Outdoors North/Springtime arising from winter’s snow and ice

John Pepin

“To take you in the sun to (promised lands); to show you everyone, it’s the time of the season for loving.” – Rod Argent

Trudging into our little classroom in the old brownstone Grammar School, we made our way to the cloak room to hang our jackets, hats and mittens that had shielded us from the blustery winter morning outside.

Tired steel radiators hissed and clanged as they worked to pump heat into the room.

On the walls, alongside the paper snowflakes we’d made by folding and cutting paper, hung “The All-American Calendar,” with its dark blue background, white-numbered tear-off months and stately oval portraits of each of our nation’s presidents.

It was in this quaint downstairs schoolroom, in front of the blackboard, before our morning milk time, our teacher stood behind her big wooden desk and told our attentive little ears about the arrival of March.

If it was to come in like a lion, she said it would go out like a lamb.

With my active imagination and willingness then to believe most, if not all, of what adults told me, I didn’t understand this was merely a long-held hope of farmers and folklore crafters – much like the groundhog prediction from the month before – not fact.

“Wow, how can that be,” I wondered. “How does that work?”

Given the high-variability of March, with a steep transition into spring able to deliver fair, dry weather in equal measure with powerful snow, ice or rainstorms, farmers were wise to wish and hope for the best as the calendar page turned.

The lion and lamb saying wasn’t the only one crafted along these same lines. There are several others including “A dry March and a wet May? Fill barns and bays with corn and hay.”

As March has arrived this year, I find myself feeling like I’ve been on a long car ride, one where I’ve been asleep in the back seat for quite some time. I’m now leaning over the seat, looking around through the windshield wondering how we got here.

Suddenly, it seems there’s a whole lot of activity going on outside, clearly indicating the great grinding pendulum of the universe is swinging with favorable momentum toward spring.

Black-capped chickadees are all in top voice, not necessarily with the familiar chickadee-dee-dee call, but rather, their clear two-note fee-bee spring song they’ve been singing with increasing frequency for a few weeks.

Pileated woodpeckers are drumming loudly, broadcasting their telegraphed messages across the northern hardwood forests. Like some other woodpeckers that choose to drum on houses, rain gutters or metal trim – the louder, the better.

Bears and white-tailed deer are getting a little restless. Bears, now with scrappy cubs, are getting ready to soon roll out of their dens into the sweet, fresh air. The white-tailed deer will soon start heading back north across the peninsula, from the deer yards of the banana belt.

Most of the inland lakes, creeks and streams still have a good cover of ice and snow. However, many rivers have at least one open spot where the sound of rippling water escapes from underneath winter’s blanket, talking to the wind.

On the big lakes, the ice has been shifting in and out with changes in the wind and late season snowfalls. Secluded bays remain covered with thick ice, with everything from lake trout and Coho salmon to lake whitefish, smelt, northern pike and splake lurking in the ice-cold waters beneath.

It feels like winter’s back may be broken, with a recent string of sub-zero days snapped. With a few exceptions, there has been a wonderful extended period of sunny skies and beautiful winter days over the past couple of weeks.

Walking in the woods most of these days, the persistent sound of dripping water is taking up a prominent place in the background sounds of the forest.

The days are lasting noticeably longer as we tilt ever-closer toward the spring equinox. Constellations have been turning around the night skies, rising or falling as the nights and days creep forward across the calendar.

Baseball pitchers have already taken the mound, working out their winter kinks in sunny spring training destinations. I imagine birds in the Bahamas and South America engaged in similar exercises, getting ready to undertake their long migratory flights north to our backyards, forests, meadows and lakeshores.

Robins return reliably in force by the last week of the month – the bright brick red-breasted males will be here singing and setting up nesting territories in only about three weeks. Wow.

How did I get here?

Where have I been all winter?

Maybe I joined the bears in hibernating?

Perhaps that’s why I feel like I’ve been groggy and tired – feeling like it’s been a long car ride curled up against the door in the back seat – kind of nauseous, with a bit of a headache, glad we’re almost to the motel with the swimming pool, a big soft bed and a color television with a screen much bigger than ours. Maybe even some restaurant French fries and ketchup.

Advertisements on television and home shopping channels have begun to focus on lawn and garden implements, lighter outdoor clothing and things you might need for a home in summertime like a backyard hammock, barbecue tools and grills or a new bright green garden hose.

It’s about this time of the season my taste for soups and chilis, no matter how fine, begins to wane. My cravings, instead of focused on foods to help keep winter’s chill at bay, are now more about foods grilled outdoors or fresh spring fish dinners.

In those old school boy days, it seems this time of the year was among the most challenging – caught in between all the pursuits of spring I’d been dreaming of and yet held in check by the deep winter snows still on the ground.

We’d want to get out to shoot baskets in the backyard or hit a ball around, but there would still be 3 feet of snow on the ground. Many of those days would find me in the house organizing my baseball cards, playing with sandbox cars on the stairs or sorting through fishing lures.

I would also take that kind of a Saturday afternoon to walk down to the Coast-to-Coast hardware store in town to check out the fishing tackle – especially the white-and-black Zebco rods and black, plastic 202 reels, which were quite affordable and popular with kid brook trout anglers of my day.

Outside my door, the dripping water from the edge of the rooftop – with the help of the still cold nights – has created a beautiful natural ice sculpture that looks like its shrinking and growing all at the same time.

It’s kind of like the tugging and slackening, the ebb and flow, push and pull of March – pulling us slowly, by herk and jerk, out of winter’s snow and ice gradually into the warmer days where we’ll soon marvel at the birds of spring, the dazzling daffodils and crocuses and the hope and promise in our hearts of another warm and fruitful season ahead.

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.