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Outdoors North

Special place in forest has ‘magical’ draw

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Early in the spring, when the snow disappeared, they came down with a bag of skins.” — Gordon Lightfoot

A couple of times each winter, I try to reliably make a pilgrimage of sorts to an airy part of this beautiful country where the atmosphere just seems different somehow.

Almost immediately after I make the turn off the highway, I can feel the bewitching spell of this place begin to wash over me.

The old road, with cracked and buckled pavement, winds its way along a tremendously scenic waterway. I think the battered condition of the two-lane road helps the visitor sense that this is a very ancient and rugged place, a place where nature is in governance.

The land here is characterized on the south side of the road by the light blue coloring on my map of Little White Goat, Big Bear and Four Island lakes, along with several other water bodies situated in between two branches of the river.

To the north of the road, the land is pushed up in impressive highlands with countless promontories, cathedral towers and parapets, recalling for me the greatest works of nature’s divine creator.

There are creeks here too, one named for the Snowshoe Priest, another marks the headwaters of the Riviere des Morts. Old logging roads and walking trails crisscross the countryside.

The otherworldly quality of this place is hard to describe.

There is a lifting I feel inside being here, an ascension that lends itself to descriptions of things in sacred and sublime terms. It is as though my entire being senses a great sigh at the beauty around me.

Breathing in the cool air feels lighter to me somehow than I would typically expect. This is one of the peculiar attributes here in this wintry hall of the mountain king.

At a confluence of one of the river branches with a creek that tumbles down out of the highlands, the road offers the traveler a crossroads.

Bearing to the left will take me deeper into this stunning landscape, to places where a more intimate encounter with the peaceful river is possible.

In the weeks ahead, the water will race and roar through this valley. Today, it flows slowly in glugs and trickles beneath the snow. The summer’s warmer days bring slower flows, when the cool water cascades softly over and between large, dark rocks.

My winter visits here are the most frequent for me. In the other seasons, there are too many distractions, like singing birds and colored leaves, to feel the heartbeat of this place as easily.

The winter birds here are largely quiet souls.

At a roadside pull-off, I stopped for an hour or so. I lost track of time.

Beneath the pines, past visitors had sprinkled sunflower seeds in hopes of being granted an audience with select members of this distinct winter crowd of birds.

In the wider reaches of this peninsula, boreal species more identified with places farther north, across the Canadian border, are generally uncommon. But here, in this wondrous environment, they occur regularly, though in small numbers.

Most notable among these would be the boreal chickadees. They appear smaller, with brown on the head and back, compared to the black and white, black-capped chickadees fondly remembered and identifiable to almost everyone.

This brown coloration puts the boreal species more in common with the chestnut-backed chickadees of the far west that I recall from the Santa Barbara area of California.

The sound of this boreal variety is also different, though at once it would likely be recognized by most as some form of chickadee.

When I first arrived, I had heard one of them calling from a spot rather high up in a birch tree. A moment or so later, I saw one approach to within about 30 feet and then disappear back into the sheltering arms of the forest.

For the next half-hour or so, I observed numerous black-capped chickadees, which landed next to me as if to say hello. There were also downy woodpeckers, white- and red-breasted nuthatches and a pair of red squirrels.

Then, one of the boreal chickadees popped up on a low branch not far away. It moved closer to me and I got a real good look. Like the black-capped, they were also unafraid.

Over the next who knows how long, I stood and watched the movements and actions of this group of varying bird species. They moved in an out of this little feeding altar in this highland palace, where visitors before me had placed their alms and waited.

Once they became aware of my presence and relaxed, the birds went about their activities with scarcely any sound at all, except for occasional short bursts of noise made by their fluttering wings.

For me, these were deeply magical moments. I could feel the silence in between the almost imperceptible sounds of these tiny and timid creatures of the woodlands.

I felt privileged to be accepted here, to be able to experience this exquisite peace, which found its way deep into heart. It was as though this silence was in my blood, part of my essential existence.

Beyond my presence, the birds allowed me to approach close enough for a few keepsake photographs. These were images I would hold to remember this day and these moments.

I wouldn’t expect to capture the life and mystery I was seeing before me with the likes of a mere camera. I’ve experienced enough to know this is an impossible quest.

Even the most beautiful bird and wildlife pictures I’ve ever seen or taken appear flat and lifeless to me somehow.

Along with the silence, the wintertime here also brings a starkness, with all the leaves gone, that allows the mind and the soul of the visitor to experience a sense of grandeur that extends wide across the scene.

I want to climb to the top of all these peaks. I want to follow every one of these trails, to explore the interior of the highlands, these places of quiet forests, hidden creeks and abounding wild.

Another odd occurrence here is that passing vehicles, even a loaded logging truck or a snowmobile, doesn’t disturb the magnificence of the moments here for very long. The vast gulf of solemnity here swallows all of that up in no time.

I admire a stand of pine trees standing tall on a vertical slope, against the crystal blue afternoon sky. Wooden signs, many of them worn and withered, are attached to trees at the heads of side roads, indicating the presence of numerous camps and cottages situated nearby.

Descending the road from my highland climb, the river winds back and forth several times, crossing the trajectory of the road, where several bridges have been built.

I stop on each one and look upstream and downstream, the same way I did as a passenger when I was a kid in the back of our family station wagon. Waterways capture my sense of wonder and travel.

There are puddles in the road from the melting snow and rust-orange dirt from beneath the cracked blacktop has been shoved forth with the frost.

The winter’s snow and ice packed hard into the roadway make it easier to travel here now compared to spring and the summertime, when the potholes and heaves and swales of the pavement are harder to ignore.

Another unintended benefit of the poor road condition is that it forces the driver to slow down to experience things on a deeper level, a different pace altogether.

Coupled with the lure of the river flowing right alongside the road, visitors here are likely to at least consider a stop or two while on their wayward journeys.

I pull over to look at tracks in the snow over the top of the river’s snow. I also review the photos I took a few miles back there up the road.

I take a deep breath and can feel my lungs expand all the way back to my spine. The cool air and the warm sunshine continue to keep me buoyed as I head for home.

I drive back feeling as though I just had another one of those rare and natural experiences that can outshine even the darkest of winter depressions.

I feel alive and fortified, ready to carry on.

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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