Outdoors North

Autumn walk in woods a great pleasure

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Such pretty colors I am told, there for all to see. But falling leaves of red and gold have all turned blue to me.” — Bobby Goldsboro

I remember the place. It was not far from here. There was a rocky bluff overlooking a small lake. The grass up there had yellowed with the season and the trees were painted in splatters of autumn red, orange, green and yellow.

The wind was chilly, and the sky was full of those thick, gray-blue clouds that tumble in and drop rain sometimes, eventually. What some people call “football weather.”

There were a few of us up there that evening I recall.

It was my first time hiking up to this place and so far, my last. I was in high school back then. It was a gathering of some of us kids from school on a Friday night.

I guess the reason I’m thinking about it now is there is something in the air today, or maybe it’s the angle of the sunlight, the stage of leaves turning or the scent of the season floating around in my head, that brings it back to me here and now.

I haven’t thought about this for years.

Autumn remains my favorite season, especially the kind that keeps Indian summertime rolling around deep into the month of October. At this point, the leaves are usually near or at peak colors.

This year seems to be lagging a bit, depending on where you might be. There’s still a lot of green around me today, though of course there are some trees of shocking brilliance, the dazzling red sugar maples.

Animals are decked out for the affair too, with trout in their flashy fall spawning colors of deep orangey reds, the jaws and backs of the males noticeably hooked.

The water seems to be cooling down now. With the help of recent rains, salmon and steelhead have moved up into Great Lakes tributaries to spawn.

Over the past few days, having watched a doe and three fawns sniff and push apples around on the ground underneath the trees in our backyard, I have wondered whether deer prefer to eat ripened apples, like humans do.

I recently gathered up a bunch of beautiful, big, yellow-green apples from a tree and set them out in the yard where the deer visit. The apples, which numbered about 20, stayed there for several days untouched.

A cottontail rabbit was the first to bite into one. He or she seemed to be contented with the treat. I think another apple was picked apart by a couple of ravens.

As the apples lay in the grass for about two weeks, they began to blush pink and then red. Once that happened, about half the apples were gone after one night. The rest vanished soon afterward.

The thought that deer and other creatures might prefer ripe apples is something I’d never considered before. I now wonder, if given the chance, they would prefer apple pie, warm dumplings or cobbler to the raw fruit?

I remember well the little Shiras Zoo they had at Presque Isle Park in Marquette when I was growing up. My parents would often take us kids there. Park visitors would feed the white-tailed deer that roamed a large enclosure lettuce, raw celery and carrots through a fence.

That was a huge thrill for us. We would bring a bag of carrots or celery from the store out to the park. There were bears and raccoons there, as well as the favorite river otters that had a slide into a pool of water.

Last week, we had a carrot from our garden in the refrigerator that had been in there long enough to turn kind of soft and rubbery. I brought it out back when the deer were out there, wondering if they would eat it.

While the deer don’t mind coming to within a couple feet of the house to nip off the flowery tops of our black-eyed Susans or to chomp the leaves and blooms on some late-developing pepper plants, they left this carrot sitting atop our picnic table untouched.

Maybe deer and other animals have more delicate tastes that I ever imagined?

On a deserted and muddy backroad a few days back, the skies and trees were filled with a large group of robins that no doubt were passing through for more southern winter destinations.

I stopped my Jeep to watch a pair of ruffed grouse strut out into the leaf-covered road ahead of me. I snapped a couple of photos through the windshield. The male had its neck feathers all ruffed out in namesake fashion.

With my driver’s side window down, I could hear the hen making soft clucking-type noises as she walked slowly, crunching leaves, just a few feet away from me.

The day was quiet and punctuated with rain showers. The leaves were showing a good jump on turning colors. That water in the river looked cold and dark. The wind on that day was sharply cold and hard.

It felt as though it could snow at any moment.

This was up in the high country. I was riding along a ridge where the trees were all in fiery fall fashion. Most of the summer camps looked closed up for the season.

The smell of smoke from campfires and barbecues was gone, having long been absorbed by the dew-glistened grasses, the bark on the trees or by floating softly into the open skies.

On these autumn days, it isn’t uncommon to hear the blast of a shotgun echoing off the hills as a hunter somewhere fires at ducks or grouse. I grew up with that sound. It is familiar and reminds me of hunting grouse with my dad.

Moose, bears and deer are moving around, getting ready for the seasonal changes that will find them either moving to places providing winter cover like hemlock and cedar stands, or to hibernate until spring.

Another sound not uncommon at this time of year is that of the thousands of geese heading south for winter, flying in their V-formations that stretch widely across the breadth of the sky.

That sound makes me shudder a bit inside during fall but brings me joy in the early spring when the birds return to the often still ice-covered ponds and lakes.

On my walk yesterday, I stopped to see the mountain ash and service berries with their spectacular showing of fall fruits, so many clumps of bright orange and red berries.

There were robins there too, taking some nourishment in from the berries before moving farther south. I also saw some navy-blue berries on reddish pink stems that I recall from my childhood. They are likely an elderberry of some kind, which almost always means poisonous.

With the wide assortment of berries found here in the north woods and neighborhoods, presenting themselves in all types of plump and juicy sizes and colors, it’s surprising to me that I don’t ever recall hearing of any kids when I was growing up that ended up in the hospital or worse from eating “poison berries,” as we used to call them.

So, it’s certainly evident that one season has ended, and another has begun. Welcome, autumn, my old friend.

In writing this, I remembered a few more details about that night on the bluff overlooking the lake, so many years ago. I had a bracelet with me I had given to a girl as a gift. She had given it back.

That was the end a summer season too.

The spirit floating over the land that is so palpable and knowing leads me to places of solitude and reflection where I can bathe my heart and soul in nature’s wonders.

The crank on the wheel of time seems to be broken, keeping the moments clicking off in rapid succession, winding back the days on my calendar.

On a dirt road, there is the truth I am constantly seeking, under the stars the wonder that enchants me and among the trees the friendships I know.

The sunshine warms me and the snow and cold take my breath. I walk on and on and on over the next hill and around the next corner.

There is only one direction home, forward.

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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