Foot Notes

Nels beginning the one and a half-mile section of the Lake Superior Hiking Trail that runs along the big lake.

“ Shall we take a walk?” 

And with that early morning query, Nels and I would swing our backpacks onto our backs, snug the belt straps tight over our hips, clasp the chest buckle and head out on the trail in dawning light. It was good to start out briskly. We were fresh after a long night in the sleeping bag and moving out warmed us up.

Breakfast would be earned after an hour and a half of hiking. We always tried to stop at a sunny spot, fire up the twig burner to heat water for coffee and oatmeal.

Vagabonds of a sort, we carried the necessities: a small twig burner stove, a single cooking pot, a spoon, bowl and mug, energizing meals, sleeping bags, pads, a single tarp for our shelter, a handful of extra clothes, rain gear, a map, a journal and a thin, small copy of the Mark Twain book, Puddinhead Wilson.

For ten days this became our ritual as we set off on our daily stroll to complete the last 105 miles of the 310 mile-long Lake Superior Hiking Trail. Standing atop the northern terminus of the trail we looked north into Canada, across the sinuous Pigeon River. Only three months earlier we had paddled canoes on that river as we headed to the Grand Portage.

While paddling in a canoe, you can afford the luxury of looking around as you move. Hiking over rugged terrain means you need to scan the ground just in front of you to assess the next few steps while simultaneously being very aware of where you plant your foot.

Each of our feet is built on a framework of 26 bones. Everywhere two bones meet there are joints, thirty three of them in each foot. Each is tied together by a complex network of muscles, ligaments and tendons. It was necessary to take good care of them.

For long stretches of the trail we did not talk at all. During this quiet stroll I couldn’t help but marvel at how a simple, but wonderfully complex, pair of appendages could help our human species spread from Africa, our species evolutionary birthplace, to trek to new lands all over the world. 

The trail we were on has steep climbs, descents, boulders, rocks, logs and mud. Sprawling tree roots, particularly spruce, entwine across the trail. We came to call these sections “snake pits.” Then there was the mile and a half of walking in beach gravel along Lake Superior. I find it a minor miracle that even under challenging walking conditions human feet operate smoothly most of the time.

The only time we could sightsee was when we paused. We did so frequently to note blazing fall maples, a moose track, bear shit, a fresh oyster mushroom, a nervous grouse, a palm warbler flitting down the trail ahead of us.

Blazing maples along the Poplar River valley.

At the end of each day’s trek, Nels and I would sigh as we untied and eased out of our hiking boots. It was blissful to peel away our socks, wipe and rub our feet and sometimes soak them in the cold water of a nearby creek or river Each night we would ascertain how the feet were doing. We noted any hot spots, where blisters painfully announced their potential for discomfort, and taped them the the following morning. 

We encountered plenty of day hikers and I counted over 40 other backpackers over the course of nearly two weeks. One of the backpackers, Sarah, a pixyish 29 year-old from the Twin Cities, trudged up the slope to our last campsite of the trip. Jeff,  another backpacker from Kansas City, had already joined us at the site. The young woman seemed spent. In short order, while she relaxed at our campfire, we learned that she had left the northern terminus of the trail just two days before. In the span of 48 hours her feet had carried 70 miles! And this was her first time backpacking. She had started the trip with the intent of doing the entire trail, unassisted, in less than seven days.

On the last morning of our hike, with our feet wearing strips of tape, we laced up our boots, settled into our backpacks and Nels predictably asked, “Well shall we take a walk?” I replied, “Why not.” We slipped quietly away from the campsite being careful not to wake up Sarah from her needed sleep. 

Firing up the twig burner for breakfast on the shore of Superior.

Quietly Cleaning Ears


Miss Nancy and I walked down the sloping bedrock to the lake’s edge to watch the final minutes of the sun’s descent into the boreal horizon. The lake was glass. We quietly took our seats on a log, that could just as well have been a church pew, and absorbed the complete silence and alpenglow.  Sitting still in the presence of a wild or almost wild setting washes me with a calmness and a sense of the sacred like nothing else can.

Being close to the end of summer in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, there was no end-of-the-day Swainson’s thrush symphony. No loon music. No trilling of tree frogs. The calendar is well beyond the chorus of a spring bird or frog breeding season where pleas and territorial declarations are noisy affairs. Out here I can put the raucous modern world on mute and  listen to the same silence experienced by the first peoples.

As the sun disappeared Miss Nancy quietly announced, “We’re washing our ears.”  With the inflection of a question, I repeated her declaration, “Washing our ears?”

 She shared that she had just read the description from the book she had brought along on the canoe trip. Titled, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, the author, Stephen Nachmanovitch, charges that “free play” is the essence of our being, something we were born with then strive to recapture.

Nachmanovitch often performed solo violin concerts. But what made them unique is that he improvised each concert. He had no planned playlist. Took no requests and had no agenda. He simply followed his heart and creativity at each performance. As a performing musician, sound in the form of music was his product. Nachmanovitch found it necessary to occasionally seek the silent places to “clean his ears.”

Silence is nearly an extinct experience. And for many, when they do experience the enveloping dominance of quiet, they become unnerved by it. 

“Cleaning our ears” swabs away the incessant infection of clatter and babel and allows us to tune into ourselves, humanity and natural systems. Priorities become more clear.

We live in a world of noise. While our electrical devices hearken us with appeals to buy, to not engage or to click “like,” the natural world, all on its own, reminds us not to grow distant. The further we move from the quiet beginnings of our own evolutionary path, the quicker we are blanketed by numbness and uncaring.

We have evolved to listen. . . to pay attention. Our survival depended on it. We have partnered and lived hand-in-hand with the noises of the natural world for more than 99% of our human history. I believe our need to seek silent places is as powerful as the need for a salmon to leave the ocean and return to its birth stream. 

There is no need to escape far into a wilderness to find serenity. It is important that we discover or create even small islands quietude. These are the places where we ponder things greater than us, where we nurture our sense of peace, and where we mine our imagination. Our thoughts and meditations need to be touched by the sound of rustling leaves, running or falling water, cricket and bird music.

As I write these words from our small screen house in the woods, I can hear the distant motorized thrum a quarter-mile away on a paved county road. As if on cue, a faint breeze has put the overhead tree leaves into a slight tremble that whispers “Hussssshhhhhh.”

Who is the teacher?

The phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out. It was a reach-out from son-in-law, Ben. I answered with a hello and he followed with what has become a consistent salutation.

 “Hi Opa. Eleanor has another nature question for you.”

 I smiled at the phone and felt a brief moment of Oh oh, what will it be this time?

Eleanor is my four-year old Pacific Northwest granddaughter. She absolutely loves her “school,” a nature-based preschool. And over the past year or so she will frequently reach out to ask me a nature question.

One week she phoned and asked, “Opa, are feathers found only on birds?”  I replied, “That’s right Eleanor. No other animal has feathers covering its body.”

Another call she queried, “Opa what is the fastest bird in the world?”  

Then there was the phone call asking about butterfly larvae. And yes, she used the word, “larvae.”

One morning call had me momentarily floundering. “Opa, what is fog?”

I stalled for seconds to gather my information in a manner that she could grasp. 

“ Great question,” I enthusiastically answered. “Do you see fog right now?”

“Yes it’s all over above the ocean.”

I’m thinking, Keep it simple Opa. This is no time to throw out words like sublimation or dew point. 

Another second passed and I said, “Well Eleanor, like the ocean, fog is water that floats in the air. It’s kind of like a really, really low cloud. Water is kind of magic because it can be hard like ice, it can be wet and liquid, like the ocean or rain, or it can be a gas, like a cloud.”

That was enough. She was satisfied and proceeded to report that they were on their way to the doughnut shop where she was going to get a doughnut covered in sprinkles. I wanted to say that “sprinkles” is a form of water but I didn’t.

Eleanor is a little sponge observing the world and then casting a fusillade of questions. I love it.

When Nancy, known as Nana, and I visited for nearly a month and a half last spring we had lots of discovery walks and chats with Eleanor

At one of the neighborhood playgrounds she confided that she dreamed of playing hide and seek with a chipmunk. I agreed and told her if she was super quiet and peaceful towards a chipmunk you never know what might happen.

On another morning I told Eleanor  about an old man, named Ragnar who lived most of his life far from any city or town up in Canada. When he turned 82-years old he had to travel hundreds of miles to see a doctor about his eyes. He had not been to a city for 59 years and he couldn’t wait to get back home in the wild forest and lake country far to the north.

I went on to share that Ragnar thought the people living in cities were not friendly. When he met them on a sidewalk they would not look at him, smile at him or even say “hello.” 

Eleanor quickly responded, “What if we ALL smiled and said “hello?”  So that morning we greeted and smiled at everyone we met. And it felt really good to warm and sometimes even startle strangers with a warm smile and greeting. And even though the news of the day might speak of a polarized society, I was coached by a four-year old that we are all more alike than different.

She told us about Teacher Cresten, the tall lumberjack looking young man who was the Preschool nature instructor. She bubbled about finding feathers and bugs on class walks with him.

One day she came home from preschool really excited to tell me that Cresten had taught the class the scientific name of Douglas fir. I was mightily impressed that a group of four-year olds were introduced to genus and species titles of anything. I never knew what a scientific name or what a genus and species was until I was in high school.

She was so excited to share what she had learned that her delivery of the scientific name was rushed and sort of garbled. I didn’t totally understand the genus name, but I did pick up the species name, menziesii. (The only reason I remember the scientific name of Douglas fir is that it is really fun to say. Pseudotsuga menziesii. Pronounced Sue-doe-suega  men-zee-see).

Then without thinking I smothered her bubbling enthusiasm. I made a major mistake in correcting her on the genus name. The look of pride and joy drained out of her face. Her confident smile melted and her eyes rained tears.

What was I thinking in snuffing her sharing and pride? Clearly I was not thinking. I scooped her up and squeezed her in a hug while explaining that I misunderstood her. I told her I was so proud of my little scientist.

Minutes later she was wondering how trees got so big. I told her how trees drink water from the ground through super tiny rootlets and eat sunshine through their leaves or needles.

Returning to the house for supper, Eleanor declared to her mother, “Mommy, it’s a good thing your dad is so smart.”

Those were words fluffed me up and assure I can die happy.

I knew my sins of correction were forgiven when later I  helped Eleanor get ready for the night ritual of bedtime reading. She had brushed her teeth and was brushing her hair. She paused, gave me an elfin smirk and thrust her hair brush up to my nose. 

“Smell it Opa. It smells like unicorn poop.”

And you know what? Of course it did.

Black Fly in my Eye

There’s a black fly in my eye. 

As I trod the portage with a canoe on my shoulders, I muttered to no one but myself. The bubbling melody of a winter wren did little to lift my spirits. Rapid eye blinking was failing to remove the mired fly. Multitudes of the bloodseekers swarmed my face while I tried to concentrate on my footing.  

A year ago, we paddled and portaged part of the 200-mile Voyageur’s Highway.  Four of us, Nels, Duane, Kurt and I had been about 150 miles into the trip when Kurt’s artificial hip  slipped out of its socket at the edge of Clove Lake on the Granite River. More than 12 hours later, he was canoed, flown and ambulanced out of the bush to Duluth where St. Mary medical staff successfully urged the union of ball and socket. (For more detail see last year’s blog entry.)

On the first day of June this year, we “Boyageurs” returned to Gunflint Lake to pick up where we had left off to complete the trip to Lake Superior. 

The Minnesota-Ontario section of the Voyageur’s Highway was a portion of the route that would take the voyageurs from Lake Superior up to northern Saskatchewan, Alberta and beyond. However, they dreaded the 200-mile stretch that ran from Lake Superior to Rainy Lake because it involved many portages. 

The evening before, we eased the canoes to shore at our last campsite at the head of the Pigeon River rapids known as the Cascades. Over 200 years ago, during the rich fur trade period, this was the western end of the historic eight and a half mile grand portage that ends at the shore of Lake Superior.  

After downing a hearty pot of spaghetti, we all agreed that this year’s 50-mile leg was more physically demanding than the previous year’s 150 miles. Last year we had some headwinds to paddle into but the portages were not that difficult. This year, we relished the pushing westerly breezes but had to deal with longer portages that included a two-miler, a one-miler and another that approached three-quarters of a mile. Not to mention the final grand portage that faced us the following morning.

Now, with the sun just climbing into the clear morning sky, we  hefted our packs and the two canoes and started the long portage. It was so cool we could see our breath and the temperature made the work of carrying loads more pleasant. As the day warmed the black flies were invigorated and seemed most urgent to find sanguinary sustenance.  

To make matters more challenging, spring winds had toppled a number of trees over the portage so we continually found ourselves bushwhacking around the windfalls or pushing the canoes through a jungle gym of tree limbs. Duane, whom we dubbed “Ole the Saw Cutter,” would pull his sharp-edged tool from it belted scabbard and cut trails through windfalls where it was feasible. We heard numerous “Uff das!”

With unusually high water this year some of the portages were muddy and even flooded. More than once we paddled the last segment of a forested portage out on to the lake. And halfway through the two-mile portage we had to load the canoes with our packs and paddle 150 meters of a beaver pond that had inundated the portage trail.

We marveled at the efforts of the early voyageurs and their ability to carry two ninety-pound packs over the long portage. Most were from French Canadian farming backgrounds and in their teens or twenties. 

I managed to blink away a tear that flushed the black fly hitchhiking in my eye. Through the morning, as we alternated carrying packs and canoes, I had time to think. 

I pushed discomfort aside by reciting the famed Robert Service poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee. 

“It wasn’t much fun.

But the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.”

I also tallied bird species by noting calls and songs. Away from the river’s edge, there were no northern waterthrushes singing. I heard the tinkling of the winter wren, numerous ovenbird stanzas and more. 

I quieted the pain in my left shoulder by thinking how this lonely trail had once been a thoroughfare of commerce when thousands of voyageur footsteps hurried along. 

Gratitude washed over me as I carried gear. On this day the interplay of good health, balance, strength and privilege played a role in my having the opportunity to be on this trail. 

I pondered the good luck of paddling, portaging and camping with three dear, young-spirited friends (average age is 70 and a half) who eagerly help each other and find joy in wild places.  

And of course I celebrated the fact that our lightweight Kevlar canoes had replaced the earlier aluminum and plastic boats of earlier paddling years. Even those boats would have been easier than a 300-pound birchbark North canoe used by the voyageurs. It felt ludicrous to grovel, snipe and whine about black flies, the warming day or the length of the trail.

A black-throated blue warbler sang nearby. As tempted as I was to seek it out for a look at this handsome songbird, I partnered with momentum and kept walking towards the distant big lake.

Not surprisingly my mindfulness was tested.  And once more I growled from under the canoe, “There’s a black fly in my eye.”

Oh I am a lucky man.

Taking a Walk

“Can you recall dear comrade,

when we tramped God’s land together,

And we sang the old, old Earth-song 

When we drank and fought and lusted, 

for our youth was very sweet;

as we mocked tie and tether,

Along the road to Anywhere, 

the wide world at our feet.”

  From the poem; "The Tramps" by Robert Service

Grandson Thomas is on the brink of walking. He grabs a nearby chair leg. A human leg. Or anything he considers stable and pulls himself up from the floor. He totters and then slides his hand along whatever bit of solid he can find, and takes tentative steps.

Each passing day there is less teetering, and one of these days he will take off. His smile will broaden as he learns fast walking and soon after that will be the joy of running. And his universe will expand as he effortlessly explores.

As a species, humans walked out of Africa. There was a point in our evolution when we stood up, lifting our knuckles from the ground, and began perfecting the art of walking. It allowed us to use our other two limbs, our arms, for other tasks such as carrying food, tools and children. 

Most healthy humans walk fairly effortlessly. There is no need to focus on our locomotion. Consequently our minds are free to concentrate on other things. 

The other day while walking a trail that switchbacks its way up to Pyramid Peak in Olympic National Park in Washington, I experienced a rush of gratitude for the ability to promenade over all kinds of terrain. 

On this morning my son-in-law, Ben, wife Nancy and I climbed through the temperate rainforest. It was a green world of moss-covered trees and an understory of sword ferns and sisal. 

An hour into our hike we had to cross a steep pitch on a bare avalanche slide. Nancy, still wearing a cast on her healing broken wrist, cautiously scuffled along the narrow goat path. 

More switchbacks followed and we passed underneath some hefty Douglas firs. These trees had likely shot up after this ridge was logged prior to this region becoming a national park in 1938.

Walking. I take the act for granted. As I climbed towards the summit on this cool morning, I found myself recalling one of the first days after we moved to the Yukon Territory in the spring of 2008. Friend Gerry had called us from his home in Whitehorse and asked, “You two settled in? You want to go for a walk?”

We were excited to get out on the land and Gerry knew some good hikes out our way. He suggested a stroll up Red Ridge. We loved the idea. An hour later Gerry pulled up.

It turned out that Gerry’s definition of a “walk” was an all-day outing. Luckily he had enough food to share with us after we finished our dry granola bars. After that day, we learned all future “walks” would require bringing far more calories and gear for rain or snow. Gerry is a beast hiker.

However, my all time hero of hikers was a Scotsman named John Rae. He was a lifetime Hudson’s Bay Company man having signed on in 1833 as a surgeon. His feats of walking and snowshoeing thousands of miles from the Arctic Ocean to what would become northern Minnesota are beyond superlative. Rae’s stamina, ability to persevere and resilience made it possible to travel on foot and by canoe more than 23,000 miles in his years of exploration. He was able to do this because he adopted native ways in moving light and swiftly. He used his hunting and fishing skills and adopted indigenous practices in camping and clothing. 

As we gained elevation the temperature dropped and we were hiking through four inches of snow. With the steeper trail, we talked less. I listened to my duet of exhalations and heartbeats. 

By the time we reached the summit of Pyramid Peak, we had walked four miles and gained nearly 3,000 feet. 

We emerged from the trees and found a simple wooden cabin under the blue skies. It was built during WWII, in 1942, as an aircraft warning lookout point. It would serve for two years as a spotter station watching for potential Japanese aircraft entering air space on the USA west coast. 

The hut no longer has any glass windows or a door to keep the elements out.  We avoided the gusting winds by hunkering inside away from any openings and ravenously ate our packed lunches. We couldn’t help poking our heads out the vacant windows to enjoy stunning views of Crescent Lake below us. Peering to the horizon from our high vantage, we were captivated by the layers of mountain peaks.

After eating, we were hurried by the swirling winds rushing inside the old shelter. We began the descent back to the car. The walk down was much faster, less meditative and more social.  I couldn’t help but wonder if this outing would have even counted as a warm-up for John Rae. 

Nonetheless he would have nodded his approval of getting out enjoying the old Earth-song as we explored the trail to Anywhere.

Note: We flew from Tacoma back home to Minnesota and learned that same night that little Thomas had taken his first legitimate walk across the vastness of the home living room. And so it begins. 

The Mountain’s Out

Folks living in the Seattle-Tacoma area often acknowledge a clear day with a simple, “The mountain’s out.” The nuanced winter fogs and rains of the region often hide Mount Rainier from view so it’s a bonus when the famed peak is witnessed.

On a clear day, Rainier is visible 100 miles away. At over 14,000 feet in elevation, the dormant volcano, the largest in the United States, is a feature worth noting.

With the help of weather apps Miss Nancy and I found a window where sunshine was supposed to dominate and we made a day trip up to the famed Paradise area off one of the shoulders of Mount Rainier.

On May 8, 1792 George Vancouver spotted the distant mountain. He was the navigator for the British Royal Navy engaged in the difficult task of surveying the Pacific shoreline of North America from 1790-95. The team of two ships wended their way through the channels and islands of the area that the local indigenous called “whulge.” Vancouver titled it Puget Sound after his Second Lieutenant Peter Puget.

Like most colonizers he christened natural features like rivers, bays, points of land and mountains with an English title.

After spying the mountain Vancouver made a brief note merely describing it as “a round, snowy mountain.”  He was unaware or simply didn’t care to find out that it already had a title. For thousands of years previous to his “discovering” it the Puyallup people called the grand mountain “taquoma.”

Vancouver named the peak Rainier, after his good friend Rear Admiral Peter Ranier. Ironically, in his lifetime, Mr. Rainier never saw the mountain nor did he ever see the Pacific Northwest.

We filled our day packs with various layers of clothes, water bottles and food and drove out of Tacoma for our ascending two-hour drive. Upon leaving the car behind us we strapped on snowshoes and grabbed  three hiking poles equipped with snow baskets. We only needed three as Miss Nancy was fitted with a cast over her left forearm and hand. Two weeks earlier she had broken her wrist at the 21 kilometer point in a planned 50 K cross country ski workout. Before heading out in the four inches of fresh snow over the deep base, I helped her tug a long black sock over her exposed finger tips and cast.

The first white settlers in this area were the Longmire’s. In 1853 they had traveled west from their Indiana home in a wagon train led by James Longmire. Local lore claims that upon viewing the open park like high country festooned with colorful wildflowers Virinda Longmire, wife of John, exclaimed, “Oh what a paradise!” The name stuck.

The fresh snow softened everything and put us in the bliss of hush. Steadily we climbed up through scattered islands of subalpine fir trees. The trees were the only forms of visible life other than splashes of lichens on exposed rock.  Higher up, we lost our sunshine and could see a wall of gray, intimidating weather elbowing its way into our sunny day.

Steadily we climbed and finally faced a steep pitch that reminded both of us of the famed “Golden Staircase” on the historic Chilkoot Trail near Skagway Alaska.

The sharp incline prevented us from snowshoeing straight up the grade. Switchbacking back and forth, we stitched our way up with frequent stops to catch our breath.

Halfway up, Nancy slipped slightly and declared that with one arm mostly useless  she was not willing to go any further. She urged me to continue on up and said that she would slowly make her way back down.

You would think that approaching 8,000 feet above sea level would not be a big deal, but as a bonafide Upper Midwest flatlander, my lungs were breathing big. Nearing an area called Palisade Vista, the snow was more wind blown making it icier.  Now I was slipping and I stepped firmly to engage the toothed metal crampons affixed to the snowshoes.

In the early 20th century, Floyd Schmoe, a local guide, instructed adventurous clients on the best way to prevent sliding down Pinnacle glacier. “Just sit loose. Let nature take its course. But don’t roll or you might get hurt. If you start rolling, flatten out on the snow. Spread eagle and the snow will stop you.”

I thought of that advice and within a minute made the smart decision not to “bend the map” and go on all by myself. I carefully turned around and began the trip back by breaking a new trail to more easily control my descent.

Just last July I had climbed nearby designated trails through amazing collages of mountain flowers. Avalanche lilies, bog gentian, mountain heather, bistorts and so many more colorful blooms surrounded our promenade. Now, in winter, the primary color is the lack of color. White dominates with the occasional gray rock outcrop. The dormant flowers are seasonally buried under more than fifty feet of snow. Yes. Fifty.

Approaching our starting point I met an older woman who was snowshoeing up. She was making her own trail rather than following snow broken by earlier hikers. We had a short chat. In her German accent she informed me that she has lived down near the park entrance gate for 32 years. She told me of her love of hiking in this high country. I politely asked if she would mind sharing her age. “I’m 85.”

Later, I rejoined Nancy back at the parked car. We shared tales of our day. I was most amazed by two power women. One, a game lovely lady, who cast or no cast, was more than willing to go exploring on a stark but lovely landscape and the other an impressive, exuberant, 85-year old role model.

Surrender to Wonder

And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

-Matthew Chapter 18 vs 3

We gave our granddaughter, Eleanor, a small microscope for her 4th birthday. When she put her eye to the eyepiece and focused in closely on a flower, she gasped. There it was, that burst of wonder that cements indelible moments like this into our memories. 

I never tire of pushing the drug of discovery. Because once addicted to discovery we cannot help but explore and learn. 

Eleanor’s one-year-old brother, Thomas, is at the point of his life where he is barraged with wonder and first time discoveries. I am enthralled at his wide-eyed stare at a small rubber ball gripped in his hand. Such a simple marvel. 

We might be the only species that can gasp over a fiery sunset, a tanager at our bird bath or a stunning panorama. Photos can give us such a feeling but they don’t have nearly the same impact as encountering the moment.

We can all recollect those kind of “drop-to-your-knees” moments. My forehead is wonderfully scarred with a lifetime of what I call “wow” wrinkles. These corrugated ridges are the earned stripes of a life well surprised. 

These are not to be confused with the very similar markings of a scowl. But there is a difference: A scowl usually involves an angry cleft between the eyes. 

To check out the health of your wrinkles, stand in front of a mirror and let loose a wide-eyed “Wow!” There, did you see the excited skin on your forehead surge? If you have them, wear them proudly because they illustrate a lifetime of spontaneous “wows.” And that is a privilege.

Many theologians believe religions start from a place of wonder. I agree; when faced with a stunning moment of beauty or discovery there is an associated sense of reverence. And always after fully surrendering to wonder I whisper or shout out my own song of gratitude.

People need to be touched by unbridled wonder to really care for and appreciate the natural world. We need voices to sing praises for those sacred natural systems that make our lives possible. 

It’s time to head outdoors to engage with the morning and hopefully give my wrinkles a good workout.

Otter Play Lesson

River otter sketch from sketchbook of famed naturalist/wildlife biologist, Olaus Murie.

With a fresh skiff of snow, it was time to get outside to play. I quickly rubbed in a thin layer of green (cold weather) wax over the kick zone of my classic cross country skis and headed out. Twenty minutes later I skied out on to the white expanse of Horseleg Lake. Conditions were perfect and even though I didn’t have a groomed trail, it was delightful striding down the lake.

Up ahead of me I spied four trails of tracks converging towards me. Approaching the snow paths, the imprint appeared as a winter morse code with a long dashes, interspersed with two pairs of punched dots.  A few more strides and I glided to a stop over the tobogganing tracks of river otters.

I smiled, remembering a bitter cold hike with a University mammalogist up in Itasca State Park during a Christmas Bird Count back in the mid 1970s. I was engrossed with his tracking knowledge, particularly in identifying small mammal tracks. He became excited when we came across the track of an otter sliding through the woods. He pointed and said, “Otter tracks are like the front of a 1967 Pontiac. . . .the pushing pair of back feet resemble the stacked pair of headlights and the slide through the snow is the grill of the car connecting the other pair of headlights.”

The lake tracks I studied were clearly laid out. Each stretching glide over the snow was interspersed by two or three pushes with their feet. Sliding in snow is more efficient than continual loping on short legs.

The foot print itself is broader than a fox, more the size of a smaller coyote. Like other members of the weasel family there are five distinct webbed toes on each foot. The back foot is slightly larger than the front and I could make out the distinct rear foot toe that sticks slightly out to the side.

Was this quartet of mustelids a family group of now nearly full-grown otters? Or was it just a bunch of cronies out for a slide?

I decided to follow their path. It’s always exciting to find fresh tracks because you absolutely know that at the end of those tracks is a live animal. And in following and reading the tracks you get a snapshot of their lives. You can learn things such as the track-makers behavior and rate of travel.

The four trails converged, leaving the unbroken lake surface to disappear into the bordering wall of thick dried cattails. To navigate the dense cover, I had to get out of my skis and make my way slowly through the snapping and breaking cattails. 

I didn’t have to go far before I found a saucer-sized hole in the ice not far from the snow-covered dome of a muskrat house. A stain of mud rimmed the hole and bending closer I spied what looked like a twig but was a small jointed leg of a crayfish. Otter food. 

So what appeared as a playful slide across the lake was in fact a commute of sorts to a food source. Wildlife biologists and naturalists have noted that the incidence of otter play, fooling around wrestling with each other or sliding down a bank and in the snow, is more likely when they have an abundance of food. It makes sense. Low food resources or other stresses results in less energy to waste in playful activities.

A few years ago while winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, I had the opportunity to watch an otter emerge from a dark section of open water where a stream entered the lake. The slender predator had a small fish in its mouth. A second otter soon slipped out of the water and pushed itself close to the successful angler. The otter with the fish quickly chewed and swallowed the fish.  Both otters began to roll over and over in the fresh snow. They vigorously rolled and shook the snow off and finished with another snow roll. 

Even though the air temperature was around zero, the fluffy snow serves as a thick towel of sorts to wick the water off the brown guard hairs of the otter. Beneath the glossy guard hairs is the soft dense layer of oily underfur. Underfur, like the down feathers of a chickadee, trap air and serve as an ideal insulating layer.

The otters loped to the sloped shoreline and lunged up the shoreline hill. One otter wheeled and pushed itself down the hill. The second followed and soon they resembled kids repeatedly climbing a slide and sliding down to repeat it again and again. This was not hunting behavior. It looked to me like sheer play. 

When defining what constitutes “play,” there are a handful of factors to meet. First, according to  University of Tennessee ethologist, Gordon Burhardt, “the action of play doesn’t serve a functional purpose and is performed solely for pleasure.” Burghardt is clear that play is valuable and significant in the development of young animals. Adult animals will also engage in play but it could originate from boredom or simply pleasure.

Clearly, play hones motor skills, strengthens cardiovascular systems, and enhances social communication and bonds. 

Now two weeks later, those benefits of play remind me of the need on this cold, sub-zero day to step back into skis with my wife, Nancy, to get out and have fun in the snow. Move the body, breathe big, enhance bonds

Humbug Adjustment

I could find no photograph of a humble pie.

I have received some constructive comments about my Humbug Santa blog post. Clearly I am guilty of “ableism.” At this moment in my life I am in good health and retired. That means I can physically rake, shovel and split wood, and have the time to do so. I certainly did not want to offend any readers who for one reason or another are unable do these tasks. My list was just that, “my list. ” These were items that do not necessarily inspire me.

After a big snowfall, I am exceedingly grateful when my neighbor swings down my driveway with his plow and cleans us out. I’m no fool when it comes to accepting the generous gift of helping out.

And I have been thinking of the no tattoo request. I recognize they are an art form and many, including my daughter’s tattoo, are beautiful. Years ago, after a High Arctic canoe trip, I had the opportunity to visit with some local Inuit people. I have fond memories of a smiling older woman bearing facial tattoos. Like generations before her she did not tattoo herself because it was a fad. My reasoning for “no tattoos” failed to take into account cultural mores and norms. At this moment in my life I simply don’t want one.

And please know, if I am at your home and you offer me a cup of espresso coffee, I will take the steaming mug gratefully. I simply don’t want the coffee maker and to be honest I don’t have room for one.

Really all I want for Christmas is to lighten my impact on healthy natural systems. My grandkids’ future depends on it.

My Humbug Santa

The holiday season is here. Our Christmas tree, made from grape vine that Miss Nancy wrapped around a tipi framework of buckthorn, sits on the bay window and is decorated and lit. As usual, a tailless bobwhite quail (my one-and-only attempt at taxidermy over 40 years ago) perches as an avian angel atop the Yule tree.

My oldest grandchild, Eleanor, age 4, shared her interesting Christmas gift list of three items which includes a magnifying glass and a book. How cool is that?? The third item, a pink computer, does not excite me so much.

I don’t have a list of things I want, I have a list of things I absolutely DO NOT want.  Note that the following list is not served up in any order. And while this list was quickly thought up, I am sure I could add more.

If anything, I would request more good cheer for all humanity. I would ask Santa to back off on his full gift sack theme and instead preach that more stuff means an increased strain on the free natural systems that allow us to enjoy the holidays. You know, the systems that control floods, create healthy soils, give us clean water and air, and absorb human-caused carbon from the sky.

Last night we had our first ever Minnesota December tornado and I am fairly confident it is tied to human propensity to add more carbon into the sky. So by creating more stuff, like plastics and synthetic schlock, we tarnish the priceless gifts of the natural world.

I would have to fake a smile and hide my shudder if I got one of these items:

1)  Espresso Machine

It’s noisy, Has zero ambience. I would take a cowboy coffee made over a campfire any day. Yes, any day, and that includes a sub-zero setting.

2. Tattoo

While some can be quite artistic I can’t think of any reason at all to have one of these. I have no need to draw attention to myself. And tattoos seem too much like a fad and I’m not a fad kind of guy. And while I have a reasonably high threshold of pain, why subject myself to more when I don’t have to?  

3 Leaf blower

This is one invention that folks have really drunk the kool-aid over. Again the noise is abhorrent. Give me a rake anyday. No noise, powered only by my muscles. Consequently a rake fulfills a task while keeping me away from any health clubs. Which brings up my next “don’t gift me” item.

4. Snow blower

Egads another machine with its diet of gas, oil or electricity. Sure it can clean up a blizzard but in doing so it assaults my hearing and sense of smell. And like the leaf blower, it robs me of a physical workout. A snow shovel stores easily on the wall of the garage instead of taking up half a stall.

Last week it took me an hour and a half to push the fresh snow off our long driveway, but I got to breathe deeply of fresh air and fully earned a hearty lunch and relaxing read in front of the kitchen fire.

5. Membership to a health club

It would trouble me to go out, start a car and drive to a workout gym. I can walk, jog, ski  or ride a bike from my own house and then, on the same day, cut, split and wheelbarrow firewood. I prefer to live a lifestyle in which I use my muscles and stay fit.

6. Harley Davidson Motorcycle

While any motorcycle would make me unhappy, a Harley would be horrific. My hearing is already compromised and why offend others with this noisy assault? It’s offensive to fine pork to call this two-wheeled noise fest a “hog.”

I could emulate a good friend who bought his first Harley after a lifetime of owning motorcycles labelled  Honda, BMW, Triumph and Indian. He ordered his “hog” with a muffler. He wanted the Harley but he hated the noise. The dealer looked at him as if he was confronting an alien. I respect that.

But as I consider shunning a Harley I could always take an electric one (yes, they do make them) and then I could sell it and use the money to get a real bike: a full-suspension carbon frame mountain bike.

7. Boat and motor

I’m a canoeist. I paddle, not motor. The canoe is quieter than the boat and motor. Four stroke engine or not, it makes noise, requires a trailer, fuel and maintenance.  The only boat I might consider, and that’s a big “might” would be a john boat and moderate motor to use for fishing on the St. Croix River.

 8.  ATV 

There is a pattern here. I really try to stay clear of noisy machines that require fuel, oil and maintenance. I cringe at the idea of even owning one. Perhaps as I age I will need one to clean snow off the driveway, haul firewood or pull in a hunted deer, but for now a rousing “no thanks.” And if I do submit, I’m hoping I can get an electric option.

I prefer receiving and giving shared experiences. And best of all if they include wild lands, a campfire and a starlit night.

So Santa, pay attention!

I hope all of you readers have a safe, healthy and memorable Holidays!

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