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Trail Time

Marcia Roepke - photo by Des Sikowiski Nelson

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Marcia Roepke

"Trail Time" by Marcia Roepke highlights events and phenology on the Gunflint Trail.


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Fish photo by Donald O'Brien

News and notes from the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time 9-17-2021
 
I feel Fall in the air! Reminders are everywhere that summer is fading into autumn: The purple asters contrast beautifully with the goldenrod; The pin cherry leaves are red, orange and yellow – all on the same tree; the moose maple foliage gives us shades from yellow to red and those lovely winged seed pods called samaras; bronze and maroon grace the bush honeysuckle leaves. The mountain ash berries are turning red once more. Usually it’s the time of year for the hazelnut harvest, but I haven’t seen any hazelnuts since spring.
 
 
The bird population is changing too. I’m fairly certain that the hummingbirds have gone south. I do not see them at the feeder anymore. The loons were calling in their mournful way last week, but I haven’t heard them for quite a few days. This morning a vee of geese flew overhead, gabbling and honking in their busy way.
 
 
And for the usual lineup of large animals: I haven’t seen any bears all summer. Our Fedex driver reported seeing one about a mile from us. Hmm…maybe it’s time to put the game camera up again. A bull moose we saw recently had a nice healthy set of antlers. The cow following also looked in good shape. There was a lot of beaver activity evident on the shore of a nearby lake; they’re probably stocking up their underwater larder with cut aspen and cedar.
 
It’s still warm enough for moths and butterflies to fly around, and I found a really odd-looking caterpillar last week. It was greyish beige and about as big as a fat finger, heading fast for the woods (well, fast in a creepy crawly sort of way). I tried to take pictures of its underside but an anonymous bystander accused me of torturing the poor creature so I let it go in the grass near a stand of young aspens. I am curious but not heartless. The oddities continued. Last week we could hardly walk around outside at night without stepping on toads. I shone a flashlight on them and they glowed golden in the light. It felt so eerie – like an omen, if you believe in such things.
 
 
When the mornings are cool, I start thinking about what we need to do before winter. Then it warms up in the afternoon and I start thinking about all the fun things I can still do before the cold weather really hits. I love this time of year. It’s energizing. It’s great weather for canoeing and fishing! I am not much of an angler, but I do like a pretty cast. In truth, I could happily cast all day. I love the arc the line makes against the sky before it plops into the water (hopefully not on a snag, or hung up on weeds). I love to draw and it seems to me that casting – especially fly-fishing – looks like drawing in the air. Lars had some luck this week fishing for walleye and he has been re-bit by the fishing bug. I remain immune to that particular malady, but I love to eat fish, so I am an enthusiastic supporter of his fishing. I don’t like fishing in the rain, so you could call me a fair weather fishing friend.
 
 
We’ve had about an inch of rain on the Trail the past few weeks. Things have greened up nicely, but this area remains in drought conditions. The immediate fire danger has passed from the John Ek and Whelp fires; though they are still burning, they are not growing. The Forest Service has ceased publishing daily updates for those two fires. After laying contingency lines through portages, the firefighters are well-prepared should those two fires flare up again. The teams from other states have demobilized and left. As of this writing, the Boundary Waters (except for the area around the Ek and Whelp fires) and most parts of the Upper Gunflint Trail have opened again. The immediate sense of worry has eased and it’s a joy to have these sunny days, crisp in the morning, warm in the sun, and cool in the shade.
 
 
If I don’t like the weather where I am on any particular day, I don’t have to go far for something else. The weather is quite variable over the 60 miles of the Gunflint Trail. In the summer, the upper part of the Trail is usually hotter by ten degrees or more than it is by Lake Superior, and in the winter, it’s colder. Fall comes earlier to the Trail than it does in town. The mix of vegetation varies a lot as well. Closer to town, the hillsides are thick with maple trees. As the road climbs up (and it is a climb – the elevation changes by more than 800 feet from town to the end of the Trail), the forest changes to a mix of aspen, birch, balsam, spruce, white and jack pine. I love driving the back roads closer to the big lake and visiting the maple syrup producers in the fall. It’s a great way to support local growers, stock up on maple syrup and and to see the autumn glory of the maple trees.
 
This is Marcia Roepke from the Gunflint Trail
 

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Sitting on the dock in the bay. Photo by Laurel Lindahl

Trail Time - events and phenology on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time
9-2-2021
By Marcia Roepke
 
What a difference a week makes! We’ve had some gorgeously beautiful days on the Gunflint Trail. Last Saturday’s rain, the cooler temps, sunny skies and good news from the Forest service have all combined to make this a stellar week.
 
Monday night we attended another community meeting at Fire hall #2, where the Forest Service, the county sheriff and the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department spoke about the fire conditions, gave advice and answered questions.  The Forest Service folks announced that the risk remains at 1.5% chance of the John Ek fire reaching the Trail at this time, or, as Lars puts it, there’s a 98.5% chance it won’t get here! Of course they can make no promises – fire is unpredictable. But it feels like a blessedly welcome reprieve from last week’s danger and our anxiety level. 
 
To gauge my stress level after our pre-evacuation notice last week, I invented a new scale called the RAL: my Resting Anxiety Level, with a scale of one to ten. With level ten being high anxiety, I have been at level one for the past five glorious days.
 
I know when my RAL is low because I start noticing things like the wooly bear caterpillars that have made their home in my lettuce garden. I had been picking off two or three Wooly Bears a day, but then I decided to let them eat all the lettuce they want. Unlike them, I can shop for more. I don’t know what special job in our ecosystem these moths-in the-making fill but it must be important or they wouldn’t be here. When I pick them up, they curl into a ball and stay still in the palm of my hand. On the ground – or under the lettuce leaves – they move surprisingly fast. I read that they survive in their caterpillar form through the freezing winters. Despite my reading, it is still a mystery to me how this caterpillar transforms into an Isabella Tiger Moth.
 
I’ve noticed mushrooms growing again in some spots. I assume the combination of rain and sprinkler systems has improved growing conditions so they can emerge from the ground. I spotted some LBMs= little brown mushrooms. (I promise you, that’s a real thing! It’s in one of my mushroom ID books). There are small white orbs poking out of the grass that I think might be puffballs. Some emerging mushrooms (boletes maybe?) look like little yellow eggs coming out of the soil. We noticed white fingery fungus that might be coral mushrooms growing under cedars close to the lake. There is a lobster mushroom that grows almost every year in the same spot. A few years ago it was big enough to harvest, but I’m leaving it this year to populate that part of the woods with its spores. A lobster mushroom is actually one of two species of mushrooms that have been parasitized. They are very strange-looking but edible. (NOTE: Please, do not eat any mushrooms until you make absolutely certain what they are). I’m not going to tell you where the chanterelles might be or whether I even found any, in accordance with the unofficial code of conduct for all mushroom foragers. Unless you want to share your secret blueberry patch with me next year. Maybe we can do a trade.
 
 
There is such a great community on the Trail. Neighbors help neighbors take care of their havens in the woods: cutting and hauling brush; running sprinkler systems for those who can’t be here; donating water, food and supplies to the firefighting teams. One lodge owner has been donating propane for fire sprinkler system tanks in return for a small suggested donation to the Gunflint Trail Fire department. Neighbor and friend Mushroom House Grrl made a special run up to her place this week, watering the woods with what she calls Love Showers, showering her sanctuary literally with water and figuratively with prayers.
 
There’s still lots to enjoy on the Trail despite the closures. Chik Wauk Museum is still welcoming visitors. Resorts and most lakes that are not in the Boundary waters are open. The fish have not evacuated. The lupines are gone but they are fickle friends and leave by this time every year. The loons are still resident. The eagles and ospreys have not fled. The hummingbirds are still humming. As my friend, naturalist and superb nature photographer Teresa Marrone said,
“...there is still a lot of joy to be found up on the Gunflint Trail!” 
 
The Beaver seaplanes flew overhead again today, scooping up water from Gunflint Lake. Firefighters are still being flown in by helicopters. On the John Ek fire, crews are improving portages, creating safe access in and out, laying hose and working on sites for sprinkler systems. The present weather and the miles between us and the fire don’t change our need for preparedness. My bags are still packed. Many people have gone and others have cancelled reservations. I do not blame them. As for me, I still would rather be here than anywhere else.

This is Marcia Roepke from the Gunflint Trail
 

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Marcia Roepke - photo by Des Sikowiski Nelson

Trail Time

Trail Time 8-13-2021
By Marcia Roepke
 
Rain!
Rain has finally come to the Gunflint Trail and with it some cooler temperatures. It’s been flannel shirt weather for drinking morning coffee on the porch, looking out at the lake, listening to the loons. We’ve had several foggy mornings and the fog added to the rain and cooler temps means that the fire danger warning has been lowered to moderate. It will likely bounce back up to high or very high again unless we get more rain, but for right now, I can’t decide which gives me more relief: the rain, the cool weather or the lower fire danger. All three make for better sleeping weather and less anxiety about wildfire. The Ham Lake Fire of 2007 lives on in our psyches, even for those of us who watched from a distance. I’ve heard the stories and read the reports from the excellent collection at Chik Wauk Museum, and I have good friends that were evacuated several times from their home. I still can’t imagine what it was like to live through a fire of that magnitude. I never want to know. We all need to continue to be extremely careful with fire and follow the restrictions.
 

The birds are quieter this time of year, now that mating time has passed and the nestlings have fledged. I’ve been hearing more loons singing together in chorus instead of solo. The chickadees and nuthatches are making their joyous and bossy little sounds again. I don’t know if they travel farther north in summer to raise their young, or stick around here but become quieter. I just know I see less – and hear less -- of them during the warmest part of summer. The jays are also making their usual racket. We had a beautiful sighting of an eagle soaring up, up on the thermals one hot day and an osprey gliding by at the same time at a lower altitude.
 
 
We’ve seen a few healthy-looking moose in the last few weeks. I love it when you see those giant ears sticking up from a marshy area. We spotted a calf with its mama standing in a beaver pond. Other people have seen calves as well: there are hand-painted signs near Poplar Lake urging drivers to “drive slow” by a baby moose area.
 
 
Duffer Don saw a good-sized wolf near the Trail recently. I’ve only seen wolves in the winter but I’ve heard them year around. One summer (a much wetter one than this) Lars and I were sitting around a campfire and heard a pack howling. The sound kept changing --- it seemed they were on the move and the howling got closer and closer and then started to fade until we couldn’t hear them. It was such a unique moment. I felt awed and scared and happy all at once. I know the literature about wolves not attacking humans but when the woods are deep and dark and you hear the howling, the literature is far away and the wolves are close! 
 
 
August on the Trail means — oh happy joy!! — summer swimming. I’ll dip in and out during other months but there is nothing like August for a good long swim. Our deep lake is finally warm enough so I can enter the water and retain feeling in my limbs, which I consider a plus. Sometimes the deer flies are so pestiferous that I wear a hat in the water, but they’re not too bad now. I had a great swim on Gunflint Lake – a swim in the smoke with my friend Sue. The far shore was such a milky smoky blue due to the still-burning Ontario fires. It was one of those quietly wonderful days when all troubles seem far away; where I felt so simply blessed to be in the clean clear beautiful water with a good friend, swimming and lounging on the dock; our dogs with us, one dog forever retrieving the Frisbee, the other dog with a big smile and a bottomless fascination for the mallard family serenely floating by. It was one of those afternoons that you know will never be repeated in exactly that form.
 
 
Our summers are so fleeting, and I think the knowledge that summer will end soon makes it so poignant when we remember what makes up a summer: those perfect days of swimming, camping, canoeing or fishing. Or that imperfect day that was made perfect – redeemed – by a few minutes spent watching the dragonflies or fireflies or listening to the crickets. Add up a multitude of moments like that, and you’ve got yourself a summer. I know for me, in memory those moments grow and deepen and I can call them up when I need them: after the summer birds have fled, when the snow is deep, and the fish, frogs and turtles slumber beneath the thick ice.
 
This is Marcia Roepke from the Gunflint Trail

 
 

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Photo by MarciaRoepke.jpg

Trail Time

Trail Time 7/28/2021
Marcia Roepke
 
My good friend and neighbor Dharma Dave stopped by last week. He reported that everyone on the Gunflint Trail has been talking about two things: wildfire sprinkler systems and cutting brush. With the almost constant presence of smoke from the Ontario fires, wildfire is very much on our minds. The sprinkler systems only do part of the job: creating a defensible green zone. The brush cutting makes sure the water gets where it is needed. In the absence of rain, these systems can make a huge difference. 
 
 The Gunflint Trail remains at very high fire danger right now. But if you were to suddenly be transported to the Trail from far away, you might not think that the woods look very different from a wetter summer. This points to an interesting fact: the woods can be dangerously dry and still look green. Looks can indeed be deceiving. All campfires are banned now in the Superior Forest and the Boundary Waters. Fuel stoves with on/off switches are allowed. We all need to be extremely careful.

After we’ve done what we can to prepare for a fire emergency or evacuation, we still find time to enjoy the ever abundant beauty of this special place. The lucky ones among us, like my neighbor KC the sunshine gal, don’t even have to get out of bed to have the luxury of watching a bull moose saunter down her drive.
 
For me, one of the many joys of life on the Trail is the pursuit of nature knowledge. I love trying to identify what it is I am seeing: birds, bird songs, animals, scat, frogs, insects, plants and especially bumblebees. I’m not a naturalist but I’m a lifelong observer and nature learner.
 
Bumblebees are a particular favorite of mine. They have such a fascinating life cycle and inhabit a unique niche in pollinating the plants of the north. Their colonies are very different than the more familiar honeybee. Only the bumblebee queen survives the winter in her hibernaculum, a chamber that is often a former mouse nest underground. Bumblebees pollinate wildflowers, blueberries, raspberries and our garden tomatoes. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees are native to North America.

There are about 10-12 different bumblebee species listed for this area on my Bumblebee Watch app. I have successfully identified the grand total of one species. But I keep trying! And I find many interesting things while I’m poking around.

While I was attempting to capture some bumblebee photos a few days ago, I came across an enormous bright green caterpillar. It measured about 4 inches long. It was so bright against the dry grass, I could hardly believe that is was going to survive for long. I believe it was a Polyphemus moth larva. There seems to be a lot of moths and butterflies this summer, despite the dryness. A bounty of butterflies; a plethora of moths! While I was photographing a butterfly (could it be a Compton Tortoiseshell?), right behind it was a large parasitic wasp with a very long ovipositor. I would have missed it if I hadn’t seen the butterfly.

Some summer flowers spotted lately are Jewel Weed, evening primrose and that tiny little happy flower, Eyebright. I was very surprised to find the striped Coral Orchid growing in its usual place, despite this dry year. The raspberries are still ripening but they’re small and seedy. We picked enough for a pie earlier this summer but I’m leaving the rest for the bears. They’re going to need it. The blueberry crop is mighty meager this year.

Even though the food supply for some animals is low, whatever creatures eat grasshoppers will be getting fat! They are clacking and filling the air in the sunny places. I’ve seeing more bird youngsters more recently too. Late summer is always marked for me by the raucous cries of the juvenile ravens. “Mom! Mom!” they seem to be saying.
 
One evening we were paddling our canoe away from the sunset and a raven family of five were having one of their first flight lessons. The low sun shone against a rocky cliff high above the lake as the ravens aimed for the top. When they got close to the cliff, five ravens became ten as the sun doubled the number with their shadows. They became five once more as each raven merged with its shadow and landed on the top of the cliff, some of them more elegantly than others.

Our neighborhood young osprey flew over by himself a few days ago, calling the whole way across the lake, flapping so hard. The parent flew silently far behind him, just gliding. To me it seemed like the moment a kid learns how to ride a bike and the parent lets go of their steadying hand. Time to fly alone, little one.
 
 

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Woodcock_photo by MarciaRoepke.jpeg

Trail Time - Marcia Roepke

Trail Time
7-15-2021
By Marcia Roepke
 
 
This morning the loons were singing a beautiful chorus of multiple voices. There’s no better sound than this for bringing to mind some of the Boundary Waters trips I’ve been on —creating in my mind a collage of images and memories of different lakes, portages and, of course, all kinds of weather and challenges.
 
 We have our favorite canoe routes. And sometimes it’s just impossible to get permits for the first choice. But a few trips where the weather or the route were less than perfect have become some of the most vividly memorable. Today I’m thinking of one canoe trip that became what my younger daughter called “a miracle a minute” day.
 
It was late in the day and the weather was hot when my daughter, my husband and I got to our first campsite. The lake had a simple shoreline that held few secrets and I was feeling quite underwhelmed by the aesthetics of the place. My husband, Lars the Maker, quickly made the campsite more appealing. He has that knack. No sooner had we got settled than the sky began to grow dark. The rain tapped on our tarp as we huddled underneath, slapping mosquitoes and watching the rain and the lake.
 
 After a while, a beaver swam by. Then as the rain eased, a mayfly hatch began. We sat in awe as hundreds of mayflies wafted up before our eyes — they were like gossamer fairies dancing in the air. A rainbow appeared in the sky above the lake, framed by the trees on either side of our landing area. A turtle emerged out of the water, waddled up to a sandy patch near us, started digging and then laying her eggs. I am not making this up. Truly it was a “miracle a minute” kind of day. And it happened with a second choice route on an “uninteresting” lake.
 
 
Our miracles are generally more of the one-a-day kind here on the Gunflint Trail. Yesterday a family of three ospreys flew overhead while the youngster appealed to the parents to ... to what? Slow down? Speed up? Catch dinner? Maybe the young osprey was expressing newfound joy and surprise at being airborne. Maybe, like me, they couldn’t help expressing their feelings through their voices.
 
One day I discovered a woodcock (or would it be a wood hen?) sitting on a nest while I was searching for the white pine saplings we had planted the year before. For a millisecond I thought I had spotted a snake, but I quickly recovered and just stood there quietly, gazing at this odd-looking bird. I suppose it was the three dark stripes on the back of the head that had alarmed me in some primitive part of my brain.
 
Woodcocks have a roundish body with legs set far back that give them a curious walking gait. A long bill with a flexible tip probes underground for worms and grubs. In the spring, we hear their distinctive “winnowing” sound almost nightly during the darker side of dusk. The male woodcocks fly up above meadows and then dive toward earth, making a distinctive sound with their specialized wing feathers. The first time I heard it I wondered (or hoped) if it could be the sound of a boreal owl, which I have never encountered. We walked up the hill and saw their shadowy shapes flying above the brushy tree line, the sky almost too dark to make them out. And there it was: Another miracle flying toward earth, right here on the Gunflint Trail.
 
When I first started coming to the Gunflint Trail thirty plus years ago, I saw it as an entry point to wilderness, an escape from city life and work pressures, and a way to connect to the part of me that thrived in solitude, quiet and nature. Over time, I came to know a few people at the resorts and outfitters. It’s only since I’ve lived here full-time that I’ve realized that there are a lot more people here than I ever imagined when I was a visitor. The year-round human population swells in the summer with cabin owners, guests at lodges and of course, campers in the Boundary Waters and campgrounds. In this season of hot, dry weather, all of us have to think of fire danger. 
 
The smoke from multiple forest fires in Ontario is gives us stunning sunrises and sunsets but reminds us daily of the very real danger that exists here. As of July 10, campfires are banned throughout the Boundary Waters. Campers are allowed to use fuel stoves for cooking. Multiple lakes and two entry points have been closed due to forest fires in the Ely area. For campers outside the Boundary Waters, campfire updates can be found at Superior National Forest home page.
 
The Gunflint Fire District is served by the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department (GTVFD). It includes EMTs, EMRs and firefighters in the member roster. These amazing folks volunteer to respond to structure and wildland fires, medical emergencies and search and rescue calls. Learn more about this vital service and emergency preparedness at www.gunflint911.org
 

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Marcia Roepke is a WTIP contributor from the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time - Marcia Roepke

Trail Time

Hi. I’m Marcia Roepke and I live on the Gunflint Trail. Recently, Fred Smith ended his eleven years of reporting from the Trail and I’ll be continuing in his rather large footprints to bring you a little flavor of the Gunflint Trail wherever you might be.

I asked Fred what the biggest change was in his 22 years. He said that with the exception of the Ham Lake Fire of 2007, the biggest change was the creation of the Gunflint Trail Historical Society and the opening of Chik Wauk Museum and Nature Center in 2005. Chik Wauk is dedicated to the preservation of the cultural and natural histories of the Gunflint Trail and has a variety of exhibits and events, as well as volunteer opportunities, throughout the summer.
This summer is shaping up to be one of the lushest and greenest of recent memory. A dry spring gave way to a series of rainfalls that lowered the fire danger to moderate. Earlier this week, however, I saw that the fire danger had been set to high once again. So everyone: residents, visitors and campers need to be extremely careful with fires where and when they are allowed.

Now that we are past midsummer, the anemones and trilliums and other spring flowers have disappeared, but the daisies, fireweed, buttercup and lupines are blooming in abundance with the recent rains. Soon some of our native orchids will be poking their heads above the soil in their secret places. The tiny flowers of the hazelnut shrubs have now yielded a promising future supply of nuts for red squirrels and bears to feast on this fall. Good luck beating the squirrels and chipmunks to the hazelnuts when they are ready to pick! The animals seem to know to the second when harvest time is here and they almost always beat me to it. No hard feelings, though, since the beaked hazelnuts that grow in our area are covered with tiny prickly hairs that burrow into human skin and itch like crazy. They require a lot of work before we humans can eat them.

Chokecherry, pin cherry and raspberry bushes are loaded with early green fruit. I noticed lots of wild strawberries in flower early this summer but I totally missed that harvest. As for blueberries, the word is still out on whether this will be a good blueberry year. A late frost nipped the blossoming plants in some areas. Hopefully there are pockets of good fruit that will yield that prizewinning blueberry in time for The Gunflint Trail’s Biggest Blueberry Contest. See if you can beat the bears to that big one!

We haven’t spotted much moose lately, but we see their signs, especially the young birch trees that they break down to get to the tender tips of the branches.

There are some smaller creatures that have been fascinating me this year: The first is the Hummingbird Clearwing, a sphinx moth, that I watched hover around the blossoms of a wild apple tree earlier this spring. This beautiful insect is easily mistaken for a hummingbird from a distance. It moves a little more slowly and delicately than its little namesake bird. It has a long proboscis that curls under its chin and unfurls to sip the nectar from the blossoms.
The second creature is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. They appear so very early in the year that I wonder what they find to eat besides the nectar available at hummingbird feeders that hang by cabins up and down the Trail.
I’ve been privy to the hummingbird’s mating dance quite often this year. The male flies in a surprisingly large swooping half-circle, buzzing at the tip of the arc, trilling at the low point, over and over again. I’ve even seen the female sometimes sitting demurely on the ground, sometimes perched in a nearby chokecherry bush, during this display. I wonder if the hummingbird is communicating more than “Pick me – I’m the best” for the male’s part or “Convince me” for the female’s? Last week my neighbor Don the Duffer shared the results of a study of prairie dog communication. After biologists had recorded events and chirps, the data was analyzed. The findings indicated that the animals had communicated in far greater detail than was previously thought. Not only were they warning of “predator approaching,” they were also sharing information such as “coyote coming!” or “tall human in yellow shirt approaching from the north!”

So I wondered while observing the hummingbirds, what else could he be saying to his lady love? Is there poetry in a hummingbird’s communication? I certainly see poetry in their movements. I think there’s poetry everywhere in the woods and waters of the northland; poetry and abundance. There’s an abundance of space and solitude as well as plenty of neighborliness here, where time seems to slow down and expand, here on the Gunflint Trail.
You can learn more about Chik Wauk Nature Center at gunflinthistory.org and about the Biggest Blueberry on the Gunflint Trail at visitcookcounty.com.
 
 

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