Archive for March, 2023

The Amen Corner

We flung our jackets off as we worked in rhythm digging through four feet of snow to free the door of the old deer shack.

The door squeaked in its familiar way as we finally stepped inside. I was relieved to see that everything was just as we had left it after the deer opener nearly four months ago. 

The three of us had snowshed two miles to get to this half buried hovel, pulling sleds loaded with grub, sleeping bags and gear. 

I was with two of my favorite men. “The Guy” was visiting from North Carolina. He is no stranger to winter and has mushed dogs on the Yukon River. “Ole” lives for snow and cross country ski races across the Midwest. I am a man who considers this place and the river it flanks a sacred sanctuary. 

I laid a fire and touched a match to the birch tinder. The Guy and Ole stowed our gear and shook out our sleeping bags to fluff up their insulating loft before tucking them on the old bunks. 

Pulling three chairs close to the wood stove, we basked in the sublime serenity.  We were sitting in the Amen Corner. We didn’t even raise our voices when a red squirrel scurried across the sleeping bags. We did wonder however, if we would see or feel the disturbed rodent again. Whose sleeping bag might entice the chickaree to nestle in? Mostly we sat chuckling and pausing during psalms of silence and reverence. 

Logging camps of yesteryears always had an “Amen Corner.” This was where the elder loggers pulled in stools or chunks of pine to sit around the fire to spin yarns and spout wisdom. At least in their minds it was wisdom.

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary the amen corner refers to a conspicuous spot in a church occupied by fervent worshippers. 

All of a sudden we heard a hiss like venting steam from hell itself. In the next instant, the warmed shack ceiling shrugged off its top hat of snow and the load slid down in a calamitous shimmy. The avalanche boomed and shook the antique walls, like some passage direct from the Book of Revelations.

We amen-ed with a hushed “wow.”

We feasted on a supper of typical logging camp fare, whistleberries, sometimes called “thunderberriess or homemade pork and beans. We resumed storytelling and offering empty solutions towards a better world. A world that in the words of one of the late shack elders “hasn’t been the same since they put a man on the moon.”

We slid into our sleeping bags. Each of us declared there was no company of a red squirrel. The crackling of the stove eased us to sleep.

The next day after stove top bacon and eggs, we explored upriver on skis and snowshoes. Not a living critter was seen but we found their tracks and storylines. There was a pile of ruffed grouse feathers. Snowshoe hare tracks. Grouse tracks stitched around trees and through thickets. A pair of wolves had single-filed their way over the deep snow looking for calories in a land scarce of them.  

It delights me to find an otter trail with its loping and sliding pattern. Otters make winter look like fun. I shudder at their indifference to cold water. 

I was most surprised by the spoor of a loping raccoon. With a world still engaged in a black belt winter, it seems odd the coon would be out and about. But increasing day length and the nudging of hormones prompted the raccoon to wander. Males, called boars, emerge from their dormancy earlier than the females.

On the third day, we rose from the bed and descended out of heaven.

We left the Amen Corner to the shy red squirrel. 

Birch Light

I find it fascinating that so many Minnesotans like to grumble about winter. Incessant whining about the ever present ice, more snow and cold. And the color scheme of white and black is boring them. I would only add fodder to their depression if I tried to explain that neither black nor white are colors; they are shades.

I happen to like winter and its black and white landscape. While this frozen season is not a collage of color, its starkness inspires me to focus. The white landscape is streaked, dotted and smeared with contrasting dark patterns. There are tree silhouettes and shadows, lacey mouse tracks, shivering dried grasses and brittle goldenrod stems.

On a recent ski through our oaken property to nearby ski trails, I found myself striding through fleets of paper birch seeds and catkin scales on the snow.  The trees had recently shed these seeds. Now they resembled tiny, haphazardly grounded aircraft, each with outstretched wings. 

Their flight orders have worked well for millennia as a means of seed dispersal. Of the thousands of tiny airborne seeds, only a fraction will land on ground suitable for taking root and gathering sunshine. 

Feeling the slight northwest wind on my cheek, I glanced upwind and spied a phalanx of birch growing along the edge of what had been my Grandpa’s old cultivated field over 50 years ago.  

Ecologists consider paper birch a pioneer species. It is always seeking an edge or large opening with ample sunshine. And thousands of years ago, birch were among the first trees to establish themselves as the glaciers retreated northward.

Perhaps no tree in Minnesota is as easily recognized as a mature paper birch with its chalky white bark that often peels in curling thin strips. (There are five native species of birch in Minnesota with paper birch being the most widespread.)

The black horizontal lines on birch bark resemble slightly raised morse code dashes. These are lenticils and their function is gas exchange. 

The Anishinaabe origin story for birch trees tells of how thunderbirds struck the trees with their lightening, leaving their dark shapes and forms on the tree’s trunk.

High in the naked birch canopy, I spotted movement. It was a flock of ten or so common redpolls. This year decent numbers of these small finches migrated here from their subarctic nesting grounds.

Some of the birds were hanging upside down on fine birch twigs while they worried the small catkins for seeds. One small birch catkin cone can contain a thousand seeds. Some drift on the winds and others become fuel for the winter birds. 

I skied along the border of birch admiring the stark interplay of white and black. The chalky, white powder that coats the bark is mostly a chemical called betulin. (Birch are found in the genus Betula.) These crystals are arranged in such a way as to reflect light and appear white. 

This property is a survival adaptation as it reflects light during the coldest of winter days. Trees with darker bark like an oak or black cherry will absorb the sun’s heat during the day and then cool down quickly on a frigid night. The heating and cooling can kill inner bark cells; the cells that are responsible for the growth of the trunk. Rapid heating and cooling can cause severe frost cracks in the tree’s bark.

Marveling at these white trees thriving on a white, crystalline landscape, I found myself thinking of other gifts of birch.

Our woodshed holds mostly oak and black cherry but there is some split birch that I have taken from the rare windfalls.  I love heating with it as it splits relatively easily and its bark ignites quickly. It’s also a clean wood to carry in from the porch woodbox to the kitchen stove. 

I have bags of collected birch bark that I have found on the ground while visiting northern Minnesota.  In my opinion there is no better tinder to start a fire. I once soaked a piece of birch bark in a jar of water overnight and then in the morning pulled it dripping from the water, shook it and lit it easily with a match.  But bark should never be torn from a living tree as it can result in damage to the tree. 

When we lived in the Yukon Territory in northern Canada, we always looked forward to the summer limited production of Yukon Brewing’s birch beer called Up the Creek. The brewers use birch syrup boiled from the sap collected of roughly 1500 birch trees. 

Skiing home, I made a mental note to bring a plastic bag on my next ski to scoop us some snow and little seeds. I plan on making some seed-speckled snowballs and throwing them around our property, for their second flight, with hopes of perpetuating lightness. 

No mosquitos or deer flies, no humidity: only the simple shades of black and white. A perfect day to be outside.