Archive for November, 2017

A Limit of Birch



I headed into the boreal bush, across the river from the old deer shack, to hunt ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare. However, it wasn’t long before my intentions were hijacked by the parade of birch trees. I was intrigued with the array of complexions found on these white trees.

Saplings aspire to the snowy glow of their bark only after a few years of wearing a skin of brown red stippled with lenticels of white dashes. Peer closely into these thin, corky stripes and you are looking into the passage where the tireless exchange of gases pass each other.

In a handful of years the birch changes color and settles into its white finery. This is when the tree earns its genus name, Betula. In Latin, Betula means “to shine.”

As the tree grows beneath the bark, the outer layers expand and the tree literally outgrows its skin. As the tree ages the bark loses elasticity and easily cracks, splits and falls away.


Every November, during my deer shack stay, I pick up fallen shards of birch bark and bring them home to refill my stash of tinder to light the morning fire. Dry or soaking wet, the birch bark will pull a match flame towards itself and offer the promise of a fire like few other materials.

Several years ago, I shot a heavy buck that ended up in the water down river from the shack. I waded into the cold river to float the deer to a manageable place where I could pull it out and field dress it. As usual, I kept the heart and liver, but that year I carefully removed the full stomach as well. I emptied its contents and thoroughly rinsed the stomach in the river before tucking it in a plastic bag.

Back home, I turned the stomach inside out and stretched it over a small whorl of white pine branches and let it dry. The thousands of hairlike cilia that lined the inner stomach gave it a texture similar to fleece.

The stomach vessel dried tight over the struts of the pine branch. That vessel hangs on the wall near the stove and it is filled with curls and scraps of birch bark.



Sadly, many of the mature birch in northeastern Minnesota are dying. Driving northeast up the shore of Lake Superior en route to the shack, we passed many stands of dead and dying birch.

According to Welby Smith, botanist and author of Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, “As many as 20% of all paper birches in Minnesota, in all age classes, may have died from drought related causes between 1988-89.” Since Smith’s book was published in 2008, Minnesota has experienced three of its warmest years in recorded history. Birch fare poorly in hot weather and its future as a component of the northern landscape could be in question with climate change upon us.

One tree I passed on my walk had a flag of birch bark curls while another teased me with a peek of the new latest skin exposing itself to this eleventh month. And yet others bore ragged wings of outstretched bark tatters, fluttering optimistically, as if to fledge from the forest and take flight. No matter how fast the bark flaps, deep roots solidly anchor these trees.

The candlelight glow coming from the shack was a welcome sight after my three-hour outing. While there was no heft of dead grouse or hare in my pack, I was thankful for the much lighter harvest of birch scrolls. These boreal fragments will assure me of a winter’s worth of morning fires.

Aging Shacks and Aging Boys


With five to seven inches of snow on the ground and the wind picking up, the night seemed ill fit for man nor beast.  The beloved deer shack creaked and clattered while a quorum of five of us reconvened after making our annual pilgrimage to the piecemeal shelter.

It’s not a stretch to call our first night at the shack a homecoming. The dark aged boards that make up both the exterior and interior walls are lit by a trio of staggered candles and a lantern.  Snow falls silently outside and another chunk of firewood is tucked into the glowing maw of the stove. We pull our chairs closer to the stove. I am sure we sit in the mute company of ghosts, the shack builders and dwellers from the past. And as predictable as the current of the lively river flowing tirelessly, just down the hill, we share repeated stories of past deer hunts,  hunters, modes of getting back into the remote shack quarters and encounters with the likes of lynx, moose, wolves and even a wolverine.

Without electricity the usual distractions brought on by television images, radio blather and humming appliances are absent. And better yet, sitting among a bank of alders, roughly three miles from a paved road, there are no distant car honks or Jake braking. The noises here vary from the clatter of setting silverware, to the opening of the door on the woodburning stove, the lantern hissing or mild conversation sprinkled with chuckles that often build to a landslide of laughter.

This simple hunting shelter was built in a handful of days in early July in 1940. The builders used recycled lumber and other assorted building materials costing less than three ten-dollar bills. The temperature was hot; inspiring swarms of black flies so abundant that scores of them mired down in the morning pancake batter at the builder’s camp.

The shack still provides shelter to those who plan on staying there and even those who happen to stumble upon it. The decrepit door, hinged with arthritic rust, carries a familiar squeak when opened. And it is never locked.

Those who make the annual deer hunting trip are well versed in the oral history of this place and landscape. Only in the shack’s latter years did the historical archives include the written word.

Twenty years ago, a middle school spiral bound notebook was left behind at the shack over the annual MEA (Minnesota Education Association) two-day school break in mid-October. Four months later, a solo snowshoer kicked the snow away from the door to gain access. He stayed overnight and finding the notebook of blank pages he used it to pen in a journal entry.

Feb. 29, 1996

 Well it’s a beautiful day outside but here I am in by the fire drying off.

I decided to do a little snowshoeing today destination unknown. I snowshoed up the river and feel through the ice just down the hill from the shack. Happy that it happened near the deer shack.

 Had planned on doing some winter camping but I didn’t figure I would be staying in here drying myself. Last time I was here was in ’85. I’m just glad to see the old shack is still here and standing.

 Thanks for taking care of the old place.


That scrawled note inspired other shack visitors, scores of them, to note their particular visit. When that notebook was full we left a second and now its pages are nearly full.

The most common thread in all the journal entries is one of gratitude. “We’re back. It’s good to be here. I’m so glad people take care of this shack.”

Some relish the isolation and quietude. “Back again for a little quiet time.” Another noted, “Glad to find the cabin clean and quiet. It’s been wonderful to come and sit around and read.”

 In the accumulation of Novembers there have been many deer tales and many clattering nights where the shack groans and a piece of roof tin clatters. The shack, like us, is showing its age

The youngest among the November pilgrims is a young fifty-four. His father was one of the builders of the shack. Behind the fifty-four year old, there are no children. No camp followers.

Sitting around the fire on the last night of our stay, we broach the subject of extended care for the shack. The roof is in need of attention. Without the integrity of a proper roof, the elements of nature will ultimately cripple and fall the shack.

Nels, the most veteran of current shack dwellers, asked the question none of us want to face, “Well maybe we just let the shack die a natural death. With no one really following us, who will take care of it in years to come?”

No one disagreed and we pondered while the stove, in its frolicking fire noise, seemed to say, “Oh come on! I’ve got a lot of years left in me!”

More discussion followed and then we found renewed energy and smiled when someone said we should start a shack improvement campaign and call it, “Make the Shack Great Again.” We all agreed that our revised campaign slogan would likely be more successful than the original promise.

So just like that we came to a conclusion. We would take a few months to seek out and squirrel away the necessary steel sheets and 2x4s to give the shack a new roof. A decision was made to reconvene early next fall, two months prior to the deer hunt, to perform the makeover.

I think we ultimately made our decision based on optimism, not only for the shack, but also for ourselves. Here, where boreal forest and shack commingle, time stands still and the silence demands introspection of things greater than our sum.

We cannot ignore the health of this historic hovel. It has given us so much. Here, up at the shack, in the quiet fir-scented air where an opening decrepit door squeals a welcome every time we arrive, here, we become boys again.

It’s only right that we make the shack great again.

So with a plan in place, we blew out the candles and climbed into the bunks for the night. I like to think a host of smiling and nodding ghosts remained sitting around the stove’s banked fire.