Friday's Weekend Column
Peace and Quiet in the Northwoods

by James Glaser
March 5, 2004

Yesterday we received about three inches of new light fluffy snow and today the sun came out, the day was so bright, and the snow crystals floating down off the trees sparkled.

Days like this are the reason people live up here. The temperature climbed to thirty five in the shade and it felt like fifty five or sixty in the sun. I shoveled off the decks and pushed out the path to the road. I could hear birds singing in the trees and stopped to watch as a squirrel tried walking across the yard. Even though he only weighed ounces, he kept on falling through the thin crust on the snow and he would disappear for a few feet and then pop out and be on top for a while. He was chattering all the way and sounded mad as hell.

If you walk over to the edge of our hill going down to the shore of the lake, you can see a regular animal highway on the ice next to the shore. There is a well trodden path through the snow and it is used by otters, mink, muskrat, and deer. I have no idea of what the others are eating, but this time of year the Deer are looking for tender young cedar trees. If you want to have these young trees grow, you better wrap them in a wire mesh fence until they get tall enough that deer can't nip the top branches.

In the old days up here people lived on venison and would shoot a deer any chance they got, except this time of year because they were eating that cedar which gave the meat a bad taste. Chances are good that the does are carrying a fawn or two now too.

When I went down to Kinghurst Town Hall for the caucus Tuesday night I saw a massive deer in a clear cut close to the Big Fork River. It had to have been pretty old as it had a lot of gray in its fur, but you could see really huge shoulder muscles and it just looked strong.

Hunting season was in November and at that time of year a deer hearing any vehicle would take off for the forest, now with a few months of no shooting; they lift up their heads and look right at you as if to say, you had your chance.

This will give you some idea of how quiet it is up here. I went to town at 10 AM and I was the first track in the snow. The mail lady was a little late today or she would have been there before me. This time of year it is nice to have four wheel drive. Not for driving down the road, but to help you get out of the driveway.

Right now it is six in the evening and still a little light out. It is perfectly still and there is not a sound. You can stand out side and try as hard as you can and still there is nothing. A breath of wind lets you can hear the snow falling from the pines. In the house, when I stop typing the only sound is that little fan on the computer and that sounds loud. It always makes me feel so safe when it is like this. Not that anyone would want to, but nobody could even think of sneaking up on us here. It is so quiet we can hear the footsteps of a chipmunk as it crosses our deck.

Charmaine reads scary books and watches those movies with the creepy music and the horror filled story line. Then late at night she has to listen and the most innocent soft sounds turn into something sinister.

I will go out tonight if it clears off and watch the stars for while. There is no light pollution up here and the sky fills with the Milky Way. I have to laugh, because it wasn't all that long ago that I thought going out and shooting pool or hanging out with the guys was a lot of fun and it was. Somehow though, I have always liked to prowl around out in the dark forest.

I know I am not as quiet as a wild animal, but I have walked up on a sleeping deer several times and I don't know who is more startled by the encounter. You can't go out side at night and expect to walk around and have a mini adventure. You may stumble and fall or trip and fall. What you need is patience. You have to go out in the dark and wait at least twenty minutes or longer as your eyes have to adjust to the dark.

If it isn't a moon lit night and is black as pitch when you get out there, you will start to be able to pick out trees in ten minutes or so and after a while you can see pretty well. That is why deer get blinded by headlights. Their pupils are dilated all the way and your headlight is like a flash bulb for them. Deer can get hurt running away in the dark then, because the light ruined their night vision.

After your eyes are used to the dark you can walk anywhere. If you stand in one spot not moving, it is nothing to have a deer or any other animal walk right by you. The only way they will know you are around is by smell or your movement. After a while when you are out there being real quiet you notice that the night forest is pretty busy. You can hear an animal a long ways away moving through the woods and if you are real lucky you might see an owl swoop down and grab something that is moving across the snow.

This time of year you have a good chance of hearing the long lonely cry of a timber wolf or a whole pack. Maybe you will hear the yips of some brush wolves running across the lake.

There is violence out in these woods too. If you ever hear the scream of a rabbit that some fisher is killing it will raise the hairs on your neck and get your heart pounding, the scream of a lynx or a cougar sounds powerful and even more so in the dark of the night.

What is nice about doing this in the winter is the fact that there are no bugs. I kid you not, in the summer the sound of the millions of bugs can drowned out all other sound. This time of year is cold, but it is so interesting out there you don't think about it and when you come in the house seems almost hot. When you do get back it is time for hot chocolate and when you lay down to sleep you listen for sounds, but if they aren't real close the house blocks them out.

Yes, Northern Minnesota is filled with adventure every night of the week. You don't have to wait for that concert date or that new movie to come out and after doing the night forest thing for awhile it is easy to understand how thousands of years ago, people used the night sky and nature for their entertainment. They watched the night sky and saw shapes in the stars and made up stories about them. A few nights up here and you can start picking out those same shapes and after seeing some of the night animals you will have your own story to tell.

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