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On an isolated island surrounded by ice

John Pepin

“On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow, I am a rock, I am an island,” — Paul Simon

The moon was bright, casting blue light across the sparkling snow and down through the frozen trees. I could almost hear those trees groaning as they bent with the wind, out there in the freezing-cold nighttime.

Under one of the apple trees, a big doe pawed at the ground.

There had been plenty of apples underneath the spread of that old tree not that long ago. I had gone to the tree myself and shook some of the frozen red and yellow fruit down from the heaving, arched branches.

Tracks in the snow — crisscrossed in paths like roads on a map — told me this wasn’t the only deer to have visited the deep blue nighttime shade under those trees. The apples were nearly all gone.

I watched the doe pick up one apple in her mouth and, lifting her head back, move it around between her teeth, like a dog does with a tennis ball.

I could see her taking extra bites — once she got it positioned to her liking — to break up what was undoubtedly a frozen piece of fruit.

At first, she looked big enough to be a buck. But when I shone the beam of my flashlight at her, I could see she wasn’t. She pulled her big head back up into the understory of the tree to shield her eyes from the light.

Watching the deer, especially in the quiet and late nighttime or early morning hours, brings me calm and peacefulness. The deer are patient listeners that truly seem to be interested in hearing my human voice and the words I say.

They usually stop whatever they are doing — whether eating, loping, walking or licking each other — to look and listen. They have become accustomed to me and my voice and don’t dash away when they see or hear me.

Often after stumbling sleepily to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I will stop on my way back to bed to see what’s happening “out there.” I have parted the curtains to find all kinds of delights beyond the window glass — from meteors and harvest moons to flocks of birds and swaying trees, dancing in the moonlight.

This morning, it was quite early — still dark and so cold — when I looked out back. Another doe, maybe the same one, was walking across the snow-covered grass, close to the patio.

The next afternoon, I saw what I believed was her and a yearling deer making their way from the hardwoods out to the apple trees, looking for fruit they might have missed in the darkness of the night before.

The young deer left drag marks in the snow from her hooves as she walked tentatively behind her mother.

It seems like a strange time of the season to be so caught up in cold and snow already, only halfway through November. I know it’s happened before and it will again, but for some reason, this year seems different.

It seems so sudden and so definitively wintry — like February.

A drive down the road from the house left me surprised to find a good portion of the lake already frozen over. Where there was a pool of open water remaining, a trumpeter swan sat on the ice, curled up with its head under its wing.

Hearing me approach, the big white bird slipped softly into the chilly waters and glided around over the small expanse of open water. The swan “honked” like a goose at me a couple of times, as if to say, “It’s damned cold, isn’t it?”

The big wetland, the turtle pond and a couple of the nearby inland lakes were all froze over already. I couldn’t believe it.

As I drove along the turns and twists, the water on one side of the road was covered in ice and snow. There was deeper, open water on the other side.

This water seemed thick and slow, as though it had been infused with glycerin, as it rolled up on the shoreline. A few helldivers were still here, popping up and down out on the water, but like the summer swans, their numbers were dwindling too as the ice, snow and cold continue to gain strength.

With dark gray clouds boiling overhead, I headed home. I saw a spike-horn standing in the middle of the bridge over the river. He stood his ground as I approached before bolting suddenly for the side of the road, his back legs slipping and skidding on the ice.

I pulled to the side of the road, stopped and rolled the car window down.

When I said, “Hey, buddy,” the deer stopped, turned and looked at me.

“How are you doing?”

He was a beautiful animal to see. I knew a lot of deer hunters — guys with empty freezers — would soon be looking for him.

I rolled slowly away while the deer continued standing there.

Back at home, mice, chipmunks and squirrels seemed caught out late, furiously still gathering whatever they could find to store up for winter. A fat-faced chipmunk — his mouth packed with sunflower seeds from the bird feeders — paused only briefly as he approached along the sidewalk to within inches of where I sat on the steps.

He skirted past me in fleeting fashion but was close enough I could have picked him up. In the garage, a little gray mouse had been snapped in one of the traps. In the gardening shed, something had gotten in through a door left ajar and ripped open a bag of wood chips, tumbling them to the floor.

I watched a brown creeper land at the base of one of the maple trees before it spiraled its way up around the trunk to reach a suet cage.

While filling the bird feeders, I extended a spoonful of peanut butter toward a red-breasted nuthatch who seemed happy to lean down toward me from an overhanging branch to nibble up some of the soft, chunky goodness.

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing.

It wasn’t long before the darkness was descending again, spreading its ice-blue cloak over the landscape. I cracked an icicle off the roofline of the house. When the ice hit the cement and shattered, the noise spooked a deer from the gathering shadows.

He or she kicked their back legs out and raised their white tail flag, leaping forward across the lawn and into the trees, disappearing into the dark.

On this day, I’ve kind of felt like I’ve been on an island, with freezing water all around. Isolated in my warm clothes from the bite of the winter chill, protected from the slithering winds that came raging out of the north like a twisted mass of angry snakes, falling out of a burlap bag.

I feel integrally connected and, at the same time, broken up and broken away, unable to put my finger on the source of this sensation of being here and gone at the same time — maybe like the lingering swan or the helldivers.

The cold wind slipping through my hair reminds me that I find the winter exhilarating.

I shake some more apples down from the trees, hearing the intermittent thud noises as they land unevenly. The moon is rising, tired and slow.

Other than the snake-bag winds, the night is quiet.

I walk toward the house, appearing in silhouette to the unseen eyes of the deer waiting cautiously in the blue-shadowed woodlands.

I join these splendid and hearty souls, a little ragged, resigned to nature’s course.

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.