A Great Northern Adventure

December 29, 2019

I am a Swedish naturalist who got the wonderful opportunity to explore northern Minnesota. I wanted to know more about the wolves of the north and I wanted to experience the vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness close to the border to Canada. And I wanted to see the “sanctuary” for nature interpreters with my own eyes — the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center.  - Emil Nilsson

Introducing Emil

This story really begins with an exchange between nature interpreters and outdoor educators from Sweden and colleagues working in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area. We visited parks and visitor centers in the metro area for two weeks and when my colleagues flew home I stayed to explore the north. I wanted to make my journey worth the carbon dioxide emissions caused by the air travel. I was kindly provided with economic support from the American-Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, which was another organisation involved in our exchange. That made a huge difference. 

So why did I want to experience northern Minnesota? In Sweden, I work at a small natural history museum in Uppsala called Biotopia. It was founded as a biological museum in 1910, made for displaying Swedish nature using dioramas — artificial but realistic landscapes in which stuffed animals are arranged. There are similar dioramas in the Bell museum in Saint Paul. I have worked at Biotopia since late 2005, mainly trying to come up with budget-efficient means to communicate regional wildlife to the general public. This has taken my interest to new places. I now see it as my job to communicate and inform about the wild plants and animals of the region around Uppsala, rather than about the museum’s permanent displays themselves. So we have created a podcast, we produce short

 

Here I am, standing outside the outfitter and getting ready to hit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 

movies and we organize wildlife tours to increase interest and awareness about regional wildlife and protected areas. Part of our current focus is on wolves, an animal that was hunted to extinction around Uppsala a hundred years ago, but is making a comeback: we now have five (!) individual wolves in the region. There are no more than 300 wolves in total in Sweden, according to the latest census. I guess you could say that wolves and wilderness made me want to go north in Minnesota, but those are not the only reasons. 

For me, Minnesota is like a parallel world to Sweden. They both share a history of having a rather young landscape, washed clean by the ice age. Both areas were colonized by large herbivores and humans shortly after the ice sheet retracted northwards, some 10-12 000 years ago. Jumping forward to the late nineteenth century, people from the Nordic countries immigrated to Minnesota in their thousands. Swedes, Norwegians and Finns left penury in the old world to seek out a new life in North America. They brought their culture with them, including the semi-religious hatred of wolves that was spread at sermons in the state church in Sweden during that time. The heritage of these Nordic settlers is clearly visible to me, from Swede Hollow in Saint Paul to Finland State Forest in the north. And I wanted to learn more about the public’s opinion when it comes to wolves, among so many other things. 

White Iron Lake where the Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge is located.

The journey begins

On Thursday the 19th of September 2019, I rented a car, left the busy streets of Minneapolis and drove north on Highway 35. At first, I was amazed at how long it took to leave the conurbation, but after just a little more than an hour of driving, the landscape on either side of the road was — it suddenly dawned on me — very rural. North of Moose Lake I saw marshy areas and what appeared to be deserted agricultural lands reclaimed by the wild. I passed plantations of red pines and I saw cows grazing in flat pastures. It was all very flat, not a mountain, not even a smaller hill in sight. I turned left in Cloquet and soon the landscape felt so much more familiar. It felt safe with Red-and White pines on both sides of the road, it reminded me of northern Sweden and the Scots Pine we have back home. 

I entered Ely just after four o’clock in the afternoon. Driving through the small town made me puzzled, it looked like half of the stores fronting the main road were canoe outfitters! I was slowly starting to understand that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a big deal in this area and a main source of income for many residents. There is nothing like it in Sweden. Just after I passed Ely I turned right and parked outside the International Wolf Center — my first official stop during my journey — where I was greeted by my host Paul Schurke, a board member at the Wolf Center, who was kind enough to let me stay at the Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge by White Iron Lake, just a few kilometers southeast of Ely. 

Paul and his wife Susan Schurke are an experience on their own. Their house looks like something straight out of “Lord of the Rings”, like it was built by elves — large bark-less tree-trunks bear the three-story high wooden house with its large windows, whose large entrance is reached by boardwalk from a hill. Paul is an explorer, famous for reaching the North Pole with a team traveling by dog-sledge. Sue runs the clothing company and has Swedish and Norwegian heritage. She grew up in Saint Paul.

Trying out my canoeing skills

Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge is situated close to the beach of White Iron Lake. Red squirrels and Canada jays use the house and the nearby trees as their home. At dusk, the seventy or so Siberian huskies that Paul and his colleagues use for their dogsled tours during winter howl like a huge pack of wolf pups. Paul and Sue were kind enough to let me use one of the rooms and the kitchen at the lodge. Not only that, Paul also let me use one of his canoes. It wasn’t long before I hit the waters of White Iron Lake and was canoeing south towards the river mouth at the very end of the lake. 

Even though the White Iron Lake is outside of the Boundary Waters area, it is still a part of the huge Superior National Forest. I got to try canoeing on my own out on the lake, trying to use different techniques with the paddle to keep a straight course, working on the so called C-stroke and L-stroke. Well, I went almost straight. I soon reached the mouth of the South Kawishiwi River. It was a really nice area with enormous White Pines and a rich diversity of fungi in bright colors on the forest floor, some that I thought I recognized from Sweden but also several that was far removed from anything I had ever seen before. Two bald eagles were sitting on the largest White Pine I had ever seen, out on Beargrease Island, a few hundred meters out on the lake. When I faced south I saw the white waters from the river rapids. I decided to sleep out on one of the smaller islands in the lake. The tranquility of the natural sounds around me made me sleepy and relaxed. I closed my eyes and soon fell asleep. I woke up a few hours later and heard the huskies howling over at Wintergreen. Soon I heard another sound, the hooting call of the great horned owl. This was very exciting for me because my father bands Eagle owls in Sweden. The eagle owl is a close but much rarer relative of the great horned owl. The call of the great horned owl was differs from that of the Eagle owl, with five pumping sounds instead of just two. I was soon sleeping again, but now with a large smile on my face. I couldn’t wait until I got to tell my father about my experience. 

From Ely into the wild

I woke up when the sun reached my face though the pine branches out on the island. After a quick breakfast and a really strong cup of instant coffee, I hit the water. I felt ready. I wanted to go back to Wintergreen, take the car over to Ely and rent a canoe, buy some food and go into the wild as far as I could. Perhaps I would be walking around in pristine forest in just a few hours. So I gained some speed on the water, and tried to keep the canoe on a straight course as the small waves kept pushing it towards the shoreline. 

I drove to Ely Canoe Outfitting Company, run by a friend of Paul’s. This outfitting business was an experience in and of itself to me. The closest thing we have is perhaps when you rent equipment for downhill skiing. I got a kevlar one-man canoe mounted on the top of my rental car and a bag full of food, packed in smaller bags labelled “breakfast”, “dinner” and so on — all this during the time I watched two videos about the rules and regulations of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and had a nice cup of strong, black coffee. I was soon back on the road, driving towards the Canadian border. But not all the way. 

I parked the car at Moose Bay, packed the canoe and was back on the water, this time on Moose Lake. The plan was to portage over to Wind Lake, paddle over the lake and portage over to Wind Bay. From there, I could reach Canada. Or at least see Canada. I just wanted to see the border, I knew it was illegal to enter Canada without the proper documentation. According to my plan, that should take me two days and I had four days at my disposal. Four days to paddle my own canoe. That would give me enough time to 

Here I’m getting help to mount the kevlar canoe on my rental car to the right. This light-weight canoe comes with the yoke and pads, which makes it easy to carry.

howl after wolves and go looking for tracks in the mud. I was so looking forward to this after the two very rewarding but also intense weeks down in the crowded city of Minneapolis and the metro area. 

The sun was shining and it was warm, above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. There was some wind and small waves on the open water, but it calmed down as soon as I came behind some smaller islands. Two bald eagles were flying high above my head and I heard the mechanical rattling sound of a belted kingfisher when I passed close to one island. When I looked up I saw the large bird sitting on a branch two meters above the water surface, with the feathers on its head raised. The kingfisher we have in Sweden is much smaller, with bright orange and blue colors. 

A lonely loon out on Moose Lake.

My first portage

When I reached the beach on the other side of the lake I was very warm and decided to take a swim. The water was so nice, I laughed out loud like a madman from sheer happiness. I floated on my back, looking up on the sky and thought about how here, I was swimming in a lake while it was cold and raining back home in Sweden. 

I then started my first portage. My original plan was to first walk with my backpack and then come back for the canoe, but I realized that the canoe was so light and the backpack so heavy, taking both in one go didn’t make much of a difference. So I slowly started to walk uphill towards Wind Lake. The forest on both sides of the path was thick and young compared with Swedish natural boreal forest stands. I found traces of forest fire, perhaps this whole area burned some 30 years ago. It reminded me of the much more recent forest fire outside Sala, central Sweden, where a large area burned in the summer of 2014. But in Sweden, some large pine trees usually survive. Here, I only saw younger red pines and a few larger white pines. After a very sweaty twenty minutes' walk I reached the shore of Wind Lake. I gently laid down the canoe and dropped my backpack to the ground. I had survived my first portage. 

After a quick snack I paddled my canoe towards the north-west, towards the portage over to Wind Bay. There was some wind on the lake but the sky was blue and the water was warm. For a Swede it’s unusual to canoe in a lake without seeing any cabins by the shoreline and without any clear-cut forest in sight. The forest surrounding me might be young, perhaps around 30 years, but it seemed to have regenerated in a natural way after one or several forest fires, with several different tree species growing intermixed. That felt wild and rich to me from a biodiversity point of view. 

Loons and trumpeters

I got hungry and decided to camp not too far from the next portage over to Wind Bay. The shoreline was steep and it was hard to get out of the canoe without hitting any rocks at all, but I made it. I got a fire going and soon had some food cooking on my camp stove, with the rest of my food items hanging almost three meters up in the air using the bear-safety equipment I had rented. In Sweden we do not use such equipment, but I am not sure why. We do not have black bears but we do have quite a lot of brown bears, some 2800 individuals, with the vast majority living in northern Sweden. Bear attacks are rare and when people have been killed it is usually when they are hunting bears. I can’t really blame the bears for trying to defend themselves. But when it comes to being afraid of wild animals, it seems like people in Sweden are more afraid of wolves, even though we only have around 300 individuals over a land area twice the size of Minnesota. The last time someone was killed by wild wolves in Sweden was in 1821 and even that wolf had been released into the wild after being brought up my humans. The wolves are one of the main reasons why I wanted to visit the Boundary Waters. According to the latest census there are around 2800 wolves in Minnesota, most of them in the north. Judging from the maps provided by the International Wolf Center with data from radio collared wolves, the area around Moose Lake seems to be packed with wolves, with wolf territories lying border to border. That’s a good thing for me, the Swede who is not afraid of wolves. 

So as the sun was setting I was hoping to hear wolves howl. In late September, wolf pups are quite large and are roaming around a safe area chosen by the adult wolves, called a rendezvoux site. The howling usually takes place when the adult animals leave the pack in the evening after sunset, or rejoin the pack after hunting in the morning, usually after sunrise. In Sweden, wolves were hunted to extinction by the 1960s. They have since recolonized Scandinavia from Finland, but in low numbers and continue to be extensively hunted, both legally and illegally. Wolf experts speculate that this might make them less prone to howling. But if a human howls, the pups may answer and the adults often join in soon after. So an hour after sunset, I stood by the shore, drew a deep breath, and then I howled. A long, deep cry, echoing between the hills. And then I stood silent. It was a calm and warm evening. I didn’t hear any airplanes or machines, in fact I didn’t hear any noise made by humans. Everything was still. And then, from a distance, I heard a long tone, but it was not starting high and going down, it was rather the opposite. It was the common loon, or the great northern diver! The cry echoed just like my wolf cry had just half an hour before. I had never heard anything like this before. It was the cry of the wild. And then I heard the tones of a trumpet! First from a distance, and then closer and closer. A group of trumpeter swans landed in the water less than a hundred meters from where I was sitting. I was completely mesmerized, stunned, speechless. But I didn’t hear any wolves. Perhaps I scared them, or perhaps they were in some other part of the peninsula. Or maybe they were closer than I thought, as I was soon to discover.

Sunset at Wind Lake from the camp site.

Porting towards Wind Bay

I woke up quite late. The sun was shining and I heard the sound of some Canada jays playing in the forest close by. I soon got the camping stove going and for breakfast I fried some nice American pancakes with maple syrup. They were so rich, I had to sit for a bit afterwards to digest, but then I soon hit the water again. 

In the north-west, Wind Lake narrows into a straight which ends in a small creek. The whole impression is very wild, resembling the many lakes of northern Sweden with bog-myrtle and sedges growing on the shores. I paddled by a large beaver hut and thought about the largest nature reserve in the region where I live, which is called Florarna. It is a bog area with a small stream passing several lakes in the east. But then I saw the turtles. Several of them were sitting on an old dead stem in the water. We don’t have wild turtles in Sweden, and I was suddenly reminded of where I was. 

I left my backpack in a tree and started my portage down to Wind Bay. It was really easy to walk on the path — with the ultra-light kevlar canoe on my head — without my heavy backpack filled with food. The path was surrounded by young spruce trees and a few deciduous trees which had already started to shed their leaves, leaving the ground covered in orange and brown. The lively sound of the small creek to my left followed me as I continued towards Wind Bay. But then I halted abruptly. There was a paw print in the mud in the middle of the path. The clear print of a canine. I gently laid the canoe to the side and had a closer look. I put my hand next to the track and it was big, probably around 11-12 centimeters long. The thing with canines is that the paw of a fox, dog and wolf has the same appearance. The paw of foxes is small, although some dog breeds have even smaller paws. The paw of a wolf is large, but there are dog breeds which have even larger ones. So this paw print was of wolf size, but a large dog could have passed here as well. To be sure, I walked up and down the path to try to find more prints, but I didn’t find any. I guess I will never know if this print was from a wolf or not, but it made me happy. It felt at least possible that they were in the area. 

I soon reached Wind Bay and the wind was indeed picking up. I checked the forecast and it didn’t look good, with heavy rain and strong winds coming in from the southwest. I entered the water and paddled towards a portage to Indiana Lake, hoping that the forest would give me shelter from the heavy weather. It was a beautiful shallow bay with sedges and Northern wild rice growing by the water, which couldn’t have been deeper than half a meter. I had never seen wild rice before and remembered the stories about the Ojibwa culture, how important wild rice is to them. And I guess that traveling through the Boundary waters in a canoe is a way of experiencing this northern, natural and quite wild landscape in a similar way as the Ojibwa have done previously for centuries, and as the French trappers did for most the last few hundred years- although their canoes were made of birch bark, not kevlar. Porting must have been a challenge for them, but perhaps they could hunt and fish for food instead of carrying everything with them. 

A track in the mud from a wolf or a large dog.

Although we do have indigenous people in Sweden as well, the Sámi who inhabit the major part of the northern Scandinavian peninsula, I guess I am part of the “indigenous people” of southern Scandinavia. At least parts of my genome, might have a long history in Sweden. Southern Scandinavia has a history of migration spanning 14,000 years, accelerating with the boat culture some 4,000 years ago. Humans have always travelled to and from Scandinavia. Swedes are not a homogeneous people, certainly not genetically and only partially in terms of culture. Vikings and the boat culture predating them moved from Scandinavia to Russia, Turkey and even North America via Iceland and Greenland. But during the same time, people of other origins moved to Scandinavia, both as slaves and voluntarily. There are gene variants originating from an indigenous North American individual, perhaps a woman slave, on Iceland. She might even have been Ojibwa, who knows. And talking about genes — there are no genetic variants from the first inhabitants of Scandinavia, as screened using ancient dna-techniques, in the people now inhabiting the peninsula. Neither in the Swedes and nor in the Sámi. 

I was trying to paddle through the wild rice and reeds but the canoe got stuck in the mud. I was trying to use a beaver canal but the water soon became too shallow. There was no way that I could reach the portage over to Indiana Lake and it was starting to rain. A bald eagle circled over my head like a vulture from some western movie. I decided to go back to Wind Lake and ride out the storm at a camping ground up there instead. This also meant I had to give up on the idea of seeing the Canadian border. But borders are just human constructs anyway.

From the Wolf Center to Wolf Ridge

I was soon back in Ely, leaving the canoe back at the outfitter. My days in the wild were over and I was eager to learn more about the wolves of the region, so I went to the International Wolf Center. The center is quite unique. There have been some half-hearted attempts to create similar predator centers in Sweden, but they are now either closed or run on a very tight budget. Overall, my impression is that the US is trying much harder to inform the general public about wolves. The Wolf Center was created as a spin-off following a wolf exhibition called “Wolves and Humans” at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The wolf researcher L. David Mech was vital to the creation of the center and perhaps also the reason for its situation in Ely, the region where the wolf population is most dense in Minnesota and where Mech has carried out most of his field work. In Sweden, where we only have a few hundred wolves, there is a lively debate between moose hunters, reindeer herders from the Sámi population and pro-wolf interests about how many wolves there should be and how they should be managed. In Minnesota, wolves mainly prey upon white-tailed deer, a species that exploded due to a change in forestry that released massive amounts of young aspen sprouts. Even though the hunting of white-tailed deer seems to be pursued with the same almost religious fervour as the moose hunt in Sweden, the deer population is still so dense that there seems to be no real competition between human hunters and the wolves. In Sweden, wolves mainly prey upon moose, which humans hunt with loose dogs from September/October until the end of February. The moose population is much denser in Sweden compared to Minnesota because of the forestry practice of clear-cutting the forest and re-planting with young Scots pine, a popular winter food for moose. In the absence of wolves, the moose population sky-rocketed. Hunters have become used to the high density of moose and the absence of wolves and have adopted their way of hunting to that situation. Hunting with free running dogs is a fairly new practice that is dangerous when there are wolves around. Wolves treat the dogs as they would any foreign wolf in their territory — they try to kill them. 

Artwork at the International Wolf Center 

But humans and wolves have co-existed on the Scandinavian peninsula for some 14,000 years. Wolves were hunted to extinction in Sweden in the 1960s, becoming protected by law only in 1966. In Minnesota, wolves were not quite hunted to extinction, perhaps saved by the vast wilderness on the Canadian side of the border, and were protected in the state by 1967. There are similarities and there are differences. 

While I was truly impressed with the Wolf Center, I was also curious to see how they did some real interpretation. In the evening I joined a wolf howling tour organized by the Center. It started inside, with a short introduction on wolf communication, a classic popular science talk with a number of facts. We were a group of four persons joining the tour. I have organized similar programmed events in Sweden, mainly wolf- and lynx-tracking in the snow. Our focus has always been on trying to work with the narrative, trying to keep the best tracks for last and trying to give the participants a pleasant experience from the woods, a feeling of wilderness, and plenty of time by a camp fire to get everybody talking to one another. However, the wolf howling tour by the International Wolf Center was not aiming for that. We got into a minivan, drove for 20 minutes, and emerged beneath a wonderful night sky full of stars. The guide tried to howl - it was more like a short shout - and then we listened. I thought I heard something in the distance, but the guide wanted everybody in the group to howl. So we all did. And then it was all quiet. We repeated this at one other spot before driving back to Ely. I got the impression that the guide was not very comfortable out in the woods at night. I was rather disappointed, I’m afraid. Apart from our tracking tours I have also attended a Wolf Howling Tour in Sweden with the professional adventure travel company Wild Sweden outside Skinnskatteberg, not too far from Uppsala. They really knew what they were doing. We ate outside, we walked in the dark, and we slept outside in small tents. And that is probably why we also heard howling wolves in the middle of the night — and it was a mesmerizing experience!

The auditorium at the International Wolf Center during a program event.

On the road to Finland and Wolf Ridge

I drove along Highway 1 towards Isabella. The landscape was dominated by managed forest of red pines. I was surprised to see how desolate it was, even though I was only a four hour drive north of the metro area inhabited by several million. I passed Finland, a small hamlet of just a few houses, a bar and a grocery store. And then, just a few kilometers after Finland, I took a right into the gravel road that took me up to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. And up the road went! The last bit was so steep I was not really sure that my rental car would make it, but it went fine. I’m glad the road wasn’t icy! And thus I found out that Wolf Ridge befitted its name. 

Down in Minneapolis, all the interpretive naturalists talked about Wolf Ridge. At least half of them got their education as naturalists up there. I was staying with Tim Reese, the Farm Supervisor at Gale Woods Farm, close to Mound and Lake Minnetonka west of Minneapolis. He had met his wife at Wolf Ridge. Indeed it felt like everyone we met working in the Three Rivers Park System were talking about Wolf Ridge, but it was hard for me to grasp what the place actually was. So it was now time for me to figure that out.

I was greeted by Isabel Gerber Brydolf and Pete Smerud by the information office. Isabel is a mentor naturalist at Wolf Ridge. Pete Smerud is the Executive Director. This being northern Minnesota, it turned out that Isabel had been to Sweden. They told me that Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning center is based on three pillars: social interaction and collaboration; teaching sustainability; and nature interpretation. The social exercises are about trusting yourself and your partners, illustrated for instance by rock climbing. Therefore Wolf Ridge has a indoor rock climbing wall. When it comes to sustainability, the buildings are living examples of how we could build houses more efficiently, even in northern Minnesota. There are solar panels, and each room has panels displaying energy and water usage. The nature interpretation, which is what naturalists down in Minneapolis remember, consists of exercises not too far removed from what we do in Sweden. The basic idea is to let kids discover real living creatures by themselves, or with a friend. However, it often starts with a captive animals, such as frogs, turtles or a great grey owl. We do not usually use captive animals in Sweden. I could only join one group, but my impression was that it was very ambitious program with many small parts. We usually build exercises on one or a few goals, with preparation, practical work and then discussion on what we have found. The narrative is kept simple.

I got to sleep in one of the rooms in their Lakeview house, from which you can see part of the vast expanse of Lake Superior. All the teachers stayed in the house, while one or two returnees from previous years came up from Duluth, just to taste the experience once again. It felt like a large camp. The teachers are the student naturalists. Everybody was very focused on the goal of teaching kids about sustainability and the natural world, but they were taking time to have fun with it. The atmosphere was filled with dedication.

Experimental learning

From talking to the teachers and to Pete Smerud, I got to understand that experimental learning was very important at Wolf Ridge. This is about the process of learning through experience, not only to use hands-on exercises but also to reflect upon the experience. This is similar to the general teaching philosophy at the Swedish nature schools, “Naturskolan”. They work with getting kids more connected to the rest of the living world by taking pupils out of the classroom and into some forest, meadow or pasture where they get to investigate some given task. However, we do not have anything like Wolf Ridge in Sweden. It is like a sanctuary for naturalist, a place devoted to studying the natural world and behaving accordingly, from the food that is served to the buildings and the surroundings, which were breathtaking. 

At the very last day at Wolf Ridge I got to see parts of the whole area, not just the center and its teaching facilities. I was shown the organic farm, situated two kilometers downhill from the main buildings, which produces a substantial part of the vegetables that are consumed at the center’s restaurant. I also saw their fungi forest, which was something completely new to me. In Sweden, a fungi forest simply signifies a forest where lots of fungi happen to be growing, mostly on the ground. It is common in Sweden to pick chanterelles and similar fungi and we usually do that in natural forest, today mostly in nature reserves since most of the other forests have been harvested by clear-cutting and replanted with trees of the same age. Most of the fungi we pick build connections with the roots of various tree species. However, the fungi forest of the farm at Wolf Ridge was based on fungi growing on the dead wood of aspen trees, like the Japanese species shiitake. This is something we should bring to Sweden! And perhaps we could export the Swedish way of fungi picking as well.

Banding the Saw-Whet

I walked from the farm back up to the center. A large boardwalk was laid straight through the wilderness. I passed the Forest Ecology Building and soon emerged onto a plain where the Sawmill creek gently flowed through a landscape that made a truly wild impression on me, with marsh areas close to the creek and deciduous and conifer trees growing on the steep hillsides to the left and right. I saw a couple of buzzards circling way up in the sky over the ridge. It was beautiful. After passing the creek, the boardwalk was soon replaced by a flight of steep stairs. The air was fresh, carrying the moist smell of autumn. The maples around me were exploding in orange. It felt good to use my body on the ascent. When I reached the top of the stairs, I turned around. The view amazed me, I just stood there for a few minutes. It’s flat where I live, in Uppsala, as is the area around Minneapolis. Even the Boundary Waters region was rather flat. I was truly grateful to at last have gained some altitude. 

In the evening I returned to the Forest Ecology Building. It was pitch black outside, with another star-filled sky. I could only make out the contours of the ridge from the dark blotch towards the ground where the stars where absent. The main goal of the evening was to try to attract some of the migratory Northern saw-whet owls, using their own mating call played through a loudspeaker, and then catch them in nets. When I arrived at the Forest Ecology Building, it was teeming with activity. Dave Grosshuesch, a well-known bander in northern Minnesota, was talking about the banding of great grey owls and hawk owls, two species that I am truly familiar with from Sweden. In fact, great grey owls were one of the major reasons to why I became a biologist. When I grew up in Luleå, in the northernmost part of Sweden, great grey owls were generally rare and mostly restricted to that region. It is one of the largest owls in the world, with an almost other-worldly appearance, but and somehow typical of the northern taiga biome. However, the focus of the event at Wolf Ridge was on a much smaller but no less charismatic bird — the northern saw-whet owl. This is a relative of the boreal owl, a species that occurs both in North America and in northern Europe, but the saw-whets are smaller, resembling the Eurasian pygmy owl in size and is native to North America. As soon as the talk ended we all went outside to check the nets that Dave and his collaborators had already put up. Just as we opened the door we heard the loudspeaker playing the mating call of the saw-whets. And we had been lucky, three saw-whets were caught in the net! The volunteers in the group who had some experience of banding got to remove owls from the net and then we brought them back to the building, where the banding took place. More people joined as the night progressed, but I had to go back to my room to get some sleep. I was heading back to Minneapolis early next morning.

I woke up early and left Wolf Ridge at seven. It was a cold morning with frost on the windscreen of the car. I drove carefully down the steep slope, leaving the sanctuary for naturalists behind me. I drove up to Finland and then down to Lake Superior where I took Highway 61 south. Having this great lake to the left of me and the woods to the right gave me a strange feeling of comfort. It felt like driving the highway along Lake Vättern in Sweden, although Lake Superior is much larger. I passed Duluth, a city from which one of my favourite bands, Low, originate. So as I drove past the industrial buildings in Duluth I had Low on the loudspeakers in the car, thinking about how Minnesota and Sweden are like parallel worlds. We are connected through historical immigration and through some similarities of climate and nature, but the differences are also huge. The Ojibwa and Dakota people have a history that slightly resembles the Sami of northern Sweden, but I have also come to realize that I myself could be looked upon as an indigenous person of Sweden. Perhaps we could use these cultural similarities and differences in some way. There might be solutions for the Scandinavian wolf population in the history of the same species in Minnesota. And the history of the Native Americans in Minnesota might help Sweden to realize how the Sami have been mistreated through history, even though there have been no wars fought. But I also think that the love of nature unites us. We are all depending on the living world for our survival. Due to the climate crisis I will probably never fly again, but thanks to modern technology I can still stay in contact with the friendly people of Minnesota from my computer back home. And I do hope that this is just the beginning of the story. 

I would like to thank Bruce Karstadt at the American Swedish Institute and Jessica Allen at Three Rivers Park System for planning this adventure for me. Tim Reese at Gale Woods Farm helpt me organize the journey from Minneapolis. A big thank you to Paul and Susan Schurke at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, and Pete Smerud and Isabel Gerber Brydolf at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, for their extraordinary hospitality. I have never felt so welcome before. I also want to thank the staff at the International Wolf Center in Ely. 

I would like to thank Gerard Malsher how helped me with this text and Klara Granlöf who gave me the ideas for the design. Erica Torninger helped me with an earlier version of the manuscript.


Written by Emil Nilsson

Swedish Naturalist


Note from Wintergreen: This article  was originally written for the American-Swedish Institute. The article and photos were shared with us by the author, Emil Nilsson.


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