Outdoors North: Autumn brings an array of opportunities

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“Walking through the leaves falling from the trees, feeling like a stranger nobody sees,” Bob Dylan

With a thud, the car door shuts and the sound of my bootheels scraping on the dirt and gravel carries through the woods around me.

The dirt is wet, packed hard and cold as it often is in September and October as the autumn wraps around the countryside like a chilly and soaking blanket.

For me, amid the dazzling colors of the leaves turning before they fall, and some incredible days when the sun seems especially warm, autumn brings a coolness and a resignation not found in other seasons.

It feels to me like it’s something hard-wired in us humans, probably dating back to when we first started to track things like the sun’s movements across the skies and the changing of the seasons.

The gist of this inner background wave form gliding up and down over my consciousness is that there’s a descent around the corner into the darkness and the cold and barren bleakness of the days and nights of the wintertime.

To me, just being out walking in these gradually deepening cold nights and days of autumn makes me feel like my face is hollowing out and I am becoming gaunt, withering like the colored leaves softly and gently tumbling to the ground.

I feel cautious, turning up on my ends and dried out, like a determined wind could lift me up easily and toss me into the air for fun or roll me into a tumble that might end me up floating over the top of the river, turning and twisting downstream.

Crows gathering in the misting rain over a cornfield seem unhappy about the steadily increasing presence of fall. Maybe they have a hard-wired waveform too.

Their harsh and clear caws seem to signal frustration and annoyance with the circumstances.

Well, Mister Crow, how do you do?

Are you unhappy that you’re out here getting wet in the rain?

Caw, caw, caw!

I remember that when I was a kid, it didn’t matter if it was raining, snowing, gusting wind and more, I would be going outside and wouldn’t be coming back indoors until my parents made me.

We played football in backyards, on side streets and on lawns of businesses whose owners would repeatedly kick us off the grass.

We loved to rake up big piles of leaves and jump into them or hide in them during epic rounds of hide-and-go-seek.

The autumn always brought warnings from parents, especially the closer we got to Halloween, about the dangers of the season.

We were all told about kids who had been playing in leaves at the side of the road and been struck by cars, or about kids who had found common pins and razor blades concealed in apples or their Halloween candy.

Then of course we were warned about the antics of juvenile delinquents on Devil’s Night. Most of this lawbreaking and dangerous activity – including people lighting fires – was taking place hundreds of miles away, but parents talked about it like it was happening just over on Maple Street or right downtown in our hometown.

A big maple tree overhung our backyard from the neighbors’, providing more than enough leaves for plenty of leaf pile-diving fun. We also used to rake leaves into lines to form out-of-bounds markers for our backyard football games.

Steel clothes poles, with a cross beam, were the uprights we used to kick field goals and extra points over.

When I was just a little kid at school, with the colder temperatures in the fall and winter, I used to seem to always find myself stuck walking somewhere between home and school walking and really needing to pee.

Would I make it home in time, I used to wonder.

At some point, I found that if I hummed or sang “Twilight Time” by the Platters as I walked at a quickened pace, the distraction would allow me to make it home before I had an “accident.”

I still use the same trick today.

Make sure if you try this yourself that you are referencing only The Platters version of “Twilight Time.” Accept no substitute. Otherwise, you might not make it home in time.

We used to have to rake all the leaves from that big maple tree up into piles that we would then put into big, black plastic lawn bags and haul them up to the street curb for the garbage men to take.

By the time I walk up to the bridge here, just a short distance, the misting rain has turned to more of a shower. It seems like the rain changes temperature with the seasons.

Not surprisingly, it rains warmest in the summertime and ties for the coldest in late autumn and spring. Today, it’s a little early for the rain to be this cold already.

Of course, there’s an element of time and reflection on life in autumn as there is in any season. But for some reason, the autumn seems to bring these thoughts and feelings to the fore – those of a wearing down, a dulling and time that is shortening to do all the things we love either for the season or forever.

The waters of rivers, creeks and lakes take on different colors in the fall too. They tend to reflect in either black, gray or even white during the autumn, mirroring the skies filled with V-lines of geese heading south.

It’s the days like today that can let a cold settle into your bones that might not thaw completely until springtime.

I tend to think more of a crackling fire in the fireplace these days than running outside no matter the conditions to play in the backyard. I guess I’m not a kid anymore, although I would be out there in a second to play with one of my grandkids.

I do love the autumn time for walking and thinking and reflecting and trying to set things up straight in my head before the more challenging times of winter arrive.

When I lived in California, one of the biggest things that drew me back home was the opportunity to live in a place that truly exhibited nature’s four seasons. I wanted to experience all of them and missed being able to do so out west.

Like a lot of people from this region, the older I get, the more the attraction of warmer, southern climes takes hold. But I don’t see me ever really becoming a snowbird.

I love backyard campfires that take place all through the wintertime. I would also miss the clear, silent, ice-cold and star-covered nights and all of the changes the landscape goes through, along with its people.

There’s also a feeling of perseverance, rising to meet the challenges of winter storms and that special warmth of the indoors, hot chocolate and so many delicious soups after coming back in the house from having fun outdoors.

I know it may seem strange to some folks who may not have experienced it, but there is a real peace and relaxation to working outside shoveling snow, especially at night.

But hopefully I’m getting far ahead of myself.

For now, there’s a wild and wonderful autumn season unfolding with spawning fish, migrating geese, moose on the move and so much more to see and experience.

All of that, along with the opportunity to get out to enjoy it, is what keeps me young at heart and my head on straight.

Along the lines of the saying “everything in moderation,” I think of the year for me as all the seasons, each in their own time.

I want to experience all of it: the hot and the cold and the rain and the snow of it, the colored leaves and the summer breeze, the winter nights and the springtime rites.

To everything, there is a season.

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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