Autumn in Northern Minnesota brings a riot of color, from russet red and burnt umber to the unmistakable smoky gold of the area’s abundant tamarack trees. Found mainly in forest swamps, the tamarack is coniferous, or cone-bearing, and resembles other evergreens. But because this tree is also part of the only genus (Larix) that has needles AND is deciduous, it sheds its needles every fall. Just before they drop for the winter, the needles turn a beautiful golden color, creating a striking contrast to fall foliage.
The name “tamarack,” commonly called the Eastern, American, Red or Black Larch, comes from takmahak and Hackmatack, which is an Abenaki word for “wood used for snowshoes.” The Chippewa (or Ojibway/Ojibwe) word for tamarack is muckigwatig, meaning “swamp tree.”
Part of the Environment
Although the tree can be found in stands of its own, it is commonly in mixed stands with black spruce, northern white-cedar, black ash, red maple, eastern white pine and/or paper birch. Tamarack is habitat for songbirds, as well as the great gray owl and its small mammal prey. One of the smaller conifer species, tamarack grow to about 20 feet, with a narrow pyramidal form. The dark, reddish-gray flaky bark resembles Black Spruce, which the pale green needles are soft and short (about an inch long) and grow in brush-like tufts on small knobby spurs along each twig.
A Tree of Legend
Native American tribes have stories that describe the unusual, needle-shedding tree. Legend holds that, long ago, a flock of migrating birds encountered a brutal winter storm while flying south. They asked the majestic tamarack if they could roost in its branches to shelter from the great winds and snow. Being one of the most beautiful trees in the forest, the tamarack was somewhat vain and spent the summer months admiring its reflection in nearby streams and lakes. Because of this vanity, the tamarack denied the birds a place to hide from the winter storm, claiming it was already resting for the season and couldn’t be disturbed. Mother Nature witnessed this exchange and was not amused. To teach the tamarack a lesson, she forced the tree to lose the soft needles that kept it warm through the Northern winters. Eventually, the tamarack adapted to its new reality by becoming smaller, yet stronger.
Tamarack has been used through the centuries to make a variety of things. Early Indians made a tea made from the bark as treatment for a variety of ailments including jaundice and rheumatisms. The leaves or needles were used for headaches and dysentery, and its thinner roots for thread to sew canoes. Later, the wood was used for runners for dogsleds and old-school snowshoes, as well as pulp for paper, house frames, goose hunting decoys and even railroad ties.
It’s not uncommon for the smoky gold color of fall tamaracks to be mistaken for diseased or dead trees. But rather than lifeless, the tamarack is a vibrant, vivid part of the Rainy Lake landscape.
Although not originally from the Rainy Lake area, Ernest Oberholtzer was one of its fiercest advocates. A nationally-known conversationalist, Oberholtzer was named by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as one of the 100 Most Influential Minnesotans of the 20th century. Today, his legacy lives on through the Oberholtzer was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1884. In 1909, he made a trip to the Minnesota-Ontario border lakes and took his first extended canoe trip through the border lakes and the Rainy Lake watershed in 1909. These voyages made such an impression on Oberholtzer, he would dedicate his life to protecting the area and the traditions of its native people.
In 1913, Oberholtzer (known by many as “Ober”) moved to Rainy Lake, and in 1922, purchased Mallard Island, which would be his home for more than 50 years. His environmental achievements include:
Oberholtzer was also an author and spoke fluent Ojibwe.
“These trails of the north are a sermon in harmonious living. They tell not only of a race in conflict with [Western] civilization but of their whole philosophy and outlook on life. We have so much to learn from Indians and no better place to learn it today than portages worn smooth by our Indian predecessors.” Ernest Oberholtzer
Today, Oberholtzer is considered a leading advocate for the preservation of the Quetico-Superior lake area and an advocate of the Native American culture in that region. Before his death in 1977, a large plaque was installed in rock at the highest point of Mallard Island. The memorial reads, "This island was for fifty years the home of Ernest Oberholtzer, pioneer in the effort to save the wilderness, devoted Atisokan to the Indians and cherished friend and companion. 1973"
After his death, several of Oberholtzer’s friends established the Oberholtzer Foundation, which continues his legacy of conservation and wilderness protection.
We are into the middle of October and ruffed grouse hunters are starting to flush more birds as the cover has been coming down. Cold and wet weather lately has limited the number of hunters willing to get out.
Fall color watchers are seeing the peak pass them by, although there are still some green leaves. By about October 20th, they will all be gone.
Birders can catch all sorts of migrating waterfowl from swans to geese, and as a reminder, if you hike any of the trails you should wear some blaze orange for safety.
Weather has been a factor for Rainy Lake and Rainy River anglers. While few folk are getting out, those that find the window of opportunity are finding walleye, northern pike and crappie at varying depths around the submerged structure in Rainy Lake. Crappie are also being caught in the west end of Black Bay and up into the Rat Root River.
This post was brought to you by Rainy Lake Guide Association.