Conventions of a Canoe

“I used to think it was a major tragedy if anyone went through life without owning a canoe. Now I think it’s just a minor tragedy..”

-Bill Mason, artist and author Path of the Paddle

Is there a more versatile craft than a canoe? Nope, not in my world. 

While we might think of a canoe as simply another form of watercraft it is far more than that. The sleek, quiet boat can carry an adventure’s worth of gear and it can also inspire an overloaded pack’s worth of emotions from calmness to dread to exuberance.

While a canoe usually projects an image of serenity it can also carry the paddler into a copious release of adrenaline.

On my first canoe trip to Hudson’s Bay we paddled the Churchill River. We were one of the last canoe parties to paddle the river before it was dammed. Most remote rapids are unnamed but significant ones bear titles. Mountain Rapids, on the Churchill, was one worthy of a name and it loudly proclaimed its namesake.

At the head of the rapids we all paddled to shore at the head of the rapids to look over the drop on foot. Once the canoes were secured we each took a needed pee. We walked cautiously downriver amongst shoreline boulders and logs, keenly studying the waves, eddies, drops and surges.  Nerves urged us to pee again. We decided there was a way we could run it.

We returned upriver to our tied up boats. Nervously we adjusted  our lifejackets, made sure all our packs were secure, reminded our paddling partner of key sections of our proposed route and then …took another nervous pee.  Carl, always the lighthearted conveyer of needed humor,  offered  a new system for rating whitewater. He declared, “Wow, this is a “three-pee rapids!”

We got soaked as we flew down the rapids with waves surging over the sides of the canoes. Everyone felt the jubilation of a successful run and adrenaline never tasted so good.

The canoe is my preferred vehicle to go where human footprints are rare or for the moment absent. The canoe helps me explore the wild and my own mind. Silence is a welcome and desired canoe partner. Cognitive healing, pondering passions and purpose are made easier in the company of a canoe. 

My canoe is often a co-artist as it sculpts a smile on my face as we perform our elegant liquid cursive across a morning mirrored lake surface. Though the art is ephemeral, it’s forever indelible in my mind.

The canoe can clean the mind and the body. I recall a successful morning of fishing from the canoe. I hauled the boat up on shore to scrub the slimy floor. I dumped the water, rinsed it with clean water and then filled the hull halfway with fresh lake water and let it warm in the sun for a few hours for a wonderful evening bath. 

The canoe can be a garment while portaging.  A portage is the act of carrying the canoe from one body of water to another.  It usually requires you to swing the canoe up on your shoulders. On a hot sunny day after I don my canoe it becomes a sun bonnet of sorts.  And during a rainy portage the canoe becomes a rain hat and elongated umbrella. 

There are times when my canoe has served as a sleeping quarters. Once my friend Nels and I thought it would be fitting to emulate the early voyageurs’ habit of sleeping under the canoe. 

We carried the canoe up from the river to a flat spot, set it down with the hull turned skyward. We propped the canoe up to create a lean-to, rolled out our sleeping bags and settled in under our shelter for the night. Perfect. Until the mosquitoes roused themselves at dusk. We ended up burrowing into our sleeping bags where we grumbled about how hot and stuffy it was in our perfect camp. But we had a roof over us. I’ve never tried a night under a canoe again but I suspect it would be quite wonderful in early spring or after an autumn frost when the world is mosquito-free.

In a similar vein, my canoe has served as abed. I once floated all night on the St. Croix River while cozied in a sleeping bag. My self imposed rule was that I could only paddle when an eddy or some impediment halted my downstream progress. In nearly 24 hours I took less than 75 paddle strokes. An easy outing I should say. 

I would be remiss not to mention the other role of a bed and it is said that the rock of a canoe, in the intimate company of another supine paddler is quite memorable.

My canoe has served as an aquatic cart. It has hauled moose meat, duck and geese, fish, wild rice and firewood.

My seventeen-foot Mad River Explorer was a great tripping boat. It could easily carry a month’s worth of gear. Its voluminuous capacity and slight rocker shape made it an ideal boat in big rapids. By the time I added a portage yoke, snaps for a splash cover and kevlar skid plates beneath the bow and stern to beef it up for the eventual meeting of hull and rock, the boat weighed in at 84 pounds. Time wears down even rocks. And so it was with me and that old canoe.

Now, portaging my 44-pound kevlar canoe seems almost like cheating. And my old Mad River, scarred with cracks and dings made its last portage to our garden where it was stripped of its ash rails, thwarts and seats and now serves as a raised bed for growing vegetables.

Enough. I need to push away from these words and go pull weeds out of a canoe or go paddle.

I wish all choices were so easy. Go paddle.

A Perspective on Bugs

The summer solstice is days away. This is a time of the year to celebrate the coming summer solstice with, relaxing strolls picnicking, playing corn hole, messing about in the garden, sitting outdoors enjoying a cup of morning coffee or an evening drink. 

Recently, I delivered delivered a fresh batch of rhubarb crisp to an eighty-something neighbor, named Karl. We chatted in his living room where he was still commenting on the tough winter with all of its ice.

Exasperated, Karl, wailed, “I was imprisoned in here for three months this winter with all the snow and ice. Never seen anything like it!” He paused to take a breath before adding, “And now when I can finally make my way outside it’s impossible!”

“Why is that? I ask.

“The girls are all mad at me.”

He saw my daft look and followed with “Mosquitoes!” Karl knows that it is only the female mosquitoes that are in search of a blood meal.

He winced and shook his head and exclaimed, “Ohhhh gosh and their straws seem longer this year!” I smiled and mentally agreed that “straws” is easier to say than proboscises.

Just before seeing Karl, I had delivered some of the tart dessert to  another eighty-something neighbor, Dennis. He too commented about the bugs. “Mosquitoes are bad. I think I saw one fly around my face with a tick on it!”

With every low piece of water holding water from the snowy winter and now warm weather, the mosquitoes are having their own solstice gathering.

As I chatted with Karl, he added thoughtfully, “ You know mosquitoes have their place. Think of all the ducklings, birds and bats that depend on skeeter protein. And you know, in the grand scheme of things, a little discomfort never hurt anyone.”

We both wondered how smart is it to ward off mosquitoes by lathering or spraying your body with chemicals you can’t pronounce. Karl’s choice: “Long sleeves and pants keeps ‘em off you.” I agreed. Personally, I haven’t used bug dope in years. I really don’t think a diet of that stuff on our largest organ, our skin, is a good trade off.

My favorite barrier is my Original Bug Jacket with the hood equipped with a zip face mask. I have used it for many Canadian canoe trips (where bugs are far worse than what we are currently experiencing) and it works super well for both mosquitoes and black flies.

My visit with Karl had me reflecting on a piece I wrote in 2006 and  I had the privilege of reading it on Minnesota Public Radio. It seems timely so I am resurrecting it here:

The Case for the Mosquito and Me

I noticed a stowaway mosquito fly slowly past my face. It descended and landed just above my exposed left knee. Shorts were the order for the humid June day and in the shelter of my car I typically do not worry about pesky insects. But here was an uninvited passenger, inspecting my flesh and about to pierce my skin with its slender proboscis. With one hand on the steering wheel, I raised the other hand as a gavel and was about to cast judgement when I stopped the crushing clap to consider the innocent act of this most companionable insect. 

No other insect keeps company like the mosquito. From spring to the first hard frost they are never far from my side. As I get older I am realizing that our partnership is more reciprocal than I had once thought. The mosquito gains nourishment from my blood and I not only receive the benefits of its search for nectar and its pollinating of plants, but I learn the value of perseverance. 

I gritted my teeth upon feeling the momentary sting of the needlelike proboscis. With my paddlelike hand lingering inches over the insect I listened to the arguments of the defense. 

Though most would argue that the tiny two-winged insect is guilty of assault and battery I told myself that this creature is only doing what it has done for millennia. With a blood donor, the female mosquito will be capable of laying two to four hundred eggs. Without the blood meal she might lay only eighty or so eggs. If anything, the female mosquito is following its urge for motherhood. 

In my lifetime, I have maimed and murdered thousands of times. Yet I walk free and I manage an unfettered, guiltless sleep every night. Untold numbers of dead potential mother mosquitoes, deer flies, ticks and others that we label as pests, have been thoughtlessly left behind without an apology or a moment of quiet reverence in their passing. 

After a couple of unsuccessful probes, the mosquito struck blood just above me knee and she began to draw my blood. Many species of mosquitoes prefer the blood of other creatures to that of humans.  Our blood is low in isoleucine, an amino acid that enhances the mosquito egg proteins. But since we are the dominant and most numerous species of mammal on the planet, we are an easy mark. No other species of mammal, whether it is a mouse, shrew, or rabbit is as widespread or plentiful as humans. 

Suddenly I realized that this swelling mosquito would use some of my genetic material, my very being, to produce its next generation. Of those hundreds of eggs left in a wetland, puddle or water-filled old tire or treehole, many of them would metamorphose into larvae and become food for other insects, ducklings, minnows, fish fingerlings and many other critters. Eventually the mosquito-eater’s flesh will nourish another link in the food chain until finally a host of invertebrate, fungal and bacterial life forms would finish up the act of decomposition.

Consequently I am everywhere. Through this mosquito, molecules of me become the building blocks of others and I am unquestionably connected to the larger natural community. We are of the same blood; relatives all. Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic, Jungle Book featured a boy, Mowgli, raised by wolves. He had it right when Mowgli said, “We be of one blood, ye and I.”

 I would argue that in my caring and nurturing of other life forms I am caring for my very being. If we, as a species, cared for the natural world as we would care for ourselves we would not be having discussions about global warming, the loss of biodiversity, “dead zones” in the oceans, urban sprawl, and deforestation. 

I marveled at this epiphany and my suspended hand returned to the steering wheel while the frustrated prosecuting team in my brain rested its feeble case. 

The engorged mosquito struggled slightly to free its proboscis from my skin. Then slowly she lifted off towards the window on my left. I opened the window, wished her luck, and watched the laden mosquito quickly disappear through the opening. 

I scratched my knee and contemplated an appeal.


*Also for some unabashed self promotion you can find tips and interesting natural history facts on various critters that scare and bother people in the book: Things that Bite published by AdventureKeen.

Survival by the Numbers

“I just saw a big snapping turtle pull another baby mallard underwater on the pond in my backyard!” 

These were the first desperate words I heard after answering the phone at the nature center I worked at for many years. 

Without pausing for a breath the distraught caller went on, “Oh what can I do?! There were originally 9 ducklings in the bunch and it seems that every few days another one disappears. And now another one is killed! Only three remaining!”

I paused before responding. I knew she was looking for sympathy and a solution to put a halt to the murders, but I was going to try a different route.

“As hard as that is to watch,” I told her, “you are lucky to witness a predator catch its prey. And did you say there are three left?”

She exhaled a sad, drawn out “Yes.”

“Wow,” I exclaimed, “that’s terrific!” There was silence on the other end but I could almost hear the puzzled look of horror.

I continued, “Let’s assume the three remaining continue to mature and live for a year. One will replace its mother and one will replace its father and that means there is one extra, a fifty percent increase in the family population.” I was on a roll. “That’s fantastic! To experience a fifty percent growth rate is very rare.”

I gave her room to respond. And after a moment I heard a softer toned, “Really?”

“Absolutely. Most baby animals are born to be food. Like it or not the future of predators depends on the death of their prey.”

Another pause before she responded, “So if I heard you correctly, if the remaining three ducklings survive that will be unusual and considered a success for the population of mallards?”


“Well thanks for your information. But I still don’t like to watch baby ducks die.”

It is a common survival strategy for a particular species to have large numbers of offspring. Generally the greater number of eggs or young indicate their vulnerability to high losses through predation, bad weather, food shortages and so on.

A wild female monarch butterfly will lay 100 to 300 eggs in her life with a survival rate of 2-10% living to maturity. For the sake of example, let’s say the monarch that is flitting around laying her eggs here and there on the milkweed leaves lays a total of 100 eggs. (Incidentally, everyone should have a milkweed patch.) That means we can expect anywhere from 2 to 10 mature butterflies will survive to maturity from her output of 100 eggs.

Consider a bluegill sunfish. In the Upper Midwest a mature female might lay 6,000 – 18,000 eggs in one or more nests. Sometimes none of those eggs survive but usually enough reach breeding age. This allows more human kid-predators a chance to learn the joys of watching the jiggle of a bobber and catching fish. 

Humans, those irascible critters that continue to foul their own nests by denigrating the very natural systems that assure their survival, do not bear large litters. However, like other animals that bear one to three young, such as deer, bear, whales, eagles and albatrosses, the chances of their young reaching maturity is much higher. With few young to care for, more attention and resources can be offered for their survival. 

Last week, while hunting wild turkeys, I stepped quietly into the woods to begin calling. I paused and in that moment of stillness, a hen turkey exploded only a few feet from me.

My stopping had flushed her off her nest. In her haste she had kicked one of the eggs out of the nest so I leaned down and tucked it among the others. I counted 15 eggs. I have never seen a turkey nest with this many eggs; though they average a dozen eggs per clutch.

Now some of you might gasp because I touched the egg. As youngsters many of us learned “Never touch a birds egg or it might abandon the nest.” While that is good advice, it has nothing to do with your scent on the egg.  Birds are not going to abandon if you touch the egg, but some birds, such as loons might abandon their nest just because the nesting site has been disturbed. 

Quietly, I left the nest site. In a few minutes I heard an out-of-sight hen giving an alarm call. I suspect this was the mother of the eggs that I had just left. 

And like a snapping turtle, I moved with stealth looking for the father of some of those eggs.

Repeat: Take a Kid Backpacking

As we rounded a bend on the sagebrush-flanked trail, a small gossamer waterfall, lit by the morning sun, tumbled off the plateau high above us. Granddaughter Eleanor, aged five, noted, “That’s a fairy waterfall.”

Last year we backpacked to the ocean and set up camp in the midst of giant, grayed logs that had been tossed by tumultuous seas far back on the broad beach. Not only had we camped in the midst of a giant sculpture but it had become a wonderful playground for a four-year-old.

So this year, her father, Ben, suggested we head away from the ocean and steer up over the pass through snow country and descend into eastern Washington and backpack within an easy raven flight of the deep Columbia River gorge. The area is specifically known as the Ancient Lakes Basin. 

In this part of Washington, sage brush is common and the region is arid, almost desertlike. The area lies just east of the foothills to the Cascade Mountains. There is a strong rain shadow effect here as the precipitation falls in the mountains to the west. Consequently the area has one of the lowest precipitation rates in the Columbia River Valley.  So finding a basin of natural lakes seems odd. 

Our destination was a cluster of ancient lakes. These incongruous lakes owe their formation to a the melting of glaciers roughly 17,000 years ago.  The plateau is a horseshoe around the lakes. Small seasonal streams and a creek spill into the basin.

Eleanor a year older, is stronger, slightly taller and into fairies. However, some things don’t change. She carried the same cute daypack with its primary payload a couple of favorite stuffed toys. Her father and grandparents, Nana and Opa (me), carried conventional backpacks stowed with food, tents, sleeping bags, pads and a small amount of extra clothing and rain gear.

This year we would double the hiking mileage to our destination: 2.3 miles. It’s important when taking short-legged humans on hikes, first and foremost it has to be fun. 

Out of sight above us, the plateau is covered with orchards and vineyards. Due to the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, it is not safe to drink the water from the lakes.

Eleanor was particularly intrigued with the dark gray rocks perforated with scores of tiny holes. I excitedly told her she had “discovered” clues of volcanoes.

Our hiking pace was determined by Eleanor and stops were frequent. She often paused to consider tiny discoveries. A beetle, a wind blown flower petal or a wisp of a feather. 

“There were volcanoes here?” she asked with a wrinkled frown.

I told her the tiny holes, called vesicles, were made when the lava cooled and puffs of gases escaped. I also pointed to the tall cliffs nearby and told her all those sharp edged columns were made from magma that had cooled down forming a hard rock called basalt. 

Her fidgeting told me I was giving too much information. But she did ask about taking the pockmarked rock home. Her dad suggested we pick it up on our return trip to the car. 

Eleanor declared we had to find ten different kinds of wild flowers. I believe the final tally was a dozen. . . not bad for early spring in a desert. We inspected beaver cuttings at the edge of the small lake and found a sun-bleached deer jaw which prompted a host of more questions.

We made camp near a cliff and a sloping run of scree, atop a bare ridge that split two of the small lakes. It was a lovely overlook. We wondered if the pair of marmots we saw up in the rocky scree chose this site for the view.

After the tents were set up it was time for hide and seek amongst the tumble of boulders and rocks. Eleanor’s insistence that the seekers only count to thirty made it difficult to get very far from the starting point. Eleanor did not like being hidden too long as she would let out little chirps and squeals to guide us to her hiding spot. 

Time for supper and once again, by popular demand we dined on macaroni and cheese. I lost count of the declared “yums” emitted over the course of the meal.

Not long after eating and getting camp dishes cleaned up we were chased to the tents by a sudden squall that hurried down the cliffs from the plateau. The wind suddenly took a more serious note when we found ourselves holding up the tents from the inside to keep them from flattening. 

From the dad and daughter tent, a query shouted into the wind about getting up, dropping the tents and shuffling camp a hundred yards to find protection behind a cabin-sized boulder. I yelled back, “Let’s wait a few minutes. I think this blast will push through.”

Five minutes later, the tent only rippled in the following calm. Nana and I could hear Ben reading bedtime stories to a cocooned daughter. Distant coyotes shrilled their howls and yips. Tucked in my own bag, I couldn’t help but smile.

The following morning broke clear and chilly. Eleanor asked for a cup of hot cocoa. Her dad’s face betrayed a fleeting look of horror. “Oh Eleanor, I forgot your cocoa.” 

“No problem,” I declared, “she can have some of mine.” I always carry a stash to augment my morning coffee. 

Eleanor snuggled in next to her dad. Life was good.

We broke camp, donned our packs and headed home with visions of an impending ice cream cone. But first, as we neared the end of our hike, we picked up a chunk of rock, riddled with holes. A souvenir to sit amongst the likes of little fairies.

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.

Coyote Snow Script

“Every picture tells a story, don’t it.”

-Rod Stewart

It was a lovely winter morning, five below zero and sunny. Leaning forward in my little rocker, I eased another piece of oak into the kitchen stove. The dance of flames and my cup of coffee was a vision of tranquility.

I glanced out the pantry window and spotted the coyote. Mottled gray, it was moving steadily north just inside our woods. It was in no hurryWhile it made for a nice setting I suspect the wild canid was not feeling anything like tranquility. I suspect it was motivated on this morning by hunger and an urge to find coyote company.

I watched the solitary animal pause, tip its nose into the snow, smell a message and then move on. I wondered if this animal was part of a group of coyotes we had heard yapping and howling a few nights earlier.

In that sighting my morning plan for a cross country ski was hijacked. I took another drink of coffee, set it down on the stovetop to keep warm for my return and booted and bundled myself for a stroll. There was a hot story to unravel.

The coyote, whose track, and life chapter, I followed, has only two layers to wrap itself in every winter. The dense, soft, tawny-colored  underfur could be considered its base layer. Like the down feathers of a bird, this thick layer of fur efficiently traps air and helps hold body heat closed to its core. 

The outer layer of hairs, the overcoat so to speak, are called guard hairs. These longer, glossy, black-tipped hairs are mostly what I saw when the animal passed into my morning.

The spoor I followed seemed purposeful. There was no playful or careless story found in this trail of tracks. A dog, living the comfortable life of domesticity, often loops and seems to celebrate just being outdoors by the cursive trail it leaves behind. Of course, it knows where its next meal is coming from and it rarely feels the pang of almost continual hunger.

In these parts, wild canids, like foxes, coyotes and wolves generally leave a more purposeful set of tracks. They are mostly looking for calories..

Over twenty years ago I was snowshoeing across the unbroken canvas of a frozen lake. Up ahead of me, I could see a convergence of tracks. Like spokes on a wheel, the quartet of coyote tracks all zeroed in on a running fox track. The hub of tracks was an explosion in the snow with blood and bits of fur scattered about. But it was the slender, dismembered black-as-coal foreleg of the red fox laying in the snow that shouted out the story of tough times.

When predators compete for a limited prey resource, encounters such as the frozen lake carnage I happened upon are not abnormal.

Far too many folks still paste the label “varmint” on a coyote. More than once I have heard humans describe these wild canids in their own growling tones: “Killers!  They wipe out pheasants, rabbits, deer, turkeys, sheep and even cats and dogs!” 

The irony is that there has been considerable predator-prey research, particularly with coyotes and wolves. Killing these predators does not usually decrease their populations. Instead there is a resulting increase in the litter size of the targeted wild canids and in short order,  populations actually increase.

Coyotes and foxes are quite adaptable to human environments. There have been some interesting studies on these predators in the city of Chicago. Yes, Chicago; a major city of slightly more than two and a half million people there are approximately four thousand coyotes.

The trail I followed varied very little from northbound, with a slight bend to the northeast. I approached a red oak seedling sticking up through the snow. The tracks paused here, disrupting its single file gait with a scramble of prints.  The snow at the base of a clump of prairie grass was sprinkled with a dribble of yellow-orange drops.

The coyote had paused to leave a scent mark, an odoriferous Hallmark card of sorts. I leaned down and scooped up the snow beneath the piddled snow and scooped the urine dappled snowcone in my mitt and brought it up to my nose. It wasn’t foul. Instead it was pungent and musky. By the way sniffing urine soaked snow is always a hit when out with kids. They never forget it.

I can deduce that this animal is a male just by the habit of the wild dog lifting its leg to pee. And I can also deduce that the alchemy of this sprinkling is more than waste. It includes a particular blend of volatile chemicals that might tell of breeding readiness, social status, and more.  There is a message in the pungent smell. This lone coyote is marking his breeding grounds and, or, his availability to any passing female who is approaching her estrus cycle when she can be bred.

Now, in the first two months of the year, there is a hormonal shift in coyotes, foxes and wolves. This is the one time of the year in which they seek company and breed. After a gestation period of a couple of months, the pups will usually be born in April or May.

I followed the tracks a little further but then came to another property line. Coyotes, like all wildlife, consider their home anywhere they can roam. Land ownership is a complicated legality practiced only by humans.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources report that most male coyotes roam an area of thirty six square miles. Females stick to a smaller piece of ground, usually no larger than six square miles. But on a given day they rarely move more than three miles. 

I was tempted to hike past human boundaries to see what other mysteries I might uncover about this lone male coyote. But in my rush to get on the trail I had intentionally left my snowshoes behind and now my post holing tracks in the snow could be interpreted as a slogging, tiring human. 

Besides, there was a half cup of warm coffee on the stove to finish and a full fridge to pilfer for a mid-morning prize of abundant calories. Tranquility regained.

Black Spruce Relics

I felt old as I leaned over a winter campfire fueled by a tree I planted myself. Spruce resins snapped and crackled. Embers arced into the cold air.

Staring into the fire I recalled the summer day when I kidnapped a pair of black spruce seedlings from a quiet thicket in the heart of the Canadian sub-arctic. I was near the northern edge of the tree line, known as taiga, where the trees are stunted. Not far to the north is the nearly treeless tundra.

A group of us had just finished paddling a remote, wild river that flowed to Hudson Bay.  At our last camp I had hiked inland for some solo time. I loved the blended smells of heather, dwarf Labrador tea and spruce. I wanted to bring that scent home. 

I knelt into the soft moss and extracted two small spruce that measured slightly longer than my boot sole. I wrapped the pliable roots in a handful of damp sphagnum moss and tucked both tiny trees in my day pack. When I returned to camp, I transferred the trees into the more cushioned confines of my larger Duluth pack.

I wanted a piece of the taiga. To me it signified remoteness. I also wanted to engage the seedlings in an experiment. What would happen when I planted the trees 1,000 miles south of this land of harsh, long winters and thick layer of underlying permafrost?  Would they thrive and explode in growth? Would they die?

Far north trees generally don’t grow tall or thick. The growing conditions are too tough. Winter winds blow sharp-crystalled snow that shears tree growth. An old tree might be no taller than fifteen feet.

Back home, I unpacked my dirty, smoke-tainted clothes and found my two spruce still alive in their moss wraps. I planted them eight feet apart out near our garden and poured each a bucket of water. I had no idea if the sandy soil I tucked them into harbored more or less nutrients than their birth place. I knew that black spruce prefer poorly drained soils. It is said they like “wet feet.”

Black spruce are a common tree in northern Minnesota swamps and lowlands. But they are not found in east central Minnesota where I live.

There would be no permafrost below their roots. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?  Perhaps the buried layer of ice plays a critical role in this tree’s health. 

Since I transplanted those little spruce, back in the mid-1980s, biologists have learned that spruce depend heavily on fungal mycorrhizal relationships to augment the transfer of nutrients to the plant. It is estimated that 90% of all plants have a fungal partnership. That means healthy soils, those not tainted with modern chemical inputs, are really a vast and critical network of lacy fungal threads.

Both trees survived, but growth was slow. I would have thought that without the shackles of severe winters the trees would have shown more rapid growth. Once I brought home thin cross sections of dead subarctic spruce and sanded them to make it easier to count the densely packed growth rings. I needed a magnifying lens to count the 80 rings. Eighty years to grow a two-and-a-half inch truck.

After 12 years one of the spruce died. What happened? The remaining tree hung on and did grow taller. Last year, in 2022, it died.  The tree never made it to 80 years. It never felt the smells and essences of the lonely land where it had first rooted itself. 

Recently, I went out to cut that last dead spruce down. Because it was a wilderness vestige, it seemed more honorable to cut it by hand rather than with my loud, smelly chain saw.

I measured the downed tree and it was just under twenty feet tall. So the tree did in fact grow taller here than it would have in the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

When I trimmed the branches away from trunk I spied a clue that might have contributed to the tree’s demise. Up and down the trunk were the distinct rows of boring patterns left by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Sapsuckers feed on hundreds of species of trees and in early spring the birds often choose maples, fruit and coniferous trees. The birds can unknowingly kill the tree by girdling the trunk which impedes the flow of sap to the roots.

Sapsuckers don’t live far to the north at the harsh edge of the tree line. When I planted the subarctic trees in outwash sand, I didn’t know what factors were essential for its survival.

It dawned on me that in my young naivety, I had made orphans of two tiny spruce. Pulled away from the protective thicket of their kin, I had made them experimental souvenirs and forced them to a foreign land where they had not evolved. I was responsible for shortening their potential. I’m older now and maybe, just maybe, a little wiser.

My spruce campfire’s flames were dying down and barely flickering. Strings of sparks rose into the air as I stirred the glowing coals. Some stories by indigenous peoples told of the ancestors’ spirits riding the sparks of campfires into the sky to mingle with the stars. I smiled watching the sparks drift northward on the breeze. 

Spruce shadows heading home.

Tally Ho. . .Tally No

When I have traveled to new destinations, particularly those that are tropical and lush, my kit has always included binoculars and a bird book of that region. My grown children often lampoon my habit of festooning myself with camera, binoculars and a ridiculously thick bird book (the one for Peru was nearly 700 pages covering 2,000 bird species). I will admit backpacking the Inca Trail in Peru at 14,000 feet above sea level with all this ridiculous avian-related baggage was a bit testy. 

Birding on canoe trips that involve paddling whitewater has always demanded I have waterproof protection for my field guides and binoculars. In the thousands of miles of paddling, I am pleased to report that I have ruined only one pair of binoculars.

Call me old-fashioned but I love keeping hand written bird lists from my various trips. These tallies are sometimes on a scrap piece of paper, a journal page or in its own pocket notebook. I do keep track of the scores of bird species that I have seen on our property. I am a late bloomer to using the electronic means of compiling a bird list, such as eBird.

All these trip lists are scattered throughout the house, tucked away in books, file folders or heaven knows where. Organization of journal and bird notes is not a strength of mine. However, the discovery of a wrinkled and torn bird list serving as a maker in a shelved book can brighten my day, so I continue with this practice of surprise discoveries. 

Through my thirty years of working with the Science Museum of Minnesota I have had great travcl opportunities. I have experienced some remarkable birding locations in the world. These include remote areas in Peru, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, South Africa, Mexico, the Hudson Bay lowlands, the Arctic and many state birding hotspots. More than once folks have asked me how many birds species have I tallied for my life list. 

My quick response in answering the question about my life list is, “I have no idea.” I’m not a “life lister.”

I would rather pause and watch a particular bird and note its behavior than put a check mark by its name and hurry to garner another new bird. Besides I would need to collect and compile all my scraps with scribed bird lists.

Less than a week ago we returned from an amazing trip to Vietnam. I had never been there before. Luckily, I had managed to avoid a US Army paid trip there in the late 60s and early 70s by hitting the books and pursuing a college degree. The college deferment combined with a moderately safe lottery number kept me from being drafted.

This was the first trip to an exotic destination that I chose not to carry binoculars or any type of field guide. It wasn’t an easy decision but I wanted to travel light and I did not want to be the dawdling anchor when traveling with other family members who are not really birders. (I’m really trying to change that by indoctrinating grandchildren.)

Without binocs and bird field guides, I managed to spot and identify a handful of birds with the help of my iPhone. While paddling in a surreal landscape on the Ngo Dong River in the  Ninh Bin province, we passed an aptly named species of grebe called the little grebe. Swimming near the shoreline, these small nondescript birds were quite common. I also glimpsed a kingfisher perched over the river. I later learned that there are a dozen species of kingfishers in the country. 

While visiting Phu Quoc, the southernmost island in Vietnam and the fish sauce capital of the country, I saw an adult white-bellied sea eagle. Similar in size to our bald eagle, it soared overhead with its wingspan easily six feet. With its totally white head and underside, it was quite stunning. 

While cruising through the sharply rising limestone islands of Ha Long Bay, there were numerous slender raptors swooping over the water. It didn’t take too much phone work to identify these as black kites. Wonderfully adept at combining arcing swoops, hovers and climbs, these raptors were entertaining.

The night before we were to head back on the long flight home, we found a dark small bar down a side street in Hanoi. Inside, it was very quiet and intimate. The only lights were twinkling from a small artificial Christmas tree. Otherwise the half dozen tables and bar top were lit only by candles. It was here that I tallied my last bird of the trip off the menu.  Titled “Jungle Bird” the cocktail was a perfect nightcap. It was a blend of rum, Campari and pineapple juice swirling around a large cube of ice.

Cheers to an amazing trip, a handful of new birds and a gentle and kind people.

Northwoods Confusion

“I’ve never been lost, but I was mighty turned around for three days once.” –Daniel Boone

No month says “It’s pie season,” like November, the month of Thanksgiving feasting.  So it was fitting that early this November, up at the beloved old deer shack, on the edge of the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota, that I had a big piece of “humility pie.”

Five of us veteran shack visitors made the trip this year. For perhaps the first time since 1940, there wasn’t a firearms deer hunter in the group. Instead, we were hunting grouse.

Saturday heralded the deer opener and we heard no rifle shots. In recent years deer have become mostly absent in this region. The combination of deep snow winters, predation by wolves, bears and coyotes, and an aging forest that is less diverse in its vegetation account for fewer deer.

Nels and I decided to spend the overcast afternoon looking for ruffed grouse and heading towards my old reliable deer hunting haunt, the Black-backed Knob.

We headed slowly up the drainage to the beaver dams, then arced around them to the Black Forest, below Raven’s Ledge. For roughly 80 years these landmark titles have been part of the shack lexicon. The place names are not found on any maps, but generations of shack dwellers coined names that simply stuck.

Nels and I are comfortable wandering across this chunk of land. Over scores of years we have come to know it quite intimately.

It was somewhere in the Black Forest, in the company of balsam fir, black spruce, and grand old white cedar, that Nels and I wended our way into a state of confusion. Funny thing is that both Nels and I moved wrongly together, without conversation, and with total acceptance.

Superior National Forest was established in 1909 and comprises over three million acres,  making it the largest national forest east of the Mississippi River. Its flavor is mostly boreal, dominated by spruce, fir, pine, aspen and birch with plenty of hazel and dogwood thickets. Lots of rock, miles of streams and countless clear lakes. It’s an easy place to feel small and humble. And it is an easy place to get lost.

Lawrence Gonzales, author of the excellent book Deep Survival: Who lives, Who dies and Why makes the point that decisions are often made by “bending the map.” In our case, both Nels and I felt we knew the area so well we could not become confused, so when we began to get frustrated we edited our perception of the situation so that it fit our assumptions. We started imagining that distant ridge-lines or ridge notches were familiar features when in fact they were not. What is startling is that we both agreed with each other and together we “bent the map.”

Finally, almost reluctantly, we agreed we should stop and check our compasses. In big country I carry a small fanny pack that contains some survival essentials: compass, whistle, lighter, stick matches in a waterproof case, pocket knife, cordage and a small loop of wire. Each of these components would be helpful if I should get lost or hurt and had to stay put until help arrived.

In disbelief, we both showed the other our compasses. The two instruments agreed on the direction of north and we realized that we were 180 degrees off from where we thought we were!

With the afternoon easing into its last hour we hiked uphill to the edge of a high escarpment. Looking far into the valley below us, Nels said, “There’s the river.” And peering over the edge, I added, “And there are the beaver ponds.” Somehow we had made our way to the top of Raven’s Ledge. Finally we knew where we were.

In the waning daylight, Nels and I made our way down a steep draw and through a low area to an old familiar trail that would lead us back to the warm shack.

When we were close enough that the bloom of candlelight drew us like moths towards the small glowing window, Nels asked, “Well, do we tell the guys we were lost?”

“Of course we do,” I immediately responded. “We weren’t really lost only slightly confused. And besides, we’re too old to really care what they might think. Also, this is a great lesson for all of us. Carry a compass. And even if the sun is shining, check the compass often and trust it.”

Soon we were inside the toasty shack sitting around the old homemade table that was built when the shack was erected. The stove had its quiet, soothing noises. The trio of candles put a warm light on our faces that diffused wrinkles and enhanced storytelling. Nels and I confessed our story. The others nodded in understanding. Others shared their own misadventures.

In a moment of silence I sighed and offered, “A slice of tart humility pie never hurt anyone.”

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