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Points North: Is a Road-Killed Skunk a Sign of Spring?

Beached Ice, Grand Portage Bay by Travis Novitsky
Beached Ice, Grand Portage Bay by Travis Novitsky

Finalcut_Spring_20100304.mp38.35 MB

I shoulda’ known better. In the time it took me to clear a couple of inches of fresh snow from the doorstep, the yellow Lab went AWOL. Tracks told the story. He and the old dog wandered to the neighbor’s yard and from there he took off on his own, through the woods, along the highway shoulder (not good!) and then across the highway (worse yet!) and into the woods on the other side. Thinking he was no more than a few minutes ahead of me, I followed the tracks hoping to catch up to him.

Even though we live in a rural place, the highway, wolves and other hazards await stray dogs, so we make every effort to recover ours when he occasionally runs away. Beneath the fresh fluff was a rock-hard snow pack that made walking easy for me and even easier for the dog. The hard pack was one reason he went AWOL, but it is also canine mating season.

Even I can smell the pungent scents left behind by passing fox and wolves. And those are the smells that make a male dog roam.

To make a long story short, I tracked the dog on foot and later, with Vikki’s assistance, via truck and on foot, for four miles east before he crossed the highway, abruptly changed direction and began going west (where his tracks mingled with fresh wolf tracks). Eventually, he was corralled by a neighbor. So ended the AWOL dog’s spring fling.

Spring? Yup, it’s already here. This morning in the office a woman who loves to ski asked if I thought it would snow again this winter—that’s how nice the weather’s been in recent weeks. While “yes” was the obvious answer, I’d just passed a dead skunk on the highway driving to work—a first in February. Maybe spring is coming early this year.

Certainly, harbingers of spring are already apparent. In the evening, I can hear a saw-whet owl calling from the woods surrounding our house. It sounds like the back-up beeper on a truck. I hear owls every year around this time and know it won’t be long before they are ready to nest.

During the day, I hear and see American crows, which have been visiting our bird feeder all winter. It used to be that crows disappeared from the North Country at the end of September and were among the first migrants to return in March. But now a few hang around all year. I don’t know if the locals have been joined yet by early arriving migrants, but their cawing on sunny mornings is welcome nonetheless.

The sun climbs higher in the sky and grows stronger with each passing day. In just two weeks, we’ll be changing the clocks forward to capture daylight savings.  I can hardly wait, because the long evenings mean that when the computer is switched off for the day I can go outside and play.

While signs of spring are evident in the north, plenty of winter remains. The other day, in the soft glow of a late afternoon sun, Vikki and I watched Lake Superior make new ice. The ice sheets we saw were less than an inch thick and separated by occasional open leads. One sheet, moved by an imperceptible breeze or current, was pushing against another. The sounds made by the ice ranged from the soft whisper of  the moving sheet to bird-like calls and croaks coming from where the two ice sheets met. They sounded so much like birds that I looked in vain for ducks swimming in the open lead. Although we’d seen such sights many times before, we were awestruck with Superior’s power and beauty.

As in most years, the big lake didn’t start making ice until February and probably will continue doing so for another month. Even so, sheet or pack ice isn’t likely to accumulate on the open lake without an extended stretch of below-zero temperatures. While some may be wondering if it will snow again, brutal blizzards and cold snaps are with the norm for March north country weather. In other words, just about anything may happen before spring truly arrives.

Remember Your Driver’s License

Buck Benson from Buck’s Hardware in Grand Marais stopped by the other day to remind everyone to bring a driver’s license along when purchasing 2010 fishing and hunting licenses. In the past, you could use your previous license, which has your unique DNR number, to buy a new one. This year, driver’s license identification is required.

The driver’s license requirement isn’t new, says Steve Michaels, electronic licensing system program director for the DNR, but is being newly enforced. A driver’s license or similar ID provides proof of residency. The DNR found former residents who moved out of state (thus becoming nonresidents) were using their DNR number to continue being issued less expensive resident licenses.

Benson says someone who tries to buy a fishing or hunting license without showing a drivers license or similar identification will be refused and he is worried this may lead to some customer dissatisfaction during the busy fishing and tourist season.

Benson added it might create problems, especially considering the issues his store has already had with the electronic licensing system.

He says if an error code appears on the machine when someone is buying a license, it can take an hour to call the DNR and correct the problem. All the while, the customer is kept waiting. Benson also notes that license buyers are asked nonessential survey questions during the licensing process, adding another layer of detail to the vendor’s task.

Bear in mind, the clerk selling the license at Buck’s (and most other vendors) is not only selling DNR licenses, but also taking care of other customers in the checkout line. A glitch or delay in licensing affects not only the license buyer, but all other customers as well.