Rare lynx sighting highlights a day on the ice
SAGANAGA LAKE, GUNFLINT TRAIL — We must have noticed the animal at about the same time. Two of us were riding two-up on a snowmobile, heading back to our cabin last weekend after a day of lake trout fishing.
The late-afternoon sun was bathing a bay on the U.S. side of Saganaga Lake in buttery light. We were about 60 miles northwest of Grand Marais, traveling on the Canadian side of this big border lake.
The creature was simply sitting on the lake, like a dog would if he were waiting for someone to toss him a treat. At first, I thought it was a fox, but, no, it seemed somewhat larger than a fox. We idled the snow machine and shut it off.
The animal was perhaps 100 yards or so away, catching the rich afternoon light. The March day had been warm, topping out near 40 degrees. We quickly discerned that the animal was not a fox. It had to be a bobcat or a lynx. Both of us quickly noted that the cat appeared to have the elongated ear tufts that indicated a lynx. A grainy iPhone photo would later confirm that.
A lynx. The first either of us had ever seen.
Already, it had been a fine day. A long snowmobile ride. A 40-minute ski to our lake trout spot. More exploratory skiing and hole-drilling to prospect some new territory. We had put four lake trout on the ice and had kept two — our limit in these Canadian waters.
But this — the lynx — made the day.
After looking at us for a while, he
or she rose and nosed about the snow. The disturbed snow told us that anglers had been fishing there that day. The lynx was no doubt snooping around for discarded minnows or any other tasty morsels it could find. The cat seemed not at all troubled by our presence.
We sat on the snowmobile and watched it for a few minutes. I'm sure the scene is etched in my friend's memory as sharply as it is in mine. As the lynx walked about on its inspection of fishy scents, we could see every aspect of its anatomy — the thickly furred legs, the ample paws, the high-rise haunches. Its conformation, and the way it moved with a kind of grace and lightness, reminded me exactly of the cheetahs we had seen on a safari in Kenya's Maasai Mara Reserve a couple years ago.
You look at such an animal and have no doubt whatsoever that it is built for speed, for making a living by catching its prey on a dead run — perhaps a Thomson's gazelle for a cheetah, a snowshoe hare for a lynx. Watching either predator move about while not on the chase reminded me of watching Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt loosening up at the starting line before a 100-meter sprint. The indication is that there is speed to spare.
The likelihood that either of us will see another lynx in our lifetimes is not high. We had each lived a good chunk of those lifetimes without seeing one. Moose, wolves, pine marten, an occasional fisher — yes. But never a lynx.
University of Minnesota Duluth researchers estimate that perhaps 200 roam northern Minnesota at any given time, many in the Superior National Forest. That allows for a lot of empty country between lynx.
True, a Tofte man recently saw a family of five together on a back road in the woods near that community. Judging by the size and their behavior, they were likely a mom and her kits from last year, researchers said.
Lucky guy, the man who witnessed that. And he managed to get good photos, even a video. Everyone was amazed.
When my friend and I had had our fill of lynx watching, he fired up the snowmobile, and we headed for the cabin. We had fish to clean.
I took one look over my shoulder. The lynx was still there, padding around on those oversized paws, sniffing for a snack in the day's fading light.
By Sam Cook
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image credit: NPR