Archive for February, 2017

Humility in the Pines


It was cold as I made a snowshoe trail into the forest. This wasn’t any forest; it was a snapshot of what much of northern Minnesota looked like 150 years ago. I was in the company of quiet giants. I had found the Lost Forty.

I understand how folks can get lost but misplacing a 40-acre piece of ground seems improbable. Admittedly, I’ve known about this wayward parcel for some time but had never visited it. The Lost Forty is a Minnesota DNR Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) located in the Big Fork State Forest within Chippewa National Forest. To join the esteemed ranks of Minnesota’s SNAs, a site has to contain “native plant communities, rare species and geologic features of statewide significance.” 

To understand the reason for the title Lost Forty we need to step back into the nineteenth century. In 1882 a surveying crew of four men left the young settlement along the Mississippi River called Grand Rapids and traveled 40 miles north through the wilderness. Their charge was to work on one of the first surveying jobs in northern Minnesota.

The men tented in the bush for a month, eating mostly flour, pork, beans and dried apples to sustain them while they surveyed. It was late fall and the weather was likely turning cold and snowy. Perhaps the coming of winter caused them to hurry their work but they mistakenly ended up plotting Coddington Lake a half mile further northwest than it actually is located. Roughly 144 acres of pristine and majestic pines were mistakenly mapped underneath the lake. While surrounding forests were logged off, this piece of old growth forest was left alone and never logged.

My own great-great grandfather emigrated from Sweden and worked in a logging camp near Moose Lake, Minnesota. In short order those forests were completely logged. In the mid 1890s he moved south and settled near North Branch, Minnesota. Before he left the camp he shipped enough white pine lumber south to build his first house.

I live in that home. I am humbled to be wrapped in boards rendered from old growth pines that cast a shadow well before Lewis and Clark made their epic journey to the Pacific and back to St. Louis. Some of the boards that sheath my home are over 18 inches wide and mostly clear of knots. I often wonder about the native peoples and creatures that walked beneath those pines that now shelter me.

I shuffled uphill and found myself on a serpentine esker, a glacial ridge left 12,000 years ago when the giant ice sheets last melted out of Minnesota. The pines grew all along it. Here I found eight deer beds bowled in the snow. Bedding on the esker gave the deer a good vantage point to watch for threats such as predators and human intruders. The deer also find benefit underneath the cover of a coniferous canopy as it shields them from falling snow.

The deer tracks meandering along the esker seemed in no hurry.The zigzagging stroll of a ruffed grouse showed no concern and nor did the easy hops of a snowshoe hare’s trail. I wondered if they all felt at ease in the presence of such stout elders as the pines.

Here I have the opportunity to feel wonderfully small. And given the big picture, I am awed at how insignificant I am.

Back home, I pulled up the old rocker next to the blazing kitchen fire and wondered what the pines at the Lost Forty and the ones rendered into boards shaping my home have known.



A Shrewd Outing

It was cold. Good old fashioned January cold. Or as the Old English might have called it, a “shrewd day, “one that is piercingly cold.

I was sitting in The Shining Light café in Northome, Minnesota with Jason and John. Both are much younger and far more fit than I am. They are ultra-marathoners who relish this kind of weather. We consumed heaping plates of calorie-rich breakfasts and noticed through the foggy window that the bank clock across the street read “-30° F.” This is the kind of day when you need to start with a heap of fuel in the furnace.

After eating, we drove north for nearly an hour before we pulled off and unloaded our gear for the hike into the Big Bog. The temperature had already warmed up to -28°F as we donned skis and snowshoes. The two younger guys were planning for a 20-mile day, so they each pulled a lightweight sled with calorie rich food, an arctic sleeping bag and extra clothes. I had been honest with myself and had opted out of the big bog crossing. I would only be going partway so I carried only a lightweight backpack with a thermos, food, a survival pack and some extra clothes.

While there was a part of me that wanted to make the two-day crossing with them, I knew that my body would revolt after a 20-mile day. I chose to hike in with Jason and John to a point that seemed far enough to then turn around and make my way out on our packed trail before nightfall. If all went as planned I would be back at the Northome Motel by dark, soaking under a steaming shower, full bellied and soon slumbering in a warm bed.

After three hours of hiking it was becoming clear that the planned crossing would be much tougher than planned. Jason and John wore Hok skis.  These are a four-foot hybrid of a ski and a snowshoe. They are wider than most skis and there is a strip of mohair skin on the base under the foot that serves as a gripping agent to stride easily and even uphill. It turned out that my of 75 year-old Alaskan snowshoes were the wiser choice.

The fluffy snow was deep and in some places provided too much insulation over the ice of ditches and wetlands. Both skiers broke through the ice repeatedly. Upon doing so they had to hustle to get out of the skis and scrape the slush off the bases before it froze solid in the bitter temps. With the greater surface area, my snowshoes negotiated the deep snow and I never broke through the ice.

At 2:30PM, with the sun arcing downward to the west, I decided to do an about face and make my return trip to my truck. We had only gone 4½ miles but had burned substantial energy. Already the idea of crossing the big bog had been scratched by Jason and John. Instead they decided to push on to the latitude and longitude that marked the “most remote spot” in Minnesota. I wished the guys good luck and said I would see them the next day.

I paused to drink the remaining water from my thermos. Cold days are dry days and a common mistake in winter outings is not to drink lots of water. I discovered that the screw cover to my thermos was frozen shut. I had to shove the whole thermos down my sweater so that my body heat would thaw it free. After 15 minutes of warming I was able to unscrew the cap and drink.

Head down, I continued snowshoeing east. I could feel the air temperature dropping as the afternoon waned. I was suddenly drawn to a stop by an out-of-place dark spot on my white trail. It was a shrew. A dead shrew. I knelt down to scoop it up in my mittened hand. Inspecting it closely, I found no visible wound.

These amazing little insectivores look like a mouse with a stretched-out snout. They are the smallest of Minnesota mammals and one could say the most hyper. They have exceedingly high metabolic rates. Some of them have heart rates of over 1000 beats per minute. That means they have to consume a lot of food, sometimes two to three times their weight in food each day!

Why would a subnivean creature be on top of the snow? Perhaps the shrew had been scuttling through its snow tunnel and fell out onto our packed trail. If the little fellow had been caught out in the open air too long, maybe only a matter of seconds, it could have succumbed to the biting cold. Because of their tiny size they live on the edge of life.

I examined the brown-gray fellow and wondered which species it was. Given that I was out in the open area of grasses, sedges and stunted tamarack trees, I really wanted it to be the arctic shrew. Similar and far more common is the ubiquitous masked shrew.

Minnesota is home to seven species of shrews. Several of them are so difficult to identify one has to look at the pattern of their teeth, sharp and excellent tools for tearing insects or even small mice.

I’m going to believe it was an arctic shrew. It fit the day: A most shrewd day.


NOTE: Jason and John made another mile of progress before returning. They ended up hiking out with headlamps illuminating their path. We all enjoyed hot showers that night. And it seems fitting that “most remote” remains untouchable.