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Outdoors North

Mother Nature’s vast restorative powers on show

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Down along the cove, I spied my true love comin’ my way.” — Bob Dylan

Stepping out of the door, the clouds hung low in a foggy scene, with melting snow and raindrops dripping off branches and rooftops.

I was headed down along the lakeshore to try to shake off some of this chilly morning, along with a case of malaise that had sunk down into my inner workings, gumming up everything.

After the first few steps along the shoulder of the blacktop, I stopped briefly and contemplated turning back. It was raining cold and steady, matched by a north wind that bore the same dismal characteristics. Dismal for walking, that is.

If I were out fishing, I wouldn’t have minded. I’d be focused on casting and retrieving my lure and line. But when out walking, it’s hard to hear anything if it’s raining hard enough and the winds are blowing stiff.

Though I had paused, I decided to put those thoughts behind me and push on. I anticipated the medicine my heart, mind and soul needed was out here, even in the wind and the rain.

As I walked, I could hear loons crying out on the lake, along with a good deal of honking from Canada geese. They sounded agitated. Maybe they didn’t like the rain and the wind either?

By the time I had made it down the road to the point where the trees change from hardwoods to pine trees, I had zipped up my jacket almost to the top. A big drop fell from a white pine bough above me and landed on the top of my head.

I realized that on days like this, the first drop of drip that hits you is always going to be the coldest. After that, the next few are still identifiable as cold, but not as bad. After a few more, I know longer pay attention.

This drop from the pine tree was that first, big, ice-cold drop. I pulled my hood up over my head and zipped up my rain jacket the rest of the way.

Hoods are good at keeping rain off your head, but depending how tight you secure them, they can all but block out sounds that I want to hear, like water and birds and animals and the falling raindrops.

I left a puffed-out area of my hood around each of my ears and turned toward the north. I worked my way up the slushy snow covering the boulders and pine needles on the forest floor.

My ascent took me to my wishing place. A spot I hadn’t seen in weeks. The way I was feeling so far today, I didn’t know if this perch above the waters of the lake retained any of its magical powers. The north wind, carrying raindrops, did its part to make me question this notion further.

But when I reached the top and leaned against a tree, the view unfolded before me sent a calming and warming feeling through me. I wanted to sit, as I almost always do, atop the ancient boulders, but everything was either wet from the rain or covered in the slushy spring snow.

As I approached the edge of the rocky ledge, some bufflehead diving ducks on the water quickly lifted and scooted away from me to a point farther offshore where they again landed with an extended splash.

The green leaves and red berries of wintergreen were evident above the snow, growing close to the ground as they do. I picked one and bit into it. I just wanted the taste. I spit it back out.

A bald eagle, not yet with its white head and tail feathers of an adult, flapped its wings and then glided to a tree along the edge of one of the offshore islands in front of me. In a couple minutes, another immature eagle followed.

This second bird flew past the first and landed in a tree farther down the shoreline. I wondered whether the second bird had seen the first. More geese were honking out on the water. Two of them flew right toward me and then veered off not far away.

There were some new bird sounds today for this early springtime. A killdeer and a winter wren were out there in the distance. In front of me, a flutter of yellow-rumped warblers flashed up at the bottom of an old tree at the water’s edge.

I had heard the single chip-sounding call of one of these warblers about a week ago for the first time this spring. I then saw my first one this year over the past weekend. But this morning, there were probably at least a dozen between two groups I saw.

Walking into the woods, on a muddy and snow-covered trail, there were deer tracks. Along the shoreline I spotted the tracks of what was probably a mink. There were fresh woodpecker holes in many of the trees.

At the water’s edge, I bent down to get a better view of what I first thought was a big stump, partially blocked from view by hanging branches. Closer inspection revealed this was not a stump I might sit on, but instead a duck blind fashioned nicely in a lean-to out of dead tree branches and balsam fir boughs.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether this might be a shelter for sleeping, but the spent red and blue shotgun shell casings on the ground told the story.

I walked farther along the shore. Time sunk into a big hole and seemed to stretch out wide. It seemed like I had been walking for a couple of hours, but I knew that couldn’t have been the case.

I think I was soaking up all I could of the outside. The rain had stopped falling and the wind died down. My next views of the lake showed the surface to be calm and still, with more buffleheads and a couple of ring-necked ducks floating out there lazily.

I pulled the hood back off my head and ran my fingers through my hair to relieve it of the hood-crafted appearance of being plastered flat to my head.

I took deep breaths and felt open. The tightness I had felt at the beginning of my walk had dissolved, like the day’s early morning fog.

There were pussy willows in several places. I remember as a kid seeing them was such a big deal sign of spring. Kids would bring them in to teachers at school and they’d have them displayed in vases on their desks. I don’t even hear anybody even talking about them anymore.

On the return trip, I marveled at the towering rock bluffs, great white pine trees and old maples along the south side of my path. Gray-green colored lichen covered all these features.

I saw a big section of bark sloughed off a dead maple tree, a birch tree missing its bark too and places where the ground was covered in acorns in one spot and in only acorn caps in another.

The spring peepers that had been singing a week or so ago haven’t been heard out here since the snow fell. No wood frogs singing either that I’ve heard. Likely, I just haven’t been in the right place at the right time.

I felt relieved to be feeling better on this walk back. The splash of warm weather we had earlier in the month, before the snow fell, made me think springtime had sprung in all its splendor.

This backstep was tough to take. It felt like this was November, with its chilly everything, dead and dying woodlands and first snowfalls on the ground. But it wasn’t. This was April on the doorstep of May.

Still, this outing had done the trick for me. I walked back contemplating simple things like whether my hands felt more comfortable in the pockets of my blue jeans or those of my rain jacket. It was the rain jacket.

I still sensed something missing though, like a song rolling around in my head that I couldn’t remember the words to. I walked 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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