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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:
Heading up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais

Wildersmith on the Gunflint June 3

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June, the month of our full “strawberry moon” (Ode’imini Giizis”) is at hand. Chapter six of the year 2011 is steaming full speed ahead, no stopping it now.

Old Sol is arching through the universe to give the Gunflint Territory its longest daylight of the year in little over two weeks. With it, “Zigwan” (spring) turns the warm season over to “Neebing” (summer), and the light of day begins a slow trickle in the other direction once more.

Memorial Day weekend along the Trail was a cheery, busy place as the unofficial first day of summer saw throngs of snowbirds back at wilderness places, and vacationing warriors added to the mix as caravans of vehicles with canoes and fishing boats hummed through the forest to hundreds of destinations.

Except for a gray somewhat rainy Saturday (only three-tenths of an inch at Wildersmith), the weather was perfect for the kick-off of vacation season. The territory did experience a few frosty mornings in the days prior to the holiday segment. Frost/freeze advisories proved to be right on this time. Once again, these late May cold snaps confirmed what longtime residents have continually preached, “that June is the time for serious garden planting,” and there is no point in trying to out-guess Mother Nature with an early start.

I have to announce that the last chunk of ice hiding in the shadows of a white cedar canopy along the Mile O Pine has melted into history. The final observation of the winter artifact was May 26. How appropriate that we celebrate the beginning of the summer season the same week that the last remnant of cold succumbed.

The Wildersmith dock is in the lake thanks to the able assistance of a wonderful spouse and some swell neighbors. They did the grunt work of carrying the cumbersome moorage parts while I guided them from the cold Gunflint waters.

With water temps still hovering in the high 40s, the initial shock was tempered with one of those high-tech wetsuits. Only my hands experienced a sense of what spring water at 48 degrees north latitude is really like, still icy cold.

Our end of the Mile O Pine has been taunted by a nosey bear over the past few nights. It is a yearling that is either none too bright or is going to be a big obstinate nuisance in the not-too-distant future. Shots into the night darkness don’t seem to faze the young bruno as it just gives you a ‘ha-rumphh’ look before it waddles off.

Recently some new neighbors got firsthand experience with life in the woods. Two days in a row found the black fur ball initiating them. First, they found out that leaving birdseed out can offer a hungry critter an invitation back for another visit. On night two, the marauding adolescent came part way through a doggie door. Somehow, it got the inside door open and snatched the remaining bag of seeds.

So now brother bear is checking all of us out. Hope it gets the message soon that the welcome mat is not intended for grumpy north woods creatures. It’s getting nothing at this stop-off during nightly rounds.

The Smiths welcomed more cordial critters a few days ago. My wintertime gray jay friends have returned. After a several week hiatus to bring a new generation into the world, they came back, this time with two young’uns.

It didn’t take long for mom and pop to come to the hand for a cube of bread. Meanwhile, the young, that I would call juveniles at this stage, kept a safe distance. So far they haven’t learned the ropes in getting an easy snack at Wildersmith.

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor the sum, sum, summer time!

Warm weather has arrived on the Gunflint!

Wildersmith May 27

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April snow and rain showers that the northland experienced a few weeks ago are beginning to bear results. The upper Gunflint is alive and well with blooming of all kinds.

A mosaic of color is exploding in spite of sparse moisture over the past couple weeks. However, it’s been raining lightly since I commenced this keyboard exercise and this is good!

Awesome is the kaleidoscope of emerald that blankets the wilderness landscape. With tones of dark forest green in the coniferous stand, at one end of the continuum, to almost shocking hot green chartreuse sprouts of aspen, Mother Nature has about covered the gamut of things containing chlorophyll.

Leaf out is entering the final stages and will be pretty much complete as we turn the last pages of May heading into chapter six. Full deciduous leaflets will soon be quaking with every breath of air, as their needle cousins are shooting candles of new growth at what seems like an earlier than normal frequency. Then again, it’s almost June and the forest will be all decked out once again!

At ground level, those dandelions are out in force while the swamp areas are popping with the buttery faces of marsh marigolds. I spied one exceptionally large patch of the marshy golden blooms along the Trail near the Tuscarora Lodge turn-off. Ferns are also adding to the low level panorama as the fiddleheads are uncoiling along many back country paths.

Tints of blue are debuting as well. The forget-me-nots have forgotten us not, and wild violets, plus a few unnamed tiny azure posies, are gracing the yard at Wildersmith, as we head into the Memorial Day weekend.

Familiar faces are starting to return to their warm season retreats. Amidst the birthing of wilderness babies and a barrage of ornery black flies, their homecoming can be somewhat daunting with the chores of re-opening cabins after a long winter respite.

Among things that can always be a bit unnerving is the reactivation of water systems. It’s amazing how forgetting to drain even the tiniest bit of water in a pipe can cause such frustration come spring.

Probably the next greatest concerns are functioning septic systems and a wildfire sprinkler system pump that starts for a test run with a minimum of pulls. Then it’s on to things like ridding the place of unwanted varmints that might have made a winter home for themselves in a wall, and many other fix-it/ housekeeping tasks.

The list of “honey-do” things can seem endless, as the desire to get outside and onto a favorite lake for paddling, fishing or maybe just some shoreline R & R, looms large ass the critical reason for being here in the first place. Even reaching this point in the re-upping process involves putting docks in the water and the hoping that all is OK with the marine equipment and fishing tackle.

One can readily see that getting back into the north woods groove is not easy. So it’s welcome home neighbors, glad to have you back, hope all is in good working order at your place in the woods.

For yours truly life is not quite as complicated. At this point, everything that has been working through the winter is still working. The dock is soon to go into the lake and the boat will be out of storage for its annual trip down the road to be dipped in Gunflint waters for 2011.

Meanwhile, the Smiths have already started another ‘getting ready for winter’ job. The wood shed has empty rows and there’s a stack of wood to be split and stacked for 2012.

That job is being sandwiched between finishing the pruning efforts of the winter deer browse, taking a whack at some early season weeds and transplanting a few baby trees. Oh, I almost forgot, all this home work is added to many days of working with the Chik Wauk Museum/Nature center for its coming season.

So to the query from people to the south, “What do you do up there all the time?” My answer is quite simple, it’s busy, busy, busy, and the days sure fly by.

Guess I’ll keep on hangin’ on, and savor this wonderful time in border country. Hope you do too!

Airdate: May 27, 2011

Photo courtesy of Gael Martin via Flickr.

Hooded Merganzer

Wildersmith May 20

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Regardless of summer still being a month away according to the calendar, I believe we can declare the season pretty much upon us. One of those summer-like days hit us last week, with temps reaching from the high 60s to near 80 depending upon where one’s thermometer is located.

Although we have slipped back into cooler times since that one-day thermal occurrence, the fact that the walleye opener hit this past weekend, and then the return of hummingbirds to local sweetness stations, surely has to count as summer up north.

To take things one step further, there’s a tint of green in the treetops over the granite landscape. Aspen buds are about to spring forth with the first deciduous foliage of the season, while their birch kin are not far behind. In all likelihood we’ll have green leaves of summer by the time this news exercise reaches your eyes and ears. Believe it or not, the first wild strawberry blooms have been spotted, and all of this natural wonder is being bathed in nighttime brilliance of the full “budding flower” moon (Zaagibagaa Giizis).

On the fishing opener, the day was pleasant and cool with a good walleye chop on the sky blue waters. Anglers from whom I’ve heard had good luck in getting their prizes. Remembering that the fishing is always good, one can only hope that the kick-off catching matched the joy of being on the water.

Ice out is complete on area lakes with the smaller bodies becoming liquid only by last Tuesday the tenth. Few examples remain of the past season’s character, with a couple man-made piles of snow and one ice dam all that’s visible along the Mile O Pine. Bet they’ll be gone by first of June for sure!

A couple from over on Hungry Jack Lake celebrated the May 10 demise of ice on their lake with an afternoon paddle to see how winter has bid adieu to our newly found warmth. Stirred with the smell of spring in the forest, their search was on for that last patch of white. Sure enough, a spit of winter was found still clinging to the rocks and moss beneath the shadows of a great white pine and a couple white cedars.

Listening to the calls of two loon pairs, winter wrens and white-throated sparrows, under bright blue skies, they watched a gathering of male mergansers while an eagle towered high above. What a day it must have been, sorrow in the passing of Old Man Winter but joy in the renewal.

The beauty of their day was tainted slightly by the shoreline litter reminding us that much of mankind doesn’t give a hoot about how they treat their environment. Wild inhabitants of the territory surely don’t leave styrofoam, plastic bait containers, fishing bobbers, minnow buckets and floating fish spot markers… so sad. Thank goodness there are folks like these who do care, and who proceeded to pick up.

A wonderful hike on the Chik Wauk Trail system last weekend saw our end of the Trail gem working more of its magic. A pair of loons have moved into the bay and taken up residence. A recently placed nesting platform is floating just across from the museum’s north windows.

It was just by chance that the Smiths got to see the apparent mom-to-be scramble up onto the new natural dwelling, wiggle around a little bit and settle down on what appeared to be her nesting site. Field glasses didn’t reveal if there’s an egg yet.

Thanks to the persistent and diligent work of Gunflint Trail Historical Society member/supporter Phyllis Sherman and Chik Wauk Nature Center guru Kathy Lande, the potential nesting site looks to be a wonderful attraction for Chik Wauk visitors as the new museum season is rapidly approaching. Hopefully the attention from on lookers across the bay will not be disturbing to the handsome pair. We’ll all be hoping for a new addition.

Speaking of the museum and nature center, 2011 opening day is set for Saturday, May 28. To learn more about the storied Gunflint past, schedule a day trip and come out for a step back in time. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through mid-October. Currently the vehicle admittance gate is closed until opener, but hiking trails are open to walk-in traffic, so folks wanting a splendid day outdoors are welcome to explore at their leisure.

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor some wonders of the wilderness!

Airdate: May 20, 2011

Photo courtesy of NYCArthur via Flickr.

Green is the word of the month along the Gunflint Trail

Wildersmith May 13

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I’m back in the woods once more! Great to be home at Wildersmith after a fine trip to Iowa for my annual stint as an official at the 102nd Drake Relays in Des Moines.

Once again, my thanks go out to the nosey pup from over on Hungry Jack Lake. Rosey, you’re the top dog at scooping the upper Gunflint News when I’m out of the wilderness.

My return finds that winter has finally succumbed in border country. At this writing, only a few swatches of snow remain in roadside ditches. The mercury is having trouble getting down to the freezing mark anymore and lake ice is dwindling rapidly.

Speaking of ice out, after 147 consecutive days, the frozen cover on Gunflint Lake is now history. Last Sunday, May 8, marked the official disappearing act for 2011.

Although winter is my favorite season, I must say that the sound of water lapping at our shore is music to my ears. Another pleasant occurrence, with the open water, is that the Gunflint Gal is up a good two feet from its record low level at freeze up last December. Now, as snow melt run-off begins to dwindle, if Mother Nature will just break loose with some timely rains over the next few months, the liquid bodies throughout the territory can do a little catching up after several years of being shortchanged.

Residents and early season visitors are being treated to all the good things about spring on the Gunflint Trail. It’s captivating to watch as the thousands of coniferous saplings uncurl from being buried in white for months. With each passing day you can almost mark the gain in strength of their bent-over trunks while their fragile limbs begin reaching skyward.

Green is the word of the month along our wilderness byway. Shoots of ground level flora are piercing the cool earth, enjoying a bit of sunshine before the late month leaf out casts them back into shadows for the short growing season ahead.

Thinking green was also on the minds of nearly 200 friends of the Gunflint environment this last weekend at the fourth annual Gunflint Green-up. Some 10,000 white and jack pine seedlings were planted in several of the burned out areas of the Ham Lake wildfire.

The hard work of starting a new forest where there is very little dirt was celebrated with a kick-off and closing festival of musical entertainment and food under the big top on the grounds of Gunflint Lodge. The weekend was just splendid! Congratulations and thanks to organizers, volunteers and seedling planters for another job well done.

Along with all our flora trends, several critters that have been snoozing over the past six or seven months are making their debut for 2011. Bears, mommas and cubs, have been observed roaming the Gunflint Lake south shore. And, although the ebony bruins can be annoying at times, they are nothing compared to the bloodthirsty mosquitoes, black flies and ticks that premiered almost overnight this past weekend.

Ticks were reported as thick as fleas on a dog’s back by tree planters on Green-up sites. Meanwhile those skeeters made life quite interesting under the big top last Saturday evening and I found some pesky black flies ravenous as ever during outside chores over the past several days. So it’s the dreaded time for bitin’ bugs, get out the Deet and bug nets, drat!

While dodging deer with my vehicle all winter, the warmer season has changed the dodg-ees. It’s been like running a hairy gauntlet trying to miss the snowshoe hares on south Gunflint Lake Road. One day last week, the Smiths counted 11 of the darting northern bunnies around their usual hangout, as we headed out of the woods toward the Trail.

I don’t know where they hung out during the snowy time, but they seem to have returned in numbers larger than last summer. Their warm season camouflage is a bit disconcerting, too, as they blend in quite well with the dirty roadside remnants from winter plowing.

Except for their skills in multiplication, they have poor insight into the hazards of jaywalking, so it’s just matter of time until there’ll be some sad fuzzy fatalities.

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor the explosion of seasonal happenings!

Airdate: March 13, 2011

Photo courtesy of mmwm via Flickr.

Snowshoe Hare

Wildersmith April 22

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“Old Man Winter” roared back into the north woods this past weekend. In simple terms, it was “Just a moment, my wilderness friends and little Miss Spring. I’m not “outta” here just yet.”

He may be a memory by the time this upper Trail news reaches you readers and listeners. However, while the “old guy” hung around the territory, it reverted back to a more February-like character.

The usual NWS “fantasy” of a winter storm warning turned into a white reality show, with anywhere from four to near seven inches blanketing the area. Strong northwest winds buffeted border country along with single-digit to teen temperatures for a few days, adding to what some would call April misery. Guess my re-cap of winter in last week’s edition was premature!

The hubbub of unexpected atmospheric conditions caught any number of folks by surprise, having put away snow shovels and the like. A few days before, I had even considered taking off the snow blade, but for some reason did not get it done. Luckily, my procrastination this time paid off, as road and driveway plowing was the order of mid-month business.

So, spring has been put on hold for a few days. Dry roads will be replenished with additional mud and run-off will gouge more at miniature canyons from the first meltdown. But this too will pass, and the season of buds and babies will resume. Above all, regardless of this brief set-back, we are thankful for the always needed moisture!

A green thumb friend over on Loon Lake tells of crocus blooms that seemed to pop right out of the melting snow from one day to the next, prior to “Mr. Winter’s” late-season stop. She also mentioned that tulips were well out of the cool ground. Wonder what those little green beings think of their white surroundings now?

The Wildersmith neighborhood has had plenty of dark clouds lately and I don’t mean in the heavens. The forest has been alive with a murder of crows and they have been joined by a flock of iridescent grackles, several red wing blackbirds and those steel-gray juncos.

The seed cafeteria along our deck has been the scene of considerable critter frustrations as both the ebony avian and our little red rodents seek supremacy over the feed trough. Meanwhile, chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches seem unphased by all this commotion as they dart in and out between the chatter and flapping of shiny black wings.

The weekly supply run to Grand Marais found the Smith’s spotting a number of robins, but at this writing they have not appeared at our place along the south Gunflint Lake shore. I suppose they’ll zip in with the melting snow any time soon.

It was amusing that during the height of the white gales last Sunday two deer charged back into our yard. The white tailed gang had “headed to green fields everyone” during the past couple weeks, but returned to the balsam canopy of Wildersmith in the roaring fury of blowing snow. They even came to the window, looking in with curiosity as if to say, “what’s going on with this weather, anyway?”

A recent journey down County Road 20 (south Gunflint Lake Road) found two snowshoe hares in the usual locale where they were so prolifically abundant last summer. I hadn’t seen any during the winter, thinking that they were either consumed by the carnivore gang or taken out by the trapping fur collectors. It’s sure nice to know that a couple survived.

It was interesting that one was somewhat indecisive about the changing season, as it still had a white coat. On the other hand, bunny number two had apparently made the decision early as it was already into its warm season attire. “Mr. White Coat” is probably having the last bunny laugh right now in our renewed white landscape. I wonder if they are into multiplication practice yet?

That’s all for now. Happy Easter and keep on hangin’ on, savoring whatever the wilderness adventure!

Airdate: April 22, 2011

Photo courtesy of Miguel Vieira via Flickr.

Crack in the Ice by Bryan Hansel

Wildersmith April 15

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It’s looking like spring, feeling like spring and smelling like spring. I think “Mother Nature” has declared it spring in our northern forest.

Guess I will, too, since my self-determined criterion has been met. As you will recall from my autumnal writings, I declare it winter when the first daytime temperature remains below the freezing mark. The same declaration is made in the “vernal” season when the temp stays above freezing for the nighttime low. It’s been doing that for a few days now, so spring is official on the Gunflint!

The upper end even had its first thunder in the late afternoon last Sunday, along with the initial “severe thunderstorm warning” from the National Weather Service. Fortunately, this time it was another of those “wolf cries” that wilderness folk appreciate (nothing severe). It did dish up spotty rain with a gully washer at Trails end and a few drops from Loon Lake on to the south. Wildersmith recorded one quarter-inch.

With winter being squashed, I’ll give a brief re-cap of what happened. At Wildersmith, from October 30 through April 4, 97.75 inches of snow was recorded. The thermometer mercury had a coldest marking of minus forty on January 23rd. In addition there were sixty-seven other mornings when it was below zero. So, all in all, winter 2010-2011 was pretty darned back to normal after last year’s feeble rendition.

Considerable headway has been made on the thawing of back-country roads since we last met on WTIP. After our snow of the previous weekend was removed, the sun went to work. At this keying, I can’t speak for all wilderness pathways, but the Mile O’ Pine is nearly void of its winter character. It’s just mud and water with an occasional dry spot. I suppose most area roads off the hard surface are about the same.

The snow pack has taken a hit, but there is still melting to do before it’ll be a memory. Along the by-way, the recession of snow into the ditches is bringing back the memory of thoughtless human disrespect. The slobs of the universe have not changed their ways. The “right of spring” is revealing that some people don’t care too much about this great natural place. The litter is shameful!

The ice on Gunflint Lake is showing some puddles of liquid on these warm days, but still appears tight along the south shore. The best bet among those of us still in the neighborhood is that our ice cube will probably make it to the first of May.

On my trip to Grand Marais on Thursday I found several places with open water near smaller lakes’ north side shorelines. A number of the swamps have also softened to the point where their snow cover has taken on the usual tea-colored look from the waters below. Water’s a rushin’ lakeward in rivers and streams, and the little falls that tumbles into Larch Creek southwest of the Seagull Guard Station was cascading like I haven’t seen it in along time.

With the exception of noises from seasonal changes in our natural world, it’s a quiet time in the Gunflint wilderness. Being “mud’ season,” many businesses have closed for the month and several of the year-round residents bailed for even warmer and definitely less sloppy places. But for yours truly, getting to observe each day-to-day seasonal evolution is an alluring and cherished joy that makes me hate to miss even one.

That’s all for now. Keep on hangin’ on and savor the aroma of mud in the North Woods.

Airdate: April 15, 2011

Gunflint Trail

Wildersmith April 8

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Last Sunday evening, as I keyed this weeks’ news from the upper Gunflint, Old Man Winter was taking what may be one last swipe at the northland. He wasn’t fooling around either.
So, the first few of our April showers were of the white variety. Had it not been for the temperature hanging out just around the freezing mark, the snow accumulation might have been a doozy.

As it was, where there was old snow on the ground, the new white stuck, but where Old Sol had gnawed away the winter blanket to bare earth it was mushy muck. By Monday morning, however, another four to eight inches was added to the count along the south Gunflint Lake south shore. What this means now is that with the next really warm day, our “mud season” will be officially underway.

With month four already a week old, the recent conditions have been a far cry from reflecting Aprils’ full pink maple sugar moon and mingling thoughts of green sprouts and budding trees. But, that is certain to change as winter bound folks from these parts have high hopes for the first full month of spring.

Speaking of green, the territory is one month away from the fourth Gunflint Green-Up May 6 and 7. Web registrations are still being taken on the Gunflint Green-up website and volunteers are needed to assist in the Friday and Saturday night meal functions. If any local is interested in helping out in the food service line, contact Lee Zopff at

News came in from Bea Griffis on March 31 letting folks in border country know that her Ralph had fallen a couple Saturdays before. He broke the femur in his right leg and has been in considerable misery. His leg was cast in a metal contraption after surgery on March 26 and he remains hospitalized, according to her message. Ralph has been in rehab for two weeks learning to walk in his recovery equipment. He may be facing a period of time in a nursing home for additional therapy and convalescence before getting to go home.

For those readers not familiar with Ralph and Bea, they are the former long-time owners of the Chik-Wauk Resort (now the Chik-Wauk Museum & Nature center) at the end of the Trail. I’m sure that these wonderful former Gunflinters’ would appreciate hearing from their many friends both near and far. Their e-mail is

Beauty has always been in the eyes of the beholder. Although we are entering what many call an ugly stage of the year in the upper Trail, natural items of artistic appeal are happening with each passing day.

The magic of our snow season is in transformation now. Where the power of Sol has been peaking through the forest canopy, daily gnawing has created some splendid sculpturing in territorial snow banks. Often the most intriguing textures can be found in the plowed windrow mixture of snow, ice and north woods dirt along back country roads. But, one had better not blink because it is here one day and vastly different the next.

On another note, where those beaming rays find their way to ground level, the trickle of melting winter is picking up the pace. Everyone knows the damaging power that moving water possesses. To think that such destruction could happen from simple early spring ooze meandering its way down a wilderness road is almost incomprehensible.

These gurgling streams reflecting a winter gone by are as captivating as the anticipation of a first white cover in October. So, although yours truly can’t get enough of the cold time of year, I guess I’m really a person for all seasons (exception being July and August).

This is Fred Smith with Wildersmith on the Gunflint, and that’s all for now. Keep on hangin’ on and savor spring coming to the northland.

Airdate: April 8, 2011

Photo courtesy of Mykl Roventine via Flickr.

Ice Fishing

Wildersmith April 1

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Old Man Winter wandered back to the upper Trail after taking a spring break in the middle part of the month. However, he brought only cold with nothing white to go along with it.

The weather predictors cried wolf once again and that led to a lot of excitement in these parts as a “big” blizzard was on the way. After several days of advance warnings the upper Gunflint wilderness got that, ‘sorry, but no cigar’ for the umpteenth time this winter.

March, usually one of our snowiest months, has pretty much been a bust. With only a few days left, Wildersmith has counted about eight inches along with a couple puny rain showers, and most of that occurred in the first 10 days or so.

Saying that it is getting drier by the day is no overstatement. Although there is plenty of snow and ice yet to be melted, it looks like the area is headed into another one of those dry periods. All hope is for something to start falling from the skies soon.

Speaking of ice, thoughts have turned to the question of when it will go out on the big lakes up this way. With several consecutive mornings below zero along the Mile O’ Pine since our last meeting, we have actually been in ice-making mode, and that’s no April fooling.

In fact, on one of those recent zippy cold mornings, when the wind was adding to the chill, the Gunflint Lake Gal must have been shivering too, as she was moaning and groaning some incoherent terms like it was January.

An ice fishing fellow from over on Loon Lake confirms that on one of his last excursions the water at the end of his drilling auger was about three feet from the ice on which he was standing. That makes for a big ice cube. So unless we get swamped with spring all of a sudden, I’m guessing that we still have a few weeks of hard water left.

There’s nothing to match the serenity of a windless sub-zero morning in the Gunflint wilderness. Such was the case as I arose to a brilliant sunrise this last Sunday morning. With Sol beaming through the frosty forest, crystals twinkling from every branch, I watched a few deer peacefully browsing about the yard.

As if the forest beauty wasn’t captivating enough, interest and fascination overcame me as I contemplated frost actually being able to form on the deer’s backs. How unique is their fur covering, just how much cold can they withstand, do they shiver and do they ever get frostbite?

In the midst of the beaming sun, cloudy silhouettes of steamy breath puffed from their nostrils, suspended in the space momentarily before dispersing into the atmosphere. One could even see that a night of exhaling into the bitter darkness had provided an enhancement to their chin whiskers.

What a sight to see! Such moments of flora and fauna, framed in cold and sunshine, are poetically special. How fortunate it is to experience such wonderful snippets of wilderness life.

Plans are gearing up for the Ham Run Half Marathon. It seems hard to believe that one month from now, Sunday, May 1, the gun will go off starting the fourth annual run. It’s a time when folks gather to remember ignition of the tragic Ham Lake wildfire and celebrate survival and rebirth of the ravaged forest. Details for entering either the 5K or half marathon events can be found on the website,

This event is growing in popularity each year. It’s the real kick-off to the beginning of warm weather activities in the north woods. “No” will be the catch word on that day, no snow/cold or wind and no black flies, so “yes” folks can run and walk for the fun of it.

Keep on hanging on, and savor the rhythm of lie in the wild!

Airdate: April 1, 2011

Photo courtesy of Jack Heddon via Flickr.

Pussy Willow

Wildersmith March 25

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Gunflint Territory celebrated March’s supermoon even though it had to burn through the clouds last Saturday night. The effect in the upper Trail was not as had been expected. Nevertheless, it was still brilliant on the breast of our old fallen snow.

Meanwhile Zigwan (spring) was ushered in the next day in a somewhat unsettled fashion, with a thin blanket of overnight snow for openers, then rain during mid-day and sleet in the evening with temps hanging right around the freezing mark. Thus, the equilibrium of border country’s vernal equinox was dampened with cool gray.

Since this is pretty good hiking country, it should be no wonder that the Old Man of the North took a hike last week. Yes, Mr. Winter simply threw in the towel and left us with dripping rooftops and slush-clogged roads for several days in succession.

We have yet to get serious with mud on the Mile O’ Pine as the accumulated snow pack is so thick that the warm temps just let us sink into deep mushy ruts. The slippery snow-cone consistency has made maneuvering one’s vehicle challenging. Adding to our slip-sliding along, a bit of nighttime refreezing has complicated any thought of easy travel for the next few weeks. I’m certain that the same is true for all back country roads in this neck of the woods.

As certain as the swallows return to Capistrano, the crows have come back to our wilderness. The raucous jet-black scavengers are hanging out by the dozens at Wildersmith. With the murderous congregating, there’s not a moment of silence around our place. The baritone chatter goes on from dawn ‘til dusk.

While the early warmth grew last week, my daily trips to the mailbox afforded the discovery of pussy willow buds. The fuzzy tips are just beginning to break out of their comfy husks, and if spring bloomed more this past week, I’m betting that there’ll be a mass popping.

I’ve observed another sign of the times in the deer that browse about the yard. A number of the bucks have swollen foreheads. When they clean up spilled sunflower seeds under our deck, they’re close enough that, through the window, one can readily see the swelling lumps that will soon become velvet tines and, in a few short months, their crown of masculine status.

Speaking of deer, there is one doe here about that has something for which she can be thankful. That is life!

She has a rather significant bare scrape on her side with two puncture marks in the center. This surely must be the result of an up-close encounter with the local wolf pack. One cannot say for sure that this was the cause, but if it was a near-miss wolf attack, the predator got a big swatch of hide. The wound looks to be healing, but I wonder if this little gal has some flashbacks about nearly being on the fast food menu.

On a final note, to get the full effect, I’ve got to share a happening that is just one of those you just had to be there episodes.

Last week, the Smiths were casually driving to Grand Marais. Somewhere along the Trail in that 40 mile per hour zone, between Windigo and Norwester, out of the clear blue, something crashed onto our windshield, nearly startling us to death.

Thank goodness the splat happened near the window edge where it had some structural support, otherwise it may have brought the glass into our laps. Anyway, the point of impact was a gooey mess of bloody mangled body tissue, no feathers mind you, so it couldn’t have been a bird.

With no humans around and nothing observable in the rear view mirrors, we continued on to town. Once in town, the stop was made to clean off the now-dried-on mess. To loosen the glop, it took considerable scrubbing with one of those service station window squeegees, and as I did so, a distinct smell of fish suddenly permeated my nostrils.

To say the least, this was a bit fishy? The smelly mash apparently had careened from the heavens and, as bad luck would have it, found the Smith vehicle.

One can only guess at how this happened since we were some distance from the Poplar Lake shoreline at the time, so it was no fish flopping out of the lake (it’s still a huge ice cake anyhow).

My only clue is that this was a scavenged item from a fish cleaning site. I’m guessing that an eagle was in the process of transporting its afternoon snack and must have lost its grip from high overhead. You can imagine the speed at which this piece of finny was falling. Coupled with my 40m mph, it’s a wonder the squashing impact wasn’t worse.

Considering the chances of such an occurrence, maybe one in billions, what luck! It’s about like me winning the Powerball (then again, maybe I ought to go buy a ticket). So that’s the story, a fish in the face if you will, without exaggeration, one that got away and then didn’t get away!

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor the wilderness transition!

Airdate: March 25, 2011

Photo courtesy of saxcubano via Flickr.

Musher at Much for a Cure (by Stephan Hoglund)

Wildersmith March 18

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After an upper Trail weekend of barking and angling, peaceful celestial events take center stage for residents and visitors. His luminance, the “crust on the snow moon,” will be displayed in fullness come tomorrow (Saturday), and the day after finds a celebration of the vernal equinox as the calendar will declare it’s spring.

Some will say that the nonsensical setting of clocks ahead has taken the limelight away from the formal date book assertion of the new season. However, we must all keep in mind that none of our human toiling has more to do with the coming season of buds and babies than does Mother Nature. When all is said and done, it is she who is in charge of all. We’ll just have to wait until she decides it’s really springtime!

Meanwhile winter has sputtered a bit in the border country, with some single digits and then a bit of oozing during the past seven. Snow even covered the area last Friday night and Saturday, creating a magnificent setting for the big “Pink” weekend.

The setting on Saturday couldn’t have been choreographed any better, as flakes fell over the throng of sled dogs, mushers, handlers and well-wishers for the fifth annual Mush for a Cure. The atmosphere harkened back to days gone by when the best mode of transportation on a snowy day was by man on a sled, with a team of dogs in the lead.

Saturday’s event was ablaze with the symbolic pink of breast cancer research against a white backdrop. Forty plus team entries, including approximately 400 barking dogs prancing to get going, was a sight to see. Everything from pink attired mushers, to dogs with swatches of pink hairspray, to pink canine booties and fringed doggie leggings, set the tone for nothing but excitement.

Then as the starter’s gun went off, unbelievable energy was set in motion as the thrill to run was answered for those great four-legged athletes. And although chaotic in several instances, they were off, soon settling into single file, on the way to their mid-Trail finish. What a fun experience for all!

This may have been the best ever dog-sledding event in the upper Trail territory.
Most important of all the things going on, the money raised through musher pledges and the bald, brave and beautiful contest amounted to slightly over $30,000. This would bring the five-year fund raising total to just over $100,000.

This is quite a feat from the humble beginnings of this wonderful Cook County/Gunflint Community endeavor where just three teams did the first Mush for a Cure. Kudos to organizers Sue, Mary, and all who played a role in making it happen. Special acknowledgement is extended to all the mushers and to everyone who graciously pledged their resources.

Saturdays’ snow ended, and Sunday dawned with sunny skies and little wind as the annual trout fishing derby got under way at the west end of Gunflint Lake. The weather was marvelous for the mini-city of anglers on the Gunflint Lodge waterfront, and everyone was having a good time jigging for the big one.

By noon, catches were already on display in the registration area. The largest catch by that time was a dandy 7 ½- pound lake trout. There was probably a good more mounted by the 1 p.m. deadline.

Congratulations and thanks to the Ridge Riders Snowmobile Club for another well-organized angling event, and to all the fisher people that took part. The ice fishing was great, whether the catching was or not.

Keep on hangin’ on, and savor Nature’s wonderful wilderness offerings.

Airdate: March 19, 2011