Outdoors North: A walk in the winter wilderness

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Whispers of the north, soon I will go forth, to that wild and barren land where nature takes its course.” — Gordon Lightfoot

The woods were covered in a thick fluff of snow that had fallen over the past couple of days. In most places, the white blanket had yet to be decorated with the tracks of white-tailed deer, red foxes and bobcats.

The river, even in the rapids, had mostly stopped flowing, at least at the surface, which was now covered too with ice and snow. There were places, few that they were, where a section of water remained open to sing its song to the surrounding world.

In those places, the bubbly and swirling sounds carried for a good distance, far enough so that I could hear the calming melody from where I stood at the steel bridge rail.

I looked upstream to the west. The river there was braided like hair, crisscrossing and merging, continuing to flow downstream, following the grade of the river bottom beneath its waters, seeking a level place to rest.

The day was cold, especially with the wind that always seems to find a way to gust and cut in this part of the countryside. By the end of my outing, my cheeks would be cold to the touch and my jaw a bit slow to move.

I was hoping to take a walk into the wilderness here, to hike the trail along the river, down the dips and up the short hills and past the places where the animals feel free to cross paths with humans – at least this path and this human.

However, the snow was deeper than I had anticipated and after following the trace for less than a mile, I decided I should have brought my snowshoes with me. The base of the trail was soft, and the footing was loose. I turned around and made my way back, retracing my boot prints in the deep snow.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As I walked, I was greeted surprisingly by intense, warm sunshine that isn’t something a wintertime hiker can typically expect on a January day.

I stopped to let the rays of sunlight soak into my face, lifting my whole entire being, from my skeleton on through to my blood and muscles, finally reaching my heart and soul. I sensed my mouth had formed a grin.

In the air, I could hear the birds doing their dead-of-winter calls – not the effusive and grand singing of springtime’s mating and territorial songs, but cheery nonetheless for this time of the year.

There were black-capped chickadees tooting their chick-dee-dee-dees, red- and white-breasted nuthatches with their respective toy horn and yanking noises, but most delightful on this day were the graceful notes cast into the skies by flocks of red and white-winged crossbills.

They were dipping and diving in their loosely formed flocks flying overhead, from the tops of this spruce tree to that one and then to the one over there – always looking for the next prime crop of cones to pick at.

Today, however, I suspect at least a few of these creatures lingered at the tops of those trees to soak up a little bit of the warm sunshine themselves. The direct light ignited the plumage of the red variety, casting them brilliantly against the blue sky.

“Now, there is something you don’t get to see every day,” I told myself.

Back at the trailhead, a rattling sound betrayed a resident red squirrel who seems to enjoy the perspective of being above me on a white pine bough whenever I happen to get out this way.

He or she enjoys scolding me for either my presence or my absence.

I leaned against the massive trunk of the pine and reached into my pocket for a plastic bag half-filled with sunflower seeds. I emptied a few into the palm of my right hand and extended my arm like a tree branch.

I was hoping one of the nuthatches or chickadees would come to say hello while they picked up a seed or two before flitting quickly into the snowy woods again. After holding my hand out long enough for it to get cold with no takers, I dropped the seeds to the ground.

I decided to walk the road for a while where the snow was packed hard, making for easy walking. The quiet was comforting and the sun was still shining brightly, although the lateness of the afternoon had begun to cast blue shadows across the roadway.

I noticed bark had been peeled away from some of the trees alongside the road, a sign for me that there might be black-backed woodpeckers around. They are among the least common woodpeckers in our area. They have three toes instead of four, yellow on the forehead and not surprisingly – black backs.

These woodpeckers are often found in woods where fire has recently occurred, though no fire had recently ravaged this forest.

I listened for tapping sounds and didn’t hear any. I didn’t see any woodpeckers either, but just then a larger bird hopped from the ground up into the cover of an evergreen. I made some pishing noises hoping to attract the bird into the open.

The trick didn’t work. The bird did not pop out, nor did it call. It was then that I noticed tracks meandering in the snow under the trees. This bird was a grouse, spruce or ruffed I’ll never know because I didn’t see it despite attempts to find it.

I continued to walk seeing bird tracks of some much smaller variety in the snow on the road. I am happy to be alive, walking and just breathing, thinking and feeling – functioning.

This is a wonderful day.

The air is cold, yes, but it is crisp and refreshing to breathe.

Within the hour, I make it back to my vehicle and start to drive down the road the way I came. I am not ready to go home yet, but the sun will soon be sunk.

As I ride, I now see some deer tracks have dotted the river in a cut-across fashion, looking like some stitching sewn fashionably in an undulating pattern across the arm or leg of the snow-covered stream.

While another hour ticks by me, I have driven up another road, following a creek that is a tributary to the river. A steep gorge sits off to my left.

This smaller stream is much like the river, mostly covered with snow and quiet, but there are patches of flowing water.

I pull over and stop at a place that draws me each time I go past. There is a tall pine tree that has stood for who knows how long against the sky here. It retains no greenery and its limbs are broken and probably rotting.

But despite the condition of the tree, there is something about the way it stands tall and stark on the horizon. Today, it is especially beautiful to see. The falling sunlight has put the tree into shadow, producing only one of a few silhouettes on the skyline here.

The skies have turned pink and blue in the background and the temperature has dropped even lower. The woods are silent now and there has been nobody else I’ve seen all day.

The peace here in this moment is profound.

I take a couple of photos to remember the occasion. I get back in my Jeep and begin to work my way back down the serpentine road that follows the river. I hope to see a moose or a wolf or a coyote.

Instead, I see only miles of snow-covered woods and the beautiful and more artistic pastel shades of blues and pinks and oranges while the sun sets.

If I had stayed at home on the couch or in my rocking chair, I would never have had the opportunity to experience the beauty and solitude of this wondrous winter afternoon.

The outing has exhilarated me and opened-up my cramped insides contracted from too many things human and social and interacting.

I now feel open and free and I can breathe the cold air deeply, again and again, finding nothing but deep capacity in my lungs for more and more.

I am touched by these subtle, yet powerful, abilities of nature to heal and to cure and to revive the weary. I feel honored to be here and I am grateful for the day.

Over my shoulder, the almost full moon sits above the horizon. Soon it’s light, reflected from the sun, will have its chance to bathe this white landscape in its soft, blue light.

Now, I’m ready for the rocking chair, a warm blanket and a bowl of soup.

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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