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Outdoors North

Summer days a time of reflection, contemplation

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“This land is your land, this land is my land.”

— Woody Guthrie

I have just returned from summery settings in this grand peninsula. These are the alter ego days of wintertime, of water lilies and damselflies and the blooming berry bushes holding the promise of a sweet harvesttime in the weeks ahead.

In short, this is the time of the year a lot of us live here for.

These are the halcyon summer days we might recall first if asked to present a memory of days gone by. Like a lot of folks, I love them too, but they’re not my favorites.

I prefer the autumn days of Indian summer, when the falling leaves and the spawning trout have turned their colors to reds and oranges.

Nonetheless, like the hours and days of all the seasons, they have their place and purpose. This is a time I often recall during winter.

Along the streets of these old mining towns, at this time of year, you are especially likely to see American flags hanging from poles on front porches. The trees of the towns are in their finest greenery. Lots of flowers are blooming too.

People are running, riding bikes, walking dogs and themselves. The humidity tells me it’s July and the darkened skies threaten, as they always seem to do during this week, to cancel or postpone parades, outdoor gatherings and fireworks displays.

I drove out on a dirt road that circles over a length of several picturesque miles. My dad used to call this “taking a ride around the horn,” as though he was an early explorer charting his course around the tip of Africa or South America in a mighty sailing ship.

I’m not long off the blacktop when I pull over in the muddy dirt to check out the creek, where it crosses under the road through a culvert. There was a rainstorm last night that a certain local television meteorologist might call a “gully washer.”

I knew it had rained a good deal when I saw the puddles on our back deck. That’s all I can tell you about the storm. I slept right through it hearing nothing.

Looking at the creek, I can see it’s summertime. Even with the rain overnight, the water level is drawn down low and the long greenish-yellow river grasses are stretched long and snaky, like Medusa’s hair.

In some places, the grasses are choking the water flow down to a trickle. In the wider, slow water here, small side and backwater ponds have formed, which are adorned with beautiful and elegant blooming white, water lilies.

The edges of the creek are home to lavender stands of iris blooms and tall green grasses. In the dirt at the side of the road, there are disturbances showing snapping and painted turtles have buried their eggs here.

There are song sparrows and common yellowthroats singing here, along with a lone, male white-throated sparrow, which delivers the theme song of these great north woods.

From a formation of dragonflies bouncing on the warm winds, I see two dip down to the surface of the creek, one using its ovipositor to drop eggs into the water.

Tremendously exquisite damselflies with black, glossy wings and electric green bodies – called ebony jewel wings – dive and bob, coming quite close to me. I feel blessed to get these great looks.

There’s an almost turquoise rendition with clear wings, called a familiar bluet, that’s here too. Yellow swallowtail butterflies flop their wings as they fly low to the muddy road, looking for a good place to land.

Back behind the wheel, a deer watches me from the side of the road up ahead, but she doesn’t run away. I stop and say, “Hello, you baby.” She is in her prime, brown summer color. I wonder whether she has a fawn, but when she moves, nothing moves in the tall bracken ferns with her.

I hear birdsongs as I ride along with the car windows down: ovenbirds, chestnut-sided warblers and northern parulas. There’s a croaking raven too. The blue jays seem to be quieter now, along with the red- and white-breasted nuthatches.

In a jack pine barren, the woods of these plains finally look green enough to not burst into flames under the heat of a summer’s day. The blueberry plants have a few small, un-ripened white berries on them.

I stop at a pond. This one has some significant size to it. It looks as though it must have attracted more than one moose over the years. Out in the center of it, there is a beaver lodge that’s been there for a long time.

Near the shore, more irises are blooming, and the plucking rubber band sound of a green frog again let’s me know it’s a warm summer day. There’s red-winged blackbirds and common grackles here calling up from the cattails and reeds.

I am a little surprised at the fair amount of activity, given it isn’t long after noon, a time when birds and other animals are usually resting between breakfast and dinner.

I cover many turns and straight stretches in this dirt road as I circle the basin behind the dam. There are sugarplums on a bush – what Canadians refer to as Saskatoons – that have turned pinkish, a few shades before their deep purple ripe coloration emerges.

They are among the late July and August delights of this region, which include wild blackberries, blueberries, thimbleberries and raspberries. Fruits of the forest indeed.

This is also the time for white and yellow daisies to shine, along with orange and yellow hawkweed and Queen Anne’s lace.

The are a lot of “no trespassing” signs in these woods, roads with gates and wires, all trying to keep out the riffraff, like me, I guess.

Maybe those signs are one reason deer and wolves, bears and birds can’t read. The gates might be one reason deer can jump like 10 feet high. Rabbits and snakes can easily slip right underneath.

It looks as though it’s going to rain again soon, but maybe not until late this afternoon. I would love to sit right here in this Jeep and watch it come down. I like the sound it makes when it hits the hood and the roof.

It makes it seem so safe to be inside the vehicle. There are usually all kinds of airy, buzzing mosquitoes outside when it rains, and just before and after, that flit and flutter across the windows trying to get it.

Today, walking down the dirt of this road in my bare feet feels good, even though the wet sands stick to the bottoms. The pavement feels nice too, not hot, but warm.

Before I’m done rounding the horn, I stop at one more bridge. This one is herculean in size, but also in disrepair. It’s no longer in use. As I approach the near end, I step down the sand embankment to the water’s edge.

I swear it looks the same way it did here 40 or 50 years ago. There was an old log that stuck up out of the water, about 30 yards offshore. It was a good place to catch fish.

It’s still there.

We used to move the sharp-edged rocks around in the shallows to find crayfish that would be there in the mud, under the rocks, close to shore. I still remember a big brown trout I caught here, way back then.

It’s strange to me how almost everything changes so much over time, and yet, there are places like this that seem to have somehow avoided that. These are the places I seek out and love to find.

It’s not that I don’t like change in general, but when it comes to places that I used to be and go to as a kid, the change that has come has not often been favorable.

Rivers have been dammed or shifted and polluted, campsites destroyed, roads blocked and detoured, habitats for birds, fish, frogs and other animals – like people – threatened or ruined. The old towns here have decayed, stores have closed, trains have stopped running and jobs have gone elsewhere.

Despite all these things, this is still a beautiful and wondrous place.

This is where I was born and grew up and, it’s summertime now.

This is my home.

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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