Gunflint Trail Lynx – March 2-4, 2020
I took a quick trip to the Gunflint Trail in northern Minnesota with the singular goal of seeing Canada Lynx. I’m hoping to see all the world’s feline species and am at 15 (I’ve got work to do… If you’re reading this and have a spot on a cat focused trip or a mammal watching trip with a good cat chance, shoot me a note!).
My strategy for the trip was to simply drive the last 20 miles of the Gunflint Trail around dawn and dusk into the early night hoping for a chance encounter with lynx. Driving at night seems to be the most common time that locals see lynx. I arrived to the Gunflint Lodge in the evening of 3/2/20 and drove the roads that evening. Since I had driven all day through Sax-Zim bog for birding, I was pretty tired and admittedly put in a half effort that night until about 9pm and saw nothing…nada. The time did, however, help to familiarize me with some of the back roads in the area, and the general layout of “The Trail”. I woke up around 5am on 3/3 and drove the roads for about 3 hours scoring only a ruffed grouse and a few other non-notable birds on the road. There was a fresh dusting of snow that I thought would be great for tracking, but I saw no interesting tracks – just a bunch of squirrels. Things were looking a bit bleak. The empty road and cold grey of the northern forest certainly added to that sense. Not all was lost though – I enjoyed a few hours of cross-country skiing on the beautiful groomed trails of the Gunflint Lodge that day.
On the night of 3/3, I set out at 5pm, about an hour before sunset. It was snowing lightly and cloudy, so it became a dark night. I was encouraged that there seemed to be a lot of fox activity on the road – many fresh tracks in the new snow. At around 8pm, on my second “lap” of the last 20 miles of the Trail, I saw a Red Fox stopped in the middle of the road grooming itself. I stopped my car and felt gracious for giving the fox some light to help with what I’m sure was a hard to see focus area of grooming on its back. While Red Fox wasn’t exactly my target species, I thought “What the heck, I’ll take a picture” and reached for my camera. Just then, I saw a grey figure pass the by the car out of the corner of my eye. I quickly realized that it was a lynx who had also been “admiring” the fox and decided to use the cover of my car and headlights to go for an opportunistic kill. With surprise achieved, the chase was over in about 30 feet and 5 seconds. The fox might have made 20 strides before being overtaken by the lynx just off the side of the road. There were about 2 minutes of bawling and thrashing under short pines on the side of the road (of which I have an iPhone video, but its mostly gruesome audio and distant thrashing in the bushes, so not really worth sharing), and then all was quiet. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. A lynx making a kill. Pretty quickly thereafter, the lynx picked up the fox and headed deeper into the woods down an embankment and was no longer visible from the road. I decided to give it some privacy to have a meal and to go grab some dinner for myself at the lodge. I drove to the kill site after dinner hoping that maybe the lynx would emerge to be visible from the road, but no luck.
On the morning of 3/4, I slept in, had breakfast and then drove back to the kill site around 9am. To my delight, the lynx was chilling near the kill site nearly in the open and was alert and moving around every few minutes. I spent about 15 minutes getting some photos of the lynx and then left it to its kill. I made one more return trip to the kill site around 1pm and the lynx wasn’t visible.
Mission accomplished. With incoming snow forecast for the night, obligations at home, and a snowy owl still to be found, I left the lodge in the afternoon and headed for Minneapolis. I was extremely fortunate in my sighting and it may have been the easiest and most successful feline mission yet.
– Where to fly to: I flew to Minneapolis and drove north from there. It’s a long drive. I’d probably look into flying to Duluth next time to save 2.5 hours of driving each way.
– Rental Car: I rented a Jeep Wrangler as its the only rental car I know of that reliably has 4wd. The tires weren’t exactly winter tires, but I did just fine on some icy roads and better than a poor guy in a huge pickup with 4wd who was towing his snowmobiles and got sideways on an icy road for an hour or so before a plow extracted him. I would not have been comfortable without a 4wd.
– Lodging: I can confidently recommend the Gunflint Lodge. Why? 1. Location, location, location. They’re right in the heart of lynx country. The “Gunflint Trail” is a ~40-50 mile road from Grand Marias and the Gunflint Lodge is about 10 miles from the end of the road. If your focus is the end of the Gunflint Trail, then staying there puts you in lynx country and you’re not repeating the first many miles of the road every time that you want to go out or go back to your lodging. 2. Nice restaurant serving 3 meals a day. 3. Wonderful staff. Helpful, enthusiastic and friendly. John the naturalist has been there for 20 years and knows the area and its wildlife well. John the owner keeps tabs on where people have been seeing animals and is psyched about the wildlife. 4. Given the hours you are going to spend in the car, its nice to have some activities at the lodge. I spent my days cross-country skiing. They also have snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, dogsledding and more.
– Birding: If you have a birding habit too, Sax-Zim bog is worth a stop. I saw a few “lifer” northern birds including Northern Hawk-Owl. There wasn’t everything this year that there usually is because there was a “big cone crop” this year that had the birds well fed up north so they didn’t need to come south to eat. Note that my southern ears heard “big corn crop” when this was explained to me and I spent a solid two minutes trying to deduce what a corn crop would have to do with crossbill feeding. Then I realized that people don’t pronounce “corn” as “cone” in Minnesota and things cleared up quickly for me.
Bird bycatch for the trip included Snowy Owl (in Superior, WI), Northern Hawk Owl (Sax-Zim), several Ruffed Grouse, Red Crossbill and a few more usual suspects for the area and time of year.
Other mammals included Red Squirrel, Red Fox (I think I saw 4 on the night of the kill in 4 hours of driving). Saw many snowshoe hare tracks, but missed them. Saw other suspected lynx tracks on the ski trails at the Lodge. No moose or wolves for me, although the wolves had been heard howling within the last week at the lodge.
Thanks! I’m greatly appreciative for advice from John the owner of the Gunflint Lodge, and John the naturalist at Gunflint Lodge. They both had tips for recent sightings and general strategy tips for finding a lynx. Thanks also to the mammalwatching.com community for past trip reports!