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Outdoors North: If only we could bottle up days and keep them forever

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“I wanna go where my country girl goes, back where my green grass roots are growing, I feel at ease with my country girl, yeah, she knows how to groove me,” — Nick Lowe

I love to study maps. I always have. They are so intriguing and detailed, colorful and informative. Best of all, they hold the key to countless adventures, a literal world of discovery.

The translation of map reading knowledge to boots in the dirt ground truthing is my favorite part of interpreting and understanding maps.

It’s so much fun and can be a great challenge to reach the places you find between the blue, black, red and green lines.

This is mostly the case because of the things maps don’t show necessarily, like private property demarcations, grown over trails, blocked off roads and other deteriorated features.

Over the past few months, emerging from wintertime, I’ve come up with a list of places I’d like to find or explore after reading and cross-referencing a series of various maps.

So, on the last evening of the holiday weekend, the Queen of Shebis and I decided to take a little drive into the gigantic and welcoming arms of nature.

We didn’t plan for a long excursion, just some time to get out there to where the sights, sounds, smells and feels hold beauty, promise and a wisdom all its own.

I was hoping to do a little ground truthing, albeit a relatively short plunge into just a corner or two of the wide riverplain I’d seen depicted in almost all blue and green on my collected maps.

We passed the sunny, blue lakeshore crowded with walleye and pike anglers, all hoping for a bite, a fight, a challenge.

The blacktop twisted back and forth as we traveled up and down small hills, crossing creeks that fed into the basin.

I brought a cold pop to slurp and the queen, riding shotgun, brought her water bottle and a hoodie, in case it got cold. We had also thrown our fishing poles into the back of the Jeep in case we came across a place to take a few casts.

From a cool and cloudy beginning, the day had shaped up nicely into a warm and sunny affair. It seemed as though it got warmer and sunnier the farther we drove.

The “baby green grass” colors — as the queen would call them — of the last days of May were gorgeous to see, shimmering in everything from ground pine and fresh and tender newly sprouted plants to the leaves of blooming wild strawberry plants and low and high blueberry bushes.

We stopped to look at the river that flowed swiftly in outflowing waters from an upstream dam. Though the rapids and plunge pools of the river were full and flowing loudly, the control of the dam carefully measured that movement and passage.

After a moment or two, we returned to the road.

The passing clouds were big and fluffy, and the sun felt just plain wonderful on our skin. There was a light breeze blowing from the west that felt cooling and refreshing and did a good job clearing away clouds of black flies and mosquitoes.

We traded the blacktop for an ungraded dirt pathway into the forest — wash-boarded and full of potholes. We bumped along slowly as we negotiated our way around deep holes and boulders in the road exposed by recent rainstorms.

A creek alongside the road was swelled over its banks.

In a couple of spots there were new treefalls across the river, slowing or blocking passage of would-be canoeists, but no doubt creating new habitat for wily trout darting and dashing beneath the water’s surface, looking for places to hide and loaf.

At the top of a hill, we approached an expansive clearcut of pine. With the pass through of a few late winter storms over the past couple of seasons, many pines had been toppled in this area in what looked like hurricane damage.

I wasn’t surprised this place had now been logged. In doing so, a massive sky theater had been created in a dark place where stars, meteors and the aurora borealis had always been performing, but had not as easily been seen.

We turned off onto one rather narrow dirt road that skirted the edge of the clearcut and brought us along the top of a ridge. The road split ahead. I saw some tracks in the sand and got out to investigate.

There were sandhill crane tracks, and heading away from us was a set of moose tracks that were at least a couple days old. We continued in the direction they had come from and watched the road get narrower in front of us.

It wasn’t long before it stopped near an old camp and a clearing where we turned around. Back at the place the road split, we went the other direction.

This route brought us through an incredible valley where the woodlands had once been logged too, but now pines, perhaps 10-15 years old were now growing — lush and green.

Surrounding the pines on both sides of the valley were northern hardwoods. We saw a few extraordinary pines of great height and stature still standing — one of which appeared to have been struck by lightning and burned. Its bark was blackened, but the tree still appeared massive, strong and resilient.

We found a few side roads that we explored looking for fishing access to the creek. In almost all cases, we found dead ends, but we did see a couple places where we could likely have walked through the thick brush and forest growth to the river.

But an outing like that would take more energy, planning and an earlier start than what we showed up with on this day.

The ground here was covered with white and crunchy reindeer moss in many places and in others a bright, reddish colored moss grew in soft mats.

The trees were filled with singing warblers, including ovenbirds, American redstarts and chestnut-sided warblers. In the sky overhead, a common nighthawk signaled its presence by calling down to us from its sky-high flight.

White Michigan apple and choke cherry blossoms were in bloom. A set of coyote tracks marked the relaxed gait of an animal traveling through sometime over the past couple of days.

As the evening sun was continuing to sink into the horizon, we were headed back, encountering along our way a pair of sandhill cranes, a cottontail rabbit, a white-tailed doe and a wild turkey, which all came out into the road or alongside it, seemingly to greet us.

In each case, we stopped the Jeep and I called out to them. They all looked and listened curiously. Apparently, they hadn’t encountered talking humans before.

Back at the dam outflow, we stopped and took a few casts from the bridge before heading down toward a rocky flat spot where we could cast into deeper water.

Moving through the alders and low-growth plants to get there, we stepped into mud and cold water that was running off to the river from the surrounding floodplain.

Our casts from the rocks only netted us a couple of hungry, black and slimy timber trout that we tossed onto the shore once we had retrieved our lines.

As we headed home, I commented to the queen that unlike famous historical explorers, we hadn’t explored the vast lands of the Louisiana Purchase nor found the shortcut to the spice islands.

We had not even determined our hoped-for access to new trout-fishing waters.

“Not yet,” she said.

That was the best thing she could have said.

Her reply contained an inherent tone of eagerness and willingness to return to the quest at some point in the future.

There are different dynamics involved whenever you go anywhere or do anything either by yourself or varying sized groups of people. Sometimes, all these permutations are successful.

Other times, none of them work like you would hope they would.

There are certainly times when I need to be alone and nothing short of that will suffice. But there are other times when I really love to be enjoying the wilds of nature with my very busy Queen of Shebis.

She is not often available, but when she is — and even better when she is eagerly joining me for another day of bumming around the woods — the time we spend together out there is always memorable.

The summertime is short and fleeting in the north country, and time and commitments can keep anybody from doing what they would like to be doing.

At this early juncture in the season, I am hoping for many outings with the queen, but if that doesn’t happen, we at least had this day — and a what a glorious late afternoon it was.

As we hit the blacktop road, working our way closer to home, the sky was burning down to those orange and rosy-pink shades in the west. It was still warm outside and the slow burn would continue for a while yet.

These are the kind of days I wish I could bottle up and treasure forever.

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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