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Wildersmith on the Gunflint

Fred Smith

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Fred Smith
Fred Smith, a native Iowan re-located to the wilderness of border country at the end of the century, has been writing of happenings in the upper Gunflint territory for going on eight years, first with the local paper, and since December 2008 for WTIP North Shore Community Radio. Fred feels life in the woods is extraordinary, and finds reporting on it to both a reading and listening audience a pleasurable challenge. Since retirement as a high school athletic administrator from Ankeny High School, Ankeny Iowa in 1999, the pace of Fred's life has become less hectic but nevertheless, remains busy in new ways with many volunteer activities along the Trail. Listen at your convenience by subscribing to a podcast.


Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.

 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: May 27

Month five is almost into the books as spring surged during the past seven. Clear skies provided this territory with a perfect “budding flowers” moon, setting the stage for luminous blooming, while the day of official summer looms on the horizon. 

Flowering has finally reached the upper Trail. Marsh marigolds, squill, wild strawberry blossoms, forget- me-nots and of course, those “dandy” lions head the list of north-country returnees.  Adding to the resurgence of growth, fiddlehead ferns are uncoiling their fronds, and domestic rhubarb has popped up enough to provide the first “pie plant” desserts of the season.          

Green-up of the deciduous forest has intensified right on schedule. From those late bloomers about to explode their buds to hillsides alive with verdant haze, if green is one’s color there are many shades from which to choose. Total leaf out should be complete in a week or so.      

It’s amazing how resilient plant life can be, considering the area had passed another week devoid of moisture. We’ve been “bone” dry, choking in late summer dust along back country roads. A blessed rain finally quenched our thirsty forest since mid-week. A six-tenths dose, late Tuesday, has lessened wild fire danger, so folks out this way have dodged a flaming bullet for the time being.           

Considering forest fire danger, the recent decision for a prescribed burn that escaped control west of the Ely area, is simply mind boggling. I realize these procedures are a necessary forest practice, but it's apparent science-based conditions, supporting the right time for a intentional burn, can well be one in the same with warnings of wildfire potential. So why would you ignite one?    
            
In the meantime, common sense says, Trail residents had better be taking their own prevention measures, even though the area has been dampened down. Periodic running of wildfire sprinkler systems is recommended to keep a dome of humidity over properties during our increasingly frequent dry spells, and tending to “firewise” needs is vitally important right now and always.
  
There are good things and some not so good with each of our border country seasons. Everyone out this way is smiling with the warm sunshine. But sad to say, those “black fly terrorists” have a grin on their faces too, in anticipation of a little bloodletting. I’ve been into my netting for the past week, and thus far my batting average against the fierce nippers is far better than our Minnesota baseball Twins.     

Along with the no-nonsense biting flies, the season ahead looks to be gloomy from a “tick” standpoint. A hiker I heard of reported picking off fifty of the creepy things following a recent trek along the Border Trail. In the meantime, mosquitoes are amassing troops out there somewhere with only a few small battalions appearing around sunset thus far.    

So if one thinks winter is less than accommodating, think again, this time of year has its distressing elements too. All these biting critters are making me think freeze!

Speaking of the tourist times ahead, several businesses catering to such have seen operator changes over the past few months and years. New management has been on board at Clearwater Lodge for the past couple years, while Big Bear Lodge has also come under new proprietorship. In addition, those at the helm of Tuscarora Lodge & Outfitters are beginning their second year. While just recently, a changing of the guard has taken the reins at both Rockwood Lodge and Loon Lake Lodge. Everyone in the Gunflint Community welcomes and wishes these new wilderness hosts well, in their Trail endeavors. 

Critter notes are scant as I air this week. No bear adventures have been reported, but I have observed a number of north woods bunnies scampering about, some still in dirty white socks. Grouse meanwhile, (“you know, those Minnesota chicken birds”) too numerous to count, have dared frequent pedestrian catastrophes in front of my vehicle.
  
In regard to grouse, another sighting found that although their hunting season is closed to humans, the times are always open to predators. I came upon a fox, trotting along the Trail not long ago, with a nice “chicken bird” in its jaws. The now faded red one was so intent it did not flinch or waver from its roadside course as I drove by. My hunch is a hungry batch of kits was waiting for lunch back in the den. 

In the past couple days, a solemn report came my way of the loon pair at the Chik-Wauk Museum nesting platform having abandoned the site. Reasons are unknown, but suspect would be an airborne predator pilfering the eggs, it’s happened before. The possibility remains that hormonal instincts might re-balance and they will return to try again. Stay tuned for any updates.    

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith. Savoring northern magic and swatting all at the same time! Have a safe Memorial Day!                                                                                        

(photo by Mike Quinn via Wikimedia Commons)


 
Pileated woodpecker

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: May 20

Not too surprisingly, May is rapidly slipping away. The Ojibwe “budding flowers moon” (Zaagibagaa Giizis) will grace the north woods this weekend. Then we head off toward the commemorative “Memorial Day” weekend to kick-off summer.

As I begin this week's report, summer feels a long ways off. Our big day of the walleye fishing opener came and went under less than favorable conditions. “Old man winter” kind of gave us a kiss goodbye reminding all in these parts there is still a little click in his heels.

Strong northwest winds, dismal skies and occasional showers of snow flurries were the order as temps hovered around the freezing point. Saturday AM found a skiff of snow on the ground, and water in my deck-side avian drinking dish stayed frozen all day. It was so cold conditions even prompted a couple nights of firing up the old wood burning stove.

Spring will no doubt bounce back by the time this scoop airs. And, there’s a good chance the last of the snow along our Mile O Pine will have faded into history.

In retrospect, while winter seemed less than gruff during the past months, we’ve had snow on the ground in varying amounts from November into the third week of May. If I count right, it’s seven months of north-country heaven for yours truly.

Although the area experienced a dash of winter, we’ve still not received enough moisture to diminish the wildfire danger. Cooler conditions of late have been a help, but rain remains the key component. The rain recorded here has barely settled the dust in the last week.

Most locals I know deferred frosty angling for a nicer day. However, out-of-towners owever. out-of-towners were not deterred. After all, it's Minnesota and fishing opener is a rite of the season. A trip along the Trail this past weekend found vehicle after vehicle either toting or pulling some kind of watercraft.

Boats started cruising by on the Gunflint gal before Saturday morning twilight and continued right through the day in spite of frigid air and rough seas. I suppose a few “finnies” were caught, but with the waters so cold right now, I’m guessing most walleyes were holed up in favor of warmer waters someday soon.

Last week's story about the first bear sighting has advanced into chapter two. Several folks along the Gunflint Lake south shore report the meanderings of a really “big” one around their places. Of those sharing the “Bruno” visits, none indicate any property ravaging or confrontations - just that it’s snooping around. I guess residents must be doing a good job of removing temptations thus far.

The folks at Gunflint Lodge have observed it, too, and believe this guy/gal may be the same one that caused them considerable grief last summer by getting into a cabin or two without checking in first at the reservation desk.

The Chik-Wauk Museum’s loon nesting platform is reported to now be occupied. I have not been witness to the returning occupants, but the museum manager indicates she witnessed a parental changing of the guard one day last week, so the fragile ovals must be there for the warming. Happy days are here again! All hope is looting raptors can be kept at bay.

On a related note, I’m told the loon cam at the Chik-Wauk site will be up and operating soon. Check the website to follow the nesting/hatching activity over the next few weeks.

When the sun has peeked between the clouds over the past few days, there’s been ceremonious tweeting throughout the woods. Harmonizing is not necessarily the order of performance as crows, jaybirds and the like, are all singing a different tune. And, as I’ve been out around the yard picking up winter blow-down, percussive components have been added to the northern ensemble with drumming grouse and a hammering pileated woodpecker chipping in solo parts. Ah, the north woods refrains of spring, what a delight!

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith! On the watch for emerging green!

(Photo by Mick Thompson via Flickr)

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Chik-Wauk

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: May 13

Into week two of our fifth month finds spring edging forward, seemingly with two steps forward then one step back. As this scoop hits the keyboard, the upper Gunflint Trail has been a part of extreme temperature swings.    

As last week's column aired, this neck of the woods saw the mercury soar to the 90 degree mark up at Trail's end, and in less than 24 hours, we at Wildersmith awoke to frost on the roof tops.  

All of this has happened under mostly fair skies, in spite of occasional tufts of smoke from the raging Canadian wildfire in Alberta. Fair skies obviously have left this area moisture starved with barely a few sprinkles since our return of a week ago.  

So we Gunflinters are in grave wildfire danger too. At this writing, folks remain on pins and needles wondering why responsible agencies have not invoked total burning bans in the county, knowing about 98 percent of all wildfires are caused by human actions. 

It’s particularly nerve racking remembering that nine years ago at this time, the territory was under searing siege due to a judgmental error by a lone camper. The resulting historic Ham Lake Fire torched 75,000 acres of the border country and destroyed over 140 upper Trail property structures. 

Needless to say, residents are quickly getting their wildfire sprinkler systems up and running. Yours truly has been into the cold lake placing pump lines and firing up the three units for which I have responsibility. Wildersmith is ready, hoping the need for pumping does not become a reality.  

Speaking of the cold lake, it was so cold my hands ached in a matter of seconds when dipped into the icy liquid. The rest of me was covered in deep sea wet suit protection. Going through this annual exercise is always a keen reminder of how dangerous the water can be soon after ice out. By the way, the water temp was in the mid to upper 30s as I took my first dip of 2016, brrrr!  

With cool temps and dwindling patches of piled snow, the eighth annual “Ham Run” half marathon and 5k run were celebrated last Saturday. The event, held in commemoration of human survival and forest re-birth following the horrendous Ham Lake burn of 2007, saw over 140 runners in the two events.

The anniversary of the running was a happy time, as have been the previous seven, with sunny skies guiding runners along this taxing, but most scenic course in the universe. Thanks go out to organizers, sponsors, and dozens of volunteers for making it happen. 

As May ends week two, excitement is building at the Chik-Wauk Museum site. The Museum will be opening for its seventh season. Meanwhile, final touches are being applied to the new Nature Center building project. Along with the new Nature Center exhibits and programming, the Museum is featuring a spectacular new temporary exhibit spotlighting “Birds of the Gunflint Wilderness.” Both facilities will open on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.  

I’ve had a sneak preview of the new NC facility. The exhibits are simply stunning as the Nature Center planning committee, in concert with the Split Rock Studios’ designers, have put together another splendid component for sharing more of the Gunflint story.  Gunflint Trail residents and visitors alike will want to make the historic resort site a destination choice for this summer. The new Nature Center and museum temporary exhibit is a must see. Special Nature Center programming events can be monitored on the Chik-Wauk website.         

This week's commentary finds me reporting a first bear sighting. It was a momma and her triplet cubs plotting a breaking and entering of the garbage canisters site along the Trail.

In another critter episode, a fellow reports the sighting of an adolescent moose having apparently received a snort from momma to get out on its own. This rejection must have been in favor of a new arrival. Guess the forlorn youngster was wondering aimlessly, looking as confused as a freshman going to the first day of high school.  

On a final “wild neighborhood” note, after telling of snowshoe hares making their wardrobe transformation in last week's column, I recently observed three white tails yet to have shed their winter camo. I’m thinking their copper tone summer wear is due very soon.   

Lastly, spring really becomes official this weekend with our “walleye opening day.” Good luck to all anglers and be safe in these icy cold northland waters!    

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith! Our Gunflint spring is trying to “bust out, all over.”
 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: May 6

April has given way to May, and week one is into the books. The Wildersmith two are back in the woods following a trip to Iowa for my annual officiating duties at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, in addition to visiting our kids and re-connecting with many dear friends.   

The Gunflint wilderness seems so quiet and welcoming after what was a hectic time of helping our daughter prepare to relocate, and experiencing the never ending turmoil of human interaction in metropolis. We are surely blessed to have the better of two worlds, one being the ability to reconnect periodically with the civilized world; and two, being able to escape urban hubbub for the serenity of life in unorganized territory. No wonder this place has such magnetism!   

My last day at the Relays event proved to be record setting in terms of miserable weather endurance. A day in Iowa with rain, 40 degree temperatures, and 30 mile per hour winds made a brisk 40 below January segment in the north woods seem not too bad at all. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a bone chilling, and that’s saying a lot for a guy who enjoys winter as I do.    

Speaking of winter, it’s pretty much put to rest as of this scribing. But we can’t count it out for yet another couple weeks. Remnant splotches of snow in roadside ditches and shadows of the forest, along with broken tree branches, a few downed telephone poles and sagging phone lines linger as the only reminders of our past season.   

A further note on the area's advance toward seasonal rebirth, declares the ice is out on area lakes. Here on Gunflint, the progression of open water took the better part of a week, with final hard water disappearance at the east end occurring on April30. So it lasted just about as I thought it would. I’m indebted to a friend down the road who stepped up to make the official “ice-out” call in my absence.     

The water now lapping against our granite shore is every bit as joyous, as is the anticipation of those first freezing crinkles each November/ December. It’s just pretty darn energizing! And for angling enthusiasts, there will be no worry about ice in 2016 for getting after those walleyes next weekend.   

Back country roads are drying readily as run-off is back into drainage swales and culverts. In fact, my return trip found the vehicle kicking up dust instead of “mud season” goop!    

Meanwhile, the forest landscape is drab as it awaits renewal of chlorophyll production. The deciduous part of the forest is barely into the budding stage. However, coniferous cousins have regained the verdant twinkle as their juices are already running.     

Signaling spring is in full swing, snowshoe hares have just about completed their warm season wardrobe transition. One crossed our path on the county road during last Sunday's return. It was sporting the usual dusty summer coat with the only reminder of winter garb, being its snow white socks. 

In a closing tidbit, it’s always a relief to get back home after a time away. I was amused while beginning to unload the vehicle, as a couple of resident squirrels came by to greet me. Obviously they wanted a hand-out as they scurried about, chattering food service orders. Following me like a canine pet, until I threw out some seed morsels, one excitably came close to running into the house while I carried in luggage. It sure is nice to be wanted!  

This is Fred Smith, back on the Trail, at Wildersmith, savoring the Gunflint charm!

(photo by Enzik via Wikimedia Commons)
 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: April 22

Spring has finally won out here in the North Country. It has taken over intensely since our last visit over the air waves.

Going from jackets, furry hats and gloves to shirt-sleeves in a matter of a few days has many of us in shock. How warm has it been, it was so warm that my first outdoor activities subsequent to snow shoveling drew perspiration not seen since last October.

Taking the warm weather wrinkles a step farther, the copious snows piling up from mid-March to mid-April have shrunk to no more than plowed roadside windrows and shoveled heaps. “Old Sol” gulped this northern snow cone like a thirsty kid at the state fair.

Border country streams and rivers are gushing wildly on their way to frozen lakes. But at the time of this recording, lake ice remains intact out this way.

Ice on the Gunflint Gal has barely broken away from our Wildersmith shoreline. With nothing scientific to base my prediction on, it is my best guess the ice here will last another week to ten days. If this prediction plays out, it will put us into the first few days of May which is near average for our ice-out.

Spring is popping out all along the Trail. Pussy willows are purring their fuzzy arrival, while trees of the forest are trying to straighten themselves up following winter's trunk bending-stress of several unusual wet heavy snows.

On back woods roads, we “mudders” are slogging through a second siege of meltdown ooze. The tepid winter gave us hope of an early “mud season” in late February and early March. However, the recent thirty day surge of snow and cold stopped all that and now we are experiencing “mud season” number two. Any desire of maintaining a clean vehicle should be put to rest at least for another couple weeks.

The forest is alive with “tweeters” and I don’t mean of the cyber variety. Robins are rampant and flickers are flocking from whence they spent the past cold season. Both seem to hang out in goodly numbers along area byways at this time of year for some reason. I get a kick out of flickers zipping up from the roadsides with their white feathered bottoms making for easy identification.

Bears have yet to make their grand entry in this neighborhood, but yours truly is taking no chances at tempting a visit. I have removed deck-side feeding stations that could be an attraction.

This of course causes issue for the area pine martens. There is no longer a facility where morsels can be placed for securing their goodies from the birds and squirrels. That in mind, marten visitors have been grudgingly scrounging through an open tray of oiled sunflower seeds.

Sharing the cafeteria line amongst martens, squirrels, jaybirds and other winged folk obviously causes many uncomfortable dining experiences. In fact, a few mornings ago, two martens wisely arrived in the twilight hour to apparently avoid the after-sunrise breakfast rush.

Sadly, this dining opportunity is soon to end as I’ll have to stop the seed distribution as bears like them, too. However, with snow cover waning, bare ground will once again provide nourishment fortunes although not accessed as easy. To all my dependent critters, see you again when the snow flies.

Martens aren’t the only meat eating critters to turn omnivorous at times. Protein can be scarce in these parts with members of the Canid family often caught hanging out under bird feeders to scarf up seed scatterings of the feathered folk.

With venison fortunes hard to come by up this way, a gal in the mid-Trail area recently shared a great video capturing a hungry wolf lapping up seeds off the avian tray near her deck.

Without question, every species on the planet, including billions of malnourished human beings, is in an on-going quest for nutritional elements at one time or another. We all need to help whenever prudent and practical!

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, watching the rebirth of our natural world!

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: April 15

There’s hope for serious spring-like temperatures as this week’s Gunflint scoop comes your way. However, while my scribing hits the keyboard, it’s snowing once more in the Wildersmith neighborhood.

For winter worshippers, things have been glorious over the past month with snow, snow and more snow. I suppose some in these parts are beginning to wonder if this recent siege will ever end.

Up to the moment, around this place we’ve now totaled slightly over 102 inches, and we’re still counting. It’s been exactly 30 days since the snow-maker slipped into high gear, giving us one-third of our seasonal total. Guess one should never count the season down and out until the “gal” (Mother Nature) in charge of things says it’s so! In the immortal words of NY Yankee great, Yogi Berra, “it ain’t over, ‘til it’s over.”

With spring out there somewhere, energies are at a high pitch for the leadership of the Gunflint Trail Historical Society. The focus of course is another Chik-Wauk Museum season and the anticipated opening of their new Nature Center building.

Finishing touches are being made on the facility as the GTHS awaits delivery of exhibits from the design “pros” at Split Rock Studios. Arrival and installation of the displays is hoped for some time next week assuming road bans allow such.

After several years of visioning, planning, jumping through hoops and fundraising, the thought of this project being opened for family friendly viewing and learning is exciting beyond the organizations wildest dreams. The Nature Center will be open daily along with the museum beginning on the Memorial Day weekend.

In addition to completion of the Nature Center building, work is being wrapped up on a small administrative/archival storage unit. Both of these Chik-Wauk additions are being fit onto the footprints of where buildings were located during the days of resort operations. In each case these structures are simple rehabilitations, not actual restorations.

Telling more of the Chik-Wauk story does not end here. Planning is already underway for the construction of an open-air structure which will display, and further tell the stories about life on the lakes along the Gunflint. It too will be located on the footprint of the original shoreline dock (across the driveway from the Nature Center, on the northeast bay) where the first resort operators had theirs.

The timber-frame constructed “marine equipment” display unit is set to be built by GTHS volunteers under the guidance of professionals at the North House Folk School, on the Folk School Campus in Grand Marais, this coming August. Installation of this facility is scheduled for the summer of 2017.

And last but not least, on the drawing board now is a rehab of one Chik-Wauk Resort guest cabin. Target for this addition is uncertain, but hopefully, as soon as design approval is procured and additional funding is raised. This too will be located on a historic cabin site.

It’s hoped all will mark their calendars for another visit this summer to share in some new Chik-Wauk magic!

Speaking of those just mentioned GTHS volunteers, as we near the end of National Volunteer Week, I would like to express my thanks to all the good folks both around the Cook County area, in Grand Marais and up the Trail for all they do to make this place on the northern Riviera the special attraction it is!

Since I reside out this way, I am especially conscious of the people of the Gunflint Community who always answer the call for whatever and whenever, without fail. Not only are you wonderful friends and neighbors, your commitment is uniquely remarkable, in making sure this byway through paradise remains an unequaled natural, cultural and historical resource.

As a volunteer myself on many community tasks, I’m rewarded by gaining far more satisfaction from serving than I actually provide in services. I would guess this attitude is shared by all along the Gunflint who continually pitch in…thank you so much!

On a closing note, as I was finalizing the first draft of this Gunflint report, we had a deck-side visit from a “real” big bird. Following a dinner of roasted chicken, I set carcass remains out on the feeding tray for the pine martens. In no time at all, a “piney” was here, feasting to its content. In a short time, it disappeared with a mouthful to be stockpiled somewhere in the woods.

Soon after, out of the heavens, a bald eagle swooped down to an unprecedented landing at our gourmet trough. Having never had this happen before, it remains a mystery whether the “great American symbol” had its eye on the poultry remains or the pine marten.

The “awesome avian” didn’t hang around long, departing without a chicken dinner. Guess it might have preferred our offering in the uncooked state, as opposed to our tasty processed gourmet version.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, enjoying what may be the last moments of winter!

(Photo courtesy of Marie Hale on Flickr)

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Redpoll

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: April 8

It appears “old man winter” might have been in Florida with the college kids on spring break back in early March, and now he’s back. It’s a week into April and there’s no foolin’ around as the “frosty fellow” has turned up the volume, putting some dandy finishing touches on his ’15-‘16 winter inventory.

Who knows what will be on the atmospheric menu by the time this scribing airs, but the scene as of this past weekend would have one believe the “grand old ruler” of cold and snow is trying to make up for lost time. For weeks my commentary has lamented on what a meek winter this area has experienced. However, since the middle of March the snow machines have been cranked up.

More snow was added to the border country total last Sunday as another eight to nine inches fell on the Wildersmith neighborhood. Added to the late March deposits, the most recent coating brings us to somewhere over two feet during the past three weeks. And the seasonal total to above 90 inches.

I’m not complaining because any snow is good snow. Yet it would have been nice if more of these late season happenings could have occurred in November and December when the timing would have better accented holiday decorating. Nonetheless, the heavy-laden boughs of April are spectacular for one more time. And I’ll contend with the “mud season” being extended while bug season is delayed.

There’s a possibility I could be getting blamed for the last snowy occurrence, as I had the winter wheels taken off my vehicle in favor of summertime treads. My wife said I should wait a while longer, but it’s a little late now! Happily, I still have the snow blade on my Kubota machine.

Snow was not the only order of business recently. It was downright cold too! It is not impossible to have single digit to below zero readings this time of year, but we’ve been spoiled up until recently with some swell light-jacket to shirt-sleeve weather. The temp actually dipped slightly below the nothing mark around here on the eve before our weekend blitz, and then bottomed out at -21 this past Monday morning.

For folks put out about this winter resurgence, this too will pass. On a recent run to Grand Marais, my wife observed what she thought were pussy willow buds along the Trail. While in another spring thing, the announcement has been made of a “robin red-breast” sighting. So in spite of this setback, the calendar says we’re headed in the warmer direction. We might even be wallowing in the slop again as I bring you this week's Gunflint scoop.

It’s interesting how big atmospheric turn-arounds seem to energize the winged critters. With our landscape blanketed in cold white once more, there’s excitement beyond description at our deck-side feeding station. We’ve been inundated by droves of redpolls, chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches. At the other end of the spectrum, when things warm up, the same gang can be found flitting about tweeting a happy note in celebration. How awesome are the critters of creation.

It’s near birthing time for the wild canine critters in these parts with wolf and coyote pups and fox kits soon to join our “wild neighborhood.” And although bear sightings have not been reported, hungry moms and new cubs cannot be far away from ravaging our neighborhoods.

So although life in Gunflint Country is pretty much in the “slow lane” by human measure, the natural world is executing drama with every blink of an eye.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, just keepin’ on, keepin on!

(Photo courtesy of Sue on Flickr)

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: April 1

The Wildersmith two are back in the woods. It’s sure a joy to be home in the peace and quiet along the Mile O Pine. Although time spent with our daughter is always precious, being away from what’s supposed to be organized civilization for seventeen years finds us almost completely out of touch with all the urban hub-bub. Too many people and too many vehicles!  

Ten days visiting in southeast Iowa, found spring in full swing. Daffodils were blooming, grass was nearing the mowing stage and Rhubarb had perked up from its winter abode. Meanwhile, back on the northern front, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased to return to our winter character. In spite of a slushy/muddy combination while slogging down our pathway to “paradise found”, the scene of still copious white on either side of the road was encouraging after finding many stretches along the north shore drive looking crunchy dry.              

To substantiate it being quite dry down that way, during my trip back to border country this past Monday, I was shocked to see a burned patch about an acre in size right along highway 61. It’s unknown whether this was an accident or prescribed burn. Whatever the case, the scenario rekindles one’s attention to dangerous wildfire potential up this way in the days and weeks ahead. This serious situation suggests a reminder for Trail residents to be making plans for having those wildfire sprinkler systems operational as soon as open water is available.                                                                                                                                  
Just when the area appeared headed toward a serious early season brown-up, the wimpy winter mustered a fourteen inch surge on March sixteen and few more inches since has brought our seasonal total to over eighty inches in this neighborhood. The storm provided a generous addition to the snow pack of which the final meltdown will help replenish several depleted area lakes.                                                        

Regarding lake ice, the unseasonal warm rush, during the first two weeks of month three, had things cooking toward a potential new record ice-out. However, the tail end of this third segment has things back on a more normal course and lakes I passed along the Trail remain pretty well locked in crystal right up to the shorelines.                                                                                                     

Outside our back door, the ice on Gunflint Lake had several massive soggy patches of gray prior to the southerly departure, but our return finds her tightened back up for the time being. Thus, the early ice-out record of March 25 set in 2012 remains intact. Nevertheless, it’s almost certain ice will be making its disappearing act soon, rather than the usual end of April to early May.                                                                                                                  

Both ice-on and ice-out leads to much seasonal bantering and even a pool or two as to when such will occur each year. One instance of ice-out lore reflects on pioneer Gunflint mail runner, Don Brazell predicting ice-out on the Gunflint Gal following a succession of lake ice departures going up the Trail.                                                                                                                           

To recap Don’s historic account, beginning with the opening up of ice on the Brule River at the north Brule Bridge, it is said, seven days later, the Tuscarora Pond will open and seven days after Tuscarora, the Gunflint Lake will shed her winter coat. The progression then extends to Saganaga (Sag) as Gull and Seagull Lakes become players in the process with their solidarity sinking from the southwesterly direction. Lifelong resident, Bruce Kerfoot, attests to this commentary being pretty much true to form during his seventy plus years in the territory.                                                                                                                  

I would guess the key issue might be defining with some degree of accuracy whether the river opening is just a trickle or completely free of hard water shore to shore. So we’ll all be watching for one more of those celebrated, natural Gunflint adventures!                                                                                                                                                                      

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith! Savoring outdoor transitions!

(photo by mattbuck via Wikimedia Commons)
 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: March 18

It’s frightful what’s been going on in the north woods since we last met on the radio. Over the past seven, with temps some twenty degrees above normal, there’s a scent of spring in the air, but it’s supposed to be winter! There’s just no seasonal bite anymore.  

All this being about six weeks early, the upper Gunflint is flat out into our icky ice and mud scene. Locally, we in the Wildersmith neighborhood are being terrorized with the worst case of slippery wet conditions in 17 years. Movement out of doors has been at no more than snail's pace, either on foot or in the vehicle, for fear of ending up on one's posterior or careening off into the woods on wheels.   

Improvements are slow to happen as areas along the shaded Mile O Pine have been spared the power of “Old Sol” to some extent. Slow melting has allowed daily oozing, which then has been refreezing to skating-like surfaces by the next AM. This is further complicated by a few open places where beaming rays have gashed the frozen surface with patches of bare road. So one moment, one can splash along safely, only to end up slip sliding along on water slick ice.

At the time of this broadcast/scribing, the Wildersmith driveway remains a slippery path to vehicle disaster with all friction applications being of little support. That in mind, the truck sits on high ground until further notice. 

The wilderness landscape has become a patchwork of white and brown. In our yard, it is interesting to assess how winter winds dispersed the snow. Spots where gusts had direct access, a thin coating has easily been whisked away by our meltdown. Meanwhile, protected places have substantial white remnants, in spite of being reduced by a considerable amount during the past days.

Observing sunrise on the morning before daylight savings time, confirmed to me spring is now in command. Beams of light lit up the forest and revealed the first return of arachnids. Their network of fiber optics is already strung between our coniferous appendages. It was quite surprising to see the filaments so soon.  

Even more startling, a couple creepy crawlers have made illegal entry into our house, yuck!  At ground level, a “murder” of crows has returned and is busy picking through winter remains while breaking silence of the neighborhood with raucous conversation.  

Another sign of more “Vernal” times finds tree juices thawed to resume the flow skyward. This is evident as the snow has melted away from the base of trees creating interesting tube-like exposures of bare forest earth in the white.

In another moment of flowing spring energy, a couple fellows down the road have tapped their way into several Mile O Pine maples. This collecting process is obviously in quest of sweet nectar for syrup making.

The fisher that had been making appearances at several locations down the road, recently made its way to the Smith place. This large version of a pine marten apparently knew its way around here, perhaps affirming a previous visit. Unfortunately, all the cupboards were bare as it arrived checking out each feeding station. With noses pressed to the window glass watching such an uncommon visitor, this ferocious critter seemingly gave a glance our way, as if to say “where’s the beef” and then scampered off into the forest.

A few days later the maple sap collectors mentioned earlier had an exciting moment when they happened upon a Canadian lynx. The handsome feline was caught in a sitting pose, either sunning itself along the county road, or doing a little hare reconnaissance. It was interesting the north woods cat did not make a move until the fellas were about six feet away before loping off into the trees toward Gunflint Lake.

In a sad note, “Dog Days of Winter” activities scheduled on Poplar Lake last Sunday, went for naught. A casualty of all this warm sloppiness, events had to be cancelled. Hopefully, energy for this event carries over to next year with hope for revival of a real “Northwoods” winter. 

Before signing off…after all this talk of spring being in the air, winter has come back.  A falling of some 12 to 14 inches of snow covered the Wildersmith neighborhood and has put things on hold once more.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith. Regretting a winter lost, but savoring a rebirth of the forest! 

(photo by Phillippa Warr via Flickr)

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: March 11

I sound like a broken record in recounting the week's upper Gunflint weather. Trail residents went through a third consecutive weekend meltdown. This past episode took on more serious connotations in terms of winter packing up and calling it a season. With a forecast of unseasonal warmth in the offing this week and beyond, it would seem “old man winter” has played his last hand.

Sadly, if such is the case, this has to be one of the shortest winters in memory. When borderland normal usually ranges from November into May (a good half calendar year), we barely experienced three months in ‘15 and ’16. Whether this is a cyclical phenomenon or another outgrowth of self-serving mankind abusing the environment, guess we might as well accept this is probably the new norm.

A brief reflection of what our season of cold and snow has been, finds snow accumulation at Wildersmith to date measures 66 inches. Most of this has fallen in minimal doses of two, three or four inches with no meaningful droppings at least in this neighborhood.

Meanwhile we did not experience the traditional multi-day siege of sub-zero in January. In fact, we had only a handful of morning low temps in the minus 25 to 30 realms. This followed a bumbling December with minimal frosty personality and February having little bitter clout as well. To further illustrate the meek north woods air, the National Weather Service sensation of wind chill has been almost non-existent. Bluntly speaking, my favorite season has been simply wimpy!

Here we are heading into the second week of March, warm, slushy and slimy slick under foot. Trail-side snowbanks are showing the look of icky urban crud, and “mud season” seems just a few more warm days off and early to say the least. Adding to our winter catastrophe, rain showers, hail, thunder and lightning pelted various places up the Trail early this week.

It would seem the Ojibwe full, “crust on the snow moon” will be inappropriate this time around. The way things are going, there may be no snow left as we reach the “Vernal Equinox” and the full lunar rising about the same time.

On another note, this coming Sunday (2:00 am) marks another instance of our society tinkering with the natural world, as we nonsensically “spring ahead” on our time pieces. To yours truly, time passes by fast enough, surely lessening the need to jump our clocks ahead every year at this time. Furthermore, the “fall back” come November is little noticed and always seems a lost cause in the total scheme of late autumn happenings.

Getting down off my “soap box” now, I’m happy to announce the annual trout fishing derby made it just under the wire as winter staggered under a beaming “Sol” last Sunday. Somewhere over 70 ice anglers registered for the competition on sloppy Gunflint Lake ice.

A big crowd of onlookers gathered to enjoy a day in the sun as they stood on the ice in ankle deep slush and water. Miraculously, there were no issues with the uncommonly thin frozen surface. Guess it was safe enough though as any number of pickup trucks ventured onto the gooey mess, and at day's end, spun their way back to the mainland.

The purpose of the day was trout catching fun, but only a few were pulled through the hard water holes. The fish, once again, had the last laugh as only five were posted by quitting time.

In the end, two Grand Marais gals were at the top of the leader board. The $500 first prize, for the largest catch of the day, went to Lynn Christensen, with Britney Trovall coming in second. Congratulations and thanks go out to the organizing Cook County Ridge Riders, on braving the difficult lake conditions for another swell event.

At broadcast time, the “Dog days of Winter” are still on the docket for Sunday in spite of the big warm-up. The dogsled derbies and skijoring will be held on Poplar Lake at Trail Center Lodge. To keep track of any possible scheduling changes due to the reeling winter conditions, check visitcookcounty.com.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail at Wildersmith, savoring the thought of real yesteryear winters and looking for first buds of the next generation.

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