Thursday, January 5, 2017

Return to Meadowlands


It looked almost like a shaman's shrine, standing in the shadows at the edge of the woods. A spruce log ran about head high between two rough posts. There were feeders dangling from the bar and chunks of suet affixed to both posts.

I think we might have driven right past the station except that there were two cars parked along the road nearby. We were still a quarter-mile away when I spotted a man walking down the road. As we approached I noticed that a camera with a very large lens was hanging from his neck, and he was wearing the most elaborate pair of knee-high white mukluks, cross-laced with rawhide strips, that I'd ever seen. Ah! The shaman himself!

As our Corolla squeaked to a stop on the snow-covered dirt road I rolled down the window.

"See anything interesting?"

"No. But someone saw a great gray owl right about here this morning."

"Really?" I replied, trying to sound impressed. And of course, I was. But it was cold outside, and the time was 3 p.m. That bird could be anywhere by now. Then again, if you really want to see one, it makes sense to spend some time in the vicinity where they've been seen before.

Birders come from all over the U.S. to this very spot in hopes of seeing such a bird. It drops south across the border from Ontario only sporadically, and seems to prefer the thick, quiet black-spruce bogs north of Meadowlands to the upland forests closer to the border. A few years ago, Hilary and I had the good luck to be up north during a rare winter invasion of the species. We saw eighteen of them in a single weekend.

Meanwhile, the shaman was scrutinizing my face, trying to gauge what type of a birder I really was. I took a brief look past his rugged face at the thick wall of black spruce behind him, through which a few glints of late afternoon sun were sparkling--as if I was suddenly going to see those big, expressionless, yellow eyes peering out at me that the shaman had somehow failed to spot! Of course, I saw nothing.

"Good luck," I said quietly, and waved with a single finger as I cranked up the window, released the clutch, and we moved forward respectfully toward the cars parked alongside the road  ahead.

"I think we just passed the feeders," Hilary said, turning her head. Indeed, there they were, obscured in shadow. They didn't look like much. I parked next to the other cars and we got out. A man was standing by the side of the road.


"See anything interesting? A boreal chickadee, perhaps?"

He shook his head.

"I've never seen one," I said.

"Neither have I. But this is the right time of day. I've been told they like the gob of peanut butter that's smeared on the top of the beam ... There's a redpoll eating seeds on the ground under the left hand post."

"I haven't seen one of those for ages," I said, honing in with my binoculars on his red forehead spot and rosy breast.

"We flushed a flock of them down by the Loretta feeder a half-hour ago. I've only been here for five minutes."

The man was from Madison. He'd driven up with his wife and daughter, who were sitting in the car. At one point the girl got out, and she and her dad played briefly in the snow bank. Then both of them returned to the car and got inside.

We stood there for a few minutes more, examining chickadees one after another, eager to spot one with a grayish cheek, a brownish head. There were perhaps thirty of them zooming in and out from both sides of the road, often missing our heads by only a few inches as they passed. But it was not to be.

I waved at the man in the car as we left. He was still looking at the feeding station, but only though the closed window, with his naked eye. It's a six-hour drive from Madison to Meadowlands. I wonder how long he stuck around.


I've been interested in Meadowlands for quite a while. I like the name, and it has always struck me as an improbable place for a town to be—like an Oz or a Shangri La. On our recent visit another element was added to the story, as I was reminded of something I'd long forgotten. Our recent visits have been by way of Highway 169 and Floodwood, but last weekend we came north on the freeway, took the Cloquet Cutoff (Highway 33) and continued north on Highway 53 to Cotton. This is the route my family took many times when I was a kid on our way to the cabin on Lake Vermilion. The stretch between Cloquet and Virginia always seemed dull, and all but interminable.

The only bright spot was the traditional stop at Berweger's Cheese Shop (long since burned down) to buy a few slices of Tilsit cheese and a big bag of penny candy that we used as chips in our evening poker games. (Little did I know--nor would I have cared at the time--that the cheese shop was an outlet of Berweger's Cheese Factory in Meadowlands.)

The only other memorable landmark (not counting the horrible stench in the outhouse at the Lion's Springs wayside rest) was the green highway sign in the middle of nowhere pointing the way to Meadowlands. The sign might just as well have said Oak Woods or Steep Cliffs. It didn't sound like a municipality; it sounded like a natural phenomenon. In any case, I found it hard to imagine that there were any meadows out in that direction.


These are the things that capture the imagination of children: the things with a mysterious, vaguely romantic flair. The things that don't make much sense.  

1 comment:

mine said...

Love your blog. I'm from Meadowlands but have long since moved away. You make my home town so magical.
K.Berweger....the old cheese factory.