Sam Cook column: Front-row seats for the cycle of life
ONTARIO'S QUETICO PROVINCIAL PARK — Evening comes slipping over the land. On our island camp here in this million-acre canoe-country wilderness, we find our places near the lake.
The six of us, up from Minnesota, have polished off another meal of walleye fillets. Now, we sit on the lichen-covered rocks to watch the distant shoreline swallow the sun.
Well, most of us sit. Terry, whose zeal to catch fish on this annual June trip is unsurpassed in our little clan, stands on the shore casting a plastic minnow into the shallows. While we watch, he will catch six walleyes and a northern pike. He is pleased about this.
But we know there will be more to observe on this mellow evening. At no time in the cycle of a northern year is so much happening as in the almost endless days of mid-June.
Before us now, the mayflies begin to emerge from the lake, pausing on or near the surface to extricate themselves from the husks that have encased them in the mud of the lake bottom. The mayflies sit on the lake's placid surface, unfurling their gossamer wings. If they are not swallowed by an opportunistic walleye, the mayflies soon launch into flight.
They are ungainly fliers, and they weave and dip as they struggle for altitude. If a swallow or waxwing doesn't swoop in to snatch them from mid-air, they will rise into the evening sky, mate and eventually drop their fertilized eggs back into the lake. The mayflies, then spent, fall back to the lake's surface and die. All of this in a span of 24 hours or less. Each evening, for several nights in June, this life-and-death cycle is repeated, and another generation of mayflies is ensured.
But so much more is happening. Green frogs grunt their love songs from marshy shorelines. Gray tree frogs issue their shrill, ratchety calls for the same purpose. They are all seeking mates, singing their reptilian hearts out to demonstrate their worthiness.
Along a sandy shore of our camp, three painted turtles are augering nests into sandy soil. They are preparing to lay their eggs. Some of the eggs will become baby turtles. Some will be dug up and consumed by ravenous herring gulls. When we were cleaning our walleyes earlier on another island, we saw the evidence of this gull predation — broken eggshells lying on freshly disturbed soil.
It's nature's way — no vulnerable food source is ignored out here.
As we left to fish that morning, we had seen a pair of trumpeter swans cruising like delicate china atop the lake's surface. We see them every year on this lake. Just one pair. We presume they nest here. Time was, you'd never see trumpeters up here in canoe country. These days, it is not uncommon.
Now even Terry has had enough fishing. He rests his rod against a cedar tree.
We wait a long time, those of us who live in the North, for such an evening. All winter, we dream of such dusks at the cabin, in the canoe country, on some meandering river. We imagine fresh walleye fillets on the griddle and an evening exactly like this one. Like the mayflies and the turtles and the frogs, we have learned to bide our time and seize the moment when it is right.
Now we are here, immersed in the grand cycle of life and death in the north woods. In the morning, we will fish walleyes again. And eat a few, taking our place in this backcountry food chain.
SAM COOK is a freelance columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Facebook at facebook.com/SamCook.