Outdoors North: Winter’s arrival changes more than temperatures

John Pepin

“The sea, the sky, my heart and I, we’re all an indigo hue. Without you it’s a blue, blue world.” — George Chet Forrest / Robert Craig Wright

Whenever it arrives, however light or heavy, the first snowfall of the season changes the landscape as it changes hearts and minds.

Once the air fills with snowflakes, for the first time in an autumn, a resolve of certainty takes hold. The grip of resolution that winter is either here, or lurking around the corner, grabs us tight and suddenly.

The force of that grip shakes us and wakes us to events occurring all around us that we may not have noticed, cast under the hypnotic spell and wonderment of an Indian summer’s last stand.

A recent walk into woods, with a fresh snowfall on the trees, starkly awakened my awareness to the time of the season.

In the span of a fortnight, the beautiful colored leaves that painted spectacular scenes across the countryside, were now not only knocked down to the ground, but were covered in a blanket of white. Others were trapped within mudpuddles, been tossed to who knows where by the winds or had sunk into lakes and streams.

Among the brightest colors now were those of the dead and dying grasses or the beautiful yellow tamarack trees along the edge of the pond, which was covered in a thin layer of ice. The blackness of the tree trunks and branches was everywhere, with the blue of the sky reflected in that ice on the pond, making it seem even colder.

Things you could never see through the woods all summer were now clearly visible with the loss of the leaves — the picturesque twists and turns of the swollen river, moving too fast to freeze over this soon, the perched boulders and the crooked tree trunks that formed the outline of the slanted hillsides.

A bird’s nest sat wet in the crotch of a white birch tree, its builders and brood long gone, replaced with snow. Meanwhile, the air was filled with the sounds of red crossbills, pine siskins and snow buntings, staking their claims to these soon to be winter woodlands abandoned by the summer birds.

With the sound of massive wings flapping, a great blue heron moved from the shore along the river, upstream. Lots of animal tracks, but not lots of animals to see.

Even the greens of the pines, the cedars and the spruce seemed muted under their snow-white overcoats and gowns. Bent and brown bracken ferns too had a cover of snow, as did the woodland grasses.

Earlier in the day, everything, including the roads, would have had a slippery, snowy casing, but now, thanks to a still warm late October sun, the south-facing slopes and other scenes within the sunshine were free from winter’s cold covering.

Along a roadside, the sunlight exploded the color of the bright red winterberries and the fruits of the service berries and thorn apples still on the branches.

Probably one of the toughest things to reconcile this time of year is the dying of the afternoon sunlight, earlier and earlier. After we fall back in time, earlier still. Not only does night’s curtain fall quickly, but the darkness it brings is more profound.

Even when “the sun is out,” as we used to say as kids, there are usually clouds this time of year, gray and rolling. while in the rest of the sky, the whitish-blue and azure seems colder, crisper.

Along the railroad tracks, the rocks seem sharper and harder, frozen to the ground.

I often try to imagine what life was like for the first people who inhabited this area as the glaciers retreated, more than 10,000 years ago. In those times, the Upper Peninsula was tundra, inhabited by caribou and bands of Paleo-Indian hunters who pursued them.

Discoveries of stone-chipped spearpoints made in the area, have helped to reveal this compelling history, staggering to imagine.

Later, the ancestors of these people, the Ojibwe Nation would come to populate the woodlands of the Upper Peninsula and other parts of the north country.

For the Ojibwe, Biboonikeonini, the “Wintermaker,” is a winter constellation that appears in November, consisting of the stars of the constellation popularly known as Orion the Hunter, and a few more.

Bob King, an amateur astronomer and contributor to Sky and Telescope, compared the two constellations in western and Ojibwe traditions.

“The Wintermaker, a skilled canoeist, ushers in the cold and winds that characterize the season. Northern hemisphere skywatchers associate these same qualities with hunterly Orion, but the western character and myth have no direct seasonal connection like the Ojibwe constellation,” King wrote. “Still, it’s fascinating that both figures are formed of nearly identical stars, testimony to the striking pattern and strong impression Orion-Wintermaker made on two very different cultures.”

Konnie LeMay, a writer for the Indian Country Media Network, said the arrival of winter brought hard times to traditional communities, but also welcome times of gathering together for storytelling and making or repairing tools the Ojibwe depended on for survival.

“By late March and early April, though, people were glad to see Wintermaker departing from the night sky,” LeMay wrote. “Traditional stories tell of tricking Wintermaker into leaving; Nanaboujou feasted with him until he started sweating, melting all his winter works. Sometimes parents encouraged children to shoot arrows at the constellation, hastening the end to winter.”

I wonder if any of those child archers felt blue with the loss of autumn’s light — like some of us this time of year — and might have started shooting arrows into the night sky as soon as the Wintermaker appeared, hoping to prevent his arrival altogether.

I’d like to think that they did.

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.