Tapping into Tradition

 

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.

Skiing Bass Brook WMA

A5130C80-29C3-4354-BC6A-A7E917D96A4BIt’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.

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Camping at -30F

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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.

1CAC4C0A-2127-465D-A935-E03F327F8C20We 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.

-30F at Sax-Zim Bog

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:

Common Raven

Black-Capped Chickadee

Downy Woodpecker

Black-Backed Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

American Crow

Pine Grosbeak

(Red squirrel)

Pine Siskin

Snow Bunting

Northern Shrike

Magpie

(white-tailed deer)

Evening Grosbeak

Ruffed Grouse

Canada Jay

Boreal Chickadee

and on the way home:

Wild Turkey

Pileated Woodpecker

 

October Weekend Bird Count

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:

Black-capped chickadee
Red-breasted nuthatch
White-Breasted Nuthatch
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Black-backed Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Bluejay
American Crow
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Mallard Duck
Canada Goose
Belted Kingfisher
Brown Creeper
Yellow Rumped Warbler
American Redstart
Mourning Dove
Dark Eyed Junco
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Trumpeter Swan
American Robin
Common Grackle
Bald Eagle
Ruffed Grouse
Wood Thrush

 

 

Walking on Pillows

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,
step respectfully,
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
to intimidate.

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.

Strenuous Relaxation

I’d had a somewhat grueling schedule and needed a retreat into the woods. I took a Wednesday off work and headed out that Tuesday evening to camp. Road construction detoured my drive and added some time, but after arriving at my remote parking spot I hiked about a mile into the woods. My plan was to spend the evening and most of the next day in and around my base camp- to read, to write, to fish, to relax. I should know myself better than that.

The site is in a non-motorized zone of the Chippewa National Forest, but unfortunately a corner of the lake is grazed by a rural but popular highway. Under construction for the summer, I expected there would be less traffic and more peace on that lake. I didn’t consider that dump trucks full of gravel driving on a temporarily unpaved road might be frequent and louder. I was disgusted to see how some previous tenants had trashed the site– the remains of a burned camp chair and beer cans (Busch Light) in the fire ring, a discard can Koozie along the edge of the size, and other bits of trash about. I cleaned up as well as I could, got a fire going, and set up my tent.

Ask dusk approached, the traffic ceased. My company was a group of young people fishing or swimming across the water– the span was too far to really see what they were up to. As it got darker, an angry beaver paced the water in front of my camp and made his occasional, alarming splooshes to startle me. The seasoned New York strip cooked over logs cut from the fallen maple I found nearby was mouth-watering.

I cast my fly into the water in hopes of a trout. I brought in a number of small bass, but only the first was large enough to consider releasing into the pan. I could see in the center of the lake the occasional fish breach and leap, which I assumed to be trout. The same in my usual fishing hole, as I’d fish from shore I could always see trout break the surface much farther than my cast could reach.

The night was good, though somewhat restless with roots and rocks beneath my back and temperatures that dropped lower than what I had prepared for. My thin, fleece liner as a sleeping bag did not so much suffice. Come morning, and that warm water send swirling fog into the brisk air. I heated water in my percolator and smelled the dark roast as the steam echoed the mist rising off the lake. The occasional trout again taunted me, leaping and breaking surface far in the middle of the lake. My littoral casts could once again only bring in the small bass. Nothing quite suitable for breakfast. Fortunately, I had my coffee and my chicken maple sausages.

I had intended to take it easy- to fish, to read, to relax… but in part adventure and trails called my name, and in part the invasive noise from the highway irritated me to go deeper into the woods. I packed up camp and headed into the woods. While the mosquitoes were much milder than a month ago, as I headed into the deep, I came across patches of the pests that kept me plowing forward. A pack weighing 40 pounds or so and numerous hilly climbs kept me huffing.

I vaguely knew the trails, the lakes, and the general area, and I pictured a few destinations I might stop to find my relaxation overall. One campsite I had in mind to be a nice destination on a lake, I found to be occupied as judged by the sound of voices and hatchet chopping. I thought I had the woods to myself, but as luck would have it, the one place I planned to stop is where the people were. Beyond that site, an ancient white pine had fallen right on top of the trail. It was a momentary obstacle course to find a way through and around the branches. Onward I hiked, taking short breathers and brief stops to capture pictures of the wide variety of asters blooming on trail. On one trail intersection, I made the decision to take the extra loop that swung widely north around three lakes. Onward and upward I hiked, finding few scenic or seat-worthy spots.

BB25D04C-50B3-4004-8251-00F82C857B70A highlight far into the trek when I was growing weary and nearly out of water… with weight on my back and eyes cast downward, I saw some large wet rubies on the forest floor. ‘What are these?’ I asked myself, but immediately I knew. I looked up and there was a small tree filled with ripe, wild plums. Or more specifically, Canada Plums, I imagine. So ripe, that with the slightest bump of a branch, it would rain fruit on me. I ate some, and was refreshed by the tart skin followed by sweet and juicy flesh. I slugged the last swallow in my Nalgene and filled the vessel with fruit for the hike. As I finished packing the last orb and loaded my gear onto my back, a chipmunk came onto the scene. It seemed that he looked at the pillaged plum tree, than looked up at me with eyes of betrayal. I had raided his spot and he was heart-broken. I had left at least a few on the ground for him to retrieve.

DA22ED1F-112B-41DA-A8FB-63BB79B21352Onward I trekked, hoping for a quality resting spot to finally spend the rest of a day camp. A long while later, I came to another dispersed campsite, and fortunately this one was vacant, as I expected for a deeply dispersed site on a Wednesday afternoon. I rested and cast a line again, bringing in yet another piddly small bass or two. I turned over a log and found a blue-spotted salamander. The shiny little fellow brought me back to childhood when I’d find these little pets under logs and adopt them for the day. I freed this guy after a 10-sec photo shoot.

A brief reprieve, and I was off again. My feet were getting tender and my body getting weary, but the hilly trail and occasional mosquito swarm were merely inconveniences. Alright, to be honest, there was a good stretch that I was downright miserable and desperate for the end to come. I would circle back from where I had started, passing the campsite I had spend the night. So in actuality, I really didn’t have to be toting my 40-pound pack the entire trek, but so I did. My feet ached, by back was strained, my water was gone, and I was soaked in sweat. Miserable. I swatted at the mosquitoes tormenting an already tortured hiker and yearned to see the train sloping down to the campsite. If ever there was a time to jump in a lake, I thought, this was it. Finally a smiled a weak smile of relief as I saw the long-awaited side path to the site. I stumbled down the descending path into the site, unloaded my pack, and immediately stripped down. I didn’t pack swim trunks, but I was in the middle of the woods alone. Starkers was the only way to swim. The water felt refreshing and amazing and I was no longer miserable.

Then… out of the silence on the lake, I heard the voice of someone clearing their voice. There along the shore was a kayak. They were some distance away, and I’m not sure if they had seen or what they had seen of the scene, but if they had looked hard enough, they certainly saw a jaybird. I casually got out of the water, and on shore I was immediately out of line of sight. I dried, dressed, and trekked back to the trail. I intended to get refreshed, and didn’t intend to give a show, but things don’t always go as planned. I had another mile to hike back to the car, but at least I had cooled off. I looked at the map and calculated my adventure– I estimated about 8.5 miles of hiking hills in my heavy pack that day. It’s certainly not the longest hike I’d ever had, but somehow I was left more weary than a 12 mile hike in the Rocky Mountain National Park I had a year earlier. Tired and weary, I didn’t have the day of relaxation I had intended… but I left relaxed and refreshed nonetheless. Sometimes strenuous adventure can be ultimately more relaxing than lethargic lounging in camp. It is certainly more memorable.

 

More Bad Ideas

88DE9DF1-2B5B-44EA-AD0D-80A6E7E6A134In spite of heavy thunderstorms in the forecast… I sought out a remote trout stream deep in the woods. The air was sweltering and thick with bugs, but I was rewarded with lots of blueberries, dwarf raspberries, and strawberries on the trek. As I was snacking on the bulbous red morsels, I looked to see other small things, bulbous and red, snacking on me. It was a matter of eat and be eaten. Mosquitoes, deer flies, and horse flies. July deep in the woods. Bad idea?

The art of fishing tiny, overgrown trout streams in the woods of Minnesota, I have yet to master or even imagine how to manage. They are so overgrown with willow, alder, and various other trees and shrubbery that it is nigh impossible to access, let alone fish it. No room to cast, especially with a 9′ rod of 5-6 wt. I’ve read it best to go with a lighter weight rod with 6′ length… but even still I don’t know how to manage it. Yet I still remain challenge-accepting. Bad idea?

After futile attempts to fish an overgrown stream in the middle of nowhere, I hit the road and drove an hour or so to a new location– or a new location for the day, but a regular place that I haunt. I wanted to get out to the bog and see if there was anything new in season, specifically to see if the pitcher plant blooms were at peak or not. I was already exhausted from bushwhacking through undergrowth and sweltering humidity, but I decided to go back into the thicket. Bad idea?

I stomped around the bog, retrieved the memory card from my trail cam on some upland, higher ground. Perspired and spiritless from the extension of my adventuring, I hiked back out of the woods, into the car, and drove three miles north for another mile hike into the woods farther up. Bad idea?

The third stop on this humid day was to try for some trout again. I hiked a mile into the woods and found a usual spot of mine. Along the way I stopped to snack on dwarf raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, all the while swatting at the swarm of ‘squitoes and flies that surrounded me. I snapped a few photos with my phone and put it in my breast pocket for easy access. I reached my spot and reassembled my rod. I hopped along the shore to the fallen tree I’d used as a pier to cast past the littoral lily leaves and watershield. I failed to consider that it had been raining for a day or two, and the air was wet with humidity, and I failed to predict that the log I had so easily navigated before might now be slick with moisture. Bad idea. A hop from the shore to the fallen pine and immediately I was deflected right over it. My muck boot filled with water, my hat floated free, and shortly after I realized a pain in my right pinky.

Gathering myself together and draining my boot, I suddenly panicked, frisking myself to find my phone. No where to be seen. I looked in the water. It was still hazy from muck stirred up by my recent disturbance. Yet I didn’t see a phone there. I hoped, seriously hoped, it had fallen out on the trail some time when I had bent over to pick a berry or take a picture. Some time had passed, and the water cleared, and my heart sunk as I saw a silver corner peeking out of some light colored muck. I had left my phone in my breast pocket when hopping out onto a littoral lying log, and it took the opportunity to go for a swim. Bad idea.

End of the day, I went home with a tired and sweaty body, a waterlogged phone that couldn’t be restored, a soaking foot with a boot that needed draining and airing, and a day off for relaxation that turned into exhaustion. Bad idea? or maybe, just enough misery and misfortune to make for a memorable day of adventure.

(Meanwhile, a month and a half later, my replacement phone already has a small crack in the corner of the screen and my possibly sprained pinky is still in occasional pain. And yet, I don’t regret the day at all.)