Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

It has been very cold lately with wind chills of -40 and below up here on the Gunflint Trail. We had a sweet run of sunny days during the most recent cold spell, though, and when I’m on a south-sloping path and sheltered from the north wind, I enjoy our winter world on foot and snowshoe. We mostly keep our walks short and our wood stove going this time of year, especially after dark. And the life of the forest goes on even in the coldest and darkest winter nights. We can see the evidence of longer daylight hours now that the winter solstice has passed. More sun in the mornings and later sunsets keep us attuned to the promise of spring.

The bears are still in their winter hibernation. Now is the time of year when the bear cubs are born, while mother bear slumbers. I was sure one winter that I knew where a bear was denning. There was a big hole on the side of a hill that I had seen in the summer. That next winter, every time I visited, there was a small opening in the snow above that hole in the ground. It stayed open for months, though the snow drifted all around it. When I returned in the spring I inspected the area but I couldn’t see anything that, to my amateur’s eye, would indicate a bear had been hibernating there. Neither did I smell anything in particular, and that is one thing I’ve heard from people who know: a bear smells like a dog that needs a bath really bad. I’ve seen lots of bears, but I’ve never smelled one.

Bears are not the only northern creatures who have babies in winter. Some owls nest in January and late winter. The largest owl common to Minnesota, the Great Horned Owl, will begin nesting this month. The female develops a brood patch on her chest — an area free of feathers that helps transfer her body heat to the incubating eggs. She stays on the nest while the male hunts and brings her food. I imagine her sitting there, brooding, fluffing up her feathers to stay warm, eating small rodents whole and quietly regurgitating the hair and bones as owl pellets.

The owl I’ve seen most often is the Barred Owl. They lack the big ear tufts of the Great Horned Owl, and they have an amazing variety of vocalizations. It’s the Barred Owl that asks continually, “Who cooks for you?” Or, more often, “Who cooks for you all?” In a couple weeks I hope to hear the spring courtship calls of the Barred Owls. Their nesting time is usually late in February or March. Neither of these big owl species build their own nests, but rather they move into old squirrel or raven nests, a hollow tree or sometimes even on the ground at an abandoned den.

One spring night, while Lars and I were sitting around a campfire, an owl flew silently right over our heads and floated over the cabin roof. In a second it returned and, as silently as before, roosted in a tree right above Lars. I froze, and stared up at the tree, my eyes riveted on the bird. Lars sat as still as I was and mouthed the words “What the H— is that?” And then the owl stared straight at me, stretched out its wings to either side, bowed toward me and hissed! It then kinda fell out of the tree and flew away. I was so flummoxed, I couldn’t say what kind of owl it was, except that it was big. A few times I’ve seen owls launch from trees and it always looks like they fall a bit before they fly, a little like Buzz Lightyear. One day I saw crows mobbing and screaming at something in a tree and then it looked like a paper bag fell out of the tree, grew wings, and transformed into an owl as the crows chased it away. They just kind of … drop.

One of the best parts of this cold winter weather is the clear skies — especially at night. A few years ago, the Boundary Waters earned a title as one of 15 Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world. On the Gunflint Trail, we get one of the best views anywhere of the night sky. Grand Marais has hosted a Dark Sky Festival for the last three years. Next one is the second weekend in December for 2022, so add that to your calendars for next winter.

A few nights ago I walked with the dog out beyond the glow of our domestic lights and the night sky was clear and glorious. There was Orion, like an old friend doing a drive-by hello, wheeling through the heavens as the night passed. Then there was Ursa Major and Minor – the Big and Little Dippers. As for identifying any other stars, I need help. So every winter I download a night sky app on my cell phone and then promise myself that this is the year I’m going to memorize more constellations. Those star apps are pretty neat. You point your phone up to the sky and they’ll give you all the details you’d need to become a star expert. And I pretend, briefly, that I am an expert while the app is on. Alas, I just can’t seem to retain that kind of information in my brain. But I don’t need to name a star to recognize its beauty or to stare in wonder in the cold winter night, absolutely in awe of this unique view of our beautiful universe. On these clear starry nights the sky seems less like outer space — an emptiness — and more like a vast fullness, so filled with the stars and the Milky Way and the satellites steady in their orbits. And occasionally, the spectacular aurora borealis, our northern lights.

This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail