Groundhog Day came and went but I can’t recall the resulting prediction. It can’t matter too much ‘cause us northern Minnesota folks put no stock into what a pen-raised Pennsylvania woodchuck has to say, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting down good old PA – I have some very good friends out there, I know there are some awesome bird dogs there and I’d love to fish some of those fabled trout streams. It’s just that I’m thinkin’ that brown fur ball with the unpronounceable name doesn’t have a clue how long my winter is gonna be. I sometimes wonder if the top-hatted mayor who hoists Punxstawney Phil into the air doesn’t maybe secret a pinch of fur into his pocket for later use at the fly vise. Wouldn’t blame him.
Then Valentine’s Day came. I think it was something like ten below zero that morning. No worries about melting chocolate hearts. That was days ago and winter lingers on. There are people steelhead fishing in Michigan. I’ve been reading about them and I envy them. It will be awhile before there’s open water around these parts so my outdoor gear has not been fly rods, but rather snowshoes and skis. That’s not bad, however, and I like to get out and survey the winter woods on those soft and quiet days.
This is also the time of year that I make a little firewood for next winter, so besides using the skis and snowshoes I also fire up the chainsaw. I was well into it, satisfied that I’d done some real work when I was overcome by the urge for a little recreation. A snowshoe hike seemed in order and a quiet patrol would be a welcome contrast to a buzzing chainsaw.
There are a couple of old abandoned homesteads within a half-hour hike from my place. Over the years I’ve watched the weather break them down further and further and the day is coming when there will be nothing left of them. I know only a bit of the history of them, but it’s obvious that turning out a hardscrabble living on rocky northern Minnesota farms was a tough proposition.
The buildings are broken and caved in, but springtime lilacs still bloom around what’s left of the house, and I put in the lilacs around my own yard and kennels from plantings I dug from the homestead over 20 years ago. I’ve trapped and hunted within sight of the old places and the overgrown fields have been important dog training grounds for me. Yesterday I was happy to find grouse roosts in the deep snow of what was once a front yard. I can still find the remnants of a log sauna and smokehouse with Finnish dovetailed corners that I’d bet hung as many deer as cattle and hogs.
These old homes are kind of mysterious, I suppose, and it’s hard to pass the impulse to explore them. You never know what there is to find; though anything of value had disappeared long before I ever set foot on the place. You hope you don’t stumble into an old well or startle some kind of critter from under fallen roof poles. If you’re in the mindset you may even wonder about any spirits still keeping tabs on their property. I’ve yet to run into any ghosts, but one of my trails goes through the woods right past the old house and I’ll admit it’s a little creepy at night. Still, they’re compelling locales and I have to wonder what kind of faith and skills and toughness those men and women possessed who made their homes and lives there. Between the two places, on a wooded knoll surrounded by cut hayfields is a small little known private cemetery where some of the original homesteaders rest.