Think upon a maple in November:
Just standing dormant, drab in shades of gray.
It had color, scarcely I remember;
When first its spectrum faded, I can’t say.
Recalling vernal days when blooming bells
rang hope for verdant clouds to fill the wood.
Then later raised to glow when autumn fell,
the acer blazed in glory where it stood.
‘Til the wind and rain stripped off its vigor;
its impetus now lifeless on the ground.
Fallen, leaves it barely stand in rigor,
and yet suppose there might be promise found.
For in dregs of winter it will offer
sweet returns that spring from hidden coffer.
I know the secret you have concealed
there, when the daylight is shining bright.
You seem small, subtle, without a force;
But comes the darkness
and your luminescent codes of Morse
will dance to entrance the ebon night
as your significance is revealed.
With the turn of a bit | and a boy in embrace,
They take mallet in hand | to pound spiles into place.
The quick lick of a drip| puts a smile on his face,
As the trees fill the pails | in a slow, patient pace.
It was a good year for a sap run. Unfortunately, I have been too busy to full enjoy it or cook all of the sap that I could have… But I did manage to get almost 30 taps in and ended with just under a gallon of syrup. I could have cooked at least three times that amount with the taps I had in, but time didn’t permit more than one day of cooking, and I wept as gallons of spoiled sap were later dumped.
My junior had a great time tapping trees. From turning the bit and brace, to pounding in the century-old heirloom spiles now being used by the fifth generation. I recall licking the sap drips as my grandparents cooked sap on the north shore of Mille Lacs. As far as I know, my grandpa’s dad started the Hall family tradition when he came to Minnesota from Indiana, though it’s possible syrup stretches back further into the family history.
When cooking at my grandparents, they would use an old sorghum pan my great-grandfather had purchased for $11 from a Montgomery Ward catalog. It’s got leaks and patches and many nuances, so it’s probably best that heirloom is retired.
There isn’t a lot else to do outdoors in late March in northern Minnesota, so syrup season comes at a perfect time. In order to fully embrace a day being productive in the woods, we planned a feast of outdoor cooking while the sap boiled. Maple Sriracha Chicken Kebabs. Maple Pecan Sweet Potatoes. Lamb Kebabs. All cooked on an open fire in the woods. Also a tasty treat— ladling a hot cup of semi-syrup-sap from the pan and adding some peppermint schnapps.
I have fond memories of cooking syrup with my grandparents, and I look forward to moving the family tradition forward.
It’s been a full schedule with little time to get into the woods… but I had a few hours un-allotted and so I set out to ski a chilly February morning at the nearby Bass Brook WMA by Pokegama Dam. Temperatures were hovering just above -10F. I was hoping to see an owl or some other good bird activity, but the woods were pretty silent.
When I first passed through the gates, I was greeted by a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers, but after that not too much for birds. A distant crow, a distant blue jay, and a moment of company from some gregarious chickadees and nuthatches. Nothing more.
There was evidence of single track grooming a week or so before, but that had been covered in a light layer of snow. One set of boot prints accompanied by a dog. Some disturbance on the trail by romping deer with no respect for trail etiquette. The two hours spend on the trail on a chilly, overcast morning were refreshing in winter solitude.
A third annual BWCA winter camping trip was planned with some college buddies. Last year 2018 we were on Wood Lake and bottomed out at -27F. The forecast for our planned 2019 weekend suddenly turned to look to be as cold or colder. For that and other reasons, we had a last-minute change of plans to camp in the Chippewa National Forest instead.
Last year we squeezed five guys into my 3-man Snowtrekker, but this year it was down to just four, so we were much comfier.
We set up camp and gathered plenty of wood, expecting the evening temperatures to plummet. It started with a lot of smoke choking us in the setting sun, and finally blazed to a warm and welcoming fire. As we sat comfortably around our campfire in the dark, I scarcely believed the local temperature reading of twenty-something below zero… until I stepped away from the fire and wandered up the hill to the thunder box, or stepped out onto the lake to see the stars. Then the cold would bite, and I’d agree with the degrees claimed by my weather app.
With a stove taking off some of the chill, and a doubled sleeping bag set-up, I stayed cozy all night through. Without a doubt, pre-made breakfast burritos and a hot cup of coffee are the best way to get going in the morning after a cold night in the tent. All-beef sausages heated in the pan are also great fuel for the inner fire.
Winter camping can be cold… but there is no comparison the solitude of winter in the woods, the freshness of breathing the cold, crisp air, or the satisfying warmth brought by each sip of cocoa, tea, or coffee.
Three days and two nights were well-spent in the woods. I’m looking forward to the next sub-zero adventure.
We had planned a day of birding at the Sax-Zim Bog. The forecast kept dropping, but we stayed true to the plan. Even the day before, when we saw a forecast of -20F.
The morning we drove over, we watched the car’s thermometer drop down, down, down. For the most part it hovered around -27F, but once we reached our first destination it settled in at -30F.
It was a cold day to be in the woods, to be sure, and so after starting out freezing our faces on the bog boardwalk, we retreated to do most of our birding (though not all) from the comfort of inside the car. It was a good start to the day, however, seeing an uncommon Black-Backed Woodpecker pecking away out in the cold.
Here is the days’ list in its entirety, with a few favorites in bold:
and on the way home:
Rose-colored plate glass
shatters in the dimming light
fractured by branches
Flakes of rusted iron
shiver in the wind.
All others long since
shed their scales;
But these are last
ones to give in.
Just for interest, here’s a quick list from October 6 & 7- in my yard, at Suomi Hills, and hunting the Mississippi near Ball Club:
Great Blue Heron
Yellow Rumped Warbler
Dark Eyed Junco
As walking on pillows-
on damp pillows-
on damp, carpeted pillows
of emerald and gold leaf,
and red velvet cake;
Each step I take unboldly.
I wince and apologize
for the compression,
impressions that materialize
with every step.
With each step my foot tries
to step gently,
but the lightest step feigned
isn’t feather enough;
And it’s a tough terrain,
like lumbering through those
piles of drifted snow,
searching for new,
simpler ways to go.
Exhausted, slow, subdued,
and not half-way across it,
I stop and nestle down
upon an ottoman-unorthodox.
My tired body sinks.
I think a paradox:
This waterbed, so tiring to traverse,
but so relaxing to lounge.
I beg pardon to the pillow deflating;
weighted by my rest.
In duress I straighten
and rise from the sponge, continuing on
toward the far sedgy edge
where the green walls rise and billow
Stumbling late through pillows
of emerald and gold leaf, and
moist red velvet cake;
I wince with every tired step,
for dents that I make.