Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Walk in the Woods

The green city population sign near the David Dill Taconite Trail on Highway One, doesn’t tell the whole story.  First, Ely’s population seems to ebb and flow with the seasons and because the snowbirds leave before the white stuff arrives and return after it leaves our waistline grows after the ice retreats.  Second, on the edge of town, in the middle of town, and definitely in the Superior National Forest that surrounds our little hamlet, wildlife is abundant and surprisingly not too shy.

We’ve seen lynx in town, deer on a regular basis, wolves on the outer streets, small mammals (or smammals) are commonplace.  I’m sure at some point in the not to distant past a moose or two has sauntered across the city lines.  On our honeymoon, my wife and I were shopping at what was then Hill’s Wilderness Canoe Outfitters and a yearling black bear sidled right into the side door and raised himself up on a rack of paddling shirts.  Jen turned to the cashier and asked, “Does he shop here often?”

We share this space with those of four feet, not to mention the wide variety of avian neighbors that we have.  It is one of the things that makes Ely and the Boundary Waters a wonderful place to call home.  

The Taconite Trail knifes through the edge of Ely and bisects both Highway One and Highway 21 on the other side.  It is trafficked most during winter months as a snowmobile trail and as I walked it last night, it sported ATV tracks.  At this time of year about half of it is dry, a quarter is soft and another quarter is wet.  The wet parts vary from ankle deep or deeper water that is pure ice melt and about 39 degrees to liquid mud.  I wore running shoes and broke through ice several times to fill them with water.

Early spring in Ely always holds on to snow and ice patches in the woods mostly due the protective shade from the trees.  Unless a trail is wide and on high ground and doesn’t have tall trees overhead, snow and ice will prevail for weeks to come.  We’re still dropping down into the low thirties and high twenties at night and have yet to climb steadily out of the mid fifties during the day.

The Taconite is a rolling up and down walk for much of its course and meanders through a variety of woodland trees dotted with granite outcroppings and a few wide open meadow spaces.  Towards the edge of the city limits over by Highway One, the trail intersects the burn area from a couple of years ago when a power line fell and ignited a fire that threatened to advance to homes.  In the end that fire was responsible for taking out one or two outbuildings on private property, but no homes.  Through a timely, skilled and valiant effort, Ely was saved by fire fighters and fire fighter pilots!

I was walking hard, exercising, for most of the trail, but I did take some time to smell the roses or swamp fringes as it were.  And.  Time. To. Listen.  The birds were out enjoying the extended sunlight.  I heard distinctly a powerful stamping of a large dear, probably a doe, but because everything around was a dull mud brown, I couldn’t spot her amidst the red of the ash saplings and the brown of the red pine trunks.  The hummocks of grass hid the few frogs that called out with high reaching belches of sounds so close to the small bird calls that it was hard to tell them apart.  The robins were back.  Two days before on the same trail, Jen spotted a secretive beaver.

I wished at this point that I'd brought along a book that my boss, Steve Piragis, just reviewed.  Lost Among the Birds.  It'd be a relaxing cap to the evening to sit and read while the sun went down, but it was getting colder and I needed to move on.

I discovered a couple of piles of wolf scat.  From then on I felt (no, not followed) but at home.  Like I’d made it far enough into the wild to enjoy the new sun on my back and the sounds of nature all around, that didn’t include civilization powered chainsaws, cars or music.  The music up ahead was some of the most beautiful and original ever heard.  Never the same score, always a new melody with running water.  Water flowing over root and rock.  In this case water that had carved out a valley for itself under a frozen patch of snow.

It was the kind of place I’d have liked to stay for hours as a kid.  Floating leaf boats and twigs through the tunnel and out into the wetlandish lowland marsh on the other side.  It would be a good place to sit and journal or appreciate the sunset.  I left it after a brief respite knowing that the next time I walked this trail it would be transformed into just another muddy patch across my path.

There are places in the world where everything comes close to staying the same.  Ely isn’t one of them.  Here we are always in flux.  “If you don’t like the weather,” my Grandfather used to say, “wait a moment.” (and you might not like that either)  Northern Minnesota keeps things interesting.  Which is one of the reasons there’s always something new the locals are talking about when you arrive to visit. 

What happens when you escape to the wilder areas though, still remains the same, though varied in our perception and experience.  Just a few steps or paddle strokes away from everyone else it is inevitable that you will find a freedom of spirit, a lightening of your load as stress is lifted off your shoulders.  Truth.  Sometimes it is replaced by a heavy portage pack, but that is a burden we gladly take upon ourselves.  One that makes each day more fulfilling when we slip it off at the end of the day or part way down the trail to lean upon and reflect how real this all is, and how it is worth protecting no matter the cost.

That’s where my trail took me, where does yours lead?

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