CABLE – Every year when the air crisps, dogbane leaves shine lemon in the ditches and ash leaves fade to mustard in the swamps, I feel the urge to travel.
I’m not the only one.
Speeding along the highway with a yellow canoe strapped to my car, more shades of gold swirled upward from the edges of the road. Yellow-stemmed Northern Flickers are one of our only migratory woodpeckers, and right now they are heading from Canada into the southern United States.
On the ground, the smooth brown back of shimmers with black bars and dots blends well into dirt and leaf litter. When they jump up, beautiful yellow feathers are visible under their wings and tail, and yellow feather stalks appear from above and below. Their white spots on the rump shine brightly during short, undulating flights. The flickers catch ants and other insects with their long, sticky tongues, which means they better head south before frost kills their food and snow covers their buffet.
My cousin, Heather, and I emptied the sparkles for an hour as we rode west of Ely on the Echo trail. Then we launched my canoe into the Little Indian Sioux River. The canal meandered back and forth in a wide valley, and we meandered with it.
The creek showed almost no signs of flow except at the portages where we hauled our packs on narrow trails alongside beautiful rushing creeks. As we emerged into Upper Pauness Lake, the water widened but the channel narrowed – cradled by tawny thickets of wild rice. When I daydreamed aft and the canoe veered off course, our paddles snagged on the rods and an audible rain of grains of rice crackled through the boat.
Finally, reaching open water in the main part of the lake, we measured a pale granite knob that looked like a likely campsite, and were intrigued by two smaller white shapes along the shore. The forms rose, arched graceful necks and became swans.
Trumpeter swans also travel now. Pairs that have nested further north, as well as locals, will all feast on wild rice and prepare to head further south where the lakes don’t freeze. These – the largest of our native waterfowl – form pair bonds that can last a lifetime, and unlike many smaller birds, they stay together year-round.
Later that evening, as we watched the sunset from the granite knob (it was a campsite – the best on the lake!), the sounds of a resounding conflict erupted from the nearby lake as two pairs were fighting over territory. Splashing came next – the sound of huge webbed feet on a 100-meter track, and finally the rush of air through feathers as the displaced pair appeared above the treetops. After clearing this obstacle, the swans stopped flapping, arched their wings and slid towards the dark lake before sending a line of glistening spray. Silence descended as the moon rose.
The next morning we portaged past bur oaks and paddled north through the wide channel of the Little Indian Sioux. The hoarse cries of blue jays break the calm. While only 20% of blue jays migrate in any given year, that still means up to 6,000 of them pass through a migration hotspot like Hawk Ridge in Duluth on a busy day.
When we emerged into Loon Lake, the appropriate figure was there to greet us. A loon dove and hunted as we paddled, and white whiskers on its face announced more seasonal changes. Loons have begun their migration to the Gulf of Mexico, but some will take their time. However, they cannot moult flight feathers until they reach the ocean. They are already on the verge of not being able to take off, and a few missing feathers could be the difference between taking off and freezing.
Our campsite that day was another even larger granite knob with stunning views of the lake to the west. As we sat around the fire grate having lunch, the activity in the trees caught the eye. The movements of a flock of small birds mingled with the flapping of leaves in the breeze. Brief glimpses of dull yellow and olive green feathers told me they were “puzzling autumn warblers”; birds without distinctive plumage that I rarely try to identify.
The sounds they were making weren’t helping either. I can identify many birds by their unique songs meant to attract a mate and defend a territory, but their softly whistled contact calls all sound pretty much the same to my ear.
Except for tits. Their namesake call was comfortably familiar. Chickadees remain local year-round, and migrating warblers have been known to seek out herds of chickadees for food and safety when crossing unfamiliar territory.
These warblers head south for the same reason I go north this time of year: bugs. As the mosquitoes, black flies and other bugs that have tortured campers all summer prepare to survive winter in some form of dormancy, the birds that depend on them for food follow their instincts to leave. . I, on the other hand, revel in the absence of ringing in my ears and trouble-free hours outdoors.
On our last morning, a V of geese honked through the pale pink sunrise. We had only been up north for four days instead of four months, but it was still time to pack up and join all the restless travelers down south on a journey through the fall.
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