Allan Bell’s Birch Bark Nature Notes Revisited
Over a month in advance of March 24, the Northern Highland Audubon Society set that date for its first spring bird hike. It was to take place in the Nicolet National Forest east of Three Lakes where most of the roads are gravel. If it warmed up and the frost came out, the roads would be impassable. Two days before the date, the wind was howling, it was snowing and it looked like it might be too cold and the roads blocked with snow.
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, the 24th, the skies were clear, sparkling blue and the sun was warming and pleasant. As we stood waiting for last minute arrivals at the meeting place in Sugar Camp, someone casually said, “There’s a gray jay.” Now I know they are not that uncommon, and Clara Myers told me they were coming to her feeder last year, but I had never seen one. So, it was a FIRST for me and a good start. An hour later we were deep in the woods, where one tree alone was decorated with four gray jays. And we saw many more.
Our leader, Bill Reardon, hoped to show us boreal chickadees, black- backed woodpeckers and spruce grouse, all new to me. Bill has a permanent niche in my memory bank. Within 30 minutes of our first meeting last year, he had me looking at a peregrine falcon through his spotting scope. Probably the only one I’ll ever see.
Bill soon found a black-backed woodpecker for us. He located it by listening for the hammering on a tree and then we walked up carefully. It is about the same size as a hairy woodpecker with a solid black back. Females have a black head, too; males have a yellow camp.
Many chickadees were “binoced” as we sought the tell-tale brown head, back and rusty flanks, with no success. We searched in swampy areas of spruce and tamarack where they had been seen before. At least I now know what type of habitat to hunt them in. We are at the extreme southern limit of their range.
Ravens were circling so high in the sky they could hardly be seen, but hat hoarse croak floated down to our ears. They were soaring just like hawks or eagles. One ruffed grouse departed noisily from a hemlock, while quite a few red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins flitted around. Two horned larks rose from the roadside next to a large field where two blackbird-sized birds got up without giving half a chance to identify. Some thought they were robins. I didn’t. They looked too skinny.
One of the roads was called Giant Pine road. We parked, and a haf-mile hike through softening, shoe-soaking snow brought us to a grove of towering white pines. TWO LOOKS HIGH, as Ced Vig puts it. They were tall and straight, all 30 inches or more in diameter, with no branches for the first 40 feet up. I showed my affection by hugging one of those rough-barked giants as Roy Lukes, Richard Wason, Emma Toft, Lois Almon and Maggie Rybold told me to do. My wingspread didn’t go very far around. I wonder why the loggers left these few. I’m glad they did.
There was an old stump just off the trail, not round, but at the very least five feet across in one direction and four feet in the other. What a magnificent colossus that must have been! It must have gone back to Plymouth Rock days.
We were in the Scott-Shelp Lake area and as we turned around at an intersection which looked as though it might once have been in the middle of a clearing (now with fairly large trees here and there), those rusty, old memory wheels started to turn. Could that be the place?
Later, Bill Reardon told me that intersection was the site of a former CCC camp, Camp Scott Lake. Yes, I had spent the better part of a year there
way back in 1937 AD. We scalped sod to prepare the ground for tree planting, planted trees, built small bridges, built deer fences in cedar swamps to ascertain deer damage to seedlings, cut aspen in 100-inch bolts (no chain saws then!), hauled the pulp out to the roads on our shoulders and burned brush. It was healthy work, there was plenty of food and the pay was good – $5 a month for me, $25 for my mother.
Scalping was hard work (I’ve always hated a mattock ever since. We called them mad axes, a much more appropriate term) and the pace was frantic. The only thing I have to compare it to is plugging nine inch at the paper mill. Neither appears anywhere on my fun list. And those were the good old days? Not on your life! The good old days – is/are NOW!
Late nature writer Allan Bell wrote this Birch Bark Nature Notes column for the Tomahawk Leader back on April 4, 1984.