Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: As Eagles Fly North, On the Ground We Wait for Spring

By Shawn Perich

This winter, thousands of Minnesotans became reacquainted with the venerable roof rake. As the snow piles on the shingles, it eventually reaches a point where the sheer weight of the white stuff tests the structural strength of the roof. Homeowners pull snow off with long-handled roof rakes to ensure their roof doesn’t fail the winter weight test.

Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon with a roof rake, clearing drifts from my home and two places belonging to snowbird friends. Although it was 27 below at daybreak, the temperature warmed to a balmy 8 above in the afternoon. Ain’t it funny how 8 above feels warm this winter?

Snow removal may not count as winter recreation, but after a couple of weeks of nonstop work, I was happy to be outside in the sunshine. When March arrives, the sun climbs pleasing high in the sky, regardless of the air temperature. As I was cleaning my roof, the first migrating eagle of 2014 passed overhead, making lazy, soaring circles that inevitably carried it northward. It was a tangible sign of spring.

Down at ground level, winter maintains a firm grip. I wore snowshoes to reach my friends’ places on the Lake Superior shoreline. Before I tackled the first roof, I walked down to the lake shore. Although they say Superior was mostly frozen this winter, the remaining open water has been along the Minnesota shore. An icy, 8-foot bluff, created when an earlier storm pushed pack ice on the shore, prevented me from reaching lake level, where plates of clear ice were piled up like a million broken windows.

I saw fox tracks, but none left by wolves, which travel the frozen shoreline like a highway. This was surprising, because deer tracks were everywhere. Deer spend the winter on the south-facing hillside along the lake, which may well be the state’s largest deer yard. I could see where the deer had browsed scattered mountain ash down to twigs as large as my finger. But I also noted they hadn’t begun starvation browsing—feeding on everything within reach, including less palatable spruce and fir.

It took me a couple of hours to remove four-foot drifts from the buildings. The snow was packed in layers, which made the roof raking a test of my upper body strength. While I worked, another eagle flew over, this time at tree-top level, its plumage illuminated by the afternoon sun. Again I thought about spring.

Returning home I was tuckered out, but a couple of hours of daylight remained—time enough to strap on the snowshoes and take a house-bound yellow Lab for a hike. We’d only been out once on a portion of our previously packed trail since the last foot of snow had fallen. Until then, the dog got around fairly well by lunging through the deep snow. Now he was swimming in it.

Breaking trail where there was a packed base beneath the new snow was a bit of an extra workout, but after a long winter of snowshoeing, I am in pretty good shape. Recently, while talking with a woman who is an avid nordic skier, I mentioned my preference for snowshoes. She likened the motion of snowshoeing to working out on a stair-stepper. This puzzled me until I realized her experience was with the stubby alpine-style snowshoes presently in vogue. The traditional Alaskan-style snowshoes are long and narrow with swept-up tips, so the motion is more like skiing.

Out in the woods, there were no signs of spring. Before the last big snow, the deer had crisscrossed our trail. Now there was far less deer sign, aside from a couple of packed trails. Wolf tracks were nonexistent. Walking out, we took a different route along the frozen Flute Reed River. Walking downstream, we began to encounter deer sign where the river flows through a mature stand of conifers, where snow depths are less. Eventually we came to a trail deeply furrowed into the snow that didn’t look like the deer trails I’ve seen all winter. The trail came down a steep bank to the river and then followed along a rock wall before crossing the river and going up the other bank. It was impossible to distinguish tracks, but I didn’t see any deer pellets in the snow. I wondered if the snowy trench was made by a passing pack of wolves. Heading home, I finally saw a set of extra-large wolf prints. The animal had walked up the road and turned into my neighbor’s driveway.

Finding the tracks was no surprise. The dog and I knew the wolves were around. When I let the dogs out at night, I step outside with them, standing in my shirtsleeves in the below-zero stillness just to listen. Three times in the previous week I’d heard wolf howls. The yellow Lab listens to them, too. It is not unusual to hear howling wolves in our neighborhood. Sometimes they are the rallying calls of a pack or, in summer, the practice howls of growing pups. But on a cold winter night, you can hear the hunger in those deep, mournful moans. From the view of high flying eagle, spring is near. For deer and wolves, long weeks of winter lie ahead.

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