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Outdoors North

Nod given to groundhog’s annual task

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Take me back down where cool water flows, let me remember the things I love.” — John Fogerty

The curious prognostications of a singular Pennsylvania groundhog have intrigued me since those early days of classes in the old grammar school with the bell tower, which has long since burned to the ground.

Who might have imagined the mighty stone building would crumble and fall to rubble one day, destined to become a weed-choked gravel parking lot?

I remember that back then there was a stir of wonder and hope in finding out what the news was going to be coming out of Pennsylvania.

When the grand ole groundhog — rather portly and seemingly always squinting — was summoned from his darkened box to do his annual duty, just what would he predict?

As a young kid, I don’t think I ever questioned how a groundhog was supposed to determine exactly the length of winter by waddling outside to see if the sun was shining or not.

It was a given.

It was one of those things that adults had helped us believe was true.

I’ve heard it’s a tradition brought to our country from Germany.

I remember in the week leading up to the big day, feeling anxious, hoping deeply for the prediction to be an early spring. It always seemed backwards to me to have sunshine and seeing a shadow meaning six more weeks of winter.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I guess it depends on your perspective.

In New York state, neighbor to the Pennsylvania groundhog, weather forecasters determined that for that area, during the years the groundhog predicts an early spring, they get more snowfall than otherwise, and consequently more winter.

I remember the feeling of having my high hopes dashed by the groundhog predicting another six weeks of winter. That meant a longer time before the snow would be gone.

That fact, in turn, meant it would be a longer wait for being able to play whiffle ball in the backyard, a better chance that there would be flooded out streams for the opening day of trout season in late April and snow for my birthday, earlier in that same month.

These were each crushing blows to my kiddom idea of how things should be best arranged by the gods and the groundhog.

At this point in my life, I don’t take the predications seriously anymore, but something inside me still twitches when I see Feb. 2 coming up on the calendar. Somewhere in that muscle memory of mine, I still wonder what the outcome will be.

It’s strange how some things stick with you.

I will confess I’ve been thinking about springtime lately.

I’ve been organizing photos and looking through many I took during the lush, green-grass days of spring.

Some of my favorites among these images are from a wide grassland area where the bobolinks chatter and there’s never been another person when I’ve visited.

This place exists behind a big iron gate that blocks a graveled and winding two-track road. This road makes a circular path that allows for about an hour or so of walking time – longer if you doddle, which I tend to do.

It works like a labyrinth for me, seeming to help me think through my cares to discover answers and reason as I walk.

The last time I was there was in springtime. There were sandhill cranes in the sky, arriving from Florida. It had rained a short time before I got there so there were mud puddles along the road.

Sparrows, the more uncommon field varieties, were singing their unfamiliar tunes in the grass that grew green and tall on both sides of the road.

Part of the lure of this place is the open space, the simplistic beauty and the isolation.

Another place that has me thinking of spring is a swift, cobble-strewn river course that slips through mostly hardwood forests and over granite boulders and drop-offs on its way to Lake Superior.

In many ways, this place is the opposite of the grassland sanctuary I know.

Here, the rushing water is often loud enough to drown out the songs of birds and other creatures buzzing and sounding their human alarms from the trees.

But there remains a sanctuary of another kind, one where the clean, fresh smell of the water and the woods clears my head.

The ancient rocks and stones here have been smoothed and shaped by water, just like this tremendous river valley itself.

Along the edges of the water, there are informal fishing paths that lead walkers up and down the river. Some paths that shoot off the main trail to the side bring me to the riverbank, where I peek through the trees to see a gravelly turn in the stream.

Other side paths pop out at ledges overlooking deep holes in the river where the trout lie snoozing. There are big-leafed thimbleberry bushes here, where the pretty blue and green damselflies like to sun.

Wolves know these trails too, as do coyotes, deer and bears.

At one time, long ago, my dad used to walk these paths with a fishing rod.

There’s another place on my mind, where railroad tracks grown up in grass and weeds still reflect the sunlight as they bend into a corner, though this destination is one born more of grasshopper and goldenrod memories of summertime than spring.

At this place, there are creosote-soaked railroad ties, which are familiar to crosstie walkers such as I. I love to walk the rails.

I look for the places where the tracks cross the rivers and streams. I sit on the warm steel rails and watch for fish in the water below. I like to feel the breeze brushing gently across my face, blown up from fields of blooming wildflowers.

If it starts to rain, the fish will come out to feed. I will be wishing I had brought my fishing pole, my rain jacket and my bag. My heart dances in the spring and summer rain.

In this room where I’m writing, there are two windows. I see gray-white skies out one window, bright blue skies out the other. Strange.

I am determined to get outside to walk today.

I also plan to sit by my campfire and watch the Wintermaker in the sky above. Having now moved into namebini-giizis, the Ojibwa name for February, month of the Great Spirit Moon has passed, with the Crust on Snow Moon to follow in March.

Cassiopeia was hanging low in the sky when I stepped out the front door late last night. Sometimes, the stars disappear for days, maybe even weeks, during this often- bleak time of year.

It’s like welcoming old friends, seeing the stars reappear in the sky above.

Even if the groundhog did say six more weeks of winter, that isn’t so bad.

So far, the winter we’ve had has been mild, with far less than the usual amount of severity. I won’t say anything else, not wanting to jinx the chance of streams being within their banks for the trout opener.

With the sun shining so bright, it almost seems like an early spring day today.

I’m going to get out there now before my chance is gone.

Up at Cody’s camp I spent my days, with flatcar riders and crosstie walkers. Old Cody Junior took me over, said, ‘You’re gonna find the world is smolderin,’ and if you get lost, come on home to Green River.

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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