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Less Screen Time, More Green Time

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The sun draws close to the distant ridge. Pine boughs whisper from above and 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 fireside stumps for minutes on end. There are no words worth speaking just now, in the presence of mesmerizing flames and overheard conversations between robins. This is peace much needed and well earned.

The 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. The outing began 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 gear from getting muddy. With hammocks hung and tarps placed, the 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 billowy chambers. 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 the hammock camping experiment in March, I’d been looking for another opportunity to exploit my son’s shiny new enthusiasm for it. 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. These years are both fleeting and vitally important in shaping who he will become. Problem is, sometimes as parents we flail ineffectually in 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— she was to get her own hammocking trip, ASAP.  

To tell the truth, she played right into my hands. 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 we’re camping, fishing, foraging, or whatever. As with her brother, transformation is assured so long as the recipe is followed: 

Minnesota Backpacking Richard Dorer State Forest Dispersed camping

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 the fire will die out. In the morning we will eat and talk and do whatever we like.

At precisely the right time, 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. 

Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps

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Once again, I blame social media. For what, you ask? For the ridiculous fame that ramps seem to be “enjoying” nowadays. Of course, people have known about ramps for a long time, even holding spring festivals for them in parts of the eastern U.S. where they used to grow prolifically. I say “used to” because it is well known that wild ramp populations are hurting. Because of that, they really don’t need any extra harvest pressure. Every foraging group I subscribe to on Facebook, however, is currently experiencing Ramp Mania. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps”

The Season for Outdoor Savings

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It seems every year I tell myself I’m going to get new hiking boots. And ice fishing boots. And snow bibs. And winter clothing layers. And a new backpacking stove. I’m sure I’ll get around to all those, but most of my procrastination has to do with finding the right items at the right prices. Well, now is the time of year when prices get slashed and I need to be on top of my shopping game. You should too, especially if you need any type of outdoor clothing.  Continue reading “The Season for Outdoor Savings”

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”

Do Something New: Sucker Fishing (And Smoking)

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There is a pathetic time of year that comes after the ice melts and before spring really gets going. Fishing is slow, and turkey hunting hasn’t yet started. It seems every year during this time I find myself itching to get outside and just do something, if only because the weather can be so seductive. This year, I came across a couple mentions of spring sucker fishing that really piqued my interest, especially when I read that suckers are supposed to be tasty when smoked. I thought about when and where I might be able to try this, but didn’t come up with much; I spent a couple hours probing a creek by my house with no results. Then it dawned on me that I’d have the opportunity to try some cold northern rivers on my way to see the sharp-tailed grouse dance (another story, another time). Perfect. Once I’d identified my chance, I couldn’t not try my hand at sucker fishing.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Sucker Fishing (And Smoking)”

Morel Forecasting Tools

Black morel mushroomsThat time of year has come: the morel season is approaching and social media is all abuzz. Rumors of a “morel map” are flying around and folks are going on about soil temperatures. It seems like mysterious, closely-guarded chaos. There are always some overeager individuals who are looking for any little sign that the mushrooms are about to pop, but are, in reality, weeks ahead of themselves. Believe me, I have been one of those people in past years. Any trips to the woods result in no more than a light workout, which is not necessarily a bad thing aside from the deer ticks. But in the interest of efficiency, we want to get the timing right. And we certainly don’t want to miss out on anything. Believe me, I’ve been that guy too.

Phenology Should Be Your Future

One thing that can help in future years is to pay attention to the phenological clues around you. Continue reading “Morel Forecasting Tools”

Foraging in Minnesota: The Early Season, Part 1

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It can be hard to believe, but we are not much more than a month from the beginning of foraging season here in Minnesota. Probably everyone has at least heard of the morel mushroom, but few know of the other treasures to be found in the spring. It is too early for fruits of any kind, so the early season is all about greens and the first mushrooms. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: The Early Season, Part 1”

Scouting for Morel Mushrooms

There might be two months or more until the morel mushroom season is in full swing in this neck of the woods, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it and doing some serious legwork. Increased visibility and a lack of ticks are two good reasons to head out while snow still blankets the landscape, not to mention the fact that the warm weather we’re bound to get in the coming weeks will make us eager to get out and do something. Continue reading “Scouting for Morel Mushrooms”