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Outdoors North: Winter holds many silent wonders

JOHN PEPIN

“I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night, in the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light,” – Bob Dylan

There is one thing that winter alone can truly claim that sets it widely apart from all the other seasons of the year, and it isn’t snow.

I was reminded of this stepping out onto the front stoop in the wee, wee hours, seeking a breath of fresh, cold air.

The wintry characteristic I am talking about is the season’s abrupt and chilling ability to produce a clear, dead silence. It can drop like a guillotine.

Summer can’t do it, with all the nighttime sounds of the birds and the bugs and the rest. Autumn and springtime can’t reproduce winter’s soundlessness either, with those two unsettled transition seasons often stirred up by whirling winds that set leaves to flight or clank icy branches together like frozen goblets.

It is only winter that can produce this grand an exquisite peace and quiet, a silence so profound that it helps some equate wintertime with death.

Part of it has to do with winter’s sub-zero temperatures that seem able to freeze solid anything moving – anything that would make sound.

The piles of soft snow lying everywhere also help muffle and soak up noise.

Since December’s winter solstice, the length of nights has been dwindling by a minute or so each day, shifting the balance in favor of more daylight.

With the events of life spiraling past in horrifically fast-paced fashion, it’s a comforting thing to be able to step outside into the silence and soak up some peacefulness. The winter nights for me are as desirable as the warm days of summertime.

A few nights back, we were out sitting around a campfire, when we heard a barred owl singing from quite way back in the woods – who cooks for, who cooks for you all.

No one else but me heard it at first.

I shushed the campfire chatter briefly to call attention to the sound. Somewhere out there on this wonderful winter’s night, an owl was making its presence known. I did my best to call back, imitating – one dark-eyed night owl to another.

We then sat in silence and waited to hear. The owl called a couple more times and then stopped. I explained that when this happens, the silence can mean the owl is moving closer to you.

We waited a few more minutes and then I called a couple more times.

This time, the owl responded immediately, but it was now perched just behind us, off in the blackness of the trees somewhere.

One of the girls said she had never heard an owl calling so close before.

She was forgetting things, as teens are sometimes fluently apt to do.

She hadn’t recalled the summer we camped out in a tepee at Bewabic State Park and a pair of barred owls was raising chicks in the woods behind our encampment. We saw these owls and heard them calling constantly.

She also didn’t remember another summer evening at a “survivor camp” in Delta County. As a large group gathered around a bonfire at night, singing and dancing and laughing, a barred owl had snuck in for a closer look.

From the trees, not far back in the woods at all, the owl began calling. Some of those around the fire thought it was me trying to call an owl in. This owl, and some others I’ve encountered, seem curious about human behavior.

I told the girls I was surprised the barred owl we heard back there in the woods hadn’t come in to see the source of the firelight flickering through the trees.

There’s always room for forest friends around our campfire.

I have memories of ice-cold winter nights in my childhood I thought were so long they would never end. I had a bedroom window that faced south.

The lights of the main street in town were visible from my window. From the adjacent bathroom window, if I got up on top of this little set of shelves, I could see the time and temperature on the bank’s lighted clock display.

Out the kitchen window to the west was the coldest scene – mostly just darkness and blue-black skies over the idle mine works once I was 6 years old.

From that southern view out my bedroom window, I used to like to watch how high into the air smoke would curl and twist from the chimneys that were puffing and belching to keep up with the dropping temperatures.

The house was old and drafty. The winter winds knew all the spots between the buttons to slip through. The drafts would find me on the coldest of those winter nights, mostly through a slight crack where two sheets of paneling met in the corner of the room, next to my bed.

I remember the darkness of the room and my little 9-volt transistor radio I used to have under the covers with me as a kid. Sometimes the door would open, and light would flood into the room, scattering the darkness.

It would predictably be my mom. She would either be waking me up for school or coming in give me cough syrup or to slather my chest and throat with Vicks VapoRub.

I hated that stuff. After she was done putting it all over my chest, my flannel pajama top would stick to me and be cold. Yuck. These days, if I want to clear congestion, I open a bottle of the Vicks ointment to sniff it.

I then screw the lid back on. That opaque slimy ointment does not come out of the bottle onto me – ever.

Another thing I remember about those winter nights would be hearing the growl and roar of snowplows and excavators that would be called out overnight to push and lift snow from the streets.

Like most kids my age, I would be snug under my covers wishing and hoping for the highly coveted, and seldom granted, snow day.

One early January morning, when I was almost 7 years old, an explosion in the F.W. Woolworth building blew the plate glass windows off the front of the department store, severely weakening that side of the building.

Three people were taken to the hospital with burns.

Since the Woolworth’s store was right across the street from the bank, I could see the flames and the lights from the fire engines from our bathroom window. My dad had told me about the fire.

Firefighters battled the blaze to keep it from spreading to other buildings, including the J.J. Newberry store and an insurance office. There were apartments in the Woolworth building, along with a beauty salon upstairs. It was only 9 degrees outside.

I remember walking downtown with my mom the day after the fire to look at the building. It was cordoned off with barricades. The devastation was incredible.

I recall a couple of other winter night experiences from much later in life.

I was living in a house on Lake Superior then.

On a crystal quiet night, I was outside looking at the stars when I heard a howl-like whining or crying coming from one of the trees down along the two-track road. I later learned it had been a gray fox, which can climb trees.

On another night, I dozed off while up late watching television, lying on the couch. An hour or so after midnight, I woke up to find an incredible flickering display of the northern lights.

From the back porch, which faced the lake, large curtains of the greenish-white light floated and waved in the black night sky, while green “flames” licked across the sky above me.

The cold and quiet of the winter skies lend themselves to clear nights of stargazing too. Even if it’s just for a couple of minutes, getting my nose outside the door to step into the yard always provides a welcomed dose of clean, cold air.

The seasonal clock is always moving, its gears are always grinding forward.

I need to keep rediscovering the wonder of the winter nighttime as often as I can, before it’s gone.

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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