Outdoors North: Nature has so much to offer us
“Adios to all this concrete, gonna get me some dirt road backstreets,” – Guy Clark
The early afternoon was bright and warm, though gray clouds were scratching at the corners of the blue, trying to gain a hold to pull themselves over it all.
I left the crumbling obelisk head shafts, twisted and still-locked gates and the rusted rails of the old mining town behind for some country I hadn’t seen in a while.
I was looking for some waterfront property where I could stretch my legs and let the surrounding cedar and hemlock forests envelope me whole.
My drive would take me first along the rolling-wave, sandy shores and spray of the big lake, whose colors varied from gray to azure to silvery white. Then past a few of the tiny locales, where lodges, riverfront homes and canoe liveries flourished.
South and then east and then east some more. I rolled out past the magnificent swamp with its tamarack sentinels, billowing marsh grass, acrid backwaters and peat bogs.
The traffic had a post-Labor Day feel to it, with more service trucks, school buses and semis on the road than vehicles weighed down with camping, biking and kayaking gear. Sure, there was some of that, but it was mostly headed south.
Nature’s calendar had turned another corner toward the brilliance and beauty of autumn.
Bracken ferns in some places still stood tall and green, while in others, the lush summer appearance of these keepsakes of Upper Peninsula forests had faded, browned and bent down, waiting for their final rest beneath the snows of the wintertime ahead.
As is always the case with early fall, the leaves of some trees stressed by disease or drought or too much water tend to turn color prematurely. I saw this in the middle of August in a streamside wetland where the waters had risen far beyond their usual height.
But beyond these early birds – first to turn, first to tumble and wither – there has been a soft drumbeat of autumn growing louder in the north woods that has produced some authentic fall color in its early stages.
I could see some of that today too as I sped along the highway noticing flashes of oranges and yellows mixed in with some sugary reds amid the still predominant greens.
After I’d driven for a good while, I turned to the north to head toward the big lake again, but this time, I’d never reach it. I turned off into the woods within the heart of a tremendous river valley – a watershed draining nearly 800 square miles.
The river was wide and fast, heading a length of nearly 90 miles before dumping into the Big Lake in a slow, though deliberate flow.
Soon after, I noticed the skies that had been increasingly clouded the farther I drove, got especially dark. I heard a tremendous roll of thunder shudder across the sky, followed by another and then another.
The rain wasn’t far behind. This was a summertime kind of downpour, the type that seems to only happen only on warm days and nights. These storms can be violent and sharp but often also pass quickly.
I sat listening, enjoying the symphony. The rainstorm even included brief moments when hailstones bounced in the grass. There must have been lightning flashing, but I didn’t see it.
This was indeed one of those summer storms that rumbled away in just a few minutes, chased by the afternoon sunshine not ready to yet concede the day.
The trees were glistening and wet, and a rainbow arched into the sky to the south. In a short while, I found myself walking along a trail where the sounds of the river drowned out the discord of thoughts in my head.
So mighty was the flow over ancient rocks and smoothed boulders, that a mist rose from the water that dissipated in the air the higher it got. The trees were close to me on both sides of the trail.
In some places, a boardwalk helped lift the trail up off the forest floor, preserving a route for me and others to follow. A downy woodpecker sat closely nearby. In a slower flow of the river, behind the shadow of some river rocks, a great blue heron stood stalking prey.
Blooming jewelweed hung in attractive clumps just beyond the boardwalk, with flowers the color and size of mandarin orange slices.
The rain had left fog over the river that neither rose nor fell, but just hung. The sound produced by the rushing waters belied the relatively shallow depth. The river roared on this day as it had in the time of Hiawatha.
I tried to hang my blues over a wooden boardwalk rail. I stood for a while letting my heart float and drift over the open waters of the river. There’s a Chopin nocturne in my ear. I enjoy the change of scenery.
Sometimes, I can’t decide whether to revisit familiar places I dearly love or strike out for new or more seldom visited places where it might cost me more to get there. Most often, the trip to these latter destinations is worth the effort.
Today, it just feels better for me to be away from the familiarity that haunts the streets, sidewalks and even forest pathways of places close to home.
I wonder what is going to happen tomorrow, if the good Lord’s willing and the creeks don’t rise? With the tremendous storm that ripped across this part of the world today, I think the river here is bound to rise.
The plodding piano of the Chopin nocturne walks me up a stairway on the backside of my mind, eventually up and over and down to a place where I can sit quietly on a wooden landing with plenty of room to dole out my thoughts like playing cards.
I don’t feel as though I want to show my hearts, I’ll keep them close to my vest if I’m wise. Clubs and spades you can always turn up and diamonds are hard to come by.
On the far side of the river, a disconnected trail disappears around a muddy bend on an island within the whitewater braids of the churning rapids. I wonder about the notions acting on me at any given time, leading me to places of contemplation like this.
I am drawn, like the mosquitoes and the lily pads, to places where the water moves slower, where I can rest, but still hear and feel the moving waters nearby.
After a while, I begin to walk back the way I came, past the place where the heron still stands.
The world feels like a warped marble, spinning off-kilter, about to go sideways and roll off the table. From there, maybe across the floor to the head of the stairs and then over, like the waters here tumble over the rocks.
For me, it seems harder to find things that make sense these days.
The last chord of that nocturne rings out into the hollows of my brain and slowly subsides, dropping down into my consciousness. Resting on the bottom, it waits for another tune to float down, like a leaf freed and tossed by the wind.
I feel the air cooling as I walk. It’s damp, just like the wooden planks of this boardwalk, the overhanging branches above me and the sands turned to mud along the shores of this riverbank.
I’ve come to realize that for all its beauty and splendor, nature has so much more to offer. Topping that list would be the power to heal and the ability to help a human being sort through the fog as they walk.
I move on silently. No birds sing. They likely know the water’s song would drown them out anyway. In a little while, I’ll be heading back down the wet pavement toward home.
The trip and travel has again been worth it.
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.