Jewels of the wilderness
Creeping snowberry is a common vine, but not a common fruit. Photo by Emily Stone.
Just back from leading a “Boundary Waters with a Naturalist” trip for the Museum, I’m turning over memories in my mind. Each one has a unique sparkle or hue; some edges are rough, others liquid; some are common and numerous, while others are one of a kind.
1. In the parking lot of the Holiday Station in Tofte, MN, (“Wal-Mart of the North”) my first bite of that World’s Best Donut told me I was truly Up North. Diamond dust made of cinnamon sugar coated my tongue. Memories of past visits exploded through my taste buds. No need to drive all the way to the official store Grand Marais and wait in line, here was a slice of heaven just before I turned the Museum’s van up the Sawbill Trail.
2. Drops of rain dimpled the silver lake’s surface and sunset turned it rosy. After packing up the supper dishes and making a plan for the morning, I contemplated life at the edge of Sawbill Lake. The downpour and thunder had passed while eight new friends sat under the tarp, and now all that was left of the storm was beauty and a reminder that the weather can, and does, change quickly. What would it do over the next three days?
3. Four canoes fought a morning headwind across Alton Lake, making a beeline for the lee of the far shore and the ruby red dot of a campsite on the map. Pulling up on the welcoming gravel of a shallow, stable landing, we hopped out of our canoes to look around. Log benches sat conversationally around the fire grate. Several tent pads snuggled cozily among the trees. Out in the middle of the lake, whitecaps flashed. Everyone agreed: we were home.
4. Bounding up the craggy lump of granite that anchored one side of the campsite, looking for a view, I instead spotted tiny dangling baubles of hot pink tipped by sunshine yellow. “Sunset flower” one of my friends calls this plant. Rock harlequin, Pale Corydalis, and Corydalis sempervirens are other names. A lovely lace of narrow-lobed, blue-green leaves provided a backdrop for the blossoms. What appeared delicate was surviving just fine with their toes wedged in a tiny crack, a study in contrast. At the time that rock solidified, land plants were not even a glint in Mother Earth’s eye.
5. Even a walk up the latrine trail on a Boundary Waters campsite is as good as a nature hike. “What are those shiny blue berries in the woods?” asked the first person to go exploring. I thought I knew, but took a look to confirm. The berries seemed to float ten inches off the ground in the dim shade. Upon closer inspection, slender stems anchored them to the rafts of shiny green leaves, canoe-shaped and glinting in any fleck of light that filtered through the canopy. Spreading by rhizomes, blue-bead lily, or Clintonia borealis can form big patches in the understory. Picking a big bowl of them would be so easy and satisfying, but these are NOT blueberries, and eating them will either give you an upset tummy or kill you, based on which reference you believe. I’m not offering to experiment.
6. As the only thing sticking out of my sleeping bag, I’m sure my nose was rosy red from morning cold. Hiking up the latrine trail, I noticed a matching scarlet leaf resting on a lichen-covered rock: the colors of fall.
7. Our big day-trip destination was a bedrock knob jutting out of a bog, with three cobbles arranged on its peak, and a boulder resting on top of those. By crouching down I could see all the way through to the shining waters of Kelso Lake. How did it come to be perched like that? Glaciers? Vikings? Bored and playful Civilian Conservation Corps boys? No one knows for sure. And anyway, the bog was just as fascinating.
8. Exploring around the mossy, sprucy forest on the bedrock, I happened to look low under the shrubs, and shouted in excitement. The small, white oval of a creeping snowberry was something I hadn’t seen in years. Snowberry’s miniature, trailing vines are common in cold, wet places, but I’ve never spotted its flower, and rarely the fruit. Here it was. Here were four of them. After everyone had a look, I savored one on my tongue, the delicate flavor of wintergreen and lemon and discovery.
9. Back at camp, our final night. Ben brought out a flint and steel. Sparks showered into the little nest of grass he’d made, but no flame flared. I tried it. Other’s tried it. And then Mary jumped in. Suddenly, the nest caught fire. A curl of smoke rose from the tinder, and Ben arranged it just so under the teepee of sticks he’d built in the fire grate. First it crackled, then it roared. We cheered for Mary and her contagious spark.
10. “The north country is a siren,” wrote Grace Lee Nute long ago, and now I read her words around the fire, eight faces reflecting the warmth of flame and friendship. Nute compared the lakes to strings of pearls, then added, “Those who have ever seen her in her beauty or listened to her vibrant melodies can never quite forget her nor lose the urge to return to her.”
We paddled out the next morning, each of us filled with a handful of sparkling memories and the intention to return.
Emily Stone is Naturalist/Education Director at the Cable Natural History Museum. Her award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too. For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open through mid-March. Our Fall Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.