Points North: Thawed Out and Waiting for the Winter We Need

December Snow (SBFettig/Flickr)
December Snow (SBFettig/Flickr)

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At daybreak Saturday morning the night’s darkness lingered, reluctant to retreat from a weak December sun struggling to penetrate the gloom. I waited impatiently for enough daylight to let the dogs outside for their morning walkabout, because I like to keep an eye on them. Water was dripping from the eaves when I stepped out. A humid mist imbued the surrounding woods with mystery.

I like days like this, especially in March and April when thawing temperatures and melting snow hold the promise of spring. A December thaw is no longer welcome in northern Minnesota. Instead of being a respite from months of below-freezing temperatures--as thaws used to be—the warmth delays the onset of winter. We're waiting for the lakes to make ice, the swamps to freeze and the forest to be blanketed with deep, powdery snow.

Northern Minnesota is economically dependent on cold and snow. Most north woods logging occurs on frozen ground, and snow sports drive winter tourism. Warm winters mean hard times. Last winter's lack of snow was especially hard on communities that provide services for visiting snowmobilers or skiers. When spring ice-out arrived weeks ahead of schedule, northern legislators suggested enacting an earlier fishing opener so resort communities could recoup some of their winter losses. While the fishing opener wasn’t changed, the suggestion to do so sparked a healthy discussion about whether traditional fishing seasons may need date adjustments to meet the realities of a warming climate.

I tried not to think about wimpy winters and early fishing openers when I took the dogs for a walk in the rain Saturday afternoon. Starting from home, we didn't walk very far before we encountered very fresh wolf sign. A big male wolf had walked down the old road just ahead of us. I know it was a male because we turned around when we came to the place where he tossed up leaves and snow by scratching with his hind legs. Nearby he sprayed the snow yellow-green. All of this very likely occurred just minutes before we arrived. The dogs, which travel this way as frequently as the wolves, carefully sniffed where the wolf had been and left yellow marks of their own. I turned around and, with the dogs at heel, headed home.

On Sunday, a change of scenery was in order. I drove the Arrowhead Trail up and away from Lake Superior, climbing more than 1,000 feet in elevation. Climatologists say the high hills above the lake have the longest, snowiest winters in Minnesota. Even here, the winters aren’t as cold and snowy as they used to be. Not so long ago, we referred to climate change as the elephant in the room. Now it is the room. In a place where snow once covered the ground from November to May, we now get thaws and even rain every month of winter.

I hadn't been in the woods since the end of deer season, so I was curious to see what was going on out there. To give some purpose to this mini-expedition, I decided to find a moose. A decade ago it was common to see a moose or two when you went for a drive. At the very least, you'd see lots of moose tracks in the snow where the big animals crossed or walked along the road. I've seen two moose--a cow and calf last September--during the past year. And I see far fewer moose tracks along the roads.

My destination was a big cutover that offered excellent winter moose habitat. Turning on the Shoe Lake Road, I slipped the truck into four-wheel-drive, even though previous vehicles had packed a driving lane on the unplowed road. What had been a foot of powder prior to the thaw had settled to several inches of heavy, wet snow. I was surprised to pass a deer hunter dressed in orange and carrying a muzzleloader. There aren't a lot of deer back here.

When I reached the skid trail leading to the cutover, I checked for any sign of human activity before letting the dogs out of the truck. The popular trapping season for fisher and pine marten had closed, but the new wolf-trapping season is open through January. Satisfied that no one had been here ahead of me, I let the dogs out. Walking the half-mile to the cutover, the only animal sign on the skid trail were snowed-in tracks left by a moose and a wolf. Occasionally, pine marten tracks crossed the trail.

The yellow Lab bounded out ahead, while the 15-year-old husky-shepherd was content to trail behind. We came upon the fresh tracks of a mature bull moose on the edge of the cutover. I found where he'd recently thrashed a red pine sapling, its broken boughs scattered atop the snow.  I kept walking across the cutover, which covers hundreds of acres. Within a quarter mile I discovered the fresh bed of a second, somewhat smaller moose. Perhaps it was also a bull. Although having dogs along prevented me from seeing either animal, it was satisfying to know I could still find moose without trying too hard.

Back at the truck, we took a ride around the area to check ice conditions and see who was out and about. The lakes were ice-covered, but I decided to wait for a bout of cold weather before venturing out on them. Watching carefully along the roadside, I saw tracks of foxes, deer, moose and wolves, as well as several “people trails” left by pine marten trappers. In one place, there were raven tracks and bloodstains in the road. I got out for a closer look, leaving the dogs in the truck.
 
It appeared someone had dragged a deer out of the woods. Curious, I followed the drag marks in the snow. Actually, deer were dragged into the woods. Within 50 feet of the road I came upon a deer’s rib cage, which had been picked over by the ravens. Just beyond the rib cage was the whole carcass of a doe, which had been chained by the neck to a tree. Apparently someone was snaring wolves there. I turned and walked out, trying not to disturb the set.
 
In an old-fashioned winter, my tracks, as well as those of the trapper, would quickly disappear beneath new snows. As I write, the thaw continues. The weather forecast calls for rain before freezing temperatures finally return later in the week. And so we wait, in moist December gloom, for the winter we need.

Airdate: December 7, 2012

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