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First snow of season portends what’s ahead

John Pepin

“Scarecrow on a wooden cross, blackbird in the barn.” — John Mellencamp

The first sound I heard after I slipped outside the back door that morning was the croaking squawk of an old raven.

He sounded upset about the cold and the snow.

I couldn’t blame him.

It wasn’t even mid-October and the ground was white with fresh snow, the temperature floating a few degrees below freezing.

I inspected some deer tracks that crisscrossed the yard heading back and forth from the woods to the apple trees. There the pink blush on the inchworm-green fruit lay under a thick cover of snow.

I had decided to get up early on this chilly Sunday morning to see the sun, which would soon be pulling itself up into the sky. I planned to head for the lake to hopefully get some pictures of the sunlight bathing the snow-covered hills and the still fiery and glowing leaves on the autumn trees.

Somebody woke the chickadees and the blue jays. They were now making repeated flights to and from the suet and sunflower seed feeders in the yard.

A couple of the jays were pushing their bills through the snow, burying some of the seeds in the soft earth beneath the grass.

The light was still too dusky to get any decent photos around the yard. I decided to leave to get into position for the real show, which was set to start soon.

Heading down the road, I noticed quite a few cars moving in the opposite direction.

It was early.

I wondered if those folks were headed to church, just like I was.

After a short ride, I pulled the car off into the snow-covered dirt at the side of the road.

The winds from the night and afternoon before had brought down more than the snow. Fawn-colored pine needles littered the ancient black rocks below, along with red sugar maple leaves and an assortment of other varieties that had all been pulled from their branches.

Cold water puddled over the gigantic boulders a few feet above the lakeshore. I moved carefully down the path, watching my head for pine boughs that hung over the trail, weighed down with snow.

I also watched my footing. The wet snow wasn’t too deep, but it was deep enough for slipping. From here it might be a clear tumble down the trail, over the rocky ledge and into the freezing water.

No thanks.

Standing at the water’s edge, I looked up to the tremendous mighty boulders that rose above me. I shivered thinking about how cold it would be to put my cheek against any of those rock faces.

From my spot here, I could see out to an island where the sun was starting to hit the tops of the trees. It was like a predictable sort of fantastic magic.

Plenty of dark shadows were lingering, putting an ice blue tint on the white of the snow, while those treetops were on fire in the sun. The leaves seemed to be exploding with color.

After taking a few more pictures, I climbed up to the top of the rocks to “the wishing place.” From here, the view was incredible.

Under the big white pines and clearing skies, atop those gargantuan gray boulders, looking out over the still, calm waters of the lake, nature’s cathedral welcomed me.

I spent a few moments taking in as much of the scene and the silence as I could. I was awestruck by all of this.

Lights shone back from the road from a passing car that rounded a corner along the lakeshore. A few minutes later, I would be walking down the same road, getting to a vantage point to take more photos of the snow-covered countryside.

With these fabulous views in the morning sunlight, and as many as I cared to take deep breaths of cold, clean air available, my heart was soaring.

I felt like I could fly clear over the lake.

My boots clicked on the blacktop as I walked down the road with my camera.

A couple drivers in passing cars gave me an index finger wave off the steering wheel as I nodded back. I acknowledged a couple few more with a smile, a wave or a nod. Some returned the convention, others didn’t.

I didn’t mind either way.

A raft of diving ducks sputtered and splashed across the water as they took a long run to take off into the sky. A kinglet buzzed in the bushes and I recognized the sound of a robin from the trees across the road.

Back at the car, I caught a glimpse of my early morning reflection in the window glass on the driver’s side. I smiled at the hair-tossed and disheveled scarecrow peering back at me.

He smiled too, thinking, “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” I smirked. “Nothing at all.”

Driving to the next stopping place, I saw more ducks on the water and a couple of hunters stopped to walk down the wet-leaf- and snow-covered roads looking for grouse or headed to a deer blind.

A pickup truck parked in a gravel lot looked like it had been there overnight. I wondered if someone had fallen asleep across the front seat.

I turned my Jeep around at the edge of the lot.

Back on the road, I stopped shortly after I again approached the lakeshore. I noticed a young trumpeter swan, paddling slowly out away from the water’s edge.

Its black feet moved mechanically, like it was one of those rubber-band wind-up toy boats, chugging in slow-motion.

The elegant bird glided smoothly away.

By now, the sun had risen a good deal farther into the sky. The wind was starting to toss and swirl the water atop the lake.

I was running out of time for good light and good photos.

I took one last side trip down a gravel road to the turtle pond and a sweeping wetland where muskrats, beavers and bitterns had been active all summer long. With the snow-covered tree branches hanging down, this road looked like a pretty Christmas card.

Approaching the turtle pond, I noticed someone had unplugged, or reinstalled, a culvert under the gravel road, which had drained away the water. The logs turtles had liked to perch on were sitting in mud at the bottom of the pond.

The change was shocking to see.

I took a few more pictures at the wetland area where more puddles covered the road, reflecting the sky. The dreamy, winterlike cloud shapes — lavender blue and gray and in streaks and smears — helped produce a few nice photos, along with a scorching red maple that jumped like flames out of the mostly brown and yellow backdrop.

I took a few more of those big deep breaths of the clean, fresh air.

It seems to me there is something very special in that opportunity that isn’t matched during any other time of the year, kind of like Halloween.

I know the sweet smell of the air is involved, but I think it’s also how the air feels inside of me and its coolness, not cold and wintry enough yet to take your breath away.

Falling, tumbling leaves — that looked like tossed playing cards — knocked snow from the branches as they fell.

On the ride back, melting snow from the trees and the highlines was landing in the water at the lake. By the time I got home, water was dripping and running off the rooflines.

I closed my eyes and listened. It sounded like summer rain.

I walked around the corner of the house in the still cold morning, the sky beginning to cloud over.

My heart was still soaring, dreaming.

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.