Gray Wolves, Gray Jay And A Gray Day Up North

A gray jay clings to a shrub along a portage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Sam Cook photo)

On Monday, I snowshoed several miles into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness west of Round Lake (northwest of Grand Marais about 50 miles) to meet a party of winter campers. It was an overcast day, comfortable at about 25 degrees.

As I was headed west down Round Lake a little after 8 a.m., I noticed two dark forms on the ice at the other end of the lake, about 3/4 of a mile away. They appeared almost black against the snow, and they looked a little bit like ice anglers sitting by their fishing holes. Then one of the forms materialized into a horizontal shape and moved quickly across the ice. The second one must have taken off, too, but I missed that.

When I got closer to where I had seen the shapes, I saw two sets of wolf tracks that were proceeding the same direction I was along a remnant trail left by snowshoers pulling their toboggans. It had snowed the night before and the wind had blown hard, so the path the wolves and I were following had filled in. I could make out the large paw prints at the bottom of each wolf footstep.

Nice. I hadn’t seen wolves while on the ground, in the woods, for a while. After the sighting, I would look around as I moved along on my snowshoes, scanning the fire-scarred hills to see if the wolves were watching my passage. If they were, I never saw them.

I saw no moose tracks in five miles of snowshoeing, and no deer tracks. A few snowshoe hare tracks preceded my own snowshoes down a couple of portages. It was pretty quiet in that country. I wondered how long a wolf might have to go between substantial meals.

Although I was on the trail for seven hours, out and back, and covered about 10 miles total, I don’t recall seeing or hearing a raven. That’s quiet country.

Along one portage, though. I did see the gray jay in the photo above. I was stopped on a snow-covered outcrop overlooking Brant Lake. The bird came swooping in from the north and perched in a pine snag not far away. He cocked his head one way and the other, checking me out, no doubt looking for a morsel of food.

Gray jays, also called whiskey jacks and camp robbers, are notorious for snatching bits of food from campers. Once, backpacking in Colorado, I saw one try to fly off carrying about one-fourth of a banana. If you’re hungry, you’ll take on almost any challenge.

When I saw this bird, I opened up a bag of trail mix and tossed a small handful in the snow. That kept the gray jay coming back again and again, snatching up a nut or a raisin or a chunk of dried mango, then flying off to eat it or stash it.

I like the way gray jays fly. They tend to glide and swoop, their wings flared, until they choose a landing spot. I also liked the way he — or she — clung to the vertical branch in the photo above.

I wondered, as I had about the wolves, what the jay might have been eating if I hadn’t stopped by. My bird book tells me they eat a variety of seeds, fruit, insects and carrion. The country there, ravaged by a forest fire just a few years earlier, still looked pretty desolate. There must not be as many seeds in that country as there once were.

But there was the jay, looking plump and healthy, apparently getting by quite well. My passing was purely coincidental, and my modest offering must have been something of a windfall for the bird. How could he have thought, earlier that morning, that he would be snacking on dried mango by lunch time?



2 Responses

  1. skidoolund

    Nice article Sammy. We call them “Lumberjacks”, ever since I was old enough to go with my father on trips. We used to have a pile of them at our house on Pelican Lake, but they have been noticeably absent the past few years. They are my favorite bird to watch and talk to. They actually will talk back to you once they get to know you. The wolves have been howling many nights across Saunders Bay. Because of illness and physical limitations, I have been unable to start up the Ski-Doo to take a trip across the Bay to check on any deer kills. Thanks for the article.

  2. Emily Brown

    Thanks, as always, Sam, for making the BWCA come to life – in all seasons. As we try to protect our precious national resource for human use, it is good to remember all the other creatures who inhabit the area.
    Gray is like a pearl, whether sky, wolf, bird, and though the sun is always a big treat on winter days up here, I appreciate the quiet softness of pearly gray.

    Thanks from Ely!

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