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Wildersmith on the Gunflint

Fred Smith

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.



What's On:
Pine Marten (travelling.steve/Flickr)

Wildersmith February 22

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Thanks go out to Rosey, that news-scoopin’ K-9 from over on Hungry Jack Lake, for covering my absence last week. After a run to Iowa for another family and friends visit, it’s sure nice to be back in the Gunflint territory. “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” in the woods!
What’s even better about returning to the wilderness is that the Smiths came back to a nice dose of fresh snow. The neighbors I left in charge of weather did a swell job as about 10 to 12 inches of the stuff helped me re-up my snow removal skills. It seems to be more than a quirk of coincidence that every time I head south, we get snow. Sure makes me wonder if Old Man Winter hasn’t placed a curse on me.
Now that the area is groomed in a new white base, winter activities are just what the doctor ordered. It’s paradise found for anyone who wants to make tracks in the wilderness.
In but a few days we’re heading toward the full “sucker moon” (so named Namebini Giizis by our Ojibwe neighbors). With the updated white blanket, our north woods landscape should be another “cool” neon lunar spectacular.
Along with another cold snap, both accumulating snow and thickening lake ice are secured at just the right time for the annual Cook County Snowmobile Club’s trout fishing derby on Gunflint Lake next weekend. That angling extravaganza is followed by the Mush for a Cure sled dog race  March 9, which also starts on the Gunflint Gal. Both events offer great fun for participants and spectators with lots of things going on in conjunction. Look for more details next week or better yet, check websites if you want info sooner.
Along with the usual rituals of mid-winter championed by mankind, like those mentioned above, there are some natural rites taking shape in some parts of the area. The first is those bone-jarring frost heaves in the Trail asphalt. It seems that they are making their appearance in the usual places, only a bit earlier than normal. So a trip to Grand Marais is becoming a real rollercoaster ride.
Another of those yearly happenings comes somewhat as a surprise since the territory went into winter sleep under extreme drought conditions. Most streams and rivers were barely a trickle at autumn’s end. Yet somewhere in the bowels of this great earth there is still water running.
Thus, winter trickles have finally frozen to the point where they are clogging area road culverts. The ensuing liquid backup is now being dammed into those mini roadside glaciers. Several spots along the Mile O Pine show that tannin-colored water seeping through the snow and thickening with each passing day.
Since the Smiths return to Wildersmith, we have been enjoying an abundance of pine marten visits. The luxurious poultry-loving fur balls have been here at all hours of the day and night. One evening found an uncommon situation, where a pair of them were sitting in the same feeding station partaking. There is usually a big fight when they get this close to each other at mealtime.
The normally carnivorous critters have been munching on not only the coveted chicken parts but also beating the squirrels to their cache of sunflower seeds (must be the oil that catches their attention). The other day I even observed one out hustling the blue jays to a tray of bread cubes. Guess when you’re hungry, most anything will do.
Sadness hangs over the Trail as friends mourn the loss of another Gunflint icon. Ralph Griffis passed away February 9 in Harlingen, Texas, at the age of 87.
Along with wife Bea, Ralph operated the Chik Wauk Lodge from 1957 until it was sold to the USFS in 1980. Through a special use agreement with the Forest Service, he and Bea continued living at Chik Wauk in the summers until departing for permanent Texas residency just before the turn of the century.
He will be long remembered for his caring ways, fishing prowess and captivating smile. He was so proud that the Gunflint community came together to form the Gunflint Trail Historical Society. And, that they worked so hard to turn the Griffis’ beloved lodge into a wonderful museum, preserving the storied Gunflint history. Gunflint Trail condolences are extended to his wife Bea.
Keep on hangin’ on, and savor a good time on the Gunflint!

Airdate: February 22, 2013

"During the Arctic spell, the area has been a place of soul-soothing silence..." (Mr.OutdoorGuy/Flickr)

Wildersmith: February 1

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Along with the rest of the universe, the upper Trail heads off into 2013 chapter two, February’s a calling! Wow, what an ending to January.
Although as of this keyboard exercise, the territory has warmed somewhat, we Gunflinters have endured serious cold conditions. Here at Wildersmith the thermometer did not ascend above the zero mark from Saturday afternoon the 19th, through about the same time on Saturday the 26th.
That calculates into nearly 170 consecutive hours, brrrrr! When the mercury did climb above the nothing point, it seemed like we should be getting out the Speedos. It is amazing how warm zero to 15 above can feel after such a stretch.
During the Arctic spell, the area has been a place of soul-soothing silence. With exception of the wind whirring through the pines, the only sounds of consequence were the creaking of the house, the deck contracting/expanding against the bitter onslaught and occasional popping of the frozen sap from one of our forest sentinels. I didn’t hear even one complaining groan from the lake ice to our north. 
Cuddling in the confines of homey warmth, about the only venture outside was for a sling of firewood twice a day and a frigid run to the mailbox. The ritual of feeding the neighborhood critters was even subdued. Visits from all the wild regulars seemed less frequent and their business at the trough was serious, with little chatter and bantering with each other.
The mystique of living through crispy segments like we’ve just experienced is captured in simple things that are often just overlooked. An example would be the frost around the eyes of the local jaybirds and, believe it or not, seeing the tiny puffs of expiration coming from the nostrils of our red squirrel varmints. Now that’s cold confirmation.
More nostalgia on life in the cold is watching the fleeting artistry of gray shadows being cast on the snow-covered ground from a puffing wood-burning stove. Ascending through midday sunshine, these remnants of warming combustion are but another sight that might never be paid attention if one wasn’t house bound.
Cold magic can also be captured if one is fortunate enough to be outside and catch a whiff of wood smoke during one of those wood shed runs. It kind of sends a spirit of border country warmth to the soul.
As the cold snap became more subdued, the neighborhood got a new delivery of snow. It was not a big dropping. The new four or so inches, coupled with the one from the week before, makes it look a lot like Christmas should have been. The quiet place where I do my snow measuring is now approaching about a foot and a half.
With the combination of new snow and more reasonable temps, winter activities are sure to pick back up…although I did see a few ice angling crazies that were not thwarted by the cold. Going by here at 25 to 50 miles per hour on a snowmobile en route to the old ice fishing shack is a scary/dangerous example of manmade wind chill!
Cross-country ski trails having been regroomed and tracked, and look to be in fantastic shape, and plein air artists and snow sculptors have been out capturing our winter outdoor world over this past week. By the way, Winter Tracks activities get underway around the county this weekend.
Meanwhile, the Gunflint woods will be howling with more than wolves, as power sleds will be roaring through the forest tomorrow (Saturday). The fourth annual snowmobile club “Fun/poker run” will scream off mid-morning.
The big slide will cover some one 100 miles from Devil Track Lake out to Gunflint Lake and back. As many as 150 sledders are expected to take part. Lots of fun activities are planned in concert with the happening. Hope for a safe and sane day!
Keep on hangin’ on and savor winter as we have it now! Come out and enjoy!

Airdate: February 1, 2013

"The “northern express” arrived last weekend, a bit late, but roaring with a vengeance..." (Anette K/Flickr)

Wildersmith January 25

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“His fullness” the “great spirit moon” (Gich-Manidoo-Giizis) shines down on the northland this weekend. Like a billion candlepower flashlight it will be beaming on some wonderful new powder. Our landscape is whitewashed again in fresh, unspoiled elegance.
The “northern express” arrived last weekend, a bit late, but roaring with a vengeance. A storm blew into the upper Gunflint about the time last week’s commentary was being aired. By Saturday night, the snow gods had left over 10 inches of snow in the Wildersmith neighborhood, and it was OK!
As if the snow wasn’t enough, a blustery wind followed and ushered in some noteworthy cold. How cold was it? By Sunday morning, the zero mark had been eclipsed by 26 degrees on two different thermometer locations around the yard, (yes it was 26 below).  Then it was even colder by Monday a.m. (minus 35, actual).
Although this is not cold by yesteryears’ standards, it was shocking since we’ve been spoiled for the first half of the season. This frosty happening is, perhaps, a flu-killing cure if it hangs around for several days as predicted. We can only hope so, as many have been suffering with the dreaded angst throughout the northland.
It was amusing as I peeked out of the crystal-covered windows last Sunday to see that some of the neighborhood critters were confirming the cold. Our resident pine marten was busy munching sunflower seeds, and I could see that its whiskers were white with frost. The whiskers were so pronounced that, at first glance, it had the look of an otter.
Meanwhile a couple itinerant deer were browsing around the yard with white-crusted backs and foreheads. Further support for the bitter conditions came when the two meandered about until lying down under our young balsam grove just up from the shore. Over the years, this has often occurred with the whitetails when winter turns severe and shelter is sought.
Yours truly spent a number of outdoor hours moving snow, and I, too, affirm that it was plenty brisk. Protecting myself with multiple layers, I was reminded of childhood days when Mom would bundle me up (scarves around the neck, over the face, double gloves and mittens along with other such insulators) for outdoor play and then tell me to bend over and buckle my overshoes. This was always a next-to-impossible task when I looked and felt like that “Michelin Tire Boy.”
Sure as night follows day, I would get outside in the cold, and I’d have to go to the bathroom. So it was back inside to go through shedding and then the re-doing process all over. Bet everyone can relate to those days in some manner of speaking if they grew up in cold latitudes.
Speaking of another kind of shedding, discussion with friends while around the card table recently, centered on the male of the white tail and moose kingdom. The talk went from whether folks had been finding any antler sheds, to wondering about what it must be like for those critters when one side falls off. It was real important northland trivia!
It would seem that they might have a terrific neck-ache after a few days of toting just half a load. Question was then asked as to whether they might have balance issues for a time until they adjust.
Further gab moved on to what a blow it must be to the animal ego, when they drop in the pecking order of ungulate manhood due to this annual shedding event. The timid youngster with a full set of junior-sized spikes now steps out front of the old buck/bull that is now sporting only part, or maybe even none, of his cartilaginous headgear.
The old guys are probably just not as appealing to the ladies of the woods. It’s got to be tough in the wild neighborhood being relegated to just one of the boys after strutting their stuff each fall during courtship!
Without resolve to the subjects of our discussion, the cards were dealt, and the females of the group humbled male egos once again. It’s tough out here in the human neighborhood too.
Keep on hangin’ on and savor the hand that is dealt in the wilderness neighborhood!

"After doing damage to the crystal charm of our winter landscape...the atmosphere deity sent us back into the freezer"

Wildersmith January 18

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It’s been a little bit of déjà vu in the Gunflint corridor. The weather outside’s been frightful, only not as we would have expected.
A second consecutive monthly meltdown has tormented us since we last met on the radio. Thus, when we did have available moisture, it came in the liquid form. One thing positive, we still need the stuff regardless of the delivery scheme.
Rain in January is not good! It makes for sloppy slush, glazed roads/driveways, dripping rooftops and dangerous mobility circumstances. Over one-half inch of rain fell in the Wildersmith neighborhood. Our already thin white carpet has been changed to a patchwork of dead-needle-brown and dirty-looking urban snow.
Then after doing damage to the crystal charm of our winter landscape, and dealing a setback to several outdoor activities, the atmospheric deity sent us back into the freezer. As I scribed this weeks scoop, we’re recording minus something readings in the mercury column.
On top of going another week without having to start the snow blower and keeping me from the enjoyment of a mid-winter’s snowfall clearing, the driveway is now a glazed accident waiting to happen. The Smith vehicle has logically been moved to top of the hill/driveway for fear of being stranded (though I can think of worse places to be mired).  This is OK from an exercise viewpoint, but requires mandatory ice gripper application just to get at it.
I think that the subtle point is being made that spring will be early once again in the northland. To make things even more chafing to winter worshippers, seed and plant catalogs are already finding their way into our mailboxes. Perhaps those filing such documents have an in with the one controlling these unwelcome seasonal occurrences. It’s just plain depressing.
This atypical weather, however, has been a blessing for the construction projects being administered by the Gunflint Trail Fire Department and EMT volunteers. The addition at fire hall number two (Gunflint Lake) is now completed. And finishing touches are being applied to the two new structures at (mid-Trail) hall number one. Meanwhile, earth preparations were completed at hall number three (Seagull Lake) by the end of fall.  Future work at this site will continue in the coming construction season.
Yours truly had the opportunity to walk through one of the two new structures at mid-Trail. This building is set to become the facility that will accommodate not only volunteer training sessions and a command post in emergency situations, but also a unique gathering place in the mid-trail area for community functions.
I was blown away at the organization and work that has gone into bringing these much needed improvements to fruition in such a short time. Tremendous thanks are extended to the organizers, designers, fundraisers, trades contractors and many financial backers/contributors; job well done! Gunflint residents will surely be pleased and proud of these facility additions and updates.
Another important Gunflint trail community function, the annual Canoe Races, is heading into early planning stages for next July. A call from the chair people a while back finds that they have their heads together and are kicking off initial phases of event organization. It seems hard to believe that we should be thinking of that happening already, but it is a significant undertaking that needs attention to dozens of details.
The big weekend for ice anglers was most unpleasant what with the sloppy conditions. Yet, their enthusiasm for short pole/rod fishing went undaunted as the roar of power sleds and ice augers have dinged the silence of the territory.
Questionable ice thickness may be keeping some modes of outdoor protection on shorelines, but those portable lightweight shanties have been popping up all over area lakes.
Happy fishing to all, and please be good stewards of the lake upon which you stand.
Keep on hangin’ on and savor an adventure on the Trail!

Airdate: January 18, 2013

Photo courtesy of Mike Hoff via Flickr.

Gichigami Express Sled Dog Race

Wildersmith January 11

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Real Gunflint Trail winter weather remains a non-issue as the area enters week two of the New Year. Many of us are holidayed out and the post celebratory blahs are being compounded with neither bitter cold nor new snow.
It seems that this global warming phenomenon has our area by the throat and is not going to let go. It makes me wonder if brazen winter, as it was once, will ever get over this seemingly endless arid illness.
The Wildersmith neighborhood went through December with not one really good snow, and the first days of January have followed suit. Nearly every place in the nation that gets snow, and even some spots where it is rare and unwanted, have been blessed with what this area cherishes. It’s downright shameful.
While snow depths are minimal throughout the Gunflint corridor, there was enough to provide fast tracking for the dogs in the first Gichigami Express sled dog race over this past weekend. The race commemorates the long tradition of mushing in the northeast corner of Minnesota.
The mid-trail area was abuzz with mushers and their teams after the first leg was completed to Hungry Jack Lodge Sunday afternoon. Crews then gathered at Trail Center Lodge for the “Barbeque in the Bush” and the overnight.
This event was a great moment for conversation about the first day’s run around a blazing fire, and for feasting under the stars. The scrumptious fare was provided by Sarah and her staff at the TC Restaurant.
The next morning found racers assembling for breakfast at Windigo Lodge. Starting positions for the beginning of the second (Monday) leg of the three-day event were handed out, and they were off.
Once again the Gunflint community showed off its character of super hospitality and organizational skills. Big thanks are extended to organizers, many volunteers, all the participating race teams and some wonderful sponsors. It was a “woofing” good time!
This weekend marks the opening of trout fishing season. Lakes will be drilled full of holes as thousands of anglers will be scattered about the icy surfaces in every kind of venue imaginable. Soft as we Americans are, there will be few if any fisher folk actually sitting out on a bucket as once practiced.
Speaking more of ice angling, I heard a recent story about a fellow fishing for other species on Gunflint Lake when the old Gal let off with some activity that sent him trembling.
Seems the guy had just finished drilling his hole through the ice when he heard a thundering boom in the distance to the east. What happened next has probably happened to others before, but it was a first for this fellow.
Seconds after the boom, he heard ice cracking. The noise was faint at first but grew louder as the cracking meandered westward. He soon realized the fracturing was coming in his direction.
Stunned by the advancing fissure, he retreated toward shore. In a short time, the re-structuring ice terminated at the exact location of his drilling spot.
In the moment of culmination, water spouted out of the hole and all was silent once more. I don’t know if he returned to his intended activity, but he sure has a chilling story to tell the folks back home about a day on the Gunflint.
By the way, ice on Gunflint Lake continues to sing its song of the season. As she has extended her often woeful tones while fitting into her crystal coat, many pressure ridges have been heaving upward. Folks traversing the lake on power sleds to their favorite fishing spot should be paying close attention to these often obscure frozen hazards.
Keep on hangin’ on and savor a couple trout in the pan!

Airdate: January 11, 2013

Photo by Stephan Hoglund.

Gunflint Trail (Bearskin Lodge/Flickr)

Wildersmith January 4

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Happy New Year everyone from the upper Gunflint Trail! Here’s wishing for an upbeat 2013!
The passing of 2012 was quiet and uneventful along the scenic byway. Mother Nature kissed off a record year with a light snow freshener of about three inches in the Wildersmith neighborhood and other varying amounts throughout the corridor.
Chapter 13 of the young century was unwrapped with a breath of cold from the great Northwest. Old Man Winter dropped in with gusty winds. He gave the weather forecasting folks an opportunity to finally warn people who can’t figure out it’s cold enough to be dangerous. Yes, we had wind chill!
Although temps were not that real mucous-freezing kind of minus 40 to 50 below, the annual calendar transition made for super ice-making conditions on area lakes. A friend down the road called to inform me there were eight inches of clear crystal on the Gunflint surface. That’s pretty good when she only first covered up a few days before Christmas.
Yours truly hopes the coming yearly segment is not a repeat of the previous. We surely don’t need back-to-back atmospheric happenings that shattered records in all sorts of categories.  In fact, many climatic legends of which folks have been able to brag were altered. It’s embarrassing to our tough weather survival persona.
Reflecting on the winter of 2012, it was pretty much a season that wasn’t, both on the front end, January through March, and then again on the back end, November and December.
A view at the temperature side of the ledger found neither true border country bitter cold nor extended periods of sub zero which is this territory’s character. The resulting over-all warmth led to the latest freeze up on Gunflint Lake (Dec. 29, 2011), and the earliest ice-out (Mar. 25, 2012) in any living resident’s memory.
As to the white count, the area around Wildersmith received a puny 50 inches total as it too made a premature exit along with its frozen lake surface cousin. This amounts to about one-half the usual dose.
The stunted winter led to an early spring with flora budding out in abundance not long into April. Our sad moisture situation led to a dangerously dry time that had folks on edge concerning wildfire. Fortunately there were no calamities close by.
Obviously, residents were able to get their wildfire sprinkler systems up in preparedness with the early available open lake water. We were all thankful that the units did not have to be used except for an occasional practice run.
The long spring oozed into summer with a brief late May, early June respite from the drought conditions. Lake levels rebounded with an increased bubbling frenzy from streams and rivers of the watershed.
This wetter period was short lived from the summer solstice on, as precipitation frequencies dropped. The lake level here on the Gunflint and most other bodies dwindled to unusually low levels, leaving broader shorelines, unnerving rocks for boat operators and some precarious dock situations.
A warmer than usual summer sun dried the territory out once more, again complicating normal activities in a tinder-dry forest.  Although there were not too many unbearably hot days, there were, nevertheless, more days of perspiring than one would like at this latitude, while lake water temps topped out in the mid- to upper 70s (almost like bath water to we northerners).
Conditions of parching extended into autumn, with everyone hoping that there would be a turn around. Such was not to happen however. Hopes were raised for perhaps an early winter as we had a day of some brief flurries and sleet late in September. This flicker turned out as only a false alarm.
The lack of dampness extended right up ‘til New Year’s Eve, leaving streams with barely a trickle, fall colors somewhat abysmal and the forest flora desperately thirsty going into the frozen earth season. The first substantial snow did not come until right after Thanksgiving, and that gave way to an early December meltdown.
In spite of the atmospheric negatives during the past year, our wilderness forest and its inhabitants remain unbelievably adaptable. Both the deciduous and coniferous character seemed to have had a good growing year, and the animals of the wild neighborhood remain energetically involved in survival.
Hope always springs eternal throughout this northern paradise, so I’m betting that 2013 will see a natural bouncing back. Needless to say, yours truly is continuing with the snow dance ritual.
Closing this week’s commentary, excitement is building for the big Gitchigami Express sled dog race. The event, which treks only through Cook County, including a leg running out through the Gunflint woods, commences this Sunday morning (Jan. 6) from Grand Portage.
So this weekend is going to the dogs, get out and show them your support! The racers will be expected at Hungry Jack Lodge late Sunday afternoon. Spectators will be able to meet the mushers that same evening during their banquet feed at Trail Center. Monday’s leg will commence after their breakfast from Windigo Lodge at around 9 a.m.
Keep on hangin’ on, and savor thoughts for a great new year!

Airdate: January 4, 2013

Squirrel raids a bird feeder (Dave Lundy/Flickr)

Wildersmith December 28

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The Gunflint is closing in on its last days of 2012. This is happening under the watchful gaze of our “little spirit moon” (Manidoo Giizisoons).
Our final hurrah for the past year finds the Wildersmith neighborhood celebrating the freeze-up of Gunflint Lake. Official closing date was last Saturday, the 22nd. For a second consecutive year the “old gal” put on her winter coat later than we would normally expect.
With the latest recorded Gunflint Lake freeze up for which I have data (since 1982) being Dec. 29 in 2001, this year’s tardy date ranks fourth, after last year, which was Dec. 28, and the 27th in 1997. Our average before the past two years had been holding around Dec. 12. Just for the record, the earliest Zamboni exercise on the Gunflint over the past 30 years was Nov. 26 in 1996.
After last week’s wolf serenade, the winter song in our neighborhood has been tuned in to howls of a different tone. As the lake finally succumbed to its new landscape, she let out a screeching thunderous announcement, adding yet another voice to the wilderness choir.  
This first stanza reverberated from end to end, shaking some folks right out of their slumber. One has to wonder if the spirit of our Gunflint Gal was either uncomfortable with her new attire or thrilled that she finally delivered.
As fitting adjustments are being made, she is now murmuring subtle notes of acceptance. With a number of sub-zero to single-digit mornings since, and no insulating snow cover as yet, the thickening process is increasing rapidly.
Although I would not recommend heavy foot travel just yet, I did get word that the folks at Gunflint Lodge observed a wolf examining the shiny new surface on the morning of official solidarity.
While folks to our south were squawking about the blizzard of the decade, the upper Trail got barely a sniff in the past seven. These parts are still beautifully decked out in holiday flocking and ski trails are groomable (just barely), but we are still in dire need of substantial applications. Makes me worry about what next summer will be like if Mother Nature doesn’t do something about refilling our streams, rivers and lakes.
Speaking of being decked out for the holidays, our trip to church in Grand Marais this past Sunday was stunning. Jack Frost had been about and gave a crystal dousing to everything in creation. Sparkling jewels of the forest were so dazzling that one was almost blinded while old Sol tweaked even the smallest of these diamonds with beams of brilliance. It goes without saying that this area is rich beyond one’s wildest imagination in these simple, but precious, natural treasures.
For all the significant technological and engineering developments of mankind over the past couple centuries, it remains a mystery that man often cannot match the brain power and ingenuity of a hungry wilderness critter. A fellow down the road confides that he has been doing battle with a squirrel for months over sunflower seed accessibility at his bird feeder stations,
He has tried everything under the sun to deter the rodent. To date he finds that in spite of his reasonable intellectual and inventive exploits, all avenues have been met with an equalizing counter move by his gnawing little red friend.
Frustrated but not giving up, he shared his latest tactic and believes that he’s got the answer. We’ll see! I’ll be anxious to hear how the critter adapts to this new scheme. It would be my suggestion to let the tiny gal/guy have at it. You can’t seem to outsmart ‘em!
Every day out here in the woods is a wonder. The Smiths continue experiencing great moments in nature. Sharing them, as well as being able to report happenings of other Gunflinters, during this weekly Trail news scoop on WTIP has been most enjoyable in the past 365. Hopefully you enjoyed too!
As we wind down 2012, it is my wish for you that 2013 will be fruitful, rewarding, memorable and full of goodwill toward your fellow man!
Keep on hangin’ on, and come out to savor this wonderful creation we call the Gunflint. See you on the radio next year!

Airdate: December 28, 2012

Gunflint Trail (Ben Edwards/Flickr)

Wildersmith December 21

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Keying this week’s Gunflint scoop, I find the heavens are aligned, finally signaling the first day of winter. Yep, this magical season is now official, “Biboon” (winter moniker in Ojibwe) is here, at just past 5 CST this Friday morning.
Long dark nights have been the norm as pre-winter shadows have been gradually squeezing down on both ends of old Sol’s daily spin. For many fretting the shortness of our daylight hours, fear not, for the big day is here, and in no time at all minutes will be stacking up in the other direction.
While we turn the page into this season of crystal collections, here’s hoping the “great northern express” finds this locale with more regularity than we’ve seen thus far. One thing for sure is Old Man Winter has been sputtering in several attempts to get things going consistently for our wintertime activities.
The past week has been no exception, with a little bit of cold then a little bit of warm. Out around the upper Trail area, we went seven days with minuscule snowfall. Then another warm-up sent the previous white a-shrinking before we got a minor dose of white replenishment early last Sunday morning.
The lake water on Gunflint is trying its best to get down to ice-making business. One morning, for a few hours, it even had a brief coating about halfway across from the Wildersmith shore. Growing winds sent it packing by midday, and since then it’s been too warm and rough for cranking up the old Zamboni. There is ice, however, on about the western one-third (just beyond the Gunflint Pines Resort), but my guess is it’s not safe yet.
I have been unable to confirm the ice status on Sag, but all other bodies in the territory appear to be sealed up. In fact, a friend who is into ice fishing is already doing his thing on a favorite lake in the mid-trail area. He tells me six or seven inches have already thickened. By the way, he’s having fish for supper too!
Also aligned in the heavens is the week-old “little spirit moon.” It will be beaming down with full December splendor in a week. Folks in these parts are keeping their fingers crossed that early beams will be shining down on “the breast of new fallen snow” for the holiday festivities.
I don’t know whether the old fable about wolves howling at the moon has any basis for being true. I can confirm that Brother and Sister Wolf have been quite active along our Mile O Pine since we last met on the airwaves. On several occasions, regardless of little new snow, tracking has been prolific during my daily trips to the mailbox.
To cap off my continuing canid lupus saga, I stepped outside to bring in a load of firewood one evening and discovered the local pack eerily harmonizing not far away. Compared to previous wild renditions, I must say that they were hauntingly out of tune. Guess they need more practice, practice, practice!
A gal down the road shares that she heard a recent late day choral experience too.  This audition was coming from Canadian land. It makes me wonder if they were calling to the great northern spirits requesting some ice formation in order they might traverse the Gunflint for some U.S. deer hunting.
Soon after hearing this northern sound of music, she observed a sextet of beings bobbing up and down in the water out from her shoreline. First thought was that it couldn’t be wolves in the water, not at this time of year.
Turns out she was right; it wasn’t wolves. It was a bevy of otters, and to observe six at one sighting seems unusual. When last seen, they were headed east down the lake, frolicking on a probable fishing expedition.
After the tragedy that befell Newtown, Connecticut, and our entire nation, last week, this holiday time finds millions yearning for new and abundant peace amongst all men. May the grace of this season comfort those who are hurting so much.
Have a safe, sane and happy Christmas with your loved ones!
Keep on hangin’ on and savor thoughts of peace and healing!

Airdate: December 21, 2012

"...This congealing occurrence is as glorious as will be a return to surges dashing the granite shore next May..."

Wildersmith December 14

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Our month of the “little spirit moon” is whizzing by in the upper Gunflint. With the light at the end of tunnel 2012 beginning to glow, one has to wonder where, oh where, has this year has gone?
Holiday excitement is blanketing the area more than the most recent winter storm prognostication. In fact, there is far more enthusiasm about the coming birthday of all birthdays than there is snow; guess this is maybe the way it should be.
Mother Nature sent her cold weather emissary into the area last weekend to perform some winter doin’s. But alas, Old Man Winter showed up with not much in the bucket. The dumping we were expecting turned out barely more than wimpy. To the delight of many, however, the three- to four-inch accumulation did freshen up our patchwork brown and white forest floor.
Last Saturday was seasonably cold and I devoted a few moments to sitting down at the lakeshore. The time was spent watching a solemn Gunflint Lake surface taking on its first crinkling crystals. This liquid to solid happening has always fascinated yours truly.
I’m no maple syrup practitioner. But it would seem like this natural process of turning water into ice must be similar to watching boiling sap reach the sugar stage.
There was first one wrinkle on the water, and that spewed into another, and then those two fragmented into another, and on and on until a jigsaw-wrinkled skim suddenly appeared.
Our annual December lake surface makeover was a spiritual uplifting of sort. The essence of this congealing occurrence is as glorious as will be a return to surges dashing the granite shore next May.
Woe is me; the ice making romance is over. Our calm inland sea was taken by a belch from the northwest. Air currents suddenly moved across the serene water, engulfing it with ripples once more. In a blink of an eye, the wisp of chilling character was gone.  It went chortling into the rocky lakeside, gone until another time for dreaming of ice cakes and ensuing icy conversations.
Back to reality, the Smiths got a triple treat this past Monday. A late evening return trip from Grand Marais was as sweet as a hot fudge sundae. First, we were reminiscing the joys of our “sound of music” experience at the Borealis Chorale Christmas Concert. Second, some 20 miles of the cruise along the Trail found us driving in spectacular falling snow. And, to cap things off, the whipped cream and cherry on top of this candied winter happening, we came upon two moose. Yes, Virginia, there are still moose up the Trail. With adventures like this, life can’t get much better!
A report comes from over on Loon Lake in regard to a case of apparent unlawful activity. It seems that a resident along the lake recently cut down an uninspiring aspen.
It was decided the tree could be cut up and split for next summer’s campfires. So the job was undertaken. Task completed, the remains were left in a pile to be stacked come spring.
Over a period of days, the resident woodsman took notice that his wood cache seemed to be disappearing. Soon a good deal of the woodpile was gone, yet no trace of a thieving culprit could be found.
Not planning to involve law enforcement at this point, the fellow was sharing his story with another local outdoors man, and the two of them decided on a private investigation before filing an official theft report.
To make a long story short, after searching a number of suspected possibilities, a trek through the woods and wetlands brought them to what appeared to be a newly remodeled beaver lodge at the end of the lake. It was here that the missing goods were discovered, neatly arranged atop the animals’ homestead.
Bucky needed a new roof before winter got too far along. Guess this gnawing critter could not pass up a good thing, all this construction material cut and split, just for the taking, too good to be true, a beaver builder’s dream, why not! Case of the pilfered firewood closed!
Keep on hangin’ on, and savor the mystique of the outdoors!

Airdate: December 14, 2012

Photo courtesy of Barb and Dean on Flickr.