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Outdoors North

Ma Nature grants short reprieve

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Yesterday is just a memory and tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” — Bob Dylan

After the countryside had been cloaked in a flowing white and sparkling gown, the blossoms and the dried milkweed tufts that had long-since bowed their heads crumpled further in deference to the inevitable wintry season at hand.

It had been days since I had seen the chipmunks gathering everything they could in terms of food before the presumably long winter ahead would shut them underground.

Massive rafts of diving ducks, whose silhouettes had dotted the surface of the tranquil waters of the lake, way off in the distance, had since moved on, winging south.

Meanwhile, wintertime birds had arrived in droves from the north, their appearances marking a resignation to the fact that the time of dark and frozen, bone-chilling, blue nights and days lay just around the corner, behind the next weather report.

And then it happened.

Mother Nature bent forward to lower her crystalline scepter to the shoulder of the condemned countryside to grant a winter reprieve, however temporary.

Warm winds from the southern climes wrapped themselves around every tree and rock and rushed over the surface of frozen ponds, solemn meadows and the open plains of reindeer moss and blueberry bushes.

Someone had left the refrigerator door open. All that hot air rushed in from a sweltering kitchen, melting the popsicles and slopping the ice cream.

Temperatures that hadn’t been felt since those airy days of summer had returned.

The melting swelled the rivers and gutted big gouges in the ice that lay over the dirt woods roads, producing muddy, slushy conditions.

In the bright sunlight I stopped my Jeep in the middle of the road and got out. From the snow-patched, dry-grass hills alongside the road, a very healthy-looking garter snake had emerged to find heat radiating up from the coffee-ground-colored dirt in the road.

The snake sat still as I approached, soaking up the warmth from the sunshine and the earth below. I didn’t want to disturb the scene, but I also didn’t want the snake to get hit by a passing vehicle.

I took out my camera and snapped a few clicks. With that, the snake slipped around back toward the side of the road and slinked its head from side to side, gliding back up the embankment to disappear over a rise. The snake moved past a patch of concealing dead grass and over a grayed and dried piece of downed wood.

Except for when I was out west, I think that is the latest in the year I have ever seen a snake. Similarly, the warming sunshine brought out ladybugs and one red-velvet looking beetle-type bug that sputtered around low to the ground and then flew off.

Today, the rain is coming down as though it were a fine June morning. The snow is all but gone and it seems more like spring than so deep in the autumntime.

As wet as it is, the chipmunks are back out foraging for more food. I wonder if the weasel I’d seen recently, with half its coat changed from brown to white for winter, was now shier to travel too far from its home.

It’s as though somebody shook up our snow-globe world, and when they did, all the snow melted, leaving our Christmas decorations as out of place now as if it were July.

Even though the weather is expected to get colder, with this recent thaw, there are places I will now return to that I didn’t think I’d see again until spring.

For me, this is a real bonus.

I wonder if the wildflower bulbs and seeds we planted a few weeks back are thinking this is springtime? You can trick seeds into thinking it’s wintertime by putting them in the refrigerator for a few months.

Are seeds easily fooled?

Are they now lying beneath the wet and warmed earth wondering what to do?

Perhaps bears will now sit up for a while before pulling the hibernation blankets back over them. Deer might linger a while longer in the north woods before sauntering down their seasonal migration paths to the crop fields and cedar stand wintering areas.

A doe I’ve watched a good deal over the past few months has lost one of her two trailing fawns. It’s the kind of thing that tugs at the corners of my mind, wondering what happened, while understanding it’s unlikely I will ever know.

A pretty yellow, black and white dab of evening grosbeaks sits not far beneath the top of a maple tree. Their prickly chirps are a delight to hear. It’s the closest thing they have to a song.

These are the first birds I remember being fascinated with as a young boy.

To me, it was magical how they could appear suddenly in force, like in a flock as big as 40 or 50, in our backyard maple tree and then just as quickly all take off at once.

Their arrival was unpredictable and grand.

Seeing them out the kitchen window — watching them find the sunflower seeds I put out for them in a wooden and glass hopper feeder hung from the clothesline pole — was one of those early and important experiences that rooted a lifelong fascination with birds within me.

I still perk up when I hear those grosbeak sounds reaching me from bare-limbed branches on a wintry day or from the confines of dark cedar trees along a summertime river as I fish, a time when these birds are much more likely to be heard than seen.

I guess when I think of the recent weather shift in terms of the start of the firearm deer hunting season, it doesn’t really seem that strange after all.

There have been plenty of Nov. 15ths without snow cover for tracking deer. There have also been openers when there have been several feet of freshly delivered snow on the ground. One year, not too far back, a big snowstorm left deer camps and hunting blinds inaccessible.

There are some regular things about this time of year, no matter the weather.

The days are shortening at a frighteningly quick and noticeable pace. Rain, snow or sleet, it’s more apt to be one of these outside than it is to be sunny.

This is also the time of year that the cawing of crows goes best. There’s something about that sound echoing through the bare trees in the forests, or from over the cold surface of an inland lake, as the birds twist and tilt in flight, that just seems right.

Maybe it’s because it’s a black, colorless bird that typifies the surroundings before winter truly puts its foot down? For me, the sound is haunting and somehow sweet at the same time – like if black licorice had a sound.

Even in this rain, I’ll walk. I can’t get to where I want to be any other way.

The mossy carpet of that craggy promontory will no doubt be wet, but under those sheltering white pines there may be some sense of respite. I can already hear the raindrops hitting the outside of my jacket hood.

There I’ll sit to see what I can see — to learn what nature can teach — to breathe in and hold the cool, damp air before exhaling. I’ll smell the downed leaves and pine needles and feel the snap of the wind blush my cheeks.

I’ve been given another chance to get out to see all kinds of things I’d already bid good-bye to weeks ago. It’s an opportunity that’s too inviting to pass up.

Just my cars keys and mud boots now and I’ll be on my way.

Sometimes, nothing sounds better, or more satisfactory, than the closing of a door.

Editor’s note: 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.

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