Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time – Moonlit Winter Nights

The cold weather moved in at the end of January and with it came crystal blue skies by day and some of the most beautiful nights of this winter. On a few windless days, the chickadees sang their two-note spring song into the bright crystalline air. For that moment, the tiny birds were the loudest thing in my neighborhood.

This year’s running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Race Marathon was held last weekend, gliding up and down the North Shore and the Gunflint Trail. The race started in Duluth and ended in Grand Portage. Keith Aili and his team of mostly inexperienced huskies was declared the winner, with Ryan Anderson and his dogs coming in second. Musher Sarah Keefer and her team came in third. We had the pleasure of watching the number one and number two teams glide by one night.

It was the second day of the race. Lars and I and a couple of lovely neighbors walked down a path to the Gunflint Snowmobile Trail, which serves as a trail for sled dog races as well. (Our dog Ursa stayed at home; it’s a bad idea to bring your pets to a sled dog race, since they can serve as distractions and/or be viewed as prey by the sled dogs). It was cold — about 10 below and sinking toward the night’s low of 25 below — but a waxing half moon glowed silver in the darkening sky and three planets shone around it like diamonds. Later we saw Orion’s belt and the Big Dipper. But first, while we waited for the dog teams to glide by, we jogged, danced, and shadow boxed to stay warm. Standing still is of course the best guarantee of feeling the cold when it’s frigid weather. It’s best to stay moving to minimize discomfort (and isn’t that a pleasing definition of winter — a time when we maximize comfort and minimize discomfort?)

On the night of the race, with deep snow blanketing the earth, and the moon shining in the big dark dome of the sky above us, it was one of those quintessentially bright winter nights. I still recall the first winter night I saw the moon cast shadows on the snowy ground. I was young. I was entranced. Flashlights are not necessary on those nights.

The darkest nights are winter nights that are moonless with snow falling. Darkness takes on a different quality then — you can feel it, like thick wool felt that muffles sight and sound. I recall one dark winter night last year when I let my dog Ursa take me for a walk. I held onto her collar and she led me out into the dark, away from our domestic lights — she was my eyes and ears. It was a thrilling and quite possibly a stupid thing to do. I loved it.

While we humans dress for warmth, and must move to stay warm in this cold weather, under the snow there are animals living their secret lives at a much warmer temperature. I’m talking about the mysterious realm of the subnivean, where voles and other small non-hibernating mammals spend the winter. The busy little creatures make chambers and tunnels that link them to nearby food sources, like seeds. On years like this one, a thick blanket of snow insulates the ground, keeping it around 32 degrees above zero. Voles line their tiny dens with grass, where they share their warmth with neighbors. And hide from the weasels.

It’s fun to contemplate that hidden life of the creatures below as we walk over their heads, our boots squeaking on the cold dry snow. Yesterday, I nearly stepped on a vole as it raced across the path ahead of me to grab bird seed then quickly duck down a tiny hole beside my boot.

On these brilliant winter days, the moon is a quiet presence as it silently crosses the cloudless blue sky. The blue of the sky reflected in the craters of the moon make it appear translucent, like it is made out of tissue paper. The moon has many faces and in this beautiful boreal forest, we have the great good fortune to see them, thanks to our dark sky and clean air.

By “we,” I don’t mean just everyone who lives here but all of you who have been here and remember your experiences in the north woods and all of you who dream of one day visiting this special place. You may be dreaming about your next trip, or that big fish, or a favorite spot in grandpa’s cabin, or your first Boundary Waters trip. Or your last. We hold these things in our hearts and minds: the clean plentiful water; the animals and birds; the boreal woods; the dark sky; the big silence. As we waited for the dogs that cold moonlit night of the race; as we waited in the dark that’s not dark, and stared at the stars, I was filled with a feeling of wonder and deep gratitude for this beautiful place, for the silence, for the dark, for good company and stalwart dogs and mushers. And the moon.


~ Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail