Outdoors North

Babbling brook has positive impact

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

I stood on the slightly arched bridge over a shallow section of rapids, leaning on the bridge rail, watching the foam at the top of the water bounce and glide as it was moved downstream by the current.

The water tumbling over the rocks here made a loud, but ironically peaceful sound as the relative white noise of the water worked to calm my tensions.

Accompanying this, the release of negative ions as the water coursed through the rapids also ushered in rejuvenating feelings of contentment and tranquility.

This was one of those places along hundreds of miles of trails that I have become familiar with and grown to love. Though years may pass between visits, the excitement of returning to this place never fades.

For me, there seems to be three progressive stages in my trail exploration, each with its own merit, fun and ability to draw me back again and again.

The first stage is “introduction.” This is when I visit and experience a trail for the first time. When everything is new, my senses seem to have heightened acuity and I seem to sense everything around me.

However, I have learned that this is a parlor trick of sorts as I often determine later in my process that I was so blown away by the excitement and newness of the area that I missed many things on my first visit that don’t get sensed until my second or third or fourth trips.

The never-before-seen-or-done aspect of this initial phase is very invigorating, the excitement of a new place to explore intoxicating. So then, why not only visit new places all the time?

I have already tipped my hand to some of this in that there are many things that get missed during a first visit to a trail or other new and wondrous place in nature, like a river or a desert or a mountaintop.

There is also the satisfaction of imbuing an acquaintanceship with this new place on repeat visits.

This second phase is called “development.” This stage might be the time I discover several things I didn’t see or otherwise sense during the introductory visit, like a side trail to a scenic overlook, an eagle’s nest, a patch of ripe blackberries or a stand of beautiful birch trees.

During this stage, a familiarity with the trail begins to take shape in my head and my heart as I feel my way around in these woods or along this escarpment or quaint path down to the creek side.

The developing sense of familiarity, even in small doses, brings on sensations of belonging, knowing and understanding that were nearly impossible to have on an introductory visit.

I begin to sense in greater depth what kind of trees, plants, birds, rocks, animals, fish and insects inhabit either side of this gravel, muddy or rooted ribbon of pathway I balance on as I make my way through the scene.

I have intrinsically and subconsciously set benchmarks or way points in my mind and notice differences from my first visit as I walk and explore. For example, I saw a black-throated blue warbler today. I didn’t see one the first time I was here.

My internal scribe takes note of these things, and the comparisons will continue as my visits increase in number. I think this internal working to meld things together and separate others out might be what cements certain visits to trails and other places firmly in my mind.

I think this leads to discussions that start out with phrases like “Do you remember that time we went up there and saw the weasel?” “Of course, I do, how could I forget that?”

On outings where nothing particularly memorable takes place, the trips serve to support and fortify my experience with this place. The more I visit, the more I learn, the more I am more likely to return.

There is a sense of if I could see that then what will I see today? The answer might be astounding. It also might not be. At worst case, it will be a peaceful, healthful and contemplative walk in a beautiful setting, where I develop a greater understanding of the world around me.

My third stage is simply called “change.” This is where I have experienced the introductory and development phases and have by now come to know this as a familiar and comfortable place.

However, on this visit I notice changes that have taken place. For example, not visiting a place during the winter can produce some significant differences in evidence in spring compared to how they were last fall.

This is especially often true when considering the powerful, creative and displacing powers of weather.

The deep hole at a bend in the river where I watched trout spawning in the gravels on the stream bottom last autumn, might now very well be filled in with sands washed downstream by flooding produced during a late season thunderstorm.

Where will the fish spawn now? If they are fortunate, the stream flushed out another hole on another corner that had been shallow and sandy before the storm. Now, stream bottom gravels are exposed instead.

Of course, to notice change the introductory, and most likely the development, phase will have had to have occurred previously. While this might sound somewhat obvious there are special things to notice with each stage of this process that evolves as I continue to visit.

The change stage will always be at work as change is the only known constant in the universe. Every change will be measured against a previous experience.

The change phase may be positive or negative, but it is certainly bound to have some effect on my perspective, feelings or appreciation of this place.

Have blown-down trees and erosion made the trail impassible now since my last visit or has a trail group rallied together volunteers to build a new boardwalk over the marsh or a small bridge across the creek?

Have the black-throated blue warblers become more commonly heard and seen here as I walk, or might they have disappeared altogether? Was that one time I saw one to become a rare sighting for this location?

Which brings me right back to this old bridge over the river at the rapids, along a stretch of one of the region’s most storied trails.

The wood decking of the bridge here is covered lightly with a coating of bright, green moss as this is a very damp place at almost any time of year. I am struck that despite my not having been here in several years, the setting remains relatively unchanged.

The water is still fast and cold, and it invigorates me when I splash some over my face with my hands. Moving my chilled hands back and over my neck at the base of my skull refreshes me.

There are still chatty red squirrels here that seem to protest my presence. The stream is the same depth I recall and there are still no other people here, as had been the case on all my previous visits – just the water ghosts whose pale, gray forms can be seen lifting up from the water on some occasions.

A wooden sign still points the way for hikers to various destinations along the trail. Four miles to this trail intersection, eight miles to the campground and two miles beyond that to the waterfall.

I do notice the growth in some of the trees, many of which now are taller than I am. In the older trees, which have stood for more than a century, the relative growth is harder to discern.

Contemplating the fact that some of these trees were here during the civil war or farther back is astounding.

For me, these notions call me back to gone-by days of exploration and settlement of this rugged and remote peninsula.

It seems easy to imagine myself being a brave guide of some kind leading others, aided by my hand-drawn map on deerskin, to the place where they skin the beaver, the seasonal fishing camp or the ancient cliffs along the shoreline of the inland sea.

I hear a snort and turn around in time to see a river otter bobbing up and down in the rapids as it floats downstream on its back, facing me.

This is one of those brief moments I treasure when outside experiencing nature. It may have only lasted for less than a minute, but I will likely never forget this.

As I amble back up the trail toward the trailhead where I parked my Jeep, I wonder whether I’ll see the otter on my next visit, hoping very much that I do.

This feeling for me is again rooted in connecting to a place, it’s activity and its denizens. The more I connect, the more I feel welcomed and at home.

There is tremendous peace and joy, love and forgiveness out there on the trails that crisscross this countryside all around us.

I hope that I am fortunate enough to be able to enjoy these fruits of the forest until the day I die.

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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