Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time – Spring on the Gunflint Trail

Anybody that’s familiar with driving conditions on the Gunflint Trail knows to be on the lookout for animals year-round. This is the time of year when we all need to watch for some other big obstacles: bumps in the roadway itself. That is especially true right now. The road crew flagged the worst spots where frost heaves have corrugated the road, and there is a spectacular trough on the southbound lane by Trout Lake that is a doozy. Road repairs can happen when winter quits. Then the crew can assess what’s going on under the pavement. So, everybody, please be watchful and slow down when you see a flag.

I was driving past a big marsh a few weeks ago when I spotted a few cars pulled over to the side. There was a huge bald eagle perched on top of a beaver lodge in the middle of the marsh. An otter was running away from the lodge and towards the road, much to the joy of us humans. As it ran, the otter disappeared behind a mound of snow-covered cattails and then reappeared as it made its brisk way up and over the next mound — always moving away from the eagle. It ran parallel to the road for a while and then under some jack pines, then made a right angle turn and headed straight for me, running right under my car, then into the woods behind me. I turned back toward the lodge to see the eagle slowly taking off, its large wings moving in steady rhythm, rising at an angle into the sky like a jet plane.

This everlasting winter goes on and on and is wearing down even the most cheerful souls. The sight of a snow bunting starting up from the ground brings me a ridiculous rush of happiness that is out of all sane proportion. Any sign of life is welcome in this winter landscape and the buntings are such beautiful birds. I think it’s the color scheme of white, black and tawny chestnut that gives them that air of understated elegance. They will be gone in a flash when the first signs of spring appear. In some places these small birds are called Snowflakes. When they fly together, they are not so much a flock as a flurry. And much to my delight, this week I learned that a flock of Snow Buntings is called a drift.

The shrubs and trees are showing signs of spring, though a bit grudgingly. I thought the pussywillows had stalled after they started to bud a month ago, and they didn’t advance much further until last week. Now the emerging pussywillows are hard to tell from the puffs of snow perched on the branches. The willows don’t lie: spring is coming when you see their tiny fuzzy faces peeping out from their little hoodies. The willows don’t lie, but it is becoming harder to trust them completely. It’s snowing as I write and it looks like we’re due for another 6-9 inches of snow today. The dogwood is biding its time, standing in its branchy red splendor next to a granite boulder. I can see where a moose munched the tips of the dogwood branches on the highest stems. Lower still, the rabbits have done their own pruning. There are several young birches that have been pulled over, the top breaking off at about 6 to 8 feet up. The moose are partial to those tender birch tips. I read somewhere that the buds taste like wintergreen. Upon sampling, I did not agree.

The plant I watch most carefully this time of year is the hazelnut, our native boreal beaked hazel, Corylus cornuta. It is such an unassuming shrub, with stick-like gray branches. The first time Lars and I toured our land, we sat down in a sunny spot and noticed hazelnut shells littering the ground. “I wonder where the hazelnut trees are,” I said. Duh. They are everywhere. They were all around where we sat on that sunny spring day. It took my eyes a long time to distinguish the hazel from the alder and longer still to track the minute seasonal changes of this important shrub. In the spring, the male catkins are easier to spot than the female flowers, which are tiny and thread-like, looking like a bright red version of the spice we know as saffron. The nuts themselves are sheathed in a green casing that mimics the look of young leaves: this plant has great camouflage. It just amazes me that this small, nondescript shrub with its tiny flowers grows enough food to feed the forest, from rodents to birds to moose and bear. The pollen from the male catkins feeds the insects, the insects feed the birds, the growing nuts hide in their protective casing until ripe, when the squirrels and larger mammals swoop in and clean them out. That is a big job for a little shrub. The preparation for that job is happening — and has been happening — unseen by us. Remember, hope is the belief of things unseen. Soon, the catkins will form, the flowers will blossom, the insects will fly, the ice will leave the lake. We will sit by our campfires, listen to the loon and be glad in this new, fresh part of the year.

This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail