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March 1999

3/31/99 – I was amazed by reports from our Minneapolis weather correspondent, Kathleen Heikes. Known to some of you as the apple of OB’s eye, Kathleen also doubles as a diligent observer of the meteorological phenomena of the banana belt metro region. She reports that a high of seventy three degrees and strong warm winds, thawed Lake Harriet last night! Amazed, I wondered about our ice, and once again, am impressed at the difference resulting from a couple hundred miles. Sawbill lake has exactly two feet of ice, and a 14 inch blanket of snow sleepily covers the forest floor. However, today’s appearance of a grackle and booms of an approaching thunderstorm, suggest that Sawbill Lake may too ice-out early this year.

This time of year, rocks seem to hatch through the lake surface. As the ice settles and the snow pack melts from above, rocks which protrude above the water, but lay buried during winter, appear to push up. Cracks radiate from these points, and there is a sense of anticipation while looking down on them, as if imminently something may come forth. In fact, in or very near these cracks, otters squeeze in and out. They burrow to the water, taking advantage of the thin ice on top of the rocks and the melting that occurs between the solar heated rocks and ice pack. Neat circular holes, otter size, dive into the cracks. Near each hole were massive amounts of otter scat composed solely of crayfish remains – the otters are living high times. There were so many holes, so many busy otters. I’d like to see them from above with time lapse photography – otters zig-zagging across the lake, lacing the holes together, and heads crunching crayfish popping up smooth icy shoots, over and over, like prairie dogs in a field. Next, a special lens to see through the ice, to watch their sinewy bodies twist and turn in the opaque light, exchanging knowing grins above the perturbed crayfish.

Rocks hatch and others appear to have fallen from the sky, smashing into the lake. After several big winds this winter, large rocks are surrounded by banks of windblown snow. Eddie currents at the base of a rock maintain a snow free collar right down to the ice. The warm weather softens and sculpts the edges of the banks so that the rock seems to sit in an impact crater. The shallows in which the rock sits are obscured, so it seems quite plausible the rock is from above. Thus framed, the details of the rock begin to stand in stark contrast to the surrounding white sheet. Lichens of green, yellow, blue and orange invade the lake canvas like a painting’s first brush stroke. The earliest open water appears near these rocks, as if Spring waited there all winter long. Soon the sky will dab water on the lichens, painting the lake from dawn to dusk, finishing a painting every evening. OB

3/29/99 – Yesterday was a gray, wet day. The sawbill trail was a soup of deep ruts, frozen lumps, and gravel slush. Former crew members Jeff Thompson and Michele Thieman were visiting, and their cars left quite an impression climbing Two Mile Hill – sort of an automobile foot step chart for the cha-cha. Such is the nature of early Spring. A junco just flew by, affirming that last sentence.

Late last night the weather cleared. I watched light, wispy clouds pass the moon like a freight train going by. A high brisk wind carried them noiselessly. I wondered at their destination, and envied their flight through the starry night. Oh to be an angel hobo on that boreal line. Instead, I settled into a cup of tea, watching the moon fade on and off to the cloud’s streaming pulse. The snow in the yard flashed from white to charcoal, and over and over shadowy trees were erased and redrawn. The shadows changed subtly and slightly, according to the passing cloud’s cargo. My eye chased the shadows, trying to fix them, failing just as it does with the northern lights. It was a mesmerizing scene. I stood staring, not moving, my body loosening, as if something inside might lose tether, lifting with the steam of my breathing and tea. Cold and fatigue drew me inside. At six a.m. this morning, the same clouds lumbered past, and I smiled knowing it was not a dream, knowing there will be another chance to cast off and drift, far from port and schedule. OB

3/26/99 – I soared across the tops of the white pines, and glided like a wolf through the forest. Ski skating conditions prevail across Sawbill lake. Early this morning, the old growth white pines, along the campground trail, cast crisp shadows, like cookie cutter voids cut into the bright lake. I skated from tree top to tree top, stopping and standing on some, looking for meaning, as if the horizontal lines of branches folded out from the dark trunk were a giant Rorschach ink blot. Near the Alton portage, the dogs and I followed a line of wolf tracks. She went at a gallop across the portage. At the Alton end, she leaped a huge drift, running two strides parallel to the slip face, and then, with a deep set of prints, across to the other side. The dogs snorted deeply in her tracks – Sunnie squealing and scanning the horizon. Their paws were half the size of hers.

It is warm today, and I have a door open cooling the house which bakes in a southern exposure. The yard is full of a cacophony of bird calls. When I close my eyes, it is as intense and exotic as a market scene in a remote Asian province – as difficult to interpret, too. Yesterday, Mary Alice pointed out the pine siskins, whom I had mistaken as juvenile gold finches. The confusion the crows cause is a mystery as well, as they seem innocuous. Big and dark, maybe they just seem scary, like a big old Wal Mart dropping into the local economy. OB

3/23/99 – Obie and I skied down the Temperance River this morning. We must have covered about ten miles of river. The river froze during very high water last fall. With the water level naturally dropping over the winter and the recent warm weather, huge blocks of suspended ice have collapsed, leaving the river pocked with stretches of open water that are four or five feet lower than the snowpack surface. The huge holes have rounded edges and some have refrozen, so the contours of the riverbed are quite dramatic, but easily skiable. A stiff north wind, combined with the gradual downslope of the river, made for some fast progress. At some points we got going so fast that we dropped into downhill tucks and rocketed along for several hundred feet in this pose. We covered the distance in one hour and fifteen minutes. – Bill

3/22/99 – This may be rash, but I am declaring victory in the Great Marten War of 1999. After engineering multiple new fortifications on the store building and a rapid response to the opening of a new front on the crew building, no marten has breached the walls for three days. Vigilance is vital for continued peace with honor.

Crows have returned to the northwoods, joining their larger raven cousins who are year ’round residents. This morning a crow is timidly snatching sunflower seeds from beneath the bird feeder. One of the many sleek red squirrels has taken offense to the interloper, and is making repeated runs at the crow’s tail. The gleaming black bird seems relatively unconcerned, giving a little hop and a dirty look whenever the squirrel gets too close. – Bill

3/18/99 – Obie trapped marten number eight last night. He had to camouflage the trap inside a cardboard box with a marten sized hole in it. He used a third of a jar of raspberry jam for bait. We are convinced that this marten was trapped inside the building after we closed off every possible marten break-in point. I hope so. I’m getting tired of being outsmarted by weasels. – Bill

Sawbill’s poet laureate, Ed Dallas, sent the following email this morning:

How goes the
battle with the martens? I had some strange dreams last night on the battle.
It seems the National Guard was called out, turn it into one big military
campaign. Tofte was the control center and the had the Sawbill Trail closed
off. A SWAT team was called in with tanks, rockets etc. They looked at it as
a hostage situation, with guess who as the hostages!! Poor Obie was Duct
taped to a log with one mean marten ready to chew him into little bits of
bloody flesh!! The Guard thought the phone calls, the marten’s hisses and
squeaks, was some kind of code and they called the CIA in to break the code,
but they couldn’t. I wish I could tell you how all this came out but just as
the dream was getting to the end the mouse trap in the kitchen went off and
woke me up, I had one dead mouse. Hope you guys don’t put much stock into

Well have a good day and if you need a Colonel to lead the troops into
battle let me know as I am a Colonel of Auctioneering, but the martens don’t
need to know that, just the Colonel part.


3/17/99 – The recent freeze and thaw cycle has hardened the lake surfaces making them perfect for travel. I skate skied to the extreme north end of Sawbill Lake and back (12 miles total) this morning in less than 50 minutes. As I write, it has begun to rain hard and the temperature is near 40.

We are still locked in battle with the local pine martens, whom we have started to regard as outright criminals. After trapping seven of the little buggers and blocking every possible entry to the store building, they chewed the corner out of the wooden garage door and continued to raise havoc. In addition to their other pranks, at least one has now become trap wise and won’t be tempted into our live trap again. Apparently, it is no problem for them to find their way back from a 6 mile car ride. We are beginning to realize that we may not be smarter than the martens. I would hate to resort to having to kill them, but we are reaching the end of our rope.

We have discovered how they communicate with each other. Several times during their siege our telephone system lights have informed us that someone was talking on a line from the store building. Upon investigation, we found a phone that we thought the martens had knocked off the hook. Now we know that they were actually calling their marten friends and relations to invite them to the kegger in our store. – Bill

3/12/99 – Somewhere near Sawbill today, a group of wolves have found their mark. The place starts as virgin snow with four or five linear sets of wolf tracks radiating away like tendrils on a jelly fish. Light fades in the eyes of the prey, and a snowy paw mosaic forms to the rhythm of meat snapping from bone, warning growls, and soft strong shoulders bumping and jockeying. A raven discovers the scene, and circles calling in an ancient tongue. Satisfied muzzles stain red, and drops of blood dot the packed snow like the finishing touches on a Jackson Pollack painting. Raven sits patiently with his brothers and sisters, black holes in a lush pine backdrop. A young wolf, tail between legs, lies wiggling below a large male, submissive, yet keenly aware of the larger wolf’s every move. A sunny birch full of finches sings incessantly. Noiselessly, a red squirrel navigates skinny spruce branches with a pine cone the size of its head. As the wolves recede, a raven swoops down and waddles in for inspection. A panting wolf stops, and quizzically tilts her head at the snow, as a vole burrows about in a white universe a foot and a half below. In today’s strong sun, snow drips from branches and an exquisite pine scent feels like Spring. Wolves clear their bowels and circle their glossy red and white sculpture, curling into gray balls. They dream as a pack, dreaming their woods into the next day. OB

3/10/99 – The pine marten saga continues. We have now trapped a total of five martens from the store. We aren’t entirely sure if they are five different martens or if they are returning cross country from their Siberian exile. I was forced to return to my favorite spot, the crawl space, where I discovered that they had forced my repaired screen again. I repaired and resecured the barrier (I went a little crazy on it – muttering all the while). This morning, there were fresh marten tracks leading under the deck, but my screen repair appears to have thwarted them. Obie read that martens will dramatically expand their range during years of low prey populations. I think they all just head for Sawbill.

3/8/99 – We have been struggling with the local pine martens (basically, five pound weasels if you aren’t familiar) all week long. It started last week when a door on the store building failed to latch properly and blew open during the night. A pine marten climbed the screen door and chewed through the screen. Failing to notice the hole in the screen, we shut the outer door, apparently trapping the marten in the building. We noticed the next day that many items were knocked off of shelves, garbage cans upended, etc. We opened the doors and went away for awhile, assuming the trapped animal would be grateful to depart, especially with no water being available in the building. All was quiet for a day or two when we discovered, to our surprise, the store thoroughly trashed. We decided that the marten was living in the store, unwilling to leave, and must be trapped. We contacted the local D.N.R. wildlife biologist and he loaned us the appropriate live trap. He also advised us to keep our fingers away from the trapped animal. He said, "They can get their noses through the mesh and they bite like a sewing machine." Within twelve hours we had trapped the interloper and given him a five mile ride down the Sawbill Trail. Satisfied, we arranged to return the trap to the biologist. The next day Obie noticed one item was knocked off the shelf again. We scratched out heads, but were in denial. The next morning, we were greeted by more marten mischief in the store, including an actual sighting of the beast. The trap was retrieved and reset. This time, success came within the hour. This marten got a shot of red spray paint on his butt and an eight mile road trip. By that night a third culprit was captured, sprayed and delivered. In the morning I put on old clothes and entered the nether world of the dreaded crawl space. After crawling the length of the building on a rough dirt floor with as little as twelve inches of head room, I found the secret marten entrance. The original trapped marten, desperate for water no doubt, had found a screened foundation vent that was hidden by the front deck and torn through it. I fixed the screen and minutes later trapped a fourth and (I hope!) final marten.

The four martens were quite different in their reactions to the trap. The first worked itself into a lather, but was reluctant to leave the trap when it was opened. The second cowered in the cage and gave us reproachful looks. The third was fairly relaxed and even finished up the uneaten bait during his car ride. The fourth only had one thing on his mind: bite hard and bite often. If you came within three feet of the trap he would hurl himself at you with a growl that would chill Stephen King’s blood. – Bill

3/4/99 – I apologize to our regular readers for the lack of entries. March is the month folks start thinking paddling. The reservations and inquires are coming in like the last blizzard! With Bill and Cindy in Arizona, the work of three has become one, and the newsletter received low priority. Vacationing in Arizona, and lots of reservations, are classy problems! I’m not complaining.

Cold overnight here. The snow is very crunchy and walking on it sounds like having bowls of Rice Crispies for shoes. With the return to cold weather, I have been closely monitoring the lake for a crust that will support skate skiing conditions. After ice-skating, this is my favorite activity. When the lake surface becomes like a mid length shag carpet, skate skiing is a dream – effortless and exhilarating. The only way to improve upon that experience is to find skate ski conditions on the rivers. The slight downgrade adds to the fun, and a person begins feel the way it is for the water falling to Superior. OB