The Northwoods in Winter

Minnesota's Gunflint Trail

Out on a Gunflint ski trail on a cold January morning, the pine boughs weighted with new snow, no sound at all but hissing skis and your own breathing, you will very likely come to realize that here in the northwoods, nature is the whole show. With few other distractions, you'll have plenty of unfettered time to observe and reflect on the world around you, to wonder at the intricacies of the northwoods ecosystem. It'd take a lifetime to understand its complexities with any authority; all we can do here is try to shed faint light on a few northwoods mysteries.

Trees in the Deep Freeze
Step outside a Banadad Trail yurt into a 35 degree F morning, and you may well wonder how anything can stay alive in northern-Minnesota cold without several layers of Polartec and goose down. But nature finds a way; trees, for example, employ remarkable mechanisms for handling temperatures far beyond freezing. The staples of the northern-hardwood and boreal-hardwood transition forests—trees such as sugar and red maples, eastern hemlock, and white pines—depend on supercooling, in which cellular fluids stay liquid down to about 40 degree F because there are no solid particles inside cells for ice to form around. The spruces and firs of the boreal forest are even trickier—they allow most of their cellular liquids to flow into the interstices between cells, where it freezes and insulates the living cells like an igloo. Jack pines, quaking aspens, black spruces, and other boreal-forest trees have evolved thusly to be able to handle truly severe cold.

Howling Wolves
The howls of wolves—the original "call of the wild,"—are heard more often in Minnesota's boundary country than anywhere else in the lower 48. Contrary to myth, they're not howling at the moon; a wolfpack howls to let the rest of wolfdom know where they are, to claim and maintain the pack's territory. Researchers have determined that howling functions as a sort of "early-warning system" of communication among wolfpacks. Wolfpacks will avoid the deadly violence of face-to-face encounters with other packs when they can. When a pack howls out its presence into the stillness of a northwoods winter night, the sounds can travel up to five miles; any other pack within range must decide whether to stand their ground and howl back, to retreat, or simply to stay silent. A pack in the grips of breeding season, or burdened with young, or with a fresh-killed moose to defend will nearly always answer back to a howl; without these kinds of imperatives, territory isn't as important and packs are unlikely to return a howl. Winter visitors to the Gunflint area stand an excellent chance of hearing this hair-raising, primeval sound—wolves' breeding season coincides with ski season.

Snow Fleas
In the long, deep silences of a northwoods winter, it's easy to think that all of nature has either died or gone into a profound sleep. But next time you're out skinny skiing, look sharp and you might find numerous signs of active life, even in the dead of winter. One common sight on a sunny day: a soot-like ring around trees, which close inspection will reveal to be thousands of minute gray insects. They've got the pep of jumping beans and thus are nicknamed "snow fleas," but they are actually springtails, grub-like insects that have two rear appendages that, when opened, can bounce them flea-like as much as six inches into the air. Springtails take advantage of the tiny pocket of warmth that can develop around the base of a tree on a still, sunny day—the tree barks soaks up sunlight and radiates heat, and the springtails come out to feed in this balmy microclimate.

The "Fool Hen"
Skiers snaking through the evergreen forests of the Gunflint area frequently hear a lot of rustling from somewhere under the low branches of jack pines, firs, or spruces; chances are they're hearing a group of spruce grouse feeding on the needles of conifers. These chicken-like birds were once very common throughout northern North America. But when large numbers of humans began filtering through the northern woods, two of the spruce-grouse's attributes sent it into rapid decline: First, they make a darn tasty backwoods meal; second, they are called "fool hens" because they're unbelievably tame—you can practically walk up and grab one by hand. Spruce grouse also thrive only in large, wild tracts of coniferous forest, and so habitat depletion has further reduced populations. The bird is now protected in many states, and has made a comeback here in northern Minnesota.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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