Most people have a general idea of what the Gunflint Trail’s all about: fishing, lakeside cabins, loon calls, wildlife encounters. But no matter how familiar the name “Gunflint Trail” is, there’s a mystery that seems to persist: why is it called the Gunflint Trail? That question has a 2 billion year old answer and has to do with a rock called chert.
Both the geology and history of this region help explain the name “Gunflint Trail.” 2 billion years ago, an iron geologic formation formed in a relatively small area in northern Minnesota and western Ontario. The formation is made up of layers of hematite (iron oxide) and red jasper and jet black chert which are both silicates and types of cryptocrystalline quartz.
Fast forward a couple billion years . . . .
Flintlock rifles were developed in the mid 1600s and were used until the early 1800s. Area Native Americans and French Voyageurs discovered that the jet black flint layered in the shoreline of one particular lake along the Voyageur’s trade route could be used to create the spark necessary for firing a flintlock rifle. During their journey, the Voyageurs made a special “pit stop” at the lake to gather chert to form flints for their guns. (Flint isn’t a name for a rock or mineral, but rather is a term applied to any rock which produces sparks. When people say “flint” around here, they’re referring to chert. ) In fact, the French bestowed the lake renowned for chert “Lac de Pierres a Fusil” which in English translates to Lake of Stone Flint or . . . Gunflint Lake.
When the automobile road that would be eventually be known as the Gunflint Trail was developed in the early 1900s, it went by a couple names. Even today, the road’s “real” name is Cook County Highway 12. But at some point in the 1920s, the nickname “the Gunflint Trail” stuck, reminding visitors and residents alike of the region’s unique geology and history.
At Chik-Wauk Museum you can see a flintlock rifle hanging above the voyageur exhibit. Come check out this single artifact which had very large role in the mystery of the Gunflint Trail’s name.
When we first put out the bird feeders outside of the Chik-Wauk Museum, it was the middle of summer. With the exception of some hummingbirds, most other birds have been too content with natural bounty of seeds and insects outside to bother with our feeders. But this morning we had our first winged visitor: not too surprisingly, it was a gray jay (perisoreous canadensis) who you might also know as a Canada Jay or Whiskey Jack.
Compared with delicate chickadees and songbirds, this fairly large bird is the equivalent of the “rude dinner guest” amongst the birds you’ll commonly find at your feeder in northern Minnesota. If the gray jay has one virtue, it’s that they’re not particularly picky. They’ll eat just about anything.: from bird seed to bread crumbs to French fries. More than anything, they’d like to have a bit of whatever you happen to be eating. These cheeky birds are know to grab sandwiches right out of camper’s hands, earning themselves the nickname of Camp Robber.
The grey jay might not be the most striking of birds in the boreal forest, nor does it have a terribly distinct of song. Still, there are several interesting facts about this bird that make it worth noting the next time one raids your campsite. For one thing, the birds give birth extremely early in the season: they’re known to lay eggs in February and March, a time of year that usually still constitutes as deep winter in the North Woods!
One thing that enables gray jays to give birth so early is the fact that they cache food through out their home territory. A large amount of the food they pilfer is eaten, formed into a little food “nugget” which is then regurgitated in a storage place to ensure they have plenty of food to last all winter long.
It’s been a string of beautiful days at the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. Whether the weather will stay or go, it’s hard to know, but we can say with certainty that it’s great hiking weather. A Minnesota Conservation Corps crew finished putting some improvements on our Big Sag hiking trail this past weekend: now you can enjoy great views and sure footing on the path.
Where there was a steep slope, now there are stairs:
Where there was uneven footing before, now there’s a turnpike of sorts. In trail speak a turnpike isn’t a busy, wide highway for cars but a place where large rocks are placed along the path and filled in with a smaller material, like gravel or soil. In this case, the MCC crew filled in with gravel they created by chipping away at some of the granite rocks beside the trail. The surface is usually slightly rounded to assist with trail drainage. If you’re curious on how to build one, you can read more about it here.
They also did some erosion control along the path’s ascents.
The work the crew did hugely improved the trail. Plan to come check it out soon!
Don’t miss the last presentation in this year’s “Becoming A Boundary Waters Family” presentation. Each Thursday this summer a U.S. Forest Service ranger has given a talk on the Chik-Wauk porch at 3 p.m. The presentations have been both well received and well attended, so be sure to show up a little early if you’d like a seat.
This Thursday, August 26th, sisters Brandee Wenzel and Bre Schueller will present on “Significant Relationships.” Brandee is a wilderness ranger and plant specialist. Bre is a fuels technician. Together, they’ll illustrate how the landscape around you is, in a sense, the offspring of Forest and Fire. They will discuss the effects of fire and fire suppression on the forest over the past 100 years and explain how some plant species use disturbances such as fire to their advantage. You’ll also learn about current fire management strategies in the wilderness that you may see in operation this year.
If you haven’t made it to a presentation yet, this one is definitely not to be missed. See you there!
Any old timer around here can tell you that Gunflint Trail wasn’t always paved, two-lane highway it is today. Not long ago, the road was windy(ier), narrow gravel road known for its “speed bumps” and blind corners. Did you ever wonder about the evolution of the Gunflint Trail from its start as a footpath to the National Scenic Byway it is today? If you have, you’ll want to make sure you check out this year’s temporary exhibit at Chik-Wauk Museum, entitled “The Evolution of the Gunflint Trail.”
Each year, Chik-Wauk Museum will feature a new exhibit. You’ll want to make sure to check out this exhibit before the season’s done, so you can finally know what a corduroy road is!
Yesterday, a volunteer spotted a blooming bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) wildflower just off the small boardwalk along the Moccasin Lane Trail. This curious Christmas light shaped flower doesn’t open farther than what you can see in the picture above, which explains why it’s also sometimes referred to as a closed gentian. According to Stan Tekiela, “Bumblebees force themselves inside the flower through the top by pushing apart the flowers.” The flower blooms in late summer or early fall and is usually found in boggier areas.
If you’ve hiked along our Moccasin Lane trail, you know it’s the interpretive wildflower walk at Chik-Wauk. As you walk along the trail, you’ll spot numbered markers which correlate with information in the Moccasin Lane Guidebook. In the guidebook, bottle gentian is described as a plant you’d find in area 8, but due to our dry summer, those bottle gentian plants aren’t flowering this year. Only this single bottle gentian, which is technically in area 9 of the guidebook, is blooming from its home in the boggy shoreline of Saganaga Lake.
The bottle gentian in bloom on the trail this year is a small specimen. The flowers are normally between 2-3 feet in height, but this little plant is only about a foot tall. The blooms are also often in clusters, rather than just a single bloom. Big or small, this unique flower is worth the short hike the Moccasin Lane trail offers.
Anyone who’s hiked the Big Sag Trail at Chik-Wauk knows we weren’t kidding when we labeled it as “difficult” in our hiking trails. The trail loops around the Chik-Wauk bay and then takes off over the granite cliffs that burned in the Ham Lake Fire of 2007. The trail offers fantastic views of Saganaga Lake, as well as tons of blueberries, but the trial is definitely challenging. “Arduous” is a term some hikers have used to describe it after returning.
We want all our trails to be accessible to whoever wants to hike them and this week a crew from Conservation Corps of Minnesota is up helping us make the Big Sag just a littler easier. Big Sag will remaining our most challenging hiking trail, but now it will be a little more accommodating to the casual hiker.
The crew is putting in stone steps to help make the ups and downs of the trail a little less treacherous.
This crew member was making “homemade” gravel to use on the trail.
This isn’t the MCC’s first trip up to Chik-Wauk. They also helped install our boardwalk on the Amikwiish Way (our ADA accessible trail). They do good work and we’re thankful for their help in improving the nature center offerings at Chik-Wauk!
Interested in wildflowers? Looking for things to do on the Gunflint Trail? Botanist Erin Heep and Ecologist Jack Greenlee, both of the U.S. Forest Service will present on “Amazing Orchids of Northern Minnesota” this Thursday, August 12th, at 3:00 p.m. on the Chik-Wauk Museum porch. The presentation is part of the Becoming a Boundary Waters Family program. You’re sure to learn all sorts of facts about these rare gems of the northern forest and the presentation is a great family activity. See you there!