Revised Corvids Blog Entry

For some reason my recent blog entry did not include the photos. Don’t ask me why, I abhor trying to solve computer issues. I am hoping that this link includes them. And if it doesn’t and you want to see them, go to my Facebook page.

For the Love of Corvids

I heard it first. Overhead, just above the naked canopy of the woods, a muffled cadence “whoosh. . whoosh. . whoosh” pulsed through the early morning silence. I glanced up and the raven gurgled a call as it passed over in its direct flight to somewhere. And I knew as I looked up, the raven was looking down at me.  Did I see a slight nod?  Wishing me luck? As it flew out of sight, a second raven croaked off to my right. 

Minutes later, well south of me, a group of crows were cawing up the morning. Their vocalization was not the typical “caw, caw, caw,” but instead almost sounded like chuckling between caws.

Maybe these crows and ravens were giddy because it was opening morning of the firearm deer hunting season, which in their world could be seen as a corvid thanksgiving.  I was perched in a tree, with my bow and arrows, hoping to fill our freezer and maybe, just maybe, the passing corvids would also find sustenance in my luck as a hunter.

I love ravens, even more than I love crows. And I love crows more than I love magpies and jays.  All of them belong to a group of birds known as corvids, a shortened moniker from their official family name:  Corvidae. They are among the smartest and most adaptable birds in the world. They are skilled foragers and scavengers.

Successful deer hunters field dress their kills, leaving gut piles. These are steaming feasts for all scavengers. 

Ravens and crows keep things simple in their singular plumage color of black. I can only imagine this make life easier.  No dressings for a bright, colorful courtship. Instead they utilize their amazing range of vocalizations and interesting behaviors to attract attention.

Jays are the only corvids around here that have any color and they wear it well. Lots of folks think jays are piggy and bullies at the bird feeder. I would beg to differ. I find them beautiful, sassy and damned smart. I love ‘em. Here in Minnesota we have two native jays, the blue jay and the gray jay, also known as the Canada jay or whiskey jack. 

Perhaps much of my love of corvids stems from a stolen kiss. Four years ago we snowshoed up near a sunlit Mt. Baker in Washington state. Stopping for lunch, we attracted the attention of a gray jay who obviously had learned the art of sneaking in for spilled crumbs. The bird was bold and I fooled it into a kiss by offering a piece of sandwich held delicately in my lips as the bird hovered and gently plucked it from me.  So is it any wonder, my infatuation with corvids? No other bird has showed me such affection. 

Corvids are crafty. Ravens and crows have been known to divert the attention of a predator feeding on a kill only to have one of their gang sneak in and pilfer a bit. There is evidence that ravens intentionally help predators find prey. Once the predator kills the prey the corvids perch in nearby trees awaiting their turn at the spoils.  

Who knows,  maybe that hunting partnership is also aligned with us. 

Years ago I was hunting deer up in Superior National Forest, not far from Lake Superior. In the early morning light, I heard a raven pass directly overhead. I looked up and witnessed a perfectly executed barrel roll with the bird nearly going on its back in flight.  I wondered, was that move for fun? Showing off?  It reminded me of a passage from anthropologist Richard Nelson’s book, Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest.  Nelson lived with Koyukon people for an extended time. He wrote of the their belief that when an overhead raven rolled in flight it was emptying its pack over the Koyukon hunter and that would ensure hunting success. And it worked. I shot a deer later that morning. I like to think the barrel-rolling raven returned to feed on the gut pile of that deer. 

 Back when I was in high school, I used to spend a fair amount of time down by the confluence of Goose Creek and the St. Croix River, which separates Minnesota from Wisconsin. (This was prior to the establishment of Wild River State Park.) One spring, friend Nels and I found a crow’s nest in a white pine. Thinking it would be really cool to snatch a baby crow and raise it, we decided to check out the nest. With the help of a boost, I reached some lower branches and laddered my way up to investigate the twiggy nest. There were five recently hatched nestlings huddled in their near nakedness. They were too young to take and try to raise as pets. 

My idea was to teach a crow to talk and have it ride on my shoulder. Crows have complex throat muscles making all kinds of vocalizations possible.  They are excellent mimics. In the book Lost Art of Crow Taming by Pete Byers, the author claims all that is needed to teach a crow to talk is “patience, perseverance and repetition.” He knew one crow that could say, “I’m Jim Crow.” 

A couple of weeks later we returned to the nesting tree. The mosquitoes were thick. Scrambling up through the branches, I found the nest empty. My dream was voided as well as some of my blood. 

I should add here that at that time crows were not protected. In 1972 they received federal protection when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was amended to include the protection of raptors and corvids. 

Each year that we butcher a deer we hang the skeleton in the big bur oak at the edge of our yard.  This bony bird feeder attracts crows only in the quiet early hours of the day. They don’t tolerate our closeness as much as the woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches that flit over the prize. 

Note the downy woodpecker and the mesh bag with deer fat.

By winter’s end the pair of deer skeletons will be picked clean. Sassy corvids will feel the seasonal tide of hormones urging them to find a mate and start all over again.  And with luck, I will have the privilege of sharing nods with an autumn raven again.

A Fine Day of Sledding

We had just been graced with another inch or so of snow and I wondered if this November covering would pronounce the birth of a winter landscape or would we teeter-totter into another unseasonable warm stretch. So while there was snow it was time to fetch one of our sleds.

Opening the garage door, I wove my way around the car and stored canoes. Suspended above me is the homemade birch toboggan that hangs from the rafters as a sort of winter gear shelf. Beside a stack of cross-country skis and poles is a pair of six-foot plastic sleds. 

To minimize a clattering avalanche of winter fun, I carefully extracted one of the red sleds. Both are veterans of work and fun and each have collected their own stories.

I suspect that the earliest use of sleds by humans was to more easily move things. Early humans were nomadic so it makes perfect sense that a sled of some form, likely a large animal hide, could ease the task.  And during those sledding passages, they learned the agony of pulling uphill and the relief of a downhill glide.

Ecstasy was an added reward once people realized that sleds, combined with the magic of gravity and a steep hill, could be used for simply carrying the cargo of passengers only. 

My annual reunion with sleds evokes memories. In years past, and hopefully in future winters, Miss Nancy’s and my sleds have resembled Conestoga wagons when they were loaded with winter camping and fishing gear to head into the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness for a week of solitude. 

I have used a sled in imaginary international luge competitions held above the Watson River in the Yukon Territory. (See blog entry for 2009)

And then there was the day I tried using the sled as a surfboard where for a brief moment, okay “brief” is being generous.  I caught a frozen downhill wave and ended up trashing in a wipeout.

But on this day, I would be using the plastic sleigh to stage firewood from our north woodshed to the door stoop where we could more easily carry armloads into the porch woodbox. The sled is used to carrying chunks of oak and black cherry.

Every winter Miss Nancy and I pull cords of firewood from our woodlot to the woodsheds. While I cut and split the downed trees, Miss Nancy plays draft horse and repeatedly pulls the sled and its cargo out of the woods.  She loves it for the workout it gives her.

We were once offered a great deal on an almost new ATV to help with Basecamp chores such as gathering firewood and snow removal. We deliberated the acquisition for long seconds before turning it down. We both felt the machine would be more of an anchor and hassle than a red plastic sled. Storage, gasoline, oil and associated noise, smells and costs would have to be dealt with. And more importantly, our homestead workout would mostly disappear. Why complicate life when it can be simpler and healthier?

After I messed around giving firewood sled rides, I leaned the craft up against the shed. I’ve learned long ago that it is a good idea to store a sled on its vertical axis with the bottom facing the low hanging south sun. Even the slightest bit of snow or ice can impede the smooth glide of the sled and make pulling a task rather than fun.

With firewood sledding done, the sun read mid-afternoon. I walked into the woods, climbed into a deer stand with my trusty recurve bow and arrows to hunt deer for the last couple hours of the day. 

As fate would have it, before sunset I needed my sled again. I had a heavy whitetail buck to pull home. I felt like a red-cheeked boy returning to the warmth of  home after a grand day of sledding.

Sunrise Sneezes

The glow in the east slowly fired the sky. I was sitting on my little platform of a portable deer stand with my recurve bow lying across my lap. With the daylight coming on, I always relish the moments before the sun brings its bright dome into play. The trees between the glowing orb and my gaze appear as tangled filigree in their November nakedness. The silhouette of chaotic canopy branches is an art piece that cannot be improved and brings on a quiet moment of reverence. 

However, the peaceful setting is almost always interrupted with a sudden, short-fused sneeze. I try to stifle and capture the obtrusive “ahchoo” with a frantic smothering of my nose with a hankie or cupped hand. The sneeze is like a starting gun that initiates the predicable flow of nasal effluents. 

I am here to say that a normal hankie is inadequate for the morning tide that flushes from my sinus passages. While easily foldable, the fabric is thin and inadequate for copious mucus dabs and dribbles. A tablecloth would make a better hankie on such mornings but it is much too large and cumbersome to deal with on my little arboreal stage.

A couple of weeks ago I tried a new experiment and converted an old t-shirt into three torn scraps. The cotton is thicker, more comfortable and is far more absorbent than your standard handkerchief. But as the morning progresses the soaked t-shirt doubles in size and weight.

The dribble seems worse as the sun slowly climbs above the horizon. Is it possible that the sun is responsible for my nose flooding?  

It turns out that 17-35 percent of humans have what is called photic sneeze reflex or “sun sneezing.” Most sneezing cannot be controlled and is usually associated with an irritation in the nose. 

Medical folks seem to think that somehow mixed signals happen along the trigeminal nerve, the largest and most complex nerve in our heads. The paired nerve connects eyes, nasal cavity and jaw. 

The branching nerve and its network is crowded and sometimes the signals get  crossed. With the bright sunrise causing my pupils to contract, its possible the signal triggers a nasal response. 

Geneticists have determined that this trait is inheritable. They have titled it with an apt acronym, AHCHOO (Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-opthalmic Outburst

After a couple of hours watching the woods, a fawn being pursued by an amorous forkhorn buck, chortling ravens overhead and me drenching an old t-shirt, I quietly climbed down as I was feeling dehydrated from the loss of liquids and needed to drink a quart or two water. 

Lucky I have more old t-shirts because I will be back tomorrow morning to bow my head to the sun, burst out a prayer that is amen’d with a sneeze and renew my quiet, slow movements of nose wiping.

Hurry Tom Hurry!

The juncos and white throated sparrows have arrived from their boreal summer haunts.  And this morning’s winds are loosening Autumn’s colorful skirts, sending tatters to the ground. Fall has taken on a new sense of urgency.

While temperatures drop and politicians yammer, I find a joyful quiet as I commute one hundred feet from our house to my perfect Covid project: building a little log cabin. Since last April, I have missed very few mornings strolling into the woods to the work site. 

Now the days are arcing towards darkness with daylight hours shrinking and I feel an inner restlessness to zip up the project for the coming winter. In my mind, I hear “Hurry Tom!  Hurry!”

Two Novembers ago I helped thin a friend’s red pine plantation. He shipped truckloads of logs to be rendered into garden mulch, and I bought enough logs to attempt to Lincoln-log a cabin together. That winter I resurrected my antique draw knife and peeled them all. I levered them into neat piles with plenty of air space between so they could slowly dry. 

For the most part I am a one-man show. Admittedly I lack the skills of famed Alaska cabin builder and public television star, Dick Proenneke, but I often invoke his spirit.  In late March when I decided to skid the logs from the drying site, seventy five feet to the building site, I hooked up my electric winch which is rated to pull 1,200 pounds. I was mortified when I turned the winch on and almost immediately it overheated. I looked with dismay at the red warning light. 

I was devastated. What do I do now? I have no tractor, ATV, or even a draft horse to pull the logs. For that matter I didn’t want anything that required undo maintenance, fuel or food. How was I going to move the logs? I returned to the house and broke the news to Miss Nancy. 

I reached out to dear Yukon friend, Mike, who is a fine wood craftsman specializing in timber framing. I have never seen huge beams with such fine joinery as his work. Immediately he offered a solution.

 “Tom,” he said, “Why don’t you build using short log construction?”

 I recollect my answer as a simple “What?” 

He replied, “You need to read James Mitchell’s book, The Short Log and Timber Building Book.”

I turned one hundred eighty degrees in my chair to face the floor to ceiling bookcase. I scanned for a moment, reached up and pulled down a book. “Oh this one.” Mike laughed and then like a master ordered, “Now read it.”

And so that led me to my current project. Instead of a classic log cabin with scribed interlocking corners, my walls consist of shorter horizontal logs slid between vertical posts. The beauty is that by using levers and fulcrums, I can handle most of the logs by myself. I don’t want to even consider how many pounds of logs I have hefted, grunted, rolled and pushed.  Since starting this project, I have lost 15 pounds and punched two holes in my belt. 

October is ticking away. Snows are coming, at least I hope they are. My goal is to finish the walls in the next few days. Then recruit some human power to help position the hefty ridge log. After that, the log rafters can be erected and roof put on.  

Hurry Tom!  Hurry!

Oh and of course through this project, I am committed to bow hunt for deer. I am hoping for future winter stews and steaks grilled in our kitchen woodburning stove. Hunting is hard because my mind nags me to climb out of October’s tree canopy and get to building the cabin. 

Leaves are blanketing the work site adding a seasonal charm. No time to admire the decor, winter is coming on!

Hurry Tom! Hurry!

The Verdict on Goldenrod: Not Guilty

(Note: I apologize for the delay in getting this 2-week old post up on your screen. I was battling computer issues that included something nasty called malware. But the subject here is still of use.)

I used to know a man who every September  mowed down nearly an acre of lovely goldenrod. He was convinced that he was halting the march of allergies. I gently mentioned to him that goldenrod pollen is too large to be easily blown in the wind and that the plant depends on insects for pollination. I told him that it was the unseen pollen from ragweed that was causing his wife’s hay fever.  Approximately 23 million Americans will experience the late summer symptoms of an allergy to ragweed pollen. Not only will life be made more sneezy and wheezy but the allergy can trigger asthma.

 The acre of goldenrod that he cut down represented an amazing supply of nectar for beneficial insects. Each of the roughly 45 goldenrod species in Minnesota bears clusters of tiny yellow flowers. I have sat and watched as many as six different species of insects probing and hurrying together over the blossom heads. A bee visits a flower seeking nectar for food. As the insect clambers about the blossoms it accidentally picks up sticky pollen grains on its slightly hairy legs. Always on the hunt for nectar, the insect leap-frogs in flight to nearby blossoms.  In doing so, pollen grains, carrying the male gametes or sperm cells, are transferred to another plant and if they come into contact with the flower’s female parts called pistils, fertilization can occur. 

Ragweed, in contrast,  has tiny greenish, not colorful, flowers so it mostly goes unnoticed. Each of the three ragweed species found in Minnesota is native. Its success is due to its ability to quickly establish itself in any disturbed ground.  Of all the wild plants across rural and urban landscapes none is as prolific as ragweed in casting out so much highly allergenic pollen. One ragweed plant is capable of sending out one billion microscopic pollen grains that are easily picked up in a breeze. 

According to reports from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resources Defense Council, pollen allergies are worsening due to a changing climate. Warmer summertime temperatures and shorter winters means longer ragweed seasons and more high pollen count days. Between 1995-2013 the ragweed pollen season in Minneapolis and St. Paul lengthened by 21 days. 

North American natives used goldenrod to treat fevers, sprains, lung problems and sore throats. The Anishinabe referred to the plant as “sun medicine.” Later, goldenrod was classified by Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish 18th century botanist. He titled the genus Solidago. The prefix “sol”  comes from the Latin word solidus which means “whole” or to “make whole.” 

Given that this fall is an election year, it would be wonderful if we could create a goldenrod salve and spread it across our society “to make whole.” 

Insect Apocalypse

For every species of pest, there are 1,700 species of insects we can’t live without.”

-John Lundgren, farmer and entomologist

“Anyone that gets two dollars worth of gas or more gets their windshield washed,” growled George, the owner of Georges 66 gas station in my home town of North Branch. 

The locals knew this glass cleaning practice and many of them depended on gas jockeys to keep their windshield clean of the smeared insect gore.

It was the early 1970s and I had just started working weekends pumping gas and doing other light auto maintenance duties such as tire repair, oil changes and grease jobs. There was not self pumping at the gas stations nor did you wash your own windows.

Cleaning the windshields on some nights was almost like a cardio workout. We used cotton rags, a spray bottle of glass cleaner and plenty of elbow grease. Many windshields resembled Jackson Pollack paintings with a smearing of colors and textures hiding the identity of the driver until they stepped out of the car. The worst windshields were those that had been ignored for a few days and the bug parts were baked in by the midday sun. Sometimes we had to use a scraper along with the spray cleaner and rag. 

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t seen a windshield like that in some time. I can drive hours on a summer night and have only a spattering of bug corpses.

One night this summer, I had stepped out of the house to the edge of the woods to listen to coyotes socializing and a slow flying firefly blinked its way past me. Back in the woods I spotted a couple more. Returning to the house, I mentioned the sighting to Nancy and then in the same breath I pined for the old days when there were so many fireflies that it looked like restless constellations on the move. 

I have an indelible memory of camping with fellow cub scouts on a local farm where we chased and captured fireflies. We filled an old pop bottle with blinking bugs and brought it into our tent for an amazing strobe light show.

Even insect noise is less prevalent.  The August nocturnal cricket concerts no longer pulse with the same intensity.  

Pollinating insects, responsible for the production of one third of our food, are declining and in the meantime I hear folks almost giddy when they observe, “mosquitoes sure haven’t been bad.”  

No group of animals, birds, mammals, fish, reptiles or amphibians is declining as rapidly as insects.  The ramification of an insect apocalypse is horrific to consider. 

One recent study looked at 73 historical reports on insect populations. The researchers conclude that nearly half of all insect populations could disappear in decades.  Such a crash will send other life systems into a cascading collapse. Our survival depends on healthy natural systems. Without insects, life as we know it will go extinct.

According to the April, 2020 journal of Science, roughly a ¼ of the world’s terrestrial  insects have disappeared in thirty years. The Midwest alone has experienced a decline of 4% of its insect population.  What is becoming clear is that the chemical intensive monocultural agriculture is playing a major role in the insect demise. 

According to a recent article in The Land Stewardship Project (vol. 38, #1, 2020), South Dakota farmer and entomologist, Jonathan Lundgren, says that agriculture should not be painted as the “bad guy” but instead should be seen as a key part of the solution. Lundgren is a retired scientist for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  

More and more research shows that striving for biodiversity is the most significant action farmers can take for not only the health of their farm but for the insects that are part of that natural system. Most insects are beneficial and in fact many of them will control numbers of the so-called “pests.” The problem is that many insecticides kill indiscriminately, killing the targeted pests as well as those that are important for pollination or naturally controlling insects that feed on crops.  According to Lundgren, “For every species of pest, there are 1,700 species of insects we can’t live without.” 

Turns out that farmers that practice regenerative methods turn out a larger profit than the conventional, chemical dependent farms. While their yield might be less per acre, without the input costs of herbicides and pesticides, there is more girth in their wallet.  It’s all about building soil health. 

Lundgren is effectively educating farmers, particularly young farmers, that industrialized systems of farming leave no room for biodiversity. This is not only a disaster for bugs but for humans. 

Hurrah to Jonathan Lundgren and others like him who understand the big picture of the necessity of healthy natural systems. Bugs are simply too important in the cog of life for us to ignore their disappearance.

I want my grandchildren to have the opportunity to net a few fireflies, place them carefully in jars and bring them into our tent for the coolest camping light ever.  And then to watch their faces define joy and wonder as they release the fireworks back into the night sky.

The idea of “lights out,” is too tragic for me to consider.

I Have Known a Frog

I’ve formed a bond with a gray tree frog this summer. The first meeting was on the deck while I enjoyed my morning coffee. I noticed its head sticking out of the wren nesting box that sits at eye level on the edge of the deck. The frog faced due east as if to greet the rising sun. This ashen blotchy frog was an adult rather than a bright green juvenile.

I know there are several tree frogs that hang out around our deck because at dusk I often hear their musical trills. In my opinion, their song is the most melodious of all local frogs.  

I was inspired to write a few lines of poetry. I decided to allow no more than two minutes to write a few lines. No editing or revisions. I found the following:

This house is mine. All mine!
No wren wants it 
but to me it’s sublime.

From my lounging perch, 
I watch sipping humans with hands
wrapped around a mug like a prayer in church.

And me on my pulpit of divine!

The next morning, I returned to the deck and was delighted to find the frog in the bird house waiting for the warmth of the sun. Being amphibians, their body temperature is the same as their surroundings rather than a constant like our 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since we were acquaintances, I decided to name the frog. I landed on the genus of tree frogs: Hyla. It’s easy to say and is gender neutral.

I placed a black-eyed Susan flower on the tiny ledge outside the birdhouse entry only a couple inches from the expressionless frog. Did Hyla even care about my gift?

Minutes later a small fly hovered in front of the flower and in a flash Hyla’s tongue rocketed out and the fly became breakfast! I hurried in for a scrap of paper and pencil to scratch out a second two-minute poem: 

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz called it “holistic contemplation.”
I set the prairie bloom on the step, not for decor,
but for pollinating insect temptation.

With the patience of Buddha 
the tree frog practiced being.
A bug buzzed in, a tongue flashed and all was gooda.

On the third morning, I stole a glance from inside the house through the deck window for my little friend. Nothing. Really?

I opened the door for a better look. As it swung, I felt something brush my head. I thought it was the lilac branch that is starting to bend over the deck. But the feeling was not a gentle stroke as much as it was a plop. I looked at my feet and there was a sprawled Hyla, legs and toes extended on the deck. 

I had obviously disturbed the frog from its narrow hideout between the top of the door and the door jamb.

Tree frogs use their sticky toes to gain nocturnal hunting perches on glass windows and doors. Attracted to the indoor lights, nighttime insects will hover or sit on the exterior of the glass, making easy pickings for the frogs.

There was no Hyla on the fourth day . In fact each following day was made more lonely as I sipped my coffee.

A week later, I was pleased to find Hyla sitting at the entrance of the wren house. I ached to have a human-to-amphibian chat. I would have asked, “Where did you go? A pilgrimage? Chasing the opposite sex? An escape from . . . me?”

Then there was another series of days without a Hyla spotting.

Until the other night when Miss Nancy and I were relaxing on the deck, reading aloud. I was seated only a couple feet from the wren house.

I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning my head I met the wide-eyed gaze of Hyla who had just poked out of the wren house. The frog bore the sagacious look of an ancient philosopher as it tilted its head towards me. It was as if the frog was shifting to better listen to Scott Russel Sanders’ thoughts on stewardship of natural systems. 

I could swear Hyla tipped its head in agreement.

Note: None of these photographs have been digitally altered. Hyla is not shy.

Climb on!

Stretching out over the driveway is a reach of wild grape vine. During daily walks to the mailbox I’ve been noting its growth. Its parent vine twists and climbs up a tangle of willow growing next to our drive. It does not have its own stout stem so it has evolved to pull itself higher against gravity using the anchor of other trees or structures. 

Mountain climbers hammer metal pitons into the cracks along their climbing route. These become anchors to affix their climbing ropes. 

Similarly wild grapes provide their own organic pitons. Slim green tendrils blindly reach out from the ascending vine and seek anchor points by snaking themselves around nearby tree branches, wires or any firm structure. Once anchored, the vine continues its steady sprint to the sun.

The vine I have been watching over the past week had boldly sent a new exploratory reach over the chasm of our driveway. New leaves, the solar collectors that make photosynthesis possible, add weight to the reaching vine and it is clearly losing its pathfinder advantage to gravity as it droops earthward. 

The vine’s stretch is something to behold. Like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece, Hands of God and Adam, the tip of the curling tendril appears to plead for connection.

Ultimately grape vines will summit in the canopy of a tree where it will spread its photosynthetic carpet of foliage. Sometimes the weight of the vines, foliage and fruit can pull a weakened limb out of a tree and then all comes crashing down. And once again the intrepid vine will snake its way to another nearby ladder.

Late spring or early summer is when the broad leaves can be gathered for stuffed grape leaf rolls. I collect tender leaves near the tip of the vine that are roughly four inches across. 

You can use your imagination in making the filling but I recently used cooked rice, shredded salmon, chopped shitake mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and caramelized onions with a couple of cloves of minced garlic and some other favorite spices. Nuts are also a nice option and chicken or lamb is also good.

We like to blanch the leaves for a moment to make them supple for easier rolling. You can also marinate grape leaves in olive oil, vinegar and salt and store in a wide mouthed jar in the fridge for future use. 

Remove the leaf stems, spoon a tablespoon of filling on the flattened leaf and roll it starting from the leaf base. Then fold the leaf sides towards the center covering the stuffing. Continue rolling the leaf towards its tip creating a short, cigar-shaped morsel. Apply a bit of olive oil to the grape rolls before eating. These are simple and delicious. 

I need to head up to the mailbox and make my daily observation of the futile effort of one bold grape vine. But hey, if you don’t dare go where no grape has gone before how does one reach out to new possibilities?

Unseasonable Visit to the Deer Shack

For over thirty years I’ve made the annual November pilgrimage to the deer shack. I’ve only been there in autumn and winter. However, with an opportunity to help maintain a seven-mile section of the 300 plus miles of Lake Superior Hiking Trail, my wife and I couldn’t resist a first summer visit to the old shack. 

Rather than stay at a motel, we opted to don our backpacks, swing our legs over our mountain bikes and spur our “bush ponies” into the wilds. 

It was a hot day when we pedaled away from the car and headed down an old abandoned road. There are no public roads within a mile of the shack. With the dry summer conditions we made surprisingly great time and arrived at the lush jungle of tall cow parsnip and curly dock that almost hid the front of the shack. Both plants are edible and if necessary they could provide nutritious condiments to the sandwiches we brought in. 

Pushing open the unlocked door, we were pleased to see the shack clean and in good shape. The interior atmosphere reminded me of the torturous “hot box” used to house Lt. Colonel Nicholson in the epic war movie, The Bridge Over the River Kwai. With only three small, fixed windows with no screens, there was no way to air out the stuffy shelter other than to keep the door open for a while.

High on the wall, above an upper bunk is a faint penciled declaration of the shack being built and the names of the handful of builders. The date was July 4, 1940. 

Years ago one of the late builders was reminiscing of that summer day. It was hot. “The next morning the black flies were so bad they looked like pepper in the pancakes.” Luckily they had the river to refresh themselves and fetch drinking water.

Before bed, Nancy and I bathed in the rapids of the nearby river to cool our bodies down. It felt good to lie down on the old bunk for the night but the goodness didn’t last. Whether it was a squadron or just a patrol of insurgent mosquitoes, they managed to sing in our ears and sneak in for a bite. 

In an hour our sleeping sheet was littered with the carnage of self-defense. Eventually the temperature started to cool down. Surprisingly we finally slept and sometime during the night found ourselves pulling the sleeping bag over us. 

The next morning we cycled to a rendezvous point to meet the work crew. With the pandemic in progress, we kept ourselves a good distance from each other while instructions were meted out. We spent the warm day clearing brush and fallen trees from the trail.

When we returned to the shack after the work day, we jammed scraps of tissue paper in any opening of the nearly 80-year-old walls to prevent a repeated mosquito incursion.

The next morning, we breakfasted on our hard-boiled eggs, banana bread and coffee while sitting in the front “yard.” We relaxed by pressing wild flowers and writing in journals. 

Last November I had noticed that every page of the shack journal had been scribed on so we packed in a blank notebook. This would be the third shack journal over the last thirty or so years. Sadly none were kept prior to that. Most of the entries are from strangers who discovered the charm and shelter of the shack. 

I came across an entry from “George” penned back in June 2002: I decided to day hike (without pack) and see the area in detail when I happened upon this wonderful deer shack. I figured I owed myself a relaxing time with a chair and table so I stayed here.  It was nice to get cleaned up, been out here since Wed. 5/29/02. I’m in no hurry but tomorrow I’ll be on my way THANK YOU VERY MUCH for the chance to stay here.

We tidied up the shack, put on our packs. Before pedaling off, I turned for a last look. Thank you dear Deer Shack.


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