Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Wild Life Experience

Since living here just beyond “The Edge of The Wilderness” north of Effie, Minnesota, I’ve been lucky to have seen some pretty remarkable wildlife. I have seen some of this before, but now that I'm alone it seems wilder somehow. I've been returning to the north woods for decades. I was privileged to have parents who brought the family Up North every year to fish, hunt, and vacation at various resorts and mom & pop cabins. Then one day, with a little help from my grandfather, they bought their place on Johnson Lake, which is situated about half-way between Grand Rapids and Marcel just off Highway 38. Higway 38 later was also designated at a “Scenic Highway”.

Several communities got together to promote the area resorts and marked an historical logging trail from Grand Rapids to Effie known as “The Edge of The Wilderness”. In the earlier days of my memory, Highway 38 was really a mixed bag of sights, and sometimes not very scenic at all. Leading out of Grand Rapids was a string of shacks, old run-down trailer houses and dilapidated buildings surrounded by junk and rusted out vehicles that spoke of poverty not of a playground for tourists. Not a great way to start the Tourism Trail, but if you kept going it did get better.

Highway 38 is an uphill/downhill, windy two-lane road with no shoulder and steep drop-offs. Washouts are common. Fallen trees blocking the road are not uncommon either. The road was bumpy and full of potholes, although it has undergone some serious upgrading in recent years. It was difficult driving, but it was the road to the wilderness lake homes. Once at the lake, neighbors were loosely packed in which detracted somewhat from the wilderness experience. Nevertheless, going to The Lake was highly desired and appreciated. It didn’t take a long walk or drive to escape the speed boats, water skiers, and jet skiers. Roads at that time didn’t have street signs like they do now. My folks always like winters the best. Fewer people mainly. There weren’t the full-time residents that there are now. They weren’t full-timers either until they finally retired. My mom moved up to The Lake first, and my dad followed a few years later. All in all, I think they owned that place for something like 40 years.

Before the institution of “Transfer Stations” there were open dumps. One of the spectacles was to join the dozens of cars that descended upon those dumps at dusk to watch the black bears come in searching for food. Even as a kid, I was disturbed by this. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I knew something was wrong. One of the challenges of bears getting food from people is that they become nuisances. The other problem is that trying to eat garbage ends up actually killing them. They end up eating things that aren’t edible, and getting their heads stuck in things like buckets and bags. Not to mention the injuries. People insisted on getting out of their cars to take pictures and hand feed them. They even allowed their children to do so as well.

Many an evening, we’d be sitting outside by the fire along the shore by the "little cabin" and a bear would amble down to the lake for a drink. They didn’t seem too bothered by us. We were bothered, however. Not because they wanted a drink of water, but because they always wanted our garbage too. Containing garbage adequately so that the bears couldn’t get it was always a challenge. Some neighbors were more successful than others. The ones who were not careful drew the bears in and we all had to pay the price of ripped shed doors destroyed bird feeders, or worse. They were able to get into our metal shed that was locked with all our trash carefully closed up inside of metal cans with bungee cords holding the lids down. However, a hungry bear is no match for a locked door. Carelessness on the part of some people caused a bit of tension in the neighborhood. Besides bears, the raccoons and skunks were also attracted by the smelly human detritus.

Still, and yet, my folks had bird feeders, which fed as many deer, squirrels, and bears and what not as it did birds. A half dozen hummingbird feeders hung along the edge of the porch and provided hours of entertainment as hundreds of hummingbirds vied for dominance and food. Of course, they also attracted wasps and hornets and flies. But it seemed worth it.

Now that I’m living in such a remote location, I’m privileged in another way. Since there are few people, and no lake, it’s easier to observe nature instead of people and people’s foibles. I am near the Bigfork River, and surrounded by gullies and swamps which although not that hospitable to people, it is great for wildlife. Last winter, Nikki, Maren and I saw a moose not a mile away from my house. I’ve seen bald eagles, hawks, crows, and several other species of birds. I even heard sandhill cranes last spring! None this year, however. I have heard the swans and geese this year. 

Last spring, maybe a couple hundred feet from my driveway, Dan and I came upon some fresh black bear tracks. Last winter I had lynx tracks going across my front yard.

The other day I found wolf tracks at the end of my driveway. I haven’t seen any wolves or coyotes, except for the dead wolf on the side of the road just north of Bigfork. I hear coyotes often though. Others tell me there are cougars (which the DNR doesn’t dispute). I’ve seen bears while driving my car either early in the morning or just about dark. Just north of Bigfork (again) I drove up on one that was running along the right side of the road and I didn’t see it until I was just about on it. Good thing it didn’t step onto the road, or we’d all have had a problem.

There are tons of deer and they seem to have a memory of a time when the previous owner fed them in the yard, so they are here a lot. Even though I have a pack of dogs making noise and barking, they don’t run loose. They are confined to a kennel and run when outside, and I’m out with them at all times. I’m hoping to have a larger play area for them this summer, if this damn corona virus doesn’t kill us first. I'm sure the dogs have deterred a great deal of wildlife from exploring too close to the house.

I realize that the Universe has delivered exactly what for years I'd been asking for. I live in an area where I can practice my social distancing without even really trying. I went to “The Dump” the other day to drop off my one bag of garbage and my recycling into the giant metal canisters all neatly lined up with their electric fencing poised for activation. The bears are coming out of hibernation now and are hungry. No more gawking at the hapless animals rummaging through human trash to find a morsel of food. Thank God!

Still, I do have at least one neighbor (he owns the 40 acres next to me for hunting purposes) who allows others to set up bear baiting stations. He plants clover for the deer as well as dumping corn and deer feed on the ground. That strategy seems to have drawn in otters as well! I saw two large otters run across the road last spring from the direction of the feed moving toward the river.

I probably will see and hear more wildlife as it becomes more used to my presence and my dogs. I have a large striped skunk that seems to live somewhere nearby. I’ve seen it waddling fast down my driveway a couple times now.

And then there are the Bigfoot sightings. As a member of SquatchHers, a women-led cryptid research group here in Minnesota, I’ve helped to organize several public “Squatch Chats” in local bars to share stories and collect leads on the elusive creature. Seems I’m in prime Bigfoot country. Great! I’m not sure I need that in my backyard along with the moose, deer, coyotes, wolves, cougars, bears, skunks, etc. Nevertheless, I stay with this intrepid group of determined women as we persist in our quest to find Bigfoot. I remain more concerned about the human animals than of the wild animals.