Marcia Roepke
Trail Time

Trail Time

We’ve had an unwelcome guest for a few weeks here at our place on the Gunflint Trail. COVID finally caught us, and we settled in to care for each other the best we could. I am so grateful we received such good medical care at Sawtooth Mountain Clinic, which made for a very different story than one that might have been told two or three years ago. Lars and I isolated. I didn’t see a human besides him for a while. Of course, it’s very easy to isolate here, and our faraway family and friends buoyed us with prayers and good humor and our close-by neighbor and good friend KC the Sunshine Gal delivered groceries and beer.

It’s amazing what you can see when you’re stuck inside for a while in a place where vast nature is just outside the door. We had a wolf visit on what I will forever call “Superwolf Sunday.” It was a large, beautiful, long-legged wolf that walked unhurriedly down our drive. Inside the cabin, our dog Ursa went ballistic. The wolf stopped about 10 feet from our door, and gazed steadily through the glass panes as Ursa exploded in sound and fury, barking and jumping like she was trying to climb through the door. She made noises I’ve never heard before, a kind of groaning and a high-pitched singing sound. Neither our movement inside the cabin nor the dog’s racket had any effect on the wolf. It just stood there, staring at us through the glass. It reacted when Lars opened the door. It turned, still not alarmed, and trotted up the hill, away from us, glancing back over its shoulder a few times. I held on to Ursa’s collar, calming and steadying her while Lars went out to do some scaring away. Although I think “scaring” isn’t the right word. It’s more like urging to move elsewhere: “move along now, nothing to see here, keep moving,” like a beat cop.

A lot of our neighbors have reported multiple wolf sightings recently. I’ve seen them before, of course, but never this close, although we have seen wolf tracks meandering through our homestead and both tracks and wolf scat nearby. It’s just part of life here. My main concern is for the safety of my dog.

And winter goes on. It’s a gorgeous and very cold day today; but that is the pattern, isn’t it? Warmer temps mean cloudiness and the cold brings us the sun and blue sky. On sunny mornings, I watch the sun rise behind a wooded palisade to the northeast. The long deep blue shadow stretches across the length of the lake at first light, then shrinks surprisingly quickly as the sun rises.

The colder temps make the snowpack firmer, which must make it easier for wolves and other animals to travel through the woods. When the snow is soft, plowed roads and groomed trails make for better travel. I know it’s great snowmobile weather right now. The trail conditions are really good. There was a thaw and rain, which hardened the surface but we’ve had at least three snowfalls on top of that. I know when it’s good snowmobiling weather when the woods resound with the noise of a lot of angry hornets. As soon as I can, I’ll be strapping on my snowshoes and taking off in the other direction, away from the noise deeper into the woods, practicing the lessons I learned from my winter camping years. Learning to live in the cold clarifies my purpose: to survive and thrive. Winter sometimes calls for counter-intuitive responses. I love how Blair Braverman wrote about this in her book: “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North.” She lived in Norway and Alaska, learning how to drive sled dogs and work as a tour guide. She wrote:

“I was often acutely frightened—of a sharp turn in the trail, of a tricky river crossing, during storms—and I lived, too, with a deeper fear: that the winter was only starting, that I had so many minutes and hours and days of cold and risk and potential injury. But it was refreshing to be afraid of something concrete. I was no longer scared of some unknown force, of confusion; no, I was afraid of hypothermia. I was afraid of being stranded in the wilderness. I was afraid of crashing the sled… but suddenly that fear didn’t make me crazy: it made me brave.

“Of course, there was the matter of keeping warm. But after months of winter, even cold was easily solved. To live in cold, I had only to internalize its counterintuitive rules: When my body wanted to clench, I had to force it open. Swing my arms when I wanted to pull them in. Jump when I wanted to sit. Pee when I would rather stay clothed. Change into dry long underwear even when the air bit my bare limbs. Cold was the mind’s distraction and the body’s one demand.

Of course I was scared. But at least I was scared of dangers of my own choosing. At least there was joy that came with it.”

~ Marcia Roepke,on the Gunflint Trail