After nearly a week of exquisite rain and cold brought in by the remnants of Ida, today is a different kind of beautiful. The oaks and hickories are catching all the sun and reflecting it back into the blue, warm sky. Faulkner and I took a good walk into the deeper, unexplored parts of the church’s woods. And now I’m heading to the river with the kayak on the truck.
I’m walking across the field, toward the woods, late in the afternoon. With me is Faulkner, a soccer ball, my voice recorder, but no camera. I want there to be no frame to limit the white beauty of woods in the snow. I want to know the scene as unbroken expanse, each dimension pouring its fullness into each other.
I turn Faulkner loose, and he knows where to go. I walk, kicking the ball in his direction, toward the opening at the edge of trees, snow blasting from my foot and up my pants in the motion. Each expected bounce is muffled as the ball stops in its own oval crater. I love these shoes; Merrell is worth every penny you pay for them.
Into. Ahead of me the ball rolls down the trail. These woods have the freshness of an open-minded discussion, and I’m here to listen. The Sunlight is doing some amazing things on the white branches. The outline of white, up the trunks and out the limbs of the largest trees, is just — clean! A sea of Smilax briar vines, red cedars, wild cherries…they all are catching light and casting shadows in a perfect display of God’s artistry.
Why does snow in the woods make a man feel so warm?
Layerings. I’m listening to a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Its voice is traveling through pine branches covered with snow underneath the blue sky. Behind me is the horn of a very distant train. Grasses bend in support of their icy weight, and sweetgum balls stand out in silhouette against the pale openness above.
I keep expecting Faulkner to jump a rabbit and go chasing it out through the weeds until briars stop him and let the rabbit go free. Now the trail opens into a patch of pine needles and moss. And the sunlight is perfectly balanced against everything that is here. I am watching light, breathing it, pumping it through my arteries, and telling Faulkner things he’s too busy to notice for himself. He is happy and alert, running around in his winter fatness. Simple woods. I can never get too much of this. And twilight approaches.
Several small oak trees here still hold their brown dried leaves, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet matches the temperature with its thin, piercing call, but only giving two notes of its usual three.
Another thing I did not bring with me is binoculars. So, as I call the birds to me, I cannot see, in these shadows, what each of them is, but I do recognize a Song Sparrow. Dozens of others come close, staying just out of signt and are not identifying themselves by voice. Now they fly away as Faulkner follows his nose through the weeds underneath them. There’s the soft chuck of a Hermit Thrush, most likely agitated by the calling that I did. And back toward the spring I hear a Northern Flicker yelping its strident single-syllable creed to all the woods within a quarter mile.
Faulkner walked up to me just now, offering me his head for a scrub of his scalp, enjoying this place and my presence in it with him.
On to the spring, now, where water is flowing through the lightly frozen remainder of day. Faulkner runs his usual patrol across the broken fence and up through trees around the ridge. Today he’s easier to see, with snow as the background instead of brown forest floor. Much snow has melted and the flow of water out of the primary spring groundswell is more vigorous than I am used to seeing. I reach into it with my left forefinger and nudge a gray salamander who moves slowly out of my reach. The water is warm, moreso than I expected. And down here at ground level I notice a soft vapor rising off of the pool that is formed by the flow.
Now back up to the trail, I return to the soccer ball that I have been kicking all along this walk, through snow and leaves. The presence of a Nike soccer ball in these woods seems incongruous, but so it seemed in the place I first found it. That’s a story I still need to tell.
This is enough, and more than I can appreciate: these woods, this way. I am at home in the cold. No wind was here, trying to move the magisterial grandeur of snow where it lies and limbs where they accept space in the sky. I’m glad to be walking here now, and glad that this is enough.
Yes, there has been snow! It’s 8:30 AM while I write this, and it’s still falling. There is good coverage of a few inches, perhaps, and the wind is gusting it around like dust. There are flakes moving in every direction at once. Lots of birds have been on my feeders, including, for the first time this winter, Pine Siskins. This calm is a glorious dynamic.
The footsteps I made when going out to feed Faulkner and water the birds have been covered over with fresh snow. Now grackles have made their way to my white lawn — just a few. That’s the third species of blackbird to send a scouting party here this morning: Rusty Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Common Grackles. Depending on how they assessed my seed supply, I might have a yard filled with black before the white has a chance to melt, each a beauty pronounced by its opposite.
I have come recently to learn that today contains the inauguration ceremony for our new president, Barack Obama. I will pray for him, that he may bear with wisdom, grace, and courage the burden that is now his.
I’m soothing my sore throat with a big cup of Irish breakfast tea…milk in first. And now a Red-winged Blackbird becomes the next Icterid prospector. As the birds come and go, the sun is making an appearance. Light flurries still freckle the scene. I think one of the best ways to be at home is exactly this.
August 22, 2008 — BWCAW, Winchell Lake
I recall Friday’s breakfast as the only meal that got complaints, and I didn’t think it was all that bad, myself. Dehydrated instant huevos rancheros doesn’t arouse very high expectations, anyway, but the result drew strong reactions from a few, more for the appearance than the taste, I think. Listening to Jim describe its likeness nearly turned me against it, too.
So we hung around camp through the day. A pleasant breeze blew from the east, moving in the direction we would be paddling tomorrow. We fished, told more stories, installed a dining fly over the kitchen area — or as near it as the available trees would allow. We did the necessary camp chores: cooking, washing dishes, filtering water. But we did no gathering of wood. Dry conditions had caused the Forest Service to declare a ban on all burning, which would include enclosed campfires. A terrible forest fire in 2007 destroyed over 170,000 acres, and the folks there are understandably cautious during dry times. That fire began when a single campfire was allowed to go untended. Every day of our trip we saw the charred dead snags of forests that once beautified the hills and islands of these lakes, and some of it is evident in the background of my photographs.
The way that 2007 fire burned (the Ham Lake Fire, it is called) left some places untouched, and our present campsite was one of the fortunate areas of lush remaining evergreens. Before lunch I went on a solo walk back through the woods, exploring, looking for birds. Knowing it might be rough territory, I wore my rain pants and jacket for extra protection against abrasions. That was a good move, because the thick, thick coniferous understory through which I forced myself shredded the yellow rain pants; better the pants than my legs. Here are some photos in open spots:
The photo above shows a tiny waterfall where Winchell Lake spills across a natural barrier of rocks into a creek that feeds back into Gaskin Lake. Elevation difference between the two lakes is 31 feet. This was a fun discovery. The few birds I found on this walk were Yellow-rumped Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Blackburnian Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-capped Chickadee, and the most common bird of the trip, Red-breasted Nuthatch, which was heard and/or seen many times every day.
Good conversation and enjoyment of the friendships was always going on. Mike did some card tricks. Greg studied my bird book. Brad and I played hacky-sack. At some point during the late afternoon, the wind changed directions and came toward us from the west. The barometer on my watch showed that the pressure was dropping. A weather event was beginning, and here is my journal for the day to offer its prelude:
“It’s a day good for lying in the tent listening to Blue Jays while the wind blows.”
“4:33 PM – I got a nap this afternoon — sort of. It was so windy that I woke up at every big gust that shook the tent and tarp. A swim this afternoon made me feel fresher and more alert.”
“8:57 PM – The wind is really blowing hard now. We’re all in our tents, and it’s fairly dramatic. I guess this is just part of the unexpectedness of camping. Some rain is falling again.”
“9:23 PM – The wind seems to have finally settled down mostly, but the waves on Winchell Lake continue to pound the shore very hard.”
And around 1:00 the next morning, I wrote this:
“I’m lying awake in a storm I do not understand. For about 6 hours the wind has pummelled this lake and our peninsula campsite. A few brief respites gave hope before midnight, but the persistence is baffling. I am not used to storms of this nature. I wonder what is going on. I’m thankful that there is no thunder and lightning, though.”
For Jim and myself, sleep was sparce that night.
August 21, 2008 — Superior National Forest and BWCAW
Our beginning cut a diagonal-section across the width of Poplar Lake. I’m used to kayaks, you know. But canoes have longer been part of my on-water experience, so the stern position of the 17-foot Alumacraft immediately felt natural and familiar. Jim was my partner in the bow. Two other Alumacraft canoes were supplied by the outfitter. The fourth boat was a 16-foot Old Town Penobscot, personal property of Greg and Brad, father and son Minnesota natives and friends of Phil who were great additions to the group.
This loose consist slipped away into the map, verifying its claims. We stayed close at first, our energy high with eagerness accumulated over the months. Neither fast nor agile, our heavy little barges progressed under the fuel of shoulders and abdomens and arms. Eight pairs of arms. Four pairs of men. Two pairs of boats.
One pair of binoculars. Birds were few. Until the final lake of the day, just two species were seen along the way: Bald Eagle and Belted Kingfisher. Finally on Winchell Lake, a pair of Common Loons made their first appearance. Their kind would occupy our awareness the rest of the trip, flying, swimming, diving, calling in the dark.
The sun was warm in between the clouds that passed, and the air was the best kind of fresh. We left Poplar Lake and portaged to Lizz Lake. Then to Caribou Lake, then Horseshoe Lake, and Gaskin Lake. Halfway down the length of Lizz Lake, we passed a sign indicating that we were entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Minimal drinking water had been given to us by the outfitter since we would be filtering our own at the campsites. So by the time we reached Gaskin Lake, several paddlers had long since finished their water and were getting dry, hot, and seriously low on energy reserves. Even though the plan had been to have lunch and rest when we reached our campsite, many other paddlers were there, already claiming all our anticipated campsites. Lunch at the next portage then became necessary, some of us having exerted beyond ability to recover had an accident or capsize occurred. (It was 3:30, according to my journal entry, later.) But after food, water, and a lengthy rest, strength and humor returned enough to launch again in search of unpeopled territory. This was Winchell Lake.
During the next 1.2 miles, we passed two more occupied sites. Then the guys up front signalled to starboard that a spot was available. One by one we made our way around the corner and found the welcome landing. We were in, and the evening was going to feel pretty good. From my journal:
“I’m too much in the moment to write much or well about it. Ants are crawling all over this rock where I sit, and on me, too. The conversation is slow and playful behind me where McCormick is cooking supper. Brad is fishing over to my right from this same huge rock. The sun will set behind a small peninsula directly in front of us. Whie Cedars — small ones — are growing out of the rocks to my left, directly beside the water. Brad just caught his third fish — each one has been smaller than the previous.”
“I’m hearing stories I’ve heard four or five times before — or more. But it’s good. Some of these guys (the three new ones) haven’t heard them before.” …Bringing them up to date with the lore of this group — stories have their best feel when surrounded by rocks and water and trees.
Because of the hard day and the fact we went farther than we needed to, Phil suggested we might stay at this site two nights, resting on Friday and spending relaxed time together. That sounded pretty good, so that’s what we did.