Outdoors North: Some of the best memories are in nature
“Whispers of my heart, in the tracks of animals, I will leave my footprints there to lie beneath the snow,” – Gordon Lightfoot
Ducking under the branches of a few young maples, we made our way through the undergrowth, along a trail stamped into the leaves and dirt by white-tailed deer.
There were wild turkey tracks here too. This animal pathway had been here a long time. My guess is it linked animals from the woods with a way to reach cold sips of water not far away at the shoreline of a placid lake.
Today the lake was especially still — half frozen over in a thin coating of ice, the rest was patches of deep azure that reflected not only the blue, but also the white-gray billowy clouds of the sky above.
This walk was an informal reconnaissance, just an opportunity to get outside for some fresh air and to see what might be out there.
The deer trail didn’t go far before it intersected a two-track woods road that had also undoubtedly been there for many years. It cut from an opening up through this northern hardwood forest and snaked west around a bend and beyond.
I led our small group of four souls searching for a glimpse of something beyond the everyday sights and sounds. Our intrepid band included the Queen of Shebis, Uncle Baby and the Southern Belle.
The air was cold and brisk, with the temperature dropping now on this late afternoon.
It was an hour or so before nightfall. The sun was setting, and the faded sunlight shone broadly across the tops of the trees in an orangey glow, igniting the white-barked branches of a birch tree.
Against the blue sky, and amid the surrounding duller and darker maple branches, the birch stuck out like a grand empress among the peasantry. Below our eye level, shadows had started to surround and cling to the trees and bushes.
There were many more animal tracks here to be found. In one place, it was clear a bird, perhaps a blue jay, had hopped through the snow for a few feet before taking flight.
There were turkey tracks here too. A group of five birds had been seen in the days prior, crossing patches of open snow quickly in short runs or strutting grandly as they walked slowly through the woodlands.
The turkeys were likely here to find acorns. It had been a good year for the crop and this little section of hardwoods was home to many hearty oaks. Additional observation would reveal that the turkeys were not the only ones looking for acorns.
In one place, a yearling white-tailed deer had learned to paw at the snow with its hooves to undercover acorns buried beneath. There were places where the snow had been disturbed and now dead and browned oak leaves were exposed. I picked up a couple of the acorn caps to look at them.
Not far away, tracks showed where a cottontail rabbit had come out from the underbrush and hopped leisurely out across the two-track road. A ruffed grouse had also crossed from the north side to the south.
Down one of the two ruts of the road, the footprints of a red fox were visible in the snow. A couple nights later, I would see a red fox jogging gingerly down the county road an hour or so past midnight. Coolness indeed.
The farther we walked, the softer our voices became. This is often how things work as those exploring nature become engaged or engrossed in the stimuli all around them. The mundane thoughts and conversation of day-to-day living erode to silence and are replaced with internal conversations and quiet wondering.
We walked ahead, stopping at a dilapidated cabin that had succumbed to the assaults of winds, rains and other weather. It had fallen in on itself years ago. It was now paused in its decline like an old man leaning on one leg halfway through a fall.
Across this area, there wasn’t much in the way of understory, but the trees here were tall. There were several places where we could see more pawing and scratching at the ground by deer and birds looking to expose brown and green-yellow acorns.
There were red and gray squirrel tracks in the snow. As I walked around a few balsam firs, I stopped to see if I could find a bark blister to pop to get a smell of the intense evergreen that emits from the clear and gooey resin.
But the countless number of swollen blisters that covered the bark of these trees in the autumn were all gone. The tree bark was now smooth and uniform.
My wool coat was now buttoned all the way up to underneath my chin as the temperature had surely dropped over the past half-hour. We had left the main road a while back at an intersection and moved deeper into this hardwood stand.
We were approaching a ridge in the distance. It ran along from left to right in front of us and above us. It was like we were in the bottom of a huge bowl, standing on the forest floor and this ridge was the rim of the bowl.
We wanted to climb to the top and look over the other side.
When we did, we could see the topography drop swiftly in front of us down a tree-covered cliff face. Far beyond, we could see the rooftops of homes and businesses in the little mining town.
We could also see the highway off in the distance and a few of the quick-stop joints set up along the road to snag tourists and others passing by.
I turned back toward the inside of the bowl and admired the way the trees stood stark and bare above the soft bed of clean, white snow. I started back down the embankment into the bowl.
More deer tracks here. There were places where we could easily see the deer had regular, well-worn pathways through the woods. But there were other tracks in the snow where the deer had just seemed to walk haphazardly across the forest.
I was struck at one point realizing that I was walking in one of those same paths joining up with one of the haphazard deer seemingly just wandering in the woods.
I think that fact said something about both of us, but I wasn’t sure what that was.
We pushed across country, up over the near edge of the bowl and beyond into the forest that was now mixed with some cedars and firs, maples and beeches.
The oaks remained the dominant species here, with several of the trees still sporting their wintertime brown and blah foliage of dead leaves. In the tops of these trees we noted several squirrel or crow nests.
At one point, we stopped to close our eyes, take a deep breath and soak in everything around us. Immediately, the tapping of a hairy woodpecker on the trunk of a tree snapped from the dark silence into our consciousness.
We hadn’t heard it at all before we closed our eyes and stopped crunching in the snow as we walked. After a few more moments, we moved on ahead.
Across a branch at knee-height in front of me I saw the tracks of a weasel that led to a place where there were two holes burrowed into the side of a small rise. There were tracks leading into and out of both these openings.
With the temperature hovering around 17 degrees, we got to the edge of another vista. This one, was the most dramatic yet. It looked out far across the surrounding scene with views of the lake and the hills beyond, far out in the distance.
We followed this jagged and rocky ridgeline back to the east and then down through fallen logs and stones to another animal route that had been worn into the snow and dirt.
Walking this path through a stand of firs, we had circled all the way back to the two-track road. Within a few steps, we had returned to where we first encountered this bygone-woods route an hour or so earlier.
It was one of those walks where we experienced a good deal of evidence of creatures of the forest, but I think we had only seen a couple of birds.
Still, none of us minded that. We had our company, the shared outdoor experience and the opportunity to enjoy some exercise, nature and peace.
I returned to the house chilled but rejuvenated in my spirit and mind.
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.