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Outdoors North: Brilliance of nature appears encased in an opaque bubble

JOHN PEPIN

“Walking in the sunshine, sing a little sunshine song, put a smile upon your face as if there’s nothing wrong.” — Roger Miller

Walking out the door into a cold rain, it felt like I was wrapping a soaking wet, woolen blanket around my naked body.

The images I was recording on the film inside my mind of gray skies all around and the withered woodlands with bare, seemingly lifeless, trees immediately started to weigh me down.

I could feel my shoulders were slumped. My head was bowed as I walked.

I thought about how we humans are almost cold-blooded like snakes. We warm to the sun and shrink from the cold – our insides contracting like the meat within an acorn.

Driving down a rain-slicked highway, I thought about how the sound of car tires on a wet road may seem comforting on a hot summer day, but chilling on a day like this.

Along the lakeshore, the waves curled and crested as they broke, with the white foam moving seamlessly toward the deserted sand beach. The grayed color of the water made it seem colder and heavier than the vibrant blues of the waves of summertime.

It occurs to me again that all of this seems responsive and reptilian.

When I look at maple leaves before a rainfall, I can see how they are turned upward to the heavens, waiting. I know in seeing this that it’s going to rain soon. Might other animals watching humans be able to tell it’s going to rain if they see us with slumped shoulders and bowed heads?

Unlike reptiles, we humans can reach our fingers down to the dash boards in our vehicles to move a knob to push heated air through the vents toward us, bringing warmth and comfort.

Doing this, I know I will soon be warm.

The gulls along the lake today are dipping and diving, looking for food. They seem to be relentlessly hungry, more so than even the gluttonous grackles that visit my bird feeders in early autumn.

Fifty years ago, motorists were reporting hundreds of dead gulls along highways in the eastern Upper Peninsula. It was a phenomenon that Canadian officials said they had been seeing over the previous six years.

Scientists determined most of the immature ring-billed gulls were killed by passing vehicles. The gulls were thin and lacking body fat, and probably so weak they couldn’t avoid being hit by cars, according to an article in the Ironwood Daily Globe.

Biologists said the gull die-offs were more serious in years of large gull hatches. Soo Locks officials had reported a heavy concentration of gulls in the area that year.

I cross a bridge over the Riviere des Morts. Off to my right I see a backwater area where a couple dozen mallards are holding tight against a sheltered corner of the pool, trying to stay out of the wind.

There are a couple of other things diving out in the deeper waters. I turn off onto a side road and park. I get out to see what these diving birds might be.

As I try to get closer to the rim of the backwater, I walk through wet marsh grasses that get progressively deeper with water. I am wearing my knee boots and the water approaches the tops.

I stop and look to the water seeing that these weren’t diving ducks at all, but rather, a group of three river otters. One of them hoists itself up in the water, craning its neck to get a better look at me, partially obscured by the branches of a tree.

The otter snorts and dives under the water. Not far away, it resurfaces again. Another head bobs up nearby and then a third. The playful nature of these slick specimens was obvious as they watched me while going about their morning business.

One otter floated for a short distance on its back. Another snaked its body in an undulating way, moving effortlessly, looking like a copper belly sliding through the grass.

The otters enjoyed playing a type of visual hide-and-seek game with me. Diving under the water here and then popping up there, looking at me huffing out breaths and then going back under.

River otters are animals on the return in the Great Lakes Region. Their numbers were impacted negatively by fur trapping and water pollution. I’ve seen river otters on a few occasions, but any day I can see one I count as good.

Probably the first time I ever saw a river otter was at the old Shiras Park Zoo on Presque Isle in Marquette. Back in those days of kiddom, I could have stood in front of those cages all day long watching the black bears and the otters play.

I also watched a pair of otter surface amid a rapid where I had casted my fishing lure one spring afternoon. I reeled in quickly to be sure neither of the otters would go after the flashing silver blade on the lure and be accidentally hooked.

A buddy of mine saw one come up briefly in a creek we were fishing a season or two back. I had also seen some here and there over the years.

These three might have been the residents of a den nearby. I watched them return several times to an area along the far bank of the backwater where they would disappear beneath the surface of the water for a minute or two and then return.

As they tired of our game of hide and seek, they drifted farther out into the water, away from the shoreline where I stood. I moved to a rock closer to them. I laid across its wide, flat surface with my head toward the water.

Seeing me do this, the whole game of hide-and-seek began again in earnest. The otters swam toward me. Their curiosity was consuming.

These watery acrobats had made my day. Just seeing them had made me feel an excitement I hadn’t experienced in a while.

There’s another thing about human perception that’s weird to me.

I can walk outside on one day and it will remind me of another day when something I still recall, for whatever reason, occurred.

Now that something doesn’t have to be a big life-changing event. It could be very tiny, like seeing a group of sunning butterflies or grasshoppers along a lake edge or spring peepers and their deafening chorus I listened to from the foot of a marsh.

There is something in the dampness or the dryness of the air, the cool breezes, the warm summer sun, the dampness of the dew or the crashing thunder and lightning of a developing downpour.

I think that when memorable events happen our minds make an imprint of whatever is occurring to aid in remembering later. It’s all those little things like light and temperature, sun angle, grass height and color, wind strength and direction.

Sometimes just the hint of the perfume of wildflowers blooming can send my mind tripping back immediately to a specific time and place. These little instances number in the thousands, maybe millions, but they are all recorded somewhere up there.

I returned the following day to search for the otters again. This time, they were nowhere to be found. Instead, I saw a mallard hen with a plastic six-pack holder stuck over her head.

She struggled trying to get it off. If she had approached close enough, I planned to grab it and cut it loose. However, a moment or two after I’d considered this she took off into the air, flying overhead.

This scene reminded me of a gull I saw snagged in fishing line once while I was out fishing. I waded out to the bird and cut the line, setting the bird free. I also saw a robin once that had drowned in a river after having been tangled in fishing line.

These hazy pandemic days can make even the dazzling brilliance of nature appear encased in an opaque bubble, tough to view and experience clearly.

The otters somehow were able to break through to touch me directly. I’ll hope to see them in the days ahead, when the rain is falling again, and my wet woolen blanket begins to itch my skin.

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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