Fierce Green Fire: ‘The Land of 10,000 Tales’–part one

Mostly Moose in downtown Ely, Minn. Photo by Jonathan Hicks

Editor’s note: The following is the first in a three-part series.

By Jonathan Hicks
Staff Writer

As a graduate student studying the relationships and interactions between humans and wildlife, there are two things you can count on me to do every chance I get: 1) Talk about animals, and 2) Take “research” trips. My most recent “research” trip took me to northern Minnesota and the Superior National Forest.

It was my first time exploring the area. Drawn by the dramatic depictions of plentiful wildlife, I would spend a week camping and exploring with my girlfriend. In this time, we wandered primarily through the northeast portion of the state, spending most of our days and nights between Ely and Grand Marais.

It was beautiful country. There was an enormous amount of life, from the shores of Lake Superior, deep into the pine forest’s core. This life was no doubt closely tied to the ample water supply. Indeed, Minnesota lives up to its name as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” After only a week, though, I came to believe the state might just as easily be called the “Land of 10,000 Tales.” It seemed as though I found something interesting behind virtually every tree. So, while each of those anecdotes will be forever engrained in my mind, I will share only three.

The moose that is almost past

"I can count on one hand how many moose I've seen in my life, and such encounters always inspire beautiful feelings inside me. However, this one was even more significant. Knowing how important it is to the local people made me appreciate it in a new way."--Jonathan Hicks. Photo by Jonathan Hicks

Lunchtime was often spent in downtown Ely. Flanked by the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness, it is filled with a quiet charm and is largely free from corporate influence. There is no McDonald’s. There is no Wal-Mart. The shops and cafés are filled with what you would expect: paintings of eagles, carvings of loons, far-North accents, and wood-grained everything. Thankfully, we were there just ahead of the busy tourist season, and were able to strike up numerous conversations with locals.

Regardless of the location, however, the conversation always began with one topic: the heat. You see, it was still before Memorial Day, and three days in a row, the temperatures had reached the mid-80s. One store owner, who ran a shop called “Mostly Moose,” was quick to point out that the town had only reached that temperature mark once during the previous year—and that was during late July. She subtly expressed concern for her own livelihood, pointing out that people no longer saw moose with the same frequency as they once did. When I asked her why the moose were becoming rarer, she said simply, “Global warming.”

Though they are a visible and significant part of the area’s culture and sense of identity, we did not see any moose in Ely. In fact, we didn’t see much of anything out of the ordinary. So, after three days, we moved on.

We would spend the next night in a cabin near Grand Marais, a stone’s throw from the Big Lake. The proprietor was a woman in her late 30s who seemed in a way to enjoy my unending questions. When I told her of our quest to spot moose and other wildlife, she apprehensively wished us luck, subtly hinting that we shouldn’t get our hopes up. With her two kids by her side and sadness in her voice, she said moose were simply not as abundant as they once were. “It’s got to do with that parasite they’re all getting,” she said.

So, was it global warming or a parasite that was impacting the moose? Both of the women seemed to know quite a bit about the area, so I wasn’t sure what to believe. That night, we settled into our cabin…which just so happened to be lit by moose-shaped sconces. I fell asleep with the bulky ungulate weighing heavily on my mind.

Java Moose in Grand Marais, Minn. Photo by Jonathan Hicks

In the morning, we drove a few minutes to have our morning coffee at a little place called (what else?) Java Moose. Finally, the researcher in me took over, and I spent an hour reading online journal articles about the declining moose population. As it turns out, both of my sources were correct in their own ways. Rising temperatures in recent years have made the large-bodied mammals more prone to exhaustion and other heat-induced ailments, and as a result, their mortality has risen. It is similar to why many famously large creatures like mammoths went extinct at the end of the last ice age—they simply cannot cool down.

Further compounding the issue is that smaller-bodied, white-tailed deer are moving into areas at one time reserved exclusively for moose. Once unable to tolerate the cold temperatures, as a result of the warming trend, the deer are now living alongside moose in many places. With them, the deer have brought a brain parasite that is apparently easily contracted and almost always lethal to their larger cousins. In other words, both global warming and a parasite are having an impact. Until the moose learn to migrate north or otherwise adapt, their numbers will likely continue to drop.

Eventually, in a small lake along the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais, we were fortunate enough to spot a moose. I can count on one hand how many moose I’ve seen in my life, and such encounters always inspire beautiful feelings inside me. However, this one was even more significant. Knowing how important it is to the local people made me appreciate it in a new way. Yes, the moose is caricatured and anthropomorphized for the sake of selling everything from hats and T-shirts to coffee mugs and wall sconces. But that only speaks to the fact that this antlered behemoth is a deeply-seeded part of how these people see their land and themselves.

I am always the first to feel sorry for an animal, but in this case, I feel just as sorry for the people of Minnesota. They may be helplessly watching one of their chief ambassadors disappear. And while they could always find another animal to slap on their tourist guidebooks, I suspect none would be so grand as the moose.

From the July 7-13, 2010 issue

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