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Trail Time

Trail Time – Marcia Roepke

This morning the loons were singing a beautiful chorus of multiple voices. There’s no better sound than this for bringing to mind some of the Boundary Waters trips I’ve been on —creating in my mind a collage of images and memories of different lakes, portages and, of course, all kinds of weather and challenges.

We have our favorite canoe routes. And sometimes it’s just impossible to get permits for the first choice. But a few trips where the weather or the route were less than perfect have become some of the most vividly memorable. Today I’m thinking of one canoe trip that became what my younger daughter called “a miracle a minute” day.

It was late in the day and the weather was hot when my daughter, my husband and I got to our first campsite. The lake had a simple shoreline that held few secrets and I was feeling quite underwhelmed by the aesthetics of the place. My husband, Lars the Maker, quickly made the campsite more appealing. He has that knack. No sooner had we got settled than the sky began to grow dark. The rain tapped on our tarp as we huddled underneath, slapping mosquitoes and watching the rain and the lake.

After a while, a beaver swam by. Then as the rain eased, a mayfly hatch began. We sat in awe as hundreds of mayflies wafted up before our eyes — they were like gossamer fairies dancing in the air. A rainbow appeared in the sky above the lake, framed by the trees on either side of our landing area. A turtle emerged out of the water, waddled up to a sandy patch near us, started digging and then laying her eggs. I am not making this up. Truly it was a “miracle a minute” kind of day. And it happened with a second choice route on an “uninteresting” lake.

Our miracles are generally more of the one-a-day kind here on the Gunflint Trail. Yesterday a family of three ospreys flew overhead while the youngster appealed to the parents to … to what? Slow down? Speed up? Catch dinner? Maybe the young osprey was expressing newfound joy and surprise at being airborne. Maybe, like me, they couldn’t help expressing their feelings through their voices.

One day I discovered a woodcock (or would it be a wood hen?) sitting on a nest while I was searching for the white pine saplings we had planted the year before. For a millisecond I thought I had spotted a snake, but I quickly recovered and just stood there quietly, gazing at this odd-looking bird. I suppose it was the three dark stripes on the back of the head that had alarmed me in some primitive part of my brain.

Woodcocks have a roundish body with legs set far back that give them a curious walking gait. A long bill with a flexible tip probes underground for worms and grubs. In the spring, we hear their distinctive “winnowing” sound almost nightly during the darker side of dusk. The male woodcocks fly up above meadows and then dive toward earth, making a distinctive sound with their specialized wing feathers. The first time I heard it I wondered (or hoped) if it could be the sound of a boreal owl, which I have never encountered. We walked up the hill and saw their shadowy shapes flying above the brushy tree line, the sky almost too dark to make them out. And there it was: Another miracle flying toward earth, right here on the Gunflint Trail.

When I first started coming to the Gunflint Trail thirty plus years ago, I saw it as an entry point to wilderness, an escape from city life and work pressures, and a way to connect to the part of me that thrived in solitude, quiet and nature. Over time, I came to know a few people at the resorts and outfitters. It’s only since I’ve lived here full-time that I’ve realized that there are a lot more people here than I ever imagined when I was a visitor. The year-round human population swells in the summer with cabin owners, guests at lodges and of course, campers in the Boundary Waters and campgrounds. In this season of hot, dry weather, all of us have to think of fire danger.

The smoke from multiple forest fires in Ontario is gives us stunning sunrises and sunsets but reminds us daily of the very real danger that exists here. As of July 10, campfires are banned throughout the Boundary Waters. Campers are allowed to use fuel stoves for cooking. Multiple lakes and two entry points have been closed due to forest fires in the Ely area. For campers outside the Boundary Waters, campfire updates can be found at Superior National Forest home page.

The Gunflint Fire District is served by the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department (GTVFD). It includes EMTs, EMRs and firefighters in the member roster. These amazing folks volunteer to respond to structure and wildland fires, medical emergencies and search and rescue calls. Learn more about this vital service and emergency preparedness at