An Arctic Fourth of July

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“What I’d really like to do is something for the country. I don’t mean the American flag and the president. I mean for the country.”

• “Cutuk” in the novel Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner

 

A year ago today four of us were heading down an Arctic river on a “freedom float.” For nearly a month we paddled the Utukuk River in Alaska to the Chukchi Sea at the southern margin of the Arctic Ocean.

For most of the 200 miles of paddling and hiking we felt the aloneness but not the loneliness of the vast arctic tundra. Formally known as the Naval Petroleum Reserve, this piece of real estate is the size of Indiana and has only a few native villages within it. No freeways, nor roads connecting anything other than some streets within the villages.

President Harding established the Reserve in 1923. At that time the U.S. Navy was transitioning from coal-fueled ships to those that would run on petroleum. Personally I get a nervous tick when I find the word “petroleum” used in the description of a wilderness area.

According to the Alaska Wilderness League, “the Reserve includes some of our nation’s most vital natural resources – millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands with critical habitat for migratory birds, brown bears, caribou, threatened polar bears, walrus, endangered beluga whales and more. The Alaska Native communities that live along the Reserve have maintained a subsistence lifestyle for thousands of years based on the Reserve’s living resources.”

This is a land where the river braids and snakes its way like endless ribbons of silver, off the north slope of the Brooks Range. This mountain range, over 700 miles long, is the largest in the world above the Arctic Circle. The Utukuk snakes its way out of the naked foothills onto the “arctic prairies” of the coastal plan.

This unrestrained landscape is home to the Western Arctic Caribou herd, over 400,000 animals. We missed by mere days the main passage of migratory herds as they pushed over the river heading to the coastal plains where calving would take place. Tracks and worn trails were everywhere.

It’s only natural that predators follow this moving meat market. We saw 10 grizzly bears, a handful of wolves and abundant golden eagles.

Daily we “oohed and aahed” at the blessedly mute floral fireworks. Hudson Bay Company agent and explorer Thomas Simpson explored the arctic coast from 1836-39. In his journal he referred to the arctic landscape as “party-colored” as it is crowded with stunted arctic flowers. Short in nature, their colors boldly but silently beg for the attention of pollinating insects.

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Arctic lupines and tiny saxifrages provided purples. Bursts of bright yellow quivered in the arctic poppies and draba. I loved the cushions of pink displayed in moss campion. In some places the bell-shaped white flowers of arctic heather grew so dense that the land appeared snow-covered.

On July 3rd, we finally got to the 125-mile long Kasegaluk Lagoon. The lagoon is home to nearly 4,000 beluga whales, over half the world’s Pacific black brant population and scores of other species of waterfowl and shorebirds, not to mention walrus, seals and polar bears. Although the lagoon was designated a “special area” in 2004 restricting all oil and gas leasing for ten years, there is no permanent protection.

Two Inupiat communities are located at each end of the lagoon. Their combined population of less than 800 people depends on the lagoon and adjacent lands for their grocery store, as they are very much a subsistence population. Freedom for these Inupiat is found in the life-rich, healthy waters and the quiet, vast landscape that provides their sustenance.

Back in the 1970s, while nearing the end of a long canoe trip in Canada’s Northwest Territories, we were surprised to hear a motor approaching our camp. A three-wheeler was carefully wending its way across the tundra. The young Inuit man pulled up, smiled and shyly got off his machine to talk with us. English was clearly not his first language.

Predictably, when one falters in trying to find meaningful dialogue with a stranger, we fall back on the predictable query and we asked him, “What do you do for a living?”

He looked confused in response to the question but then hesitantly explained, “Why I hunt. I fish. I live.”

Before he drove off, he unwrapped a good-sized portion of a fresh caribou quarter and gave it to us. With a smile and a timid wave he drove off over the seemingly infinite landscape. We stood quietly watching and suddenly became aware of liberties unlike anything we had ever experienced.

When I participate in wilderness living, my ego is set aside and the jangles, rings, roars and squeals of civilization are absent. I am gloriously made small so that I might better take in great quaffs of real freedom.

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I have had the privilege, yes, and the freedom and means to indulge in paddling several thousand miles of remote, wilderness rivers. Here in this quiet land we can forget keeping time and live simply. Here our actions are ruled only by moments of hunger or need for sleep.

But on each wilderness trip, I have felt the shackles of schedules. We had to paddle to a certain point at a particular date to get picked up so that we could make our way back to our civilized homes where we would engage in a litany of work and life schedules.

It’s absolutely true that as a consuming being, I am dependent on the noises of commerce. However, I periodically need to check into the wild for an adjustment to my soul. It is here that I experience raw, unabashed joy and taste real freedom.

If I fly a fly a flag patterned with stars and stripes am I a greater patriot than one who sacrifices and toils for a healthy land?

I would argue that poisoning and ravaging our soils and waters is an act of terrorism that threatens services that allow you and I to live healthy lives. Any act to minimize that threat should be recognized as heroic as it secures a greater likelihood of a safer and vigorous tomorrow.

After two days of paddling the brackish waters of the long lagoon, we pulled our canoes up to the Inupiat village of Point Lay. It was the 4th of July. After securing permission to set up our two tents on the beach below the village, we were invited to a celebration feast and drum dance. It mattered little that we were strangers or looked different from almost all 189 residents of the community.

Excited to perhaps eat local cuisine such as beluga, caribou, or seal, I have to admit feeling disappointment when we discovered tables covered with platters of hot dogs, burgers, salads, chips and even apple pies. It seemed wrong that most of this food was flown in thousands miles. But then I realized that much of the food I eat in Minnesota makes a similar long trip to get to my plate.

A single four-wheeler decorated with twin clusters of balloons and a flag made up the shortest parade I have ever seen.

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And that evening under the midnight sun, residents of all ages listened to the seated drummers and danced stories of ancient times. We were mesmerized by the subtle and demonstrative movements that spoke of walrus hunts, kayak paddling, celebrations and other tales foreign to our repertoire. But that didn’t stop the locals from beckoning us out onto the floor to joinnin their dance. While we moved with little of the grace that we had witnessed our efforts inspired scores of smiles.

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I challenge you to do something for the wild places that depend on humans to watch over them. One thing you can do is go to the Alaska Wilderness League website. One year ago, President Obama made a historic decision for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and called on Congress to protect it as wilderness. And believe it or not, it has bipartisan support. We have a great opportunity this year to protect the Arctic Refuge. Please join in thanking President Obama for his leadership on Arctic issues and ask him to take action to give it the strongest protections possible.   Go to http://www.alaskawild.org and click on “Sign the petition.”

Into the Nearby Unknown

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“Let us probe the silent places,

Let us seek what luck betide us.

Let us journey to a lonely land I know.

We will follow a right wind; and

there’s a star agleam to guide us

and a wild place is calling. . .calling. . .calling

-Rudyard Kipling

 

 I needed a dose of wilderness.

We are not going to our Outpost in the Yukon Territory this summer. It’s difficult for me to find wild solitude near our Anoka Sandplain Basecamp in east-central Minnesota. There are no mountain landscapes here nor do the moose and caribou outnumber the human residents. It’s impossible to get lost around here or to bump into a grizzly.

I’m tired of hearing about senseless shootings and overblown blowhards yelling out more reasons why we should be very afraid. Meaningless Facebook prattle and over-rated, distant rumbling Harleys don’t mingle well with the lazy summer call of a wood pewee. I needed a quick civilization time-out.

In 1964, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. The act went through many revisions but the final rendition stated that wilderness “is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Untrammeled. Now that’s a criteria that I can use to find a nearby wilderness. On a recent sun-filled morning, I packed my cameras and a full water bottle into my daypack, tossed a pair of chest waders into the truck and drove a mile and a half from our house to a 20-acre wetland jungle where any trammeling would be wet and on quaking ground. People don’t go in here. One neighbor said, “The bog won’t hold your weight and you might sink out of sight. And anyway, there’s something poisonous in there that will give you a helluva rash.”

I had invited a friend to practice the buddy system. He couldn’t go but he did bid me “Happy swamping.”

The land, part of a 55-acre piece destined to become part of Anderson County Park, includes a unique collection of native trees such as tamarack, red maple, birch, white pine and even a handful of native spruce. According to the Isanti County Biological Survey completed between 1987 and 1990, this soggy tamarack swamp has some unique flora.

You might think with such an inventory of trees it would be a pleasant place to stroll. But it is the unstable, boggy substrate that makes it impossible to tread there unless the ground is frozen. Indeed the only time I had ever ventured far into this piece of untrammeled terrain was in winter.

Even then I had to watch my step, as there are numerous small springs and seeps that push warmer groundwater to the surface. Stepping into a muck hole with snowshoes on is a recipe for a wet slushy mess.

The greater obstacle, winter or summer, is the poison sumac. This woody shrub can grow up to 20 feet tall. A certain, unnamed friend, once built a duck blind using easily gathered branches of this shrub. He paid dearly for his choice of building materials and to this day is able to laugh at himself for his ignorance of flora. The resulting rash is more severe than poison ivy.

Fifteen minutes of lifting my feet from the shady bog-sucking morass, I felt sweat run a rivulet down my neck and back. I was heading due north and could see that the overhead canopy was thinning. My goal was to make my way to the small lake we grew up calling Little Tamarack Lake. It is surrounded with wetlands so is consequently protected from the intrusion of cabins or houses.

During a midmorning pause for a drink of water, I wondered if this swamp had ever been trammeled by humans. Had early natives entered this place hundreds of years ago? Perhaps a trapper might have come in here but I really doubt it. And maybe an early 20th century farmer might have wended his way into the swamp during the winter to cut tamarack trees for fence posts. The tamarack posts resisted rot better than most other trees. For that reason some of the area’s large tamarack swamps were cut up into small parcels so local farmers would have access to their own fence post timber.

I was very focused on my route as to avoid the poison sumac shrubs and the scattered patches of open water and mucky channels. Even with chest waders, I wasn’t confident that I would stay dry. The footing was terrible and at times I balanced on hummocks or downed and rotting tamaracks. Several times as I teetered, I had to quickly ascertain what to grab if I started to fall. More than any one thing, it was the poison sumac that defined my route.

It didn’t take long to make delightful discoveries: clumps of cinnamon fern, mats of wild calla lily, patches of red-osier dogwood, constellations of star flowers, a host of sedges and most surprising, a singular clump of Labrador tea. I know there are records of this typically boreal plant in northern Isanti County but I had never seen it this far south in Minnesota.

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Another more northerly resident that accompanied a scolding trio of chickadees was a black and white warbler wearing its zebra-patterned finery. This small bird has an affinity for swampy forests.

It took me roughly twenty-minutes to gain each hundred yards. After my third pause I wondered if I would have to drink from the swamp as I was drinking my water more rapidly than I had anticipated. I paused to wipe my brow and take a drink when a frog plopped into a small pool covered in duckweed. I stood heron-still. I was ready with my camera when the frog popped up. It was a mink frog! While I’ve known they were around here, I hadn’t seen one in years.

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The frog only let me get so close before it headed to the mucky depths. Twenty minutes later, out near the undulated lake edge I managed to catch one in my hand. It gave off a pungent smell that is the basis of its name. Mink and other members of the weasel family can emit a strong musky smell.

I returned to my truck via a slightly different route. I pulled off my waders and found myself soaked in sweat and happy for the outing.

Who would know the unknown could be so close to home?

 

 

Sex in the Woods

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I suspect that sex in the woods is nothing new to most folks. But recently the neighbors have been a little bit too noisy in their peals of passion. It happens every spring about the time the  bridal wreath spirea bushes are in bloom. It’s as if the hundreds of  clusters of small snow white flowers are the signal for the honeymoon.

Let me set the scene. I had been busying myself in the yard with some mindless task when I heard a nearby chittering.  Its nearby proximity snapped me to attention and I instantly knew this was no masked raccoon, which has its own distinct trill. Nor was it a bird. It was a tree frog; to be exact a male tree frog. Like the other frog tribes, and most birds, vocalizing is a male task, necessary if he is to successfully mate.

Tree frogs, like birds, often sing or call from an elevated perch. Off the ground the mating call can carry further and reach a potential mate.

In Minnesota there are  two species of tree frogs:  Gray and Cope’s tree frogs. Both are similar looking but each has a distinct call. The Cope’s trill seems more urgent and is faster.Both species also differ in the number of chromosomes they carry, but that is irrelevant since our feeble vision cannot pick up this difference. (For the record, the Cope’s has twice as many chromosomes as the Gray.)

The boys in the brush around here are Gray’s tree frogs. The males sit in their arboreal pulpits beseeching hallelujahs of horniness to any nearby female tree frog congregants. Indeed it could be said that their begging appeals are the stuff of the Bible’s Song of Solomon.

It was hard to pinpoint the frog’s location.  Not a bad strategy for a small, vulnerable animal that is knowingly making a racket that could target itself as food  for a predator.

Like a sneaky voyeur, I investigated  the mock orange bush and the nearby ferns and iris. Of course my intrusions to this most sacred of acts turned off the frog songs.

Then from the woods behind me, I heard another tree frog. Was this simply a neighboring male that was letting the first one know his frog music was more appealing or was the chortling call making a mockery of my poor stealth?

 I strolled out to our garden to cull some rhubarb to make a cobbler. A tree frog clung to a leaf, perfectly matching the rhubarb’s color. Leaning close, I could easily see the knobby tips of the tree frog’s toes. These sticky pads allow the frog to climb up vertical surfaces.

 Among the Minnesota frogs, tree frogs are the “chameleons of the frog world.” They can move from plant to plant and in relatively short order, blend amazingly well with each different shade and color of plant.

Specialized skin cells, called chromatophores, contain or produce pigments or reflect light thereby giving them amazing cryptic powers. Scientists have discovered that tree frogs can change colors faster with higher air temperatures.

It is the tree frog that we often see climbing confidently up the sheer window surface on a summer night. They are not window peeping, spying on our sexual practices or trying to figure out how to get in. They are positioning themselves in an ambush to hunt the insects that are attracted to the indoor lights.

It saddens me to think that this group of unabashed animals, so willing to sing songs of seduction, are currently the most threatened group of organisms in the world. No other class of animals, whether it’s birds, mammals or insects, are facing such a major risk of worldwide extinction.

The primary threat to frogs comes from the minute spores of one of the more than 1,000 different chytrid fungi species that live in water or moist conditions. The fungus is devastating frog populations in North and South America and is now found on all continents that have frog populations. In other words the only continent that lacks the chytrid fungus is the Antarctic.

The fungus is no newcomer, it has been around for a long time but us human types are responsible for the vicious spread. We have altered over half of the planet’s land surface and as humans have embraced a global economy, countries can easily and quickly ship products that are contaminated by microscopic fungal spores.

Consequently, the long-lived fungal spores are easily transported thousands of miles. And in areas where the fungus is a newly introduced, frogs cannot evolve fast enough to resist the deadly ramifications. There seems to be no escaping the reach of the fungus.

Frog populations are also threatened by other human actions. These include the toxic soup of poisons that include pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that we apply to lawns, agricultural lands, golf courses and other areas.

Could it be that the frogs that brazenly climb on my windows are wanting me to see them? If I want to enjoy  future tree frog acrobatic and sexual antics around the yard and in the woods, I better pay attention to my own actions. And speak loudly on behalf of those neighbors who aren’t able to call for help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sun Day Delight

 

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The day was Sunday-slow and since it is deemed a day of rest, I decided to take it easy and stroll out to the hedge of rhubarb in the garden. I cut handful thick red stalks to render into a rhubarb cobbler. You know food for proper resting.

It seemed fitting that the day was cloudless and bright with sunshine. Got me wondering why  Sunday is called “Sunday?”

It turns out that early pre-Christian pagan Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples set aside this day to honor and worship the sun. The name is derived from an Old English word, Sunnandaeg, which means “day of the sun.”

Cultures around the world have historically and some presently honor the sun.

We would do well to pay homage to that big mass of burning gases that sits 93,000,000 miles away delivering 1,000 watts/meter of free energy at noon on a clear day. Not to mention that the sun rains photons that make it possible for plants to grow. In other words without this middle-aged dwarf star life wouldn’t exist on Earth.

Later, as Christianity spread, the church capitalized on a marketing idea to remain keeping it holy and to continue to use it as the holiest day of the week. It was simpler to get people to worship a new god than it was to get them to call the day by a new name. So Sunday remained Sunday, even when (most) people stopped worshipping the sun.

So given that it was the seventh day, it was perfect that I would be teaming with Ol’ Man Sol to bake the cobbler. Sort of a communion if you will.

Recently, we acquired our second solar oven. We had toted our first one, a different brand, to the Outpost in the Yukon several years ago and then proceeded to give it to some friends who live 25 miles down the Yukon River from Dawson and the nearest road or electrical outlet. Hopefully they are getting some use out of it.

(Go to an earlier blog to read about my first experience with that stove.)

The new oven, is a step up in cost and quality. It is the All American Sun Oven. I set up in the yard, facing south, on the picnic table where it sat in full sun. It took a minute to set it up, unfolding the reflective mirror-like wings to help direct sunlight into the oven.

The oven has a swinging grate to set the pan/pot on so the trapped heat can easily surround the prepared dish. I like the fact that there is an easy to read feature that allows you to track the direct sunlight and then move the stove as necessary for optimal cooking. It requires a slight adjustment of the stove every half hour or so.

Two hours later, the perfectly browned hot cobbler was removed and hurried indoors for consumption. The dollop of vanilla ice cream melted quickly on the steaming cobbler. Oh so good!

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Two days later we pulled a frozen venison roast from the freezer and put it directly into the pan with some of our carrots, potatoes and onions. There is no need to add any water as the meat and vegetables would cook in their own juices in the covered pan.

We began cooking it at mid-morning and pulled it out at 6:00 PM. It was unbelievably tender and moist. And, unlike the cobbler, we did not adjust the stove throughout the day because we were gone.  We simply aimed the glass door and reflectors to the south and left it alone.

It was so easy and we didn’t have to heat up the house with a hot kitchen oven. And the best part is that we required no fossil fuels for cooking. No coal-generated electricity, no propane and no fuel bill. . . sunlight is free.

The oven comes with drying racks and we intend to use it as a food dryer once the garden starts ramping out produce. In my world you can never have too many sun-dried tomatoes. They make great additions to any meal, good snacks and are easy to bring on extended camping trips.

One of my favorite wilderness meals is macaroni and cheese with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts.

Hmmmmm, with the reflective wings all folded into place, the cooking box and it’s  suitcase style handle make it portable.  Perhaps we need to find room in the canoe for the fuel-free appliance.

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Buzzing Around the Neighborhood

A lady by the name of Bombus was in the neighborhood looking for real estate. I didn’t get to have a conversation with her as she was impatient. She seemed indecisive in her back and forthing through the neighborhood.

I was mesmerized by her tireless, haphazard coursing over the area. How could she so quickly analyze a decent quarters to raise her family?

Suddenly she paused. I guess you could call it momentarily hovering. Then, just as quickly she moved on; leaving me only wondering where this fat, noisy bumblebee, whose genus name is Bombus, might find a home place.

The Latin word bombus means “buzzing;” an apt christening of this group of insects. In Minnesota there are over 20 species of bumblebees in the genus Bombus.

Bumblebees are uniquely suited for unseasonally chilly days such as today. Though the calendar reads the third week of May, I have a fire in the kitchen stove. Unlike monarch butterflies, these bees, like all species of bumbebees, have developed a strategy to put up with freezing temperatures. The bumblebee is capable of stoking her inner fires by internally generating heat.

After spending a solitary long winter hibernating underground, she is patrolling low to the ground, looking closely through her huge, multi-lensed compound eyes for a likely site to create a nursery to raise her colony of children bumblebees.

Okay so “children bumblebees” is a pathetically anthropomorphic choice of words for bumblebee larvae, but it lands better on the ears of folks who tend to shy away from bees and their kin.

Ideally, this female bumblebee, fertilized last fall, will find a small excavated hole left perhaps by a rodent or some other critter. She will place dead grasses, leaves or other similar materials in the nesting chamber and then camouflage the entrance of her nursery den with these same natural materials.

Bumblebee are very competitive for these subterranean quarters and will sometimes fight to the death to claim a nesting site. Some entomologists feel that as many as 10% of the nests are taken over by a second challenging female bee.

Once the quarters are ready, the mother-to-be, collects pollen and tucks it in the chamber. The next step is to lay eggs on the pollen. The adult bee warms the eggs with her robust, hairy body until they hatch in 4-5 days. The hatching larvae feed on the pollen and then pupate for another nine or so days before they emerge as sterile females or worker bees. These are the corps of workers that will help the mother or queen bee with the following summer broods.

By the time fall comes around, the queen will lay eggs that will develop into fertile male and female bees. They will develop, leave the burrow for a mating flight and only the fertilized females will survive the winter. All others in the colony will die.

Sadly several Minnesota species of bumblebees are in decline. Overall there are too many pollinating insects in decline. Scientists feel most of the declines are the result of humans interaction and influence on the biosphere. Issues of climate change, invasive species, poisonous insecticides and habitat loss all make life difficult for bees and untold numbers of other critters.

Last year, I spent the better part of June and early July paddling down an arctic river to the Chuckchi Sea, at the southern margin of the Arctic Ocean. As we descended the serpentine river the tundra surrounded us and the long summer days gave rise to an amazing crop of short, arctic flowers. It wasn’t unusual to have a sensorial moment of celebration when the wind carried the powerful, sweet smell from thousands of crowded arctic lupines flanking the river.

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Busying themselves in the parade of purple blooms, were the largest of all bumblebees, the arctic bumblebee (Bombus polaris). It would be an exaggeration to claim these robust, well-furred bees are sparrow-sized, but they seem twice the size of our Minnesota variety. And their loud buzz makes you turn and look for an out-of-place dirt bike.

The big arctic bumblebee spends up to nine months, three quarters of a year, hibernating underground. It seems so wrong that this hardy bee can tough out months of dark and frigid days and competition among themselves and yet they cannot withstand our treatment of the natural world.

The irony is that we learn so late of the importance of these tireless pollinators.

April Chased by the Sun

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This morning, I woke up groggy, but my wherewithal became clearer when I spotted a buttering of the treetops as the early sunlight touched the treetops. After three days of gray-colored and wet skies, this morning’s backdrop promised blue. However, I heard the hum of a furnace so I knew there must be a nip in the air. Indeed it was 37°F.

I hurried out to the woodshed to gather dried spruce kindling, some thicker pieces of sumac and to round out the perfect fire staring trifecta, a couple chunks of dried red oak. These are the necessary foodstuffs that my kitchen wood burning stove depends on if it is to share its warmth with us.

I am boldly declaring that this will be the last kitchen fire needed for the spring. The advent of May is only two days away and yet the yard and woods is already impatient with the stretch of chilly weather.

The past few days have forced me to dig out the wool sweater that I had put into its summer hibernacula only a week ago. This bout of a mini-November in the fourth month has been made more dark by the news of the untimely passing of Minnesota’s own Prince.

And I wonder if my April murdering of the big neighborhood gobbler that had strutted with his harem of hens is being mourned amongst the local flora and fauna. I will admit that joy wasn’t paramount in my person but I am pleased and thankful that the bird will eventually grace our dining table.

But even with the touch of ice on yesterdays back steps and the long day’s drizzle, the world around us says “Spring is in the air.”

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It seems foolish that the rapidly growing interrupted ferns are busy shrugging off their shrouds of wooly covering. I expect that in the next couple of weeks the hummingbirds will return. They will then busy themselves getting on with claiming a territory, mating and nest building. The fleecy fern covering is often used for lining a hummingbird’s tiny nest, no bigger than a fifty cent piece. (Do you remember such a coin?)

We have already tasted spring in the new growth of stinging nettles. Sautéed, the six inch plants are rendered harmless and delicious at the same time. Rich in nutrients they are a fine addition to scrambled eggs.

And the elderberry flowers seem inspired by the chill of April. Like the nettles, these are culinary delights as well. A hat full of picked blossoms will momentarily tossed, for seconds only, into a hot cast iron frying pan with spitting hot oil. Then they are taken out and dusted in powdered sugar for a real spring treat.

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The azalea, planted over a score of years ago outside our back porch is an intrepid outsider transplanted to Minnesota. It seems early to have such a celebration of purple. Or is it more than coincidence that these flowers reign purple?

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Clearly we have much to celebrate. Get outside and join in.

Beloved Birch

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Ever since humans stood erect to peer over the landscape they have had relationships with trees. We have climbed them for protection or for a better view, picked their fruits when hungry and gathered their twigs and limbs for fires to heat, cook and cast light. Trees have been rendered into homes, churches, schools, hospitals and other structures of commerce. We cannot judge one tree better than another, but through the millennia, the birches have held a sacred position in North America, Europe and Asia.

I’m partial to birch because my tastes favor the compass direction of north and it is the north that paper birch thrives best. And in the absence of pigment, the bark is snow white which sets it off beautifully in a world of green and brown.

The black-capped chickadee is likely more partial to birch, particularly a dead tree snag. Dying and dead birch don’t last long.  The  highly waterproof bark traps moisture in the lifeless tree trunk and hastens the rotting process. Consequently once the chickadee works a perfectly round hole through the bark, it can easily excavate small chunks of soft inner wood in creating a nesting cavity. Sometimes you can encounter an upright birch tube, also known as a birch chimney, where the only remaining vestige of the tree is an upright cylinder of empty birch bark; it’s core is rotted away.

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Earlier this week, I started a warming fire in the kitchen stove to ward off the April dawn chill.  As an experiment, I submerged a shard of birch bark in a jar of water. I lifted it out of the water and held a match the dripping bark and in less than 20 seconds it flared up and I lit the stove fire.

No matter the season, when I am camping in the company of birch, I always pocket shards of  bark scraps from the ground to kindle the evening campfire. Whether the woods are dripping wet, or the temperatures cold enough to pop the trees like a gun shot, a scrap of birch bark will always grab hold of the match flame.  Since the bark is resistant to rotting, there are usually plenty of scraps on the ground.

Birch bark should never be peeled from a living tree. Do to so runs the risk of exposing the tree’s growing layer of tissue to potential disease, fungal and insect attacks.

A few years ago I was in Sweden over the summer solstice. Traditionally this longest of days is a time of celebration and dancing around the maypole or majstång (pronounced “my-shtong”). The ancient ritual usually involves wrapping a tall birch tree trunk, trimmed of its limbs, with a wrapping of greenery and freshly picked flowers. This practice, and our December ritual of decorating a Christmas tree, are throwbacks to ancient pagan practices that honored God in the trees.

While traveling on a bus through the birch-rich landscape of northern Sweden, I was especially transfixed by an old man who stepped slowly up into the bus at a stop in a small village. He wore a ragged navy blue sweater with fabric elbow patches, a pair of homely gray polyester pants and worn tennis shoes. His thick shock of white hair and equally white full beard framed his ruddy face and ice-blue eyes. But it was his small backpack that he slid off his shoulders when he sat down in front of me that drew my attention.

The pack was made entirely of woven strips of birch bark. The shoulder straps were worn leather, colored dark brown from years of handling. During the ride, he reached down and pulled two small, frayed journals from the pack. He carefully opened one to a page marked with a slender strip of birch bark. The old man would smile and speak quietly to no one, pointing to excerpts from the journal. He was a peculiar man, a man whose very hair was as brilliantly white as the birch. I wished I could know what made him smile. Since that day I have often used strips of thin birch bark for bookmarks.

On northern canoe trips I have scribbled notes on scraps of birch bark for fellow voyageurs. Messages like: “paddled to the river to fish” or simply, “be back in a couple of hours.” One year, when I spent the fishing opener and Mother’s Day in canoe country, I fashioned a Mother’s Day card out of a curled sheet of birch bark and a sprig of white cedar.

The birch was so important to the Ojibway that they were often referred to as the “Birch Indians.” Cups, bowls, mats, shelters, and canoes were all products of birch bark.

Yukon Brewing, in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory,  makes a seasonal birch beer that is only sold in glass jugs called growlers and once it is on tap it rarely lasts a month. The sap of birch is collected from birch up near Dawson, where the Klondike gold rush started.

The very word “birch” is derived from an old English word, beorht, which translates to “bright.” It’s white skin appears white only because there is no pigment in the bark. The reflected light appears colorless or white.

In the coming weeks we will witness the flush of tree greenery. And we will be guaranteed a new “wardrobe” for the birch. Amazing, simply amazing and all because of the earth’s tilting that gives rise to a new hand of seasons.

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Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done

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Never have I been so challenged as I have this past month. While my heart rate has had moments of acceleration, this test has been mostly cerebral. I’ve had to work feverishly to awaken latent brain cells and even nurture new ones in my nearly 65 year-old brain. Suddenly I’m learning how to memorize and deliver lines, and how and when to move onstage.

Please don’t misconstrue the following paragraphs as a stream of braggadocio prattle. I am merely trying to present some context about the level of challenges I’ve faced.

I’ve run class III whitewater, in loaded canoes, on remote northern rivers, hundreds of miles from help. I’ve backpacked the precipitous Napali coastline trail on the island of Kauai. I’ve carried a backpack at 14,000 feet along the Inca trail in the Peruvian Andes.

I’ve run a marathon, cycled a century (100-mile) bike ride and a year later cycled a 150-mile up and over Alaska’s majestic Coastal Mountain range. I’ve cross country skied the 55-kilometer Birkebiener ski race.

I’ve slept outside in late December with no tent when the mercury dipped to -38°F. I have been bitten by a piranha in a Costa Rica river. And have been 30 yards from a Yukon grizzly as it walked into our remote river camp.

But playing Pa Joad in the Grapes of Wrath has pushed all my limits. How would I memorize all the lines and movements. After the second night of practice, I was utterly despondent and any self -confidence was blasted away like an Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl. I wanted to quit. That night I slept miserably. To continue and fail would not only be embarrassing but it would let down a wonderful cast.

My wife, Nancy, is also in the play as Ma Joad. She is a musician who is seasoned in performing. She has played roles in other productions including three one-woman shows she wrote. While not entirely a rookie, I was in a couple of high school plays, a community rendition of A Christmas Carol and I wrote and performed a one-person show.

Nancy, being the excellent life coach she is, nursed me along with supportive words. And Jackie, the play’s director, handled me well, balancing feedback with needed criticisms and praise.

Her mantra to all of the actors is to “Move with intention.” These are wise words for living.

We are days from opening night. I’m fairly comfortable with my lines. In fact I have come to enjoy several of them for their humor and for the fact that I ain’t got to be proper in my delivery.

Not only have I had to learn poor grammar, but also I’ve had to explore “the whys” of Pa to understand his emotions and situations. Jackie has demanded, when necessary, that I toss out any Minnesota Nice delivery and release my “mean dad” voice.

To complicate things, we often deliver lines while changing props and scenery.

How will I ever remember to cross stage to my far right to pick up the toolbox after I deliver a totally unrelated line? Clearly, I’ve got more trailblazing to do in my brain.

But oddly enough, the stretching of neurons in my cranium has made me feel better and I do feel sharper. I am growing new connections in both my brain and with a cast of fine people.

Granted, moments before the opening night performance, my stomach will be home to roosts of butterflies. But I will be intentional and I ain’t gonna let it stop me.

The lesson learned here is more than perseverance. I need to be more mindful of being more intentional all the time and to walk confidently on to all life stages.

Has Your Family Tried Em?

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Last week, we hosted our East Coast friend Mitch for a couple of nights. He is also the  father-in-law to my daughter Maren. Employed in the food additive industry, he was making his maiden voyage to Minnesota for business.  When he shared he was coming we eagerly invited him to stay overnight with us.

To many who reside on the East and West Coasts, the Midwest, particularly Minnesota, is practically uncivilized. Mitch emailed a tongue-in-cheek response to our invitation. “ Ah—–you make it tempting but I have some concerns-just a few amenities I am wondering about like Wi-Fi, running water, indoor plumbing (not an outhouse), GMO foodstuffs and a beer.”

 He rented a car at the airport and with the help of a voice on his phone directing him right up our driveway, he was able to find our frontier sidewalk. Halfway up the walk,  I met his generous smile with a Minnesota bear hug.

“Wow! You guys live out in the middle of nowhere!” He paused to glance into the woods that surrounds our Basecamp and painfully exclaimed, “You don’t have any neighbors!”

Stabbing my finger to the west, I continued, “Petersons are over there, just across the field.” Spinning my pointing finger 180° to the east I said, “And through the woods over there, are the Nelsons.” With a final pointing adjustment I finished, “And over across that field in the woods are the Engdahls.”

 

Mitch got settled in. After enjoying a local craft beer in front of the flickering fire in the wood burning kitchen stove, I ladled steaming quaffs of select chunks of venison that had slow-cooked on the wood-fired stove with home-grown garlic, organic tomatoes and onions, home-baked beans, bourbon, red wine, and a host of spices into Viking-sized bowls. It was his first introduction to venison and he was mesmerized by Nancy sharing her story of bagging the deer with bow and arrow.

After a delightful evening of eating and consuming family news, I banked the fire with more wood and we headed up to bed.

Unbeknownst to him the following morning’s breakfast was actually inspired by Mitch.

A little background is required here. About forty years ago, after Mitch graduated with an entomology degree (the study of insects), he found employment in the field of pest control in New York City. I could go on with some horrifying tales he shared of his experience but those should be told by him.

Since I wrote several regional editions of Things that Bite (mostly insect biters) Mitch and I have shared a common bond with each other in our interest of insects. I was pleased when he mailed me an unexpected gift this past December. It was a recently published book titled Entomolgoical Gastronomy with the subtitle, A Gastronomical Approach to Entomophagy by Addison Holt. (Entomophagy is the practice of eating insects.)

Here is where most readers will pause with a “Yuck!” The idea of intentionally eating insects is particularly repulsive to most folks in our western society.

Last year, a United Nations report was released that is entitled Edible Insect Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. The extensive report explains why it might be time, with a global population of over seven billion people, and still climbing, to consider a new protein base of insects. Direct input costs and increased demands on natural resources cost far less in cultivating insect protein than  raising traditional livestock such as beef, pork or poultry.

According to a 2011 report in the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Review, more than ten times more plant nutrients are needed to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat than one kilogram of insect biomass. And it turns out that crickets are the hands down winner in water requirements compared to other conventional meats, eggs and plants.

With climate change forcing millions of refugees to move to already crowded areas, there are increased land use pressures, food shortages and environmental degradation. Moving towards a greater dependence on insect protein will lessen our demands on natural systems.

For our morning breakfast with Mitch it was fitting that we have flaky cricket biscuits to accompany our eggs and veggies. Knowing that there are several U.S. companies jumping on the insect-eating train, I had purchased the cricket meal online after learning that Mitch was coming to visit.

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In using the cricket powder you blend it with the wheat flour. If the recipe calls for a cup of flour you use 2/3 cup of flour with 1/3 cup of cricket powder. The result was a brown biscuit that was slightly darker than a whole wheat biscuits.

Without knowing anything of the biscuit’s ingredients, Mitch “yummed”over the hot biscuits. I suppressed a smile and wondered, “Hey Mitch, let’s see if this flour is GMO free.” I got up and retrieved the packet of cricket meal from the cupboard and brought it to the table for Mitch to read. His response in discovering the cricket ingredient, was not so startling as I hoped it might be. Instead he was genuinely intrigued.

We all agreed that the gluten-free, high-protein biscuits were very tasty with a distinct nutty flavor.

I have one biscuit remaining and now I am wondering if I should build a small shed where I can raise thousands of crickets for consumption. The benefits would be appetizing and sensorial. Hearing summer cricket music through an open bedroom window could be the perfect white noise to lull me to sleep.

Super Tuesday in the Big Quiet

 

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One of the benefits of spending days out in the bush is the privilege of forgetting about time and dates.

A caterwauling stomach is really the only timepiece required for knowing when to eat. And the frequency of stretching yawns pushes you towards your sleeping bag. Hours later, a tickling bladder is your silent morning alarm clock.

But I tend to write dates in my journal so I was aware that it was Tuesday, and not just any Tuesday: It was Super Tuesday. A handful of states were caucusing to decide how the hefty collection of presidential candidates would fare in the race towards their political party’s respective summer conventions.

We had pulled our gear into this wild stretch of lakeshore 6-7 miles from our truck. and the closest caucus from our BWCA winter camp was in Grand Marais, Minnesota, some 40 miles distant. But we nonetheless had a Super Tuesday. The candidates for being “Present of our Inner States” were of the boreal nature.

After a hearty breakfast we loaded three sleds with fishing gear, ice auger, extra clothes, survival fanny packs and plenty of lunch food. Our quiet caucus was nearly two miles away across a couple of portage trails.

Our spirits were high when we hit the first portage and discovered that no people had been here for a long time. The only tracks we found were the soft crisscrossing hops of snowshoe hares, the post-holing strides of an unhurried moose, and the single file tracks of a group of wolves.

I suspected that this was no Super Tuesday for the wolves who must spend most of their days in a state of perpetual hunger. Then I considered how my earlier breakfast served me well and my stomach was not hollowing yet.

After climbing a long forested slope we emerged onto a serene lake surface, broken only by the characteristic “dot-dash-dot” spoor of an otter as it loped a few bounds before sliding on its belly before returning to the loping gait.

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I wondered how does this aquatic weasel gain access to the brook trout calories beneath the 20+ inches of ice?

Our already Super Tuesday got even better after we augured a few holes through the ice and began the business of angling.

Nancy built a lively campfire to roast bratwurst. After a few hours of fishing we noted the arc of the west-wending sun so we packed up and headed back. Will the otter, whose tracks delighted us, discover our augured ice fishing holes and slip into its own version of an aquatic pantry?

While we had lightened our load of lunch we had added a brace of colorfully speckled brook trout. One was 16 inches and the other, a dandy at 21 inches.

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The day had not been so super for them.

The return trip was much faster now that we had both a downhill aspect and a broken trail to follow. With the sun painting the surrounding hills butter yellow and our shadows taking on the cold dark blue that precedes the black of night, we pulled our sleds for an hour and a half to get back to base camp.  The caucus continued behind canvas walls, just beneath a star studded sky that seemed to hang just out of reach.

I filleted the brookies quickly in the dim twilight, cut the orange flesh into pieces and hurried inside the tent. They swam their last swim in a frying pan spitting with hot oil and onions. While the fish fried, Nancy put the carcasses into plastic bags to render into a rich fish soup once we returned home.

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An hour later, fully sated around the small wood-burning stove, we wallowed in the day’s memories and looked forward to a Super Wednesday.

And most importantly, no one wondered aloud of anything remotely close to politics.

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