Outdoors North

Nature extends healing hand to writer

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

The afternoon was warming steadily as I turned off the blacktop onto a road slicked with a mire of mud, gravel and melting snow.

I likened that mixture to what I felt my brain had become after too many winter days spent languishing inside a well-insulated house — full of melting ice cream — literally rocky road.

It had been a grumble-mumble day. I felt every bump in that road and resented each one. It felt simultaneously like my chest cavity had rotted out but was also cutting my insides every time I breathed.

I turned right at a sweeping curve rather than continuing straight onto another road that would have led me to woods and waters closed off from the suffering likes of me by fences, gates and “No Trespassing” signs.

I felt like I had a sickness that I had let go on for too long without going to the doctor.

Now I was finally headed to the wilds for help but was I too late?

Had a hideous gloom wrapped its shawl of death around me that was now bound to drag me down to the ground for good?

I had hoped not.

I straightened the wheel of my Jeep as the road laid out flat in front of me for a mile or so. To my left, I noticed a new clearcut through a jack pine stand. Seeing this, I realized it had been longer than I remembered since I had been out this way.

Navigating through a couple of turns, I saw that a “For Sale” sign that had been hanging at the head of a camp road had been taken down.

I tipped my hat to whoever it was that had been able to secure themselves a home away from home along the riverbank.

I think it remains a dream for a lot of us north country dwellers.

I know it does for me.

As I approached the river bridge, I slowed my vehicle down and parked at the edge of the road just before the place where the steel guard rail ends.

Despite my dark and gray sullen mood, the sky was a beautiful clear azure with plenty of sunshine.

I stepped out of the Jeep and my boot heels sunk into the soft, red mud, as though I had just discovered a vast deposit of rust beneath the gravel.

I walked over to the bridge rail at my left to look downstream.

As warm as it was, I thought the river would be wide open and running wild.

Instead, the middle of the river flowed freely in many places, but there were ice jams that clogged the whole surface of the river. At the places where the river was open, the areas closest to the banks were still covered with ice of varying thickness.

Where the water reflected the sky, it was a beautiful icy blue color. Where it reflected the tag alders, thornapple trees and cedars and spruce, the river looked brownish or black.

I picked up a rock off the roadside and dropped it on one of the ice floes still attached to the riverbank. The rock passed easily through the ice and sunk to the bottom of the river, resulting in a few big air bubbles rising to the ice from under the water.

The bubbles slid through the water under the ice seeking a place to escape. When one would reach the edge of the ice it pulled the rest of itself to the open water where it popped and disappeared.

I got a couple more rocks and dropped them through the ice, watching the bubbles move under the ice. I smiled thinking I kind of felt like that today, like I was suffocating under the ice and needed to break free so I could breathe again.

Some of the bubbles traveled a pretty good distance downstream or sideways before they found a place to get out from under the ice sheets. Some bubbles didn’t get out and they remained visible but stuck under the ice.

I moved across the road and walked upstream just a bit to find a place where a trail cut through the trees to a rock slab along the water at a big bend in the river.

The short trail was covered with snow and a crust hardened enough for me to walk on. I could see faint traces of grouse tracks in the snow in front of me where the birds had gone back and forth between the thick brush.

At the river, I saw more ice jammed up at a corner and off to my left there was a place where the water was bubbling over the rocks. I carefully moved myself as close as I could without slipping.

This is a place where the water slides down a slope covered with small boulders where a little rapids forms in the shallow waters during the summertime.

Today, from the edge of the ice, the water was speaking, laughing and even giggling. It seemed young in every way – playful, alive, full of joy and unapologetically babbling to anyone who would listen.

I was certainly ready to hear.

I reached into my pocket and took out my phone and recorded the sounds.

A buffeting ruffle from a chilly wind tried unsuccessfully to drown out the river and foul my recording. I knew I could take this sound back home with me to help remind me of what kinds of things are out here in nature to enjoy.

Thirty-seconds of medicine in a little sound file that never runs out.

After a few minutes, the noise of the wind did become obnoxious and bothersome, and I soon left this vantage point and headed back to the bridge.

But first, I stood for a few more moments along the edge of the river taking mental snapshots and a couple of actual photos with my phone.

Any animals living here were not taking advantage of the sunny day to be out doing things. I didn’t see even one chickadee, squirrel or deer.

Back at the bridge, I stopped to look upstream.

There is a line of boulders that sits in the river that have been there since before my grandfather was born. I think that when I was a kid the boulders were fewer in number that the six visible today.

There are two gigantic boulders that have certainly worn over the years but are largely unchanged. But the four others might only have been two rocks years ago. They might have broken apart with water getting inside cracks and then expanding as it freezes.

It’s hard to say for certain. Perhaps my recollection is fuzzy?

This started me to thinking about how as trees, forests and even manmade things like highways, communities and commercial developments grow, change and diminish, it’s hard sometimes to realize the changes as they are taking place.

I remember how prominent the changes would be for me when I lived out west and would come to the area on vacation.

It was staggering how much things had changed in the woods and in the towns, while at the same time, it all was still the same place somehow, no matter the shifting sands.

This was home.

In my old neighborhood, there are trees that were no taller than me when I was a kid that now are towering far above me. There were also trees there that have been felled, cut up and dragged away.

Gone with them are the sounds of us kids playing and laughing in the streets and backyards below their outstretched branches. Keep whispering to me silver maple, wherever you are.

Back at my Jeep, I sat in the driver’s seat with the door open. I kicked my bootheels together to knock off the mud. I looked across the road to a blackberry bramble that I often stop at in the late summertime when traveling this road.

The briars are now bare and brown, sticking up in odd directions waiting for the rains of springtime to come with the warmth that will bring new green leaves.

I am waiting for that too.

I think the first time it rains this summer I will just sit out in it for a couple of hours with my rain hood on, listening, feeling, smelling and sensing. More medicine, this time falling from the skies.

The trip back was much different. I didn’t remember any of the bumps in the road with my mind trained on things I’d experienced over the past couple of hours.

Certainly, my roughest edges had been smoothed out.

I rolled along with the cutting gone from inside me. I wasn’t cured, but I was on my way back, mending.

I told myself I’d forego any postponements next time and instead deliver myself to the house of healing, the great wide open of nature.

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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