Less Screen Time, More Green Time

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The sun draws close to the distant ridge. Pine boughs whisper from above and the fire warms our faces. Oak smoke rises into the breeze and disappears into the year’s first buds.

My daughter and I have been sitting silently on our fireside stumps for minutes on end. There are no words worth speaking just now, in the presence of mesmerizing flames and overheard conversations from the tree tops. This is a silence much needed and well earned.

Our journey here was not physically strenuous; perhaps more symbolic. Ninety miles in the car, up a hill, a couple miles through the woods. Schedules and emails traded for sunshine and quiet. No school, no internet, no other people. Just us and the waking woods. 

Stress and cares have all but floated off and dissipated like smoke. 

As it happens, a week ago my son and I swung from the trees on a ridge across the river valley. That was an entirely different trip but refreshing nonetheless. 

It was a dark day. We arrived on the heels of a several-day rainstorm. Light showers kept our shirts damp on the two-and-a-half mile trek. Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, and bluebells glowed from the trailsides while the drumming of grouse pulsed through the dripping woods. 

A campsite chosen in a stand of white pines offered views on both sides and a carpet of needles to keep our gear from getting muddy. With hammocks hung and tarps placed, our agenda was short: supper and a campfire. Ramen bowls and tuna tortillas were the easy part. Making a fire in a soggy environment proved less easy but perfect for staying warm while the woods turned colder. 

My boy slept like a rock that night. I did not. Owls, deer, and geese took turns coloring the dark with their respective outbursts. Then there were the coyotes— they were in a league of their own. I’m not complaining, mind you, only astonished at how a 12-year-old boy can sleep through all that. 

The morning crept in slowly and gently. Instant oatmeal warmed us when we emerged from our pillowy cocoons. We lingered a bit, soaking in the sounds and smells, talking about nothing in particular.

Cranes and cardinals provided a new soundscape as we returned to the car by another meandering route. The terrain fascinated and challenged us. There were many questions and I did my best to provide answers. Mostly we just walked and looked and discovered. 

It was simple, and yet perfect. 

Since our experiment with hammock camping in March, I’d been looking for another opportunity to exploit my son’s shiny new enthusiasm for it (a good move on my part). It’s hard to find anything that motivates him lately. Whether due to his age or pandemic weariness, it has become increasingly difficult to pry him from his rhythm of bouncing between technology and listlessness. We know these years are both fleeting and vitally important in shaping who he will become. Problem is, sometimes as parents we flail ineffectually in our attempts to make the most of every day. 

When I proposed we go backpacking with hammocks, my son accepted enthusiastically. Even without a destination or plan outlined, he was all in. It’s heartening to know my kids have that instinct. As for my daughter, she wasn’t going to let me off the hook. I had to promise to take her on her own hammocking trip, ASAP.  

To tell the truth, she played right into my hands. I know she needs this as much as anything right now and the proof is unfolding. She is already relaxed, carefree, and more like her natural self. It always works. And it doesn’t matter if she’s camping, fishing, foraging, or whatever. As with her brother, transformation is assured so long as the recipe is followed: 

Choose one or two kids. Remove from the heat and pressure of modern life and allow to cool. Add generous amounts of fresh air, exercise, and natural stimuli. Ferment until desired consistency is reached. 

And so, we revel in silence so hard to come by these days. Soon it will be dark and we will let the fire die out. In the morning we will eat and talk and do whatever we like. When we are ready we will shoulder our packs and follow a new path. I will have made the most of this weekend and this sweet child of mine will be ready to face another week. 

Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs

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Nobody smiles at 4:40 am. Nobody at my house, anyway. But Friday morning, I woke my kids up that early, knowing they would be smiling a lot that day- eventually. They had the day off from school, and we had a big day planned at Mille Lacs Lake. 

Our little Ford Escape slinked down the resort ramp between rumbling trucks and wheelhouses, onto the white expanse. It was a few minutes before sunrise, though we wouldn’t see the sun that day due to thick cloud cover. Winds were moderate and temperatures were expected to rise about ten degrees to near 30 by day’s end. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day, but it could have been worse.  Continue reading “Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs”

Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree

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Normally, I wouldn’t be thinking about our Christmas tree in October. In fact, we’ve had a hand-me-down artificial tree for about the last 15 years, so it wouldn’t occur to me at all. But some relatives were telling us they’d be at the cabin this year for Christmas, and I suggested they get a permit to take their tree from the woods for the occasion. So in the interest of encouraging others into the outdoors, I snooped around for information from Minnesota DNR and the Forest Service, and emailed them some web links. 

What I found actually surprised me. As far as I could tell, the permit for harvesting a tree from Minnesota’s state forest lands would cost $25. That was a higher price than I expected. However, the permit for a tree from Chippewa National Forest costs only $5. 

Yes, FIVE DOLLARS.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree”

Do Something New: Smelt Netting

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them. 

Last Wednesday, I bought a smelt net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Smelt Netting”

Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup

Read More Minnesota maple basswood forest

When you try something new, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. A week ago, it was looking like I wouldn’t see so much as a drop of maple sap coming out of my taps. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and although the temperatures seemed perfect, nothing was happening. I didn’t know the first thing about how to make maple syrup, not to mention all the nuances regarding the tree tapping and sap collection along the way.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup”

My Public Lands: 2018

After the Public Lands Day rally at the state capitol rotunda last year, it seemed like a good idea to keep track of my public land usage until the next rally rolled around. I normally visit a lot of state and federal public lands throughout the year, but never kept a record, and so never really knew the extent of my own personal use. My mission to document my outings proved not only enlightening, but also spurred me on to go new places and try new things. 

The following is a visual representation of my visits- as well as my varied activities- on Minnesota’s public lands since last April. You may notice that not every single day or visit is represented by a photograph. For instance, some photographs represent an activity carried out on several different parcels, at noted. Likewise, some outings occurred on many different days, such as foraging in Chippewa National Forest and George Washington State Forest throughout the summer and fall. I only wish I had remembered to bring my rally sign with me every time; regrettably, there are some gaps in coverage. 

Our public lands, as you can see, are important to me throughout the year for camping, fishing, hunting, foraging, educating my children, and much more. If you are so inclined, please consider joining the Public Lands Day rally at the Minnesota state capitol February 7th, at 3:00. Thanks, and get outside. 

C.C. Andrews State Forest, Kettle River

Sucker fishing and camping, Cloquet Valley S.F. and CC Andrews S.F., April 2018 Continue reading “My Public Lands: 2018”

Foraging in Minnesota: Cranberries

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The fourth Thursday of November is still more than a month away, but now is the right time to go out and find that Thanksgiving staple: the cranberry. Didn’t know cranberries are growing wild in Minnesota? You’re definitely not alone. Yes, wild cranberries are fairly widespread in our great state, and with a little patience, a person can harvest enough to get a good taste.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Cranberries”

Bring a Kid: Backpacking

Read More Kids Hike Through Tettegouche

After a hot and sweaty couple of miles on the trail, it didn’t matter how cold the water might be or that there wasn’t really a beach. Once we’d found our campsite, taken off our packs, and changed, my kids and I took to the lake for our hard-earned reward. We spent about an hour playing in the water before going ashore for a break. I was made to promise we weren’t done swimming. After sitting in the shade and eating raspberries a while, my son said wistfully, “I wish we could stay here a week, just to swim and eat berries.” He was in paradise. We all were.  Continue reading “Bring a Kid: Backpacking”

Foraging in Minnesota: Thimbleberries

Read More Rubus parviflorus

August 2005, Isle Royale    My wife and I went ashore from the ferry as it stopped at Windigo. With half an hour until the ferry continued around the island, we went into the visitor center to get our book stamped and ask about what we might find on the trail. We learned about the wolves, moose, and thimbleberries. “Whatberries?” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard correctly. “Thimbleberries,” repeated the Park Service employee. She described the berry she was talking about, and sure enough, we found plenty over our 6 days of hiking the island.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Thimbleberries”

Bring a Kid: Berry Picking in MN

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  • Bumper crop of hazelnuts
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Are you looking for a way to get kids into the outdoors? Do you want to do something simple, accessible, universally appealing, and fun? Take them berry picking. 

I took my kids yesterday to some public land in east central Minnesota with the hope of finding some mushrooms and, if lucky, some raspberries or blueberries. Well, blueberries ended up being the main attraction, with some bonus raspberries and mushrooms as well. This is why we call it “foraging,” and not simply “harvesting.” You just never know what you’re going to find.  Continue reading “Bring a Kid: Berry Picking in MN”