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Trail Time

Marcia Roepke - photo by Des Sikowiski Nelson

Marcia Roepke

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

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Trail Time

Trail Time 7/28/2021
Marcia Roepke
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. 
 The Gunflint Trail remains at very high fire danger right now. But if you were to suddenly be transported to the Trail from far away, you might not think that the woods look very different from a wetter summer. This points to an interesting fact: the woods can be dangerously dry and still look green. Looks can indeed be deceiving. All campfires are banned now in the Superior Forest and the Boundary Waters. Fuel stoves with on/off switches are allowed. We all need to be extremely careful.

After we’ve done what we can to prepare for a fire emergency or evacuation, we still find time to enjoy the ever abundant beauty of this special place. The lucky ones among us, like my neighbor KC the sunshine gal, don’t even have to get out of bed to have the luxury of watching a bull moose saunter down her drive.
For me, one of the many joys of life on the Trail is the pursuit of nature knowledge. I love trying to identify what it is I am seeing: birds, bird songs, animals, scat, frogs, insects, plants and especially bumblebees. I’m not a naturalist but I’m a lifelong observer and nature learner.
Bumblebees are a particular favorite of mine. They have such a fascinating life cycle and inhabit a unique niche in pollinating the plants of the north. Their colonies are very different than the more familiar honeybee. Only the bumblebee queen survives the winter in her hibernaculum, a chamber that is often a former mouse nest underground. Bumblebees pollinate wildflowers, blueberries, raspberries and our garden tomatoes. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees are native to North America.

There are about 10-12 different bumblebee species listed for this area on my Bumblebee Watch app. I have successfully identified the grand total of one species. But I keep trying! And I find many interesting things while I’m poking around.

While I was attempting to capture some bumblebee photos a few days ago, I came across an enormous bright green caterpillar. It measured about 4 inches long. It was so bright against the dry grass, I could hardly believe that is was going to survive for long. I believe it was a Polyphemus moth larva. There seems to be a lot of moths and butterflies this summer, despite the dryness. A bounty of butterflies; a plethora of moths! While I was photographing a butterfly (could it be a Compton Tortoiseshell?), right behind it was a large parasitic wasp with a very long ovipositor. I would have missed it if I hadn’t seen the butterfly.

Some summer flowers spotted lately are Jewel Weed, evening primrose and that tiny little happy flower, Eyebright. I was very surprised to find the striped Coral Orchid growing in its usual place, despite this dry year. The raspberries are still ripening but they’re small and seedy. We picked enough for a pie earlier this summer but I’m leaving the rest for the bears. They’re going to need it. The blueberry crop is mighty meager this year.

Even though the food supply for some animals is low, whatever creatures eat grasshoppers will be getting fat! They are clacking and filling the air in the sunny places. I’ve seeing more bird youngsters more recently too. Late summer is always marked for me by the raucous cries of the juvenile ravens. “Mom! Mom!” they seem to be saying.
One evening we were paddling our canoe away from the sunset and a raven family of five were having one of their first flight lessons. The low sun shone against a rocky cliff high above the lake as the ravens aimed for the top. When they got close to the cliff, five ravens became ten as the sun doubled the number with their shadows. They became five once more as each raven merged with its shadow and landed on the top of the cliff, some of them more elegantly than others.

Our neighborhood young osprey flew over by himself a few days ago, calling the whole way across the lake, flapping so hard. The parent flew silently far behind him, just gliding. To me it seemed like the moment a kid learns how to ride a bike and the parent lets go of their steadying hand. Time to fly alone, little one.


Woodcock_photo by MarciaRoepke.jpeg

Trail Time - Marcia Roepke

Trail Time
By 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


Marcia Roepke is a WTIP contributor from the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time - Marcia Roepke

Trail Time

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.

Now that we are past midsummer, the anemones and trilliums and other spring flowers have disappeared, but the daisies, fireweed, buttercup and lupines are blooming in abundance with the recent rains. Soon some of our native orchids will be poking their heads above the soil in their secret places. The tiny flowers of the hazelnut shrubs have now yielded a promising future supply of nuts for red squirrels and bears to feast on this fall. Good luck beating the squirrels and chipmunks to the hazelnuts when they are ready to pick! The animals seem to know to the second when harvest time is here and they almost always beat me to it. No hard feelings, though, since the beaked hazelnuts that grow in our area are covered with tiny prickly hairs that burrow into human skin and itch like crazy. They require a lot of work before we humans can eat them.

Chokecherry, pin cherry and raspberry bushes are loaded with early green fruit. I noticed lots of wild strawberries in flower early this summer but I totally missed that harvest. As for blueberries, the word is still out on whether this will be a good blueberry year. A late frost nipped the blossoming plants in some areas. Hopefully there are pockets of good fruit that will yield that prizewinning blueberry in time for The Gunflint Trail’s Biggest Blueberry Contest. See if you can beat the bears to that big one!

We haven’t spotted much moose lately, but we see their signs, especially the young birch trees that they break down to get to the tender tips of the branches.

There are some smaller creatures that have been fascinating me this year: The first is the Hummingbird Clearwing, a sphinx moth, that I watched hover around the blossoms of a wild apple tree earlier this spring. This beautiful insect is easily mistaken for a hummingbird from a distance. It moves a little more slowly and delicately than its little namesake bird. It has a long proboscis that curls under its chin and unfurls to sip the nectar from the blossoms.
The second creature is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. They appear so very early in the year that I wonder what they find to eat besides the nectar available at hummingbird feeders that hang by cabins up and down the Trail.
I’ve been privy to the hummingbird’s mating dance quite often this year. The male flies in a surprisingly large swooping half-circle, buzzing at the tip of the arc, trilling at the low point, over and over again. I’ve even seen the female sometimes sitting demurely on the ground, sometimes perched in a nearby chokecherry bush, during this display. I wonder if the hummingbird is communicating more than “Pick me – I’m the best” for the male’s part or “Convince me” for the female’s? Last week my neighbor Don the Duffer shared the results of a study of prairie dog communication. After biologists had recorded events and chirps, the data was analyzed. The findings indicated that the animals had communicated in far greater detail than was previously thought. Not only were they warning of “predator approaching,” they were also sharing information such as “coyote coming!” or “tall human in yellow shirt approaching from the north!”

So I wondered while observing the hummingbirds, what else could he be saying to his lady love? Is there poetry in a hummingbird’s communication? I certainly see poetry in their movements. I think there’s poetry everywhere in the woods and waters of the northland; poetry and abundance. There’s an abundance of space and solitude as well as plenty of neighborliness here, where time seems to slow down and expand, here on the Gunflint Trail.
You can learn more about Chik Wauk Nature Center at and about the Biggest Blueberry on the Gunflint Trail at