From Quiet to the Big Noisy

Over the past three weeks I have been putting in many hours, particularly those bookending dawns and dusks, perched in various trees. As an archer trying to bag a deer, I’ve tried my best to become one with the tree.   Mostly these arboreal ambushes have been a series of silent retreats. Even though I haven’t had a shot yet, I have relished banking heavy doses of quietude. 

I break the creed of quiet when I hiss at a nearby red squirrel that is scolding my presence. Or I might blow a series of deep grunts as I halfheartedly try to challenge any bucks that might be within hearing distance. Ideally a buck would amble towards me to see what amorous intruder might be in his thicket. Mostly I maintain a silent vigil.

My mind wanders to arenas where I rarely venture. Lately I have wondered about the interplay of a swirling breeze and a lingering withered leaf gripping its summer berth on a naked twig. The wind will ultimately reign victorious in pulling the dry shard from its parent tree. But why are the neighboring parched leaves not shuddering? For the moment they are still. But if they follow the seasonal script of death and decay, their destiny will eventually be the same as the shivering leaf. Is the solo leaf shuddering only because of the physics of the passing air? Or is it the architecture of a wrinkled leaf? Or both? Or none of those factors. 

This is only one of the things I ponder while a baseball-shaped conk pokes into my lower back. The fungal jab provides the necessary discomfort to stave away any urge to doze. It’s imperative that I cannot get too comfortable or I won’t be able to pay keen attention . 

The pressure to add venison to our winter larder was lessened a couple of weeks ago when Miss Nancy arrowed a big doe. She had already filled much of the freezer with her summer gardening efforts. After butchering we canned seven quarts of venison and the rest we wrapped and stowed in the freezer  

Tranquility partners with me when I sit inside the log walls of the small cabin I built. Not only do the red pine logs block out noise but there are no operational clicks, buzzes or hums of electric appliances that effectively hijack silence inside the conventional home. 

I relish silence and yet rarely experience blanketing quietude. We live awash in noises that range from barely imperceptible to intolerable. We can’t avoid it. As our species has become more urbanized and “cyber-connected,” silence is a rare commodity. The constant thrum of daily living becomes more normal. 

When Miss Nancy and I spent extended periods of time in the Yukon Territory at our beloved Outpost, we came to meet a precocial three-year-old boy named Juneau. Juneau and his parents were neighbors of sorts. They lived 16 miles further down the gravel road. Their house, a stone’s throw from the Wheaton River and in the winter shadow of Anderson Mountain (no relation), was more of a cabin. It was small, totally off-grid and far from the rush of traffic and city noises. 

Juneau’s mother Rose was born and raised in New York City. After returning from his first ever odyssey to her hometown, he told us about his visit to what he called “the Big Noisy.” He preferred talking about how good red squirrel stew was as a favorite supper.

Tomorrow I fly to Tacoma to spend some time with my daughter, her husband and two grandkids. Silence, during waking hours, will be a rarity. Amidst the banter of make-believe, potions, and oh-so-much-dancing and singing, the space will be punctuated with squeals, owl calls,caterwauling, howls and expected bouts of overtired wails. At such moments I will display the amazing ability for humans to adapt and I will cherish the familial noise while simultaneously reaching into my vault of stillness for the necessary balance. 

Because I need both.

Bur Oak Elders


Head down, I strolled beneath the centenarian-plus bur oaks reside along the city streets elders of my hometown North Branch. My intention on this lovely evening was to collect bur oak seeds (acorns) from what I call the “North Branch heritage trees.” I was  searching for only the most robust and unscathed acorns from bur oaks that had a girth well beyond my own. These elder trees were part of the now extremely rare oak savanna that was growing here before North Branch was incorporated in 1881.

These trees are loyal providers of shade, beauty and sustenance, but they will die. I fear that future city decision-makers will remain blind to honoring the tree that set roots here first.

The most rotund acorns were from the bur oaks found on the block where I lived until third grade. These were easy to pick since they had fallen on the asphalt of the Methodist church parking lot. Some of them had settled in cracks where they sat like a perfect row of tomatoes in the grocery produce section. I wondered if these especially healthy looking acorns were more blessed by growing where they can hear the tunes of hymns sprinkled with prayers?

In his most informative book, Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, Welby Smith writes, “Bur oak is the most common and ubiquitous oak in Minnesota.” It has me wondering why the red pine (Pinus resinosa) was selected as the state tree. Don’t get me wrong, red pine are lovely and I have just built a log cabin whose walls are red pine, but I would vote for a long-lived tree that wears the title “most ubiquitous oak.”

These oaks are the easiest of oaks to identify with the broad upper leaf with deep cut lobes. The acorns are capped with a bur of fringes unlike any other acorn.

I am puzzled why a spruce tree imprint was used on the North Branch freeway overpass. The spruce is a fine tree in a boreal setting, but in these parts it is entirely introduced rather than native.  The ground of east-central Minnesota is genius at growing oaks.

Sadly, homeowners rarely plant bur oaks in their yards. Instead, following our human nature of being sorely impatient, they lean towards a faster growing tree that will more quickly give them shade.

I argue that planting a bur oak, with its adaptations to cope with drought would be a smarter choice given the direction the climate is going. Besides, the bur oak is sturdier than most and can better withstand severe storms to assure future generations of dependable shade. 

I took my small bag of acorns home and tried three methods to keep the lineage of North Branch heritage oaks going. I strolled out in our 3-acre prairie and cast small handfuls into the native grasses and forbs.  I suspect that many of these broadcast acorns will be prized by foraging rodents.

With a lesser number of acorns, particularly the rotund Methodist ones, I stabbed a trowel two inches into the ground, tucked in an acorn, and pinched the soil back together to cover the seed.

I  planted other acorns in pots to bring indoors sometime in November, to plant out next spring.

I dispersed over 80 acorns, but if I get half a dozen oak seedlings to emerge next spring, I will be quite happy.

For the moment the simple act of planting was enough. I find great contentment in knowing that perhaps one of these acorns will stand strong in another 200 years.

Muscle Car

Easing up to the stoplight, I was startled to hear a staccato of loud pops as a svelte, wannabe-sports-car pulled up in the lane next to me. I looked over at the loud pronouncement.

The driver was sitting low in his seat so all I could see was his tousled hair sticking out from his ball cap. He looked over at me. Was that a slight smile or a sneer? He gave a subtle head toss aimed in the direction we were faced. The message was clear. “Want to go?” The question was accented with a sharp second volley of pops from his steed. I could not answer his car’s tinny challenging call with an engine that runs closer to mute.

I never had a muscle car until now. As a teen if you had a muscle car you could turn heads, particularly female ones.  As for me, I drove a six-cylinder 1963 Comet. That little pale green Buick did not turn heads. 

The Comet flared out when I was a freshman in college so I bought a four-year-old blue-green ’65 Ford Mustang. The $750 car was in excellent condition with 36,000 miles on it. It was not powered by the more common snappy eight- cylinder, 289 cc engine. Instead, it charged down the highway with the help of a mighty six-cylinder engine with an automatic transmission. I didn’t even have to think about shifting. I tried to macho it up  with four shiny baby moon hubcaps and installed a wood steering wheel. Man that car could purr. 

So it seemed only fitting that a year ago, when our 2004 Prius edged towards 300,000 miles we decided to go “muscle car.” And the new muscle car on the street is unequivocally the electric car. 

Two words make it such a hot car: instant torque. The fast acceleration is made possible by the electric current combined with magnetic fields in the motor powering each pair of wheels. A gas engine takes much longer to combust gas and turn the crankshaft.

We started our research and talked to folks who either had one or knew more about electric cars than we did. Ultimately we chose the electric vehicle (EV) that currently gives the best range per charge and that was a Tesla. The greater impetus was to lessen our household carbon footprint. It was just over a year ago that we silently drove a Model Y home. 

While the up-front cost was far more than I had ever paid for a car, we will save significant money during the course of its life. The two primary maintenance items will be replacing wiper blades and tires. No dollars will be spent on an exhaust system, radiator, water pump, timing belt, transmission, gas or oil, and more. We will not have to replace our brakes nearly as often since the car uses regenerative braking which creates electricity the second you let your foot off the accelerator. Best of all there will be zero tailpipe emissions. 

We “fill” our car by charging it at home with off-peak wind-generated electricity.  The first month we charged at home our off-peak bill was $12. Since then our highest monthly bill has been around $20. If we had good southerly exposure we could charge it with sunshine collected by a photovoltaic system. 

As with all vehicles there are emissions released in the manufacture of EVs. People who are concerned with the use of cobalt and the rare earth minerals will be glad to know that Tesla is going to zero-cobalt batteries and other EV manufacturers have cut cobalt use by 70 percent. 

According to a recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, EVs will be cost competitive with combustion-engine cars by 2022. The trend is due to the plunging price of EV batteries. In addition, the cost of renewable energy is drastically falling.

The cleanest unit of energy is the one that is not used. But we are still going to need energy. So where do we get it?  In order to drive down carbon emissions and attempt to slow the climate crisis, we need to move quickly to renewable energy sources. Throughout human history, energy transitions have never been easy. Whether it was steam power, coal, oil, nuclear and solar power, there are segments of the population that are resistant to the change.  Consequently change is ponderous.

We tested the range of the electric car when we drove from Minnesota to Tacoma, Washington for Christmas. The heavy battery is under the floor of the car so it is close to the road. Consequently the car handles curves and quick moves like a darting red squirrel. 

We learned much. Our fears about running out of power were set aside. We asked the car, “Navigate to Tacoma” and a map of our route appeared on the screen that resides alone on the dash. It showed all the Tesla Supercharger stations on our route. We assumed that we would be charging the battery fully at each stop. Not necessary. The car tells you how much you need to charge to get to the following charging station. Only once, in the long open country of Montana did we feel a niggle of anxiety when a message appeared on the screen that told us we had to drop our speed by 5 mph to get to the next charging station. We made the adjustment and got there with 4% of a charge remaining. 

Our average time charging the car was 20 minutes. Admittedly that is slower than filling a gas tank, but after a couple of days of traveling Nancy and I realized the gift in the longer breaks. Not only did it allow plenty of time for a bathroom or snack break, but it had us taking a brisk walk or short jog. After a day of driving, our bodies felt much better with the periodic exercise.  

The average cost for charging was $10. In summertime we can expect to get about 315 miles with a fully charged battery. As with traditional gas powered cars, efficiency drops in the winter. 

We were nervous about going over the mountain passes in winter. We encountered a couple inches of slush and while we carried chains we did not need them. The car handled wonderfully. Some people worry about really cold weather and EVs. In northern Canada, two Yukon Territory acquaintances drive EVs and they have had no problems. 

 Back at the stoplight, I waited for the signal to turn green. 

I struggled with my decision to give the “the kid” a sobering lesson on what instant torque was all about. I decided  this was not the place for such a duel. I was not willing to be party to a traffic violation or a potential accident.   

I politely smiled, gripped the steering wheel and raised two fingers in greeting. The light turned green and his explosive farewell was a lingering cloud of exhaust that rose to merge with a civilization’s legacy of denial and inaction.

Note: Feel free to contact me if you have Tesla questions. And if you do choose to buy one, the following link and referral code will garner each of us 1000 free Supercharger miles.

Keeping Company with an Old Tree

I’m partial to white pines.

When I go to bed each night I sleep in a house framed in old growth white pine lumber built by my great-great grandfather in the late 1800s.  Recently, I felt compelled to reacquaint myself with an old living pine friend. It was a foggy early morning when I hopped on my mountain bike and headed to the matriarch white pine, a half mile from our house.  

The thick trunked pine has been a giant landmark ever since I was a kid.  She grows in a scrubby narrow strip that once harbored a barbed wire fence denoting farm borders. The fence is long gone but the tree remains robust. Flanked by open land, it has been tormented and tested by winds that have ravaged lesser trees. The silhouette of this tree is not the typical white pine with a tapering terminal summit. This one wears a truncated canopy, likely the result of the wind’s barbering of the top. When a tree’s apex is sheared, the lower limbs grow more bushy and start curving skyward.

I laid the bike down in the pine needle duff below the thick arcing lower limbs. I counted 22 smaller white pines of various ages, growing within twenty yards of the mother trunk. Each of these is likely progeny from the overhead giant. Recent science has shown that a parent tree’s roots and accompanying fungal strands are in communication with the offspring.  

I walked around the tree, assessing my squirreling route. My first steps would be on the heavy low limbs. Each of these limbs carries more girth than most whole trees. At fifteen feet up I still could not begin to encircle the thick trunk with my arms.  

I have a vivid memory of climbing high in this very tree as a youngster. Back then this land I looked over was soybeans, corn, rye or alfalfa. Now these fields harbor a restored prairie. On that boyhood summiting I carried my official boy scout manual with me. From my high perch I studied its pages.  I still have that book but on this day it remained shelved back at the house.  

Now more than fifty-five years later, my climb is more deliberate and slow. It felt good to be back up here. The soft sigh of the breeze through the needles, the resinous smell and the pulpit view brought to mind the book Anne of Green Gables. I read it aloud to my daughters when they were little. The scene that had me fall in love with Anne was when she stepped off the train to her new home on Prince Edward Island. No one was at the railroad station to pick her up. She had time to kill so she climbed a tree. Finally, Mathew arrives and she tells him, “I had made up my mind that if you didn’t come for me to-night I’d go down the track to that big wild cherry-tree at the bend, and climb up into it to stay all night. I wouldn’t be a bit afraid, and it would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry-tree all white with bloom in the moonshine, don’t you think?”

How could you not be smitten by her?

Days before I climbed the tree, a pair of yellowthroat warblers busied themselves in the underbrush and lush canopy. On this hazy morning, there was not the bird activity that I hoped for. No surprise with summer here, there are young to feed and fledging going on.

Instead I kept avian company with a song sparrow that was still tirelessly declaring territorial boundaries in the brush below me.  In the same thicket a catbird mewed its feline-like call and a chickadee paused on a limb below me and vocalized its name for me.  In a nearby strip of woods I listened to a red-bellied woodpecker and a flicker call.  I soon realized that most of the birds were below me, including a  pair of mourning doves that rocketed by the tree.

I made my way up 30 feet before feeling trepidation. There were still plenty of stout branches to use as rungs but an inner voice said “that’s enough.” I paused where there was a natural opening through the limbs where I could peer out over the prairie. An unexpected surprise arrived with a pair of swans trumpeting their hoots in flight as they passed my pine window. 

The tree shared the movement of a breeze born on the warming day. That settled it. I would go no further up. There was no sense in pulling a John Muir moment of riding in the treetops in a strong wind. Muir was a famous Scottish-born American naturalist of the late 1800s and early 1900s who became a key advocate on behalf of land preservation and was instrumental in preserving land for national parks. 

Muir wrote about an experience where he climbed a tall fir tree in northern California and a storm swept in. “Never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced like a bobolink on a reed. . . I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music itself.” 

Up high peering through the gentle sway of limbs, I was content. I couldn’t help but revel and honor the last of the twelve scout laws found in my scout manual. It states a “A scout is reverent.” I still live by that law. To me reverence is a firm belief of the need to respect others and the natural world.

Admittedly I couldn’t stay tree bound as long as I did as a boy. The boughs were not fitting to my twisted form so easily. I was about to return to the ground when I spotted three crows flying at eye-level towards the pine. I tracked them with my binoculars until they were almost at the tree. They swerved and the closest one turned its head slightly towards me. I think I spied a wink of acknowledgement. 

An Unplanned Pause

Four of us were one hundred sixty one miles into the two-hundred mile canoe trip. We were traveling the historic Voyageur’s Highway, a paddle route that follows the border between the USA and Canada.  We were along a stretch of the Granite River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when we faced a sudden change of plans. 

Sometimes the best laid plans go awry. A favorite joke punchline that had been guffawed at an earlier campsite was the conclusion, “It’s a whole new ballgame.” And now, in an instant, that line was no longer part of a joke. 

In his book Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales makes the point that there are no real accidents. Instead, he argues, there are a series of decisions that lead to the mishap. The decision to paddle this route set this unplanned moment into motion. 

Our average age was 68.  I had dubbed the four of us friends as “Boyageurs” when we pushed off on Crane Lake and paddled east with the hopes of reaching Lake Superior in sixteen days. I would be remiss to not acknowledge the tinge of trepidation about the fifteen miles of portaging required to reach the giant freshwater sea. Our planned sixteenth day would be an all-day walk as the last carry would require us to carry packs and canoes the final nine miles to Grand Portage. 

During the days leading up to the Granite River, we had experienced some unseasonably hot weather. The heat combined with more canoeists vying for campsites had us quickly changing our strategy. We began paddling early in the day, usually by 6 AM, and then stopping after a couple of hours and preparing coffee and breakfast. 

Traveling west to east, similar to voyageurs carrying canoes ladened with ninety-pound bales of furs headed to the fort at Grand Portage, we expected westerly prevailing breezes to help push us along. Instead for the first two days we had very calm and hot weather. Then the winds came but from the south and east. One day we were windbound for 3 hours before we could push on into a lessened wind.   

It was Day 11 and we pushed off before 6 AM into unusual early morning headwind under welcomed overcast skies. Our goal on this day was to paddle up the rest of the Granite River, making six portages before reaching Gunflint Lake where we had promised ourselves a break with a cold beer and burger at Gunflint Lodge before moving east on the lake. 

We had just completed the third portage of the morning, were loading packs into the canoes. Kurt stepped away to relieve himself. Hearing a loud grunt and a crash in the brush I called out, “Kurt! You okay?”

There was a long moment of silence followed by a forced “No.”

We ran into the woods and found him on the ground. 

“My hip is out.”

One of his two artificial hips had dislocated itself when he negotiated the underbrush by bending, squatting and twisting his upper body. During the entire trip, he had carried packs, set up the tent, tended camp chores with absolutely no problem but this simple move had put into motion, “a whole new ballgame.”

We were relieved when Kurt assured us that he was in no pain at all. 

We managed to help him to his good leg and we hobbled him out of the woods and ultimately into the stern of the canoe. It was a half mile paddle to the next portage and it was there that we realized we would not be able to get him up the steep, rocky trail. So we got Kurt comfortable and made a plan. 

 Duane and I would travel fast in an empty canoe, taking only a small pack with some snacks and rain gear. Nels would stay with Kurt with our packs. They had the tent, food, stove and other gear for spending the night if necessary. 

We hurried over the steep and rocky portage, paddled a short lake, made a second and a third portage around Blueberry Falls. Two lakes away from Gunflint Lodge, we pulled the canoe up the knee-deep fast water to avoid a last portage. Approaching thunder had us securely fastening our life jackets.  As we paddled out onto Magnetic Lake, the skies opened up and torrents of rain pounded us. 

I wondered if we were “bending the map” in jeopardizing our own safety. But I was not seeing lightening flashing anywhere so we kept our fast paddling cadence up. We were about to push through the narrows leading into Gunflint Lake when the rain stopped.  The east wind however, seemed to find strength. 

Gunflint Lake runs east-west and we had to cross a two-mile stretch on the west end of the lake. That meant that the waves had plenty of fetch to build to big swells punctuated with trains of whitecaps. We paddled hard, unable to switch paddling sides because we had to maintain an angle to reach the distant lodge. 

At times Duane rose above the swell in his bow seat and then loudly slammed into the wave again. We both had to employ stable brace strokes to keep the canoe from rolling too much. Without the solid ballast of stowed packs, I worried about all the water that our canoe carried as it sloshed back and forth. From a distance we could make out a person standing attentively on the Lodge dock. 

Finally the bow of the canoe eased up onto the Lodge beach. The person we had been watching, the dock manager hurried over to us. Watching through binoculars he figured we were not out for a recreational paddle in such seas. All the Lodge fishing boats were tied up and were rising up and down alongside the dock. It was as if the lake was breathing hard from the exertion. 

We explained our emergency. The dock manager immediately summoned Jacob, the Lodge Site Manager.  Soaking wet we went into the Lodge and ordered a hot cup of coffee and a thick burger. As a member of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Search and Rescue/Fire Department, Jacob laid out a map on the table. We pinpointed Kurt’s location and provided details of Kurt’s physical appearance, his height and weight and so on. 

We assumed a float plane would fly in and pick Kurt up, but Jacob said that the lake was not large enough for the local Forest Service Cessna planes. They would have to take a team of volunteers, traveling by canoe to get Kurt out.  

But within half an hour, a Forest Service Beaver aircraft was floating at the end of the Lodge dock. It had flown in from Ely, a twenty-five minute flight. Known as “the workhorse of the north,” the Beaver requires very little area for taxiing, landing and take off. Little did they realize that Kurt absolutely loves the signature throaty growl from its radial engine. 

Kurt later recalled his spirits lifting mightily when he picked up the song of the approaching plane.  He knew he would get a ride unlike any other Beaver flight he had taken prior to this trip.

At the same time five members of the rescue effort paddled in in two canoes to fetch Nels and to pick up our other canoe and packs. The three canoes paddled out through the serpentine low country of Larch Creek back to the Gunflint Trail.   

Within an hour of taking off, the plane was back and the crew was unloading Kurt and putting him on a gurney to the awaiting ambulance. He was hustled off to Grand Marais Hospital. But they were unable to set his hip so he spent two more hours in the ambulance aiming for Duluth. That evening at 11 PM his artificial hip and socket were married again. 

A bunkhouse room was found for the three of us remaining at Gunflint Lodge. We finished eating a delicious evening meal and the Lodge chef came out of the kitchen and asked, “Have you heard how your friend is doing?” No news yet. We told him we would be back for breakfast the following morning.  The chef highly recommended the “Trail Hash.”

And suddenly it was morning. The hash was fantastic and so was the chef’s  generosity when he brought a boxed piece Gunflint Lodge blueberry pie to deliver to “our friend.” 

It was just after noon when we pulled up to the front of the hospital.  Kurt walked out with an aw shucks grin and joined us for our ride back home. 

And now there is talk of completing a job undone. The “Boyageurs” will return to Gunflint Lake to pick up the old Voyageur trail and finish the trip later this summer. 

A Granddaughter’s Question

I answered my phone. My 3-year-old granddaughter cut to the quick.

“Opa, why do flowers have colors?” 

Knowing that my answer had to be brief before she moved on to another unrelated question, I took a breath and gave it a shot.

“Flowers are like pretty invitation cards to bugs.  Flowers say ‘Come here!’ by using their colors.” 

“Why?” she asked. 

“The bug stops and walks around on the petals searching for sweet nectar or pollen to eat. Sometimes little specks of pollen get stuck to its legs; kind of like when you are playing out in the yard and get pieces of grass on your pants.”

“Then the bug flies to another flower and walks around on it. Some of the pollen rubs off on the different flower. This is the way that the flower will  make seeds. The big word for this is pollination.”

It was all I could do to stop there but I imagined her eyes glazing over. I dared not tell her that the second flower had to be the same species. I could only hope that she understood some of my explanation.

A couple of days later, Miss Nancy and I headed to the St. Croix River for a day of paddling. With Nancy in the stern and me getting the better view in the bow, we headed upriver. It felt good to paddle and feel the work of going against the river’s grain. Ahead the broad river made a graceful bend to the northwest, almost like the beckoning curve of a question mark. Slowly we made our way into the river’s query. 

After a monochrome winter, we are starved for the barrage of greens found in May.  There is baby green, avocado green, light green, and lime green.  The silver maples flanking the river stand like soft green explosions, tinged in subtle fireworks of reddening flower buds. The white pine are content with never changing dark green foliage. Aspen and birch give rise to their own arguments of spring green. 

Freshets tumbling downhill on the Wisconsin shore beckon us to explore. We pull the canoe ashore and walk slowly among the carpets of flowers. These are known as spring ephemerals. Ephemeral means “short-lived.” It is a perfect description of these plants that will bloom only for a handful of days.

Yellow marsh marigolds illuminated the hillside seep.  As a kid I was taught these early wetland flowers were cowslips; not incorrect, just another name for the same plant. 

Marsh Marigold

I leaned over a clump of marsh marigold and watched a couple of bees go spelunking into the depths of the bloom. They were enticed by an ultraviolet color they see as “bee-purple.” The center of the flower, where the pollen-loaded stamens are located, is a bullseye of yellow to an insect.  

Off to my right the slope was painted with what resembled shards of a  rainbow. Purple and yellow violets, light blue spring beauty, yellow bellwort, white woodland anemone, trout lily and tiny white miterwort all merged onto a common palette.  Just uphill, it appeared as if someone had thrown a box of tissue into the wind as the ground was littered with white large-flowered trilliums. This was ephemeral ecstasy. 

Spring Beauty
Trout Lily

We hovered over clumps of wild ginger. To find its flower you have to get  on your knees and probe in the leafy duff at the base of the twin heart-shaped leaves to find the flower that looks more urn than bloom. The small red cup and its nectary attracts the attention of ants as well as bees. 

Leaning in for a close look at a small bee disappearing into a trout lily blossom, I realized that in the scope of things my own life could be considered ephemeral. I wondered, how many more seasons will I view this  carnival of color? How long can I contribute to my grandchildren’s lives?  Caught in the gaze of a single bloom, I felt an urgency to live ecstatically and leave a legacy where beauty is valued.

 A smear of cloud cover was moving in so we headed back downhill to the river. We had been hijacked from our paddle by the silent party-covered landscape. Back in the canoe we pulled away from the riparian garden and headed downriver and back into the big question mark seeking another “Why?”

Drifting downriver, I looked into clouds reflected in the water and felt contentment in their brief moment. We are surrounded by ephemeral.

Two days after our paddle, we received a photo of Eleanor sitting out in the sunshine with flowers tucked into her ponytail. How could I not smile, when I was told that she asked, “Are the bugs pollinating my hair?”

A Gathering in Yellowstone

First we heard a single low howl. As if on cue the rest of the wolf pack joined in, a mournful harmonic that stopped us in our tracks. In Yellowstone’s late afternoon sunlight we spotted the wolves on a bench of grasses and sage a half mile distant.  Four black wolves and three grays lay in the snow or milled casually about. 

While the calendar said “winter,” the temperature and warm sun spoke of an impending spring. About 250 yards from the road we spotted a line of tripods, each tended by a hunched over human. We pulled off to the side of the road and hiked out to the battery of binoculars, spotting scopes and powerful camera lenses.

We settled into the line of focused humans.  There was no talking or excited exclamations. A bundled middle-aged man was affixing his smart phone to the eyepiece of his Swarovski spotting scope, capable of increasing his magnification fifty times. I quietly asked, “Does the phone-spotting scope partnership give you good photos?” His one word sentence reply of “Yep” told me he had other things on his mind than answering questions.  

The wolves across the valley cared nothing about these optical enhancements; they didn’t need them as they poked about. Somebody said, “I can see an elk antler sticking out of the snow and some ribs and vertebra. There is a magpie poking around it. Looks like an old kill.” 

I wondered how long the wolves had fed off the elk. While the energy- sucking cold makes the food critical for their survival, the winter offers respite for these wolves as no grizzly will come along and take over their kill. All the bears are hibernating until. . . soon.

Suddenly in the foreground I spotted a coyote moving along the white creek bed that would lead it up near the wolves. Hungry wolves would find this brother canid nourishing. It was clear that both species were aware of each other. Not surprisingly the coyote looked more attentive. The wolves lay in the snow, heads up, simply watching. After following another bend of the creek, the coyote didn’t want to push its luck by getting too close. It moved fluidly up the steep bank to a rise, looked over its shoulder at the pack and moved on.

These wolves are among the approximately 100 wolves that currently call the Yellowstone ecosystem home. They are progeny of the original 39 wolves live trapped in Canada and reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995. 

Biologists estimate that at one time two million wolves inhabited what is now the Lower 48 states. By the 1930s, humans, the ultimate predator, had exterminated almost all wolves.  The last viable population, less than 1,000 animals, lived mostly in Minnesota. (Currently, wolves number roughly 2500-3000 animals in Minnesota.) The wolf had been the primary predator in Yellowstone for centuries.  Long vilified, the last wolf in Yellowstone was shot in 1926.  

Roughly 125,000 generations of humans have lived on earth. For most of that time, as hunters and foragers, we have coexisted with wolves. We evolved intimately connected to the natural world.   

Five hundred generations of us have passed since the advent of the agricultural revolution when humans figured out how to raise their own food through planting and domestication of livestock and fowl. That recent transition in our history marked the divorce from wolves and other wildlife, including insects, that pose the slightest threat to our food supply. 

Before we entered the national park, I chatted with a 78-year-old rancher who lives within a dozen miles of Yellowstone Park.  He was adamant that there were too many wolves and grizzly bears. I mostly listened to his perspective rather than challenge him. He feels that since his family has resided here for nearly 150 years that they have the right to raise livestock without predators. 

 A fossil record shows that wolves left Eurasia and settled in North America between 24,000 and 70,000 years ago, well before bears, deer and humans.  If anyone has a right to live on their home ground, it is the wolves.

With dusk approaching, we headed back to the car to get out of the park before dark to avoid hitting wildlife like bison, elk and deer.

It was fitting that the wolves began to howl again. It was a wilderness vespers.

What is wild?

“Beauty burns a hole in my heart and passion quickly fills it.

-from my journal entry in Sept. 2016

My gaze floats up the steep mountainside through the morning fog. Near the top of a high ridge, thick spruce, fir and hemlock wear fresh snow coats.  I find contentment in a wild summit on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.  

But if I pull my gaze downslope it settles uncomfortably on a mountain lake that is shouldered with cabins and second homes.  They are perched directly on the shore, so close that the still waters of the lake reflect a precise doubling of cabins and homes.  And so many docks, like teeth on a comb, barricade the shoreline’s sensuous curves.

I am grateful it is February and not August when many of those docks will harbor loud, growling watercraft. And yes, some will hold silent human-propelled craft such as kayaks, paddleboards and canoes.

I turn to put the sullied shoreline behind me. I walk uphill on a narrow paved access road to the highway that parallels the lake.  Between the back and forthing of logging trucks I hurry across and climb upwards through the wet snow to find mute company among a slope covered with thick conifers. 

As I meander uphill, I feel the torment of my inner-Scrooge that chastises overdevelopment of lakeshores and urban encroachment on wild lands. I understand that fond memories and even a love for the outdoors will be cemented on the lake below me where families gather from their urban homes. If you can fold smiles and laughter into any outdoor experience the outing is likely to instill a love for such places. But it troubles me that we keep pushing ourselves further and further into what little wild remains. 

As I climb, I wonder “What is wild?”

Defining “wild” is foggy at best. It lacks clear definition because each of us carries our own set of parameters.  For the child and even adult standing on a summer cabin dock “wild” might be found in the passing of an overhead eagle or convoy of wild geese. 

As a kid, we lived in the small town of North Branch, Minnesota until I was in third grade. One block west of our house was a shaggy, overgrown tangle of grasses and thickets. We called that corner of the block, at the edge of downtown, “the grassy green jungle.”  At that point in my life it was wild. As I aged the idea of wild moved further out to the creek that swung through the north edge of town. 

A bicycle gave me more freedom to range out and discover new wild areas. Then a driver’s license allowed even greater exploration. And finally, aircraft, particularly small planes on floats carried me well beyond roads.  

Nearly in my seventh decade, I have found myself pining more and more for remote wild places well beyond roads, cities, and even phalanxes of cabins. Nothing elicits a quicker scowl than when I find a wild place tainted by a single scrap of human litter or the scar of a saw cut. It doesn’t matter if the cut is recent or old. Pristine is nearly impossible to find unless you minimize the idea of vast. 

I have had many experiences in primal wilderness. From high in the Andes Mountains to the High Arctic. I have discovered my spiritual balm. And those experiences, combined with having the opportunity to live in a rural setting, have only raised my personal bar on what constitutes a sojourn into solitude. I’m embarrassed at my high standard of wildness when discussing the ideas of tamed and untamed settings with others. I often have to scold myself to remember that we all start somewhere when it comes to falling in love with the natural world. 

Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist who has traveled widely around the world recording natural sounds. He has won many accolades including an Emmy Award. He is the author of One Square Inch of Silence. The book underscores the urgent need to protect our few remaining silent havens from noise pollution. Using a delicate sound device that measures decibels, he found that the most quiet place in America was in the temperate rainforest in the Hoh Valley, in Olympic National Park, just over 14 miles due south of where I stood. I wondered how long it would take me to bushwhack up and down over high ridges and valleys to sink into such an honorably mute place?

Instead I climbed higher up the steep ridge and under the thick coniferous canopy. I can no longer hear the hurrying logging trucks. Laying in the snow is a lovely clump of lungwort lichens that have fallen from an overhead conifer. The lichen prefers shade and high humidity and is a good indicator of air and water quality.

I pause to look it over. The bright green leaf-like appearance resembles lettuce. My guess is that the saturated lichen grew too heavy with water and tore away from its arboreal perch. The green-on -white specimen arrests my gaze and offers a close look that would have been unobtainable before it dropped to the ground.

The lungwort is my model. To thrive, I need a certain level of pristine wildness where I can find unfettered quietude to focus on what is really important in my life. Visiting primal stillness soothes me and fills me with a contentment I can find nowhere else. Just to know that such places still exist, far from the thrum of human civilization calms me. Without such places to feed and anchor me a part of me dies and is lost to the noise.

A Man’s Tears

I was brought to tears last Sunday. The source of these twin salty flows was immense relief combined with shoulder-dropping humility. 

Those that know me best know that I can be overly sentimental and rendered easily to tears. But how can that be?  I’m a guy. I’m not supposed to cry.  At least that is the false narrative I grew up with. 

I followed the male script. I played football and joined Boy Scouts where we were drilled with elementary military ideals of discipline and rank. My friends and I played “army” and at times flung projectiles at each other in the form of acorns, packed snowballs and yes, even BB gun ammo. I donned boxing gloves and danced nervously in the arena of jabs, hooks and mostly flailing. And like Jimmy Carter, who admitted in a famous interview in 1976 that he had lusted after other women in his heart, I have done the same.  

I’ve shot deer, filleted my share of walleyes, trapped and skinned muskrats, and portaged canoes where no portage trail existed. I fathered two lovely daughters. I have done the “typical guy things.”

All through my boyhood and teen years, a constant message to those of us born with that Y chromosome was to “suck it up.” And even today more than sixty years later the culture continues to champion male aggression. 

For a second time, my youngest daughter, Maren and bonus son, Ben, have delivered news of a birth that melted me and renewed the flow of tears. 

The first time was nearly 4 years ago when they told us that they were expecting their first child and my first grandchild. 

Now we were on the brink of Eleanor becoming a big sister. Hours, including a night, passed with waiting. We waited with a lineup of favorite stuffed toys, Minnie Mouse, a giraffe, a panda, a hippo and monkey made from socks, all peering out the window. 

And suddenly the car pulled up. Eleanor hesitated at the window staring at her parents and baby brother. We rushed to the door, hurried out and opened our arms and exposed our hearts. Welcome Thomas Blake!! 

I cried like a baby when told his name. To have a grandchild christened with my own name is perhaps the most touching and honoring act I could hope to experience. 

Three days later, my 88-year old stepdad lost his month-long battle with Covid. And once more I cried.  Suddenly the newness of birth was clouded with death. In the hours following Orv’s passing, I pulled up memories of shared moments, whether it was travel, our usual Norwegian greeting to each other, and shared love of laughs, pickled herring and cookies.  He was a generous man who keenly loved his family.  Known as “Doc” by his great grandkids, he easily sculpted smiles on their faces. 

And now a week into Thomas’s life on the “outside,” I am cradling him quietly telling him how I can’t wait to share a campfire that Eleanor and he built. We will watch spires of sparks climb into the night sky to mingle with oh so many stars!  I will pull up stories galore about when I was a little boy, and there will be tales of the beloved “Doc.” 

I suspect there might even be quiet moments where the fire hypnotizes us into a silent surrender to wonder.  And along the way, I will happily show them, the blessed vulnerability of grown man crying.  

While the Bannock Bakes

Light up your pipe again, old chum, and sit awhile with me;
I’ve got to watch the bannock bake — how restful is the air!

-“While the Bannock Bakes” by Robert Service

There has been a resurgence in bread baking since the advent of Covid-19.

My go-to, simple bread is bannock. To bake this storied bread all you need is a handful of household ingredients, a cast iron frying pan and a source of heat. I prefer open coals because they remind me of its wild roots.

Bannock is a simple fry bread that has its origins in Scotland. During the early years of the Hudson Bay Company (founded in 1670), many Scots were recruited to sail to North America. Once landed, in what was to become northern Canada, they helped establish trading posts to barter with the indigenous people for furs to ship back to England. These early traders, voyageurs and trappers had to fend for themselves for months on end without the help of resupply.

Eventually making bannock became more associated with First Nation peoples. And to this day, many families take great pride in their bannock baking skills.

Each time I tend a bannock I am reminded of past versions. There was the delicious deep dish pizza along the remote Wind River in the northern Yukon Territory. Winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness outings have included lunch bannocks with left over bits and pieces of fried lake trout folded into the batter. Memorable lunches on the wild Gladys River in the Yukon included shredded cheese or sunflower seeds blended into the mix before frying the bannock.

Bannock is a versatile bread. A morning fire is perfect in fending off the chill and for boiling up a pot of cowboy coffee. Pair it with a breakfast bannock and you will be fueled for another day on the trail. Adding fresh picked blueberries, raspberries, currants, or even dried apples or raisins will perk up the most lethargic campers.

I have turned to it several times over the last half year. On a recent morning, while baking a bannock, augmented with raspberries, in our kitchen woodburning stove I committed two sins. First, I overworked the batter after adding water to the mixed dry ingredients. Secondly, I was impatient. I should have let my coals burn down a bit more. With too much heat I was worried I would burn the bannock so I pulled it from the coals earlier than I should have. The result was a bannock that didn’t rise like it should have and was slightly doughy.

My preferred recipe comes from Edna Helms. She is a Carcross/Tagish First Nation Elder living in in the Yukon Territory. Well known for her bannock making skills, she leans towards a sweeter bannock. I am including her recipe here. I have adapted the recipe to make one 8-10 inch diameter cake of bannock.

Edna Helm’s Best Bannock

1.5 C flour 

1/4 C sugar  (you can reduce this if you want to reduce sweetness, a good idea when making a more savory bannock)

2 tsp baking powder 

1/4 tsp salt

Mix all dry ingredients

3-4 C water (The key here is to add only enough water until the dough has a biscuit-like texture. Some folks use milk or you can carry dry milk and add to water)

Put frying pan on or just above the coals and add 1/3 C solid vegetable shortening or cooking oil. Note: You can also bake a bannock over a stovetop burner.

The bannock will rise. Gently flip it. You are aiming for a golden top and bottom. Be patient, making sure to not let the frying pan get too hot or you will scorch the bannock. After 10-15 minutes, test the bread by poking it with a sharp stick or knife blade for doneness.

And if you feel like it light up a pipe while your bannock bakes.

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