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BWCA & Quetico Canoe Outfitting and Wilderness Resort on Minnesota's Gunflint Trail
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The Mystery of Mayflowers

Tue, 05/24/2016 - 7:39pm

From the time of our first history lesson in kindergarten or preschool, we know the term “Mayflower.” But despite the fact that one of the most famous -if not the most famous – ship in North American history was called the Mayflower, I just sort of assumed the name referred to any old flower that bloomed in May and left it at that. And I kind of doubt the Pilgrims put a whole lot of thought into the flower either. They probably didn’t care what their ship was named, let alone what flower it was named after, as long as it put an ocean between themselves and the religious persecution of King James I.

Occasionally I’d run into a Mayflower moving truck and that would make me think about mayflowers for about .2 seconds, but generally, mayflowers were out of mind more often than not.

But when I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time as a teenager, I ran into mayflowers yet again.

“‘I’m so sorry for people who live in lands where there are no Mayflowers,’ said Anne. ‘Diana says perhaps they have something better, but there couldn’t be anything better than Mayflowers, could there, Marilla? And Diana says if they don’t know what they are like they don’t miss them. But I think that is the saddest thing of all. I think it would be tragic, Marilla, not to know what Mayflowers are like and not to miss them. Do you know what I think Mayflowers are, Marilla? I think they must be the souls of the flowers that died last summer and this is their heaven.'”

In fact, mayflowers must have been very significant to Canadian author L.M. Montgomery, because she makes mention of them in at least of three of her eight books that deal directly with the life of Anne Shirley Blythe, aka Anne of Green Gables. In later books, Anne’s son, Jem, makes a habit of collecting bouquets of mayflowers each spring for his mother. This becomes particularly poignant in Rilla of Ingleside when Jem enlists in the Canadian Army at the start of World War I and is unable to bring Anne her mayflowers during the first spring of the Great War.

Despite reading the entire Anne of Green Gables series all the way through at least three or four times, I never really knew what these mayflowers looked like. At one point Anne’s daughter, Rilla, makes mention of wanting to gather armloads of mayflowers, so I always assumed the mayflower was a bigger wildflower like a daisy or black-eyed Susan.

At long last, I decided to consult the font of all knowledge, Google, to figure out what these mayflowers actually look like.

And low and behold I came up with a photo of this, a wildflower we know very well on the Gunflint Trail:

We call it “false lily of the valley,” but in other parts of North American it’s referred to by the English translation of its scientific name Maianthemum canadense: Canada Mayflower.

But despite having photographic proof of what a Canada mayflower looks like, I had a hunch that I hadn’t quite cracked “the mayflower mystery.” For one thing, how Rilla planned to gather armloads of these, I wasn’t quite sure, since the flower stalks average only about 4.5″ in height. At best, a “bouquet” of these mayflowers would really be more of a “nosegay.” For another thing, context clues in Anne of Green Gables told me that on Prince Edward Island where the books are set mayflowers bloom before violets. Here in Minnesota, false lily of the valley blooms decidedly after the violets.

It turns out that in the Maritime provinces where L.M. Montgomery lived, the wildflower known as trailing arbutus is often referred to as a mayflower. Never mind that in the Maritimes, trailing arbutus blooms in April. The reason for this Canadian misnomer for trailing arbutus brings us right back to those pilgrims and refers to the fact “that it was the first flower to cheer the hearts of the Pilgrim Fathers after the rigors of their first New England winter.” The whole “bouquet” thing that L.M. Montgomery mentions to is still confusing, because again, trailing arbutus only grows to 4-6″ tall so good luck finding a vase to accommodate that bouquet, but there you have it.

I’ve been thinking about L.M. Montgomery a lot lately, because the mother of two dear friends passed away unexpectedly at the end of last month. She was a noted L.M. Montgomery researcher, deeply involved with the L.M. Montgomery Literary Society, who visited Prince Edward Island many times, although never at the time when mayflowers were blooming, I don’t think. Because it’s springtime, I keep thinking of little Jem, scrambling down the hillside in Rainbow Valley to gather mayflowers for his mother.

So I’ve been watching carefully for our version of mayflowers this spring. They’re not out quite yet, but their large (at least in comparison with their flower) heart-shaped leaves are spreading across the forest floor. It wasn’t until I was leafing through my Anne books looking for mayflower references last night, that I rediscovered her quote about mayflowers being “the souls of wildflowers.” I thought about the tiny star-shaped flowers along a stem of false lily of the valley and was impressed by how apt that description seemed for the mayflower I know and the mayflower Anne knew.

Regardless of which mayflower you see this spring, I hope they’re a peaceful patch of beauty, with just a hint of mystic.

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Spring into Bingshick

Wed, 05/18/2016 - 3:49pm

Daffodils prevailing in the Fishing Opener snowstorm of 2016

The ice out at the end of last month signaled time to kick things into high gear at Tuscarora to prepare for the busy paddling season ahead. (If you were counting on your fingers, we were just one day shy of five full months of ice on Round Lake, since the lake froze over on November 26, 2015 last fall. Not a record by any stretch of the imagination, but not exactly the non-winter we were predicting in early December either.) Over the last few weeks, we’ve been putting docks in, deep cleaning cabins, pulling canoes out of their winter slumber lands (aka, the dining hall), training in staff, stocking the gift shop, and juggling all the other miscellaneous tasks that come with getting a canoe outfitters ready to roll for summer. 

But we haven’t been keeping our noses so closely to the grindstone that we haven’t noticed the natural world slowly waking up around us.

Tuscarora is suddenly overrun with grouse and snowshoe hares. Hares haven’t fully switched out of their winter coats yet (and given the below freezing, windy, snowy fishing opener we had last weekend, neither have we!) and are running around with white “socks” on. The flower bulbs we planted last spring are blooming beside the outfitting building. The loon pair has returned to Round Lake and will hopefully start sitting on their nest soon. In the woods, you might stumble upon the early spring wildflowers of violets and wood anemones as the trees and scrubs continue to leaf out. Baby mammals (moose, wolves, fox, et. al) are taking their first tentative steps along forest paths. And in the full circle of life, the bugs – including some of the winged, biting kind – are making themselves known as well.

Andy snuck off yesterday with his buddy, Quinn, to do a day paddle up through Brant Lake towards Faye and Bingshick. They had such a good time catching up that they forgot to take much in the way of photos. No doubt, they were busy plotting ways to make the second annual Boundary Waters Canoe Expo – of which Quinn is the main mover and shaker – even better than last year’s. This photo of Quinn from yesterday does show that the weather has improved significantly since last weekend. We’ve been enjoying t-shirt weather with highs in the mid 60s.

The guys did a loop from Flying to Faye to Glee to Bingshick, back to Flying. It’s remote, rugged country, seldom traveled as many people with Brant Lake entry point permits often put their heads down and truck past this country on their way to Bat and Gillis. The Bingshick area really scorched in the Cavity Lake Fire of 2006, so the lake shores are covered with patches of waist-high to 10 ft. tall young jack pines, alder, and birch trees. Because the fire burned so hot through the dense Blowdown debris that covered the forest floor in 2006, the area is recovering at a slower rate than the forest affected by the much larger and destructive Ham Lake Fire that burned Gunflint Trail forest mostly outside of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in May 2007. You might remember from last spring that this area is also known for the elusive Arethusa Bulbosa Orchid.

The area Andy and Quinn paddled was filled with gullies and crags and Andy said it was easy to imagine that the topography they encountered was once underwater structure as part of a large lake that stretched up to Seagull Lake and beyond. Although renderings of the Great Lake Agassiz often don’t show the lake’s southeast shore reaching as far into the Minnesota Arrowhead region as we are, some geologists hypothesize that Agassiz certainly did cover much of today’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It’s fascinating to watch the woods transition from season to season and even more interesting to think of the major transitions this land has gone through over the millennium to create this wilderness area.

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