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Join the WTIP News Staff for a program packed with news, music and some humor.  This program covers politics, local news and issues. DayBreak airs 7-8 a.m. on weekdays.

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Points North: DNR Addresses Major Land Issues

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Major land issues affecting thousands of northern Minnesota recreational users didn't make the agenda of the DNR's annual Hunting and Fishing Roundtable, but agency leaders were more than willing to talk about them.  I spoke with Craig Engwall, director of the DNR's Northeast Region and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr regarding school trust lands and a separate issue--ensuring timber lands owned by the Molpus Woodlands Group remain open to public recreation.
 
I was especially surprised the school trust lands weren't on the agenda, since last year the Legislature considered tacking an access surcharge on hunting license fees to pay the School Trust Fund for the public use of the land.  The surcharge didn't pass, but it raises big questions about how recreational activities like hunting, snowmobiling and berry picking will be managed on northern Minnesota's 2.5 million acres of school trust lands. To learn more, I talked with Engwall, because 2.2 million acres of trust lands are in his region.
 
"There's no consensus yet on what Minnesota will do," he said. Engwall pointed out that Montana charges an access fee for its trust lands.
 
Last year, the Legislature directed the DNR to begin managing school trust lands to provide a greater economic benefit to the School Trust. The primary sources of revenue from school trust lands are the receipts from timber sales and mineral leases, activities already occurring there. While the DNR has changed its internal bookkeeping to send more money to the School Trust, it is unlikely to find ways to generate substantial new revenues. In fact, it may be difficult to generate any revenue from some of the school trust lands.
 
Engwall said 20,000 acres of trust lands are designated as old growth forests where timber harvest is not allowed. The vast majority of public access to lakes in the northeast is located on trust lands. Many miles of undeveloped lake shorelines, including 81,000 linear feet of Lake Vermilion shoreline, are on trust lands, too.  Currently, lands such as these are not economically productive for the trust.
 
So what does this mean? Will we start logging off old growth forests? Will we be charged a fee to launch a boat at a public access? Will the state hold a fire sale of public lakeshores? While it's easy to envision such worst-case scenarios, the DNR isn't planning any fast moves for changing management strategies or disposing of trust lands.
 
DNR Commissioner Landwehr told me the agency is conducting a comprehensive review of trust lands for a report to the Legislature. The review includes a parcel-by-parcel inventory of trust lands and their economic value.  Once the review is complete, the agency can devise a plan for moving forward. That plan will likely identify shoreline areas where the highest and best use is selling them.  The strategy for doing so may include establishing conservation easements prior to sale to protect riparian habitat.
 
Other lands may be essentially sold to the state so they can be taken out of trust status. The lands would be appraised and the DNR would approach the Legislature for bonding money, which would go to the School Trust Fund. Landwehr says this may be the solution for boat launches. In many cases, undeveloped shorelines can be managed as timberlands, as they are now.
Forest harvest guidelines would protect ecologically sensitive shoreline areas.
 
"The good news is people are paying attention to trust lands, but the bad news is they are doing so because they feel threatened," Landwehr said.  "At this point in time there is nothing the conservation/environmental community needs to fear."
 
Another northern land issue is how the state will work with the Molpus Woodlands Group to ensure that their lands, located south of International Falls, remain open to public recreation. Last fall, the company threatened to close 128,000 acres of its lands and forest roads to public use. Such action not only would close lands long open for public hunting, but would also close roads used to access private property and hunting cabins, as well as the snowmobile trail network many resorts rely upon for winter tourism. Local legislators intervened and Molpus agreed to a one-year moratorium on the proposed closure.
 
At issue is the company's participation in the Sustainable Forest Incentives Act (SFIA), which allows large landowners to agree to provide public access and to sustainably manage forests in return for tax breaks. Initially, those tax breaks were worth $2 million annually on the Molpus lands, but the Legislature later capped SFIA payments at $100,000. As the threatened closure indicates, the company is unhappy with the greatly reduced SFIA payments.
 
Engwall says the company is willing to consider conservation easements similar to the ones put in place in recent years on other industrial forest holdings. Easements are more politically palatable to northern county commissioners who worry about losing their tax base from public acquisitions of private land. Generally speaking, easements ensure the property remains part of the working forest while providing public benefits such as access.
 
The DNR and Molpus are currently just beginning to talk. The company hasn't identified the lands where it is willing to sell easements. Once it does, DNR can start the easement process, which generally takes 12 to 24 months to complete. The DNR and the company first agree upon lands of interest and negotiate the details of the easement restrictions. Then the lands are appraised. Based on the appraisal, the parties negotiate a price. Landwehr hopes the DNR can put together a project proposal for the start of the next funding round for the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
 
"This will be one of the last big easement transactions," says Landwehr.
 
Just a decade ago, conservationists were worried hunters and other recreational users would lose access to industrial forest lands as timber companies sought new ways to stay profitable. Instead, using tax proceeds from the Legacy Amendment, the state has worked with conservation groups and big companies to purchase easements that preserve public access and the state's timber base. Let's keep our fingers crossed that this final transaction can be completed.

Airdate: January 11, 2012


 
 

Points North: New Report Reveals 50-Year-Old Fishing Secrets

Newly released trout fishing data collected by volunteer anglers a half-century ago provide a fascinating glimpse of what the fishing was like in dozens of Minnesota streams and lakes. The “Large Scale Compendium of Previously Unreported Trout Angling Data, 1958-1963” was compiled by retired fisheries biologist Mel Haugstad of Preston, with the assistance of Vaughn Snook, DNR assistant area fisheries supervisor in Lanesboro.
 
The statewide data set languished in a file for decades. The original study occurred between 1958 and 1963 and was devised by trout and salmon research supervisor Robert E. Schumacher of the Minnesota Division of Game and Fish. When Schumacher’s position was terminated, the study was left incomplete and no one finished it. Haugstad, at the urging of University of Minnesota professor emeritus George Spangler, recently completed its summarization, further analyzed the data and published the results.
 
While the information is old, it is nonetheless interesting not only to fisheries managers, but also to trout anglers. The report fills an information gap for the era following the 1944 publication of “A Biological Survey and Fishery Management Plan for the Streams of the Lake Superior North Shore Watershed” by Lloyd L. Smith Jr. and John B. Moyle—a copy of which resides on my bookshelf. Smith and Moyle completed painstaking surveys of North Shore streams, noting the deep holding water, cold water inlets, fish species living there and mor then used that data to suggest stream-specific management strategies. Much of the work they did remains relevant today.
 
The 1950s and ‘60s were the heyday of North Shore stream trout fishing, especially for brook trout. It was a pastime of the common man, because all you really needed was a fishing rod, a can of worms and an urge to explore. The road network in the Superior National forest was far more primitive than it is today, which meant favorite fishing waters were often a long walk off the beaten path. Most of the brook trout were 10 inches or less in length, although some streams were known to produce whoppers measuring 12 inches or more. The locations of these whopper waters were closely guarded secrets. Finding them, even if someone gave you directions, was nearly always an adventure.
 
Beginning in the 1930s with the Civilian Conservation Corps, stream habitat was improved or restored with projects intended to create protective cover and deep water refuge for trout. Often these improvements repaired damage done to streams by log drives in the pioneer logging era. The upper reaches of North Shore trout streams were stocked with brook trout, and occasionally browns and rainbows. Many anglers, including some of the old-timers still fishing today, got their start swatting mosquitos and battling the alder brush along North Shore creeks.
 
At the time of Schumacher’s study, trout fishing was beginning to change. The state was stocking stream trout—rainbows, brooks and browns—into small, cold lakes. The lakes offered trout the room and food base to grow, allowing them to reach larger sizes than the trout found in streams. Fish managers were also learning many northern trout streams had naturally reproducing brook trout populations, negating the need for stocking. The study includes data from dozens of stocked stream trout lakes that remain popular today.
 
For the study, Schumacher successfully recruited 120 anglers who reported their fishing success in 329 trout waters throughout Minnesota. Of these, 83 fisheries received at least 40 hours of fishing pressure, which was enough to make some determination about quality of the fishery. The anglers reported catching 14,014 trout of five species during 14,529 hours of angling. About half of the anglers recorded the lengths of their fish.
 
Working with volunteer anglers to collect data was a departure from the norm for Minnesota fish managers, who typically hire employees to hang around fishing access sites and interview anglers, a method known as the creel census. The census method works well for collecting specific information about specific waters, but would be impractical and prohibitively expensive to collect information on the scale of Schumacher’s study. The volunteer anglers turned in 3,621 fishing reports for 104 lakes and 225 streams.
 
Paging through the data, it is interesting to learn where folks were fishing 50 years ago and what they caught. For instance, the study lists 15 Itasca County trout streams, all populated with brook trout. The best of the bunch was Shine Brook, where anglers reported catching 113 brookies. Another Itasca County hotspot was Smith Creek, where 89 brook trout were caught. There were four trout streams within what is now the Twin Cities metropolitan area—Eagle Creek in Scott County, Kenaley’s Creek in Dakota County, and Big Marine and Brown’s creeks in Washington County. The fishing was good in the latter two streams, with Big Marine producing 52 brook trout and Brown’s giving up 70 brown trout.
 
Central and northwestern Minnesota had a couple dozen trout streams, most of which contained small brook trout. Hubbard County’s Straight River was a notable exception, producing brown and rainbow trout up to 21 inches in length. At the end of the report a special note was made of a 1962 fishing trip to Auganash Creek in Clearwater County, where a party of four anglers caught 39 brook trout, including 10 weighing 1 ½ pounds. The authors of the report speculate the trout were caught from a beaver pond where the fish had adequate food to grow to                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    larger sizes.
                                   
Southeastern Minnesota’s fertile spring creeks had an abundance of brown trout—and far fewer brookies than today—as well as the largest average-sized fish. The famous Whitewater system was a top producer. Bee Creek in Houston County, where one volunteer fished 95 times over five years, was a standout for both size and numbers of brown trout. The best brook trout water in the Southeast was East Beaver Creek.
 
North Shore streams were divided into the lower reaches, accessible to spawning runs of Lake Superior steelhead, and the brook trout-dominated upper reaches. For the steelhead waters, the Knife River, located less than 20 miles from Duluth, was the most popular and had the largest catch. Other popular steelhead rivers along the Shore were the Stewart, Gooseberry, Split Rock, Cascade, Devil Track, Kadunce and Arrowhead (Brule.) The longest steelhead reported was 28 inches.
 
The North Shore’s brook trout creeks reported the most abundant trout numbers, although most of the fish were less than eight inches in length. Standout streams were the Sucker, Baptism, Manitou and Cascade rivers. Less than two dozen trout exceeded 12 inches, with the largest a 17-incher from the Baptism. Separate data was kept for tributary creeks. Topping the list was Wanless Creek, a tributary of the Cross River that produced 15 brook trout greater than 12 inches.
 
Stocked trout lakes produced larger, average-sized trout, primarily rainbows. Standouts were Kimball, Pancore and Ram lakes in Cook County, and Mirror and Olson lakes in St. Louis County near Duluth. Remote Vale Lake in Cook County produced the biggest brook trout, topping out at 19 inches. Not surprisingly, the largest trout overall came from lakes containing lake trout, which typically are bigger than brook, brown or rainbow trout.
 
While 50-year-old fishing secrets are unlikely to contribute to anyone’s fishing success today, it was interesting to note that most of the best places back then still offer good fishing today. Fish management has changed over time, with a greater reliance today on healthy streams and wild trout rather than hatcheries and regular stocking. By and large, Minnesota still provides a wealth of good fishing for moderate-sized trout, along with some first-class trophy waters. It may not be Montana, but Minnesota has plenty of places where anyone with a fishing rod, a can of worms and a sense of adventure can some fun.

Airdate: January 4, 2012


 
 

Points North: Taking a Break on Christmas Day

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Christmas vacation once meant rabbits. Duluth's suburban outback where I grew up was bursting with bunnies. Cottontails inhabited backyards. Winter-white snowshoe hares thrived in the alder swamps and balsam thickets of the mini-wilderness that began where the backyards ended. We pursued both with the fervor of foxes, first with braided-wire snares and later, as adolescents, with hunting bows.

In my grade school years I'd set a dozen snares to be checked diligently every day after school, as I dreamed of being a trapper in the far north. On winter evenings, I'd read whatever I could find about the north, especially adventure stories like Farley Mowat's classic, “Lost in the Barrens.”

My favorite book, “Swiftwater,” by Paul Annixter, was about a boy growing up in the Maine woods. Tending the family trapline while his father is laid up, the boy survives a dangerous encounter with a wolverine, a scene memorably portrayed in a Disney movie based on the book called “Those Calloways.” The boy's father, who dies at the end of the book and movie when he is accidentally shot while trying to protect a flock of wild geese from unscrupulous hunters, plays a strong guiding role in his son's life. In a way, he gave me guidance, too.

Mr. Calloway sprung his traps on Christmas Eve to leave peace in the forest on Christmas Day. Enthralled with the Calloways, I did the same with my snares, lifting them away from the rabbit runs to avoid catching bunnies on Christmas. That started a personal tradition. Since age 12, I haven't hunted, trapped or fished on Christmas Day--with one exception.

Visiting my parents one Christmas, I took a walk beyond the backyard with the family husky, Smoky. Walking through a snowy, feral tract of alder and aspen, I saw a snowshoe hare crouched in its form. Careful not to startle it, I called the dog and trudged back to the house to find an old hunting bow I hadn't shot in years. Then I went back and killed the hare where it crouched with one shot. It was a good moment for a hunter, but I won't again disrupt the peace of Christmas.

Since my day is devoted to going to church, family gatherings and visiting friends, not hunting on Christmas is hardly a sacrifice. Others may have a traditional Christmas hunt or ice-fishing outing; that's fine, too. My day without hunting is a personal opportunity to pause and reflect on my place within the natural world.  Hunting is a matter of life and death. Such matters deserve thoughtful reflection.

Out in the woods, Nature knows no holiday. The wolf must eat. So must the chickadee. The only peace in the wild is a full belly. I wonder if our holiday feasts are a symbolic recognition of this ancient truth. The feast is the oldest human ceremony; the celebration of a successful hunt. Stuffed full when we push away from the table and waddle to an easy chair, we are content...and peaceful.

In a world where we are repeatedly numbed by the daily news, the concept of peace on earth and good will to men seems abstract and unattainable. But the world in the news is not the same one where we live our lives. Within the familiar surroundings of our everyday world, most of us can find comfort and joy.  If we can't have peace on Earth, perhaps we can have peace in our lives.

*****

We always have a natural Christmas tree, usually a young balsam fir brought home from the woods. This year is different. A while back, Vikki planted balsam saplings on either side of our mailbox. The tiny firs flourished, becoming two sturdy young trees. Unfortunately, officialdom frowns on trees growing so close to a county road. They had to come down. I waited until December to cut the balsams. One became our Christmas tree. The other will be given to someone.

Sometimes it's hard to cut down a tree you've planted and watched grow. But I must admit to eyeing up the balsams as eventual Christmas trees. Seeing the tree in the living room delivers a special satisfaction. Knowing the other tree will grace someone else's home brings even more.

When we were placing the tree in the stand we counted 11 wide rings in the trunk, indicating healthy, rapid growth. The balsam is the most common and least appreciated conifer in the northern forest. Although it is among the first trees to sprout after a disturbance and grows quickly, it has little commercial value. Balsams often shade and crowd out other trees that humans consider more desirable.

I'm not so sure the critters in the woods share those human preferences. The thick, shady habitat provided by balsam fir in relatively open, aspen-dominated forests is used by wildlife throughout the year. In winter, the dense cover provided by balsam thickets, groves and even individual trees are hubs of wildlife activity. Squirrels and birds feed upon balsam cones. Moose browse on balsam boughs. Other critters, from snowshoe hares to deer, take advantage of reduced snow depths beneath their sheltering boughs.
 
After Christmas, I’ll haul our tree outside and prop it up near the bird feeder. Doing so always seems to increase the avian activity around the feeder, because the birds can linger in the security of the balsam boughs, safe from shrikes and other bird predators. Long after Christmas, we and the birds will continue to enjoy and benefit from the tree.

Airdate: December 21, 2012


 
 

Points North: Dayton Places a New Priority on State’s Environmental Health

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Minnesota's environmental health just had a checkup. The results, contained in the recently released Minnesota Environment and Energy Report Card, show some good results and some not-so-good ones, too.
 
The Report Card was compiled by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) per an executive order from Gov. Mark Dayton. It is part of an effort by the Dayton Administration to refocus and revitalize the EQB, which diminished during the Ventura and Pawlenty administrations. With members including nine state agency heads and five citizens, the EQB was created through statute in the 1970s and is intended to lead state environmental policy and strategic planning.
 
The last environmental report card was released in 1994 under Gov. Arne Carlson. The new report looks at indicators and measurements within the broad categories of water, land, air, energy and climate. Some indicators show dramatic improvements. We have less air pollution from power plants and industries, better community wastewater treatment and more monitoring of water quality in our waterways. We've also created a substantial funding source for conservation and the environment with the Legacy Amendment to the state constitution.
 
Unfortunately, our environmental progress is challenged by climate change, poor land use and drainage practices, and more development. Populations of several common wildlife species are in decline, including mallards, moose, spring peepers, pine martens, pheasants and prairie chickens. In our inland lakes, populations of cisco, a common forage fish, have declined 42 percent since 1975.
 
These startling declines in fish and wildlife abundance underscore why hunters and anglers should become involved in another aspect of Gov. Dayton's executive order, the Minnesota Energy and Environmental Congress, which is scheduled to convene in the Twin Cities in March. The Congress is intended to chart a course for addressing the state's environmental challenges. The last environmental congress occurred in 1994.
 
Former state senator Ellen Anderson, now senior advisor to the governor on energy and the environment, says forums are being held around the state in December to solicit the views of organizations and ordinary citizens about environmental issues. The forums have attracted unexpected high attendance. The first three forums, where organizers expected about 100 participants at each event, attracted over 900 attendees.
 
"We're trying to invite everyone and anyone with something to say about the environmental quality in their life to share their views," Anderson said.
 
So what are people saying? Not surprisingly, Anderson says environmental concerns vary by region, ranging from agricultural issues in the west to copper mining issues in the northeast and silica sand mining in the southeast. Views on those issues vary as well, reflecting the broad cross-section of interests that were invited to participate in the process.
 
“The amount of information we’ve received has been overwhelming,” Anderson said.
 
The issues of concern reflect social and economic changes which have occurred during the past decade or so. For instance, improving local food production was not a mainstream concern 10 years ago. Copper and silica sand mining weren’t on the public radar screen. During that time frame, we’ve had record-breaking hot spells and weather events. Energy use and the development of so-called clean energy have moved to the forefront.  Yet, Anderson points out that many environmental or conservation challenges are not new. While substantial progress has been made, we continue to seek better agricultural and land use practices in order to improve our lands, waters and wildlife.
 
The rub comes in how state government uses the information it receives from the forums to establish environmental priorities.  Politicians and bureaucrats have a penchant for emphasizing new, shiny and often politically volatile issues (invasive species and copper mining come to mind), perhaps at the expense of meat-and-potatoes conservation like habitat protection. While issues are often intertwined, it remains important not to lose focus on the basics, such as maintaining abundant wildlife populations. It’s all a matter of balancing priorities, because funding from the Legacy Act and other sources provides the financial resources necessary to address land and water conservation issues on multiple fronts.
 
All of this is important to hunters and anglers, because fish and wildlife resources are dependent upon a healthy environment. It ought to be a wake-up call when the environmental report card shows common critters like mallards, moose and ciscoes are declining. As goes the abundance of fish and wildlife, so goes the quality of our hunting and fishing.
 
Hunters and anglers also have a leg up on mainstream Minnesotans when it comes to understanding the links between environmental issues and our everyday world. We’re the ones who know how ditching and tiling in farm country eliminates wetlands, as well as the ducks and other wildlife that depend on wetland habitat. We know what it is like to catch fish containing mercury or other contaminants that make them unsafe for kids and young women to eat. Many of us are acutely aware of the later freeze-ups and earlier ice-outs resulting from climate change. But not enough of us step forward and demand action to address the underlying issues.
 
Right now, we have an easy way to do so. If you were unable to attend a regional forum, public views are also being solicited through an online forum. You can find it by searching for the Minnesota Environmental Congress website, www.mn.gov/EnvironmentalCongress. On the site, click Your Voice to find a four-question survey asking what you consider to be the environmental issues affecting you and what you think are potential solutions. While there are likely to be lots of mainstream responses addressing topics like energy, mining or climate change, it is really up to hunters and anglers to point out the fish- and wildlife-related problems associated with the loss of CRP grasslands, shoreline development, wetland drainage and other issues.
 
Minnesota’s once-proud tradition of environmentalism was pushed to the wayside by politics and economic woes during the past decade. Governor Dayton deserves some credit for providing Minnesotans with a way to move environmental issues back into the mainstream. Hunters and anglers ought to take the governor up on his offer. After all, doing so is in their best interest.

Airdate: December 14, 2012

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

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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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Points North: Emptiness Where the Hunting Ought to Be

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"Did you ever wonder if you're the only hunter who doesn't have trail cameras set up everywhere?" my friend asked me as we got ready for hunting one morning.

It was a rhetorical question to which I didn't reply. But I thought about it. I don't own any trail cameras. For that matter, I haven't ever given serious thought to purchasing one. Where would I put it? For what purpose? Maybe I could set one up in the yard and look for passing critters or trespassers. Mostly it would take pictures of my dogs.

Perhaps I could set up a trail camera somewhere to look for deer prior to hunting season, although I seem to do just fine now without one. I don't know if I would shoot a deer after taking its picture. Somehow, it just wouldn't seem right to me. But my lack of interest in trail cameras has less to do with ethics than it does with batteries. My life is generally better off without them.

I'm the sort of person who only turns on a cell phone to make a call--for two reasons. The first is that I already spend more than enough time on the telephone. I greatly appreciate the times when I'm disconnected from it. The second reason is I perpetually worry the cell phone will run out of juice.

Mechanically disinclined and OK with it, I generally regard battery-operated devices as failures waiting to happen. The power usually runs out when you need it the most. Besides, most devices need more pampering than a princess. You have to keep them warm and dry, and cushion them from hard falls or drops. In the woods, I have enough trouble doing all of the above for myself, much less some gadget.

Flashlights are the exception to my battery bugaboo. Usually I have one in my vehicle or in my pocket, because even a flashlight with a fading battery is better than trying to light your way while burning your thumb with a disposable lighter. Sometimes, I carry a pocket camera, though far less often than a man who makes his living from words and pictures really should. However, I’ve learned that forgetting to bring a camera is a sure way to improve your hunting and fishing luck.
 
Another exception, arguably born of necessity, is the on-board depth-finder in my boat. I paid 300 bucks for it about 10 years ago and it does what I need it to do, albeit with less bells and whistles than some of the newer models costing at least five times more. I don’t own a portable depth-finder to use in my canoe or when ice fishing, although I once did. Then came the day when I found myself out on the ice, shivering and watching a blank screen. I realized my reliance on the depth-finder had reduced ice fishing to a cold equivalent of watching television.
 
When the fog rolls in while I’m boating on Lake Superior, I wish for a GPS. Then the fog rolls out and I forget about it. I own maps and compasses, know the landmarks of familiar places and seem to find my way around.  If I had a GPS, most likely the batteries would go dead in the fog or I’d forget the device at home. Admittedly, a GPS is useful for the navigationally challenged and, in some emergency situations, may provide directions that could save your life. That is, if you don’t forget it at home.
 
Many battery-operated gadgets now considered “must-haves” by today’s hunters and anglers really aren’t necessary to ensure hunting and fishing success. Does anyone really need a motorized duck decoy or an electronic goose call? How about an electronic wind detector? Can you get by without a stereo sound system in your boat?
 
Granted some gadgets have a utilitarian purpose, such as two-way radios, laser rangefinders and electric dog collars. Others, electronic wind detectors come to mind, seem frivolous. But the gadgets that trouble me are the ones that allow hunters and anglers to trade battery-operated technology for basic hunting skills. There is no art to attracting ducks with a remote-controlled decoy. Instead, there is just emptiness where the hunting ought to be.
 
It’s human nature to always seek better and easier ways to accomplish tasks. The rise of civilization is largely attributed to our endless quest to improve the ways we procure food and kill our enemies. But that quest need not be a part of modern hunting and fishing, unless we are out there solely to seek things to kill and eat. With little prompting, most hunters and anglers will tell you gathering food is just a part of why they go afield. What they really seek is a way to reconnect with nature—and their humanity.
 
It’s easy to forget about reconnecting with nature when you are browsing an outdoor retailer’s website or wondering if you can kill a deer in the few short days you have to go hunting. It’s even easier when you live in a world inundated by technology, where powerful gadgets like smartphones are not only the norm, but most users say they can’t live without them. Many folks are switched on to one device or another nearly all of their waking hours.
 
We all see them—and you may even be one—the gizmo zombies who stare endlessly at the tiny smartphone screen in their hand—texting, tweeting, surfing the web and who knows what else--oblivious to the world around them. It isn’t hard to imagine one of these zombies sitting in a deer stand, perhaps listening to music through headphones and, as always, staring at a tiny screen. You have to wonder if they would even see a deer if one ambled past or if they can hear the tweets made by real chickadees. I guess they enjoy themselves. Yet I can’t help but think there’s some emptiness where the hunting ought to be.

Airdate: November 30, 2012

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Points North: Kantner makes life in the Arctic come alive

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In recent weeks I’ve played email and telephone tag with Seth Kantner of Kotzebue, Alaska, attempting to set up an interview. Kantner is the author of “Ordinary Wolves,” a novel about a boy growing up in a sod igloo on the tundra and then coping with the outside world as he comes of age. Although the story is fictional, it was clearly written by someone intimately familiar with the Arctic’s traditional way of life. Although the book isn’t about hunting, it contains some fine writing about the land and the hunt.
 
Had I interviewed Kantner, quite likely the focus would have been living with land in the Arctic, which remains a substantial part of his life. To a certain extent, my hunting was one reason we were playing email tag, when he was around, I was gone and vice versa. As it turned out, we were unable to talk prior to Kantner’s visit to Grand Marais, where he gave a talk last Saturday.
 
Hunting darned near interfered with getting into town to hear his talk. My friend, Alan Lutkevich, shot a buck early Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, the buck kept going. We dogged the deer’s blood trail like a pair of ordinary wolves until we caught up with it three hours later and a long way from the truck. Daylight was fading when we finished field-dressing the buck, so we decided to haul out the deer at daybreak on Sunday. We made it home with just enough time to shower up and head to town to hear Kantner speak.
 
While it wasn’t the same as an interview, Kantner said so many interesting things that I decided to share some of them with you. An outdoor photographer as well as a writer, he showed slides depicting life in the Arctic.
 
“We’ve seen a lot of change,” he said by way of introduction, “and I’m gonna talk about some of that.”
 
At age 47, Kantner is old enough to remember what life in the Arctic was like before snowmobiles were used for winter transportation. Instead, everyone kept a team of sled dogs. Life revolved around hunting and fishing on a daily basis to provide food for people and dogs. Caribou were the mainstay of the human and canine diet, supplemented by salmon and other fish, waterfowl, moose, seals and whatever else could provide the fat necessary to sustain life in a cold climate. When snowmobiles became commonplace, everything changed.
 
"People let their dogs die on the chain,” he said.
 
While working dogs disappeared, mushing was transformed into recreation, primarily sled dog racing. The dogs used for mushing as a sport are smaller and less heavily furred than their predecessors. Kantner apparently has little interest in sled dog racing, telling the Grand Marais audience they likely knew more about racing dogs than he did.

When Arctic people no longer had dogs to feed, they had less reason to hunt. Around the same time, they began having more contact with the outside world. Now, says Kantner, people may go out hunting and then go home and have frozen pizza for dinner. He also said that while hunting remains part of Arctic life, there is less understanding of what you do after the game is down.
 
Another big change occurring in the Arctic is the warming climate, which he dramatically showed with two slides. One was a photo of an open tundra landscape taken when he was a boy. The second was a photo of the same location, taken a few years ago. The once-open tundra is now a conifer forest. While the warming climate has led to more wildlife on the landscape, it also means melting permafrost, more uncertain ice conditions and more extreme weather events.
 
The Arctic economy is now more about money than it is about subsistence and may grow significantly if planned development projects occur. New mines and oil fields, as well as roads into now-roadless tundra expanses, are planned. Kantner says while projects like the proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge attract public outcry and media attention, they are but a fraction of planned and ongoing development projects.
 
Another growing industry in the Arctic is climate change research. He remarked on the irony of how climate change researchers seem to spend a lot of time roaring around in fossil-fuel-sucking helicopters. He also commented that if a black man comes to the Arctic to study climate change, he’s “just another white guy” in the eyes of the Eskimos.
 
Kantner, who is white, is keenly aware of the Arctic’s racial issues, which he discussed somewhat during a question and answer period after the talk. For instance, he said his Minnesota-based publisher was troubled by his use of the word “Eskimo” to describe the local people, because it is a word that has fallen out of favor in the politically correct Lower 48.
 
“The publisher wanted me to use the word ‘Inuit,’” he said. “But back home people would say, ‘Inuit, what’s that?’”
 
Racial tensions are just beneath the surface. He said he was unaccustomed to being around happy people, as he was in Grand Marais. While there are a lot of jokes and laughter in the Arctic, chronic unhappiness manifests itself in alcoholism, high suicide rates and a host of social problems. Kantner’s daughter is attending a boarding school in the Lower 48, because her hometown is a very difficult place for a 14-year-old white girl to be. 
 
While Kantner at times presented an unvarnished view of Arctic life, his talk wasn’t gloomy. I suspect many folks who listened to it went home that night and dreamed of endless herds of caribou. Afterward, I bought a copy of his second book, “Shopping for Porcupine,” which he signed for me. When I introduced myself, he said, “I’ve been carrying the little piece of paper with your phone number on it in my pocket all week. How’s the hunting?” I told him we tracked a wounded buck and killed it just before dark, and that we planned to haul it out of the woods in the morning.
 
“Why did you leave it?” he asked.
“We were a long way in there and we wanted to get out so we could hear your talk,” I explained.
“Won’t the bears get it?” he asked.
“Nope." 
“What about the wolves?” 
“I’ve left deer in the woods before and never had a problem,” I said. “Maybe there is enough human scent to keep them away.” 
“What about the ravens?”
“We pulled it away from the gut pile and hid it under a tree,” I said. “We’re going back for it at daybreak.”
 
Kantner seemed satisfied with my answers, but I suspect if he were in our place, he would have skipped the talk and brought the meat home. In the Arctic, you can’t afford to take chances with your meat supply or anything else if you intend to survive.

Airdate: November 23, 2012

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Points North: Young hunter overcomes adrenaline to shoot his first “real deer”

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Life is filled with firsts and, last weekend, 15-year-old Joe Hamsmith of Duluth passed a hunting milestone. Deep in a North Shore forest late last Sunday afternoon, he killed what he calls his “first real deer.”
 
It wasn’t his first deer, mind you. Two years ago, he shot two bucks while hunting in a comfortable ground blind with his Grandpa Steve near Duluth. He even made the nightly news when he showed up at the registration station while a local television crew was there. Joe was justly proud of his accomplishment when he came up to hunt with us the following weekend. And he just couldn’t figure out why we didn’t have the good sense to use ground blinds.
 
Actually, we’ve never seen the need for ground blinds or tree stands when a comfortable stump will do. When Joe hunts with us, we make sure he has a compass and a two-way radio. Then we send him into the woods to find a deer. We are never far away, but he’s on his own. I learned how to hunt the same way.
 
Joe’s been coming into the woods with us since he was 6 or 7 years old, though he only began carrying a deer rifle after he turned 12. He understands how we hunt by sneaking through the forest, but as for doing it himself, sneaking has been like voodoo. The still-hunting method is darned hard for an experienced hunter, because you must defeat a whitetail’s keen senses in order to get the drop on it. For a kid, it’s a task that seems impossible.
 
Joe’s been along when we’ve shot deer and he’s listened to plenty of stories about the deer that got away. He’s even seen a few deer while hunting on his own. However, until this year he’s had the short attention span and lack of patience that plagues most kid hunters. This year, however, he approached hunting with a new attitude.
 
“I’ve decided to go further into the woods and to try to be quieter,” he told me when he arrived to hunt on the second weekend of our 16-day season. On the first weekend, he hunted in the ground blind with Grandpa Steve. However, he also practiced slow and quiet sneaking as he walked around Steve’s property. So he was primed and ready when we headed into the woods last Saturday morning.
 
Sloppy snow turned to steady rain not long after daybreak, which made for quiet, but soggy, sneaking. After a few hours, we were so soggy we decided to head for the truck. Neither Joe nor I had seen a deer, but our partner, Alan Lutkevich of Duluth, had jumped several of them. We decided to return the following morning.
 
It was still soggy when we started into the woods Sunday morning, though the rain had slowed to a drizzle. We went our separate ways, agreeing to check in via radio at lunchtime or if we heard someone shoot. To make a long day short, no one killed a deer. Late in the afternoon, Joe and I met by happenstance in the woods. Joe had spent the day a-wandering and was ready to wander some more.
 
“This is really cool out here,” he said. “I could wander around in these woods even if I wasn’t hunting.”
 
We had a half hour or so before it was time to call it quits, so we split up and agreed to meet at the truck. About 10 minutes later, I heard a nearby shot, followed moments later by another. Knowing it was either Joe or Al, I waited, in case a fleeing whitetail came my way. Then Joe came on the radio.
 
“Hey Shawn, can you come over here and help me out?” he asked.
 
I told him to wait where he was and walked over to find him. He had left his hat where he’d been standing when he shot at the deer and was looking around where the deer had been. I got the story in bits in pieces. He’s been sitting on a log. Suddenly, he looked up to see a doe standing about 30 yards away. He released the safety, which made a surprisingly loud, metallic click.
 
“The deer looked right at me,” he said. “So I stood up fast and shot.”
 
There wasn’t any evidence that he’d hit anything.
 
“I think I missed,” he said. ”My adrenaline was really pumping.”
 
The doe bounded past him and then stopped about 60 yards away. That’s when he shot the second time. I followed the deer’s tracks as best I could in the wet leaves and Joe showed me where it was standing when he fired. This time, his adrenaline was more in control and he thought he made a good shot.
 
I kept following what I hoped were the doe’s tracks in the leaves, but didn’t find any blood. The trail led me across a shallow ravine and into some conifers. I was thinking about turning around when I spied the dead deer ahead of me.
 
“Your deer is right here, Joe,” I said.
 
What happened next were mostly grins and handshakes, and then more grins.
 
“I finally got a deer up here,” he said. “That’s my first real deer.”
 
Light was fading fast. I told Joe to pull the doe to an open spot where he could field dress it. It was only the second time he’d cleaned a deer, but I let him do it himself. It was dark enough that we needed a flashlight to complete the task. Loyal readers of this column may recall the previous week I was in the woods after dark with no light. This time, I had a flashlight in my pocket.
 
It’s always good to be the man with the light, because you can light the way while the other guy drags the deer.  With grunts, groans and an occasional mild curse, Joe pulled the deer along behind me.  Eventually, we met up with Al, who had retrieved our hauling sled from the truck. The drag became easier once the deer was on the sled.
 
Easier, that is, until we reached a ravine where our trail switchbacks down one side and up the other. Painful memories have been made on those switchbacks.  Joe made a few more as he pulled the deer uphill, clawing with his hands to make forward progress on the steep parts. Ever helpful, Al and I held flashlights so he could see the path. He made it to the top.
 
At the truck, he was tired, but still buzzing with excitement. “What time is it?” he asked. “I got to get back to the house and make some phone calls.”
 
First, we celebrated with hamburgers in Grand Marais. Joe worked the phones when we got home. As luck would have it, the only person who answered his call was Grandpa Steve.
 
“I think he was more excited than I am,” said Joe. Then he told us the story about how he shot the deer one more time. We were more than happy to listen, even though we’d already heard it several times. As every deer hunter knows, there’s no better feeling than having a story of your own.

Airdate: November 16, 2012

Photo by t_buchtele on Flickr.

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Points North: Deer haul becomes a drag after dark

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On the evening before deer season, a spike buck was grazing in my backyard. He started hanging around in August and is accustomed to people and dogs that are not interested in chasing deer.  I tried to warn him that he’d be fair game for someone the next morning.
 
“Run away,” I said.
The spiker just looked at me.
“Bang,” I said, doing my best imitation of a deer rifle.
 
The little buck just kept looking. A few minutes later, I let the dogs outside. The deer bounded to edge of the woods and eyed the dogs from a safe distance of 50 feet. When I next went outside about an hour after dark, I could hear at least four deer in the yard. None ran away.
 
I contemplated the irony of backyard whitetails on a deer-less morning at my hunting area, a few miles from my home. I don’t hunt around my house, although others do hunt in the vicinity. Instead I choose to hunt in a place where deer are far fewer, but the country and thus the hunt, are more interesting. Alan Lutkevich of Duluth glimpsed a buck trailing two does—the only deer the two of us saw on opening day.
 
On Sunday, we decided to change our luck by trying another location. About 11 a.m. I heard Al shoot and walked over to find him field-dressing a doe. We ate lunch after he finished the task and discussed our afternoon plans. We were more than a mile from the truck, with no way to get the deer out other than by old-fashioned dragging. We decided to keep hunting, because we were in a good place. Later, Al would walk back to the truck to get the heavy toboggan we use for hauling deer and we’d meet to drag it out at 3 p.m., allowing enough time to get out in daylight.
 
We went separate ways, sneaking very slowly through a forest littered with fallen trees—perfect north woods deer cover.  I didn’t go far before a doe walked out and I inexplicably missed the shot. I made a long a thorough search of the area, eventually reaching the conclusion the doe made a clean getaway.
 
I still had an hour or so before it was time to meet Al, so I walked a short distance and found a fresh buck rub on a sapling. Thinking it was a good omen, I sat down on a log chosen as much for comfort as anything.  I was surrounded by deadfalls and unable to see 40 yards in any direction. This didn’t bother me. When you are after bucks, it is better to be in good cover than to have a good view.
Pulling out some string cheese for an afternoon snack, I heard a faint noise in front of me. Then I heard it again. A deer was coming my way. I put down the string cheese and picked up my rifle just as I caught a glimpse of movement. It was a deer all right. In fact, it was a nice buck. I shot him as he stepped into an opening. He bolted off with his tail down, which usually indicates a hit. So I was surprised to find no blood or deer hair where he’d been standing and no blood along the path where he ran away. The cover was so thick I just kept walking along what seemed his route and soon found the buck lying dead. The bullet did not exit the body, so there was no blood trail. Clinging to his antlers were fresh shavings from rubbing a sapling.
 
After field dressing the deer, I marked its location with orange survey ribbon and headed over to where Al was waiting. We dragged the doe through deadfalls and across three ravines to reach our main trail. We decided to leave the doe there and go back for the buck, so we could get both the deer to the main trail before dark. I also left my hunting jacket and rifle in the same place. In the jacket pocket was flagging ribbon, a compass and a flashlight. The time was 3:55.
 
“We should be able to get out of here before dark,” I said.
 
We are not greenhorns, but I make no excuses for what happened next. The buck was maybe 200 yards beyond where Al killed the doe, but instead of following our familiar path back to it, we decided to cut straight to the buck. We couldn’t find it. Finally, after wasting precious daylight looking for it, we used Al’s GPS to find the place where he killed the doe. Light was fading when we reached the buck and lashed it into the toboggan. That was when I discovered Al hadn’t marked a waypoint where we’d left the doe and my gear.
 
We were hunting in familiar woods, so we started heading for the trail, knowing we had to go through a stretch of deadfalls and cross three ravines. There was no clear path through the deadfalls and the buck was heavy. Using the toboggan like a litter, we lifted and pulled the buck over countless deadfalls. We were still in the deadfalls when darkness fell. We pressed on, knowing the going got somewhat easier after we crossed the final ravine. The only problem was that it was pitch black when we got to the ravine and neither of us had a light. Mine was in my jacket by the doe. Al’s was back at the truck.
 
Have you ever been in the woods at night? Suffice to say it gets dark out there. We tried to keep going, but it was impossible. We decided to leave the buck and come back for it in the morning. There was some risk wolves or other critters might find it, but I’ve never had problems leaving a deer overnight in the woods. We had no way of finding the doe and my gear, either.
 
The task at hand was finding our way out to the main trail, which was about a quarter mile away. Using a lighter, we took a reading on Al’s compass and headed east. We walked in the dark for a while and found ourselves back in the ravine. Checking the GPS, we discovered we walked in a circle. Finally, we decided to use the GPS to find our way out, even though we had no waypoints. Al discovered the GPS screen threw enough light so he could see to walk. I followed behind, walking by feel.
 
I don’t know what time we reached the main trail, but we still had about a mile to go back to the truck. Without the light of the GPS, we wouldn’t have made it. As it was, we walked slowly, Al straining to follow the trail with the faint light, me walking by feel. Twice we heard deer walking near us, not frightened by two humans bumbling around in the dark. Once, a very large bird, perhaps an eagle, flapped out of a tree overhead.  It was 7:30 p.m. when we reached the truck.
 
We went back for the deer at first light on Monday, carrying a second toboggan so we could haul them out in one trip. We found the buck with little difficulty and pulled it out to the doe. Then we climbed aboard the deer train and started dragging. It was better on the trail, but hard work nonetheless, especially because we had to cross a canyon to reach the truck. We took the deer down and up the canyon sides one at a time.  It wasn’t fun at all.
 
We finished the task around 11 a.m.  Even though we’d planned to hunt on Monday, neither of us had any energy remaining to do so. But we’re not giving up. We’ll be back at it next weekend, rested and ready to do it all again. I may even bring a flashlight.

Airdate: November 9, 2012

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Out There: Trail and Error

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Out There is a monthly segment from WTIP volunteer and commentator Shelby Gonzalez. In it, she explores the great outdoors with a sense of humor and a nose for strange stories, odd critters, and unusual pursuits. In this edition of Out There, Shelby runs the Superior Trail 25k. Barely.