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Outdoors North: The gift of changing seasons

JOHN PEPIN

EDITOR’S NOTE: Outdoors North is appearing on Wednesday instead of Friday this week, as there will be no Friday edition of The Mining Journal this week due to the Christmas holiday.

“I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day,” – John and Michelle Phillips

Growing up in a place where nature presents itself in a glorious pageant spread deliciously across four seasons throughout the year, it becomes especially difficult to adapt to Christmas in a place with no snow.

At least it was difficult for me.

The metropolitan Los Angeles area has almost all the same things the Christmas time of year has to offer here in the Upper Peninsula, including houses trimmed in spectacular light displays, holiday parties, crowded shops and traffic, gift giving and sharing time and love between friends and families.

Two things markedly absent are snow and wintertime temperatures.

Folks who live in Los Angeles tend to head to the mountain areas surrounding the city for their skiing, sledding and snowman making.

I admit there is clearly an attraction to being able to go surfing or swimming at the beach in the morning and skiing in the mountains in the afternoon.

It might surprise many to know that a half-hour outside the L.A. suburbs, within the San Gabriel Mountains, along the Angeles Crest Highway – depicted in countless television commercials – live bighorn sheep, mountain lions and golden eagles.

In the valleys, spotted owls, opossum, tarantulas and crawling kingsnakes.

But driving along the streets of Pasadena and Glendale, or even Hollywood, Malibu or Beverly Hills at Christmastime, it would not be surprising to see Santa Claus and reindeer decorations on the rooftops and people dressed in shorts and T-shirts mowing lawns under palm trees and balmy, sunny skies.

In the years I lived out there, I often came home for Christmas – at least in my mind.

When I finally moved back to Michigan, so many people wondered why I would have done such a thing, especially when I told them I missed the snow and the changing of the seasons. I think a lot of people thought I was joking.

Another really big thing I missed was Lake Superior. The Pacific Ocean is beautiful and remarkable in its own ways, but it doesn’t compare with the stark, rugged shorelines or the wild temperaments and clear crystal beauty of Lake Superior’s splendid and bone-chilling waters.

There are far fewer people here too. In the entire Upper Peninsula, the population totals about 300,000. In Los Angeles County alone, the population is 10 million.

I find that wherever you live, there are trade-offs to make.

The U.P. doesn’t have In-N-Out Burger, El Pollo Loco, Chronic Tacos, Griffith Park, Dodger Stadium, the Pacific Coast Highway and so much more.

But the list is long of things Los Angeles doesn’t have that Michigan does. At the top of that list for me is the true changing of the seasons.

At this time of year, that means I can step outside my back door or front door and see a Christmas card in real life, sent to me by Mother Nature.

Last night was a good example.

I opened the front door after midnight.

The snow was falling soft and the air was “warm” for this time of year and that time of the early morning. All the tree branches were freshly covered in a frilly lace of newly fallen snow.

It was very quiet. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of the silence and the chilled night air. It was very exhilarating.

Near the edge of the road, there were deer lazily walking alongside the shoulder. I counted one doe and one yearling, which were quickly followed by another yearling and another doe and another young deer.

Now, in the distance I heard the splattering sound of car tires on wet, snow-covered blacktop. As the vehicle approached along the lake road from the west, the deer huddled together behind a veil of trees in our front yard.

There’s a couple of blue spruce there, as well as a crabapple tree. The deer stood still together and waited until the vehicle moved past. They then began to separate. They walked up an incline into the yard and around back toward the apple trees.

It was interesting to witness how these animals have adapted and reacted to what they knew to be danger posed by a passing car. I watched a similar thing once before while out fishing.

I was standing at the back of my vehicle, parked alongside a gravel road at a bridge. I was digging out my fishing tackle, tying on a lure.

An adult river otter came up out of the stream at the opposite side of the road. It planned to cross but stopped first at the guardrail.

From behind a wooden guardrail post, the otter snuck its head out to look both ways before crossing the road, like a young boy or girl would do.

The otter was followed by two young otters and another adult.

I came in the front door and went out the back. First though, I dug five apples out of the crisper in the refrigerator – one for each of the deer.

These were to be their Christmas gifts from me, in return for the peaceful opportunity to watch these beautiful, meek creatures visiting our yard.

When I opened the back door, the deer were strung out, kind of in a line, along the edge of the yard. I could make out their shapes in the dark, helped by the ground and trees being covered with snow.

Unlike when I had first called out to them softly in the front yard and they had stopped to listen, the deer now high-tailed it when they again saw and heard me.

Perhaps they wondered how I could disappear in the front door and materialize out in the backyard so quickly?

The deer hid among the trees in the darker shadows, off the edge of the backyard.

I tossed the apples a short distance from me to the middle of the back patio. One by one, they rolled against each other in almost a small circle in the snow. I went back into the house.

This morning, when I awoke and looked outside, I could see the apples were gone and there were deer tracks all around. I wasn’t surprised. I had felt their eyes watching me from the shadows within the trees when I dropped the apples.

More snow again today, but the air is still warm. The snow that has fallen is soft and sticky, like mashed potatoes. Tracks are all over the yard. One of the deer seems to have been dragging one of its feet as it walked across the snow.

I set some meat scraps up on an overturned cedar log, out near the woodshed. I was hoping to see the weasel appear – showing off its wintertime white fur coat.

Instead, the party was crashed by a pair of ill-mannered crows who had seen the easy meal and decided to flop down to the log to pick up some pieces and fly off.

I watched one crow walk from the “table” to bury a piece of meat in the snow, and then return to grab another before again flying away.

The air rings with the cheery sound of evening grosbeaks, which are perched in a chokecherry tree in a group of roughly a dozen. Like a red squirrel and a few of the regulars, they are waiting in line for a table at our bird feeding station.

Even this morning, the road remains much quieter than it usually is. I wonder if most folks are sleeping in. Although, Christmastime overall this year seems to have a subdued tone to it.There isn’t enough snow today for snowshoes, and there isn’t enough ice on the lake for attempting a crossing. I know it will be another early sunset – they all are at this time of year.

The air is fresh. I feel alive and rested.

“California dreamin,’ on such a winter’s day.”

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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