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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Fragrant Fir Our Readers Write

There's News Afoot

November 30, 2010

Another year is drawing to a close. The Thanksgiving weekend has just passed into history in the States, and the headlong rush toward Christmas is well and truly under way. But our holiday preoccupations often blind us to the goings‑on in another world, a world that knows no holidays, where the most important business of each and every day is "finding food, and keeping warm" — the world, to borrow the words of poet Philip Larkin, "of den, and hole, and set[t]."

Of course, this world isn't entirely unknown, is it? Those of us who venture off the beaten track from time to time are privileged to glimpse what others never see, and we're often given gifts that need no festive wrapping to mark them out as something special. There's magic in the north woods. The heady perfume of pine and balsam, the sibilant whisper of a rising breeze, the springiness of the needle‑carpeted forest floor, the rustle of parchment leaves, the crunch of fresh snow underfoot… These make any walk through the frozen landscape of late autumn and early winter truly memorable. And if, in your travels, you come across evidence of the wild creatures who are the backcountry's year‑round residents, the experience is all the more enthralling.


Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since the last "Our Readers Write," and we have a pile of new mail to share, but just now, with Canoe Country on the brink of winter, we figured it was time to showcase some unpublished letters written around earlier articles about two of the icons of the northern forest — the balsam fir and the formidable but mysterious fisher. In our view, these capture the allure of the winter woods as nothing else can. And we hope you'll agree.

 —  Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest, In the Same Boat

Memories of Balsam and Thoughts on Kayaks for Two

Dear Tamia,

I always enjoy your articles in, but every once in a while one tweaks my own memories and I am moved to let you know that I appreciate your skill with words. "The Fragrant Fir" about balsams was a real winner. Thanks.

I'm a snowbird from Titusville, Pennsylvania, and we winter in Florida, and I'm about to put our tandem kayak into the little lake by our house. I wonder if my experience in a tandem might be of interest to others. My wife and I both had singles. Small, molded ones. Until paddling became an issue for my wife, I never gave a tandem a thought, mostly because in my experience things designed to do two or more things seldom do anything well. Turns out I've changed my mind on the tandem. The extra size and weight are a bit of a disadvantage out of the water, but in the water I really like it. With two aboard it is fine. When I use it alone I feel like I'm in a racing canoe. If I stop paddling and drift, there is still a noticeable bow wave two minutes later. I have a rudder so I can paddle towards a shorebird, drift closer using the rudder, and get away without disturbing the bird.

Karl Engleka

• • •

Tamia replies:

It's good to hear from you again, Karl. I'm pleased that you enjoyed "The Fragrant Fir," and I'm delighted that you've discovered the pleasures of "doubling up" in a tandem kayak.

A Hot Tip

Dear Tamia,

You did not include two of the principal assets of the balsam fir [in your article], perhaps for a good reason. In Maine, balsam is a prolific tree. We use it for wound coverage (it is an antiseptic) and for a fire starter. Those blisters on the balsam's trunk can be punctured without harm to the tree, and the sap gets many a winter campfire going. Perhaps not a good idea for hordes of people.

I guess I laugh at balsam needle pillows for sale at the tourist shop.


• • •

Tamia replies:

I know what you mean, Kim. I, too, am sometimes moved to mirth by the antics of tourists. But then I remember all the times when I've played the tourist game and gone hunting for souvenirs, and the joke rebounds on me. (In fact, I've got rocks from every corner of the continent on my windowsills. They don't smell as good as balsam sachets, however.) Balsam resin as fire starter? Interesting idea. It would indeed be unfortunate if every paddler routinely tapped balsam blisters, of course. After all, even wood fires are out‑of‑bounds in many places now. Still, it's a very good thing to know what can be drawn from the "closet of the woods," if and when the need ever arises in an emergency. Thanks for the tip.

The Balsams of Prince Edward Island

Dear Tamia,

I agree that balsam fir trees are wonderful. Our woodlot here in PEI contains some, mixed in with the spruces, hemlock, pines, and hardwoods. The fragrance of balsam is delightful. Also agree with your comment about preferring fir in its living state, decorated with chickadees and jays. It's nice to know there are others who like the outdoors in its natural state.

I have been reading through the In the Same Boat archives on winter evenings, and enjoy the articles greatly. I paddle an Old Town Castine kayak in the summer, and love to read and dream of the interesting trips you and your husband have made.

Wilma MacDonald

• • •

Tamia replies:

I'm glad you're having a good time exploring the archives, Wilma. And you're right — I'd rather see a balsam in the woods than have one in my living room. After all, even a dead tree can provide food and shelter aplenty for the creatures who call the forest home.

More on the Balsams of Maine

Hi, Tamia!

I enjoyed this one. It brought me back to similar trips of my youth. We weren't rich either and lived on a tight budget. But we did enjoy some of the finer things in life; the woods and ponds and streams in the great outdoors in Maine.

We were incredibly lucky to live at the lake all of each summer. And if playing in the water and forest every day wasn't enough, beginning when I was seven years old Dad started taking us to Baxter State Park for annual vacations. The big attraction there, of course, was the mountains, but the ponds, streams and wildlife were also interesting to a bunch of adventurous boys. I wasn't very interested in trees in those days, but I am now, and enjoy a variety around my home, including red and white pines, a hemlock, a variety of maples, apples and a few newly planted oaks. I much prefer the softwoods to the hardwoods in the fall.

We also enjoyed the moose sightings, also deer and the rare bear. Nowadays the sightings are even more frequent all over the state. Too bad the experiment with caribou failed. Some of the most enjoyable creatures were the birds. I am very fond of the chickadees and the finches. In the north woods in winter I have especially enjoyed the Canada jay. I have had many conversations with these friendly creatures as they munched gorp from my hand. As long as I talked, they would stay. A park ranger told me they were reincarnated French‑Canadian woodsmen and were lonely and always willing to chat. Who knows? I live too far south in the state to see the Canada jays and only rarely take the cross‑country skis north in winter. I always look for them, though.

Pat Roy

• • •

Tamia replies:

You certainly had a childhood to be envied, Pat. Canada ("gray") jays are wonderfully entertaining birds, aren't they? Sadly, they're only occasional visitors to my home waters, but their showier cousins do their best to make up for this, and mostly they succeed. As for the notion that the Canada jays embody the spirits of long‑ago French‑Canadian woodsmen, well… Still, I've heard stranger stories.

Stories in the Snow

Hi, Tamia!

I liked this piece ["The Devil of the Woods!" –Editor] I have spent a lot of time tracking, and I find it a good way to learn "recent history." On one frozen marsh — with half‑acre shallow ponds and adjacent vegetation with its feet underwater — I saw a wonderful set of tracks. Along the edge of the frozen pond, a few feet out on the ice, I saw the tracks of a goose. The goose walked closer and closer to the vegetation, when there appeared another set of tracks on the ice resulting in lots of wing‑beat patterns in the skiff of snow atop the ice. I don't remember studying the tracks closely, but I suspect a coyote or fox had a nice meal.

James Stone

• • •

Tamia replies:

That's an intriguing story you teased out of the tracks, James. The tale ends badly for the goose, of course, though I imagine that the coyote or fox was pretty happy with the way things turned out.

The Devil of the Woods

Dear Tamia,

I enjoyed your article on fishers. Here in the northwest of Wisconsin the fisher is making a comeback. I think it was about 15 years ago the fisher was reintroduced here by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (we are in the ceded territories). This reintroduction has been quite successful, even in areas one might assume are too fragmented — to the point of having a limited and well‑regulated trapping season. On our place we are visited by fishers once or twice a winter, usually accompanied by a sudden decline in our squirrel population. In this farming area the fishers use the creek bottoms as corridors between woodlots. "Our" fishers also have not read the book regarding the solitary life except for breeding. I often have an experience similar to yours, in that I have on occasion seen tracks of two fishers coming up from the bottoms and, like you, one animal was smaller than the other.

Happy tracking,
Mike Farrell

• • •

Tamia replies:

Thanks for passing along your observations, Mike. I've often seen evidence that wildlife doesn't "read the book." Then again, they're the only real experts on their lives, aren't they?

Reading the Algonquin News

Hi, Tamia!

Huzza on another great tale from the woods. I love being in the bush and reading sign. It truly is a way of reading the news. Rabbit tracks in the snow ending with large wing marks tell the tale of the food chain ticking over.

Last fall in late October, I was west of Algonquin Park in the Algonquin Highlands scouting deer with my long‑time hunting partner, Dave. We were walking up an abandoned logging road when we came across a few porcupine quills and scuffed tracks in the gravel. Soon, the tracks became clearer and the quills more numerous and the story of a fierce fight was played out in the dust. A fisher and a porcupine circled and fought over and over along the road. Many quills were left on the ground, but not a drop of blood. Enthralled by this dance of death, we followed the tracks as far as we could. This battle was won by the porcupine and once in the bush he (or she) made good their escape.

At the end of our deer hunt in November we had a good snowfall. The deer had been rather thin on the ground or more wily than we, and we were casting about for a plan. To our great pleasure, we came across wolf tracks on every trail we were scouting. The wolves were following the exact same plan as us. The pack was made up of about five or six wolves, at least three young ones, one large and one enormous male. We found their scent marks in the snow. When they crossed a deer track ahead of us they turned and followed immediately. We felt a brotherhood with these amazing beasts. This pack made up of a family group was working together to get a deer or moose. Of note, the adult male's tracks were huge. Each paw was 2.5 inches wide and a .308 Winchester cartridge long (a handy unit of measure for pictures at the time), or about 2.5 inches by 3 inches in length. The gait from the rearmost paw to the front paw while loping along was 4.5 of my paces. This creature probably was well north of 100 pounds in weight. We see them every year and feel blessed to haunt the same territory as they.

We often see quite the parade of mammalian fauna while sitting on our watches — wolves, foxes, fishers, martens, mink, weasels and beaver come by in the early morning and late evening hours. These visits with the regular inhabitants of our favourite haunts make our time there very special. We treasure the first snows because it affords us the ability to read the "Algonquin News"!


Robert Roe
Curator, Woodside National Historic Site of Canada


Crossed Paths


Rob has the last word in this edition of "Our Readers Write," and an eloquent word it is, too. But there's a new edition of the "Algonquin News" already in press. Snow is falling even as we write these lines, and we'll soon be out and about, reading the latest stories from the pages of the book of the woods. And what if you don't live up North? What if you live outside the snowbelt? What then? Well, you may find the "text" a little harder to read, but if you look closely enough you'll find stories written on the landscape everywhere, from urban "waste lands" to the roadless wildernesses of the great deserts. So there's not a moment to be lost! Wherever you live, there's breaking news waiting to be read, and you'll find it just outside your door.

A little fine print: Although we often ask, just to be sure, we assume that it's OK to reprint any letter you send us, unless you tell us otherwise. (Just put "Not for Publication" at the head of your letter. That's all it takes.) We will never put your e‑mail address online unless you specifically ask us to, however. We also edit letters occasionally for length or clarity, and we add links to articles or other resources wherever and whenever appropriate.

Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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