Outdoors North: Spring sparks memories of times gone by

John Pepin

“Did you hear ’em talkin’ about it on the radio, did you try to read the writing on the wall.” — John Fogerty

The warm gusty afternoon winds were flipping and spinning dead leaves high into the skies above the little schoolhouse. Dirt was blowing across the parking lot and down the street at a furious tilt.

Somewhere miles away, a good distance from these residential backyards with their shrinking piles of ice and snow, a wildland fire was whipping across a dry grassy field. The flames raced down past the railroad tracks not too far from another schoolhouse, and some other streets in another town.

All around, the atmosphere felt heavy, intense and crackling like the sparkling end of a short fuse. If some red joking devil were to light a match the whole wide world might explode — it was that kind of tense sensation.

Overhead, the skies were moving past quickly, like the scenery goes by when you’re riding on a slow-moving passenger train.

First, there were dark clouds like it might just up and rain. Next, it looked almost like a winter sky — a lot of gray clouds, with the blue breaking on through on occasion, along with some welcomed rays of springtime sunshine.

Meanwhile, the banks of the rivers were swollen with snowmelt, rushing forward. The paths through the grass and mud to the best places to stand were all submerged in swirling dark waters.

Still, there were some anglers, clad in waders and bundled in warm jackets, dangling their lines and bags of orange and red spawn, braving the ice-cold water, chasing rainbows.

Above them, line after line after line after line of geese were heading north, with their V-shaped pie slicers they were cutting up the sky.

These are the days of spring after a cold lingering wintertime.

A good many of the early migrating birds have already returned. Sandhill cranes are back, stalking the farm fields and shallow wetland areas, looking for food and places to raise their broods.

The rust color of their feathers is mud they’ve “painted” on themselves to increase their camouflage. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are back drilling their straight rows of wells in trees looking for sap and insects.

I sat outside in the early evening quiet. Robins hopped on the wet grass, looking for worms. A doe lingered along the edge of the trees – emerging from winter’s cold and crippling realm with two young companions. They walked on ahead.

While the doe watched from a distance, the two younger deer hesitantly walked to the edge of the snow and began nibbling at the grass.

Soon, the doe walked through the snow to a trio of bare apple trees. She pawed and sniffed at the base of the trees, looking for some soggy, over-ripened fruit. The smell was no doubt wafting up through the disturbed snow covering the ground.

With the warmer temperatures, the chirping of the spring peepers has been echoing through the evening skies, but at nowhere near the decibel levels to be reached as the breeding season continues.

Some gardens and yards, especially those facing the south, are sporting blooming crocuses and other annual varieties seemingly heaven sent.

For me, this is a strange time of year. You still can’t get to a lot of places in the woods because of snow, while at the same time, the thermometer reads 82 degrees.

With these type of conditions, you can often see guys in shorts and T-shirts with the sleeves cut off outside shoveling snow. All kinds of people are crowding the paths riding bikes, jogging, walking and talking – soaking up the sun.

And why not? Inside the house, who can stand to watch the television news? As it turns out, there are joking devils all over the place.

“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion,” Abraham Lincoln said that.

“I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours,” Bob Dylan said that.

Before the brightest green leaves of the year pop out, after sufficient spring rains, there’s the dismal brown, dead, season of garbage.

It’s amazing to see the amount of trash thrown out along our roadsides. If you work on one of the highway clean-up crews, you know there are things scarcely imagined tossed out of passing vehicles or by people walking.

River clean-ups are just as revealing. Paddling down some of our best-known streams with a handful of hearty workers can produce bags and bags of garbage. Some of the refuse, like backyard potted plants, decorative items and wood from docks washed into the water during flooding events.

However, I would bet most of this trash – like Styrofoam coolers, clothing, rubber tires, metal road signs, plastic bags and water bottles, liquor and juice bottles, beer, energy drink and pop cans is likely thrown into these rivers on purpose.

That reminds me of a great name for a band – Toxic Monkey.

It’s also burn barrel season, when folks rake up last fall’s dead leaves, grass and weeds, turn over the garden and bring the lawn furniture outside. I ate my first picnic lunch of the year this past weekend – a hamburger and an iced-tea.

Under the blustery sky, filled with those flying dead leaves, a little girl stood in the old schoolhouse playground, looking up.

She was very young and dressed in a pink jacket. The look on her face was a mixture of wonder, disbelief and resignation – maybe the first time she’d ever seen something like that. Cool.

I remember a similar day when I was young. It was a spring afternoon and the leaves of the silver maple tree in front of our house were turned inside out by the wind. There was snow on the ground, but it was warm outside.

I had a plastic shovel in my hand, moving snow and ice from my mom’s flower beds out into the street so it would melt on the warm blacktop. Our old white Impala was parked in the front yard. Blue skies poked through the gray clouds.

Seeing that girl in the schoolhouse yard reminded me of myself back then — except I wasn’t wearing pink that day. I had no real understanding back then of what life was going to be like or just exactly what it was all supposed to be about.

I was just a kid in the front yard watching the world go by, looking up at the skies and the trees with a look on my face mixing wonder, disbelief and resignation.

Now that I think about it, not much has really changed, except now I carry a somewhat larger plastic shovel.

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.