A Walk Down the Trail

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We drove our old, beat up Subaru down the dirt road as far as we could. It was the day after the bicycle race I host here in the hinterlands between Duluth and Two Harbors, MN. I needed to pick up flagging stakes I had put out to help keep the riders on course through this tangle of snowmobile trails, logging roads and ATV paths.

I had my youngest daughter with me this morning. She, unlike her sister, seemed less inclined at this point of her development to want to be outside. She liked feeling “cozy” in the car surrounded by her menagerie of stuffed animals, coloring books and other random nicknacks. We finally came to a gate in the road that signaled that it was time to leave the car and start walking to our final destination, a bridge crossing the trail about two miles further up. Silvi seemed mildly interested in joining me, especially after showing her the granola bar we could share after walking for a while.

It was a truly spectacular Fall day. Actually, it was one of many types of spectacular Fall days. Yesterday, the day of the race, had been a classically moody, windy, and at times, very rainy Autumn afternoon. As far back as I can remember, days like that remind me of the frailty of us humans. Those tempestuous days have such character. They ad a sense of drama to anything going on. Many of my racers commented on the “epic” nature of the day. They had been in the saddle for over seven hours. The trails deteriorated to mud filled slogs. The gravel/dirt roads became “peanut butter”, in the vernacular of the cyclists. As I checked them in at the finish line, all were soaked through, mud spackled and weary from the 100 miles of road I had snaked them through. But within a day, I received letter after letter commenting on how great the experience had been. “Epic.”

Today was just the opposite. Bright, low angle sun was warming us as we walked over the rock road. Golden light that can only be seen this time of year filtering through the turning leaves. The foliage color this year was about a week late, but still there were Maples exploding in orange. Sumac were starting to peak in their blaze of feathery red leaves. The sky was only the bright blue you can get after a cold front in late September. Silvi lost interest in hiking within 100 yards, so I scooped her up and put her on my shoulders. I told her she would be in charge of spotting Moose from high atop her lookout.

Within a quarter mile of leaving the car, I was struck by how relaxing it was to just be walking down this ubiquitous wooded trail/road. There are thousands of small roads like this in upper Minnesota. Part gravel road, part two-track trail. They often end at gravel pits, or logging staging sites. Some seem to fizzle out into Alder thickets or spruce bogs. This one, was a classic mix of state owned snowmobile trail and logging tote road. It was particularly flat for a while as it coursed by beaver dams and snaky, dark stained brooks. Occasionally the trail would be hemmed in by jagged rock outcroppings covered in light green and orange lichens.

As we walked, I began pointing out bird calls to Silvi. White Throated Sparrow. Junco. The white flash of a Flicker’s tail. There were still even a few flowers left. Asters were blooming their periwinkle blue stars. Within two lessons, Silvi was able to identify them. As we walked, she asked questions about the other animals living in the woods. I think she thought there were creatures that  “might not be so nice.” I told her that we were perfectly safe. But even still, on this worn down path through the woods, there was an element of vulnerability. I sensed it and I know Silvi picked up on it, too. A breeze had come up and a few clouds were now casting shadows through the woods. What was it?

I grabbed the first stake at a fork in the trail and threw it in my backpack. I had a couple more to retrieve. The bright red and white painted tops of the flagging stakes stood out against the brown background along the trail. On the right we passed a marsh with tall stands of Cattails growing above our heads. I grabbed an older one that had fallen to the ground so that Sil could see the seed laden top. As she carried it, she occasionally brushed my unshaven face. Before long I felt a growth of fluffy seeds accumulating in my beard. Though this walk was not intended to be an educational field trip, I had a hard time not showing her some of the things I thought were interesting along the way. I had a sense that every kid needs this type of experience. The simple act of examining a leaf or interesting rock or “funny looking tree.” Above almost all forms of education, I want my girls to appreciate wild places. Even further yet, I hope they want to travel and live among that wildness. How do you teach someone to love something you do? Would this walk help? What would she recall after tomorrow or a year from now? I hoped she could remember the quality of the light. Or the smell of dried leaves and bog. Maybe the sound of wind rustling through the Aspens.

I looked around and I could feel that old feeling I get when I move through remote places. And even places not so remote like this worn out trail. I had read something recently explaining the phenomenon of getting used to fundamental changes in the natural world during one’s own lifetime. How a person gets used to having few giant White Pines darkening the forest. Or a complete loss of a particular song bird at your backyard feeder. They simply are not around anymore. A kind of dumbing down of wildness. Was this what I was experiencing now on this walk? Had the new norm of white pine forests become dog-hair Aspen stands with snowmobile trails coursing through their thickets? But I should know better. I had experienced true wilderness. I had hiked along caribou trails in Alaska scanning the willow draws for grizzlies. I had canoed lakes that sent shivers down my back because of their remote feel. I had been places in this country where a person is not necessarily at the top of the food chain. I had weathered storms so violent that you pray your tent does not get shredded to scraps. Why then were Silvi and I feeling that wildness today? Why, on this simple walk?

We finally made it to the last stake I had placed on the trail. I let Silvi explore the bridge that crossed a small stream bisecting the trail. The tannin stained water was flowing more lively from yesterday’s storms. As I approached the stake I noticed the pile of feathers in the trail. The Grouse feathers formed a beautiful mosaic among the dried grasses. At first I thought the bird met its demise from the hand of man. But this display of evidence was too random. More likely, a Goshawk or fox had killed this bird. Not much was left other than fluffy down breast feathers and a few from the tail. Silvi came up to see what I was investigating. One thing about my girls I have noticed is that they seem to be OK with the death of animals in the wild. Not in a cruel way. And maybe it’s just because of their young age. Our backyard chipmunk who met its maker seemed to hardly elicit a tear. This scene of life and death was the same. Silvi picked up one of the bigger feathers to add to her collection of treasures. I explained what had probably happened. How the hawk had swooped down silently and knocked the grouse to the ground. I told her that the animal who ate the grouse was having a good day. Silvi expressed a little remorse by saying “poor grouse…” But that was it. No tears. Just life and death along the trail.

I took a few photos and put Silvi back on my shoulders. I told her we were headed back to the car now. We turned and walked away from the stream and the feathers. It was good to feel this little bit of wildness today. Even in its rather tamed form of trail. Somehow, that spark of something bigger than you, or at least other than you, let itself be noticed today. It is an element I need as much as water. I hope Silvi recognizes that thirst, too.

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