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Outdoors North

Seasonal changes seen in woods walk

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“I’m looking for space and to find out who I am, and I’m looking to know and understand.” — John Denver

By the look of the wind, it was one of those icy, snapping, gusting affairs that aimed to peel your skin off with its frozen claws. The trees, standing perfectly still in one instant, were bowing and bending in the next.

But there were little clues to help me see that this was something different happening.

There were no floating curtains of snow that usually accompany such scenes. My view to the horizon was unobscured. Looking closer, I could see the snow wasn’t frozen, dry and fluffy. In several places, its edges had softened and rounded.

This wasn’t another display of the Wintermaker’s fury, borne on the crippling north winds of a polar vortex. Instead, these were warm winds biting at winter’s tail and, in some cases, catching a bit of meat between their teeth.

The streets of the little mining town that was once a big mining town were still packed hard with snow and ice, but the highway was cleared down to the blacktop. There were even mud puddles along the shoulders.

The temperature, which had dropped into the sub-basement and stayed there for several days, had climbed back up above freezing. It was almost like emerging from a bad dream to realize, gratefully, it had all been just that.

I grabbed my jacket around me and pulled on my boots. The jacket still smelled warmly of the campfire from a couple nights back.

The aroma reminded me of the welcomed feeling of satisfaction down inside of me, while sitting around the flames, watching the logs burn and crumble.

I was headed for the woods today to see what was happening with the rivers and the creeks, the animals and the birds.

I drove down one of the many roads leaving the little town, that slinked and twisted past frozen lakes and quiet woodlands, into even deeper woods and waters.

The farther I got, the higher the snow was banked and piled by the big, metal blades of county plows that had kept these roads open, even after the winter’s worst storms.

Within just a few short miles, the snow depth had increased remarkably, compared to what had fallen at home or in town.

I approached one of the streams I fished a fair amount last spring and stopped. Winter had certainly been here and was still holding fast.

It wasn’t surprising that the areas of typically slow-moving water were snow-covered and silent, but even the places where the fast water usually gurgled and rushed were dead quiet.

Across the expanse of a wide pool that was covered in snow were the tracks of an animal that had walked one foot after the other in a straight, even line. The tracks approached from the back of the hole toward the place where I was standing.

So often, I find that animals like to use roads and frozen rivers and lakes as easier transportation routes. Like us, it seems, they prefer the path of least resistance.

More miles, more snow, packed deep into the forest floor and up along the ridges. Across a river, on a high bluff, the trees there were wearing their white snow coats too. This looked like mid-January here, rather than almost March 1.

At one place, on private property, where summertime off-road vehicle riders had ridden up over the rim of an exposed sand dune, I noticed a brand new “no trespassing” sign had been posted.

Beyond the sign, were the tracks of snowmobilers who had ridden over the same dune area. Maybe the same people?

I had the feeling winter might linger here for months if given even a shred of an opportunity. More tracks in the snow, this time in the road ahead, showed a fox had doddered its way past here not too long ago.

I saw deer and squirrel tracks too, of course, along with what I was think were bobcat and coyote tracks. It’s hard to tell sometimes with the degradation of footprints over time, and the number of camps in the area creating the possibility for dogs of varying breeds to be on these roads back here too.

At another river stop, I saw more of what I was after. It was a tremendous and uplifting sight. On the upstream side of the span, the water had cut through the snow and ice to break free into lively rapids, that were singing like it was a splendid spring day.

In other places here, the ice was overlaying the river, but it was clearly compromised, and it wouldn’t be long before this stretch would be all open water. The downstream side of the bridge showed a similar scene.

I’ve often wondered how some creeks and streams remain open throughout the winter, while others are frozen and snowed over completely. Some of this is regulated by dams, but I presume there are numerous variables at work.

Along a tributary to this river, the surface of the water was covered in snow. Tracks showed an animal, maybe another fox, had walked a good distance up from downstream then stopped abruptly and turned around and walked back. Strange.

There were snowdrifts across the river’s course in several places. The clean white of this snow, with the varying greens of the spruces and cedars and the grays of the exposed rocks along the hillside, this was a beautiful scene, decidedly wintry.

There would be several more to follow on this outing. There were open plains flanked by rising, tree-covered hills and cutover areas that provided a clear view to the back of forever.

On a side road off to the west, snowmobiles had packed the snow down, but the road was narrowing. I rode for a mile or two within a forest of thick pines before finding a place to turn around.

I didn’t want to discover a big soft spot in the snow that might decide to swallow my Jeep. It was late in the day and the sun was dropping out of the sky.

Back on the main road, as I approached a clearing, I noticed a couple of ravens dipping and diving above the jack pines. Then I noticed a couple more. They began to circle together, which I thought might indicate the presence of a deer kill.

But the ravens never landed. I then noticed four more of the big, black birds with their jigsaw puzzle piece connector-shaped tails perched on bare branches that stuck up out of the snow. There was no deer kill.

I moved ahead a short distance, finding more ravens in the road. Then I saw even more in the trees. A lot more. In all, there were probably at least three dozen.

It felt eerie, like a scene from Bodega Bay in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” As I drove slowly past, the ravens sat in the pines alongside the road. If I stopped to see what they were doing, they’d fly up and move to other perches.

I’ve seen ravens bunched up in late winter before, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, but that’s usually when there are ample food sources available, like open farm fields. To me, this was different. It seemed odd.

I drove on.

I kept waiting for the snowplowed portion of the road to end. This was a road not traditionally kept open during wintertime, unless there was an active logging operation in the area.

The farther I went, the more open road there was. I was surprised to see the road opened all the way to a bridge over a little creek that I thought certainly would be frozen over because it was so shallow and narrow. It was running freely.

Within another few minutes, I discovered that the road had been plowed all the way through to a wider, more main road, to the north.

The feeling of being out here was fantastic. There’s something about breathing in the fresh, clean air and just being amid the beautiful forests that makes me feel free inside.

In my mind, it’s how an eagle must feel.

Gliding, banking, soaring, turning an eye toward the day’s fading sunlight, I’m alive and the winds of the wilds are bearing me up.

I retreat from the skies only to rest, for tomorrow brings another glorious day on the wing. The eagle has landed.

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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