Category Archives: Notes from the North Country

The Birds At Itasca and Other Matters

When I studied the Efe Pygmies of the Congo, I discovered (and yes, it was me who discovered this amazing fact everyone now knows) that the Efe organize their space in elongated linear trails. They knew all about everything along those specific trails, and their knowledge of other trails was often very limited. If an Efe person spent time living with a group associated with a trail, he* would learn about that trail as well. Most interesting is that one’s knowledge of important things like where to find food (or danger) was based on experience not on general principles. So an Efe off his trail, or another trail he knew about, was not much better than, say, me (after a couple of years gaining my own experience) at having a clue. Also interesting is that there is a relatively formal connection between historic families (you can think of these as “clans”) and regular use of specific trails or sets of trails. So an older male member of Clan X will tend to know all the trails anyone in Clan X knows.

Turns out this is true of Minnesotans as well….

Continue reading here.

Why Minnesota Can't Have Nice Things

In Minnesota’s Lakes Country, what we sometimes call “Up North,” the people have various degrees of knowledge of the land and its wildlife. Cabin people and campers visit briefly and may learn in detail the workings of a particular lake or patch of forest, but are usually poorly informed of the true nature of the landscape. People with “lake homes” (seasonally used cabins on steroids owned by people who live elsewhere) may spend more time in Lakes Country but actually know less about it than campers might because having central heating and air conditioning, a paved driveway, and big-ass SUV tends to isolate one from Nature’s tooth and claw, as it were, even if one spends more time than others in proximity to the wild lands. People who live year round in Lakes Country would be expected to have the best understanding of the landscape on which they live, but knowledge does not really seep into one’s brain from mere propinquity (well, sure, maybe a little) and as skeptics we know that many people over-estimate the value and extent of their own knowledge and understanding that comes from categorical association and undervalue the importance of purposeful learning and research. Continue reading Why Minnesota Can't Have Nice Things

Cabin At The Lake Tip # 3342

When installing a “porch light” (to light the entrance way ans any stairs, and the immediate area outside the cabin) do not place the light near the door as is often the custom. The light is meant to be used at night. Out in cabin country, when you turn that light on at night, 22 gazillion insects will flock to it and form a giant swarm covering a blob shaped area several feet in diameter. If the light is placed next to the entrance door, this makes that door unusable unless you wish to admit about half of the insects (about 10 gazillion of them) into the cabin.

Instead, place the outdoor light 15 feet or more away from the door. There will still be light to see and most (but certainly not all) of the insects will be off to the side.

A sense of proportion

Despite the fact that we observe the world around us everyday, for many common phenomena we have a very poorly developed sense of the important variables of size, shape, position, and motion. As I sit here by the side of the lake and look around numerous examples come to mind. One example arises from a (somewhat) rare phenomenon I’m seeing right now. I’m looking north at a lake. To my right, east, is a cloud looming over the rising sun. The cloud is bight white and the contrast between the top of the cloud and the blue sky above it is sharp, and I can see structure to the cloud … puffiness, wisps of cloudosity, all that. Beneath the cloud is more blue sky, including some distant clouds, then the treeline, and then the lake shore. Although I can not, technically, tell how far away this big cloud is, or how big this distant cloud may be, as my primate three dimensional vision does not work beyond several feet and there is no object for perspective, I sense it is big, far away up in the sky and not anywhere near me. Continue reading A sense of proportion

Cabin Cooking Tips

Tip 1: Get some corn-on-the-cob and a large pot for which you have a tight fitting top. Husk the corn while you boil a large amount of water in the pot (salted if you like, for flavor). Put the corn-on-the-cob in the water and leave the heat on only for a minute, put the top on and turn off the heat. Since there is no more boiling the corn will not likely overcook. In ten minutes or so it will be ready, but it will sit there in the hot water for a long time (did you remember to keep the to on?) as long as you keep the top on.

Variation: If you have a smallish pot, microwave the corn for a few minutes before you put it in the boiling water. You’ll get less long term holding because there is less heated mass.

Tip 2: First, decide if you want to use catchup or ketchup. If you find people objecting to the use of either, call it Umami Sauce. Then, put the Umami sauce and the mustard on the hot dogs BEFORE you grill them. Ketchup, er, I mean, Umami sauce and mustard makes an excellent BBQ sauce. Add any available cooking oil to make more spectacular fire.

Tip 3: The main use of inexpensive bottled beer is to manage the above mentioned fire. Acquire long-necked bottled beer. Hold with fingers around neck, thumb over opening. Shake lightly and using thumb to regulate flow, the beer bottle now becomes an effective and tasty fire extinguisher. As the amount of beer goes down more shaking will be needed. When it is mostly gone feed it to the dog and get another one.

Tip 4: You probably don’t really want to feed that to the dog.


More “Notes from the North Country” here

Photograph by Amanda Laden, used with permission.

Wild Mississippi

A new multi-part special, Wild Mississippi will be first aired on February 12 at 6 Central on National Geographic Wild. I can’t watch this when it is on because I don’t get the channel on my TV, but I copped a review copy and have enjoyed it quite a bit.

Here’s the description of the first episode:

Nat Geo WILD travels to the starting point of the mighty Mississippi River — Lake Itasca in Minnesota, where the 2,350-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico begins. Harsh cannot begin to describe the winter in this region, where temperatures reach 33° below zero. Survival strategies are as numerous as the creatures that live here, such as beavers, bobcats and gray wolves. We’ll capture migrating bald eagles as they prepare for the bitter cold and watch a pack of wolves hunt for deer and porcupine, beavers feverishly work to make dens, and the vole, a creature similar to a mouse, create tunnels beneath the snow to scavenge for food. It is truly a test of survival of the fittest in this freezing cold wilderness.

As you know I’ve written quite a bit about the upper Mississippi headwaters, the lakes, the birds, other things of nature (Here are 40+ posts on the topic, go read them all now!). Our cabin is on a lake that flows via various rivers and other lakes into the Mississippi just a few miles from its source at Itasca; The UMN research station is there and I used to go to an annual conference there (Julia and I have fond memories of our first trip); Recently Amanda has been doing an annual New Graduate Student intake and demonstration thing for the Biology department (and I get to spend that weekend at the research station); I’ve actually done archaeology right on the lakeside, though it wasn’t very interesting; And so on and so forth.

The opening episode depicts, among other things, the very severe winters we get here in Minnesota, and I do not need to be redundant with that presentation, but I can point out a few exceptions to the rule. For instance, there was a nearly snow free year about 12 years ago or so, when I first moved to the area, and various conservation experts were concerned that all those animals that turn white during the winter were, well, not camouflaged. The white bunny rabbits were getting scarfed up by birds of prey and cats, and the white ermines were kind of obvious to their prey, and the white snowy owls were blindingly obvious. This year there’s snow but not much, and it’s not too cold. And the bobcat is moving north and inching out the lynx and some folks up north are starting to hunt the wolves again. The beavers are doing fine. Damn beavers.

(Then there was the winter of year of Goldilock,a Very Cold Winter Night, And a Strange Sense of Empty-ness and the spring of The Mystery of The Returned Outboard Motor.)

Do have a look at this post for a bit of history of Itasca: What I had for brunch: A Trip to Bitch Lake. That is not a profanity. It is a French word. Honest.

The second hour is described as such:

It’s been no ordinary winter. The Mississippi River reached extreme low temperatures, causing an unprecedented deep freeze. Now, spring is in bloom, with all the snow and ice from across the watershed melting, triggering a massive flood of biblical proportions. We’ll see how the inhabitants adjust and fight to survive. In the north, the floodwaters bring a new quest for life. Carnivores use high waters to find meals, while a pair of bald eagles patrol the skies snagging small prey flushed out of the riverside. Coyotes also reap the rewards of the flood by preying on rodents and other small evacuees. Spring not only brings a new hunt for food, but babies also begin to make their debut, including wood ducklings that endure a 30-foot jump to find sanctuary in the high tide. Life is beginning to come back along the river as the weather heats up and brings a fresh start.

This is the time of year I wish no one would go to the North Country (except me) because it is when the migratory birds are establishing their nests, and there is a lot of movement among carnivores. Mink and otters have babies so their easier to spot and more likely to come around. If everyone were to stay away the environment would at least seem more pristine when late June and early July came around.

Flooding on the Mississippi shares a characteristic with that on the Minnesota river (see this post) No matter how big the river gets and no matter how much water runs down it, from a certain point around the Twin Cities and on south, the river is always small compared to the Warren River, which formerly ran down the same channel, and was the largest river that ever existed anywhere, ever. (It drained Glacial Lake Agassiz.)

The third hour, which I’ve not finished watching, focuses on the Delta:

Our romance with the Mississippi River heats up as we head south. The river joins with an even more flooded Ohio River to form a union of destruction that challenges man and wildlife. The water rises at a rate of two inches every hour. Those creatures that can flee, do as fast as they can. Trying to make a last-minute dash to safety, some wild hogs can’t make it out. Wide waters force turtles to look beyond their normal sandy nesting grounds for places to lay their eggs, which become vulnerable to predators. Pelicans flock to the swarming fish and work together to round up dinner. And, by night, bats swoop in to collect moths, using their tails like a catcher’s mitt to scoop up their prey. Not only animals, but people are also forced from their homes as the Mississippi River expands to more than 25 miles wide. The beautiful and dangerous Mississippi River is both a life giver and a life taker.

The bits I’ve seen are quite good and you’ll enjoy it, I’ve never been to New Orleans, the nearby Bayou or the Delta, but one of these days I’m going to build myself a raft and head down there for the winter.

(If you are looking for the videos, I’ve removed them because they were not behaving nicely!)

When is a bird a real turkey?

This post at 10,000 Birds, an item I accidentally bumped into on the Internet while looking for something else, and an unusual sighting moments ago, converge. And, its a nice distracting convergence which I need right now because as I sit here one week before fishing opener, looking at the glassy surface of Hunters Bay, I see fish jumping everywhere. Not only that, but a 54 inch muskie was found dead a few days ago 25 feet from where I’m sitting now. And, the Department of Natural Resources put up a fish weir just across the bay, and they’ve been coming by every morning and pulling out SCADS of keepers (mostly northern pike). I’m not even going to look for my fishing gear, even though I can feel it in my hands and I can hear the plop of a bushy yellow spinner with clipped-off barbs dropping into the water inches form a rise spotted only second earlier…

OK, OK, back to the birds.
Continue reading When is a bird a real turkey?

Why are all the birds dying?

Over the last few days, there have been several reports of mass die-offs of birds, and one report of a fish die-off. These events have been linked, via suggestion but not evidence, to hail, lightning, fireworks, aircraft, aliens, each other, poison gases, and even pockets of oxygen free air. Many have suggested that there may be a cover up. What is the explanation for so many highly unlikely events happening in such a short time period?

The answer may astound you:
Continue reading Why are all the birds dying?

An ironic death

Two weeks ago Julia and I took the road from the cabin to Longville and back and noticed that they had put up a new sign at each end of the curvy, hilly treacherous part, where you drive dangerously high above bogs and wooded kettles with no guard rail and there is one blind curve after another. Of treacherous roads I’ve been on, I’d say this bit of rural highway ranks about … 10 thousandth, but I’ve driven thousands of kilometers in the Congo, so the comparison is not really fair. Anyway, the signs are large like the kind that might announce the entrance to a national forest or the boundary of a state … bigger than the signs at county or town boundaries and smaller than the sign for Yellowstone Park … and they read “Winding road ahead.”
Continue reading An ironic death