Outdoors North: Autumn on the horizon before we know it

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“In the summertime, when all the trees and leaves are green and the red bird sings, I’ll be blue ‘cuz you don’t want my love.” — Roger Miller

With the air cool, but growing increasingly humid, I crossed the transom from the moist sands of the gravel road to a green and overgrown world of nightshade and yellow daisies.

There was an informal, familiar path beneath my feet – somewhere. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel the ground as I stepped. As I moved ahead, my ability to make progress slowed considerably.

I was surprised to realize that we had already reached this point in the short, summer season when everything that grows here is at the literal height of its powers.

Across my knees and chest were tendrils and vines woven within a thick growth of long, grasses on the riverbank. The tag alders had made a good deal of headway since spring, blocking my path now with their reaching branches.

Everywhere, the things that grow green were busting out everywhere, reaching for the sunlight, fortified by short bursts of rain and rich, thick soils.

As I slowly pressed on, I felt like I was a kid again fishing with my mom and dad when I was too small to see over the tall grass. The growth around me was taller than I was in some places.

If I were to twist an ankle or take a tumble here, no one would likely find me until after the killing frost. Therefore, it’s probably better the going is so slow so I can take extra care to properly feel my way forward.

These are the types of situations when my memory helps me tremendously.

If I look in front of me, I see little more than a wall of greenery. But my mind’s eye can see the path the way it looked in the springtime before the green started growing up.

I can recall where the beavers have gutted the earth to make their paths to the river, where one had dug a bank burrow I need to watch out for.

I also remember that here, between the thick mounds of marsh grass and dirt are gullies that trend in dips this way or that. There are also logs, prominent boulders or other tipping points I recall.

I’ve discovered that when I do happen to fall in this type of thick growth, it’s not usually a quick slip or abrupt drop, but rather a step in a hole and then a slow fall sideways or backwards into the thick grasses.

I find there are countless markers and reminders logged in my memory that help keep me on the right course. It’s these same vestigial patterns that help me recall in great detail, on winter nights, the hikes I’ve taken in these summery woods.

I can’t see the river, but I know where it is. I can’t hear it either, especially at this time of year when the summer heat helps suck the water’s flow down to a trickle in some places, down to the black mud in others.

I can’t see the gravel road either, but that I can hear it when one of the double-trailer logging trucks passes by, pulling a big load of cut timber out of the forest.

I also hear a gray catbird in the thick snarls of bushes. He seems to be following me along. He makes a mewing sound that betrays his position in the thicket.

At a place where I know the trail splits, I take a side route to the left. If it was earlier in the year, I would be able to see the river to my right as I walk, but not now.

I keep pushing forward. I drag one of my feet out of a swirl of vines that has got me by the ankle.

The day is warming quickly, and the air is heavy and humid. It’s harder to breath now, like being in a sauna. But I duck my right shoulder and trudge through another thick section of alders.

I’m looking for a place I know where the riverbank is usually clear to stand on to cast my fishing line. I see the place just up ahead, but it’s hard to recognize.

I get there and at least temporarily the green walls have fallen around me.

What I see is shocking.

My old river friend is lying famished and gaunt, barely able to make his own bends.

This is the lowest I have ever seen the water here.

I feel terrible. For some reason, this seems very sad.

I liken this to what it must be like to find a good friend locked away at home, wasting away, either too sick or unwilling to eat.

In some places, the water level along the streambank has dropped three feet or more.

Beyond that, places where I know the river bottom had been covered with fish spawning gravels is now covered with beach or bank sand.

I can also see sand and dirt suspended in the water column as the river glugs past in front of me. My mind zooms out to a map of the area, and I quickly trace the river’s course upstream to where a bridge crosses the river.

I wonder if the heavy logging trucks moving over the small span are dislodging sand into the water from the banks supporting the bridge. Maybe that’s the reason for the sand suspended in the water, but it couldn’t be why all the extra sand is now covering portions of the river bottom. There’s just too much of it.

This damage, I presume, was caused by recent torrential rains that washed deep gouges into the hillsides and undermined stream banks, cutting new water routes on one corner, dumping sand the river carried on the next.

If it wasn’t the thick, sucking kind of sand or mud on the stream bottom, the river would be low enough to just walk down.

I imagine that in all but the deepest holes, the river flow has not only been weakened, but the water temperature has also warmed — another condition not favorable for trout.

Ironically, even though tremendous rainstorms have changed the river’s complexion, we need more rain to help keep the water flowing and the fish healthy.

The morning showers that wetted the gravel road and made walking through the streamside plant growth a soaking situation were by no means enough.

Over recent days, several forecasts of rain showers for the area have not come to pass. The latest forecasts don’t show much precipitation in the days ahead. Maybe then it will rain.

I spend more time walking through the thick underbrush to places I know are traditionally deep holes where the fish hide. Even in some of these haunts, the water has dropped significantly.

My guess is many of the trout have high-tailed it up into the colder, tributaries fed by springs where they can exist more comfortably. Many of them do that anyway as the season progresses.

I remember fishing out west one year after a big rainstorm had swelled and muddied the river. Rainbow trout were swimming across a paved road through water runoff from the hillsides.

Upstream, a couple miles away, I find more low water, more thick and advancing plant growth and another mewing catbird. A logging truck rumbles past and the driver waves. I wave back.

By now the heat is sweltering and I am finding it still harder to breath. I decide I will head home. I grab a cold pop from my cooler in the back of my Jeep.

I decide to take the long route back, using the dirt road that snakes through timber cuts, past meadows and alongside hidden forest lakes and creeks.

Here, I see the blackberries and raspberries still not ripe.

I wonder as I drive if I will ever find a skeleton key that I can turn to unlock answers to all of nature and life’s mysteries that confound me and compel me to constantly try to learn more.

It doesn’t seem likely that would be the case.

And yet, there’s a kind of nudging, a tugging somewhere inside me, that seems to suggest otherwise. All of this is frustrating and fascinating at the same time.

I have another feeling inside me too. This one tells me that before I know it, autumn will be dropping its brightly colored calling cards from the trees above.

The skies will roll past in big thick gray clouds holding rain. The air will be cold and the wind will look for the holes between my buttons.

Another day, another season, another time and me — twirling, wandering, spinning and wondering, round and round she goes.

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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