Outdoors North: Signs of Spring

“What a difference a day made, twenty-four little hours, brought the sun and the flowers where there used to be rain,” – Stanley Adams

Of course, it was the other way around. The sunshine, rain and winds from above – with help from the vernal gods – brought a hasty, but steady retreat of winter’s snows and ice from across these rugged, wild and familiar landscapes.

But on this day, as I watched the scene in front of me, it appeared the opposite was true.

Rather, that the earth had warmed from beneath its frosty blanket, causing the snows to shrink from the rocks and the rivers and the meadows and the forest floors.

With that withdrawal, creatures were awakened from their wintry naps, like the chipmunks that were now racing and chasing each other across what remained of this white panorama.

Into one end of a brush pile and out the other. Across this side of a fallen tree trunk before a bold leap to a branch nearby.

Wait a minute. There’s a red squirrel. What’s he doing here?

Both chipmunks, full of pent up energy gained by sleeping and eating the past few months away, were now seemingly running after anything that moved, including each other.

One of the chipmunks, perhaps Alvin, dashed after the fleeing red squirrel – which appeared tired and diminished by comparison, having braved winter’s worst winds and wilds.

The other chipmunk, undoubtedly Simon or Theodore, shot up the length of a branch to a knot where it stopped and curled itself into the characteristic chipmunk silhouette pose – hands held out front, head cocked in a curious listening appearance.

Reports from elsewhere across this sprawling land hailed the arrival of returning migrating birds – red-winged blackbirds, sandhill cranes and Canada geese. Could a lasting springtime truly be just around the corner?

It appeared to be so.

To many of us born here and raised up here, a March warm-up is cause for little more than healthy suspicion. Having lived through numerous late season storms, we often suspect winter is waiting quietly and patiently around the next corner to smack us in the face with a cold, wet snowball.

My level of doubt was reading regular levels, wondering if wintertime might really be retreating already. It seemed too good to be true. The whole winter seemed like that, save for a couple of weeks of damned cold subzero temperatures.

While much of the country was besieged by one powerful and productive winter storm after another, we – missing these big blast events – whistled past the graveyard as we sneaked glances back over our shoulders.

So now, with springtime peeking its head out from behind the curtain – stage left, ready to go on – I’m standing here in the bright sunshine contemplating the winter break-up.

“What? That’s it?”

When I see the deer now, they seem to even be standing more at ease, walking with a decided comfort and grace I wouldn’t have seen in early February.

At the same time some birds are arriving, others are leaving our shores, heading north as the waterways and landscapes begin to shed their crippling ice and snow.

This week, the hawk counters have begun their annual task at Whitefish Point. Northern saw-whet owls banded there in past years have begun to return from their seasonal southward shifts.

It won’t be long before the hawks will float in their large squadrons through the corridor alongside Brockway Mountain – heading north past the tip of the peninsula at Copper Harbor.

Within days, the clarion songs and calls of arriving male robins will sound out over neighborhoods and woods. For me this marks the real arrival of springtime.

Over the past several days, I’ve been wondering about the relative differences of birds and animals in their willingness to approach humans.

Why will gray jays land on my hand to take seeds and blue jays won’t? Why will a red fox follow me closely and leap and nod, as though it wants to play, while a gray fox won’t?

Is this all a matter of adaptation and learned behaviors and nothing more?

It’s an odd and strange occurrence to me.

Within the past week, I have seen the rain downpour and puddle over lake ice, while the rivers have, in many cases, tossed off their winter blankets to sing and rumble down their courses with a great deal of exuberance.

Temperatures that have crept up into the 30s and 40s seem determined to stay there or go higher. The winter weeks of little or no sunshine have succumbed to these warmer days of sunshine and pleasant breezes.

The river course that rolls out of the high country is spectacular to experience during spring break-up. I took a drive up there again over the weekend. The river was open and hungry, ready to eat its way through as much snow and ice as it could.

In places where the ice was too thick to chomp, the water ran over the top. This produced ice-bottomed runs for fast water, which essentially left a thick layer of ice in between two layers of water.

The sound of the river was so refreshing. It seemed as if I was hearing this joyful song for the first time ever. The cool, fresh air was as clean as the sky was blue.

In contrast, with the snow melting away, the bleak remains of winter activities were in evidence. In one place, I stepped to the side to avoid a dead mouse half-frozen in ice. In another, someone had tied a deer carcass to a tree, perhaps to allow the jays and other birds to feed on the scraps of remaining meat.

Along the roads, garbage was everywhere – even in the less-traveled places. Beer cans and fast-food wrappers, boxes, plastic water bottles and god only knows what that was.

After pushing the clocks forward, the next week or so is usually kind of a groggy time for me. I love the light late in the day but going back to getting up in the dark still has no real appeal.

I enjoy stepping out into warmer nighttime temperatures. The great horned and barred owls are still out there singing reliably, with dogs joining in from unknown yards and chains way off in the distance.

Before the snow is gone for good, I’m going to take some reflective time away to think about life without televisions, computers, alarm clocks and cellphones, nightly pandemic news reports, the hypocrisy and lies, and the loss, heartache and sorrow built up over more than a year of every day being somebody’s worst day ever.

I’ve got a quiet place all set in my mind, where I hope to be able to leach out some of the poison to instead let the sunshine in. I want to sit in the chilly morning air with the sounds of silence ringing in my ears.

In some ways, the vicious thunderstorm that rumbled through here is still visible as it moves slowly toward the horizon. I anticipate contemplating the power and fury that boiled up in those storm clouds.

I also hope to experience a tender moment or two, perhaps when springtime’s first song sparrow perches itself on a nodding cattail stalk to sing. Something like that can go a long way toward helping to bind up wounds and suffering.

The daffodils and the crocuses will no doubt soon appear. No matter the relative harshness of the wintertime fading, the power of their blooming presence on a crisp April morning can never be understated nor denied.

I will sit still nearby to drink it all in, until my head feels light. With my exhaustion waning, and the sense of heaviness leaving me, my thinking will become clear again and my soul will lift to the open skies.

I will fly inside.

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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