Outdoors North: Autumn’s arrival reminds writer of times past

John Pepin

“All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray, I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day.” — John Phillips and Michelle Gilliam

With the curtain set to fall on another brook trout season, my thoughts turn like the autumn leaves to the hunts I’d take with my dad for “partridge” when I was a young boy.

Back in those days, I was too young to shoot a shotgun, but I was old enough to ride in the car as my folks headed to the Upper Peninsula woodlands for grouse. I think these trips might be where I first fell in love with the smell of fall leaves in the woods.

Sniffing that wonderful smell, with the warm sun on my face, the azure skies painted with cirrus clouds, walking through fallen wet leaves on an old dirt road, it all brings the autumn into sharp focus for me.

A lot of people say they especially miss loved ones who are dead and gone at certain times of the year. For me, I miss my dad the most when the leaves are colored and falling, when the chinook salmon he’d fish for with his mailman buddy are running in the streams, and the geese are overhead, organizing their V-shaped squadrons while in flight.

Those are the warm feelings of missing someone.

I remember being told to cover my young ears before mom and dad would shoot the shotguns. We drove an old blue Pontiac into the woods back then. Water would seep into the floorboards of the backseat when we’d drive through high marshland waters that had flooded the road.

Once when we crossed one of these marshes we found a dead snowy egret, it was the first one I had ever seen, except in my book of bird paintings. Its bright yellow feet and black legs sharply contrasted with the white plumage covering the wilted bird.

I remember my mom cleaning the grouse when we got home from the woods. She’d put a piece of newspaper down on the top of our old dishwasher and then pluck the birds and pick the tiny shotgun pellets out of the meat.

You could fan the beautiful black-and-gray colored tail feathers of the bird. In my early school days, I remember kids would bring these tails to school.

I also remember a warm autumn day in the old grammar school in Ishpeming, which is now long-since burned down, that a grouse slammed into the window along First Street, startling our class.

A lot of bird hunters in the U.P., especially the older folks, talk about “partridge” hunting. What they mean is ruffed grouse. The region has ruffed, spruce and sharp-tailed grouse.

Spruce grouse aren’t hunted in Michigan. Sharp-tailed grouse have their biggest populations in the eastern U.P. in Chippewa and Schoolcraft counties. There is a short hunting season for them (Oct. 10-31) there in the east.

Ruffed grouse are a familiar woodland bird, tasty enough to be considered a delicacy for many. The hunting of these birds represents a beloved tradition dating back decades and decades.

I have black-and-white photos of my dad from the 1950’s. He’s standing beside his car with grouse he’d shot decorating the front bumper.

Ruffed grouse may best be known for the sound of the males. They stand on fallen logs in the springtime and make “drumming” noises with the rapid flapping of their wings. The sound reminds me somewhat of the sputtering of a grass cutter trying to start up, but failing.

There are also cold feelings of missing my dad that come with the fall.

Once the leaves are gone from the trees, black and gray wet branches reach, with fingers extended, for the skies. The heavy clouds and chilling winds, bring one storm after another – first rain, then sleet, then finally, the snow.

In those late fall times, everything feels dead and forbidding, like the springtime will never return. The waves on the big lakes roll white caps over the empty beaches and stranded driftwood.

This is when I miss my dad with the deepest hurt, making me glad he was born and died on summer days in June, not at this sad, barren time of the year.

Walking along, beside a roaring river, the fallen leaves are caught in whirlpools or are pushed under the black waters and churned around and around. Others are bouncing as they float on the surface of the water, until they are trapped in place, held behind trees and branches that lie across the river.

Still a few are clinging, despite the gusting winds, to the maple limbs high above. Shuddering, they make that rustling sound that can chill you to the core. Then there are those leaves that softly flip and fall on their way to the earth below, landing gently on the bright green mosses of the forest floor.

Below the piles and piles of orange, red and yellow-colored leaves are the remnants of seasons past, leaves dead long ago but still present, decomposing, but not especially quickly.

The little red worms can be found under these leaves. Pick one up and put it on a hook and you might catch yourself a trout or salmon dinner.

With the darkness approaching, though it’s not very late, I figure I need to get back home. I button another button on my woods coat and my boots make noise crunching through the leaves.

Heading back to the place where I parked the car, I feel the wind pick up and blow strong into my face. I move on, wondering exactly which kind of leaf I am.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.