Groundhog Tails

1.23.2022 [archived ~ previously published 2.2.2017]

This looks just like the juvenile groundhogs I have seen around my cabin!

Well, here it is another Groundhog Day, and chances are regardless of whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not Itasca County will have at least six more weeks of winter.  The official first day of spring is March 20, 2017, six weeks and four days after February 2nd

For me, the end of winter is when the yellow cowslips can be seen in the lowlands.  For some it might be the pussy willows blooming and others say winter is not over until the ice is out of their favorite lake. According to the MN DNR Climatology Office, the average ice out for Lake Winnibigoshish is April 24.  The earliest was March 30, 2012, and the latest was May 10, 1996. 

But back to the woodchuck.  Yes, a groundhog and a woodchuck are the same animal. They belong to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots and are one of the few species that enter true hibernation.  Other names include groundpig, thickwood badger, whistler, whistlepig, and red monk. 

In Minnesota, groundhogs are likely to hibernate from October to March or April.  If we had to wait until say April 15th for a groundhog to emerge and he saw his shadow, guaranteeing us six more weeks of winter, that would bring us to the end of June!   I’ll stick to the cowslips, if you don’t mind.

I have two interesting articles specific to woodchucks from the archives of our local papers. 

Bags Black Woodchuck ~ Itasca News 6-30-1927

J.L. Cartwight late last week captured an odd animal, a coal black woodchuck.  It is a rare specimen.  Mr. Cartwright sold it to F. M. Williams, who added it to the collection at his zoo.

Jesse Levi Cartwright was a dairy farmer in Morse township.  He was married to Elsie May and they were parents of a large family.  Their children were Floyd, Ernest, Rosetta, Minnie, Everett, Ray, Violet, Vernon and Ruth.

Mr. Williams, who was affiliated with Williams’ Narrows resort, boasted in an advertisement earlier that year, that the “Largest Private-Owned Zoo in the State was open to the public after May 20th and was Absolutely free.”

Unusual ‘Mother’ Substitute ~ Itasca Progressive 6-2-1938

Clarence Horner of Wirt is the owner of a female Fox Terrier dog that mothers a young wood chuck and feeds it regular with her litter of little puppies.  The baby woodchuck nurses with its strange pals and huddles up with them to sleep just the same as if it was not an odd member of the family.

Mr. Horner’s children drowned the mother woodchuck out of a hole and captured the young one and carried it home alive and placed it among the little puppies to be nursed by the dog mother.  It proved a welcome member to the family by the mother dog as well as the pups and this peculiar incident has proven of keen interest to the

inhabitants of Wirt who visited Mr. Horner’s home to be satisfied with their own eyes that this freakish occurrence is really true.

Clarence Horner worked in the lumber camps near Wirt, and his daughters Della and Dolly were married with children of their own in the late 1930s.  I believe it was probably Mr. Horner’s grandchildren who found the young woodchuck and brought it home to be nursed.

Since I didn’t have enough stories about the groundhog for a whole column, I am also sharing a few “tails” about a very distant cousin, the muskrat.

650 Muskrats! ~ Bigfork Settler 5-16-1907

Jesse Bowerman who has been trapping at Wirt since last fall returned to Bigfork last Sunday and reports a very successful winter’s work.  He succeeded in capturing twelve fisher, twenty-two mink, two wolves, two bob cats, one fox, four lynx, two coons, two skunks, eighty-five weasels and six hundred musk rats for which he received the neat little sum of four hundred and twenty-five dollars.

As is evident from the article, Jesse’s full-time occupation was that of a trapper.  He was born in Kansas, homesteaded near Bigfork and spent more time outdoors than he did inside.  He was a very

solitary man, never married and died at Effie in 1923 at about the age of fifty.

I learned that muskrat was good eating, much to the surprise of the editor of the Bigfork Settler. In the October 10, 1907, issue of that paper, W.E. Johnson explained that he and several companions were visitors of the Magnuson and Peterson lumber camp. There over the noon hour, they were served a dinner of muskrat. 

“While it was our first feast on this kind of meat, we hope it will not be our last, especially if it is prepared in a manner that would tempt the appetite of the most delicate, as was the case in this event. 

We might add that if the people in general realized how delicious a meat the muskrat made, ‘Uncle Tom’ would have more competition in the trapping business.”

Uncle Tom was actually Damas Neveaux. He was a Frenchman who had settled in the Big Fork Valley very early, before others had arrived.  He was so hospitable to the newcomers, he was given the nickname of “Uncle Tom.”

Today, woodchucks are considered a nuisance, except for Punxsutawney Phil and his family.  The woodchuck is also eatable and has more meat on it then a muskrat.

Cooking Woodchuck

Woodchuck should be handled in accordance with the general rules for game in the field. The blood should be drained, and the entrails removed, and the body cavity wiped clean. When hung for 48 hours, they are ready to be skinned and cooked.

Woodchuck meat is dark, but mild flavored and tender. It does not require soaking; however, many people like to soak it overnight in salt water. If the woodchuck is caught just before he begins his winter sleep, there is an insulating fat layer under the skin. Remove excess fat. remove 7 to 9 ‘kernels’ (scent glands) in the small of the back and under the forearms.


1 woodchuck

2 slices of bacon

Potatoes, carrots, onions

2 onions or 1 onion and 1 apple

Salt and pepper to taste

4 c. water

Soak woodchuck in salt water for 24 hours before cooking.   Rinse well and place in roaster.  Put onion and apple in cavity.  Lay bacon over breast.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Place vegetables around woodchuck.  Add water.  Place in 350 degree oven and roast 3 to 4 hours.

This recipe is NOT Reminisce test kitchen approved, but I did find it in my grandmother’s game recipes folder.  Who knows…maybe I have sampled woodchuck at her kitchen table!

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