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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: 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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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: March 4

“Old Man Winter” remains in a fickle mood as I begin this week's Gunflint scoop. Our last weekend of February had one day of almost spring-like character and then slipped back into more normal seasonal conditions the next. 

Sunny skies and temps around the freezing mark had roof tops dripping last Saturday. Evening saw the thermometer crash rapidly and light snow was soon to follow. By Sunday morning at Wildersmith, the mercury was back near the zero mark and a few inches of fresh flocking had re-decked the forest.

February then went out like a lion, it was a real howling and not from the local wolf pack. Strong northwesterlies, the likes of which we have not seen this season, shook the house at times as “Mother Nature re-arranged our snow cover. The result is some splendid nature made snow sculptures. Talk about a capricious atmosphere!  

Strange happenings are going on deep within the bowels of our granite landscape. The normal flow of sub-surface springs into area ditches and culverts has not occurred. Thus, frozen culverts with the usual ice dam build up at the points of entry, is just not there. Although the inconvenience of these mini-glaciers is mitigated along many back country roads, it does not bid well for adequate run-off when the final meltdown occurs. The ability to replenish water levels on any number of upper Gunflint lakes looks to be alarming. 

It seemed as though the area was reasonably wet when fall was put to bed. But I guess such was not the case, as aquifers keeping liquid trickling under ice and snows apparently were drier than assumed. This scenario is also troublesome when flora begins to dry out in late April and May. We can only hope “El Nino” cools into oblivion during the next two months, and ushers in much needed rain before the June green-up. 

As it might relate to peculiar quirks of nature, there seems to be a chance the “great old man of the north” has put a spell on me. A couple weeks ago, I spent several hours cleaning heaps of snow off the roof, only to have it snow again one day after my job was completed.  Since then a few more droppings have built a lesser, but new accumulation. With the bright day of last Saturday, I decided to catch up once again. Sure enough, my clean roof job didn’t make it 24 hours this time, and more was predicted as I was keying this current report.  

Maybe Mr. Winter’s trying to get even with me for giving him such a bad time on a rather wimpy performance thus far. A connected thought comes to mind, with my kind regards for snow, if it takes cleaning off the roof to stimulate snow fall, perhaps I should spend more time on the ladder with my snow rake in hand. 

Furry weasel activity has been hot and heavy the past week. We had an after dark battle royal, apparently between two critters, leaving blood on the deck. Suppose it could have been two pine martens in confrontation over a poultry part, or maybe a marten and an un-suspecting flying squirrel. Regardless of the match-up, a winner cannot be announced. 

Two residents along the south Gunflint Lake shore report visits from a cousin of those pine martens. A fisher, or fishers, have been making nightly rounds at their places in the past few days. They could have been in this yard as well, based on some larger than usual marten-like trails around the place, but have not been observed. One neighbor shared a trail cam picture of one pilfering a chunk of suet from a bird feeding tray. The animal looked to be lush and healthy. Hopefully this guy/gal will avoid a trapper's doom.  

In spite of difficult ice conditions, the annual trout fishing derby is still a go for this coming Sunday.  Gunflint Lake ice is thick enough to support pedestrian anglers but not the usual vehicles. Fisher folks must sign in before setting out on their quest. Registration is between 9 and 11:00 am. All contest catches must be posted on the big board by 2 pm. The usual raffle, cook-off, and award ceremonies will be held near the boat launch area of Gunflint Lodge. Good luck to all!  

On a final note, speaking of fishing and angling fortunes, yours truly got an excited call last weekend from my grandson, Lane, of Sheldon, Iowa. He and his dad had been fishing behind the Lewis & Clark Dam near Yankton, SD, when he hooked into a monster. When finally pulled into the boat a 40-plus pound paddlefish was on the end of the line. What a day! “Google” tells of this finny creature being a kind of throwback to prehistoric times, but not too uncommon in some river systems. It was some kind of ugly, but certainly a fishing memory for the books.       

This is Fred Smith, on the trail, at Wildersmith!  The “March” is on!
 

(photo by ForestWander.com via Wikimedia Commons)
 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: February 26

        
Boy how time flies! Seems as though February just arrived and already we’re bidding her farewell. The February log book has passed two details since we last met on WTIP. The first marked the second full month of winter while the other was the Ojibwe, full “sucker moon.” With that, we take aim at March.

The area experienced more up and down seasonal character over the last week. The Wildersmith neighborhood went from bitter subzero to a drippy freezing mark and back, over about 72 hours of weekend number three.

During the time of our bouncing thermometer, we had flurries, sleet, freezing drizzle, snow pellets, rain, drizzle and fog, then more snow. With exception of hail, the Gunflint way pretty much got everything “Mother Nature” could offer in terms of precipitation. Ending the unusual wet weather onslaught, new snow refreshed and replaced what was lost to the near 50 degree temperature swing. 

The maddening thing about a February meltdown is what it does to roads, drive ways, and walking paths. The grit of dry snow makes moving about tolerable for most of the cold season, but when a couple warm days interrupt, making the snow soft and slick, getting around in the upright position and keeping one’s vehicle between the snow banks is nightmarish.   

So my driveway and the Mile O Pine have an icy sheen now hidden by new fluff, making navigation troublesome at best. As to my pedestrian efforts, our slick under-footing is slowing me down to a mere creeping, which is even slower than my normal old-timer pace. In short, it’s slow-going around here and will most likely remain this way until the onset of “mud season.” 

Winter activities took a hit as well. Cross country ski trails turned to mush and the slush on our already gooey lake ice was surely made worse than ever for snowmobile traffic. Now that we’ve returned to a colder side, ski trails are crusty and slick. It will take a lot of extra work to grind up the frozen layer and redress.  Groomers are busy fixing things so gliding conditions should be back to normal soon.

Meanwhile, heading into March, chances of an extended period of subzero are waning. Our slushy lake cover is likely to linger on with the insulating snow adding a dangerous cover to the water on ice status.

Difficult lake conditions make me wonder if the surfaces will be able to accommodate a couple coming events on the March calendar. On Sunday March 6, the Cook County Ridge Riders will be hosting their annual trout fishing derby here on Gunflint Lake. One week later, the “Dog Days of Winter” will be holding Sled Dog Derbies and Skijoring Races on Poplar Lake at Trail Center Lodge. Info on event status for the Trout Derby can be found by checking the CCSC Ridge Riders website, and for the “Dog Days” events see www.visitcookcounty.com.  

The weekend warm-up stimulated an enthusiastic gathering of local winged folk. Big ones and little ones of many colors energetically arrived and departed the seed trough. I happily obliged them with seeds, bread scraps, and leftover waffles. As would be expected, the blue jay gang fell in love with the waffle pieces, devouring them like a plague of locusts. 

A couple here-and-then-gone-again visitors, came back over the last week. Our transient pine martens have hit the feed rail again. 
When I ran out of poultry scraps, guess they took offense to only having sunflower seeds on the menu and thought they could do better elsewhere.

Since the Wildersmith “Colonel” has a replenished chicken cache, the cool critters seem content once more. Adding to discussion of the furry guests, it’s a good bet, if they are females, they’re fattening up for delivery of their next generation.   

Further, speaking of little ones, romance is wafting through the forest. It’s mating time for canine types in the woods. Fox, coyotes, and wolves have been in the mating mood these past few weeks. While on another note, bear cubs are probably crawling about their dens as momma catches her last winks of the slumber season.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail at Wildersmith!  Happy Trails to you, Gunflint that is!

(photo by Mary & Dan via Flikr)
 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: February 19

              
Following some “true north” cold, Gunflint conditions have turned somewhat southward once again. Before the turn-around, this neighborhood had a spell of January frigidity as Wildersmith experienced several days of bitter readings prior to emerging above zero last Sunday. 

On the precipitation side of the weather ledger, things were also on the minus side with the only snow happening of the horizontal variety. As strong winds ushered in the cold, loose snow was whisked off flat lake surfaces. Subsequently, the forest landscape was plastered with a hard coating of icy crystals. Hence, critters' trails around the yard were smoothed over as if a fresh snowfall had taken place. 

The bitter cold may have firmed up some of the slushy places on lakes away from shore lines, but plenty of the icy goop remains near shore on a number of lakes. Longtime residents living along Gunflint Lake indicate this is the worst slush they’ve ever seen. That in mind, this semi-winter has broken two records what with the latest “ice on” ever of January 4 and now this continuing slurry mire.  

Another consequence of this “El Nino” disaster is the lack of ice depth on big area lakes. A friend in my neighborhood was here angling over the Presidents' Day weekend, and reports Gunflint Lake ice measured at 17 inches. Normally right now, as winter begins its descent toward spring, we would be looking at two and a half to three feet of hard water. This oddity causes yet another instance of cold season weather lore trivium. 

Speaking of snow, in spite of what appears to be mediocre accumulations around here thus far, a healthy couple feet of the stuff had built up on the Wildersmith roof. Coupled with some early season freezing rain and sleet, ice damming character is becoming a problem along the eaves of our abode. Consequently, yours truly has been into housetop snow removal over the last few days. What a job!  Notwithstanding my passion for the white, I hope for a little reprieve from a new build up until sore muscles recuperate. 

Our “green thumb” neighbor from over on Loon Lake relayed spring tidings last week. She announced her first indoor plantings (bok choy) had sprouted. This may be more indicative of an early spring than “Punxsutawney Phil” or any other of his groundhog kin. Of course, it’s still a long ways until sprouts can be set out in the garden, but the happening alone makes people smile. 

During a quiet moment of outdoor observation last week, I was amused at the sight of a neighborhood squirrel munching sunflower seeds with posthaste. The red rodent was eating like there was no tomorrow, seed after seed, as fast as one could be picked up while casting away shells like they were coming from an automatic weapon.  

After watching this dining exercise for several moments, I decided to time the tiny fellow/gal to see how many kernels it might consume in a 60-second segment. There is probably not a category for this in Ripley’s “Believe it or not,” but for the record, 25 morsels were picked up, shelled, and devoured in a single minute.  I’d bet the “boys of summer” couldn’t come close to matching this. 

Perhaps readers and listeners think I have too much time on my hands, and maybe so, but I’m chalking it up as one more up north educational highlight. You know one has to keep their ear to the ground and eyes to the sky for any and all Gunflint Trail enlightenments. 

Lastly, but certainly not in the least of news for this week, listeners and website readers are reminded of this station''s first fund raising mission of this new year. The session for sustaining this North Country broadcast phenomena kicked off Thursday and runs through noontime this coming Monday.     

The theme of this membership drive is “Cabin Fever.” Regardless of where listeners reside, there is no need to feel the “fever” when you have WTIP at your beckon. The wonderful spirit of North Shore, and wilderness living, is brought to life every day through a dedicated staff and countless volunteers. 

However, costs of bringing this airwave effervescence to you does not come cheap, quality programming costs money. This is where supporting membership is so important! WTIP cannot continue to grow without the gracious support of its membership. Members, both renewing and first timers, have been great to step up in the past with their financial resources, and I hope all will do so again during the next few days.  

Don’t delay, give us a call at 387-1070 or 1-800-473-9847, or click and join at WTIP.org, or stop by the studios at 1712 West Highway 61. The folks at WTIP need you! 

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail at Wildersmith, keep the radio on and JOIN in the “Cabin Fever” fun!
 
 
{photo by Jon Large via Flickr}

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: February 12

It seems almost inconceivable we are nearing the halfway point of month two. As January fades in the rear view mirror, seed and plant catalogs are filling our mail boxes, rousing spirits of those among us with green thumbs.  I’ve received a couple of those colorful growing prospectus and had to laugh when my frozen breathe obscured my reach to get the first one out of the snow covered letter box. 

Our hit and miss cold season is back this week after the brief spring prelude around first of the month. How long this snow and cold spell will hang in there is anyone’s guess.

A rather surprising snow happening blanketed the territory last weekend. Four to six inches redressed the forest from mid-Trail on out. Since then, we’ve had a few other lesser droppings, causing not too much strain, but still a pain. If I’m going to have to move the fluff, my time seems worthy of a substantial dose.

It’s notable that man-made piles of plowed white stuff are growing to cause visibility problems at road intersections, and mail boxes are getting hard to find. Furthermore, while stepping off the beaten path, I’ve found it knee high to nearly waist deep in places along the Mile O Pine.   

Most people acquainted with me know of my passion for the winter season. So they’ll understand my fascination with being out in the snow, whether it’s removing the bleached essence or just meandering through it. There’s almost nothing I can think of to match the solitude of frozen crystals descending from the heavens. 

In spite of the worry about what an approaching vehicle might do during winter driving conditions, a truly enjoyable experience for yours truly is a drive through Gunflint country as flakes are coming down. Such was the case during our run to the village and back for church last Sunday.

Intensities of the snowy excursion varied from near white-outs at times to meandering flurries at others along the frosted continuum. The splendor of a “Hallmark Card” scene in the making, was something to behold with each passing Gunflint mile. My enchantment probably sounds a little hokey, but such wilderness treks have unbelievable charm. If one enjoys the beauty of nature in winter, you just have to be here to fully appreciate.

Thursdays find me blazing the Trail into Grand Marais to file my weekly scoop in the WTIP studios. Nearly every week someone in town will ask, did you see any critters on the way in. While many trips are uneventful in terms of animal sightings, this past week a fine looking moose cow briefly interrupted the run. It’s always exciting when one encounters one of these north woods icons, especially, when it's not a close call with the vehicle. 

With the deer population nearly depleted in the upper Trail, it’s almost as unusual to see a white tail as to see a member of the declining moose heard. Friends came upon a singleton deer on south Gunflint Lake Road recently. It seemed to be in an exhausted state walking right down the middle of the road. 

The antlerless critter refused to move out of the way, apparently finding the plowed road easier wayfaring than the deep snow-filled ditches. After about a half mile of taking its share of the right-away out of the middle, it finally moved over so the vehicle could pass. Even then, the usually flighty animal did not bound away from danger. The situation would make one wonder if the deer had been in a run for its life and was just too drained to do be bothered by anything other than survival struggles.

On another note, deer predators remain on the hunt. With almost nightly regularity, one makes a trip down the Mile O Pine. Minor snows of late have left fresh tracking paths from Wildersmith to our mail box location about two miles away.  

I find “Brother Wolf” to be steadfastly focused on its mission down the road. An occasional stop to mark territorial boundaries is all that breaks the relentless straight line pattern of paw prints between the snow banks. In contrast, fox and coyotes, those distant cousins, wander in all directions sniffing every potential link to a meal source buried in white.

In a follow-up to last week's commentary on north-country water quality issues, I received copy of a new publication specific to Cook County. The document is the first in a series of reports on the status of water conditions in county lakes.  

Entitled “Water Watch”, it’s a collaborative newsletter produced by “Lake Superior North Watershed Project” (funded by the MPCA); Cook County Coalition of Lake Associations (CCCola); with contributions from County AIS Coordinator and Karen Evens (MPCA). At first reading, I find this issue to be well done and highly informative! Initial deliveries are going out to area lake association presidents for distribution to their members.

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith. Have a great Valentine’s Day!
 
 (photo by Gordon Haber via Wikimedia Commons)
 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: February 5

Here we are into month two already. Although January seemed long, it was not as long as it might have been if this area was having a traditional winter. 

Having passed the legendary woodchuck/whistle pig/ground hog day, our part time winter reached the half-way mark just a day or so ago, according to the calendar. If conditions follow suit for the second half, our semi-winter is sure to be taking on a spring look sooner rather than later. 

As to the cranky critter with presumed prognosticating capabilities seeing its shadow and bailing back into its burrow for six more weeks of winter, the calendar says we’re going to have it in some form, regardless. Furthermore, the gnawing little nuisance was still snoring away in this neck of the woods on the second February day. Moreover, at this latitude it will likely not make an appearance until late April.

In addition, a weather observer/researcher down in Iowa contends the buck-tooth varmint is accurate less than 50 percent of the time. By comparison, this degree of rodent dependability equates closely with those who get paid to sensationalize our atmospheric happenings. Thusly, neither source is too reliable.  

In conclusion, whatever one thinks about this shadowy marmot spoof, the folk tale lines up quite well with our current array of aspiring presidential hopefuls, whose rhetoric predict this and promise that with, at best, perhaps an even lesser chance of ever delivering. 

Meanwhile, the Gunflint area experienced a brief spring-like interlude last weekend with temps along some parts of the Trail perking up over the freezing mark. This spike made short work of the few inches of new white dropped on us a couple days earlier and had roof edge icicles growing to new lengths. Now it’s colder once again.

It would seem the sudden warm-up did not lend itself well to the start of the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. With soft and sticky snow, it’s for certain those canine athletes labored long and hard. They, like the moose, would much prefer 20 below instead of that much above zero. See results of how our local entries finished on WTIP.org. 

Calling all power sledders! The long distance poker game hits the Trails Sunday morning at nine am. Entries will depart from the Cook County Ridge Riders clubhouse on the Devil Track Lake south shore. Trails will be alive with screaming snowmobiles as the players make five stops at various lodges for their card hands before heading back for a 5:30 pm call. This event is always a fun time for those sledding folks. Participants are wished a safe run and good luck! 
                                                                 
With lakes frozen over, not many give thought to the ever increasing threat of invasive species in our pristine waters. However, if there are some such critters in border country waters they are not going away just because it’s cold outside.

The International Lake of the Woods Watershed Board met in mid-November and discussed a number of international border water quality issues.  Gunflint Lake resident Jerry Caple is a Community Advisor to the Board. He reports one item of discussion was the correlation between calcium levels and invasive species, notably rusty crayfish and zebra mussels.

This is a concern due to calcium residue run-off from its use on roads draining into streams feeding watershed lakes. The prospect of such accumulations is pertinent because these invasive species take hold and are supported by high levels of calcium.    

This scenario should be of considerable interest to those of us in the upper Trail watershed, what with years of continued calcium and other chemical treatments on county roads. Lake property owners along the Gunflint byway might want to get into the information-loop about implementing a plan for their lake water testing, if not already doing so. Water quality and testing info can be obtained from Ilena Berg at Cook County Soil and Water. 
                                                                              
On a related note, the Gunflint Lake property owners are in the early stages of building a data base, by testing inflow samplings in select locations for Ph, temperature, and conductivity. The group will also begin calcium testing (which is relatively inexpensive) this coming spring.  All this is being done to affect change, should test data provide evidence of our lake water quality being compromised. 

Further water quality issues data can be found in the Heart of the Continent Partnership’s  "new outdoor news source.” By contacting Charlene Mason wandcmason@frontiernet.net  one can subscribe to this online magazine for free. It often has articles or synopsis of scientific research covering watershed quality issues.  

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith!  It’s the month of hearts, chocolates, and the Ojibwe “sucker moon”, enjoy it in a Gunflint way!
 

(photo by Ladycamera via Wikimedia Commons)

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: January 29

              
Weather in Gunflint Territory mellowed since week three of the month. Bitter cold was swept away by another El Nino moment of warmer Pacific air. Meanwhile, additional snow has avoided this area like the plague as we head toward February. It seems as though this snow loving region is snake-bit in terms of powdery deliveries. Furthermore, other places in the country are dealt the stuff when they have no desire for such. 

The snow in place right now is hanging on, and will provide the key ingredient for the beginning of the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon late Sunday morning. With the race making its round trip run from Two Harbors to Grand Portage and back, the race comes into these parts from its Sawbill checkpoint to reach our mid-Trail checkpoint at Trail Center in the estimated pre-dawn time of Monday morning.  

On the return chase, mushers should be coming back through the Trail Center area in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. In both stops along the Trail, there’s a mandatory lay-over. So in spite of the not too convenient arrival times for viewing, the time lapse for teams before departing in either direction can allow for getting out to show some Gunflint cheers of support.

One Cook County musher is entered in the Marathon, while three other locals are in the mid-distance race, which by the way, finishes at Trail Center, midday on Monday. Tracking the races can be followed at www.beargrease.com. Good Luck to all!

More winter fun takes place in Gunflint land next weekend with the seventh annual Cook County Ridge Riders fun run. The power sledders' trek to collect their cards for the long distance poker game will start along the South Shore drive on Devil Track Lake on February seventh beginning at 9 am.   

Stops to get cards and participation stamps include Hungry Jack Lodge, Trail Center Lodge, Windigo Lodge, Gunflint Lodge, and Gunflint Pines Resort. All riders must be back at the CCRR clubhouse by 5:30 pm to turn in their playing hands. Food, fun, and a raffle follow the day's sledding. 

I don’t know who to thank for the neat temporary signs posted in select locations along the Trail, warning drivers to slow down in those moose zones. For whoever’s responsible, it’s a great idea and, hopefully, will save a precious moose life. Moreover, it could well save even serious injury or possible death to vehicular passengers, and perhaps totaling one’s vehicle. All Trail users should be thankful for the insight into these alert postings.  

The beauty of our flocked forest continues unabated. After many weeks, periods of brisk wind have failed to dislodge the uncountable frozen, fleecy puffs.

Such is true for the Smith’s favorite conifer along the Mile O Pine as well. This magnificent backwoods being caught our eye when first observed some seventeen years ago. The affair with this stately pine might seem strange, but I’m betting there might be others in border country that might also have a wild item of particular Gunflint area significance.  Whatever the case, we Smiths have been keeping a watchful eye on this prime piece of timber since it was a just little shaver, barely head high.  

At the time we embraced this symmetrical sapling, it was small enough to survive the horrendous blowdown in 1999 and then luckily endured the wildfire scare of 2007 when flames charred its cousins just over a mile or so across the lake.

During the years, the “mother” in charge of all things has nurtured it well. “Our tree” as we call it now, has grown tall, nearing 25 feet. Over the time, it has maintained unique pomp in the Mile O Pine parade of needled elements. While bending and twisting in the winds; enduring the cold and hot; dodging the lightning and bearing tons of snow for going on two decades, this verdant subject has not succumbed.  

This season’s hefty decorations are no exception in testing its fibrous vitality. “Our forest starlet” has simply flexed its muscles and stands lofty, beaming at the beckon of our head lights on many a cold winter night. While in daylight hours, winds in the woods help this comely adolescent tremble with a gentle wave as I go by on my daily mail box run.

Dazzled by the glistening grace of shapely frosted bows, we are overwhelmed at the elegance, and inspired by enduring evergreen charm. “Our tree,” silently enriching life in the Gunflint Forest 
                 
This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith!  Come on out the Trail and savor the winter bounty!

(photo: Winter Blues, Michel Bernier via Flickr)
 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: January 22

              
Our Gunflint wilderness celebrates the Ojibwe, “Great Spirit” moon as this report hits the waves of space. The luminous glow settles over us following a week of pressing cold in border country.  

The frostiness has not been intolerable by northwoods standards. However, after the extreme warmth through the end of 2015, 2016 has taken a little getting use too.

As our mercury dipped into the minus 25 to 35 range, conditions for the trout season opener were difficult, to brutal at best. The penetrating misery was enhanced by brisk, bone-chilling northwest winds from last Saturday through Monday’s MLK Day.  

The only angler comment I heard was that it’s always great to be here, but not much fun, as catching for this fellow’s party was sluggish. Their weekend found only three finny prizes brought on to the ice, hardly worth frozen fingers and wind bitten cheeks.    

My fisherman friend did indicate ice on the recently frozen Gunflint Lake measured about eight inches in this neighborhood. It’s without question we’ve added more crystal since this keyboard exercise was started last Sunday evening. So safe hard water trekking is improved but still merits caution.

There are many stunning scenic places throughout this great country, but I have trouble imagining one finding many to top the majesty of our Sawtooth mountain-tops this time of year. As the Smiths departed for church in Grand Marais this past Sunday, with the temp hovering at 30 below, frosted surroundings up over the ridge above Gunflint Lake soon found us traveling in a land of enchanting hoarfrost.

Against the backdrop of a sunny sky-blue heaven, Jack Frost honored the territory with his best freeze dried creativity. Cruising along the byway, around every curve and over each undulation, we were greeted by peak after peak with a “zillion”, unimaginable, frigid glazed pine spires.  

The horizon of this icy needled forest encompassed us in creation's cold radiance. Once more we were immersed in the powerful Gunflint awe!  Life can’t be much better!    

Caution, moose at play! Nighttime travelers on the Trail from the north Brule River bridge to Bearskin Road and on through the Iron Lake locale report numerous sightings in the past week. One fellow reported seeing five throughout these areas last weekend during his early evening journey.

Further, during our weekly run to Grand Marais, plenty of tracks in the most recent snow addition revealed uncountable areas where moose had been cavorting on the miles long salt lick. On an added note, a number of the critters sited were mentioned to be rather small (perhaps yearlings), but not to be confused as deer. A thought mentioned by one fellow was maybe these mini-versions could have been elk, could this be?

In the vicinity of Gunflint lodge, a fellow reports the sighting of a really big, lone wolf. Then, on a return trip from the village, a similar animal crossed my path on the Trail south of Loon Lake. Either there are two of these big guys around, or my observation might be one in the same. If size counts, in wolf rank and file, this guy must surely be “leader of the pack.”  

This area might also be hosting a “big” cat. Since my last scoop, a Trail neighbor announced a large feline, sporting a long tail, was spotted near the Trail intersection with Greenwood Road. Sometimes referenced as catamount, mountain lion, cougar, panther, or puma; they’re not traditional Gunflint wild residents, but have been sighted on occasion as transient visitors hunting deer.

Should anyone happen to see this large “pussy” cat while out in the woods, be sensible and cautiously get to a safe situation. Most cougars are usually intimidated by humans, but if it seems aggressive, put on a threatening act, make yourself look big; wave your arms; shout and scream. By all means, don’t run from the scene as these animals love the chase, and such would be short, versus a human. Any big cat sighting should be documented with the DNR folks ASAP.  

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith! This is the place for “grand”, wintertime scenery!

(photo: ForestWander.com via Wikimedia Commons)
 

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Pink snow at dawn (Tracy Rosen via Wikimedia Commons)

Wildersmith on the Gunflint: January 15

The upper Trail winter has taken positive steps forward since our last meeting. A bleak seasonal character, by usual north-country norms, has shaped up lately with freshening of the snow cover and serious ice making.   

Snow accumulations have not been extreme, but nevertheless, cleaned things up so that new critter tracks are more easily distinguished. Meanwhile, enough January subzero settled over the area to really get the old “Zamboni” cranked up.

With frigid temps in the forecast, enhancing ice development for the coming trout season opener couldn’t have come at a better time. It would appear safe ice for pedestrian traffic could be secure here on the Gunflint and most all area lakes by Saturday’s opener. Further, it seems a reliable surface for snowmobiles and ATVs might be questionable on a few lakes where icy acquisition occurred only recently. 

To preface this next story, I share with you the final freezing of Gunflint Lake favored the smoothest ice I’ve seen in my 17 winters here. The glass-like surface could allow uninterrupted skating for miles, and the lake remained free of insulating snow cover for three days of clear ice observation.

The charm of a Gunflint winter was never more evident than it was for yours truly on one pre-dawn day last week. Out early, as “old Sol” was making its daily debut, I was up on the Mile O Pine looking over the two day old lake ice.

The sunrise was on fire once again as it begun to light up our lives in this northern paradise. To compliment the celestial infinity, wispy clouds were floating aloft drawing on the awesome fiery rays. This heavenly interaction rendered a spectacle of pink cotton candy vapor. In turn, the vaporous veil was picked up in reflection by the mirror perfect hard water surface.  

There are not adequate descriptors to pictorially celebrate the magic of this rosy dawn in concert with “pink” Gunflint ice. Such radiance probably has happened before on countless water bodies in this great land, but for me, winter elegance of this magnitude has never been so visually consuming. This wilderness panorama was a breath-taking work of unmatched art.   

Additions of snow over the miracle glaze, minus something temps and north-northwest winds have since, put the Gunflint Gal in a grumpy state. As I key this week's report, she is murmuring tones of uneasiness. I’m not sure if her new coat isn’t a good fit, or she is shivering in the frigid air. Regardless, of the curmudgeonly attitude, her solemn dialogue is entertaining.       

More northwoods enchantment took place at Wildersmith recently when a moose tromped through the yard. Although such occurred during darkness hours, tracks in the fresh fallen snow, and broken branches along its path, confirm it was, what it was.

With so few moose remaining throughout the territory, coupled with the fact it’s been years since one has been seen around our place, this nocturnal visit reenergizes hope for this iconic herd to regain a healthy population status. The thought of a visit from one of the herd more often than once every few years would be welcomed at Wildersmith.  

The sudden turn to real winter character was equally appropriate this past weekend for the Gunflint Mail Run sled dog races. Racing conditions last Saturday morning were excellent. Enthusiasm was at a high pitch. Ten entries started the 12 dog (long race) while 13 teams made up the eight dog (shorter race) field, all finishing up on a sunny, but bitter cold, Sunday afternoon.

 To stage such an awesome event has to be a ton of work! Organization of the happening was top drawer. It seemed all phases went off without a hitch. Hats off to planners, sponsors, volunteers, mushing teams and Trail Center Restaurant personnel on a job well done! The Gunflint community looks forward to seeing the GMR become a premier post-holiday occasion in years to come.  

Winners of the two races were Ward Wallin of Two Harbors in the 110 mile section, and Dusty Klaven of Togo, MN in the 70 mile chase. Congratulations to the winners and thanks to all the teams for making this a great weekend. A tabulation of all race finishers can be found on our WTIP website.  

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith!  Trout season is open, happy angling!
 

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Wildersmith on the Gunflint: January 8

The Gunflint winter in this New Year continues in a “funky” mood. The area has a decent accumulation of snow although none has been added since our last radio gathering, and not much is foreseen in the immediate future.         

Meanwhile, temperatures throughout our northland are way out of whack. With only a few nights in the Wildersmith neighborhood seeing the mercury dip below zero, making ice on the “Gunflint Gal” from our mid-lake location has been difficult. Whereas the western third of the lake took up solidarity sometime before Christmas, we had seen only a momentary skim one morning in the past week, and that scant crinkling was soon whisked away by daytime winds.

Since that time, persistent northwesterlies kept things in turmoil. The rolling icy surf ate away at edges of the eastern iciest advancement (the Gunflint always freezes from west to east) sending huge chunks crashing and grinding into the shore down our way. These floating mini-icebergs not only create intriguing sound bites against the granite shoreline, but also whip up unusual lake surface textures as rollers and ice cubes unite. This "liquidscape” often takes on the look of dancing waters, and in a case or two, one would think there might be school of hungry “bass” attacking at Mayfly hatch.  

Then in an unexpected happening, winds calmed last Sunday evening and by the morning of January fourth, Gunflint Lake had totally put on her winter coat.  Lifetime residents around here cannot remember such a tardy arrival of hard water. The new late date “ice on” will be recorded in my winter facts data as the old mark of December 29, 2001 was obliterated to a distant second.

On a related note, I heard of some gutsy ice skaters who tried the Gunflint ice a little over a mile west of here out from Heston’s Lodge, January 2. Guess there were no issues but they’re surely bigger risk takers than yours truly, particularly when chunks of the surface were breaking off not far from where their blades scarred the frozen surface.  

In another ice related story, a friend tells of meeting, and playing peek-a-boo with an otter along a narrow ice shelf at his shore line. The aquatic, carnivorous mammal was doing a little fishing at the edge of the ice formation and came up a time or two to show off its catching skills. It makes one wonder if the fun loving critter might have been teasing this on-looker in regard to already being able to ice fish, or was just playing a little “now you see me, now you don’t" game. 

Although wolves aren’t at the door, the Gunflint/Loon Lake Pack has been seen at any number of places along the south shore of Gunflint lake in the past week. From reports it’s a “five some” making the rounds.   

There have been no known confrontations between people and/or pets as these great hunters just want venison. With few white tails left in the upper Trail reaches, wolves are ranging in all directions to find even a whiff of their favorite meal. As confirmation of the low deer population, I know of only one buck being taken in these parts during the November 2015 rifle season. Since the Gunflint’s completely frozen now, I’m wondering if deer might matriculate from Canada, or will the wolves make their way in that direction for better hunting grounds.   

The first spectacle of northwoods dog sledding competition gets under way this weekend with the Gunflint Mail Run.  The 110 mile (long race) and a 70 mile (short run) commence at Trail Center Saturday morning, 8 am. Race observations can be viewed at any number of back country road intersections along the snowmobile trail network, and at turn-around points (for the long race at Blankenberg Pit) and (at King’s Road above Gunflint Lake for the short race).

Born to run and pull, these canine athletes display boundless energy as they get harnessed up. Their enthusiasm goes unmatched from start to finish. If you have not seen such an event, the Gunflint Mail Run is a good opportunity to cross such an event off one’s bucket list.   

While on the dogsledding subject, riding in a sled behind the dogs is an adventure everyone with wilderness spirit should get to experience. Bearskin and Gunflint Lodges both offer dogsledding rides in the snowy woods. Give them a call to make a reservation. Take it from yours truly it’ll be a timeless memory!  

This is Fred Smith, on the Trail, at Wildersmith. The Trail's going to the dogs, see you at the GMR, it’ll be a “woofing” good time! 

{photo courtesy of Gunflint Mail Run on Facebook}
 

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