Ely Part II: Holy Ground

If I had a blog, today I would continue my stories about my journey to Ely.

September 30, 2006

Our Breakfast Table

Our Breakfast Table

By all accounts, this should have been a lesser day on our vacation: Rainy, in the 40’s with, a howling north wind, but for us it was perfect. We let our morning start slowly – with coffee and scones, shared beside the fire. Our cabin is paneled with knotty-pine and on a blustery morning like this, it seems to generate its own golden light. As we basked in its glow, Mom, Kindra, and I talked and laughed and reveled in the luxury of free time.

Jim Brandenburg's "Brother Wolf"

Jim Brandenburg’s “Brother Wolf”

Around noon, we braved the gale and made a trip to town for groceries and a little shopping. We’ve been to Ely so many times, visiting the stores that line Sheridan Street is like catching up with old friends. My favorite haunt is the Brandenburg Gallery – the storefront for nature photographer Jim Brandenburg. Jim made his mark on the photography world through his twenty-year tenure with National Geographic, but when he retired, he came home to Ely to indulge his real passion: Photographing the elusive timber wolf. I could spend hours sitting in rapt silence, contemplating the extraordinary work displayed at the Brandenburg Gallery. It is work like Jim’s that inspired me to become a nature photographer and an afternoon in the Gallery refreshes me more than week in the finest spa and I leave with my creative energy renewed.

Christmas Eve on Lark Lake

Christmas Eve on Lark Lake

The rain slowed late in the afternoon and we drove north of town on Highway 169, “The Fernberg” as it is called by locals, to reconnect with another old friend: Ojibway Lake. When we first visited Ely, in 1997, we rented a cabin for Christmas and Ojibway Lake was our “jumping off point.” Our host, Steve Lampman, took our gear to the cabin by snowmobile, but we made the 4-mile trek on foot. Dressed in down coats and Steger Mukluks, we walked across the frozen waters of Ojibway and Triangle lakes to Lark Lake, where our cabin was nestled among the balsam and spruce trees. It was a trip to remember and the beginning of our love affair with The North, so it was fitting that we pay homage to the place where all our adventures began.

The Uncommon Common Loon

The Uncommon Common Loon

Ojibway Lake is about twenty miles from Ely and The Fernberg winds along like a chain, connecting the jewels of lakes and forests. As we drove along, we recited the names of lakes and side-roads – a rosary of sorts to honor the places we hold dear: We passed Fall Lake, Otter Road, Tofte and Garden Lake, Black Wolf Road, and, at last, Ojibway. The gravel road to the lake was exactly the same as it was the first time we came; even the two dead birch trees I photographed so long ago still stand like sentinels watching over the lake. We parked the car and walked to the end of the long dock and gazed down the waterway towards Triangle and Lark Lake. The wind still blew a gale and our rain jackets weren’t enough protection from the cold. We had just turned to leave when we heard another sound, a tremolo, high and clear as a bell: The call of a solitary loon. He was here past his time, the others of his kind had already gone south to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter, and his clarion call brought tears to my eyes. It was as if he waited for us, to give us welcome before he too took flight to warmer climes. We thanked our intrepid friend and said good night to Ojibway. Warmth was calling us home too.

Holy Ground

Holy Ground

Sitting on my bed tonight, listening to the rain pattering on the fallen leaves, I wonder if I’ve ever been so much at peace. The cares of the world seem a thousand miles away and I am grateful for the release. I want to hold this feeling in my heart as long as I can and perhaps take it back with me when I return to outer world with its burdens and cares. There is magic at work in these primeval forests, a mythic force that comes from the Earth Herself. This is one of the “Thin Places” where the veil between the mortal and spiritual worlds can be transcended. This is Holy Ground.

 

Coming Home

If I had a blog, today I would tell you about the place my spirit calls home. Today I would write about Ely.

Welcome Home

Welcome Home

Thirty miles south of the Canadian border is the town of Ely, Minnesota. Although I’ve never lived there full-time, I this little burg of 3500 people my home because it is the place my spirit dwells most of the time. Ely is sacred ground.

Chilly autumn days make me long for that wild country because once upon a time, Mom and I visited Ely every fall. We would go in September or October and spend a week in the same rustic cabin on White Iron Lake, shedding our worldly cares as we were filled by the spirit of true wilderness. Obligations here on the farm have kept us from our annual pilgrimage for three years now and when the sun grows mellow and the nights are cold, the need to head North is almost more than I can bear. I know we will take up our journey again when The Greenwood needs us less and in the meantime, I can relive adventures past by returning to the journals I have kept in years gone by.

This morning I was reading about our trip in September 2006. That trip was a return after an absence of almost ten years and it gives me hope that Ely has not seen the last of us yet.

September 28, 2006

The Ely Water Tower

The Ely Water Tower

We made it. We are in Ely! It took two days and 16 hours of driving, but what a small price to pay for a week in the arms of the North Woods. When we saw the Ely water tower rising above the trees, tears came to my eyes. When I die, I will not see the Pearly Gates, but instead it will be this snow-white tower, painted with the sunrise over the trees, that will lead me home.

Coming into town on Sheridan Street, I felt as though I’d never been away. A few stores had changed location since we’d been here last, but other than that, Ely remains the same. In a world that changes by the minute, there is comfort in a place where things remain the same year after year.

Sheridan Street

Sheridan Street

Until I came to Ely, I didn’t know it was possible to be friends with a town, but I am sure Ely brightens just a bit when Mom and I return. To prove my point, just as we passed Basswood Trading Company, a jet-black raven sailed across the street and landed on the roof of the store, looking right at us as he made his loud, croaking call. It was a wonderful welcome home.

Our Sun Porch

Our Sun Porch

Our cabin is located about six miles from town, down Highway 1. We met Liz (the owner of our rental cabin) around noon and spent two hours visiting with her. We’ve known Liz and her husband Steve since we first came to Ely in 1997. They own a number of remote cabins in the area and we always rent from them. Consequently, we’ve become good friends over the years and it is always a pleasure to have our catch-up with Liz when we arrive.

The Path to the Lake

The Path to the Lake

The afternoon was waning by the time we got settled in and we walked down to the dock to greet the lake before evening set in. Birches, maples, alder, balsam, and spruce trees line the path to the lake, interspersed with huge greenstone and granite boulders that were brought here by the last ice age. The maple leaves are stunning this year, bright tongues of flame in the fading light. The slender reeds at the lake’s edge hold bright leaves among them, afloat on water as black as obsidian. Water ousels dart among the reeds and rocks along the shoreline and juncos flit among the trees at the forest-edge. In the distance, we heard the song of a white-throated sparrow rise through the silence and just at dusk, a flock of mallards sailed overhead then landed in one of the coves to settle in for the night.

Roads Go Ever On

Roads Go Ever On

Loathe to give up even a moment of daylight, I took a walk down our road before coming in for dinner. With every step I sank deeper into the flow of The North. I drank in The Great Silence and reveled in the cold, balsam-scented air. This is home. In these forests, I feel as one with the heartbeat of the Earth. I am Earth. Earth is me. Like a child in her mother’s womb, I am cloistered by the trees, the lakes, the sky. I hold out my hand and I touch my own being. In this place there is no distinction between sacred and secular. Here, all things are holy.

As darkness fell, grey, folded clouds settled over us for the night. Winter is just around the corner here. Dreams of snow are close at hand as the land settles in for its long, nine-month rest. All around me is silence. Echoing silence. This is the place I was meant to be.

 

Serendipity

If I had a blog, today I would write about serendipity.

White-Tailed Deer Fawn

White-Tailed Deer Fawn

I have been a nature photographer for more than twenty years and while I do take credit for my technical skill with a camera, many of my best photographs are the result of serendipity. While serendipity can be defined as pure good luck, I have a different theory. I believe this kind of “fortunate happenstance” occurs when I am as one with the world around me. When I am in harmony with nature, something amazing is just around the corner.

This morning I was getting ready to go to town and had gone into the storage room, when twin white-tailed deer fawns emerged from the woods.

White-Tailed Deer Fawn II

White-Tailed Deer Fawn II

Because I carry a camera with me everywhere I go, I had it at the ready and was able to get several photos of these delicate beauties before they vanished back into the forest. It was a much needed pick-me-up after a bit of a creative dry spell. Thank you Brother and Sister White-Tail.

 

Before the Storm

After the Storm

When I took this photograph, I was pleased to catch the colors of sunset on the towering cumulonimbus cloud to our east, but had no idea this little hummer had flown into the photo until I looked at it on my computer later that evening. Thank you Brother Hummingbird.

 

The Gift

The Gift

I took this photograph on a holiday trip to Northern Minnesota in 1997. We rented a small cabin on a remote lake north of Ely and spent a week cross-country skiing, dogsledding, and reveling in the savage beauty of this wild country. My birthday is December 27th and when asked what gift I wanted, I said, “I want a wolf.”  Even though we saw wolf tracks on the frozen lake almost every day, I knew the chances of seeing and photographing on was a one-in-a-million chance. The 27th was our last day at Lark Lake Cabin and our spirits were a little low as we snowshoed the 4-miles back to our car. Then. as we came to the woods on the edge of Triangle Lake, a movement in the brush caught our eye and out of the forest stepped a huge wolf. We froze. He froze. For five minutes he let me take one photo after another before he turned and loped off into the bush. “Happy Birthday,” Mom said. Thank  you Brother Wolf.

Pine Marten

Pine Marten

Almost every year, Mom and I often rent a cabin just outside of Ely, Minnesota for an autumn retreat and every year we talk about what animal we want to see the most. In 2007, I wanted to see a pine marten. These elusive members of the weasel family are fairly common in Northern Minnesota, but they prefer to stay invisible to the human eye. As I wandered down the woodland path to our cabin one evening, I said aloud, “Come Brother Marten, I’m here waiting for you.  Please pay us a visit.”

A few days passed and I had forgotten my invocation. Mom and I were eating breakfast when something big hit the window. We thought it was a raven or even a hawk, but when we looked out, it was the Marten. He was sitting beneath the window, as if to say, “Hello! You wanted me to visit you and now you aren’t even paying attention!” I apologized profusely and was able to take several great pictures of our honored guest before he went his way. Thank you Brother Marten.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Where owls are concerned, one needs a lot of serendipity. Denizens of the night, they are seldom available for photo-ops  and their shy nature generally keeps them just out of reach. This owl, however, was waiting for me one evening as I went out to do chores. I was driving the four-wheeler between the house and dairy-barn that evening and when I passed the hay-barn, there she was: Familiar of Athena, the Barred Owl. I stopped the four-wheeler and slowly, oh so slowly, lifted my camera. Birds like owls and hawks tend to think the lifting motion means a gun, so I’ve learned to move gently in their presence. I took several photos from about 30 yards away, then began to move forward, a little at a time, taking pictures as I drew closer. In the end, I she let me come within about ten feet and when she departed, it was with grace and aplomb, not fear. Thank you Sister Owl.

Experiences like these reinforce my belief that Nature is willing to communicate with us, but only if we come into Her world with respect. When I go into the woods, I am walking into a holy place. If I hope to become part of that sacred world, I must abandon all pride and enter as humbly as a sinner going to confession, “Forgive me Mother and Father, for my people and I have sinned.” If I am sincere, Nature will share Her mysteries, open Her secret doors, and let me stand in the presence of the gods.

 

 

Infidelity

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

If I had a blog, today I would write about my infidelity to the white-breasted nuthatch. Sitting at the breakfast table this morning, the predominant “bird song” at the feeder is the nasal yank-yank of the white-breasted nuthatches. These funny little birds are all about the vertical, moving up and down tree-trunks with the greatest of ease. Nuthatches, chickadees, and tufted titmice are the three birds I’ve known the longest. As a four-year old, I built a blind under our kitchen table and, with Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds close at hand, Mom and I spent hours identifying the birds at our winter feeder. That was the year I came to know the nuthatch. I practiced making their call and memorized everything Mom read about their natural history. I thought they looked like little sailors in their tidy blue jackets with a white shirt underneath and was inspired to do countless drawings of these funny little upside-down clowns. For thirty-eight years I was faithful in my love of the white-breasted nuthatch, but in 2006 I failed.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

That autumn, Mom and I went on a week-long vacation to Northern Minnesota, setting up base-camp near the town of Ely. Our rental cabin had bird feeders galore and on the first morning of our visit, during breakfast, I met another member of the nuthatch family and he stole my heart away. This avian Casanova was the red-breasted nuthatch. RBN’s are smaller than their southern cousins and they have a rosy red breast like a robin. They also have a prominent, black eye-stripe that gives their gaze a compelling intensity. I fell in love at once.

For an entire week, I enjoyed the company of the RBNs and spent hours taking pictures of my love. When we left for home, I admit I felt a twinge of sadness that it would be at least another year before I saw my heart-throb again, but at least I could enjoy the antics of the white-breasted nuthatches at home.

Mr. Upside-Down

Mr. Upside-Down

Back on the farm, I was careful not to let the WBN’s know about my infidelity. I praised their color and their grace and made sure they got their favorite seed and suet-blocks. I took extra photographs of their exploits and actually appreciated them more than I had in the past. Nevertheless, I missed my friend from the North Woods. Then it happened: One of the most stunning events in my birdwatching career took place right in my back yard.

A Surprise Visitor

A Surprise Visitor

It was a perfect afternoon in late October. I was sitting on the patio, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the mellow light only autumn can bring. Birds came and went at the feeders; chickadees, titmice, a downy woodpecker – all old friends. A nuthatch swooped in and landed on one of the suet cakes. As he bopped into sight, I caught a glimpse of red. That wasn’t right. The white-breasted nuthatch has no red. Was this a sport; a mutation of some kind? I grabbed my camera and used the zoom lens as a spotting scope and what I saw made my heart skip a beat: A red-breasted nuthatch was sitting on my feeder.

I took a photo after photo, to prove to myself, as much as anyone, that this was really happening. After the RBN left, I went into the house and thumbed through my trusty Peterson’s Field Guide. Sure enough, Mr. Peterson assured me that, when the feeding conditions in the south are particularly good, the RBN will migrate into our area. Who knew? Thirty-eight years of avid birdwatching and I had never, ever seen an RBN at my feeder. Now, just a month after meeting him for the first time in Minnesota, he showed up in my own back yard. I was flabbergasted.

Feathered Philosopher

Feathered Philosopher

As I journaled about the experience that night, I tried not to go overboard about the event. The logical part of my brain chastened me that there was no way this bird was remotely related to the handsome lad I’d seen in Minnesota. It was a lovely coincidence, but nothing more. The problem is, I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe that these rare moments are synchronicities, events that occur together and have a spiritual in meaning. I wish Roger Tory Peterson had written A Field Guide to Synchronicities because it isn’t always apparent just what the Powers-That-Be are saying, but if nothing else it lets me know, to lift a quote from Hamlet: “There is more in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”

I have seen RBN’s in Missouri a couple of times since that first magical afternoon and I take their presence as assurance that my infidelity is forgiven. The heart wants what the heart wants and over that we have little choice. Today I will enjoy the fledgling WBN’s that have arrived at my feeder but as summer turns to fall, I will keep watch. Perhaps on the perfect October afternoon, my favorite autumn guest will grace my home with his presence and reassure me that all is well in Heaven and Earth.