Outdoors North

Quiet morning opens door to imagination

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“In the wintertime, when all the leaves are brown and the wind blows.” — Steve Miller

It began with snowflakes sifting down gently like feathers through the yellowish beam of a streetlight that hung over the county roadway.

The night was still and quiet, but before long the wind would begin to lift.

Within that triangular column of lantern light, the snowflakes were pushed up and down and around until they resembled bugs in a beaker.

It seemed like I could almost hear the buzzing.

I was inside the house where it was dark, warm and comfortable.

This time of the night, in the wee, wee hours, is my favorite. There’s a kind of blue quiet that exists then that can’t be found otherwise.

Not only are there no phones ringing, cars honking, buzzers and bells going off or loud voices shouting or talking, there is none of the muffled, humming type of daytime racket of people doing things to disrupt opportunities for the absorption of relative silence, peace and reflection.

The shadows fall softer, farther and deeper. Everything seems amplified. Even the quiet is louder, whether outside or in.

Sometimes, pale moonlight will bathe the wintry scenes outside my window or shine down through the glass onto the floors and furniture of the house.

And I sit quietly soaking it all up, the quiet, the dark, the absence and the missing, the lonely of this very exquisite time of the day.

The sounds I hear are those drowned out during the day, like the clock ticking, the house creaking in the cold or wind or the furnace and refrigerator clicking on and off.

I can also hear the sounds inside my mind and my heart – the conversation taking place delicately between my consciousness and sub-consciousness.

These elements produce a relaxation and a calming of waves and storms borne on thought seas, constantly rising and falling within my brain.

In these moments, it’s easier to discern my thoughts and set them out in an order I can understand readily.

The snow now blowing and drifting outside my window, the flocked trees, along with the plummeting temperatures, only enhance my feelings of comfort and warmth.

Tonight’s winter storm reminds of the days when I was young boy, when the winter nights were filled with icy dark and nothing but time.

I would use these occasions, sometimes with the help of a flashlight, to read books my folks had bought for me, including “Wild Animals I Have Known,” by Ernest Thomas Seton and Jack London stories like “White Fang” and “Call of the Wild.”

Those stories captured my imagination as a lot of things did in those days.

I could see myself exploring the Alaskan or Canadian wilderness, braving the elements, encountering wild animals and sitting around a wintertime campfire in a jacket and boots made of furs and skins.

I fell in love with movies like “The Vikings,” (1958) with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” (1958) with Kerwin Mathews and Kathryn Grant.

With pro football teams, those that captured my imagination were my favorites including the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders.

These were teams that seemed to embody and personify their names. From the purple, red, black and silver colors of their uniforms and the designs of their helmet emblems, these teams were magical to me in my mid-1960s boyhood.

I think some of these things, along with being born and raised in this region of rugged landscapes, Great Lakes and harsh weather that I became accustomed to loving to live in a place with all four seasons – including wintertime.

I realize to an outsider it might be hard to understand. Even many people who were born here don’t like the wintertime and long to flock to southerly climes when they are able to avoid the snow and cold.

But like the nighttime, the winter — though seemingly only cold and bleak to some — possesses features unmatched by any of the other seasons, including the quiet, the darkness and the stillness.

There is also a sense within me of a hardiness required to withstand the winters in this part of the country. I love to get outside to breathe the clean air and enjoy the adventure that awaits, even in just walking out to the mailbox on some blustery, stormy days.

It’s a feeling of being able to overcome, to endure and to persist despite the snow, cold and the winds that helps me love winter.

I like to get dressed in warm clothes and go outside to shovel in or after a big snowstorm. I welcome the challenge winter presents and I feel accomplished after digging out after a wintry blast.

I also love winter campfires, walking in snowshoes over places I can’t get to the rest of the year or driving a snowmobile to areas back in the woods where my Jeep won’t go in the winter.

Ice fishing is fun. So is cross-country skiing and being outside stargazing or watching for the northern lights on cold, clear nights, the colder and clearer, the better.

There is also no time like winter for a fireplace fire, or to eat hot oatmeal or soups of every variety or to drink hot cider, teas or cocoa.

When I was a young boy, my parents would give us kids a shot of brandy mixed with lemony tea when we were sick to warm the chill out of us. I hated that.

We used to play street hockey and football, build snow forts, have snowball fights, sled and toboggan over ice-slicked hills and play “King of the Hill.”

We’d stay outside until we were way past cold or wet, usually only when we were called into the house by my mom.

Those early times must have also influenced my love of wintertime. I don’t seem to get cold as quickly as some other people do. I also will take short jaunts out in the snow barefoot to feel connected to the earth and the outside world around me.

The snowstorm that began on this night would end up dumping two feet of snow on our part of the world. School kids got two full snow days out of it. I recall getting three days off from school once when I was a kid.

In my day, we used to wish as hard as we could for snow days so we could go outside to play. Then, we would wait snugly in our warm beds for an announcement from our parents or we’d listen to the radio to get the news.

Today, kids have snow day probability apps on their cellphones, teachers notify parents via telephone trees and kids participate in weird rituals aimed at pleasing the snow-god powers that be, like putting a spoon in the freezer overnight.

One of my favorite wintertime memories is of hiking with my two California-born boys on a sub-zero walk to the Eben Ice Caves. I’d guess they were in their mid-teens back then.

The frigid temperatures of that late afternoon hike through deep snow and falling darkness made me feel like Jack London. I was proud to be able to show my boys the wintry beauty and wonder of the land where I grew up.

They have always been hearty souls themselves with an evident fair share of Upper Peninsula blood in their veins. I have pictures of them laying in the snow after a back porch hot tub soak.

Like me, they both decided to move from sunny California to places where wintertime maintains a regular role. One of the biggest reasons I moved back here was because I ached to experience the passage of all four seasons, every year.

Without those changes, I felt like I was missing out on so many things.

Having grown up with the breathtaking autumn leaves, the delicate spring wildflowers, the fabulous late-light summertime and the wonders of winter made it especially tough to go without those things for me.

I love every season. I think they should all have their due time to present themselves in all their power, pageantry and sparkle.

Like fireworks, let them all light up the skies.

I am happy to sit here in the darkness and quiet of a winter’s night or to walk in the warm summer rain with thunder rolling in from the distance, feel the autumn’s chill or listen for spring’s first robin.

I am dazzled and amazed. I feel alive and present. I am a man for all seasons.

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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