The Sleepless Crow Wing

In the heart of a broad track of hardwood forest, on a bend of the great Crow Wing just north of Motley, I made a campfire. The night was bluish, foggy. The sliver of moon barely eking through the inert gush of moisture. A sigh recoiling across the pale.

The fire I made of scrub oak and jack pine. You get the fire going with dry oak leaves and jack pine kindling. Then you lay on your jack pine logs, and that will usually go up like a roman candle. Jack pine burns fast and hot. After that you get her good and coaled up you can throw on a slab of scrub oak or two. If the coals are hot enough, the oak will take quickly too. If I wasn’t concentrating on writing, and thinking more about the quality of this fire, I would have gone down for some driftwood elm at the river’s edge. But I won’t. Tonight, mostly jack pine will have to do.

A gaggle of turkeys are skirting the edge of the forest around me. They come from the north, from a young spruce grove, and then follow the river bottom west. There are fingers of islands on the north side of the river, the bank that I am camped on, and it’s this side they seem to enjoy. Perhaps it’s the acorns. The fertile, insect-filled soil. I don’t know much about turkeys except that they are silly birds. Of course wise in their own strange way- their sheer numbers and adaptability to new environments can prove that. But if you hang with the turkeys long, you get the sense they are perpetually shitfaced.

Ten years ago it was a rare sight to see a turkey on this river bottom. In fact, for the first half of my life, I don’t remember hearing a word of the bird in the jack pine forests of Central Minnesota. Now it is a common sight to see meandering packs crossing highways almost anywhere in the state. The gaggle that has been waddling through this river bottom is at least forty birds strong. I counted on afternoon with a friend. You see, turkeys are not sneaky birds, and nor are they hard to sneak upon. There are hunters who will deny this fact. They will tell you that it’s simply not true, that the turkey is a cunning and illusive animal. ┬áThe truth is that the turkey is a bumbling bird, a clumsy bird, and a daydreamer. I have observed these traits in the turkey for years now.

My neighbor pack is ruled by one enormous Tom. The bastard wanders with his huge plumage unraveled, his glorious red gobbler wobbling, his neck erect and his eyes furious. In this way he walks about his tribe of luscious turkey vixens, his forty-some feathered geishas that he apparently gets free pick of whenever he chooses. And what does he give in returns? It must be protection.

The human male cannot imagine the life of a male turkey.

The fire burns low quickly. Stirring only patches the gaps. Fixing requires work. More oak to make the night. Superheat the coals before I fall asleep.

I don’t usually use a tent when I camp. Unless it’s going to rain, I don’t see the point. The chances of being eaten by an animal are about as good as being struck by lightning, or less. The weather in Central Minnesota in the spring is fairly predictable (there are always vicious exceptions to every rule in Minnesota). But just to be certain of my safety, I will often bring my trusty old shotgun for protection. It’s an ancient bolt action, but she’s as reliable as any gun ever made and she bucks like a damn mule and sounds like a formidable cannon. Any sane living thing would stand down at the sound of a simple charge of seven-and-a-half shot into the leaves. But bears can be sick.

More to the point, some people can be sick.

Coyotes purl through the willows and the elm at the other bank. They yowl and yammer through the night, from the first hints of sundown to the first hints of sunrise. There are nights when the band on the south bank will begin the eerie chorus, and suddenly there are yammers to the north of me. Like happy ghosts. Pranksters in truth. It does not take long to hear the bizarre humor in their songs. The way they do not fear the darkness and somehow rejoice in their own chaos, in the chaos of the river and the Crow Wing’s long and winding course.

Before I fall asleep, I often hear the echoes of a train whistle, and a barn owl in the oak above my head will answer it. As if the whistle is somehow a question posed by machine, a question asked to a machine in its lonesome transit and the owl whispers the reply onto the drifting wind but that whistle is too loud, and no machine will ever hear the answer over its own racket. It will disappear into the night and go drifting on the southern rim of the Crow Wing. Asking forever, wailing, splitting the soft abyss of the night. The river, on the other hand, is loud and boisterous on most nights. Woodpeckers get restless against the trunks of rotten oaks, gangs of coyotes taunt each other most nights from across the river, turkeys wander like drunkards through the dry leaves, otters splash and play in the shallow pools, and somewhere a wild cat screams bloody murder and stalks the darkness. I never feel quite isolated here. It’s a busy neighborhood, to be honest, and like New York, it never seems to sleep.

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