Outdoors North

An early morning reveals much

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

The morning was still, like it was literally frozen in time.

Out over the bog, the bare-branched tamaracks and last year’s browned and dried grasses were coated in a thick layer of frost.

With the sun just now beginning to reach up over the hill, the scene was becoming backlit. I wish I had my camera with me.

This was one of those mornings I was in too much of a hurry to think of things like that. But seeing this wonderful scene, I realize I should have brought it with me.

At this late-winter, early springtime of the year, I don’t like to leave a camera in my vehicle overnight because the cold saps the battery strength rather easily.

There’s not much difference between a camera with a dead battery and no camera at all. Except if a camera with a dead battery fell from my hand in the woods and no one else was around, I would still hear it.

In addition to the first rays of morning light warming up the very frosty scene, the lighting seemed to make the almost motionless creek water here appear black and bottomless.

This type of landscape is one of my very favorite to try to capture in pictures. I also love to be in these kinds of scenes because of the almost shattering quiet.

If a deer were to run through the swamp, the sound of the animal crashing through the brush would seem amplified and would be jarring to anything listening.

I take some time to let my eyes scan the trees at the back of the wetlands.

I’m looking for moose, deer or other wild creatures that might be hiding there in the darkness just beyond the red twigged dogwoods, the depleted winterberries and the other bushes.

I don’t see any eyes staring back at me.

However, out in front of me, about 50 yards or so, I detect a shimmering of the light and something in motion that I don’t recognize at first glance.

A closer look reveals a sandhill crane standing cold amid the frost-covered trees.

The bird shakes itself off as the sunlight hits its feathers.

Looking gray, with a fresh coat of feathers, this is the first crane I have seen so far this spring. The birds go to Florida from Michigan for the winter.

I can sense apparent aggravation coming from the crane as it shakes itself a few more times. Maybe that’s just me attaching human attributes to animals, what scientists call anthropomorphism, or maybe not.

I can understand how a sandhill crane that just spent several months in Florida is now a bit salty having arrived back in Michigan to a frost-covered breeding ground.

I continue along my way and see a ruffed grouse dead at the side of a blacktop road.

The bird looked like a ball of black, gray and white feathers, with some sense of striping or barring to the feather pattern.

At first, I wondered whether it might be an owl.

I see that the bird is lying dead just off the shoulder of the road at the edge of the blacktop. It is likely this bird had walked out from the thick underbrush nearby and stopped here at a corner in the road.

A driver heading this way from the east would see only shadows until they got right up on the bird and might have struck it and killed it before they knew what they’d just hit.

I don’t think that grouse felt anything or even had the time to react. No time either to berate itself for deciding to stand in that spot.

The river is low and flowing within its banks.

The swirls in the water look cold and like they could drag a grasshopper or a Mayfly down to a trout waiting on the bottom in no time. Lucky for those insects it is way too early for them to be appearing yet.

There is no one out here this morning on the road or on the trail covered with rusted-red, white pine needles. This is paradise.

I find my way to a small bridge along the trail and stand listening to the soft slurping and slipping noises the water makes as it flows under the bridge where I’m standing and then out the other side.

Seeing this free-flowing water and smelling the sweet cold morning air, I am dying to go trout fishing. The season opens in about a month.

The time will pass quickly I know.

I still need to dump out my fishing bag and discard the snarled-up clumps of line I either found and picked up or produced myself last season.

I also need to check my supply of hooks, sinkers, spinners and other lures.

I close my eyes and tilt my head back as far as it will go. The stretching feels good and the silence creeps into my body. The chilly air buzzes through me and makes me feel wildly alive.

Just then I hear a crow cawing loudly from a place far above me and off to my right.

I turn to see a bald eagle sitting upright and straight on a bare branch high above all these things going on down here with me.

The eagle no doubt sees me too and has likely been watching me or sharing the morning with me for several minutes without my noticing.

A couple more crows swoop in to join their friend in cawing and snapping at the bald eagle, careful not to approach too closely. They want to the eagle to know that it is not wanted in this place under any conditions by this murder of crows.

The eagle has no doubt heard this refrain before.

The sentinel continues to sit on his bare branch surveying the scene, letting the crows yammer on. At some point, as it either tires of their nagging, or has someplace else to be, the eagle drops off its perch and glides over the crispy cold river course.

The crows follow briefly but then veer off into the trees and they stop cawing.

The silence again washes over the scene with the sun now fully up above the trees at the eastern horizon, visible and warming.

I sense the feeling on my face as my right side is warmer and my left side remains cold and lit in blue shadow, like the flowing river.

I am troubled lately by a sense that things like this beautiful morning are becoming harder for me to find. I worry that one day soon they will be gone entirely.

I keep walking toward the railroad tracks. As I do, the sound of my boots pushing the gravel down make a louder than usual crunch.

Beneath the frost, much of the landscape is covered in winter rot.

Things are either gray or brown or both. In some places, the grasses remain pushed down and flattened against the ground. What snowfall we did have this past winter was enough to put them down.

There are deer tracks along this road as well as deer scat.

A few small birds, American goldfinches and the like, make their fidgety quick movements and sharp, staccato calls before ducking into the low brush.

And then they’re gone.

Still though it may be, the river keeps coming and going past me, bidding me hello and good-bye almost simultaneously.

It never seems to run out of water or wisdom. In its relative silence, it seems to know the answers to everything I want to know.

Still waters run deep and silent.

So, the river doesn’t tell me what I don’t know, but it shows me my reflection. Maybe that’s the river’s way of getting me to pause to look at myself and listen to my heart.

I don’t look young like I used to when I first came to these waters as a kid. But strangely, I still feel like that same kid somewhere inside, way back there.

I feel as though I’ve changed so much, but the river never has.

It’s always been here for me — no matter what the season or the weather. It’s very much like a friend in that way, a very close friend — the kind that doesn’t mind listening even when you’re just babbling.

Maybe the river and I are friends to each other in that sense.

I am a curious traveler, cursed by feeling I think too much and not enough all in the same moment. I need to hold myself down to not miss the quiet moments like this wonderfully enchanting morning.

This is an audience with Queen Mother Nature herself – subtle, icy and sublime.

A few minutes later, the sound of my engine sputters as I turn the key to my Jeep.

Back on my way, back on the road.

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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