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Outdoors North

Drifting with current a renewing pursuit

John Pepin

“It’s shining brightly, it’s looking pretty right, from early morning to real, real late at night.” — Bob Seger

As easy as a melody, our little raft floated across the top of the water, pushed gently onward by a warm summer breeze. There was no need to paddle, only to drift and to coast.

No need for a jacket, not even a windbreaker, sunshine warming my face.

Light puffs of smoke rolled out over the water and drifted in our direction from a dying breakfast campfire onshore. A man and his dog had spent the night here in a camper, the man’s canoe tied up along the shore of this small inland lake, not far from where we had put in.

In the blue sky above the trees, a bald eagle stood out starkly from the azure backdrop, its dark brown-black wings outstretched flat, its white tail and head shining brightly.

I thought about how when I was a kid, if you told someone you had seen a bald eagle, they likely wouldn’t have believed you. Today, they are a common and welcome sight.

We had hit this just right.

The day was heavenly, with so much warmth everywhere, but without the smothering high humidity that can easily wear down the resolve and good intentions of just about anybody, especially on a Saturday afternoon.

Nuthatches beeped softly from the trees just up off the shore. Beyond that, there was no sound at all, except for the occasional gentle slurping noise as one of us would slide a paddle into the water to turn the raft away from the bank.

It would have been easy to lay back and drift off to sleep, letting the wind tap the boat from one side of the lake to the other, but we were ostensibly here to do some fishing.

The fish had other ideas.

I imagined they wanted to stay down lazing in the cool recesses at the bottom of the lake where they could spend the afternoon away from baited fishing hooks or shiny, whirling lures.

We floated without a bite for more than an hour before deciding to head to someplace else. It wasn’t long before we ourselves unloading the raft at another lake.

We followed a trail through the woods and clouds of hungry mosquitoes. At the shoreline, red and brown pine needles covering the ground obscured our view of a deep mixture of foot-deep mud and water.

This made boarding the raft a little trickier than expected.

The Queen of Shebis almost went over the top of her boots, while I slipped a bit and could have gone into the boat or into the water. As luck would have it, I rolled into the raft dry as a dust bunny.

After we pushed offshore and swatted the remaining mosquitoes that had followed us out into deeper water, the bugs disappeared.

This was another beautiful place to be, through the shoreline here was more jagged and raggedly shaped, with little bays and islands that were covered with sundews, cranberries and other wet place plants.

As we paddled for the far shore, I pointed out a bank of what looked possibly like rain clouds bubbling up off the horizon over the tops of the trees. If it did come pouring down and strike lightning, we could easily reach the shore if need be.

The water here was clear and deep and colder than at the last lake.

By now, the afternoon was getting on toward supper time.

One of my first casts of a baited hook resulted three little knocks on my line. The next cast produced a nice-sized brook trout.

“OK, it’s your turn now,” I told the Shebis.

She cast her line in the same general area where I had just got my fish.

It wasn’t long at all before she had a fish on her line, battling it back to the side of the raft. So beautiful.

I watched the trout shimmer in the sunlight as it rolled on its side a few feet away from my outstretched arm. I was waiting to grab the line and pull the fish into the boat. The Shebis let the fish swim to tire it out.

As I reached again to grab the line, something dark and wide came up from under the boat toward the fish. Reacting, I grabbed the line and pulled the fish toward me, which took the trout out of the biting range of a large, and very hungry, snapping turtle.

Wow. This was another thing I had never seen before.

While the fish flipped over and back on the floor of the raft, the snapping turtle calmly floated on top of the water just a foot or so away from us.

As we continued to fish, the turtle stayed close enough to touch. It seemed curious, as though we were the first humans it had ever seen. The turtle, whose shell was about 15 inches across, swam under the boat back and forth, and from stem to stern.

At one point, the turtle raised its head out of the water, opened its mouth and hissed. A painted turtle, much smaller in size, used the occasion to prop its front legs on the back of the snapper to get a look at us too.

After a moment or two, the painted turtle swam off and the snapping turtle followed, its mouth opened wide. The painted turtle pushed its right front arm out toward the snapping turtle, swimming sideways away toward the shore, escaping.

This turtle was hungry.

The sun was starting to sink down toward the horizon, but we still had time to put another couple of trout into the boat. At home their red-orange meat would sizzle on the grill, looking and tasting more like salmon that trout.

With shadows fallen among the trees, an evening flute concert began, with ethereal hermit thrush songs echoing through the woodlands. A kingfisher rattled loudly from across the lake, sounding like something was urgent.

Before we turned the boat back toward the opposite side of the lake, we discovered we were being flanked by at least two big snapping turtles. On one of my last casts, I felt a big tug on my bait from below.

I reeled up what felt like a log to find my hook caught in the mouth of one of the big turtles. The turtle toward my side of the boat as we dug in my fishing bag to get something to release the hook.

The turtle used its big curled claws to free the hook, which then became lodged between a couple of the claws. I cut the line and the turtle slowly dropped below the surface of the water, out of sight.

By the time we had made it back through the mosquitoes to the vehicle, we had been bitten up bad, but we didn’t care. It had been a fabulous day, the kind you dream about all winter long.

We stopped at an old moose pond on the way home and found instead a family of trumpeter swans — two adults and two cygnets — riding on the water. They allowed a few photos, as did a stand of purple flowers, which were positioned delightfully in the setting sunlight.

If there are no more sweet summer days for the rest of the season, that’s OK with me. This day we had would be difficult to top and is bound to stay with me for not only the days and weeks ahead, but likely, many summers to come.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 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. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.