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Outdoors North: Standing by peaceful waters

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“And thus, the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway, became known forever as Lake Marie,” – John Prine

The holiday time of year – though traditionally filled with joyous gatherings and jovial revelry – is one of those annual periods when I look most for the peace and reflection that only nature can provide.

My body, mind and soul seem to exhibit only a mild tolerance for the boisterous merriment of the holidays. I think that I may have always felt this way.

I don’t mind joining in, sharing time, food, conversation and love with family and friends, but after a while, I find myself feeling fidgety – like the wolfman at the appearance of a full moon.

My mind slips out of conversations and my thoughts drift to big, deep pools of nothingness. My thinking, feeling and being all swirl together like spilled blueberry yogurt and milk on a not-too-recently-swept kitchen floor.

I think it may have something to do with good numbers of people gathered into relatively small, warmed spaces, the heavy feeling of having eaten too much or the aural blocking effect of several conversations taking place at the same time.

Maybe a combination of these things.

Or, perhaps most accurately, it is just me.

I’ve never been much for crowds. I favor small group gatherings, landscape-sized open spaces and quiet places to think and listen.

I feel my attention drawn across crowded rooms to windows that are letting in light and the hopeful promise of chilly, fresh air out there to breathe – beyond the glass, the wooden frames and the storm windows.

I sometimes glimpse small birds or a deer out there. Their presence seems to beckon me outdoors to the soft sounds of the winds or the gentle falling of snow.

Those images invigorate me. I want to walk, to breathe deeply and absorb. To explore those natural spaces full of life and mystery.

It feels more natural to be outdoors.

Even when I am home alone, I find myself taking at least short jaunts outdoors to feel and smell the air, see what the stars are doing, feel the rain falling, walk barefoot in the cold snow or to listen for whatever there is to hear out there.

It’s surprising the number of cool experiences I’ve had just doing that – taking these short little trips outside the back door or the front door or even walking out to the mailbox and back.

A few days ago, I found myself along the sandy shore of a beautiful shallow lake I had never seen before. My mind was racing as I took in the sight.

I arrived there having wound through many miles of picturesque countryside comprised mostly of national forest lands, with tall trees and twisting waterways dominating the landscape.

In between were small towns, with old streets and buildings and few residents outdoors on this sunny afternoon.

The deer hunters were gone from these places. They were in the woods. I’d passed by many of them getting out of, or into, vehicles parked at the heads of muddy two-tracked forest roads.

I saw a father and son, dressed in blaze-orange pants and jackets, walking side-by side through the browned slumped grasses along the road with their rifles resting on their shoulders.

I waved and smiled. The dad did the same.

Miles down the road, I had arrived at this lake. A sign telling me the name made me wonder if it had come from a woman or a man, and whether it was their first or last name.

I had stopped here to heed the call of nature. So, my discovery of this place was by mere happenstance.

Standing along the shore, I was immediately swept up in the alluring sight in front of me. It was like looking into a wonderful impressionist painting. There was color and light everywhere.

The sky seemed to go on forever above the glistening surface of the water, which was covered along the edges by a thin layer of ice. I startled a merganser than began a spattering take off across the lake.

The water wasn’t deep. As I looked out farther, it seemed as though I could maybe walk all the way across at a depth below knee-level. Of course, that wasn’t true. But as lakes go, this one was on the shallower side.

An eagle flapped into view out a good distance offshore. Then another, and another and another. This was a perfect place for them. The rim of the lake was adorned with tall, sturdy pines.

From these treetops and branches, the eagles could watch the shallow lake for flashes of northern pike and panfish that inhabit these waters, or on a day like today, the ducks and geese that floated in big rafts atop the surface.

The shoreline here was dotted with small deserted campsites and was quite irregular with numerous bays and small peninsulas. A map would later reveal that this lake was instead two lakes connected by a wide waterway.

The second lake was named certainly for woman or a girl.

In fact, these two lakes were connected to several others to the north, each of which was connected again by small unnamed waterways.

I got back in the car and moved down a road that led farther down the lakeshore. I stopped and got out again. At a marked swimming beach, I was closer to the waterfowl out on the lake, but still not close enough to make out what they were exactly without binoculars, which I didn’t have with me.

The eagles continued their long, low glides over the top of these birds and the water. There were adult eagles, as well as juveniles that had not yet aged enough to transition into the signature white head and tail plumage.

Not far away, the highway department had constructed a scenic overlook. Pulling in, there were a couple of eagles perched in a big white pine that sat down a steep slope, just before the water.

One of the eagles, a juvenile, was eating something – no doubt fish or fowl.

I felt a great peace at this place. Within a matter of just a few minutes, I knew that I wanted to return here, most ideally to camp and become better acquainted with these surroundings.

On a circular path, I didn’t go past the lake on the route home. I kept riding until well after sundown, passing more small towns – some with downtown streets lined with quaint shops, eateries and old gas stations.

As darkness fell, one hunter at the side of the road emerged from the underbrush with a lit flashlight, finding his way out of the woods for the night.

A few miles down the road, just before I was to cross over a river bridge, a big, probable 10-point, buck danced into the light from my headlights, clicking its hooves on the blacktop and then ducking head down into the woods.

It would be another couple of hours of driving, before I would arrive back within the shadows of the old, Egyptian-styled mine shafts and darkened streets of my own small town.

This had been a wonderful day, one that might easily have been spent at home resting after a busy work week. I was happy I had instead decided to get myself up off the couch to get outdoors to explore.

I plan to keep the lesson of today in mind when the holiday walls start closing in around me. I will make sure I get outside.

This time of the year often brings a lot of hope and happiness to many people, but disappointment, suffering, loss and emptiness to many others.

It is these latter folks that I will keep in my thoughts most during these weeks ahead, taking them with me in spirit as I walk among temples of nature.

There, within the knowledge and wisdom of the forests, I will hope for an easing of their troubles. I will send up prayers for better days ahead.

In doing so, I have no doubt my own concerns will diminish, gradually shrinking and ultimately disappearing, like a sparrow flying away from me into the depths of a snowy forest.

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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