Outdoors North

Simple walk in the woods a great pastime

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“On a crystal morning, I can see the dewdrops falling.” — Kerry Livgren

The morning air that greeted me was crisp and chilled, just the way I’d hoped it would be. There was a decided dampness in the air, but the day to come would be sunny and fair.

Late the night before, I stepped out into the backyard and noticed the temperature had dropped decidedly, providing me with an exhilarating series of deep breaths that filled my lungs with clean, cool air. It was so refreshing.

I had pulled my Jeep over to the side of a dirt road and knelt beside some moose tracks in the red dirt. They had been left there recently, but they weren’t fresh.

Just the same, when I got back in the car I drove slowly ahead, scouring the depths of the woods between the tree trunks on both sides of the road. I also looked down any two-tracks or other side roads as I passed.

I would see more moose tracks in the road, but no moose. There were deer tracks here too, some fresh and others not. All were imprinted in the dirt between countless tire tracks.

Some of the prints were deep and misshaped, indicating running deer, while others were light, small hoofprints of younger, smaller deer.

It was early morning, one of my favorite times to be out in the woods. It is often quiet then in terms of people, but there is usually a good deal of animal activity.

I kept driving up the dirt road as it slinked in and around stands of red pines and mixed forests with maples or poplars. As the road turned, it gradually descended into a river valley.

I rounded a bend before the river bridge and saw what looked like white smoke from a forest fire rolling over the treetops. In fact, it was low, early morning fog rising into the air where it became harder and harder to see as it dissipated into the open skies.

I stopped at the bridge and got out with my camera. The scene was enveloped in a thick silence that was at once profound, inviting and comforting.

The mist here was low over the water up close but had risen higher into the trees back at the horizon, where the elevation climbed swiftly up a rocky ledge. The water in the stream was pooled flat. It didn’t look like it was moving at all, which was strange for this location.

I walked to the downstream side of the span and stood at the rail. Looking at a bend in the river, I could see where beavers had constructed a dam. This was the reason the water was pooled and backed up.

I soon got back in my Jeep and continued up the road. At a camp road that turned off to the right, I saw a sport utility vehicle parked with heavy mud caked over almost its entire body. The back window had been cleaned with a wiper blade.

No one was around. Likely, a hunter enjoying the morning too.

Farther up the road, past a couple of turnoffs down leaf-covered lanes, the now gravelly stretch I was driving brought me through a hardwood forest.

Here, the leaves had already dropped from the trees, except for a few deep golden beauties and a flaming sugar maple or two that punctuated the otherwise sparse and faded landscape of browned bracken ferns and gray-barked tree trunks.

After a few short minutes, I arrived at my destination. I was at the shoreline of a tremendous lake whose surface was calm and still. The water reflected the billowy clouds of the blue sky and the thousands of trees that lined the shoreline.

A couple of crows announced my arrival with loud caws. A few seconds later, a bald eagle saw me standing at the water’s edge and flapped silently overhead and out of sight.

There was morning mist here too, cuddling close to the water’s surface and drifting up into and over the trees. The water was clear and shallow. Numerous, small pieces of waterlogged wood rested in the sand on the lake bottom.

Clearly, this wood had been here for quite some time, long enough to have all its sharp edges rounded and smoothed by the water’s waves. The woods were almost totally silent, except for a hairy woodpecker that shouted its presence in the maple stand.

I stood still to not ruin the silence with the sounds of my footsteps. I closed my eyes and opened my ears. Way, way off in the distance I could hear somebody running a chainsaw.

Like the very familiar song of a robin, once I identify this noise as a chainsaw and it has registered in my consciousness, I can put that sound out of my mind to train my focus on what else might be out there.

After a couple of minutes of hearing nothing, an unexpected sound met my ears from way across the breadth of the lake. It was the morning wail of a common loon. It was too far off in the distance to see but hearing the sound echoing over the still water was beautiful.

The loons on the lake near my house stopped calling a few weeks ago. I had presumed they had already departed for the winter to the south.

Then I read this past week of dozens of common and red-throated loons counted on migration over the eastern end of the peninsula and in the Keweenaw. It leaves me wondering why the pair I’ve come to know left early.

A short distance inside the forest edge, an old wood duck birdhouse was nailed, just barely, to a tree. I walked a short distance to reach it, lifting a stick up to tap on the front of the box.

I was hoping that a saw-whet owl might stick its face out of the box.

Instead, nothing.

After a walk along the shoreline, I decided to head back. Gravel crunched under my tires as I drove up a short hill. A deer ran out in front of me and into a gully on the left side of the road. It stopped where another deer was standing.

Both animals looked at me, their coats were gray, and they blended in well with the tree trunks. After they stood listening to me talk to them for a short while, they high tailed it into the forest, white flags flapping.

Moving a couple miles down the road, at just the same time I saw something fly up from the shoulder, I was distracted by the beeping of my work cellphone that was sitting on the car seat. By the time I looked back to the road, I got a fleeting glimpse of a spruce grouse sputtering into the trees and up a hillside.

Damned phone.

I don’t see spruce grouse as much as I’d like to. They seem to be uncommon in comparison to the more familiar ruffed grouse. They are much darker, and the males are marked ornately with a red patch above the eye.

As I reached the place in the road where I had stopped at the moose tracks, the sun was now up and shining brightly into my eyes. Still no moose and no new tracks. Another time, I thought to myself.

On a straight stretch, I passed another spruce grouse. I hit the brakes and pulled to the side of the road. The bird remained crouched low against a sandy bank at the road shoulder.

Knowing that these birds are called “fool hens” because of their supposed ability to be approached readily, I walked slowly toward the bird with my camera. As I did, another grouse flew up from the grass and sputtered off into the bush.

The first grouse remained along the edge of the road until I approached to within about 25 feet. I got a good, close look. I was able to tell this was one of those regal-looking male birds.

I had distracted him as I approached by making soft little clucking sounds. After he flew, another bird in the trees at the opposite side of the road started calling back to me.

I walked over there, but I couldn’t see it. It stopped making noise when I approached closer. I was soon back behind the wheel.

By now, the sun was getting higher in the sky. All the mist had burned away, and the temperature was beginning to reach its way slowly toward the 60s.

It had been 41 degrees at the lakeshore, a chilly morning, but not cold yet by any means. The silence, the mist, the refreshing air – all exquisite.

This had been a wondrous dip for me into the essence of one of the first mornings so far that have felt like true autumn.

I was at home on that rugged and beautiful lakeshore. I felt free inside and the moments there brought me peace, contentment and a promise of more to come in the days ahead.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 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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