Outdoors North: Soaking up the sights of Autumn

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“There was a cold wind blowing on the night we met, the leaves fell from the trees, you made a lot of promises I ain’t seen yet, I ain’t gonna ask you please,” – Dave Alvin

The afternoon was the blustery sort, with the wind whipping the tree limbs on the maple trees around in circular fashion, dropping orange and red leaves to the ground with each rotation.

The sight reminded me of how a child twirls sparklers on the Fourth of July, with the white-gold sparks tumbling into the cool, dew-dropped, night grass.

It felt to me like the winds were setting the tone for what would be a day punctuated by cold, rain showers and those winds rising and falling, twisting and turning, in sharp gusts and those imaginative swirls.

Some of the crumpled leaves landed on the surface of the river and floated downstream. Others fell into the water with more velocity, slicing through the tension membrane of the water’s surface.

These leaves twirled rapidly like ninja stars as they flew, as though someone was throwing cards from a deck by one of the corners.

Once these colored leaves hit the water, they were either quickly moved by the current underwater or they sank to the bottom, down to where the cold mud waited to consume them.

A lot of people don’t like these days, at least not for going outdoors.

I am not among them. They are decidedly a product of autumn. They do not appear elsewhere during the year, at least not in the same way – not with the colored leaves, the certain wet chill and the withering.

I dress warmly in a sweatshirt, warm socks, jeans and maybe long underwear, my rain jacket, with the hood pulled up over my head. I wear rain pants and rubber boots. I like to keep my hands in my pockets unless I’m fishing.

I like to watch the raindrops slide along the brim of my hood before they roll to the side and drop off.

I think growing up around here, being a kid who was outside all the time, and being someone who still spends a good deal of time outdoors, has perhaps made me more tolerant of the cold than some other folks.

At least that’s what some people tell me.

On this day, I’m walking down a dirt road that turns back and forth alongside a stream that appears silvery and cold as it reflects the sky above.

There are big flocks of grackles flying around today, with a few red-winged blackbirds mixed in. I see a couple of deer that are distinctly much darker colored than the usual warmer brown hues.

y dad used to call these “swamp deer,” suggesting that they are colored differently because of where they spend their time. That wasn’t quite correct, but the part about deer changing color was.

It’s related to the seasons instead. The coats of deer turn the darker brown or dark gray in the fall. It’s part of a molting process triggered by hormonal changes. The deer will end up with a coat better equipped to deal with the cold and snows of wintertime.

These darker deer are cool to see. It seems it’s as though the white around the eye area also jumps out more in the fall coloration. To me, it gives the deer an appearance I associate more with donkeys.

Now that I think about it, it’s interesting that deer and donkeys both walk in groups following one behind the other, like a train.

As the season shifts gears, I like to do the same and turn from fishing for brook trout to stalking steelhead and coho salmon. I do this in the streams, rather than the big lakes, because I think stream fishing suits me best.

A good part of my excitement in this outdoor activity comes well before I even take a first cast. I am in awe of how the power of high waters can change the complexion and character of a stream.

I know where I might have had success pulling a big salmon or steelhead out of a hole in the past, maybe just last year. But now, that deep hole – where the water would have easily been over my head deep – is now filled in with sand from washed out riverbanks upstream.

While the river in that once-deep hole is now shallow, the river works the other way too. It cuts deep gouges into corners and other places that were not conducive to holding fish in other years, but now there are incredible holes there.

All of this is fascinating to me.

I like to meander along stream courses and up dirt roads where old homestead apple orchards still produce a great deal of fruit. I pull of an apple from one of the trees and take a bite.

As kids we used to do this too. One kid I knew carried a saltshaker with him for the green apples. I love how an orchard of even just a half-dozen trees can produce a significant range of apple tastes, colors and textures.

I love the crispy apples that crunch abruptly and taste somewhere between sweet and tart. I like to shake apples down from the trees in our yard for the deer to eat.

It’s fun to find some of that fruit with deer teeth marks in it.

With the leaves turned, being blown into the air and falling all around, it’s also the time of the year I think is best to visit those old, dilapidated homesteads and farmsteads.

For me, there’s something about the abandoned and falling down buildings that rings true at this time of year. I like to photograph these structures in black-and-white, which seems to also suit the occasion.

For some reason, these ghost-haunted barns, farmhouses, sheds and cabins seem to look right in black-and-white, rather than color.

Again, many people don’t like to see black-and-white photos or black-and-white movies, especially younger people.

I think it’s a misjudgment that leaves them missing out on a wealth of beauty and truth that’s somehow easier to see. I wish more things were in black-and-white.

I like to use filters to change color photos to black-and-white to provide a whole new feeling to images.

The world and its truths are not typically found in black-and-white, but rather in the subtle range of grays in between, though many things are purported to be strictly black or white – this or that and nothing in between.

That’s another misjudgment that costs the viewer a depth of knowledge and understanding not found without looking beyond the surface.

I like to walk these dirt roads until I get to a point where I decide to turn around. I sometimes wonder what exactly makes me make this decision to head back when I do.

I think it’s usually based on time of day, how far I need to walk on the return trip or if I left a figurative kettle on the stove back at home.

The trip out is all about discovery, wonder and exploration. The hike back still contains some of that, but it’s typically more about what I might find when I get back to the Jeep or back to the house.

Will it be a bowl of hot split pea and ham soup or a spicy chili with cheese and tortilla chips? Maybe it’s a good night for a fire in the fire pit or the fireplace.

It’s usually by about this stage of the walk, especially once I reach my vehicle, that I have decided I’m ready to slip off my wet rain gear in favor of some warm air coming out of the vents as I drive.

A coyote dips his head and ducks across the road in front of me. He looks to be heading home too.

Canada geese are in the air honking loudly, declaring their intention to leave the scene altogether – moving in their V-shaped squadrons through the darkened skies, headed south toward places where the sun is shining brightly.

Whatever the weather, whatever the day brings, I try to enjoy whatever is set before me, like eating at a magnificent banquet.

For me, it’s important to soak up as much as I can – whether it’s the ice-cold, sub-zero days of winter, the breathless, balmy summertime or the vibrant spring that never wants to warm up soon enough or the autumn time like now.

I want to pack as much of these days around me into my heart and mind to take with me when it’s time for me to fly into the sunset, with my wings flapping softly and silently, looking for brighter days and bluer horizons.

Adios coyote, so long swamp buck, good-bye to the drumming grouse, this old and rusted mining town and these dirt roads I love to walk.

Editors 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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