A Gunflint Sighting

February 28, 2020

Written By: John White

Looking For the Northern Lights

When the cell phone alarm sounded around midnight, Mary rolled from bed and said she would check to see if the Northern Lights had mysteriously appeared. We were what Minnesotans call “Way Up North” at the Gunflint Lodge on a Northern Lights package, securely warm in a “cabin” as large as my house with a north facing window. For the third straight night my camera was set up for the show. An appropriate extreme wide angle lens. Tripod. The camera securely set on the “bulb” setting, with a shutter cord dangling to the side. When she didn’t return for several minutes I thought perhaps we were finally in luck.

Then she suddenly came into the bedroom whispering just loud enough for me to hear: “There’s a wolf right outside our window!”

Allow me to briefly describe my fiancée. Mary adds little meat and no fat to the bones of her observations, be it political, of the arts or what she sees in nature. Typically her observations are, well, true to the bone! I rolled from bed and tiptoed behind her around the hot tub and sauna to the curtained living room window.

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Through the double panes of the cabin’s main window, pine siskins munched on seed berries of a tree.

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Mary has this dream of actually seeing a wild, dancing display of Northern Lights. In a couple of weeks she is scheduled for a knee replacement surgery which will tie her up with both pain and therapy, so this package seemed to fit our schedules. Gunflint Lodge is located on a north facing lake, and wide open to the northern skies without the horrid light pollution from farmstead security lights and roving pickups of lonely prairie boys. We were told if we wished for an even more “pure” view to head to the nearby lake access. We were geared and ready.

We had brought books along to occupy our lazy days as we rested from the anticipated light shows from the heavens, an exercise broken up by meals and outings. Rick the chef would come through at lunch and hint on what he was preparing for the evening offerings. He also knew of Ortonville, and of the gastronomical offerings of our prairie region. Our Lakewood Lodge on the shore of Big Stone Lake was a favorite, and he even mentioned a “greasy spoon” serving the “best breakfast in Western Minnesota” in nearby Odessa. Since 2013, when I moved to this area of the prairie, this is the very first reference to anything in Odessa! He also spoke of fishing Big Stone Lake, and knew the approximate location of my little farm.

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While we weren’t prepared to photograph the wolf at our window, this fox near the “end of the trail” was more than a willing model.

Then there was Charlie the barkeeper, a friendly fellow who grew up in the northeastern corner of South Dakota and knew the lakes around here intimately. He knew the “where to goes” for huge bluegill on both Big Stone and Lake Travis, and like Rick the chef, had dined at Lakewood Lodge just down the road. “The waitress actually met our boat at the dock with a menu,” he said, smiling in remembrance.

At the front desk, and sometimes a wait person, was Dani, a heavily-tressed refugee from NYC, who spends her summers in the wilds of Alaska and the winters in the Minnesota wilderness. Like Charlie, who had seen enough neon and losers of Vegas, Dani found an opening at the lodge through the internet. She spoke of her dreams, of finding a man and a spot of unspoiled wilderness where “we will build a cabin and have some babies.” She said of New York City, “How can you find room to breathe when you’re surrounded by eight million people?”

Spotting a Fox and a Wolf

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On our photo hike, the subtle colors gave the birch a nice contrast.

Who led the wolf to us, though, was John the naturalist. On Tuesday morning John guided a “bird walk” up through the hills above the lodge. He was an engaging soul who knew his birds. We saw a chickadee and a nuthatch, and the good-of-hearing heard several other birds. Later that afternoon he offered a fascinating lesson on the Northern Lights, mixing science with mythology. Apparently John is a bit of a Renaissance man, for besides his lectures and guided nature trips, he hosted the craft lessons.

On Wednesday he and I were the only two on a “Photo Hike” again up the hill to “Lookout Point” where the view was interrupted by a cable installed for a zip line. Before our walk he brought out some guidebooks, including one from National Geographic, where I found a picture of Jodi Cobb, who I had worked with at the Denver Post, and another of David Alan Harvey, who was in my graduating class of photojournalists at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. We then spent the hour-plus hike sharing our digital views of our wilderness hike. It was as fun as it was fascinating, for John had a good eye.

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John the naturalist was briefly surprised when I asked if this was a maple seedling, for maples are now making up a majority of the understory seedlings in the wilderness.

Afterwards, Mary and I headed to the bark framing class where once again it was John the naturalist teaching the class … to just Mary and I. We glued bark and shared a chummy discussion about nature, art and life in general. As we were zipping our parkas to leave, John said, “Hang on a moment. I’ll give you some seeds to spread around.” He then filled two small paper sacks with sunflower seeds.

As we neared the cabin we spread the seeds on the unmarred mound of snow outside of our cabin window with hopes of enticing bluejays and skittish pine siskins closer to the window. Which is where Mary found the wolf a little past midnight. We stood at the window watching it in silhouette as it licked the snow for the small morsels as it closely kept wary eyes on the walkway for threats. We didn’t attempt to change the camera setup for fear any sudden light would scare it away. So we watched. It was much bigger than any of the dogs the guests were seen walking, and the sled dogs were tightly secured in their pens. Mary, though, was more convinced than me. “I’ll tap the window to see what happens,” I said, after several moments.

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From the “Lookout Point,” the wilderness forest is a fine contrast of species and texture.

With the single tap the wolf instantly broke into a fast lope past the low lamp on the walkway into the parking lot and off toward the ice covered lake. When it passed by the lamp we both could see the grayish brown coat, and his run was perfectly “wolf like” and so much different than that of a dog. We also convinced ourselves that had it been a dog it wouldn’t have suddenly burst away so quickly, nor veered toward the ice instead of the lodge and nearby cabins.

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Such a fine contrast of tree life reaching skyward!

At breakfast a few hours later we told of our chanced viewing, and no one involved with the Lodge disputed our claim of seeing the wolf. “Those things happen up here,” said Charlie as he took our breakfast order.

While Mary didn’t get to experience the wavy dance of the greenish surround of the Northern Lights, she was more than pleased having seen the wolf … even one that dipped down from more exotic offerings of deer and moose to snack on lowly black sunflower seeds from John’s small sack. We were fully assured of our treasured encounter when we saw where its weight had broken through the heavy crust of the icy snowbank next to the scattered seeds. The huge footprints, one on top of another, made it difficult to make an absolute identification had we needed one. Which we didn’t.

John G. White is somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post, Clara City Herald), a free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines, and editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising. You can read more from John G. White in his blog at Listening Stones Farm.