Held Hostage by Wild Animals

It seems lately as if several species of wild animals have been stopping Russ and I from our normal activities. These include a song sparrow, mallards, and wasps.

It all began on Fourth of July weekend when, in preparation for mowing, I was cleaning up sticks that had fallen from the many birches that abound in our cabin yard. Every time I approached our fire ring to drop off a load of sticks, a small brown bird would fly away.

I thought the bird was coming from inside the fire ring. I looked around for evidence of a possible nest there but could not find any. So, I mowed the yard.

Song sparrow eggs. Image credit: Rich Mooney

I mentioned the mysterious bird to Russ, saying I thought maybe it had a nest nearby. It was later in the day when Russ was moving a pile of sticks we had a few feet away from the fire ring into the ring so we could have a major 4th of July blaze that he called me over. “Look!” he said, pointing to something at the base of the brush pile. Sure enough, it was a nest with a clutch of four to five eggs inside. The eggs were bluish-brown and spotted. The mother bird was nowhere to be seen. I must have traumatized her with my mowing.

We quickly added some sticks back atop the nest in a poor approximation of the shelter the pile had offered before. Then we hightailed it away from the fire ring. We didn’t want to encourage the mother to stay off her nest any longer than we already (unintentionally) had.

The day was warm, so I hoped the eggs had not suffered greatly from the mother’s absence while I had mowed. Still, we worried we may have scared her away forever.

A few hours later, I couldn’t help but check to see if she had returned to the nest. I carefully approached and peered through the grass and brush. The bird was back! I slowly retreated to leave her in peace.

Our plans for a fun campfire with friends and relatives over the 4th of July holiday evaporated. If we had a fire, we’d be baking some poor baby birds in their eggs. We didn’t want that on our conscience. When our cabin guests arrived, we let them know why we wouldn’t be having any fires that weekend. They were good sports about it.

Then, the evening before we were to return home, I was about to go out to our dock and retrieve my paddleboard, which was attached to a dock pole with its leg strap. Storms were supposed to roll in by morning and I wanted my board safe inside the boat house.

As I looked out the cabin window at my paddleboard on the lake in the evening gloom, I noticed an unusual dark shape on our dock. It looked like a duck was sitting there, right above where my paddleboard was wedged in the water between two of the dock supports.

A mother mallard and her ducklings. Image credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

I mentioned to Russ that we had a duck on our dock, and when he looked at the scene, he discerned a bunch of smaller shapes on my paddleboard. We’d seen a mother mallard and her four ducklings swimming around our dock earlier in the day. Could they have decided to stay the night?

I took a closer look, and sure enough, the mother mallard was guarding her brood, who were nestled all cozy and cute against the life jacket I had strapped to my paddleboard.

What kind of heartless human could disturb them? Not me. I decided that stowing my board could wait until morning.

Of course, in the morning when I checked, baby duck poop covered my board. The ducklings must have spent the entire night on it. But that was easy enough to clean. I just turned the board over so that the top of it soaked in the lake for a while.

The next weekend we did not return to our cabin since we were on a trip to Isle Royale National Park (which I will describe in a later post). When we returned home from that excursion, Russ got stung several times while he walked up our back steps.

Wasps had built a hive in our absence under the top step. They were coming and going from a small crack between two boards. We couldn’t easily see the nest from underneath due to the cover provided by our day lilies.

What the heck, were the animals taking over? I mean, I’m an animal lover, but I was beginning to feel nervous.

Inconvenience by birds is one thing. Wasps are something different. I’m all for leaving wildlife in peace, but not when it comes to them controlling ingress and egress from my house.

We were too busy to deal with the hive for a few days, so we used the front door of our house instead. It was inconvenient, but better than risking stings.

One evening, when we hoped the wasps were drowsy, we donned our head nets and gloves. We used a broom handle to lay down the lilies along the side of the porch to see if we could pinpoint the hive’s location to spray it with some deadly wasp and yellowjacket foam.

I could not see where the hive was and I really didn’t want to stick my head any farther under the porch in this attempt, so Russ and I decided to spray the foam through the crack the bees were using to enter their hive.

This seemed mostly successful, although a wasp or two were still flying around the next day, so I put on my brave lady pants and stuck my head under the porch far enough to get a good shot at the nest with the spray this time. The nest wasn’t that large, and no insects emerged from the porch crack when I sprayed it, so maybe they were all gone by then. For good measure, we sprayed the crack one more time.

I think we successfully reclaimed our porch.

The next time we visited our cabin, we checked the nest by the fire ring and it was empty. It had been two weeks since we last saw it. I wondered, could the nestlings fledge that quickly? I hoped they could, and that the emptiness wasn’t because the mother had abandoned the nest.

A song sparrow. Image credit: Steven Mlodinow

As we sat around the fire ring that night enjoying a crackling fire, a song sparrow sang from the woods nearby. With its trilling notes, it almost sounded as if this bird were thanking us for allowing her to nest in peace. Could it have been a song sparrow that had been holding our fire ring hostage previously?

I looked up the bird’s appearance and what its eggs looked like on the internet. Yes, I think it must have indeed been a song sparrow. The site I visited said that song sparrow young can fledge in 10-12 days, so it’s possible that the empty nest could have signaled a successful brood – they would have had enough time to fledge while we were gone.

The other thing the site said was that song sparrows can have up to seven broods in a season and that they often use the same nesting site.

The next day when I mowed the lawn, I made sure to aim for that nest.

Trillions of Trilliums

Great white trilliums, Trillium grandiflorum

When Russ alerted me to the presence of trillium wildflowers as we cycled along the Munger Trail near Duluth, I leapt off my bike, dug my phone camera out of the seat pack, and haphazardly laid my bike on the shoulder as I scampered to get a closer look at the white beauties.

Russ was probably having a minor heart attack at my treatment of my bike, but the sight was worth a little equipment abuse. You see, trillium blooms only last for a short window of time each spring. Because I’ve missed seeing them the past few years, I didn’t want to miss the spectacle this year.

The flower’s three white petals make it easy to recognize. Sometimes they turn pink when stressed by cold or aging. They don’t have a scent, but for me they epitomize the North and the glories of living life here. They grow in maple or beech forests in eastern North America, as far west as Minnesota. It’s also the official symbol of Ontario Canada.

A pink trillium, which means that it’s stressed out.

This is one flower species best left alone in its natural habitat. If you want some for your garden, make sure you purchase cultivated trilliums, not wild ones that have been dug up. There’s some controversy over whether there are actual cultivated trilliums. If anyone knows a reputable source, let me know!

Trilliums sprout from bulbs and take seven to ten years to bloom in the wild. So, think twice or even three times before you go picking that pretty white flower. It’s really better just to take photos and enjoy them that way.

I took a few pictures of the flowers along the trail, then we continued our ride. Eventually, we turned around and took a bit of a different route back.

After being so excited to see a few trilliums, imagine how excited I was on our return trip to see whole hillsides covered with them! To get close enough for photos, I had to scale a ravine and fend off a million mosquitoes. But it was worth it because I saw a pink trillium close-up as well as trillions of trilliums on the hillside. Note: I did not step on any trilliums in the process.

I ended the ride feeling replete with trilliums, and that’s a rare feeling indeed.

Trilliums as far as the eye can see makes for a happy Marie.

Pelican Spring

An American white pelican comes in for a landing on the St. Louis River, MN. The bump on its bill denotes that it’s a breeding bird. The bump falls off after the birds have mated and laid eggs.

Last week I took the long way home from work. My route took me past Chambers Grove Park, which is in the far western part of Duluth, along the St. Louis River. I had heard that the pelicans were back, resting there on a stopover during their migration north, and I wanted to see them.

I brought my camera in case the birds were close enough for me to photograph. Alas, the experience reinforced my thought that I really need to buy a more powerful telephoto lens! Also, the light was right in my face, harsh and white, fading out everything on the far side of the river where the pelicans rested.

Luckily, a few were flying around, and I was able to get at least one good shot.

According to the Duluth News Tribune, pelicans were “virtually unseen in Minnesota between the late 1800s and 1960s. Fishermen destroyed them out of the erroneous belief that they competed for game fish, and pesticides took a toll.” They mostly prefer nongame fish and do not compete with anglers.

No pelicans in this shot (but they are nearby). I just liked the cloud and water patterns. St. Louis River, MN.

Thanks to environmental reforms and protection, their numbers have recovered. Minnesota boasts one of the largest populations of nesting white pelicans in the world. I thought I’d share my photos from my sojourn with you.

If you’d like to see some better, close-up images of the birds, please visit Richard Hoeg’s blog, “365 Days of Birds” for some great shots.

Despite the snow we’ve been having lately, their presence is a sure sign that spring is coming.

Discovering the Minnesota Discovery Center

We’re in that awkward and dreary “shoulder season” when the snow conditions are too crappy for skiing but it’s still too cold to bicycle or do anything else outside. The trees are bare, what little grass is showing amid the snow piles is brown. It was time to explore somewhere new indoors. So, Russ and I meandered north to the largest museum complex outside of the Twin Cities.

It’s had several names since it opened in 1977 near Chisholm in northern Minnesota. First it was the Iron Range Interpretive Center, then Iron World USA, and now it’s the Minnesota Discovery Center.

Perched near a defunct open pit mine and atop underground mine shafts, the Minnesota Discovery Center tells the story of the Iron Range through exhibits, interpretation, programming, and research materials. It highlights the story of the immigrants who migrated to the Iron Range (or the Iron Ridge, as President George W. Bush once mistakenly said during a campaign speech in Duluth). The immigrants came at the turn of the 20th century to find work in the iron ore industry. Native Americans are also featured.

Apparently, everyone else was holed up in their homes because we had the place almost to ourselves on a Saturday afternoon. We were able to wander through the exhibits totally unimpeded. So unimpeded that when Russ saw a person standing in front of an exhibit, he mistook it for a mannequin until it moved!

The lower level of the center features exhibits about the immigrants’ journey to the United States, examples of what a schoolroom and a saloon were like, and information about conditions of the land farther back in time – geology and fossils.

The saloon

I must have been feeling lonely because my favorite exhibit was the replica saloon, complete with mannequins who were playing cards and standing at the bar. Back in the day in the nearby town of Hibbing, there were 6 dry goods stores, 12 general stores, and 45 saloons! People had their priorities and it wasn’t churches back then. Saloons were social centers where miners shared the news of the day, had a drink, and spent time with each other.

Both floors of the center offer views of the Glen Mine Pit, but I chose to look from the second floor. The open pit mine was closed in 1957 and trees have started to reclaim its banks. The second floor also features a movie theater. With the push of a button, Russ and I had our own private showing of the documentary, “Iron Range: Minnesota Building America.” This floor also provides access to a research center.

The Glen Mine Pit

The discovery center’s restaurant is closed for the season, but their gift shop is open. During summer, they offer trolley tours of the grounds, plus there’s a mountain bike park that opens in mid- to late-May and a mini-golf course. I’m sure it must be a busier place in summer.

As we left, the staff at the reception desk were marveling at the “crowds” that were visiting the center. One exclaimed, “There were four people in here already and we just got eight more!”

They were serious.

Russ and I just gave each other a look and chuckled.

If you’re still social distancing due to the pandemic, this is the place for you. But if you get too lonely, you can at least socialize with the saloon mannequins.

More saloon mannequins

“Meander North” is coming!

Nodin Press in Minneapolis is planning on publishing a book of the “best” posts from this very blog. The process received a boost yesterday when I learned I received a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Commission to pay for the book’s editing. I’ve received plenty of grants through my Sea Grant work before but this is my first personal arts grant, so I’m pretty psyched.

As planned at this point, my “Meander North” book will be arranged by season and will celebrate all things northern Minnesotan. Plus, bonus chapters will relate to bookish adventures and brushes with fame. There will also be some content you haven’t seen before. When asked what genre it is, I answer that it will be a blogmoir (blog memoir).

Thank you, Arrowhead Regional Arts Commission, for the grant and for all the work you do to support artists and writers in this neck of the woods!

Biskey Beauty

Russ and I meandered north to the Biskey Ponds Nordic Ski Trails on Fish Lake last weekend for the first time.

All I can say is that these cross-country ski trails are terrible. They were noisy and crowded. The other skiers scowled at us and muttered oaths most foul. The snow was coated with soot, the scenery filled with skyscrapers. The forest was mangled and misshapen. The grooming was awful – tracks all over the place. And the air held a lingering stench, reminiscent of dried pickles.

If you enjoy the Korkki Nordic Ski Trails near Duluth, you’ll intensely dislike these ski trails because they are like Korkki but with frozen ponds everywhere.

By all means, you should never ever go on these classic-only ski trails. Really, don’t go.

We want them all to ourselves.

Biskey Ponds Ski Trails

A Visit to the Judy Garland Museum

Judy Garland. Image courtesy of the Judy Garland Museum

When I was a child, I used to run around the neighborhood on certain summer evenings, letting my friends know that “The Wizard of Oz” movie was going to be on television that night. I’d hear a promo for the show during the network news or something, and out the door I’d go. I enjoyed the movie so much, I wanted to make sure my friends didn’t miss it.

Our television was black and white until I was almost a teenager, when we got a color set. Imagine my surprise when I watched the Wizard movie and saw everything change to color once Dorothy reached the land of Oz! Nobody had ever told me that happened until I experienced it myself.

Although the Judy Garland Museum opened in 1975, I didn’t know it existed until about a decade ago. I made a mental note to visit one day, and that one day came a few weeks ago when Russ and I meandered north. The museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is composed of a 13,000-square-feet building that’s attached to Judy Garland’s childhood home. Her house has been moved twice, so although the building is original, its location is not. It currently has a scenic view of an Applebee’s Grill and a Home Depot store.

Judy Garland’s Grand Rapids Home

Visitors enter the museum building first to pay and look at the exhibits, and then can access Judy’s home from a covered ramp inside.

We enjoyed seeing the Lincoln Carriage – the carriage that Dorothy and her friends take into the Emerald City. Of course, there’s also the ruby slippers. You may have heard that the slippers, one of at least four pairs, were stolen from the museum in 2005 and then found recently by the FBI. Although they were recovered, they haven’t been returned to the museum and the perpetrators have not been brought to justice.

There are ruby slippers on display at the museum, but they are obvious replicas, not the originals. (Although, the podium is the original podium the stolen slippers rested upon, according to a somewhat amusing sign.)

The infamous ruby slippers.

One thing I found strange was that the COVID arrows in the museum direct visitors on a path through Judy’s life backwards. You first see all the memorabilia from her death and when she was famous, and the displays end with her beginnings in Grand Rapids. I’m not sure if that route was due to COVID requirements or if that’s the way the displays were planned.

The chance to look inside Judy’s home was fascinating. The structure was originally built in 1892 by a steamboat captain and his wife. Judy’s parents Frank and Ethel Gumm purchased it was their first family home in 1919. They moved out in 1926 to California. The house was first transplanted in 1938 to make way for a hotel, which was never built. It was brought to its current site in 1994.

While touring the house, visitors are treated to piped-in Judy Garland music. I found that was what I was missing in the museum. Judy’s voice was her claim to fame and it felt weird up to that point not to hear it.

“Judy’s crib” in her parents’ bedroom.

Some pieces of the house are original and some contain carefully curated replicas. One thing you might not know is that Judy didn’t have her own bedroom. She slept in a crib in her parents’ room and her two older sisters shared the bedroom next door. Although the bedrooms were much smaller than we’re used to today, the lower level of the house seemed spacious and similar to present-day homes.

On our way out of the museum, we passed the Children’s Discovery Center, where a raucous birthday party was in the works. There’s also a gift shop that I’m sure will meet all your Judy Garland memorabilia needs.

I appreciated the humor in this particular museum display.

I left the museum feeling a bit weirded out and sad for Judy. Imagine having your personal items all out for display to the public! You also get the feeling that she was all too used to having her talent used to make other people money. But I was glad I visited, and feel the museum is a good tribute to this outstanding Minnesota girl.

Evolution of a Sunset

I was supposed to be helping Russ cook supper, but the sunset over our cabin lake was too distracting. At first, I thought it couldn’t possibly get any better. I ran outside to the shore with my camera and started clicking away.

Feeling neglectful of my supper duties, I went back inside to help with the chicken recipe, which involved at least 20 cloves of garlic and wine. Then I made the mistake of looking out the window. The sunset was growing even more brilliant. I grabbed my camera and ran to the lake again.

The orange was intensifying. The purple clouds near the horizon were separating into a zebra-stripe pattern. I clicked away some more. Then I remembered we were supposed to cook veggies with our chicken, so I traipsed back inside.

After taking care of the veggies, my gaze drifted back to the window. Doh! Now the zebra stripes were growing and the clouds were turning pink. You guessed it. Russ just laughed when he lost me to the outdoors yet again.

Since Russ was handling most of the cooking by this point, I had time to enjoy the view without my camera viewfinder in front of my eyes. I felt grateful and priviledged to be in this place at this time, thankful that we own this little slice of shoreline.

Inspired to lofty thoughts by the sunset, I wondered how anyone can really “own” land. It’s such a strange concept, but we’ve made an art out of real estate and all its intricacies. Owning land is as artificial a thing as owning water, or air, space, or stars. We may think we own it. We may have paperwork that says so. But it’s really just a figment of our imagination.

Kind of like owning a sunset.

BUT, if you’d like to own a print of this sunset, I can help with that. 🙂 I’m offering several versions of these images in the “Water” section of my photography website. Just let me know which one you want and how you want it, and I’ll send you a price quote.

Seeing Rabbits

Last winter, a rabbit lived in our backyard, sheltering under our neighbor’s shed. We’d awaken in the morning, shuffle downstairs and take a look out our window on the landing where we could see the back yard. More often than not, there she crouched, a brown cottontail, nibbling what grass wasn’t already covered by snow.

Since both of our dogs died, we’ve been petless. We saw this rabbit so much, it just seemed natural to start becoming a little attached. I began leaving her offerings of dried orchard grass, remnants of our deceased guinea pig. I also initiated a naming contest for the bunny on Facebook. My friend June won with the moniker of “Tater Tot.” It fit – the shape and coloring were approximately right.

Tator Tot survived the winter and this spring we noticed several Tiny Tots scampering around the backyard – her children, no doubt. They didn’t seem to be doing any damage to my hostas, just hiding under them instead of eating them, so we welcomed these new additions to the yard.

I suspect that Tator Tot eventually left our yard for the forest at the end of our road. We sometimes saw a rabbit fitting her description during our woods walks. Her Tiny Tots hung around for several weeks and then seemed to disappear. I hope they, too, found their way to the forest. But they could have easily been eaten by a neighborhood cat or a fox.

I rather miss these foster pets. They were easy to take care of. No fuss, no muss.

I recently read Linda LeGarde Grover’s book “Gichigami Hearts.” LeGarde is a former neighbor of mine – we grew up in on the same street on the other side of Duluth. Her book offers a Native American perspective of our old neighborhood. In one chapter, “Rabbits Watching Over Onigamiising,” she describes how seeing rabbits reminds her of the Native spiritual being, Nanaboozhoo. Now, if you’ve read my book, “Eye of the Wolf,” you know that Nanaboozhoo is a trickster– part rabbit, part human. He embodies the best and the worst of humans and the supernatural.

Tator Tot

LeGarde’s backyard bunnies savored her tulips, necessitating a change the next spring to planting marigolds, which she says the “rabbits nibbled on, but not much.” LeGarde writes that planting different flowers rather than trying to eradicate the bunnies was a good compromise. “We are all here to live our lives . . . We know from traditional teachings that all animals are important to the earth, that no animal is ranked higher or lower than any other in the eyes of the Creator, and that all have a contribution to make.”

She recounted a conversation she had with a friend about seeing rabbits on clear nights in the moonlight in winter, sitting with their legs folded under them like a cat – like they were waiting for something. LeGarde’s friend told her, “When we see them like that at night it is because the rabbits are watching over us, over a sleeping world and our dreams.”

Here in the north, we have two kinds of rabbits: cottontails like Tator Tot and snowshoe hares, which are larger and turn white in winter. Rabbits in the moonlight reminded me of one of my favorite chapters in northland author Sigurd Olson’s book, “The Singing Wilderness,” about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It’s the chapter called “Moon Madness,” where he recounts seeing hares on his moonlight walks.

“If, when the moon is bright, you station yourself near a good rabbit swamp and stay quiet, you may see it, but you will need patience and endurance, for the night must be cold and still. Soon they begin to emerge, ghostly shadows with no spot of color except the black of their eyes. Down the converging trails they come, running and chasing one another up and down the runways, cavorting crazily in the light.”

Olson concluded that moonlight “made animals and men forget for a little while they seriousness of living; that there were moments when life could be good and play the natural outlet for energy.”

It’s comforting to think of rabbits or hares cavorting crazily in the darkness or quietly keeping watch. I never saw Tator Tot or the Tiny Tots at night because I was, well, sleeping. Perhaps I never saw them because the magic they worked was so effective.

When I emerged from my office building in Superior yesterday evening, I was thinking about all this. As I walked, who scampered across the parking lot pavement not ten feet from me? A big fluffy cottontail. She looked suspiciously like Tator Tot.

Two Sides of the Same Lake

A few blocks down a gravel road near our cabin in northern Minnesota sits a tiny lake, easily seen from the road. It’s so small that a football player with a good arm could throw the ball from one end to the other.

On a bright fall day a few weeks ago, I stopped to admire this lake. While the lake our cabin sits on was rocked with waves, this lake was calm in the shelter of trees. Only one cabin hunkers along its shores. Those folks own the land all around it, so it’s likely no other dwellings will appear in the future. Although small, the lake is deep – up to thirty feet – making it a favorite of local anglers. I almost always see wildlife when I visit: mink, muskrats, turtles, osprey.

I had my camera along and snapped several images in sequence, pointing to opposite sides of the lake. I was amazed by how such a small lake could look so different on either side. Below are two of my favorite images from that outing. They got me thinking about how people can be multi-faceted, too.

Ghost Birches
Tranquil Tamaracks