Paddling in NE Minnesota

After leaving Wyoming, we drove about a thousand miles in three days, staying at a campground one night to do laundry, and stopping to do some badly-needed shopping. We arrived in Minnesota on September 1 and ended up leaving on the 30th, finally driven out by predictions of a full week of cold, rainy, windy weather. Those 30 days were largely devoted to canoeing.

Above: Northern Flicker, Woodenfrog SF, MN

We explored the very northeast corner of the state, with principal destinations being Voyageurs National Park (staying for 12 nights at the lovely Woodenfrog State Forest Campground) and Superior National Forest, including the Gunflint Trail, and adjacent portions of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Voyageurs was our last national park in the Lower 48!  We have only one remaining unvisited national park in the U.S. and Canada that is reachable by road, in Nova Scotia.

Above: Viburnum opulus (Highbush Cranberry), East Rat Root River, MN

During our time in Minnesota, we paddled on 14 days, with wind and/or rain being the limiting factors. We generally do not paddle when the wind is forecast to be above 10 miles per hour, especially on larger lakes where the wind is likely to be higher than forecast and significant waves may develop. Our cumulative distance paddled was about 109 miles, an average of just under 8 miles per day. Our longest day was a big lake paddle totaling 16 miles. Locations where we paddled included: Lake Jeannette; Kabetogama, Namakin, Echo, Fall, Birch, Sand, Silver Island, Harriet, and Flour Lakes; the East Rat Root and Sand Rivers; and the McDougall Lakes.

Above: Our new canoe, “Tailwind”, Superior NF, MN

We took advantage of being in northeast Minnesota, likely the canoeing capital of the U.S., to buy a new canoe! Our beloved “Headwind”, a Wenonah Spirit II Kevlar ultralight, had carried us for 2260 miles over about 17 years, but it had sustained significant ultraviolet damage since retirement, as it went from being sheltered in between uses, to living on top of our camper all year. The primary effect of the UV was to cause the multiple repairs that had been made to the canoe over the years to delaminate, creating thin layers of very sharp-edged resin, making it difficult to handle. This canoe model has been so successful that it is still made, so we were able to replace “Headwind” with a virtually identical new canoe, which we have named “Tailwind” (a reference to a theoretically possible phenomenon, which, however, has not been reliably observed in practice). This model is 17 feet long but weighs only 42 pounds, a huge advantage in getting the canoe up and down from the camper, and for carrying it. I can still, without assistance, lift this canoe from the ground, over my head, and carry it three hundred yards or more pretty comfortably.

Above: Sparganium angustifolium leaves floating on lake surface, Superior NF, MN

Northeast Minnesota is boreal forest and most of the species present have northeastern affinities. We saw Bald Eagles in numbers almost every day, but far fewer Ospreys. A calling Black-backed Woodpecker was perhaps our least common bird encountered, but we were especially excited to experience a few good flocks of migrating warblers. Most of these flocks moved along almost as fast as we could walk, so the viewing was not always the best, though we had one flock that was nearly stationary for a while. Species seen in these flocks included Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, Black-and-White, Tennessee, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Palm, and Blackpoll Warblers; Northern Waterthrush; Northern Parula; and Red-eyed, Blue-headed, and Philadelphia Vireos. Nashville Warbler was much the most common early in the month, with Yellow-rumped Warbler the commonest after about the 20th.

Above: Merlin (a small falcon), Gunflint Trail, MN

Mammals we saw while canoeing included River Otters, Beaver, Muskrat, and Black Bear. A Least Chipmunk at Sand Lake was our easternmost one ever. One rainy afternoon Eileen was sitting all wrapped up in blankets in her chair, under the camper awning, while I was working on e-mail inside. She heard a nearby White-tailed Deer with two fawns give a snort, and then caught motion out of the corner of her eye, near the back of the camper. She looked up to find herself 9 feet from a large Black Bear that had just walked around the camper, with nothing in between them! She stayed calm, talking softly to the bear. After surveying his domain, he slowly padded off; I got to see him about 20 feet away as he was leaving. Eileen still has chills remembering the encounter!

Above: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster), Gunflint Trail, MN

We did not expect to see many new plants given the number of years we lived and botanized in the northeast, and so were pleased to encounter nine life species. Perhaps the most exciting was seeing Phragmites americanus, a recently recognized native species of grass. Phragmites australis is an invasive, non-native species, which is sometimes suggested as the most wide-ranging plant species in the world. This tall wetland grass, somewhat bamboo-like in character, is found in marshes and along rivers everywhere in North America. Its widespread occurrence masked the presence of one or two very similar native taxa of Phragmites in the U.S., and I have only seen criteria for their separation recently. But we were in the right place at the right time. In autumn, the leaves of the native species (but not the invasive species), which  wrap around and encircle the stem, fall off, exposing the stem to sunlight. The UV in the sunlight causes the stems to turn cherry red, probably from anthocyanin dye, making the native P. americanus temporarily obvious.

Above: Paddling on Flour Lake, Gunflint Trail, MN

Another new plant was Crataegus chrysocarpa, a hawthorn tree. Crataegus arguably provides the greatest identification challenge of any genus of vascular plants in North America, so it is always a cause for celebration when I can nail one down. Polypodies are common ferns in the northeast, but genetic studies indicated that the American plants should be separated from the European plants and placed in two very similar species, creating a difficult identification problem. We probably have seen both species many times, but had confidently identified only one. But fortunately, Minnesota only has the other species, Polypodium virginianum, and we saw it many times during the month. Other new species were two shrubs (Rosa blanda and Viburnum rafinesquianum), two sedges (Scirpus atrovirens and Schoenoplectus heterochaetus), a pondweed (Potamogeton obtusifolius), and a willow-herb (Epilobium leptophyllum).

Above: Young Cedar Waxwing feeding on Sorbus americana (Mountain-Ash), Gunflint Trail, MN

Although we expected that we would see some nice fall color while in Minnesota, it turned out to be outstanding! We saw superb stands of golden Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), yellow Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) and Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), as well as fine scattered Red Maples (Acer rubrum). By the end of our stay, a few tamaracks (Larix laricina) were starting to turn yellow; this tree, also called a larch, drops its needles in the fall, unlike other conifers. By traveling south in October, we can hope that we will “keep up” with the leaf change and so enjoy an extended season of fine fall color!

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