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Marcia Roepke - photo by Des Sikowiski Nelson

Marcia Roepke

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

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Trail Time - Life on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time
Feb.11, 2022​
By Marcia Roepke

February on the Gunflint Trail started out above zero, then plummeted down to the twenties below. It climbed up well above zero just in time for the Beargrease Sled Dog Race. The warmer weather certainly affected the trail conditions for the race last week. Warm temperature and snow “like mashed potatoes” caused 11 out of 23 mushers to scratch. It might sound counterintuitive, but it is better for the sled dogs when it is colder outside – they are less likely to overheat and the colder snow lets the sled runners glide more easily. Still, it was so much fun to watch the race. Lars was in the thick of it and got some great photographs of mushers and dogs from the Lima Grade to Grand Portage. As usual, there were crossings along the Gunflint Trail that are guarded by volunteers, where there are bonfires and company and lots of cheering for the teams. Just like for the Gunflint Mail Run race, I walked out after dark to witness the night running of a few teams. I treasure that silent time waiting for the musher’s headlamp to flicker over the trees until first the dog team, then the dogsled glide into view and then slide on by, quietly disappearing around a curve into darkness. The next sled dog race will be during the Dog Days of Winter event held at Trail Center March 13.
I recently heard some local news from friends up and down the Trail (news being a broad term that covers otter tracks, wolf scat and who’s zooming who at the birdfeeder). Tucker Lake Annie said she has been enjoying a flock of tree sparrows that showed up as January turned to February. She also has been interested in how seemingly small variations in temperature and humidity can make the snow behave in different ways – this was made apparent by the difficulties the Beargrease mushers had with the course this year, and by slush packing onto her skis as Annie skied down Tucker Lake. As she said, “it seems so impossible that it can be 20 below and I’m wrangling ice-up on my skis!” She shared a link to the Tuscarora Lodge web site. It’s a good source to check for information on ice conditions:

René from Seagull reports that their bird feeders have many Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks and Hairy Woodpeckers.  And there’s always a battle with the naughty Red Squirrel. The birds land and feed, Mr. Squirrel shoos them away; they fly to the trees, he goes away; they return and the pattern repeats.

Gunflint Kate saw the Needham otter crossing her road just before Gem, the otter chaser, trotted by. She wondered what the otter was doing so far from water when there is an open creek a short distance away.  No answers but this when she looked up her question: ‘River otters can travel long distances away from water.’  She said she can’t imagine otters hunting mice in the subnivean but maybe they do.
If you are wondering what “subnivean” means, you are not alone. That was a new word for me, too (thanks Kate!). She kindly sent me a web link where I read an essay about the subnivean zone, which refers to that area between the ground and the bottom of the snowpack. That’s where small animals live out their winter lives in relative comfort at a steady temperature of about 32 degrees, as long as there is about 8” of snow cover. The snow hardens at the bottom of the snowpack as it sublimates; that is, the snow goes from a solid to a gas without melting. Moist vapor rises from the earth and cools, hardening into densely packed ice crystals. That creates a fairly stable ceiling until spring weather comes and the whole thing collapses. Owls, coyotes and foxes also collapse the snow by landing on it as they hunt by hearing and by scent for the small mammals wintering in the subnivean. The snow above acts as insulation, protecting the mice and voles that live in that zone from sub-freezing temperatures. Insulation is one of three strategies to surviving winter, the other two being migration or hibernation. It’s migrate, hibernate or insulate for us northern creatures. This particular creature mostly utilizes the latter two strategies, with a brief migration at the end of winter to hit the reset button. To be honest, my hibernation state more closely resembles the torpor of frogs, turtles and toads that lie buried in mud all winter. My stay in the torpid state is shorter than theirs, though sometimes it can last an entire afternoon.
Every day I notice evidence of the changing light of late winter that reminds me that the world is still turning and tilting on its axis. Longer daylight hours and the changing angle of the sun make me think about Spring, and I start wondering about what kind of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, leeks and onions we will grow this year. But today it is gray and windy outside. A light snow has been falling for hours and hours. The wind is whipping the small flakes around, creating big drifts like dunes right next to areas that have little snow accumulation. We really enjoyed those days of sun and warmer temperatures last week, but today Winter is saying, “I am not done yet.” And so we are humbled. I know that the day is not far off when male chickadees will start singing their two-note spring song. I bet you know the song I’m talking about: the first note high, the second note lower. Sometimes this is referred to the “fe-bee” song, but to my ears it sounds more like “sweet-heart.” A little south of us, that day has come. Sweet Kelly heard the chickadees singing their spring song yesterday in Duluth.
Want to learn more about the subnivean zone?:



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Trail Time - Life on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time
January 28, 2022
By Marcia Roepke 
It has been very cold lately with wind chills of -40 and below up here on the Gunflint Trail. We had a sweet run of sunny days during the most recent cold spell, though, and when I’m on a south-sloping path and sheltered from the north wind, I enjoy our winter world on foot and snowshoe. We mostly keep our walks short and our wood stove going this time of year, especially after dark. And the life of the forest goes on even in the coldest and darkest winter nights. We can see the evidence of longer daylight hours now that the winter solstice has passed. More sun in the mornings and later sunsets keep us attuned to the promise of spring.
  The bears are still in their winter hibernation. Now is the time of year when the bear cubs are born, while mother bear slumbers. I was sure one winter that I knew where a bear was denning. There was a big hole on the side of a hill that I had seen in the summer. That next winter, every time I visited, there was a small opening in the snow above that hole in the ground. It stayed open for months, though the snow drifted all around it. When I returned in the spring I inspected the area but I couldn’t see anything that, to my amateur’s eye, would indicate a bear had been hibernating there. Neither did I smell anything in particular, and that is one thing I’ve heard from people who know: a bear smells like a dog that needs a bath really bad. I’ve seen lots of bears, but I’ve never smelled one. 
Bears are not the only northern creatures who have babies in winter. Some owls nest in January and late winter. The largest owl common to Minnesota, the Great Horned Owl, will begin nesting this month. The female develops a brood patch on her chest — an area free of feathers that helps transfer her body heat to the incubating eggs. She stays on the nest while the male hunts and brings her food. I imagine her sitting there, brooding, fluffing up her feathers to stay warm, eating small rodents whole and quietly regurgitating the hair and bones as owl pellets.
The owl I’ve seen most often is the Barred Owl. They lack the big ear tufts of the Great Horned Owl, and they have an amazing variety of vocalizations. It’s the Barred Owl that asks continually, “Who cooks for you?” Or, more often, “Who cooks for you all?” In a couple weeks I hope to hear the spring courtship calls of the Barred Owls. Their nesting time is usually late in February or March. Neither of these big owl species build their own nests, but rather they move into old squirrel or raven nests, a hollow tree or sometimes even on the ground at an abandoned den. 
One spring night, while Lars and I were sitting around a campfire, an owl flew silently right over our heads and floated over the cabin roof. In a second it returned and, as silently as before, roosted in a tree right above Lars. I froze, and stared up at the tree, my eyes riveted on the bird. Lars sat as still as I was and mouthed the words “What the H--- is that?” And then the owl stared straight at me, stretched out its wings to either side, bowed toward me and hissed! It then kinda fell out of the tree and flew away. I was so flummoxed, I couldn’t say what kind of owl it was, except that it was big. A few times I’ve seen owls launch from trees and it always looks like they fall a bit before they fly, a little like Buzz Lightyear. One day I saw crows mobbing and screaming at something in a tree and then it looked like a paper bag fell out of the tree, grew wings, and transformed into an owl as the crows chased it away. They just kind of … drop. 
One of the best parts of this cold winter weather is the clear skies — especially at night. A few years ago, the Boundary Waters earned a title as one of 15 Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world. On the Gunflint Trail, we get one of the best views anywhere of the night sky. Grand Marais has hosted a Dark Sky Festival for the last three years. Next one is the second weekend in December for 2022, so add that to your calendars for next winter.
A few nights ago I walked with the dog out beyond the glow of our domestic lights and the night sky was clear and glorious. There was Orion, like an old friend doing a drive-by hello, wheeling through the heavens as the night passed. Then there was Ursa Major and Minor – the Big and Little Dippers. As for identifying any other stars, I need help. So every winter I download a night sky app on my cell phone and then promise myself that this is the year I’m going to memorize more constellations. Those star apps are pretty neat. You point your phone up to the sky and they'll give you all the details you’d need to become a star expert. And I pretend, briefly, that I am an expert while the app is on. Alas, I just can’t seem to retain that kind of information in my brain. But I don’t need to name a star to recognize its beauty or to stare in wonder in the cold winter night, absolutely in awe of this unique view of our beautiful universe. On these clear starry nights the sky seems less like outer space — an emptiness — and more like a vast fullness, so filled with the stars and the Milky Way and the satellites steady in their orbits. And occasionally, the spectacular aurora borealis, our northern lights. 
This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail


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Trail Time - Life on the Gunflint Trail

Trail time 1-14-2022
By Marcia Roepke

Well, we are really into winter now. We’ve had some very cold weather and lots of snow the last two weeks. When it warmed up to above zero, Lars and I and small group went on a snowshoe and ski outing in deep snow along a narrow lake. It was a sunny day, the snow was sparkling and we didn’t have to deal with too much wind or slush. I got as much energy from the beautiful day as I did from the expressions of happiness and joy from friends that were new to a winter adventure on the Gunflint Trail. It reminded me how lucky we are to be surrounded every day by the beauty of this special place.
One of my favorite sights is a black raven flying overhead in a blue sky. In the winter, that color combination of jet black against deep blue is rounded out by the sparkling white of the snowy landscape. Winter beauty is tempered, of course, by the reality of 20 degrees below zero with a wind chill of minus 40. It’s still beautiful, but it has to be respected and endured as much as enjoyed. The proper gear and the proper attitude are both essential for enjoying the cold season. I try to remember both when I’m out wandering in winter.
Cold weather brings clear skies and star-filled nights. As I headed out for firewood last night, I paused to gaze at moonlight shining on snow, a well-stocked woodshed and my sweet black dog wagging her tail as she stared into the woods. One morning I saw tracks in the snow along the shore that brought to mind a little mink from last summer – the beautiful little animal silently moved like liquid over one rock and then around another, pausing on top of the next to look around, staring at me briefly and then, when it had determined I was of no significance in this, his daily search for food, continuing down the shoreline. Could these winter tracks be from the summer mink? In my mind, the tracks of the winter mink lay over the memory of that summer mink, so I am seeing one but remembering the other, experiencing both at the same time.
The winter solstice has come and gone and we have gained almost 30 minutes of daylight since then, mostly at sunset. I don’t know why it stays light later at the end of the day while sunrise changes by only two minutes. It seems to me that there should be more symmetry to the thing. I’ve recently met a certain meteorologist on the Trail that I plan on asking about this, among other questions. I here give him fair warning.
The Gunflint Mail Run sled dog race was held last week. It was cancelled last year because of the pandemic. Thanks to Sarah Hamilton and all the Gunflint Mail Run volunteers for creating such a great homegrown event. We were so happy be there once again, cheering on the sled dogs and mushers. It was an exciting scene on Poplar Lake at Trail Center. There were 12-dog teams and 8-dog teams and all the humans it takes to care, train and run them. Harnessed dogs were jumping in place, yipping and howling and raring to go! Spectators gathered around a bonfire by the lake and milled around, admiring the sled dogs, getting coffee and food from the restaurant.
When it was time to start the race, there was a countdown and then the suddenly silent dogs took off and in seconds were gliding down the lake as big fat snowflakes fell. At least one bystander was moved to tears at the beauty of it. Later that day, at dusk, teams headed out on the second leg of the course. As Lars and I drove home, we spotted a sled dog team running through the woods, parallel to us for a while. We got home, parked and then walked a half mile to where a small quiet road intersected with the sled dog trail. Stop signs had been placed there earlier and we stood by one, listening, waiting, watching. We were alone in the quiet dark woods. After a while, I saw a flicker of light, and saw that yes, it was the headlamp of the musher illuminating the trees beside the trail. Then the dogs glided past, a red light blinking on the lead dog’s collar. We heard the musher murmur a quiet “On by,” urging the team on past these two figures in the night. And then they disappeared around a curve in the trail, the light from the headlamp growing faint against the trees until it we saw it no more. The wind in the pines and the crunch of our boots on the snow were the only sounds accompanying us on our walk home – toward light and warmth and dinner. The dogs would keep going until their work was done.
This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint trail

*Photo: Musher Vern Schroeder & 12-dog team - Gunflint Mail Run - 2022.  Photo by Donald O'Brien. 


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Trail Time - Life on the Gunflint Trail

“Trail Time” by Marcia Roepke

It’s a winter wonderland on the Gunflint Trail this week. There’s about a foot of new snow making a great base for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling or snowshoeing… and dog-sledding! Many years have passed since I first careened down a snow-covered logging road in Hovland behind a friend’s team. And I remember a wonderful time dog-sledding in the Boundary Waters on a winter camping trip years ago with a terrific group of people that included one of my best friends and my future husband, Lars. Dog-sledding is a lot of fun to do and it’s almost as fun to watch. The sled dogs are so full of energy and joy. They love to run! Next week there’s a great opportunity to watch some excellent dog sledding: The Gunflint Mail Run Dogsled Race will be held Saturday, January 8. Some good places to watch the action are at Trail Center Lodge, Big Bear Lodge or Rockwood Lodge. There’s also a spectator area at the Old Blankenburg Pit, where the twelve teams will be turning around. NOTE: It is very important that spectators do not bring their dogs to the races. And keep a tight hold on young children. Things get lively and move fast. You can find lots of information, as well as safety and etiquette tips, on the web site at
The new deep snow promises good cross-country skiing conditions all along the Trail. Closer to town there’s the Pincushion Trail system and the trails at the George Washington Pines. Bearskin Lodge and Golden Eagle Lodge together groom over 40 miles of trails known as the Central Gunflint Ski Trail system. Further up the Trail there is almost 30 miles of trails known as the Upper Gunflint Trail. Both the mid-and upper trails require passes that can be purchased at the lodges that maintain them. There’s also the Banadad Trail further up that is maintained by the Banadad Trail Association. Passes are available at the east and west trailheads. There’s also snowshoe trails at the Washington Pines or you can bushwhack away from the skiers. Pincushion, Golden Eagle and the Gunflint Lodge have snowshoe trails too. Some of the lodges rent equipment for snowshoeing and skiing. And Bearskin Lodge will be offering dogsledding rides again this year. Call first to get dates and to make reservations.
The energy level picks up with the Mail Run Race. And the start of the winter sport season means there’s more cars driving on the Trail. Slow down for the big trucks plowing and spreading salt and sand to make driving safer, and be extra careful of the moose traffic. Moose love to kneel down and lick the salt off the road. The roads can be icy enough that extra time is required to stop when you come around a corner to see a moose in the middle of the road. The nighttime darkness only adds to the danger. We saw a moose one dark November night and were able to stop in time. It is astonishing how quickly they appear out of the darkness even with your high beams on.

I was gone for few days around Christmas, and I’ve been listening for the songs of winter since I’ve been back. The lake ice has quieted, but I hear the wind soughing through the white pines and the sound wind-borne snow makes as it shushes over the snowy ground. The chickadee-dee-dee, the snarky call of the nuthatches, the quiet coo of the gray jays, the singing of redpolls and grosbeaks, the chatter of red squirrels, the racket of blue jays and the croaking of ravens are some of my favorite winter songs. Snowmobiles aren’t in my top ten favorite list – I admit I am biased toward the quieter sports – but when I hear them I think, “Someone’s having a lot of fun!” The sound of chainsaws means someone is working getting firewood and that is a good sound to me.
Yesterday afternoon the winter quiet was disrupted by my dog barking at the sky, toward the top of some nearby birch trees. Two chicken-sized birds were sitting up in those slender branches swaying in the wind. Daylight was fading fast and the birds appeared as dark silhouettes against the lighter sky. It was two grouse eating the birch catkins high up in the birch trees. I am used to seeing their little snow caves where they last out a storm, but grouse high up in a tree is an unexpected sight and it makes me smile. They just look so big up there – too heavy for the thin branches. They make me think of an illustration for “a partridge in a pear tree” in that twelve days of Christmas song. I’ve always understood that the “true love” in the song was a person, but I was thinking today about what my love of the woods gives me on each of these twelve days. My true love of the woods – that is, my devotion to the beauty of the natural world – sends me out to see the wonders of the boreal forest in all seasons. Winter offers unique gifts, more than one a day I bet, if I were to keep track. Which would be a good way to start out the New Year, recognizing each daily gift. Happy New Year to everyone!


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Trail Time - Life on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time by Marcia Roepke
We had quite a snowfall last week on the Gunflint Trail. Loon Lake had about 12-15 inches on the ground by the time the snow stopped blowing. The temperature clocked in 15 below zero the day following the storm. The gusting wind created drifts in some places and windswept bare spots in others. I usually notice deeper snow mid-trail around Poplar Lake and this storm was no different. I imagine the Laurentian Divide has something to do with the differing snowfalls along the Trail, but I have zero science about that to share today. I’ll get back to you on that topic.
It’s been steadily warming up since the latest storm. Yesterday the thermometer hit 36 degrees above zero and today it might reach 48 degrees! It’s drippy and misty; the far shore of the lake is obscured by fog. I love the mystery of it – it feels like the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes story, but I am not looking forward to the ice that will certainly cover every surface when the weather turns cold again in a few days. God bless the inventor of micro-spikes! With them strapped onto our boots, we can conquer most icy patches without fear of falling.

In between our winter snowstorms I am seeing a lot of birch seeds scattered over the snow. The little brown fleur-de-lis and the winged nutlets make a delicate pattern across the white micro landscape between my snow boots. Whenever I notice seed showers throughout the winter it makes me think about what a marvelously designed delivery system of moisture, nutrients and seeds layered over the earth. When the snow melts, the water moistens the soil as it releases nitrogen and other minerals to feed these tiny seeds. 
I heard from neighbors up and down the Trail this week about ice status on a few lakes. Loon Lake still has open water, and as we’re heading into colder weather this weekend, there might be some fine wild ice for skating next week if a snowfall doesn’t gum it up. Shar from Gunflint Lake tells me that she can see just a little bit of shore ice right now. As it is such a big lake, it is one of the last to freeze over. The east bay of Poplar Lake had over 7 inches of solid ice under 8 inches of snow, soft ice and slush – at least it did before this latest warmup. Tucker Lake Annie reports that they had some lovely skating on Poplar Lake during the first week of December. They were skating over 6-8 inches of ice and heard “gentle mumbling and rumbling as the sheet thickened.” Ann of Little Iron reported the same. Dave at Clearwater Lake said that it froze “in a snap” last week. By December 6, Rene observed that Seagull Lake had iced over with two to three inches of snow covering slush lines. Sadly, no black ice this year for Seagull. (And what a wonderful few days of skating we had last year on Seagull! There was such a happy crowd of skaters taking off from Blankenburg Beach; the sun was shining, and in those pre-vaccination days, it was one of the jolliest social events of the year.)
We don’t have any skaters flocking to our lake this year, and a good thing, too, because the ice is not safe yet. But we do have winter birds flocking to our feeders. We see the usual crowd of Nuthatches, Chickadees, and Blue and Canada jays. The Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are enjoying the suet cakes, too.
We received several visits from some Evening Grosbeaks this week. Their colors appear tropical compared to the other winter birds. The males sport a beautiful combination of mustard yellow, jet black and the whitest of whites. The females wear a more sedate wardrobe, but it is all understated elegance. Unlike the Pine Grosbeaks, they are very wary birds, constantly checking their surroundings and flitting off quickly at the smallest disturbance. Their huge bills look so oversized they must make very efficient seed- and nut-crackers. When they fly in a flock they are happiness on wings.  
Yesterday a loud sound stopped me in my tracks. There was a black and white woodpecker flitting between a fir and a birch tree making an unusually strident call. For a moment I thought it might be a Black-backed Woodpecker but a quick trip indoors to check my bird books and bird app stilled my enthusiastic rush. Apparently Black-backed Woodpeckers are common here, in the southernmost part of their territory, but, alas, the markings and the song of the bird by my cabin were wrong for that species. It was most likely a female Hairy Woodpecker. I am convinced I saw and heard the black-backed variety on a Boundary Waters trip with Lars years ago. We had just paddled into a small, enclosed bay, and the “Pik!” of the call sounded nearly electronic as it echoed off the water and the steep wooded hills around us. We spotted the distinctive bird right in front of us, midway up a tree beside the bay. The evening was still, the water smooth and the bird’s call filled the air.  I think it filled me that day, too, because a little of that song is in me still; a song from summer that plays on inside me while outside is the silence of winter.

This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail, where simply living is a winter sport.


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Trail Time - Life on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time
by Marcia Roepke

​We have had all kinds of weather on the Trail these past few weeks. It’s been cold and gray (in the 20s and below), it’s been sunny and warm (in the high 30s!) and yesterday we had a very memorable snowstorm. It had started the day before with a gray sky and several loud booming sounds. Lars and I didn’t know what the noise was; each time we heard it, one of us asked the other, “Did you hear that?” I kept checking the news, figuring that if something exploded certainly it would be reported. Or, I thought, maybe it was the noise of a dump truck bringing gravel up the Trail and the boom was the sound of it bouncing around, echoing off the lake and cliffs. It was a mystery. The next day there was a pretty little snowfall in the morning and then the wind started gusting, the snow started swirling, and I heard another boom. I think it was a thunder boom, which is what thunder in a snowstorm is called. The wind was gusting up to 45 mph; it was wild weather. And in the middle of it, I saw a flock of common redpolls cavorting straight into it. I felt their joy in the wild windy snowfall and it echoed inside me. If I could fly, I would have joined them.

We had planned an outdoor party for the day of the storm. We had several winter gatherings last year; grilling bratwursts and hot dogs over a fire; warming the sauna so people could use it as a warming house; drinking cocoa and mulled wine. It’s a great safe way for neighbors of all ages to be together during this pandemic. This year the younger neighbors’ play reminded us older folk that snow can be a toy and a playground. I don’t have many children around these days, and it lifted my heart to see how absolutely covered in snow a kid can get and still keep smiling from the joy of winter play.
We were throwing the party to celebrate Wolfenoot, a recently invented holiday. Three years ago a 7-year-old from New Zealand dreamed it up. He told his mom that the Spirit of the Wolf visits on November 23 and leaves small gifts around the house for people who love dogs and wolves and are kind to them. He said the holiday should be celebrated with the eating of meat and cake. I thought the wild weather was entirely appropriate for a day dedicated to the Wolf and the wolves who live with us, our companions, our dogs.
 This year we celebrated Wolfenoot a few days early. We eat meat because that’s what wolves eat – some guests had a vegetarian version (after all, wolves eat blueberries, fish and grass as well as meat). We eat cake because that’s what 7-year-olds prefer above all other food. We celebrate both the wisdom of the wolf and the 7-year-old. We all trooped up a hill and ended the festivities by howling together into the swirling snow. And much later that night as I looked out a window, a waning moon lit the sparkling snow, making the night appear nearly as bright as day. It’s funny, people from other parts of the world often ask me, “How can you stand all that winter darkness?” Some nights I whisper my answer into the nocturnal landscape, “What darkness?”
 We haven’t seen or heard of any wolves in our neighborhood recently, but we had a little canine visitor this week: a coyote. It stood under our bird feeder, chomping away happily on the fallen seeds. It didn’t see me. I made a small noise and it froze for a second, then started eating again. I made another noise as I was trying to take a picture and it padded away unhurriedly, its coloring a perfect match for blending into the snowy woods. I don’t see that many coyotes. I saw a young one along the Gunflint Trail a couple summers ago; and one year we got two pictures of an adult on our trail camera – going up a hill and then down again, this time with a snowshoe hare in its mouth. Up until then I hadn’t known they live this far north.
 One of my favorite winter sightings is the northern flying squirrel, who also visits our feeder after dusk. I was walking toward our cabin one night when I saw what could have been a dead leaf or a bird’s nest in a birch tree, except I knew it was too big for a birch leaf and that nest wasn’t there yesterday! I stood still, the mystery object moved, and I could just make out the flying squirrel with its white underbelly, climbing quickly up the tree. Then it launched – thrillingly – right towards me! It headed my way for just a millisecond, four white legs and a head making a 5-pointed shape against the darkness, then it arched into a graceful 180-degree turn and sailed for a nearby fir, disappearing into the darkness. The precision of their flight always impresses me. The first time I saw one “fly” – glide, really – I mistook it for a Canada jay because of the similar way it seemed to be floating on the air. Then I thought, “It’s dark out. Canada jays don’t fly after dark.” And then I knew what I was seeing. I crept slowly and quietly over the snow to the birch where our feeder hangs, and there it was: with those strange big eyes and that lovely gray fur with white below. And then it scampered up the tree, jumped into the night sky, swooped toward a fir tree and was gone.
Flying squirrels, joyful redpolls, wildly swirling snow, good neighbors and the happiness of children in winter: these are some of the many things I am thankful for here on the Gunflint Trail. 
 If you’d like to learn more about Minnesota wolves, check out:


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Trail Time - Life on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time
By Marcia Roepke

As I write this I’m sitting indoors in a cozy spot looking out at the darkening sky. Snow is forecast tonight for the Gunflint Trail, and although I always think I’m ready for it, the changes that come with winter surprise me each year. I watch the skim of ice come and go on the smaller lakes and rivers as the cold weather ebbs and flows. And when the ice comes to stay, it’s accompanied by the winter song of the lakes as they groan and moan and roar and snap and make Star Wars light saber noises.
This time of year also brings back a lot of birds we haven’t seen since spring, chief among them being the juncos and snow buntings. I love it that the buntings leave their summer breeding grounds and fly to a warmer place to spend the winter – here! They breed in the far arctic tundra, with some birds traveling all the way to Greenland. While here they mainly eat seeds from grasses and weeds. I spot them each winter in their little flocks by the side of the road, flying up as cars approach, but yesterday was a special day. A bunting went for a walk with me. The little bird caught my attention when it was foraging in the dry leaves on the side of the gravel road. At first I only detected movement out of the corner of my eye. I had to stare for a while to finally discern the shape of a bird. It was so well-camouflaged, at first I thought it was a mouse or vole. It fluttered away, then landed and trotted up the road ahead of me with the staccato gait of a sandpiper. Whenever I walked too near, it flew further ahead, though sometimes it let me get surprisingly close. They are very beautiful birds with the subtlest of colorings: tawny browns, charcoal and palest white in this, their non-breeding season. The spots on their heads and cheeks are almost cinnamon colored. As soon as the bird’s back was toward me, its shape was invisible against the brown leaves and gravel, but then the bunting took wing, and there – right before it landed, was that telltale flash of white wing patches that merge into the white tail markings. And then – bip!— when it landed, it would nearly disappear again. I think it walked with me for a quarter of a mile or more. I never thought a snow bunting would be such an excellent walking companion.
We haven’t seen any signs of bears lately, so we put up one of our birdfeeders. I love birdfeeder season, aka winter, but if we hear of any bears in the area, we’ll remove feeders until the coast is clear. The chickadees found our feeder fast, and then the blue jays moved in, helping themselves to an astonishing amount of seed in one day. I spotted just one nuthatch in among the chickadees. When the snow is on the ground and we get another feeder up, this one with suet as well as seed, I expect to see a greater variety of birds. Last year we saw a Northern Shrike scoping out the activity at the feeder. I’d never seen one before. I know they deserve to eat as much as the little songbirds do, but the sight of one was like a bad character showing up at a party. Its arrival threw a pall over the joy of the gathering.
The birds are both great company and entertainment during this quiet time of the year. And the woods are so very quiet, even though it is deer hunting season. We don’t see many deer up here – we spot maybe one or two a year. But there was a spectacular deer kill on the frozen lake a few winters ago. Very little was left; most of it had been eaten and a few remaining bones were scattered around. A perfect outline of the deer had melted into the ice on the lake. In the deer-shaped silhouette, you could even see where the hair tufted out from the ears. There were prints all around from wolves, foxes and ravens. Kind of gruesome I guess but fascinating all the same.
We see far more foxes than wolves in the winter but we do see a fair amount of wolf tracks and scat when we’re out walking the backroads and trails. Last year we were getting regular visits at our cabin from a cross fox – they’re the same species as red foxes but have different coloring, appearing darker and grayer than red foxes. They have black legs and faces and a dark stripe running down the back and tail and another dark stripe across the shoulders. At first sighting I thought it was a gray fox, but my local wildlife expert, Levi the All-Knowing, set me straight with an excellent lecture on how to tell the difference.
Another species I love to spot in wintertime is actually a small evergreen fern: Common Polypody, also called rock fern or rock cap fern. It grows from Greenland through Canada and the northern US. It thrives in cool, moist woods. Its leaves are sometimes quite rounded and it has spots on the backside of the leaves; those are the spore-bearing organs. It has a prominent central vein and sometimes brown scales on the lower part of the stem. I can see a nice big patch of it from my writing desk. It forms a natural vertical garden outside my window, growing on a rocky north-facing cliff, in the company of soft velvety mosses.
Last week the Gunflint Trail was the perfect place to watch Northern Lights. It was the most spectacular aurora borealis display of my life. I’ve never seen such massive rapidly moving sheets of colored light. Almost the entire sky was actively pulsing -- you could even see it in the Southwest area of the sky. There were columns and pillars of light reaching to the heavens. The winter sky is one of the reasons I love it up here. We live with so much darkness during these winter months; it helps that occasionally we have the best seats to one of the best shows in the world.
You can watch a time lapse of the November 3rd to 4th aurora display on the Chik Wauk AllSky Camera page on Facebook or at Dark Sky Cam.


Brook trout. Photo by Marcia Roepke

Trail Time - A look at life on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time
By Marcia Roepke
For a few weeks we were reveling in the sunny and mild fall weather on the Gunflint Trail. The temperatures of last few days, though, have been dipping into the 30s at night; we awaken to frost most mornings. While that lovely weather held, I assumed every canoe adventure was going to be the last one. And then we’d go on yet another canoe trip and I’d think, well, this one must be our last time out. But, nope! Wrong again! It was like the end of an unfamiliar symphony when you think it’s over but it continues with more notes and on and on to the true finale. I don’t mind being mistaken about the end of canoe season -- I can’t remember a time when I’ve more enjoyed being wrong. 
This weather has allowed us a bit of leisure to prepare for winter. We’re ready but of course there is always more wood to split and kindling to make. Oh, and I still haven’t entirely sorted out the mitten, boot and hat situation. But the snow tires are on, the propane tank is full and we’ve got three cords of wood split and stacked. It’s been so nice to have a little breather!
On one of those lovely days, I paddled Lars around in our blue canoe while he fished for walleye. I guess the hook sank a little deep because he snagged a big northern – too big to haul into our canoe. It surfaced a bit, showing off a broad green-speckled back and then started dragging the boat around, a Minnesota version of a Nantucket sleigh ride. I admit I was relieved when the monster bit through the leader and escaped back into the depths. Our canoe is too small for that many teeth.
Our buddy Dharma Dave took us fishing on another sunny crisp day to show us his secret spot to catch what he calls “fish sticks” or brookies. There was a bit of a northeast wind and lively waves that kept me focused on paddling. That was followed by rocky landing spots that meant extra care getting in and out of the canoe. It’s one thing to get a little wet on a fine summer day, but another when the air temperature is hovering around 50 degrees. Ooh -- it was chilly in the shade, but so pretty with the sun sparkling on the water. We arrived at a silent, almost still lake – just enough breeze to gently push the canoe down the shore while we cast for brook trout. We took turns sticking a paddle in to gently rudder our way down the shore. I had zero luck with the fish, just some nibbles, but I had a wonderful time gazing at the shoreline, admiring the local beaver lodges, keeping my eyes open for moose or mink. High above Dharma Dave I saw a bald eagle circling in the clear blue sky as it rode the thermals up… up…up. A dragonfly, enjoying the sun and the warmth, perched on my bare arm for a few minutes. It had a red abdomen and amber wings, and looked a lot like the “royal coachmen” trout fly that Lars had tied many years ago. I think it was either a white-faced or a saffron-winged meadowhawk, a new insect for me. The dragonfly and I had a little staring contest before it jetted off. Something about the sunny, cool and quiet day made staring seem like a virtuous pastime. 
It was lovely fishing on that peaceful fall day, enjoying the beauty of a northern lake and being in good company with people who enjoy both silence and conversation. Time seemd to stand still for a while, but the sun started sinking and it was only going to get colder. I was reluctant to leave, even though my feet were cold; both my back and my butt hurt from sitting in the canoe so long; and one finger was numb. As we were paddling out all I could think about was next year’s trout fishing. I think I’m hooked, even if the fish weren’t that day, not for me, anyway. Lars and Dave ended with nice little stringers to take home for dinner. 
We drove home down the Trail with an almost-full moon rising above the Gunflint hills in a silvery sky-blue pink sky. Dharma Dave put it best:
“Filleting brook trout under a nearly full October moon, can you beat that?.. I think the pattern on their skin is sort of cosmic, like a map of the heavens, complete with a green-tinged twilight, red and yellow stars, blue and ringed planets, pearly nebulas, fins like solar flares. Try to see the universe within each living thing.”
The sky stayed clear for the rest of that night – the stars and the moon were utterly magical. I got up in the middle of the night to check for northern lights and meteors. The night sky was so exciting it was hard to go back to bed. Soon it will be that time of year when I haul out my winter sleeping bag and, come nightfall, park myself on a lawnchair to stare at the cosmos. Last year I was so star-struck, I mooned about during daylight hours with my head full of falling stars and constellations, just pining for the nighttime sky when I could continue my very important task of stargazing. 
Gazing at dragonflies, gazing at stars, seeing the universe in a brook trout; it’s a pretty good life here on the Gunflint trail.


TrailTime photo by Lars

Trail Time - Events and Phenology on the Gunflint Trail

Trail Time
By Marcia Roepke
October 15, 2021

It’s definitely fall on the Gunflint Trail. Many aspen and birch have lost their leaves, and the weather is cool and damp. Unlike spring, with its gradual unfolding, autumn loveliness arrives quickly. Two days ago day I saw the limbs of a birch tree covered in shimmering yellow leaves, reaching toward the clear blue sky; the next morning almost all the leaves were lying on the ground, like a puddle of gold, like a slender dancer had just let her silk dress drop to her feet. The whole of last week was magical, with the warm sun sparkling on water and gauzy little fairy-like bugs floating around in the air. At first I mistook these incredibly tiny insects for gnats or ash, but I managed to catch a few – very gently, for they were so easy to squash – and looked them up online using the search term “tiny blue insects with fuzzy butts.” I got answers immediately. They were woolly aphids. It seems there are as many kinds of woolly aphids as there are trees, with at least 15 different kinds in Minnesota, and some sources said that there are probably more.  The adult woolly aphid sucks tree sap and produces a waxy white covering that looks like minute downy feathers. I had never seen them before. I wonder if it was the unseasonable warm weather which brought them out. For a few days, whenever the weather warmed, you could see these little fairy bugs floating by, wafted by the breeze.

Last week was unusually warm for October, and Lars and I took good advantage of the fine weather by driving down some dirt roads we hadn’t explored before. We had a canoe on top of the car, lunch, paddles and life jackets packed and even a thermos of hot tea along. It felt so civilized. Lars and I had spent the evening before comparing maps and negotiating where to explore. We meant to leave early the next morning, but with one thing and another we didn’t get on the water until 9. It was early enough for mist to still be floating above the water with the morning sun shining through. The day was sunny and nearly windless, and our first stop was a favorite lake for a quiet farewell paddle. It was a lovely way to say goodbye until next spring. There was one other canoe on the water, and we quickly lost sight of them. We saw and heard many kingfishers, darting across the water and swooping up into nearby snags and fir trees. A few times we saw them hover before diving headlong into the water to catch fish. These birds have such unusual proportions, with a head that seems outsized to its body, long stout beaks and very short legs. Everything about them seems direct and no-nonsense except for those wild shaggy feathers on their heads that look like punk hairdos. They are such a gorgeous shade of blue, with white necks and bellies and black markings around their eyes. The female has an additional rusty band of feathers across her chest, like a too-tight waistcoat. They nest mostly in dirt banks after digging a tunnel that can range from 3 to 6 feet long. They lay 6-7 eggs, with both male and female sharing incubation and feeding. The Belted Kingfisher is the only one which summers this far north.
I had a front-row seat to a Battle Royale between two kingfishers a couple summers ago. I was sitting in a second story balcony and they went round and round the building chasing each other and chittering that distinctive call. They were flying so fast and calling so loudly! I’m not sure if it was a mating ritual or warfare, but they looked like they meant business, whatever their intentions, and they were moving too fast for me to distinguish between male and female. Kingfishers must be late migrators for us to see so many of them in October. They fly south to spend the winter on open water. I always love spotting them.
 Lars and I said good-bye to the kingfishers at that first lake and paddled back to the landing, then headed down the Gunflint Trail to find a new lake – one that had intrigued us during our map reading of the night before. We headed south of the Trail, went down a dirt road and found the entry point. After we filled out a day pass, we made an easy portage to the next lake. Once more, we had the place mostly to ourselves, paddling quietly down the shore, heading to anything that sparked our interest. I saw what looked like a small raft of reeds and dry grasses and paddled over to investigate and noticed a brown furry body in motion. I thought it was an otter, but as I got closer I saw a naked tail -- there was a pile of two or three muskrats sitting on top of this raft. One of them looked up, wrinkled his nose at us and then they all slipped into the water. Maybe they were building a house, getting ready for winter. It was a gorgeous day of paddling and nature watching to end this canoe season.
This is the end of the season for Chik Wauk Museum and Nature Center as well. This weekend is your last chance to hike the trails, gaze at the moose pond, view the exhibits in the museum, or shop in the gift shop. Sunday is their last day for this year, and it is predicted to be a sunny day. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see a moose!
This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail


Photo by Casey Clark.

Trail Time--the sounds of autumn

Trail Time
By Marcia Roepke
​The last two weeks of September have been absolutely lovely on the Gunflint Trail. We’ve had rain, we’ve had sun, we’ve had temperatures about ten degrees above average. Usually the shorter days and cooler temps of September make me want to slow down, but this fabulous weather has sped me up again. I can’t get enough canoeing or fishing, it’s 76 and sunny and I just might swim this afternoon.  I want to be by, in or on the water all the time. With the weather so warm, it feels kind of strange to see little groupings of buntings by the road. I think of them as cooler weather birds. Juncos are back as well and yesterday we heard then saw a flock of cranes fly overhead, bugling and honking. They were flying so high, it was hard to see them. It is autumn, though it feels like August.
I’ve spent a few hours this September watching a new beaver lodge. First I found a comfortable place to sit with a good vantage point. I quieted my movements and my thoughts and then I waited. A red squirrel spent a few minutes announcing my arrival, then the woods behind me grew quiet; a raven then flew overhead, wheeled around and landed in a spruce tree right above and behind me, its screams seconding the squirrel’s vote about my presence. 
I used to try to talk back to the ravens, but they are wise to my tricks. I don’t fool them for a second — though I do think (immodestly) that my impersonation is pretty good. My dog demurs, and just gazes at me, concern all over her face whenever I make that strange sound. 
I once talked back to a red squirrel in its own language and I felt so amused when it grew furious and bounced up and down on all four feet chattering, railing at me. I walked into the cabin, then turned and saw the squirrel running straight at me. I knew there was a full length of glass between us, but the squirrel saw nothing but air and launched himself toward me til smack! Full frontal squirrel smash into the window. He fell back, then after a millisecond of a shake he launched again into the air. Smack! He fell back again and appeared unhurt but dazed, then he ran up a little hill and into the woods. If that glass hadn’t been there, God knows what that squirrel would’ve done to me. I don’t talk back to squirrels anymore. 
There was no talking at all on my part for this day of quiet beaver-watching. The weather was perfect for it. Cool in the shade, not too hot in the sun, zero bothersome insects. The water was still and smooth save for the circles from fish rising to feed. The leaves barely moved in a faint breeze. Occasionally a golden birch leaf fluttered down and plopped on the surface of the water. It was so quiet I could hear the leaf hit the water and a hundred feet away I heard the rising of a fish as it mouth closed upon a tasty fly. 
I sat for an hour? two hours? I lost track of time. There were no boats on the lake, no planes in the sky. I was mesmerized by the perfect mirror image of the sky and shore on the surface of the water, forming a design like a horizontal Rorschach blot. A junco flew up and perched in a cedar, cocking its little head at me before flying off. A dragonfly flew around me as it fulfilled its duty patrolling the shore. “No time to chat!” I imagined it saying to me. “I’ve got business to do!” They are such earnest flyers. Now, my goal had been to watch for beaver activity, and I did manage to see one shiny wet head surface and circle around before it silently dove under. That had been the goal, but I had gained much more than that in those silent hours by the water. The deep quiet felt as if it had got into my bones, as if I had soaked it up like a sauna. I had a long deep draught of quiet and I felt heartened and strengthened by it. 
 Loons are still in residence. I hadn’t heard them for a number of days and I assumed they’d left, even though it was unusually early. But it has been a strange summer. The lack of rain hit the area hard and we had those mid-summer dry crunchy weeks with fire danger a daily worry. I thought loons leaving early seemed congruent with the rest of the weird summer. But I was wrong. I tried not to take it personally, after all the whereabouts of the loons is their business. I have to remind myself: This is their place. I am the visitor. They will keep flying here long after I’m gone. 
This is Marcia Roepke on the Gunflint Trail