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Outdoors North

Walk in woods offers emotional contrast

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“She doesn’t give you time for questions as she locks up your arm in hers.” — Al Stewart

The wind was strong as it whipped up over the river and met my face. I was standing on the bridge looking downstream.

Way down there, almost out of sight, I saw a V-shaped mark in the river, with the point facing in my direction. I tucked my hands deeper into my pockets and waited, watching the V-line slowly get closer.

The sky was rolling around like an upset stomach, bubbling, black and blue in some places, gray and nauseated in others. There were some instances where rays of sunlight broke through all of it, be it momentarily.

In those cases, that little bit of sunshine implied warmth enough for me to fight back the claws of the wind that were scratching across my cheeks and the bridge of my nose.

I recalled times when I had seen geese or bald eagles here, or the early springtime evening I stood on the bridge listening to the recently arrived male robins singing from their high perches on either side of the stream.

They were nowhere around here today.

The swirls in the water started to get larger behind this swimming creature leaving the V-trail. I wondered whether it might have been a beaver or a muskrat. Closer now, the undulating tail that trailed the brown furry form of this animal let me know it was indeed a muskrat.

As it approached the bridge, it slowly veered off to my right where it moved up next to a floe of ice that jutted out from the sandy riverbank. The muskrat looked as though it might crawl up onto the ice, but instead, it went back to swimming.

It moved back downstream slightly to a place where it could get into the reeds and mud at the side of the river. It started nibbling on something it found that was still green.

Much farther back downstream, another V-shape was cast over the water. This one moved from one side of the river to the other. I guessed this to be another muskrat.

A few more moments of watching would prove this to be true.

I walked across the blacktop on the bridge to look up-river.

Here, the winds had been blocked partially by the bridge and the road embankment, letting the water’s surface calm down to near stillness.

The water looked as black as ink, especially in contrast to the snow covering the riverbanks. The evergreen forests beyond appeared in muted shades of green. The scene looked like a black and white photograph.

A beaver now appeared from beneath the water, very close to the bridge abutment. It rose to the top briefly before slapping its tail down dramatically, splatting water all around.

The woods seemed quiet out here on this backroad, especially compared to the main dirt roads leading into the woods and the deer camps. There were cars and trucks all over the place.

I was happy to have found this little corner of quiet to stand and watch, at least for a few minutes. Some crossbills were vocalizing a little as they flew overhead, a good distance away from me.

At another promontory not far away, I stood on a sand bank just dusted with snow, looking out over the river below. It snaked back and forth blankly.

I often have envisioned standing here, seeing a moose walking down the watercourse. I’ve seen their tracks down there plenty of times, but no moose yet.

Rolling farther up the road, I came to a place where the late fall rains had carved big gouges in the dirt road along a hillside.

I reached a plateau where I knew I could see a long way away if it weren’t for the trees. I felt the loneliness of the woods today, a pronounced sense of sadness.

Maybe nature was mourning the death of autumn. Whatever it was, I could feel the heaviness, the pulling downward of nature’s oftentimes sunnier disposition.

I didn’t know what I could do to comfort her, though I knew I would be glad to try, if I only knew how. It’s a strange thing to think about.

I’d be happy to let her put her head on my shoulder and we could walk and talk.

There was no shortage of dead and downed leaves here in this northern hardwood forest. I imagined a tinman’s double-bladed axe rusted blood red, with its wooden handle propped against a tree.

I think that a lot of times nature mirrors the feelings that we carry with us when we visit. Perhaps the sadness today is mine? I have felt a distance, of sorts, a dropping, a missing point or place, something amiss.

The feeling is almost imperceptible, but it certainly there.

There’s been a dragging of the mundane, tugging at the edge of my jacket, making me want to pull up my collar. I sometimes experience this type of feeling when the year winds down and my mind starts putting up scenes of desolation.

If I could find a way to do it, I would love to stay out here and walk all the way to summertime down these old dirt roads. It seems like every time I get out into nature, no matter how long I stay, that I am there only briefly.

Moments like these seem few compared to the time spent busy with the rest of life.

I often hear myself saying that if I had more time, I’d go down there or I’d walk up here. I seem to be constantly rushing to do something somewhere in the opposite direction.

I know that the truth is indeed out there.

I love the solitude, times like today when the forest feels alone to me.

In these moments, I feel like the trees might start to cry when they sway. The skies bring down cold sadness and icy chills as the December darkness falls early.

The night itself brings a paralysis that penetrates deep into the bones and muscles of everything. I expect to hear something cracking at any moment.

Holiday lights are strung on the black wrought-iron fence of the cemetery, as though the place needs to advertise for business. Aren’t people dying to get in there?

Looking out over the choppy waters of this ancient lake, a place missed by the glaciers, my mind swirls down the vortex of time. I struggle to imagine the people that lived here in the beginning and all those who would follow before and after me.

I keep walking and searching for truth and inspiration.

Bent and crooked trees reach down to me in the gathering darkness. Somewhere in these shadows, the forest creatures see me pass by. My heart is hurtling through the skies like a meteor smoking over the horizon.

I listen for answers and I wait to hear.

I hope to remain open and available – and on some rumbling discreet and subterranean level … aware.

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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