I stood there in the stillness and blackness of night. Moments earlier I had been within the protection and comfort of a group of my colleagues but now, I was all alone. Then, the howling began.
The last ecosystem we visited during our trip was the boreal forest. This ecosystem is particularly special to me for so many reasons, most I won’t mention. The ones I will are related to solitude, persistence, water, and wilderness. These are the qualities I love most about the North Woods.
We arrived first at Lake Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River. True to form and very much to my liking, the day was cool and rainy. A fog lay on top of Lake Itasca as a loon swam away from us in the distance. All around us we heard the voices of our avian friends who we first met on the shores and cheniers of the Gulf Coast, and who we’ve followed some 2,000 miles north.
If you haven’t been to northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan, you haven’t experienced the songs of 20+ breeding warblers all around you. It’s something you should take the time to experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean hop in the car and go find these birds but rather, learn them in every way possible. Learn their songs, their colors, their habitats, and their movements. Know them each intimately until they are not just warblers: they are each their own creature worth knowing. Once you’ve gained that appreciation, head north, and let them tell you their story and welcome you into their home.
This is what we finally experienced that morning in Itasca. Jacqueline and I set up at 4am for a dawn chorus along the lake. The mist kept us company until finally the birds began to sing; almost all at once they were with us. For nearly 90 minutes we spent the morning with them as they shared their boreal home with us. We’re excited to soon share this moment with you.
After the chorus quieted, we made our way to the headwaters of the Mississippi. It was early enough that we had the spot to ourselves. Even though there were ten days left in our trip, in a way it felt like we had reached the end. We were excited. We’d followed her path for nearly two months, from the Gulf Coast to these forests. She connected everything we’d done to this point and now we were leaving her to continue north, but not without this final thank you.
For the next ten days we explored the North Woods and experienced their magic. We hiked and paddled Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to better understand their treasures.
We had intimate moments with all of our favorite migratory friends and met new ones as well. There was the Ruffed Grouse and its drumming that filled our chests; the American Bittern and its rhythmic “glugging”; and our final focal species, the Winter Wren. We shared quiet moments with beavers who cautiously investigated us, ultimately slapping their tails on the water when things got a little too uncomfortable for their liking. We finally heard one of the most quintessential sounds of wilderness: the mournful, ethereal calls of the Common Loon echoing across the wilderness from lake to lake. We spent four days paddling one of the most endangered rivers in the United States, the Kawishiwi, letting her guide us to each one of these treasures.
We also met people who we will never forget. We shared a private moment with an Ojibwe man and a Snowshoe Hare on the shores of a traditional cultural place, and learned that the best way to honor indigenous people is to remember that they are still here with us today. That we must all take some time to better educate ourselves about their heritage. We met two people who have made it their mission to protect this pristine wilderness from foreign mining interests who fail to understand or respect the heritage, beauty, and mystery of the boreal. We spoke to a man who in a past professional life represented that threat, but now emotionally fights side-by-side with others to protect this place.
And finally, we met a man who allowed us to communicate with the North Woods. We hiked in around 9:30pm and after about two miles, I set up my microphones a couple of hundred meters away from a known wolf rendezvous spot. The others in our group retreated, leaving me there alone to capture the moment.
I waited until our guide let out a 14-second-long howl that at first I thought could have been from a wolf. Again, he howled. And finally, they joined in. A mother and her pups answered back from the opposite direction, directly in front of me. For a moment, the boreal spoke to us in a way that it has for thousands of years. I hope that when you get to listen, you’ll take a minute to respect all of the past and current entities that went into creating that moment. We are honored to bring this moment to you.
The threats to this ecosystem are very real. Our society has an opportunity to step up and deliver a full-throated insistence that we protect this place because of its history, its trees, its animals – really just because it exists and should continue to in its fullness. Future experiences like ours may be very different if we don’t. We have a chance to honor this place, or we can collectively do nothing and let it fade like so many other places we visited on this two month journey. After having spent ten days with the boreal, I know that if it is lost I will be too. I hope we can tell you a story that will convince you of the same.