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Outdoors North

New year means new experiences

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“This time tomorrow we might all be packed and gone. I believe it’s best we carry on.” — Gordon Lightfoot

There was certainly a stiffness to the new year as it rolled itself out before me, a stiffness that I could feel in my bones and body as I headed outside for my first hike of a fresh calendar of days.

It was a cold, early afternoon by the time I left the house. I drove out to one of those places I like where you don’t have to go too far to feel like you’re a long way out in the woods somewhere.

In this month of the Great Spirit Moon, the new year can often spark renewal and energy for many people. Beyond the typical resolutions that one might make, just a sense of newness and a clean slate can bring a sense of graduation, of moving up a notch, or past another challenge or milestone.

I felt some of that in my footsteps across this snowy landscape, but I also felt tired and worn down from the past couple of years. The idea of a whole new year ahead seems daunting in some ways.

But I remind myself it’s early yet.

It’s best to try to remain optimistic.

So, I walk down a snow-covered dirt road, along the course of a river, trying to work out that stiffness I mentioned.

The scene is pleasant and inviting. The temperature was down in the single digits this morning but has now pushed its way up into the teens, aided by bright rays of sunshine beaming down over everything, including me.

The sky is a pretty blue. The wind makes the ends of the jack pines bob and pushes snow like desert sand across the clear, black-blue iced surface of the river.

Here, the ice looks thick and solid, but upstream I discover open water gurgling slowly around a slight bend as the river widens. I stop to close my eyes and listen.

This sound of the water moving free of ice and rolling and tumbling over the rocks brings a serene peace to my consciousness. This is the most freeing and medicating sound I have heard in weeks.

The wind and the water compete for my ear and affections. Sorry, wind. Even though you can make the white pines swish in a cooling and calming way, you’re no match for the magic music of the creeks and streams.

Outside of these two aural attractions, the vast scene before me is silent, except for a woodpecker tapping persistently on a maple trunk. The tree is located about a third of the way up a steep hillside.

I am at the bottom.

If I look up the hill there is blue sky visible through the bare branches of the trees at the top of the ridge. I see tracks through the snow where deer have cautiously walked along narrow ledges to reach the top or to travel down the hill to the road where I stand.

In some places, there are trails through the snow where the deer sent small snowballs rolling that became larger and larger in their downhill descent.

Any time I hear a woodpecker tapping, I take the time to see what species it is, if I can’t already identify it by the sound of the tapping.

Doing this once several years ago helped me find a black-backed woodpecker on a Christmas bird count. It was a first-ever sighting for me and for the count.

Today, the tapping turns out to be from a common hairy woodpecker. I see the thick, white “skunk stripe” on its otherwise black back.

I see where other seekers have walked before me down this road that leads to a boat landing. By looking at the tracks, it looks like it was a man, his young son or daughter and their dog.

There are also more deer tracks on the road. Up ahead, a group of male and female white-winged crossbills are congregated in the road eating grit. They hear me approaching and float like a collective blanket up into the branches of a tree alongside the road.

I stop walking and wait a few seconds.

They return with bubbly, musical sounds to the road just a few feet in front of me. Their name describes the physical twisting of the upper and lower potions of their bills. They use this beak as a tool to help open spruce and pinecones so they can eat the seeds.

This is one of those bird species I never tire of seeing. I snap a picture or two and then they are off again, this time for good.

I notice the way the river has frozen – from the banks toward the middle. I’ve seen this in several streams recently where the river has all but frozen except for a dark strip of open water snaking its way down the center of the watercourse.

I tread cautiously through the deep snow near the boat landing and take a few steps out onto the ice, following the tracks of deer.

I am hoping I can walk out far enough to see around the big corner, but after just a couple more steps, I see my tracks darkening as the snow becomes saturated with slush from beneath.

I back up and turn around.

As I am walking back up the hill, the cold air chokes my breath out of me, but I keep walking. When I do stop, I inhale the coolness and sway with exhilaration. This wonderful feeling can only happen in the wintertime.

Once we get this far into the season, with ice and snow present, the animals have begun to frequently use the rivers as their pathways.

The streams are now almost all crisscrossed with the tracks of rabbits, foxes and deer, birds and beavers and otters. The roads themselves are also well-traveled by animals. They are paths of least resistance.

In a clear-cut forest, I turn my head to listen for sounds across the wide opening. There is nothing here to hear. It’s a very surreal couple of moments, as though all the birds and animals evaporated all at once.

Finally, in the distance, a crow caws snapping me from this strange reverie. I feel like the gears of time are messed up somehow in this place, like the clock’s face has broken open and there’s springs, wires and parts falling out forward.

It’s like some type of time warp or a record playing at the wrong speed – too slow. The music is playing, but the singer’s voice is groggy and dragging, the instrumentation is warped and sounds out of tune.

I guess it might be part of that stiffness of the new year, presenting itself in a different fashion. It’s a strange sensation, a kind of awakening but still with a good measure of only relative consciousness involved.

I stop to look up at the brilliant blue of the sky and see clouds in splotchy patterns, like the kind paint makes when dropped into water. There are high and icy cirrus clouds higher up there too.

I frame a photo of the clouds with the reaching branches of maples, oaks and beeches. My mind tends to travel a good distance when I walk.

I contemplate all kinds of things, from answers to little problems I’ve had with things that need fixing around the house to people I know or knew or things I hope to do on other days.

I close my eyes and hear my mind reverberating with the sound of common loon, playing back there somewhere in my brain – a leftover track impressed upon me during a summertime someday.

On many winter days, the bleak, black-and-white coloring of the setting of these woods is by no means uncommon. Today, I have been lucky to see this bright sunny, blue-sky day.

My steps seem lighter the farther I walk. I feel like I could walk down one of these snow-covered backroads all the way to springtime.

I don’t sense that I know a whole lot about a lot today, but I’m out here looking for truth and light and hope. A voice inside me says that counts for something.

More crossbills in the road. So pretty. So free.

All at once, they cast themselves to the open skies with enough faith to fly to Venus.

A few cheery notes floating on the winter wind and they’re gone.

My boots make soft thuds in the snow with each step I take. A few more steps and I’ll be gone too.

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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