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Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time

Photo by Mark Luinenburg

May 27, 2022

What a joy it is to paddle this spring! I miss traveling in a canoe so much in the winter. It makes me happy to be floating on the (liquid) water once again. And it’s a good year for floating. The water level in lakes and streams is very high, though it has gone down a bit since the ice went all the way out. The waterfalls are roaring with the power of thousands of gallons of water rushing on its way to the sea. A few days ago, Lars and I visited Trail’s End campground. Standing on the banks under the tall white pines, we were awestruck by the level of noise and the sheer power of the water as it roared and foamed and crested and poured over the rocks on its way downstream. Elsewhere we clambered up and sat quietly on rocks high above the water. We saw peeled logs floating in a quiet bay — the remains of beaver dams or lodges destroyed by the high water. As the water eddied in a counter clockwise direction, the logs slowly circled the bay, almost making it into the faster current, but then getting pushed out of the mainstream and back to their same slow circular path.

We saw more beaver logs floating at our place. Last year beavers built a new lodge in between our dock and a neighbor’s. I was tickled to have a resident beaver family so convenient for observation. This spring it looks like the lodge is mostly underwater. I don’t know if it will get repaired, but I’ll keep watching.

I wonder if high water makes beavers happy. Does it make their job easier? Do beavers experience happiness? Maybe they know contentment — when they have high water, plenty to eat and the wolf isn’t literally at their door. The generous amount of rain and snowmelt this year is resulting in a beautiful green-up for our boreal forest and this benefits everything that lives in it. Every leaf, needle and blade is plump and glossy. In the evening, the low western light shining through the aspen buds makes them look like golden blossoms.

The ice went out on our lake a couple weeks ago. Well, most of it went out and an east wind sprung up, so we took advantage of that and the sunshine to pull our floating dock from the little bay where it winters.

Lars had built this newest dock at a neighbor’s place on top of the frozen lake a couple years ago. After the dock was built, spring came and the ice melted, the dock floated and then it was towed to our place. This year we paddled over to get it in our faithful old blue canoe. Our friend Kristi came with us, along with her 15-year-old chihuahua, Tobias, who was sporting a red plaid puffy vest that day. He’s tiny but game! After we got into the canoe, with Tobias duffing, we paddled down to the little bay, where Lars hopped on top of the floating dock. With Kristi paddling and Tobias supervising, I untied the dock from a tree, Lars lifted the anchors, hopped back into the canoe and we were off. The wind at our backs helped with the task. Kristi used her paddle to push floating islands of ice away from the canoe. The ice was full of holes but really heavy and several inches thick. After we had secured the dock to its summer home, we paddled down the shore to look at a freshet running into the lake. It appears every year, and generally dries out by the hottest part of summer. This spring it is about three times the size it was last year. The water was pouring down, chuckling as it ran over and around the rocks on its way down the wooded hillside. (And after a long hard winter, there is no better sound than running water) The pans of ice floating nearby moved slowly in the gentle current caused by the stream, and from the ice came a soft tinkling noise like tiny bells. I wondered if it was the sound of ice melting. The combination of sun on our backs, the tinkling ice and the sound of the rushing stream made for a sensory delight. It was a captivating moment.

Almost daily we’ve seen birds that we haven’t seen here before: the black and white warbler, the rose-breasted grosbeak, and the chestnut-sided warbler to name a few. Jon from Cross River reported that he and Rose had an unusual sighting last week: a male yellow-headed blackbird, which I’ve learned is mostly a plains bird, so he was far from his regular range.

We hear regular drumming from the woods these days as the grouse sends out his message of love. There’s one grouse that takes so long — often it sounds like someone playing a bass guitar really low and really slowly, taking so long in the buildup that the beat barely registers as sound. Then it gets just loud enough and I realize I’ve been listening to it for a long time and then I start thinking, “Hurry up! Get to the point!”

It’s so wonderful to have the loons back. We had seen them and heard them call while they were flying over the still-frozen lake, perhaps on a survey flight. It seemed as soon as the ice was gone, there was a pair of loons fishing, water-dancing and calling in the beautiful evening light.

Even before the loons came back, a male hummingbird showed up. I love watching him. So tidy. So exacting and precise in movements and expression — he reminds me of Mr. William Collins in Pride and Prejudice, but unlike the clergyman, the hummingbird is not obsequious in the least. He bows to no one. He dresses like a dandy in his sleek emerald green satin dress coat, his red throat like a bright ascot. Though he is dressed in fancy clothes, he is all business most of the time, his head rotating almost like a metronome, looking for insects, or maybe competitors, or his lady love? Soon we had more hummingbirds visiting our feeder and zipping around. Quite often I hear them well before I see them. I hear “bzzzz,” and my mind thinks “bug” then a split second later, it clicks: “a hummingbird!” I know I’m a few months too early, but I’m hoping we get a visit from a baby hummingbird this year like we did a few years ago. Our friend Mark was sitting around the campfire with Lars when a tiny baby hummingbird sat on the arm of his chair and looked up at him as if to say, “Are you my mommy?”

I wonder every year what the hummingbirds eat before nectar-producing plants are in bloom. All that energy requires fuel! This year I looked it up: they eat little insects. In fact, small insects and spiders might make up the bulk of a hummingbird’s diet. They take advantage of our feeders but do not rely on them. Today I watched a male hummingbird perch its little self on a jack pine bough and dart out and then back in to its perch multiple times. It sits on that branch often for his insect-catching. He has already started performing his mating dance — a parabola, really — swooping down and up, over and over, making little squeaky chirps as he swings back and forth. It looks kind of wacky to me, but he performs it like he does everything: with precision and gusto.

This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail