The time when I leave South Kawishiwi is 1901–probably a little late for a long drive through moose country. But I go anyway. It’s the turtle days of summer; they’re on the move, pondering the road crossing, journeying to dig a burrow in sandy soil, to deposit the new generation into the earth. Ducks are on the move, too: the live-bottom hauler I’m following swerves way over the centerline, sparing a young family of Ring-necked Ducks. My heart warms. These little practices of care are medicine in a world increasingly harsh.
I pass through an area of Minnesota where things are well-named. There’s a doe next to Deer Lake Road, a bear outside Bearville (population 201 humans), some formidable men standing around the Viking Bar. State Highway 1 plows through deep, darkening boreal forest–the Twilight Zone, literally; figuratively. It’s old logging country, the towns thrown up during the white pine boom. The remains look reprimanded from an obstinate land: roofs slouch, walls slump, the trees are coming back, closing in. Midges gyre through the air, the brevity of their adult form echoing this impermanence. Even the homesteads still occupied slink back into the spruce and birch, like a dog told off. They seem a relict of the frontier, a memento of times when wolves still howled outside the walls. “TRUMP WON 2020!” “FUCK BIDEN!” “TAKE AMERICA BACK 2024!” flags droop in overgrown yards. It seems the wolves still howl; the people still live in fear.
I pull over for the night on a scrap of paved road that starts nowhere, ends nowhere, goes nowhere. The weeds are reclaiming, the fireflies wink, the mosquitoes drone… I check the map–still on treaty land.
The next morning I take a road out towards Hendrickson Logging Camp, one of nearly 200 in the area during the 1900s. This is Pine Island State Forest, where islands of white pine once grew on higher land amidst soggy areas of cheaper wood–tamarack, spruce. At nearly 1400 square miles, it’s Minnesota’s largest state forest. The spongy areas didn’t interest the loggers, but they interest me. The first time I stop, it’s not quite 0500, not quite light. Muskeg’s dawn chorus is already strong. Alder Flycatchers reeBEEoh from the tops of spruce and tamarack (but not alder). Olive-sided Flycatchers order, “QUICK! THREE BEERS!”
“It’s a little early for that, no?” I mutter, but a few stops of enduring mosquito swarms and I start experiencing a change of heart. There are loads of Veery and Chestnut-sided and Palm warblers, White-throated and Swamp sparrows. A Boreal Chickadee rasps along the roadside, I stay alert for Connecticut Warblers.
Connecticuts are a species I grew up taking for granted a bit: in southwest Michigan, they were a fairly easy find in late May. There was no need to slog through the mosquito factories of the breeding grounds, but sometimes, I did that too–after all, they nested near Trout Lake, conveniently on the way to Whitefish Point. Driving down certain two-tracks in Hiawatha National Forest was a pretty sure way to hear that emphatic sound. In the huge tracts of boreal forest no one really wanted anything to do with (this was before the advent of side-by-sides), it was the loudest thing around. But then came bird photographers with portable speakers, and those were louder.
We don’t hear Connecticut Warblers in Trout Lake anymore. Maybe it was the photographer pressure: sometimes, the speakers hanging off a branch would play for hours. Maybe, changing climate has done something to their homes that we haven’t yet deduced. But they don’t really breed in Michigan anymore. And I don’t really take anything in nature for granted anymore. Boreal Chickadee and Canada Jays can still be found in the Upper Peninsula, but they’re more difficult to encounter than we’ve ever known them to be. Fifteen years ago, I saw my first Boreal Chickadee at a place up there called Hulbert Bog. A lot of people saw their first Boreal Chickadees there. The last report from Hulbert is from 2013.
Boreal forests are christened for Boreas, Greek god of the cold north wind and purveyor of winter. The ecosystem is vast: in North America, it covers more than 2.3 million square miles, and worldwide it is the second-largest terrestrial ecosystem. In Canada, where most this continent’s boreal lands are, 30% are open for logging; just 8% are protected. Boreal forests are the world’s largest source of unfrozen freshwater. They’re a huge storehouse of carbon. They are likely the most productive ecosystem for North America’s breeding birds, with an estimated 3 billion nesting each year—a number that to me seems low. And boreal forests are projected to suffer as climate continues to change: the region is expected to see the greatest temperature changes, an increased frequency of forest fires. So birds that use boreal forest are incredibly vulnerable to climate change. And they’re already declining. The 2020 State of the Mountains Bird Report (covering New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) shows strong declines for boreal species like Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (down 2.45% each year since 2011) and Blackpoll Warbler (down 5.1% each year since 2011); Black-capped Chickadee, which is not a boreal species, has increased by 3.14% each year since 2011.
Pine Island State Forest is a place where boreal species can still be found, and I’m grateful for that. And Pine Island, even by my standards, is out there. I’m double-digits of miles from pavement, and the land I’m on feels unwanted–at least by white men, now that presence of and need for white pine has diminished. Stunted, slow-growing pulptrees and spongy ground and biblical insect swarms are what remain. There’s something uncomfortable–even unnerving–about the place. It’s maybe the most remote northern forest I’ve been in south of Canada and Alaska. The swamp spirits aren’t exactly welcoming.
I drive, make an effort to stop and appreciate the Olive-sided Flycatcher and Swainson’s Thrush song, but I can only linger for a couple rounds before the mosquitoes begin to penetrate the cab. I smile: boreal forest is a habitat I’m fairly adept in, and driving stick while zipping a bug shirt and wielding an electric mosquito racket is something I’m pretty good at. Connecticut Warbler is my big quest here; I settle on a search strategy that involves only looking for the Connecticut Warblers that are close enough to hear even with the windows up. It seems a wise use of resources.
The muck looks like coffee dregs. Blue flags and showy lady’s slippers peek out amidst the sedges and cottongrass. There’s moose tracks in the road, oyster mushrooms sprouting from old birch trunks. Connecticut Warblers are a rather cryptic species. It took 70 years for the first nest to be found after the bird was described. They’re defined by breeding in a habitat unwelcoming to visitors: thick, wet, buggy forests. And they’re still easy to find in Pine Island. I hear 12; see 4: big white eyering, hushed blues and yellows that contrast with loud, belting song. They’re a skulky warbler, difficult–especially through a bug net–to see well. Elusive, like the feeling of wholeness when surveying a fragmented world.
I then head over to Big Bog (which Pine Island is part of), another example of things in this part of Minnesota being named well. It’s the biggest bog in the Lower 48, roughly 500 square miles and advertised as “Minnesota’s Last True Wilderness.” In 1889, the federal government took 3 million acres from the Red Lake Ojibwes, who today have a reservation about a quarter that. In 1892, the U.S. government declared the land “practically unfit for any purpose,” though the Ojibwes had used the area for gathering food and medicine. By 1908, 1500 miles of ditches had been dug in an attempt to subdue the place; the land was sold to homesteaders, who were to pay the ditch tax. But that didn’t work. The soil was poor, the ditches of little utility; fires smoldered in the peatlands and burned settlements. The place just wouldn’t be tamed. So because settlers couldn’t farm–couldn’t pay their taxes–the three-county area went bankrupt and the state took over the bog.
In the 1940s, the land unfit for any purpose became useful: it was a great place to hone the efficiency of dropping bombs. Around World War II, “Bunyan’s Boys” practiced, even dropping a bomb with an 11,000 pound payload that dropped windows up to 25 miles away. Then, from 1949-51, the bombing continued via Operation Woosh, which deployed 50 bombs of 500-2000 pounds to create wetlands where moose could take shelter from biting insects. The testing continued with Operation Deep Freeze, when the Cold War introduced the need for using bombs in extreme cold. Take, for a moment, the thought that Ojibwes went to the place for medicine, sustenance; the U.S. went for war games.
Today, the bog is most easily accessed by a state recreation area’s long boardwalk. It’s a dynamic place: burping, sucking, settling. Pitcher plants are empty, thirsty, their russet flowers nodding out across the peatlands in the hot breeze. I hang off the boardwalk to touch the moss, just barely damp. This is part of the bog that Hannah told me is experiencing drying spagnum, failing Boreal Chickadee nests. The land remembers, here–the ditchlines are still visible; the peat continues to hold the trails of woodland caribou. This is the last place they roamed the Lower 48, though they’ve been gone since the 1940s. Savannah and Lincoln’s sparrows sing; Palm Warblers pump tails; a Canada Jay family appraises my presence, deciding I don’t have enough snacks to be worth their time. The Ojibwe came here for medicine. I think I did too. One of theirs was yellow-eyed grass, used in poultices for skin ailments. My medicine is less tangible: it’s more a feeling of being whole in the vastness of Big Bog. Maybe that’s part of what this year is about for me–seeking wholeness. And I think for many of us, that feeling of being whole becomes ever elusive, like Connecticut Warblers have in Michigan. I wait for the day’s heat to break and drive back into the war games. The medicine is a balm but not a cure.
Part Two of Three