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Sam Cook column: No rest for life in canoe country

Sam Cook

ELY — The two painted turtles were sunning atop a bald rock that had been jutting out of Little Gabbro Lake for about 10,000 years. Except for a few high puffies, the early May sky was cloudless, and the air was soft and warm. These turtles had probably been waiting all winter for a day like this.

Steve Piragis of Ely and I edged our canoe closer to the rock. We had portaged and paddled into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness a week ago to see how ice-out was coming along. Most of Little Gabbro, a flowage lake, was ice-free, though we had to dodge a few room-size chunks that were taking their time.

As we glided silently toward the turtles, we noticed that the one on top of the rock had its legs spread wide into mid-air. It was as if some freeze-frame had captured the shelled critter just as it was coming in for a belly landing, an unlikely event in the life of a painted turtle. I would learn later that turtles often spread their legs when seeking warmth from the sun. The practice allows them to gather even more heat. But in 40 years of roaming the canoe country, neither Steve nor I had witnessed this before.

We've just got to get out more.

When we finally approached too closely, the turtles curtailed their basking and splashed into water that must have still been holding at about 33 degrees.

We portaged into a nearby lake just to take a walk and found it about half-covered in ice. This was spring ice — black and semi-rotten — and it wouldn't last long. The sun and the wind would take care of that.

Back on Little Gabbro, we were the only humans about. No surprise. We had come in that day not knowing how much open water we'd find. Certainly, one couldn't count on making an extended trip at that time, as most lakes remained ice-cloaked. But we were up for a poke-about just to see what we might see.

A couple of bald eagles made lazy circles high above us. A single loon worked along the shoreline of Little Gabbro, home for the summer. We could only presume its mate would be along soon. Goldeneyes rocketed overhead, their wings whistling. Along the portage, we had watched a white-throated sparrow flit through the jackpines. In an open bay of Gabbro Lake, we would watch eight buffleheads flush in unison and fly past at close range.

It was good to be back in this country that had drawn both of us here decades earlier.

What you realize, once again, is that nothing in nature waits. When conditions are right, loons appear, grouse drum, turtles sun, maples bud, flickers chatter, whitethroats sing, peepers peep, eagles ogle, ducks pair up and walleyes spawn. Nothing rests out here. If the species is to be perpetuated, then territories must be secured, mates attracted, food gathered, nests made.

For those of us up north, who pay attention, these regular and natural phenomena are our touchstones.

"Hey, our loons are back."

"Did you hear the peepers last night?"

"Listen — there's a snipe winnowing over the meadow."

And we, too, feel as if all is right in our world.

A campsite on a high rock where Little Gabbro necks down invited us up for lunch. We sat on the ground, soaking up the sun like the turtles and ate our simple fare. Below us, sparkling as it went, large lobes of saturated ice rode the current slowly toward a set of rapids that led to the Kawishiwi River. Piragis likened the movement of the ice sheets to continental drift. Look, there's Africa pulling away now, rotating deliberately on the imperceptible current.

We ate baked chicken thighs and dried mangos and watched winter sliding toward the Kawishiwi.

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or on Facebook at facebook.com/SamCook.

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