Outdoors North

Slowly, the days are getting longer

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

It’s an odd thing.

When it’s summertime, I tend to think most fondly of winter.

When it’s snowing and cold winds blow, my mind is filled with recollections of warm summer days, green grass, lush forests and the waters of lakes, creeks and streams turned blue by the reflection of azure skies.

I wonder if that means I’m never where I want to be when I want to be there?

Outside today, after another strange January weekend with rain showers and mild temperatures softening the snow like ice cream, leftover snow that had encrusted the limbs and trunks of trees after the last snowstorm is dropping to the ground.

The sound and look of the snow and ice falling through the tree branches reminds me of glass shattering, with the pieces splintering every which way.

The snow is very sticky and water droplets are dripping off the end of the rooflines.

Then over the top of that, there have been periods of soft, fluffy snow falling over the whole scene.

I can see a likely confused cluster fly sitting atop the snow off the edge of the stairwell rock garden. Did it come back outside from its winter hiding place when the temperature warmed up?

It’s easy to imagine this fly scratching the top of its head trying to figure it out.

Meanwhile, I’m scratching my own head as I begin to drift entranced into a summertime reverie.

I’m remembering lying across the old wooden dock.

It’s after supper time and the evening sun is still hanging fairly high, off the horizon line, like a big, orange beach ball.

The air is very warm.

I think I am about eight or nine years old.

My eyes are closed. I am resting, soaking up the wonder of another summer.

I can smell the warm water of the lake.

I can hear the waves softly slapping up against the pilings of the dock.

This dock has been here longer than I have been.

It extends into the lake about 75 feet.

It’s not for tying boats up to, it’s for letting swimmers get into the water at various depths. This beach has long been known as a great place to swim, whether you’re young or old.

The water gets deeper quite gradually, allowing even the youngest to get into the water with their parents to cool off on a summer day like this.

I can smell the water, though I can’t really describe the smell. It’s a damp heavy kind of aroma that I can smell anytime I close my eyes and think about this place.

I think the water’s perfume has a hint of firewood smoke that drifted over from a campground not far away.

The bottom of the lake here is covered with soft sand and tiny, black pieces of tree branches and woody debris, like pine needles, that roll back and forth across the bottom with the ebb and flow of the lake current.

Off the end of the dock, probably about thirty feet away, floats a wooden raft constructed over empty barrels. The bigger kids love to dive off the end of the dock, swim to the raft, get up on it and then dive off again.

At this young age, I haven’t yet learned how to swim.

So, I don’t like the deep water.

I sit and watch the divers showing off at the end of the dock and out at the raft.

My dad offered more than once to toss me off the dock into the deep water to teach me how to swim.

I think that must be the way he learned. No thanks.

I wouldn’t figure it out until years later. It turns out, it wasn’t as hard as everyone made it seem. So much stress and anxiety for really nothing.

Nothing, except what seemed to be a real possibility of drowning.

I wish I hadn’t been as scared as I was about that.

I could visualize one big unintended gulp down the wrong pipe and glug, glug, glug right to the bottom, sinking like a pop can.

But in those days, I had become comfortable with not diving or splashing around in the deep waters. I enjoyed wallowing in the shallower depths or tossing a Frisbee or a ball back and forth.

And I was happy to just lay down and rest across the big wooden timbers of this wide, waterlogged dock.

There was plenty of room for people to walk around and pass me. Other kids were doing the same thing I was. To some of them, I was even a big kid.

It wouldn’t be too much longer, and I’d be getting the yell from my mom, letting me know that we’re going home.

I would of course protest to no avail.

I didn’t want to go home because that would mean taking a bath and then going to bed, even though it was still light outside, and it was summertime.

“What a rip, ma.”

We used to sometimes take hot dogs or hamburgers and grill them on one of the beach grills. For me, there is still no better tasting hot dogs than those grilled on an outdoor fire.

I like them extra charred.

So, I slip off the side of this dock like a seal sliding off a rock into the ocean for one more dip before it would be time to go.

I then walk out of the water past a bunch of kids who were still able to stay in the water or remain on the beach.

When I reach the spot in the sand where we had put down our old wicker picnic basket and brown and yellow scotch plaid drink cooler, with a pull-out spout, I see my towel on the sand.

It’s wrinkled and partially covered with sand as always seems to be the case at the beach. I shake it off and wrap it around me. I am reminded when I do that, I had dried off with it once before so now it is damp and almost muddy in some places.

So, I wrap my dirt cape around me and walk back to the station wagon. I’ve got to wear my old, blue flip-flops to keep from burning my feet on the hot sand or the parking lot asphalt that is still hot even in the evening.

In the back of the car, I sit in the back and listen to the radio, sitting on my towel to ostensibly keep the seat from getting wet.

It won’t be long until we back the car into the driveway. Then, us kids will line up by the hose to get sprayed off before we go up the three green wooden steps and into the small back porch.

Through the door is the kitchen and then through the dining room and living room to the staircase and through the hall to the bathroom adorned in pink carpeting and pink bathroom fixtures, including the sink, toilet and bathtub.

That’s the sink that I spit my chipped teeth fragments into after I fell on the ice. The toilet is the one that, as a younger kid, I used to mix ingredients in like shampoo, shaving cream and mouthwash to watch the multicolored swirl after flushing.

When I was about the same age, I “helped” my dad with the pink bathroom remodel by varnishing the bottom of the new tub.

From the bathroom, it was across that small hallway to the bedroom I shared with my brother. Two twin beds, two windows, a record player, an overhead light, tiled flooring and a closet full of toys to play with.

But not tonight. It’s time to go to bed. I close the shutters on the windows to block out the light. I put three or four albums on the record player.

One platter, one side at a time, the records would drop down and play and then automatically shut off.

I would typically only make it through the first or second side of those long-playing thirty-three-and-a-thirds before I’d be off to dreamland.

Today, the beach is still there, but the dock has long been torn down and the swimming raft removed. I never did get to dive off the end of the dock or swim to the raft.

Except, of course, in my young mind during those parts of days spent lying on the dock resting, soaking up the sun.

Back in the moment, the snow has stopped falling but the water is still dripping off the edge of the roof. It’s a gray day. Not dark, but muted.

The light is lasting longer than those black nights of Christmastime.

It’s good to see.

In another six months it will be summertime and I’ll likely have turned the pages back in my mind to these mild winter days we’re living now.

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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