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Outdoors North: Headed upstream

JOHN PEPIN

“Seasons of wither holdin’ me in,” – Jim Vallance

With the rain dripping down in drops barely large enough to splash in the water that had pooled before me, I walked out barefoot across the grass.

The soil was muddy and cold to the touch. I like walking outside without shoes and socks, even in the wintertime. I feel closer to the earth doing it and it allows me to sense things in ways I couldn’t experience otherwise.

This cold I was feeling now was a dense and direct cold and wet that sunk straight into my bones. Much colder by a noticeable measure than some of the winter snows.

The grass was green, but I could tell it was last year’s worn out and dull autumn grasses, not the fresh vibrant greens of springtime and summer. It was flat from being beneath the snow cover and combed over in misshapen fashion.

This was no golf course grass.

The air smelled clean and damp, like a springtime rain shower should.

The dead leaves of last autumn had finally been released from the snow that had pinned them down to the ground over the past few months. They were now free to float and fly, tossed up from the ground on the spirited winds.

I watched a withered oak leaf blow around in several circle turns before coming to rest face down in a lull of the breeze. Other leaves were still far too wet to fly, while countless others remained still covered in the white, now crystallized snow.

There were holes poked into the mud. At first, I thought they had been made by worms coming up to the surface. But the openings were too wide. This looked more like holes poked by the bill of a bird, likely a raven.

I’ve seen no woodcocks or flickers yet. Otherwise, they could be candidates too. I have seen or heard a few new arrivals over the past week, including Canada geese, common grackles and robins.

It will still be several weeks until the May peak of bird migration arrives. At that time, I will stand outside at night and listen to hear flocks of birds chipping and twittering as they fly overhead.

I see the rock garden now uncovered, along with flower beds elsewhere in the yard. I recall the seeds and bulbs planted last fall. It won’t be too long before a colorful showy burst of beauty should be there to enjoy.

I think it’s helpful for me to experience this springtime outdoors after the long winter and year dogged by the coronavirus. On both fronts, it seems as though things are improving gradually, day by day.

It’s kind of like a visual representation of what I am sensing, thinking and feeling inside. There are daffodil shoots sticking up from the black, muddy soil. They have shot up almost two inches so far.

As I walk, I see other plants that have been flattened by the snow and ice now looking like they are covered in fur, but rather, it’s a type of mold. The snow and wet grass make the bottom of the pant legs on my jeans wet.

I see a doe and two yearlings that I had been encountering intermittently throughout the winter almost every day now. There they are again on the little hillside up ahead of me. They have been joined by another.

This one looks like another younger deer. Its gait is kind of jumpy and playful, reminding me of a young and rambunctious child – antsy and rested, ready to explore just about anything. What’s in here?

I hope to soon have more time to walk up into the forest and the bluffs looking for the owls I hear at night. I want to perhaps find their nests or young before the leaves pop out too far.

Trees will be marked with whitewash and the ground below covered with scattered pellets regurgitated by the owls. These pellets contain the bones of mice and other creatures devoured, but not digested, by the owls.

Speaking of night creatures, I walk along a row of cedar trees to check the birdhouses for anything that might be taking up residence or finding a temporary place to roost for the day.

I tapped on the wooden bluebird box lightly with one of my fingers. No sound. I removed the lock from the door. As I slowly lifted the door up, I could see there was something inside the box.

Sometimes I find dead leaves, bark and other roosting material from mice. This wasn’t the case today. With its beautiful dark eyes, a flying squirrel looked back to me. So sweet and small.

These are wonderful creatures. Thinking back to how I had seen one glide through another part of the yard late one night, months ago, I closed the birdhouse door and went into the house to get my camera.

When photographing these animals at night, it’s hard not to do it without a flash, which typically causes a gold- or red-eye flashback effect. Here in the daytime, that wouldn’t be a concern.

I returned to the bird box and found the squirrel still curled up, resting inside. I left the door open and took several pictures. The squirrel didn’t make a sound. It just sat there looking at me.

I softly closed the door and left. I checked a second birdhouse and found nothing inside, which is often the case. The following day, I would check the birdhouses again. The flying squirrel would not be there.

What a cool experience. I don’t really recall flying squirrels from my youth at all. I don’t think I ever had the good fortune to see one back then.

Like the very late fall, once all the leaves have dropped and before the winter snow comes down, the very early spring can bring a dead look to the landscape. A season of wither, waiting for rebirth.

Both seasons also hold a wonderful smell to the air, though each is quite different.

The fall is a warm and fragrant, heady aroma that makes me remember playing in leaf piles as a kid, trick or treating and eating caramel-covered apples.

The smell of springtime, especially at this early stage, is not one of June lilacs, but of an exciting sniff of rain and recovery. I feel like I can almost hear the plants growing underground, racing toward the surface to find the sunlight above.

I love these early explorations, even if they are only around the yard. They show me clues as to what lies ahead as well as the toll winter has taken. It’s an exciting time to look forward to warmth and summer beach winds blowing soft and cool.

A big group of common redpolls, maybe about 60 or so, drifts down on the yard. They quickly begin walking around, probing the grass for seeds. They are undoubtedly storing up energy reserves for their migration trip north.

These little birds, smaller than a chickadee, that spend winters here will fly all the way north to the tip-top of the Northwest Territories to summer. With their little black “beards” and red caps that resemble a beret, these fine fellows remind me of Frenchmen.

I saw a river otter poke its head up from a hole in the ice on the lake awhile back. The spring rains have created puddles over the lake ice now. It won’t be long before it softens enough to fail and crack severely.

I walk a little farther and the snow crunches beneath my feet. Then, there’s another opening to the bare ground in front of me. Here, there’s more evidence of the violent storms of fall and winter past.

Scattered pine needles, torn fronds from cedar trees and tree bark and twigs. I think about these relics as I turn back around. The needles are soft beneath my feet, the branches coarse and brittle.

My mind is like a whirling wheel, spinning and twirling fast over all kinds of things, but not stopping on anything. Rolling and wondering, where and what and how and why and when?

One day, all of this will be over my shoulder and back upstream. Gone.

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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