be such an excellent walking companion.
We haven’t seen any signs of bears lately, so we put up one of our birdfeeders. I love birdfeeder season, aka winter, but if we hear of any bears in the area, we’ll remove feeders until the coast is clear. The chickadees found our feeder fast, and then the blue jays moved in, helping themselves to an astonishing amount of seed in one day. I spotted just one nuthatch in among the chickadees. When the snow is on the ground and we get another feeder up, this one with suet as well as seed, I expect to see a greater variety of birds. Last year we saw a Northern Shrike scoping out the activity at the feeder. I’d never seen one before. I know they deserve to eat as much as the little songbirds do, but the sight of one was like a bad character showing up at a party. Its arrival threw a pall over the joy of the gathering.
The birds are both great company and entertainment during this quiet time of the year. And the woods are so very quiet, even though it is deer hunting season. We don’t see many deer up here – we spot maybe one or two a year. But there was a spectacular deer kill on the frozen lake a few winters ago. Very little was left; most of it had been eaten and a few remaining bones were scattered around. A perfect outline of the deer had melted into the ice on the lake. In the deer-shaped silhouette, you could even see where the hair tufted out from the ears. There were prints all around from wolves, foxes and ravens. Kind of gruesome I guess but fascinating all the same.
We see far more foxes than wolves in the winter but we do see a fair amount of wolf tracks and scat when we’re out walking the backroads and trails. Last year we were getting regular visits at our cabin from a cross fox – they’re the same species as red foxes but have different coloring, appearing darker and grayer than red foxes. They have black legs and faces and a dark stripe running down the back and tail and another dark stripe across the shoulders. At first sighting I thought it was a gray fox, but my local wildlife expert, Levi the All-Knowing, set me straight with an excellent lecture on how to tell the difference.
Another species I love to spot in wintertime is actually a small evergreen fern: Common Polypody, also called rock fern or rock cap fern. It grows from Greenland through Canada and the northern US. It thrives in cool, moist woods. Its leaves are sometimes quite rounded and it has spots on the backside of the leaves; those are the spore-bearing organs. It has a prominent central vein and sometimes brown scales on the lower part of the stem. I can see a nice big patch of it from my writing desk. It forms a natural vertical garden outside my window, growing on a rocky north-facing cliff, in the company of soft velvety mosses.
Last week the Gunflint Trail was the perfect place to watch Northern Lights. It was the most spectacular aurora borealis display of my life. I’ve never seen such massive rapidly moving sheets of colored light. Almost the entire sky was actively pulsing — you could even see it in the Southwest area of the sky. There were columns and pillars of light reaching to the heavens. The winter sky is one of the reasons I love it up here. We live with so much darkness during these winter months; it helps that occasionally we have the best seats to one of the best shows in the world.