Trail Time

Trail Time – Marcia Roepke

Hi. I’m Marcia Roepke and I live on the Gunflint Trail. Recently, Fred Smith ended his eleven years of reporting from the Trail and I’ll be continuing in his rather large footprints to bring you a little flavor of the Gunflint Trail wherever you might be.

I asked Fred what the biggest change was in his 22 years. He said that with the exception of the Ham Lake Fire of 2007, the biggest change was the creation of the Gunflint Trail Historical Society and the opening of Chik Wauk Museum and Nature Center in 2005. Chik Wauk is dedicated to the preservation of the cultural and natural histories of the Gunflint Trail and has a variety of exhibits and events, as well as volunteer opportunities, throughout the summer.
This summer is shaping up to be one of the lushest and greenest of recent memory. A dry spring gave way to a series of rainfalls that lowered the fire danger to moderate. Earlier this week, however, I saw that the fire danger had been set to high once again. So everyone: residents, visitors and campers need to be extremely careful with fires where and when they are allowed.

Now that we are past midsummer, the anemones and trilliums and other spring flowers have disappeared, but the daisies, fireweed, buttercup and lupines are blooming in abundance with the recent rains. Soon some of our native orchids will be poking their heads above the soil in their secret places. The tiny flowers of the hazelnut shrubs have now yielded a promising future supply of nuts for red squirrels and bears to feast on this fall. Good luck beating the squirrels and chipmunks to the hazelnuts when they are ready to pick! The animals seem to know to the second when harvest time is here and they almost always beat me to it. No hard feelings, though, since the beaked hazelnuts that grow in our area are covered with tiny prickly hairs that burrow into human skin and itch like crazy. They require a lot of work before we humans can eat them.

Chokecherry, pin cherry and raspberry bushes are loaded with early green fruit. I noticed lots of wild strawberries in flower early this summer but I totally missed that harvest. As for blueberries, the word is still out on whether this will be a good blueberry year. A late frost nipped the blossoming plants in some areas. Hopefully there are pockets of good fruit that will yield that prizewinning blueberry in time for The Gunflint Trail’s Biggest Blueberry Contest. See if you can beat the bears to that big one!

We haven’t spotted much moose lately, but we see their signs, especially the young birch trees that they break down to get to the tender tips of the branches.

There are some smaller creatures that have been fascinating me this year: The first is the Hummingbird Clearwing, a sphinx moth, that I watched hover around the blossoms of a wild apple tree earlier this spring. This beautiful insect is easily mistaken for a hummingbird from a distance. It moves a little more slowly and delicately than its little namesake bird. It has a long proboscis that curls under its chin and unfurls to sip the nectar from the blossoms.
The second creature is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. They appear so very early in the year that I wonder what they find to eat besides the nectar available at hummingbird feeders that hang by cabins up and down the Trail.
I’ve been privy to the hummingbird’s mating dance quite often this year. The male flies in a surprisingly large swooping half-circle, buzzing at the tip of the arc, trilling at the low point, over and over again. I’ve even seen the female sometimes sitting demurely on the ground, sometimes perched in a nearby chokecherry bush, during this display. I wonder if the hummingbird is communicating more than “Pick me – I’m the best” for the male’s part or “Convince me” for the female’s? Last week my neighbor Don the Duffer shared the results of a study of prairie dog communication. After biologists had recorded events and chirps, the data was analyzed. The findings indicated that the animals had communicated in far greater detail than was previously thought. Not only were they warning of “predator approaching,” they were also sharing information such as “coyote coming!” or “tall human in yellow shirt approaching from the north!”

So I wondered while observing the hummingbirds, what else could he be saying to his lady love? Is there poetry in a hummingbird’s communication? I certainly see poetry in their movements. I think there’s poetry everywhere in the woods and waters of the northland; poetry and abundance. There’s an abundance of space and solitude as well as plenty of neighborliness here, where time seems to slow down and expand, here on the Gunflint Trail.
You can learn more about Chik Wauk Nature Center at gunflinthistory.org and about the Biggest Blueberry on the Gunflint Trail at visitcookcounty.com.