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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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The Gunflint area is bathed in the light of the full moon.

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: February 10

The Wildersmith two are back in the woods. After a swell visit with family and friends from border to border in Iowa, it’s great to be home in the quiet of Gunflint country. The greatness of unorganized territory is never more cherished than when one is absent for several days after being caught up in the hubbub of civilization.                                                                                        

While logging some 1,600 miles of windshield time, extremes of upper Midwest weather made we travelers relish the security of hanging out in our wildland abode. Treacherous roads through southern Minnesota and northwest Iowa had us white-knuckling it for a third of the trip. Then bare pavement eased the return until reaching icy Trail patches leading us back to white reality.

Although our Gunflint winter to date has been fairly wimpy, we can be grateful as surprisingly most areas traveled south of the Minnesota line were largely devoid of snow and temps along our stops seemed prematurely spring like.

Happily a few inches of snow were added shortly before we commenced down the Mile O Pine, and then fluffed things up in the first February weekend, along with temps hovering about the zero mark. The now cold, dried snow has allowed me to regain use of my driveway for more than a slippery walking path. Hope it stays this way until mud season arrives.                                                  

Sure is nice to have recaptured seasonal conditions after a terrible warm siege last half of January. Some of us are not ready for spring in spite of seed and gardening catalogs luring us toward a new growing season. We have more winter yet to enjoy and “Mother Nature” has turned on the snowmaking machine since I commenced with this weeks’ commentary.  

Heading into this weekend, borderland greets the second big moon of year 17 as the Ojibwe, full “sucker moon” will light up our lives in this land of enchantment. The monthly lunar experience is one to behold most anywhere in the universe, but probably not as lustrous as it can be in the snow covered north land.

It’s hard to figure how critters react to the Smith’s not being around with daily nutritional hand-outs. One thing for sure is the woodland chatter doesn’t take long to be passed along when we get home. Our homecoming finds enthusiasm around the feed trough is delirious amongst the wild returnees, and it’s catching for us viewers too.

In the midst of the usual gang has been a raven. It came in and took over the chow line on “Super Sunday” keeping all others at bay until a tap on the window glass sent the ebony beauty flapping off into the pines. I’m wondering if it might be the one with whom I conversed a couple weeks ago. If so, perhaps it could be that my “awking” exchange back then was taken as an invitation to dine here at the “McSmith” eatery.

It seems as though tragedies often occur in segments of three. Such is the case once again for the Gunflint Trail community. Following the deaths of two friends and neighbors since first of the year, word has been received of yet another loss. The family of Jean Schmidt-Smith, (no relation), has sent word of her passing in early January.

Jean lived in Black Mountain, North Carolina, but resided seasonally at her cabin (“Grand Portage”) on the north shore of Loon Lake with her late husband Frank. She so loved the Gunflint territory and so many loved her, she was a really nice lady! Trail condolences are extended to her surviving family and friends.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, where every day is exceptional, and great to be shared with the “wild neighborhood.” Happy hearts and chocolates day!
 

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Raven in Snow

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: January 27

Hard to believe month one is almost history. It’s fading as fast as our winter has over the past several days. The weather outside’s been frightfully warm.

Things are melting away like it was March/April, pretty sad for the north woods mood of hearty folks enduring grizzly conditions in January. But it is what it is.  With roof tops dripping and ground level slush, we’re covered from top to bottom in extreme climate evolution.

This trend we’ve been experiencing in recent days makes for many hardships. Most of which surely involve complications for business owners who depend upon our usual winter to enable activities for sustaining their operations.

It would appear cross country ski trails might be taking the biggest hit. Considerable manpower and time will be needed to bring them back to acceptable status when cold normalcy returns. Meanwhile, I hear power sledders mucking through the slop on Gunflint Lake as they traverse to ice fishing spots or to the next shoreline trail access. It’s a real mess!

Personally, moving about our place has required enhanced caution on slippery surfaces to maintain the vertical.

And, for the second time this year vehicle use of my driveway incline has been stymied for fear of being stuck at the bottom in an unenviable position until spring.

This untimely thawing couldn’t have come at a worse time for organizers of the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon traveling into the territory this weekend. Unless a turn-around should bring some cold and new snow, one has to feel for the stars of the show as they journey on what will likely be difficult trail conditions. Further, should temps be way above zero, like they’ve been lately, the difficulty rating is made even worse?

Let’s hope “old man winter” gets a grip and shows his true stuff for this great event.

One could guess the warm spell might have the “wild neighborhood” critters confused. However, they probably adapt better than we two legged invasives. So the beat goes on in the animal kingdom,

The less than bitter weather enabled yours truly to venture out for a brush burning exercise last week. During the time, my activity must have summoned the curiosity of a raven. The jet black bird settled into the tree tops not far from the ascending puffs of smoke.

It proceeded to strike up a conversation which I soon believed must be directed at myself. After a few indiscernible “awks,” I sent back a few of my own. Obviously not knowing what I was “awking” about, the two of us exchanged small talk for a few minutes. The ebony creature must have tired of the chitchat because it eventually took off into the wild blue yonder.

I’m betting it probably wondered what kind of a “boob” could have been speaking in such meaningless jargon. Somehow, it was fun to imagine this gabby one might just have enjoyed sharing the afternoon goings-on with this old guy.

A story of another intriguing animal happening came my way recently. During the cold snap of mid-month, seemingly a distant memory now, an unusual visitor came down the chimney at a place near end of the Trail. This had nothing to do with the bearded, jolly old soul in a red suit as one might visualize.

I’m told a curious, and maybe cold pine marten found “up on the house top” access to an opening in a fire place chimney. Apparently exploring what this black hole was all about, it lost its grip and slid down the sooty chute landing with a plop in the firebox.

Luckily the residents’ had the firebox glass doors closed so the furry critter did not get loose into the house. Needless to say panic set in for both the animal and the gal of the house.

The frightened animal made all kinds of commotion but was in no way going to get out the way it came in. A connection with her spouse brought him to the rescue and eventually a friend.  Considering several options, it was decided to give live trapping a try. This had to be of concern as opening those glass doors to wide could have resulted in a disastrous chase around the house.

In the end, baiting up the trap at first didn’t work as the scared/angry critter would not make a complete entry. Eventually moving the bait to end of the trap enticed “piney” to enter fully and in so doing, bang, the trap door dropped close.

Much to the relief of all concerned it was incarcerated and escorted out doors where a release to the custody of “Mother Nature” ensued. All’s well that ends well, perhaps lessons learned by both man and a nosey beast!

For WTIP, this is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, where every day is great and most any adventure is possible!
 
 
 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: January 20

My usual Sunday night exercise of putting the Gunflint scoop together finds the “great old man of the north” taking a break. The “cool north woods” fellow has been working overtime producing some real bitterness in the air, and must be totally out of cold breath.                                                                 

After the coldest night of the season a week ago Friday, with minus 36 at Wildersmith, a sun bathed upper Trail zoomed up to the teens and twenties by Sunday afternoon. As this report airs, forecasters predict some January thawing. Drip, drip yuck, this isn’t necessary until April.                            

Five inches was added over the past week bringing our seasonal total of snow in this neighborhood to 41 3/4-inches. Moving around here in the woods over the past week confirms on-the-ground depth to between knee and thigh deep.

It’s waning now, but how about that full, “great spirit moon.”  Clear, bitter cold nights found the “old lunar guy” casting his bluish splendor over the still, white mountain sides. Talk about spectacular!  A gal over on Hungry Jack Lake captured some of the magic and I share them with you here on the WTIP website.

Folks have come down with “fishing fever” since our last radio gathering.  First sign of the near epidemic cropped up last Friday as ice shanties started popping up on area lakes. This appearance of instant villages on ice came in prep for the opening day of lake trout angling. If one were to view this area from space, the little black shacks might look like snow fleas.

An avid fisher fellow, who shall remain nameless, experienced a quadruple of calamities on the Gunflint gal during opening day. To be ready at the brink of dawn, he set up his hut on Friday afternoon and preceded to auger his hole in the ice. Posting his DNR overnight hovel permit, all was in readiness so he retired to his cabin.

In the midst of 20-something below zero the next morning, and full of excitement to drop a line, he opened his shack door only to find a foot of water had flooded his quarters. Calamity number one, and bailing out was initiated, then came a decision to just pull up and move the entire unit to a more favorable location.

This plan brought about the second of his debacles. Lake water had seeped under and around the base of his unit, freezing it into the icy surroundings. So a chopping, he commenced. After nearly three hours of hacking and sweating, it was free, but unusable. In the meantime, he dropped a tip-up line into the waters only to have a hit dispatch the hook and get away while he set up a make-shift wind breaker.

To make matters more frustrating, the third of his misfortunes was discovered while dragging the shanty to shore, his shack permit was lost, apparently blowing away down the lake.

Finally able to catch his breath and maybe a trout, the forth snafu found him dropping a line thru the ice when he got a hit with line tangled in his fingers. Surprised, a brief battle ensued while trying to untangle line from around a finger submerged arm deep in the icy hole. Again the fish jumped off, another catch missed! There were a couple more hit and miss opportunities before a prize was subdued and onto the ice. What a day!

The next days’ catching fortunes proved futile, and a head cold condition he brought with him from suburbia worsened, sadly sending him back to civilization. A discouraging weekend, but he’ll be back. You can’t keep a good fisherman down.

Speaking of ice activities, the fisher guy let me know Gunflint ice where he drilled was at 10 inches with slush firmed up. A subsequent report from others report hard water accumulation up to 14 inches. Another neighbor found a good deal of slush not far away as he buried his more permanent fishing structure in the icy muck while towing it up the lake.

By this time next week the area will be awaiting the howl of another sled dog adventure. Barking hub bub will again center along the mid-Trail as the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon comes through for a lay-over and  eventual turn around during its 400- mile journey from north of Duluth at Two Harbors. Most of the activity out this way will happen through the day on Monday. Look at the Beargrease website for more details.

Speaking of dogsledding, if one has not experienced a sled ride pulled by canines, it surely might be one to include on the old “bucket list.” Anyone interested can take advantage of such opportunities right out here in the wild woods. Both Gunflint Lodge and Bearskin Lodge offer dogsledding adventures. Give either of these two facilities a call for details and reserve a date now as conditions are excellent. Believe me, it’ll be a trip back in time to remember!

Another of our good Gunflint neighbors has passed from our midst. Word has been received about the sudden death of Rhoda Serrin. She succumbed at her home in Green Valley, Arizona. She and husband Phil lived and enjoyed their special summer place on West Bearskin Lake for many years. Gunflint Community condolences are extended to Phil, her family and many friends.

For WTIP, this is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, where every day is great, and special in so many ways!

(Photos by Nancy Seaton)
 

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 Red squirrel in winter

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: January 13

Official winter on the Gunflint is nearly a month old, and winter it is. Following our last radio visit, a couple snow days at Wildersmith netted eight more inches for the seasonal total.

Beyond this feature, the neighborhood has been cold, really cold! As I begin this report around the Smith place, six out of the past eight days have failed to see the mercury eclipse the zero mark with most warming only into the teens below. This past Sunday was the first in several where the thermometer finally jumped to near zero. It’s amazing how warm it can feel at zero after what we’ve experienced.

Cold as last Saturday was (getting up to minus single digits) one would never know it was such with enthusiasm over flowing along the upper Trail. Sled dogs and their mushers had the spotlight for the much anticipated Gunflint Mail Run.

Trails through the woods were spectacular and fast as hundreds of handlers, volunteers and spectators cheered the frost-covered teams during their symbolic mail delivery journeys. In the end two winners were crowned.  The eight dog (seventy mile) race was won by Chad Schouweiler of Irma, Wisconsin. While in the twelve dog (110 mile section), Ryan Redington of Ashland, Wisconsin lead the pack to the finish.

The weekend of colorful activities was another splendid sampling of the Gunflint community coming together in celebration of our natural world decked out in white. Congratulations and thanks go out to organizer, Cathy Quinn and near one hundred volunteers for all the time and hard work show casing a bit of Gunflint history and the magic of what we Gunflinters cherish every day.

A big thank you is further extended to many wonderful sponsors for providing essential resources. Of course, special recognition goes to Sarah Hamilton and her dedicated staff at Trail Center Restaurant for the superb hospitality as the event host.

Last but surely not in the least, a great bunch of mushers, their support teams along with stars of the show, their canine heroes, merit our gratitude for coming to the Gunflint.  

Before and after last weekends’ barking happenings, the peace and quiet of the forest has prevailed except for a moment of frenzy between yours truly and one of those pesky red squirrels. It took place at our deck side feeder one morning. This could be one of those believe it or not trivia, but believe me, it happened. A little background “info” is necessary to set the scene.

Each day I set out two ears of corn, attached to small platforms with a screw protruding to hold the cobs in place. The items are for any critter willing to gnaw on them, but generally they are stripped by the blue jays and/or squirrels in a matter of minutes to an hour or so.

The shelled cobs are then left in place until the next day when I collect them, replacing with refills. These cobs are saved for fire starters in the wood burning stove. The saga begins now, only a few mornings ago.

In the process of putting provisions out for the day, I removed one cob from its connection and laid it on the seed tray while I proceeded on to the next station. Out of the corner of my eye, a blurr caught my attention. Looking toward the source, a squirrel had darted up on the rail and grabbed the shorn cob. Immediately “little red” began to nibble on the end and then decided to abscond with the prize.

Without giving much thought, I started hollering at the larcenous rodent thinking I could scare it into dropping the cob. Obviously we were not in the same communication mode because it paid no attention, and made off down the rail, cob in its jaws.

In a few steps, I caught up to where a tree branch provided escape potential for the little varmint. For some unknown reason, it decided to stop, right in front of me. The two of us were now barely a foot apart. Surprised I could get this close, I made a quick stab at the stolen goods. Unbelievably, the red critter offered no resistance as I took my belonging right from its tiny paws.

The little gal/guy then made a leap to the adjacent tree, perching on a nearby branch, chattering “what for” at me. Again, we were not communicating in understandable terms, but I had a feeling I was catching the devil. Apparently with no hard feelings, my trickster buddy has returned, not missing a meal opportunity since.

So that’s my story, and I stand by it. Sorry, but you really had to be here to fully appreciate. It’s just one more joy of living in the untamed paradise we call border country.

Not all was fun and frolic along the trail this past weekend. The Gunflint community was saddened after receiving word about the death of a longtime neighbor. Don Lease, who lived in the mid-Trail area passed away last Friday in Saint Paul following a brief, but sudden illness. Our sympathies go out to wife Eleanor and his family on the untimely loss of this kind and gentle husband, father, grandfather and friend.

For WTIP, this is Fred Smith, on the Trail, where every day is great, and full of mysterious goings-on! 
 

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  Wildersmith reminds listeners that this weekend is "for the dogs" on the Gunflint Trail

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: January 6

Hard to believe, but week one of the New Year is nearly into the books. We at Wildersmith hope ushering in 2017 found everyone safe, happy and full of wishes for peace and goodwill throughout the universe.

Like falling snow, New Year’s Eve out here in the woods was the essence of quiet. The Wildersmith two stayed up to bid ‘16 farewell and welcome in ‘17 while watching the mass of humanity in New York City turn out the lights on one of the most difficult segments in 240 years. So off we go, newly energized, headed into the month of the Ojibwe full, “great spirit moon” -  Gich Manidoo Giizis.  
                                                                                                                                                             

At the time of this keyboard exercise, weather along the Gunflint Trail has been mostly gray, with several nuisance snows. By nuisance snows, I mean those creating just enough to give irritating cause for removal. For yours truly, if I’m going to have to move it, I want the white stuff to be worth my time. For anyone interested, total seasonal snow accumulation to date at the Wildersmith place amounts to a paltry 30 3/4-inches, with current on the ground measurements at about 1/3rd to 1/2 of this total.

Temps have been near normal with a few nights below zero since our last meeting. This has helped in the icing process on the big lakes. The surface thickness however, remains precarious on some bodies as many headwaters streams continue flowing into and under the shore line ice. I’m told there is serious slush in places on the Gunflint. Hard water anglers and power sledding folks need to execute extreme caution.

Wolves are on the prowl! A few days ago, a south shore neighbor reported the sighting of the Gunflint/Loon Lake pack tracking on the Gunflint ice near the Canadian side of the border. Six were counted as they trudged by. Here at Wildersmith, after a recent nuisance snow, some mysterious tracks blurred the new fallen fluff, appearing to be tracks from “Brother Wolf.” However, finding one paw print of more distinct clarity proved it was none other than the fisher. Yes, it's still hanging out around here.

As I continue counting my daily intake of carbohydrates, many of the holiday treats have outlasted their welcome, particularly since I limit myself to one bite per day. This in mind, I’ve been sharing left-overs with avian of the neighborhood.

Those scavenging blue jays and their “whiskey jack” cousins have been “Johnny on the spot” whenever I make a distribution. However, it’s been really interesting when a couple ravens discovered the sweet treats, causing a scattering of the blue bullies.

Those ravens found a couple morsels with chocolate, particularly to their liking. It was comical to see them depart with a cookie in their beaks. A side view of one in flight gave the appearance of a dark suspicious character with a cigar hanging out of its mouth.

A reminder once more, this is the weekend of the “dog” in Gunflint country. The symbolic rendition of the Gunflint Mail Run takes the mid-Trail stage this weekend. With snow and bitter cold in the forecast, conditions should be excellent and very realistic of yesteryear.

After a blessing of the dogs at 7:00 am, mushers and their teams will be hitting the snow pack Saturday morning at 8:00 am. Races will conclude for the 12-dog, long distance race from late night to the wee hours of Sunday morning. While the shorter, 70 mile event will see finishers from late afternoon Saturday into the evening.  Both the start and finish will take place on Poplar Lake near Trail Center Restaurant. As of this scribing, there are 15 teams in each of the divisions, both of which will have lay-overs during their treks.

The best observation point will be at the start. Following the start, teams will get spread out making them difficult to view with any sequence of regularity. Key points of observation for spectators look to be at Rockwood Lodge, Big Bear Lodge, road crossings at County Road 92 East; County Road 92 West; and Round Lake Road. Folks won’t want to miss the canine energy at eight o’clock and then again as they finish.

For WTIP, this is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, where every Gunflint day is great, and soothing to the soul!               

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Fisher at the feeder

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: December 30

This week's commentary finds everyone in the waning hours of the 16th year of this youthful century. Most anyone you would talk with has an opinion of the year we have endured. It would seem the good old USA has gone through some perilous downs with few ups to be marked on the ledger.

With the greediness of a populous opting for more and more personal wealth instead of the health and well-being of all its citizens, one has to wonder how much longer it will be before we just ravage ourselves into oblivion.

The good old “red, white and blue” are surely not so “united” as our name would infer, and our pledge of being “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” are words with little to no substance after the year we have witnessed.

2016 passes into the books with such bickering, back-biting, name-calling and struggling for power, that I for one am happy to have it pass on. 2017 just has to be better!

The question yet to be answered is, can we come to our senses and make it better, or continue down this path of divisive demise.

Getting off my “high horse” with happier tidings find we border country folks have moved on from the madness of holiday spending, traveling nightmares, family gatherings and over-eating. The peaceful north woods seemed so far away from urban commotion as we celebrated. About the only din has come from the neighborhood critters gathering for sustenance at the Wildersmith outdoor eatery during this Holy observance.

Residents in the Gunflint north spent last weekend on pins and needles in anticipation of another weather service “dooms-day” snow storm forecast, only to see one more “prognostication bust” along the international border. Out this way, light showers of white were all we mustered, counting to barely an inch and one-half. We have extended the ice making process on the Loon and Gunflint Gals, however.

A report from over on Loon Lake tells of otters enjoying some hillside sliding and then dipping into a hole in the ice for some fishing fun. Kind of mirrors some humans who do the sauna thing, and then wallow in snow or dip in the drink, if an ice opening permits. In either case, both species are reveling in this winter playground.

While our snow pack is less than ideal for power sledding, cross country skiing opportunities are readily available. Depending upon the upper Gunflint location, trails range from just packed, to groomed with skate lane and classic track. A call to Poplar Creek Guest House B &B, Golden Eagle, Bearskin, and/or Gunflint Lodge can render up to date ski trail conditions.

Last week's mention of the fisher visit to our deck has increased to more stops in the interim. The animal's range is known to be quite extensive, but apparently access to an easy hand-out has kept this gal/guy stretching its stay into a winter vacation.

While there’s considerable banter of our nation “going to the dogs,” such negative connotation doesn’t exist out this way. Dogs positively have been a way of life for information exchange and survival service for ages, prior to a surfaced byway.

With this in mind, celebrating this aspect of wilderness living in yesteryear is being marked for another year with the Gunflint Mail Run sled dog races. The sledding teams will be hitting the trails next weekend, January 7 & 8.

Two race distances will be featured, a 12 dog—110 mile run and an 8 dog—70 mile event. Headquarters and the start are located in the mid-Trail area near Trail Center restaurant.

Organizers remain in need of volunteers. Locals are being sought to lend a hand. Please make a contact with Cathy Quinn, gunflintmailrunvolunteer@gmail.com, or give Sarah a call at Trail Center, 388-2214.

Activities get underway Saturday, with a “blessing of the dogs” at 7:00 am. The first race (for the 12-dog sleds) heads off at 8:00am, to be followed by the 8-dog teams at 9:00am. For a complete scheduling of both days, go to gunflintmailrun.com.

The colorful barking event reflects the spirit and energy of Gunflint pioneer history so come on out and support this neat community happening. It’ll be a yelping good time!

For WTIP, this is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, where every day is great, with back country adventures always in the offing! Happy New Year!

 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: December 23

As the northland awaits the big Christmas day, the discussion is all about cold. Baby. it’s been cold outside. Beginning this week's Gunflint report, the “great spirit of the Arctic” has spent a good many days in the northwoods. For some folks in our territory, “his coldness” may be wearing out his welcome.

In the Wildersmith neighborhood, up through last Sunday when I started this keyboard exercise, we have not seen the plus side of zero in eight straight days. The mid-December trek toward the shortest daylight minutes of the year has felt much like January, but in the past few 24 hour segments, it has warmed some and snowed a little.

While temps to this point haven’t measured down to those of decades ago, the bitter cold has roughed us up a bit due to the warmth of just a few weeks ago. Our adjustment to real winter character has been rather harsh. 

Winds during the early days of this sub-zero stretch were not only biting to us two-legged beings, but the cold blasts also had waters on the big lakes out this way in turmoil. As waves bashed our shore lines, ice build-up has smoothed the jagged granite shards into velvety mounds of cupcake frosting.

In a continuance of last week's discussion of our vaporous lake surface, the decorating has been enhanced into the thickest forest flocking during my eighteen winters living in border country. Relentless west-northwest currents have made this wonderland more winter-like than one might ever imagine. This rocking and rolling water came about in cooling readiness for the big freeze.

Bound to subside eventually, the raucous air calmed last weekend allowing the Gunflint Gal to start slipping on her winter coat. By Sunday morning, the “Zamboni” finished the job. With the official ice-on date of December 18, this lake is already complaining about the fit, with some screeching conversation and a couple thunderous belches after less than 24 hours.

Thinking about how difficult extreme cold affects members of the “wild neighborhood,” I’m intrigued observing animals coming through the yard with frost accumulations on some of their body extremities. It’s hard to imagine them surviving when I see one draped with frost on its back, ear tips, forehead, eyelashes and whiskers. Some probably don’t endure, but most do, and it makes me shiver at the thought of how cold they must get. Obviously, “Mother Nature” has blessed them with amazing adaptive capabilities.

A few mornings ago, one of those red squirrels came to the feed tray with a fascinating set of white whiskers and a frosted tip on its tail. Moments later, our regular pair of “whiskey jacks” showed up with distinguished icing around their beaks and eyelashes. How cool was this!

Since our last meeting on the radio, a couple not-seen-so-often-visitors appeared at Wildersmith. First, was a fisher coming to the deck for a little dark hours scavenging. This pine marten on steroids was sizeable, perhaps large as spaniel like dog. Lush and healthy looking, it made short work of its small cousin's poultry treats, and then was off into the night.

The other visitor was a total surprise considering the brutal cold. Perhaps due to the still open Gunflint Lake water at the time, maybe I should have realized this could be possible in the waning migratory season. I’m talking about a mallard duck.

The “quacker” arrived in the midday hours, somehow getting up to ground level in front of our deck (around 125 feet from the shore). It was discovered slurping up spilled sunflower seeds as if there were no tomorrow, and shivering almost uncontrollably. Thinking it should be left alone, and not knowing what I would do with it if a rescue was attempted, I dropped more seeds which it consumed before waddling back toward the lake.

One would think it may not have survived another cold night. I wondered what or who might celebrate a duck dinner. Much to my surprise, the next morning it was back, nestled in a snowy crater scraping up more left-overs.

I had fleeting thoughts that this “lonesome duck” might become a regular when “old Piney” who had been dining on the mezzanine discovered this feathered visitor. The carnivorous fur ball snuck part way down a deck support post to check it out. The duck apparently sensed impending danger, found the marten leering at him and took flight toward the lake. The last I saw of this obviously “Cold Duck,” it landed and scooted down into the icy H2O. Meanwhile the marten decided against a chase and came back to the fast food tray.

By Sunday, with open water no longer available, only two possible outcomes remained in this frigid drama, this “Donald” (and I don’t mean Trump) went airborne to the south, or it sadly became a “ducksicle” treat on the wildland menu.

A somber note came to me reporting the loss of a bull moose along the Trail last Saturday night. A couple coming up the Trail found the animal being removed from the shoulder of the road just beyond the South Brule River bridge. Details of the situation are not known, but it is disheartening to hear. If the death involved a vehicle, the hope is none of the passengers were injured and their mode of transportation was not damaged totally. I might have more info by next time we meet.

For WTIP, this is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, wishing everyone safe travels, and happy holidays to all, and to all, a great day! 

 

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winter trees

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: December 16

Excitement is building as the birthday of all birthdays nears. Our holiday season is officially in the books for 2016 as the lonesome pine sentinel along the Trail has been lit for yet another year.

What a joy it is coming around the curve and down the hill beside Birch Lake to be greeted by the towering spruce all a glow with hundreds of twinkling bobbles to break up the darkest of darkness. Thanks to those folks on Birch for lighting up our wilderness lives. 

Another kick-off for our season’s greetings is recognized with the annual Borealis Holiday Concert of last weekend. A number of our Gunflint Trail neighbors lent their voices and instrumental talents to this “joy to the world” spectacle. Congrats to all participants and organizers.    

Add to these humankind happenings, the arrival of the full Ojibwe, “little spirit moon” within the last few days, and one could not ask for a brighter time in the final stanza of the year.

Conditions for winter time fanciers have been given a boost over the past seven with our first extended cold spell, better late than never. While new snow accumulations to date have been minimal, what’s on the landscape currently has been secured by Arctic cold.   

How cold was it? Not too terrible compared to days of old, but enough to get one’s attention when stepping out the door in-route to the wood shed for an armload of fire wood. An expectation of more sub-nothing temps by this scoop’s air time, might make our Wildersmith low temp of minus twelve last Sunday morning pale in frigidity.  
                  
The arrival of zero and below temps finds the yet to be frozen Gunflint Lake a steamy caldron. While waters are warm in comparison to the air above, this yearly occurrence has ghostly plumes drifting ashore from this warm/cold interaction. Accordingly, every appendage up into the shoreline forest is coated in delicate crystal frosting.  

The magnificence of this nature-made artistry is almost beyond comprehension. The frosted elegance is the subject of which Hallmark cards are made. The only stopping of this “Jack Frost” decorating show will occur when the winds calm, allowing the Gunflint Gal to put on her winter coat. 
                                                                                                              
Meanwhile, our winter advance is peaceful and quiet. With exception of chattering critters and snapping tree bark, our snowy landscape is still, in and of itself. Flakes are profoundly quiet as they accumulate, but once on the ground, the buildup can become somewhat vocal, as we humans disturb the covering by stepping in it.  

Such has become evident with the decline in temperatures during recent days. I find walking through the marshmallow mass to be fascinating, as each step meets the crystal surface compressing our fluff. Perhaps listeners, too, have noted a difference in tonal quality from warm soft snow to the crispy dry cold stuff. 
                                                                                                                         
Whereas, our earlier precipitation descended barely in a solid state and landed on warm earth, trekking in such happened in mere quiet, then to a slight “squoosh.” Over the past few days, a discernable change is noted while tromping in the drier crystal add-ons. As temps declined, it might be said each step caused the snow to mildly “bark” back at me. As the temp neared zero, each imprint then seemed to “squeak”, and on Sunday morning, when it was well below zero, the squeaking became a deeper, hollow resonance. 

I’ve read of such tonal exchanges while walking in the snow from a weather observer in Iowa, and sure enough, he seems to be right on. So, if you ever see me walking down the road on a winter day, seemingly talking to myself, I might be just visiting with the white majesty beneath my boots.     
                                                                                                                                                                    
On another subject, as this territory is in the flyway for many migratory birds, I came upon an informative article in the December/January Nature Conservancy publication. If such interests you, I’d recommend finding a copy and looking at the scribing, “Safe Flight—100 Years Of Protecting Birds.” The content is interesting commentary for digesting on a cold winter night. 
                                                                                                                                                 
For a final note, since this is also bear country, another thought provoking article appears in the recent Sierra magazine for January/February of ’17. Although this reading is focused on brown bears of the Northern Rockies, it has relevance to those of us who live in black bear territory. “The Return Of The Grizzly” by Aaron Teasdale relates to human/bear interactions, much like we experience here in border country. Again, if listeners can get a copy, the author relates an insightful look at how we should be living in close proximity with Ursine.    
                                                                                                                                                        
For WTIP, this is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, where every day is great, in a superbly natural way.
 

(Photo courtesy of Tom on Flickr)
 

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Nosey Rosey

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: December 9

Full blown winter remains on hold along the Gunflint Trail. At the moment I begin this week's scoop, conditions have slipped back into semi-cold season character. The unseasonably warm temps and rain that ended November are, hopefully, in the rear view mirror.

It would seem our notorious frosty atmospheric bragging rights might not appear until the winter solstice rings in on the calendar. In the meantime, winter recreation activities are having a difficult time getting into full gear. I am told there has been enough snow left on the mid-Trail area, following the big meltdown, to enable Trail grooming and some CC skiing opportunities. Further up this way, and on to Trails end, scarcely a couple inches of white covers the ground, save for protected spots.

Ice making has re-upped over the rain soaked lakes and most of the smaller bodies along the byway are covered over once again. I heard of one anxious ice fisherman who ventured out onto a couple inches of hard water, on an unidentified lake, to try his luck. Sounds a bit dangerous to me, but it’s told he tied rope around his waist and then to a tree on shore as a safety precaution before trekking out. Guess luck was on his side in regard to not cracking through, but don’t know if catching found the same fortunes.

Moose are on the loose as indicated by scattered reports. One observation came from a couple who spotted a quartet hanging out for a road side salt lick near the mid-Trail fire hall; while another report came in from a fellow traveling the Trail between Swamper Lake and the Bearskin Road intersection.

In this case, the driver was headed up the Trail and became enveloped in a white-out snow squall, when suddenly, there they were. A couple of the big animals were right in his path. Fortunately speed was not a factor, due to the blinding snow. Nevertheless, the vehicle was unable to come to a complete stop and slid into moose number one, while moose number two lumbered off the road into the forest.

Number one was struck in the hind quarters and knocked off its hooves. It scrambled to its feet, apparently not seriously injured, and headed on up the Trail. Neither the driver nor his vehicle sustained injury or damage. It was a lucky day for both the “hitter and the hittee.”

To conclude the short-lived confrontation, the fray must have irritated the beast. It defiantly chose to keep the vehicle at bay by taking its half of the byway out of the middle, until reaching the turn-off onto Bearskin Road. Once again, confirming the critters of “Mother Nature's, wild neighborhood” have more control of things than we would like to admit.

In the Wildersmith neck of the woods, “brother wolf” has made yet another obscure visit during darkness hours. Would sure like to know more about this mysterious wildland icon, but assume it prefers to not be seen while making reconnaissance rounds.

Paraphrasing iconic northwoods naturalist, Sigurd Olson, “it's the simple things” that enrich life with meaning. With this in mind, residents living throughout Gunflint Territory are embellished by the mere presence of unadulterated life about us. Most outsiders probably wonder why we would choose to live in unorganized territory so far away from “so called,” civilized hub-bub. Furthermore, what do we do with ourselves deep in this natural paradise?

More often than we might realize, our satisfaction and enjoyment are derived from the unadorned activities seen, heard or smelled during a walk down a back country road or watching just outside our windows.

Such is the case for yours truly during twilight time, at either end of the day. One cannot help but be energized this time of year. Wild critters gather in feeding frenzy, either for a new day's readiness or bulking up on energy morsels in order to survive the long cold night ahead. The enthusiasm of these furry and feathered gals and guys is delightfully uplifting. Every daily segment provides chattering delirium, akin to kids on Christmas morning.

News in these northwoods can be exchanged by any means, often via the moccasin telegraph or by any number of “cub reporters” who volunteer with a nose and ear to the ground reporting tip of the Arrowhead happenings.

As one of those, sadly I report the loss of a member of the WTIP family, with the passing of “Rosie, our “pup reporter.” “Rosie” covered me with on-air commentary for many years when I was away from the keyboard. In ill-health for several months, she recently passed on to those heavenly kennels in the sky.

With her dad, she could snoop and scoop with dogged energy, giving a unique perspective of back country snippets from a canine's down to earth level. Fans of Gunflint territory news will never forget her “woof, woof” observations after sniffing out and digging up borderland headline accounts. Memories of WTIP’s wagging tail pooch from Hungry Jack Lake are etched in yet another chapter of Gunflint Trail history.

The Trail community is grieving the loss of two longtime residents. Condolences are extended to the family and friends of John Baumann, and Andrew “Drew” Schmid. John is remembered as a onetime owner of Golden Eagle Lodge along with his family, while “Drew” lived and loved the woods from his beloved spot along Seagull Lake. In their own ways, both had a special place in history of the Gunflint Trail. They will be missed, and forever remembered!

For WTIP, this is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, where every day is great, and can provide a wild country adventure at any moment!

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: December 2

Well the weather outside’s been less than frightful, since our last meeting on the radio. Just when the north woods appeared to be into some serious ice making, the gods of meteorological happenings pulled up the reins.

Thanksgiving until the beginning of this scribing last Sunday evening, winter conditions have been on the brink of collapse in this neighborhood. A few more inches of snow was added to the pack early in the stanza, but settled invisibly into the previous storm totals nearly evaporating.  Add on four-tenths of an inch of rain by Monday morning and we’re in a sludgy mess around Wildersmith.

The thermometer has hung out at or near the freezing mark for days, not varying as much as a couple degrees from night time lows to day time highs. This in mind, our white blanket is soft and sticky making for slippery going on back country roads, driveways and walking surfaces. Thus a few unsuspecting urbanite visitors have found roadside ditches around the territory much to their disliking.

Speaking of slippery, such conditions have altered means of mobility at Wildersmith. Traversing down the driveway on foot is a slow, baby step adventure to avoid winding up on one’s posterior. Further, the idea of not being able to get my vehicle up the steep greasy grade has caused me to now park on top of the hill. For how long this will be needed is anyone’s guess. So getting to the vehicle has created double jeopardy. Caution is surely advised to all in this neck of the woods until a cool down makes for better traction on drier snow cover.
                            
Last weeks’ discussion of tracks in the snow has prompted intensified interest on wild beings’ extremity impressions. Just days ago footprints confirmed a visit from “brother wolf.” Although the critter was not observed, the near hand-sized paw prints found it meandering the yard in several different directions. The Canids’ presence is a bit unnerving, but then again, the adventure of knowing this iconic resident of the “untamed neighborhood” was close by energizes the primitive spirit of living in the wildlands. 
              
In the meantime, our next door neighbors recently met with what was perhaps another member of this upper Gunflint pack while traveling along the trail above Loon Lake. This meeting resulted in some great photo ops as the handsome animal tracked beside the byway. See a couple digital shots of their experience alongside my column on the web at WTIP.org. This lone wolf is a robust beauty.

In other snowy tracks activity, it’s evident a fox is making routine nocturnal visits to the yard. Then a couple days ago, the lush red hunter made a reality appearance, trotting by our deck. I do not purposely put food out, but I do catch an abundance of mice type rodents in my out- buildings. I toss them out into the snow and by next morning, all these dietary supplements are gone. It is my guess this might be an attraction for this foxy one.
          
With some assurance the bears have gone to napping, I’ve started putting provisions out on the deck side rail. To say our “wild ground and airborne friends” are busy keeping track of these handouts is an understatement. This in mind, another furry creature anecdote is worthy of mention
Within 24 hours of stocking the outdoor feed trough, those poultry poaching pine martens stopped in, making their first up close appearance since last spring. Lucky for them, the cupboard was not bare, and they’ve been regulars each day since.      
                                 
The world is now into week one of our next holiday season. Trail residents are reminded of the third annual Gunflint Trail Holiday Open House, Saturday, December 3rd. The event commences at 4 p.m. and runs until 7 p.m. at the Schaap Community Center (Mid Trail Fire Hall No. 1).  
                                                                                                                              
Once again sponsored by the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department and EMS Crew, dinner and refreshments will be provided. All are welcome, and in the spirit of this giving season, please bring a donation for our local food shelf. 
                                                               
For WTIP, this is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith, where every day is great as we wait for the real “Jack Frost” to get with it for keeps!

(Photo By Margo Brownell)

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