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Trail Time

“Trail Time” by Marcia Roepke highlights events and phenology on the Gunflint Trail.

Heard every other Friday on North Shore Morning

November 25, 2022
Trail Time – Winter is Here!

Winter is here and it came in not like a lamb but like a lion, first with an ice storm and then with about twenty inches of snow. It snowed for days. The trees, already heavy with ice, swayed in the wind, the branches hitting each other — clacking and tinkling as ice cracked. How cozy and sweet it was in our cabin warmed by the fire glowing in the wood stove’s glass window. We were heartened, too, by the knowledge that our woodshed was filled with split and dried birch logs. We had to drive to town on one of those very snowy days. It’s about an eighty-mile round trip for us. This time the drive felt longer because we had to go so slowly due to the icy conditions and the snow falling and drifting. As we headed south, the highway plow passed us heading north, spreading sand. I was glad to see that and glad my drive home would be easier. The only wildlife I saw that day was a Snowshoe hare pin-balling back and forth across the Trail, frantically trying to jump over the snowbanks on the side of the road. Finally the hare gave a mighty leap and I saw it in perfect profile sailing over a pile of snow. The hare had begun its winter transformation to an all-white pelt, but it still had darker hair on its upper parts.

 Some animals, like the hare, use protective coloring and some plants create layers of protection against the cold. I had noticed a while ago on one of my forest walks that the mountain ash buds were covered with a sticky resin. I have recently learned why. The resin is formed to protect the buds from winter’s cold and wind. That makes sense, but what I learned next was one of those astonishing nature facts: honeybees use the resin and mix it with their saliva to make propolis, which they use to repair their hive, but also to mummify wasps and mice that sneak into their hive. They sting the unwelcome critters to death and then embalm them in propolis. So wonderfully creepy! Ancient Egyptians used honey to embalm the bodies of their dead royalty. The sarcophagi were sometimes sealed with beeswax and jars of honey were left in the tomb, given as offerings. When King Tut’s tomb was opened, they found a 2,000 year old jar of honey.

 Like the animals and plants, we need protection against winters killing cold, too. We don layers of clothing to keep ourselves from freezing. Every year I have to experiment with the rapidly changing weather and re-learn how to dress, first for 50 degrees, then 40, then 30 and on down. I get it dialed in by the end of winter, and I apply my winter camping lessons:

 Dress like an onion. That means wear layers you can add or take off as needed.

 Cotton is rotten. Damp cotton next to the skin will keep you cool, so it’s great for summer, but rotten in winter. The biggest challenge when you’re active outside in winter is staying dry.

 Your head is a chimney. Wearing a hat will keep you warm. You lose a lot of heat through the skull.

 If I plan to be out in the woods for a while, I use my pockets or a pack to carry the clothes I shed and extra mittens, gloves and a hat in case something gets wet. I find that wool liners for boots make the best shoes going to and from a hot sauna. They cling to the snow just a bit — no slipping. One year at the first snow I thought it would be so much fun to go outside at night in my new all-leather moccasins. I went up the hill no problem, my toes digging and getting good traction in the new snow. I was just tickled at my silent footsteps and so proud of my cleverness. When I turned to go down the hill toward home— boom! I landed on my keister. The smooth leather soles gave me no purchase. It only took me two more falls to realize that the only way I was getting home safely was on my hands and knees. I crawled down that hill all the way to the cabin with my ego bruised more than my backside. It certainly gave me a new perspective.

 A red fox sought shelter from the winter storm under our big woodshed last week. It had a pretty cozy spot under there and was unfazed by human or canine presence. I’m not sure if it was the same fox with an injured leg that showed up on our doorstep last week. Inside the house my dog went bonkers, of course, and the startled fox tried to run straight up our cliff, floundering in the deep snow, then backsliding, then struggling some more. It took it a long time to get over the ridge. Lars had filled and hung our bird feeders a few days before, and I’m sure the fox was attracted by the food on the ground, and maybe the congregation of birds below as well.

 The bird feeders herald a new part of the year and it makes me so happy to watch the birds that come to feed. To our delight, we’ve seen pine grosbeaks along with the usual roster of chickadees, blue and gray jays, red-breasted nuthatches, and woodpeckers. A small band of goldfinches stopped by one day and we had a chilling appearance of a northern shrike once more. Man, do the birds disappear fast when the shrike shows up!

I am so thankful for the animals and the birds who liven up winter, and for the breathtaking beauty of the boreal forest wreathed in winter snows.

~  Marcia Roepke

November 10, 2022
Trail Time – Roller Coaster Weather on the Gunflint Trail

Up on the Gunflint Trail, we’ve had every kind of weather lately. Just a week ago it was shirt-sleeve temperatures and sunny skies. How strangely warm it was that November day as a friend and I went on a walk down a dirt road, meeting up with a couple of very friendly gray jays. I managed to fool the birds into landing on my hand by placing a tamarack cone on my palm, which they grabbed and then promptly rejected. Next time, I vowed to myself, I’ll put some birdseed in my pockets to give them some positive reinforcement for their friendly manner. Later that afternoon the warm weather started to turn cold. Big gusty winds blew high up in the sky as the temperatures fell. All around me I heard sparse raindrops hitting dry leaves, sounding like the footfalls of a slow and careful animal. I sat outside bundled up in a big wool blanket, watching the weather change. I heard a strange cry from an unfamiliar bird. The lake was like a mirror as the sun set. That night the first hard frost came. The snowfalls we’ve had since have all melted; the rain keeps up a nearly daily steady drizzle. This morning I could see what looked like fog or mist in the air, but I couldn’t see any precipitation. I turned my face to the sky and then I felt the tiny drops of moisture against my warm face.

Every day I see something new in this beautiful boreal woods. There’s always something that speaks to my heart. I wonder why nature speaks to our hearts? So many of us who love this place feel a very personal connection to the woods and water here in the North. Even if we don’t understand the why of it, isn’t a wonderful part of existence to be able to have this spontaneous inner response to our beloved northland? Near my cabin, there is a birch tree with a single yellow leaf. That little yellow leaf has hung on long after all the other leaves have fallen. I look at the little leaf and I think of the courage it takes to hang on. Then I think of stubbornness and my mind starts pondering the difference between the two — stubbornness and courage — all from gazing at a little yellow leaf.

I was sick and tired of a few things last week, so I tried my best to get lost in the woods. Of course, it was impossible to get lost where I was walking — there is a lake to the North and roads east, west and south. But I did manage to find a lovely grassy spot in the sun where I couldn’t hear construction noises. On the way to that spot, I’d been bushwhacking, but when I turned to go home, I discovered an animal path that made my journey back much easier. How wonderfully tiring it is to bash through thick woods. One must be very careful. As I hiked back, I was thinking what great company a dog is in the woods and how little help a dog would be if I were to slip and fall or turn an ankle.

This has been quite a year for grouse and nearly every day my dog flushes grouse by the cabin, in a meadow, down a road or in the woods. A couple days ago, a grouse landed in my favorite wild apple tree, then flapped to a higher perch in a birch tree, where it blended in perfectly to the coloration of the tree trunk. If I hadn’t watched it fly there, I would never have spotted it, even if I had walked right underneath.

Each week I wonder if the Loons have left yet, and then I’ve heard a solitary cry that reminds me they are still here, although they might be gone by now. They never give us a final goodbye like we get from our Trail friends who head south for the winter.

I was wondering about Loon communication, specifically: do they every misunderstand one another like humans do? For example, here’s a verbatim conversation between Lars and I as we prepared dinner one night:

“No, sweetheart, I said Venetians. Venetians — from Venice not Venusians from Venus.”

I imagined a misheard bird conversations. It might go something like this:

First loon: “Wooooo hooo! I’m in the bay!”

Second loon: “Hoot! You mean the bay down by the rock that always has a lot of fish?”

“No, the bay where the osprey nest used to be.”

“What osprey?”

“Hoot. You know, that osprey bird — looks kinda like a big seagull but somehow more elegant. I mean, nobody ever calls an osprey a garbage bird. I’m not saying seagulls are garbage birds but some people call them that.”

“Whooo? What?”

And I say, so long to our lovely loons! Have a great winter and we’ll see you in the spring.

~ Marcia Roepke

October 28, 2022
Fall Changes on the Gunflint Trail

It’s a cold breezy day, but I revel in this cool fall weather with the sun playing peek-a-boo. It’s been perfect for exploring the forest around us. Lately, I’ve been walking my dog in areas of the woods I’ve never been before and it has been absolutely magical seeing huge downed trees covered in moss. The footing can be really tricky, but I go slowly and carefully, regularly stopping to stare. I think I drive my faster-walking friends crazy. On really windy days, I avoid the parts of the forest with big standing dead birches. I’d be in trouble if one of those big ones came down. My first winter here I played a game called “find the maple trees.” My goal was to identify the maple trees in the fall when they had their leaves (easy) so I could pick them out in the winter when they were leafless (hard). There are much fewer maples and more aspen and birch where I live, unlike the thick stands of maple in the woods nearer town, at the beginning of the Trail.

 The Tamaracks have been positively glowing this fall. They are a showcase tree, coming into their own glory after the maple trees have peaked. Tamaracks are such interesting trees. They are conifers but not evergreens. They have needles but are not pines. They are coniferous and deciduous. In the spring, the new growth — the young needles — have a texture like a silicone basting brush: very pliable and silky soft to touch. The needles grow in clusters of 10-20. Young tamaracks have very slender vertical trunks and grow horizontal limbs as they age. They grow very slowly and need moist, organic soil and full sun when they’re seedlings, but they can establish themselves on dry hillsides, as can be seen along the Trail. Most trees still have their golden needles right now, but their hold is tenuous and they will drop soon. They look like they are ready to go with the next big wind or rain or snowfall. When I brushed against them, the needles fell right down, reminding me of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. In the spring, tiny new cones will grow again with the needles. In my opinion they are the cutest cones in the world. The female cones look like little roses as they emerge. A few tight little brown cones hang on all winter. I love the tamarack’s knobby little stems, reminding of a gingko in the regularity of the spurs. This is a boreal tree and is known as a Larch elsewhere, and in my home state of Maine they are called Hackmatacks, which is derived from an Abenaki word meaning “wood used for snowshoes.” In Ojibwe tamaracks are called mashkiigwaatig.

 

A while ago I made a sound map, where I roamed around my neck of the woods and mapped what I was hearing. It’s a fun way to experience a landscape in a non-visual way. Lately, I’ve been thinking I could do a smell map of all the delicious aromas in the woods right now — alders sometimes smell spicy like cinnamon, birch can smell minty. The pines, of course, have that familiar heavenly scent. The smell is stronger in the early morning when the dew is still on the ground and at again at dusk — and strongest after a rain. The rich aroma of the loam in the forest reminds me of a fine sherry that’s been aged in a wooden cask.

  Many things are changing now. The mushrooms that were so plentiful earlier this fall have all but disappeared. I see a few black slimy remnants and also some hardy tiny fungi that are hanging on late in the season, tucked into thick beds of moss. I noticed a Mountain Ash tree that had been cleaned of all berries, most of the leaves were gone and the big buds at the end of the branches were covered in a sticky kind of sap; I don’t know to what purpose.

There have been lot of wolf sightings this past month on the Trail. There was at least one wolf hanging about — very at ease in our presence and far too friendly for comfort. A lot of yelling and waving of arms was needed to convince him that he needed to move along. He was nonchalant about the whole business. I wonder if wolves are drawn to dogs. I really don’t want my dog to be a wolf’s lunch. Or breakfast. Or dinner. Hence the yelling.

~ Marcia Roepke

October 10, 2022
Trail Time – Fall on the Gunflint Trail

The Gunflint Trail is in full glory this time of year: sunny days with cool, crisp weather and golden birch leaves falling gently to the earth; maple trees glow with red, orange, yellow and lime green hues — so many colors in one leaf, so much beauty in one tree, so many gorgeous trees! I tell you, Maple Hill has never been dressed in more splendor. Before this latest burst of sun we had a string of rainy, cold and windy days. But after that, calm sunny weather arrived. One day was so windless that I heard leaves dropping, falling through the forest, and landing with a tiny plop upon the still surface of the lake.

The bears have been leaving their colorful calling cards: large piles of barely digested mountain ash berries. I admit that I don’t understand the economy of this system. It looks like it’s berries in, then berries out. And a visiting bull moose thrashed three young birch trees and gouged the earth by our woodshed. This is the time of year when bull moose make their mark on earth and trees, advertising their best qualities and attracting mates. I have always wanted to see this behavior — at a safe distance, of course. One year I nearly got my wish:

It was fall and Lars and I were paddling our canoe on Brule Lake. I had spotted a basswood tree on an island and I wanted to harvest a stem to make a whistle. We landed, clambered out, and tied the canoe up to a tree on the shore. Pushing aside bushes and saplings, we made our way into the woods in the direction of the basswood tree. We got to a little clearing and noticed the earth had been dug up,  and the soil was damp in that one spot — an odd thing to see on a dry fall day. Then we noticed the shrubs and trees surrounding us looked like somebody had slashed at them with a dull machete. We stood there looking around and saying, “Huh! Isn’t this strange? I wonder what caused that!” Then we heard a noise — a distant sound growing closer by the second, “Thump…thump…thump, thump, thump, thump” — the sound of large hooves coming our way — fast! We turned and dodged in and out between trees, running toward the canoe and jumping over logs and boulders as fast as we could manage. The canoe was quickly unmoored and we hopped in and sped  away. At a safe distance we slowed down and turned the canoe around so we could look back at our pursuer. We never saw the bull moose that day, but we definitely heard him! And, no, I didn’t make my whistle.

Looking around our autumn forest now, I see the chokecherries have lost their leaves — pin cherries, also called fire cherries, are still hanging on; the spear shaped leaves are the most beautiful shades of reddish brownish gold morphing into yellow and olive green and the dark green dogwood leaves are changing to shades of warm maroon. I tell you, five minutes of enjoying the beauty of an autumn day can really turn one’s attitude around. In a small clearing, I sat on a big rock warmed by the sun. I was basking in the sunshine and listening to the sounds of the forest all around me. I watched my dog hunt for small animals under and around some giant boulders. She ran through a patch of fireweed, loosening the spent blossoms that had dried into shiny silky fluff. The small glittering strands rose slowly into the air, looking like tiny fairies. It is heavenly stuff — so silky between your fingers and so shiny in the sun, like fine milkweed but more delicate.

Some birds use fireweed fluff to build their nests. I know hummingbirds use lichen and spider webs and maybe they use a little fireweed fluff, too.

Fireweed is called great willow herb or wickup, and it belongs to the evening primrose family. It is one of the first plants to appear after a fire; it rapidly covers woodland areas that have been cleared by humans. Its seeds can lie dormant for many years, awaiting the warmth necessary for germination.

Fireweed blooms in an interesting way. It starts with pinkish flowers at the bottom of the stalk and the blossoms open in an orderly fashion from there up to the top of the stalk. This progresses steadily throughout the summer and they say that once the blooms reach the top of the stalk, summer is over. Fire weed attracts native bees, moths, hummingbirds and butterflies. The stems were traditionally split lengthwise to scrape out the soft pith and then the tough stem fibers were made into twine and fishnets. Moose, deer, and caribou eat the leaves, and small mammals eat the seeds.

A few years ago, I was taking a foraging class at North House Folk School and one of my classmates told me she used fireweed blossoms and rose hips to make firerose jelly. And wouldn’t that be a lovely thing: a taste of summer on a cold winter’s day?

~ Marcia Roepke

September 16, 2022
Trail Time – Fall is here

Mornings have been misty up on the Gunflint Trail recently. A few days ago, I got up at dawn and lit a candle in the darkness. I watched the fog rising above the lake, cloaking the far shore except for the tops of the tallest pines, a ghostly silhouette hovering high above the water. It looked like a dream.

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September 2, 2022
Trail Time – Waning Summer on the Gunflint Trail

It feels like we’ve started just turning the corner from summer to fall. The blustery breezes are carrying a coolness with them, but the sun is still so warm that hikers will be shedding clothing layers before they’ve walked very far. The short term forecast calls for continued sunny weather. It’s a glorious time to be on the Trail, though the wind is certainly going to make canoeing on the bigger lakes challenging. I heard from a friend who was in the Boundary Waters this week who barely avoided a big pine that blew down in their campsite in the middle of the night last week. The wind keeps the bugs away, but it brings its own dangers.

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August 8, 2022
Trail Time – Summer Bounty

The continuing and very welcome rainfall this summer has brought forth  a Gunflint Trail just about bursting with goodness. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and Saskatoons are ripe, plentiful and ready for picking. I had a delightful day of berrying with a friend last week. Picture this: a sunny day with blue skies, the Gunflint hills spread out below us, big white puffy clouds above us, clear clean breezes, lots of blueberries, a pal to talk with and a puppy. I recommend it to everyone. It is good medicine for whatever ails you. I have not always been an eager berry picker, and it’s made life a little awkward, since I make my home in a place where berry-picking is very nearly a creed if not a religion. People take berrying very seriously on the Trail and woe to you if you give away someone’s secret spot for berries — or fish, or mushrooms, for that matter. In that sense, it’s a very Hobbit-like culture. Daily, I am growing to be more like a Hobbit.

The mosquitoes have been nearly as abundant as the berries this summer, and I have been practicing a range of techniques for killing them. You can’t always just flail away with the swatter; you need to act with finesse or there’ll be red splotches on the wall out of the reach of easy cleaning. There are many ways to kill a mosquito: one of my favorite is the one-handed snatch in midair; and there’s the swipe toward your arm or other body part (try not to mistakenly hit your glasses and nearly knock yourself out, like I did); there’s also the grab-the-son-of-a-gun with index and thumb as it perches on a wall: it’s one way to assure your cabin won’t look a crime scene at the end of the day. When I grab them by one leg, I like to watch them squirm a little before I deal the final death blow. I realize this sounds deeply weird. I was talking with a neighbor, comparing our various killing methods, and as we spoke about the differences between the behavior of early summer mosquitoes and later ones, I thought to myself, “If someone overheard us, and they had no experience of Northwoods mosquitoes, they might conclude that we are more than slightly insane.” The mosquitoes can certainly test one’s sanity as they are inhaled through mouth and nostrils. And then when they sneak up pants’ legs, shirtsleeves, neck holes and any other tiny space you might have neglected to cover, well, that’s when you wish you could magically transform into a moose in a pond and submerge yourself totally underwater or follow my dog’s lead: go swimming and then find a place to roll and wallow and thoroughly cover yourself with mud from top to tail. Stand up, shake, repeat, wag your tail and grin.

Even with all the trials that insects visit upon us humans and other mammals, there is no getting around the fact that this has been a spectacular summer weather-wise. The rich insect life means the birds have plenty to eat. And we’re seeing way more juvenile birds than last year’s dangerously dry summer. We’ve had several families with juvenile members stop by lately: the Osprey family perched on a dead snag, announcing their presence with their distinctive cries; the Ravens usually holler as they fly by, they don’t stop very often: too much to do. The Blue Jays are among the most vocal, but they don’t hang around much either. We have our neighborhood families:: the Hummingbirds and the Flickers. Both have raised young this year within sight of our cabin. I wish I could tell you how many young hummingbirds there are, but they move too fast and there are so many of them! They are our closest neighbors so we see more of them than the other bird families. Hearing them is almost as delightful as seeing them — that “vwhrrrrr!”as they speed by my head or the feeder or just whiz around the yard. They are vigilant in patrolling a chokecherry bush at the corner of my porch, buzzing and darting ferociously at the little olive-green warblers that try to perch there.

It’s been the kind of summer weather we all dream of and wish for. If I had to choose the best summer evenings, I’d put them all in a jar, shake them up, spill them onto the table, and choose the top 10. If I then selected the very best of those, it would’ve been last night. It was a perfect evening. It wasn’t too hot; it wasn’t too cold. The setting sun illuminated blue, pink and orange bands spread across the western sky. A Veery and a Raven sang counterpoint to the opening bars of Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring playing softly in the background. On the lake, a dark boat moved fast over still water, cutting across the silvered reflection of the evening sky. Slowly, rainclouds mounded up and grew larger and moved closer, flashing far-off lightning on the horizon. A second boat cut across the lake, this time west to east, the vee expanding in its wake as the rainclouds neared. I sat on the screen porch as darkness and rain arrived together. Then the rain started drumming on the roof and the wind blew a fine spray of raindrops all over me through the screens. I went inside, dried off and ate a hot dog with everything on it. It was all delicious: the peace that comes with a good soaking rain, the birds, the Northern sky over the still lake, and a summer meal cooked over a fire. In these times of trouble all over the world, after we’ve each done our small part to help where we can, some days it seems that the bravest thing one can do is to appreciate the miracle of our beautiful boreal woods and water, and be grateful.

~Marcia Roepke
August 5, 2022

July 22, 2022
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

This summer on the Gunflint Trail has been kind of like an everything bagel: it’s been cool, rainy, hot, and humid and everything in between. And the thunderstorms have been epic. One night I was inside staring out at the darkness; at the massive flashes of lightning; at the tiny sparks of fireflies. I jumped at every boom of thunder (that was close!) and slowly relaxed as the sound of heavy rain drummed on the metal roof. This latest storm was preceded by a little heat wave and that’s been the pattern this season: a week or so of temperatures gradually getting higher then rain following after, cooling everything down. This contrasts starkly with last year’s epic dryness and threat of wildfire. Believe me when I say that we are so happy not to be running the sprinkler system every few days and not to be in pre-evacuation mode!  (more…)

July 8, 2022
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

Our lush summer continues on the Gunflint Trail. We have had abundant rain — with an accompanying insect population boom. That’s a big benefit to all plants, birds, animals and fish, so we humans must endure the insect swarms. It appears the black fly season has ended — or paused — but it’s still a big year for mosquitoes. It’s been so buggy that I’ve been using a head net for the first time in about 10 years. When I walked through the woods to get to the lake yesterday, I put gloves on too so I had total coverage. I felt slightly ridiculous fully suited like that, but since nobody else is around to look, who cares? And once I’m on the water, most bug issues become just one more trouble, and then, along with most of my other troubles, they disappear for a time. I can always pick them up again when I come back to shore.

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June 23, 2022
Trail Time – Wildflowers & A Three Moose Day

Trail Time
June 24, 2022

I am continually grateful for the lushness of this spring and summer after last summer’s drought and forest fire threat. It’s been a wonderful season for wildflower lovers like myself. First, of course, was the tiny flower of the hazel, then the elderberry bushes bloomed; and before the chokecherries blossomed the pin cherries burst forth in abundance. The pin cherries were absolutely luxurious with flowers; the trees formed mounds of delicate white blossoms rising up among the conifers, maples and birch. With such a bountiful spring, I keep asking myself, “Was there really snow here just a few weeks ago?” It’s hard to believe there was snow in the ditches along the Gunflint Trail on May 28, less than a month ago, but there was! I saw it. I’ve tried to shake off memories of winter  by soaking in the sun and swimming in the lake —  in 62 degrees water! But there’s this ritual I do every year that banishes my memories of the cold weather and rings in the fresh new spring: I head to one of my favorite trees — a wild apple — and shake the branches so the spent blossoms rain down all over and around me, the pale pink petals falling on the tall grass and raspberry bushes. I revel in the beauty of spring.

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June 13, 2022
Trail Time – Gunflint Trail Phenology & a Nature Walk with Sawtooth Mt Elementary 5th Grade Class

It’s been a cold wet spring on the Gunflint Trail, interspersed with a few gorgeous sunny mornings or afternoons. One of the benefits of colder temperatures is that the gnats are less of a bother. One of the benefits of wetter weather is that wet birds stay put far longer than they do when it is sunny and dry, so I can observe them for longer periods. After a recent rain, I watched a group of wet finches in a birch tree. They were evenly spaced out around the crown of the tree, fluffing themselves up, drying off their feathers before they took wing once again. They stayed there for quite some time. One day I watched a wet hummingbird perched on a slender branch of a birch tree, sheltering under a leaf, the leaf acting like a little umbrella.

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May 26, 2022
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time

Photo by Mark Luinenburg

May 27, 2022

What a joy it is to paddle this spring! I miss traveling in a canoe so much in the winter. It makes me happy to be floating on the (liquid) water once again. And it’s a good year for floating. The water level in lakes and streams is very high, though it has gone down a bit since the ice went all the way out. The waterfalls are roaring with the power of thousands of gallons of water rushing on its way to the sea. A few days ago, Lars and I visited Trail’s End campground. Standing on the banks under the tall white pines, we were awestruck by the level of noise and the sheer power of the water as it roared and foamed and crested and poured over the rocks on its way downstream. Elsewhere we clambered up and sat quietly on rocks high above the water. We saw peeled logs floating in a quiet bay — the remains of beaver dams or lodges destroyed by the high water. As the water eddied in a counter clockwise direction, the logs slowly circled the bay, almost making it into the faster current, but then getting pushed out of the mainstream and back to their same slow circular path.

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May 13, 2022
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

Spring has come slowly to the Gunflint Trail, but it is happening like gangbusters now! The grouse are drumming day and night and Cross River is roaring and foaming on its way to Gunflint Lake. Some of the bigger lakes like Gunflint and Loon are still mostly frozen over, although there is open water near the shore. Little Iron and Poplar still have ice on them, with leads of open water steadily growing larger. Temperatures are predicted to be in the 70s over the next few days, so the warmer weather and the rain that is forecast ought to clear most of the ice on the lakes. But, who knows? It might all be gone by tomorrow. Water levels are high, especially on Seagull, where the water is four feet higher than it was last year. Fishing opener is this Saturday, May 14. (more…)

April 21, 2022
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.

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March 31, 2022
Trail Time

It has been a quiet time on the Trail lately. The weather warmed up there for a while; the sun and rain melted quite a bit of snow. I haven’t heard snowmobiles for a couple of weeks. Road restrictions have been imposed, which means there won’t be any logging trucks going up or down the Trail until the frost is out of the ground. Many lodges are closed for a spring break; the restaurants at Trail Center and Poplar Haus will reopen in mid-May. Gunflint Lodge and restaurant remain open.

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March 17, 2022
Trail Time

Trail Time
March 18, 2022
By Marcia Roepke

Oh my goodness, it’s been so beautiful on the Trail the last couple days. I mean, it is always beautiful, but the recent sunny weather was heavenly, especially if you remember that last month it was 46 below. Yesterday was 45 — that’s a 90 degree change in 4 weeks! It was nothing but sun all day. It was the first time I sat outside in the sun for any length of time this year. In that moment, nothing on my to do list was as important as simply reveling in the glorious weather. The sky was bluer than blue; the sunlight glimmered on the snow and on tiny ice crystals in the air. Everything was backlit in a golden glow. All was quiet except for the sweet burbly sounds of the chickadees and grosbeaks, the “yank” of the nuthatch… There was no wind. No snowmobile or chainsaw noise. A blue jay parked itself in the woods and repeated “Skip it! Skip it!” over and over. A new bird chimed in with its song from high in the balsams and aspen (A new bird is a big deal to us and we report it to one another as if a new neighbor had moved in). Ice and snow were melting off the roof with a steady drip. It felt like the earth slowed down and took a long slow breath. In and out.

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March 3, 2022
Trail Time

Trail Time March 4, 2022

By Marcia Roepke

I’ve had one of my favorite hymns in the music playlist of my brain for the past few days. It’s called “In the Bleak Midwinter.” (more…)

February 11, 2022
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

February on the Gunflint Trail started out above zero, then plummeted down to the twenties below. It climbed up well above zero just in time for the Beargrease Sled Dog Race. The warmer weather certainly affected the trail conditions for the race last week. Warm temperature and snow “like mashed potatoes” caused 11 out of 23 mushers to scratch. It might sound counterintuitive, but it is better for the sled dogs when it is colder outside – they are less likely to overheat and the colder snow lets the sled runners glide more easily. Still, it was so much fun to watch the race. Lars was in the thick of it and got some great photographs of mushers and dogs from the Lima Grade to Grand Portage. As usual, there were crossings along the Gunflint Trail that are guarded by volunteers, where there are bonfires and company and lots of cheering for the teams. Just like for the Gunflint Mail Run race, I walked out after dark to witness the night running of a few teams. I treasure that silent time waiting for the musher’s headlamp to flicker over the trees until first the dog team, then the dogsled glide into view and then slide on by, quietly disappearing around a curve into darkness. The next sled dog race will be during the Dog Days of Winter event held at Trail Center March 13.

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January 28, 2022
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

It has been very cold lately with wind chills of -40 and below up here on the Gunflint Trail. We had a sweet run of sunny days during the most recent cold spell, though, and when I’m on a south-sloping path and sheltered from the north wind, I enjoy our winter world on foot and snowshoe. We mostly keep our walks short and our wood stove going this time of year, especially after dark. And the life of the forest goes on even in the coldest and darkest winter nights. We can see the evidence of longer daylight hours now that the winter solstice has passed. More sun in the mornings and later sunsets keep us attuned to the promise of spring.

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Placeholder January 14, 2022
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

Well, we are really into winter now. We’ve had some very cold weather and lots of snow the last two weeks. When it warmed up to above zero, Lars and I and small group went on a snowshoe and ski outing in deep snow along a narrow lake. It was a sunny day, the snow was sparkling and we didn’t have to deal with too much wind or slush. I got as much energy from the beautiful day as I did from the expressions of happiness and joy from friends that were new to a winter adventure on the Gunflint Trail. It reminded me how lucky we are to be surrounded every day by the beauty of this special place.
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Placeholder December 31, 2021
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

It’s a winter wonderland on the Gunflint Trail this week. There’s about a foot of new snow making a great base for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling or snowshoeing… and dog-sledding! Many years have passed since I first careened down a snow-covered logging road in Hovland behind a friend’s team. And I remember a wonderful time dog-sledding in the Boundary Waters on a winter camping trip years ago with a terrific group of people that included one of my best friends and my future husband, Lars. Dog-sledding is a lot of fun to do and it’s almost as fun to watch. The sled dogs are so full of energy and joy. They love to run! Next week there’s a great opportunity to watch some excellent dog sledding: The Gunflint Mail Run Dogsled Race will be held Saturday, January 8. Some good places to watch the action are at Trail Center Lodge, Big Bear Lodge or Rockwood Lodge. There’s also a spectator area at the Old Blankenburg Pit, where the twelve teams will be turning around. NOTE: It is very important that spectators do not bring their dogs to the races. And keep a tight hold on young children. Things get lively and move fast. You can find lots of information, as well as safety and etiquette tips, on the web site at gunflintmailrun.com
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Placeholder December 17, 2021
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

We had quite a snowfall last week on the Gunflint Trail. Loon Lake had about 12-15 inches on the ground by the time the snow stopped blowing. The temperature clocked in 15 below zero the day following the storm. The gusting wind created drifts in some places and windswept bare spots in others. I usually notice deeper snow mid-trail around Poplar Lake and this storm was no different. I imagine the Laurentian Divide has something to do with the differing snowfalls along the Trail, but I have zero science about that to share today. I’ll get back to you on that topic.
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Placeholder November 26, 2021
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

We have had all kinds of weather on the Trail these past few weeks. It’s been cold and gray (in the 20s and below), it’s been sunny and warm (in the high 30s!) and yesterday we had a very memorable snowstorm. It had started the day before with a gray sky and several loud booming sounds. Lars and I didn’t know what the noise was; each time we heard it, one of us asked the other, “Did you hear that?” I kept checking the news, figuring that if something exploded certainly it would be reported. Or, I thought, maybe it was the noise of a dump truck bringing gravel up the Trail and the boom was the sound of it bouncing around, echoing off the lake and cliffs. It was a mystery. The next day there was a pretty little snowfall in the morning and then the wind started gusting, the snow started swirling, and I heard another boom. I think it was a thunder boom, which is what thunder in a snowstorm is called. The wind was gusting up to 45 mph; it was wild weather. And in the middle of it, I saw a flock of common redpolls cavorting straight into it. I felt their joy in the wild windy snowfall and it echoed inside me. If I could fly, I would have joined them.
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Placeholder November 12, 2021
Trail Time – Life on the Gunflint Trail

As I write this I’m sitting indoors in a cozy spot looking out at the darkening sky. Snow is forecast tonight for the Gunflint Trail, and although I always think I’m ready for it, the changes that come with winter surprise me each year. I watch the skim of ice come and go on the smaller lakes and rivers as the cold weather ebbs and flows. And when the ice comes to stay, it’s accompanied by the winter song of the lakes as they groan and moan and roar and snap and make Star Wars light saber noises.

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Placeholder October 29, 2021
Trail Time – A look at life on the Gunflint Trail

For a few weeks we were reveling in the sunny and mild fall weather on the Gunflint Trail. The temperatures of last few days, though, have been dipping into the 30s at night; we awaken to frost most mornings. While that lovely weather held, I assumed every canoe adventure was going to be the last one. And then we’d go on yet another canoe trip and I’d think, well, this one must be our last time out. But, nope! Wrong again! It was like the end of an unfamiliar symphony when you think it’s over but it continues with more notes and on and on to the true finale. I don’t mind being mistaken about the end of canoe season — I can’t remember a time when I’ve more enjoyed being wrong.
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Placeholder October 15, 2021
Trail Time – Events and Phenology on the Gunflint Trail

It’s definitely fall on the Gunflint Trail. Many aspen and birch have lost their leaves, and the weather is cool and damp. Unlike spring, with its gradual unfolding, autumn loveliness arrives quickly. Two days ago day I saw the limbs of a birch tree covered in shimmering yellow leaves, reaching toward the clear blue sky; the next morning almost all the leaves were lying on the ground, like a puddle of gold, like a slender dancer had just let her silk dress drop to her feet. The whole of last week was magical, with the warm sun sparkling on water and gauzy little fairy-like bugs floating around in the air. At first I mistook these incredibly tiny insects for gnats or ash, but I managed to catch a few – very gently, for they were so easy to squash – and looked them up online using the search term “tiny blue insects with fuzzy butts.” I got answers immediately. They were woolly aphids. It seems there are as many kinds of woolly aphids as there are trees, with at least 15 different kinds in Minnesota, and some sources said that there are probably more. The adult woolly aphid sucks tree sap and produces a waxy white covering that looks like minute downy feathers. I had never seen them before. I wonder if it was the unseasonable warm weather which brought them out. For a few days, whenever the weather warmed, you could see these little fairy bugs floating by, wafted by the breeze.
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Placeholder October 1, 2021
Trail Time–the sounds of autumn

The last two weeks of September have been absolutely lovely on the Gunflint Trail. We’ve had rain, we’ve had sun, we’ve had temperatures about ten degrees above average. Usually the shorter days and cooler temps of September make me want to slow down, but this fabulous weather has sped me up again. I can’t get enough canoeing or fishing, it’s 76 and sunny and I just might swim this afternoon. I want to be by, in or on the water all the time. With the weather so warm, it feels kind of strange to see little groupings of buntings by the road. I think of them as cooler weather birds. Juncos are back as well and yesterday we heard then saw a flock of cranes fly overhead, bugling and honking. They were flying so high, it was hard to see them. It is autumn, though it feels like August.
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Placeholder September 17, 2021
News and notes from the Gunflint Trail

I feel Fall in the air! Reminders are everywhere that summer is fading into autumn: The purple asters contrast beautifully with the goldenrod; The pin cherry leaves are red, orange and yellow – all on the same tree; the moose maple foliage gives us shades from yellow to red and those lovely winged seed pods called samaras; bronze and maroon grace the bush honeysuckle leaves. The mountain ash berries are turning red once more. Usually it’s the time of year for the hazelnut harvest, but I haven’t seen any hazelnuts since spring.
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Placeholder September 2, 2021
Trail Time – events and phenology on the Gunflint Trail

What a difference a week makes! We’ve had some gorgeously beautiful days on the Gunflint Trail. Last Saturday’s rain, the cooler temps, sunny skies and good news from the Forest service have all combined to make this a stellar week.

Monday night we attended another community meeting at Fire hall #2, where the Forest Service, the county sheriff and the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department spoke about the fire conditions, gave advice and answered questions. The Forest Service folks announced that the risk remains at 1.5% chance of the John Ek fire reaching the Trail at this time, or, as Lars puts it, there’s a 98.5% chance it won’t get here! Of course they can make no promises – fire is unpredictable. But it feels like a blessedly welcome reprieve from last week’s danger and our anxiety level.
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Placeholder August 13, 2021
Trail Time

Rain!
Rain has finally come to the Gunflint Trail and with it some cooler temperatures. It’s been flannel shirt weather for drinking morning coffee on the porch, looking out at the lake, listening to the loons. We’ve had several foggy mornings and the fog added to the rain and cooler temps means that the fire danger warning has been lowered to moderate. It will likely bounce back up to high or very high again unless we get more rain, but for right now, I can’t decide which gives me more relief: the rain, the cool weather or the lower fire danger. All three make for better sleeping weather and less anxiety about wildfire. The Ham Lake Fire of 2007 lives on in our psyches, even for those of us who watched from a distance. I’ve heard the stories and read the reports from the excellent collection at Chik Wauk Museum, and I have good friends that were evacuated several times from their home. I still can’t imagine what it was like to live through a fire of that magnitude. I never want to know. We all need to continue to be extremely careful with fire and follow the restrictions.
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Placeholder July 28, 2021
Trail Time

My good friend and neighbor Dharma Dave stopped by last week. He reported that everyone on the Gunflint Trail has been talking about two things: wildfire sprinkler systems and cutting brush. With the almost constant presence of smoke from the Ontario fires, wildfire is very much on our minds. The sprinkler systems only do part of the job: creating a defensible green zone. The brush cutting makes sure the water gets where it is needed. In the absence of rain, these systems can make a huge difference.
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Placeholder July 15, 2021
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.
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Placeholder July 9, 2021
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.
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