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Outdoors North: Get out and experience wilderness

JOHN PEPIN

“Someday I think I’d like to paint a seascape, if they ever get the ocean to stand still.” – Tom T. Hall

I find some of my best moments of peace and contemplation admiring the breadth and wondrous beauty of landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes.

With their various colorful and sublime features, they have an intrinsic power to captivate, even when merely pictured on the face of a cardboard jigsaw puzzle box.

This power to enchant is somewhat elusive — mysterious magic at work no doubt with the tricks and the secrets known only to the creator — but it can materialize at once, grabbing me and shaking me to my senses.

Suddenly, nature is there in front of me — bold, sensuous and beautiful — demanding to be seen and recognized.

The countless subtle shades of colors on the water, reflected from above and below, the varied textures of the grasses and the harrowing dark and sharp ledges of cliffs and canyons are only a handful of the attributes of this majesty there is to enjoy.

This accounts only for the sights, at the expense of the sounds, smells, tastes and feel of landscapes, along with the stirring emotions they swirl inside me.

When climbing over a high mountain saddle, heading barefoot through the beach grass toward the tip of a wavy sand dune or dipping down into a moist river drainage along a gravely path, I can often feel the anticipation of a landscape view welling up inside of me.

Experience is one reason why. These types of places have provided stunning and moving scenery for me in the past and those images are recorded in my brain and traced over the surface of my heart.

They are never erased from my memory.

If I stop to think for only a few seconds, some of these pictures from the past come jumping to my mind — the California coast, the Mulligan Plains, the Mojave Desert, Brockway Mountain, Estes Park or the Owens Valley.

Each is different and breathtaking in its own way. So many landscapes, never enough time. Always running, some other place to have to be.

In other instances, it is the type of vegetation I recognize around me, the smell of fresh water or muck, feeling the cool of a canyon or the warmth of an arid place that can again, as much as experience, trigger visions of times and places in my memory where I’ve encountered incredible landscapes.

This triggering heightens my expectations when these sensory stimuli present themselves. My anticipation jump starts, quickening my heartbeats.

Who knows what wonders might lie around the next bend?

Over the past couple of weekends, I’ve taken to the road to try to capture as much of the fading fall colors as I can before the fall dreary time arrives. When the leaves are down, the ground is wet and the air is cold and damp, most every day.

The weekend before last, my wife and I took a spectacular drive north and west. We took my Jeep so I could run some muddy dirt roads. We found plenty of places to enjoy the sunny autumn day.

We found welcoming landscapes too, including the tremendous expanse of a reservoir we had never visited. The trees against the horizon were all afire with fall. The foreground was the backed up blue stream waters that snaked between patches of browned grasses.

Honking geese were overhead.

There were sections of road where the hills were high, and you could look out and down to deep valleys. Those places made me feel as though I could fly.

It’s like when I’m standing up to my chest in water and have the sensation that I can push up ahead atop the water and swim.

It feels like flying on the air must be similar for birds.

Then this past weekend, we dragged the girls out of the house and took my wife’s new car, sticking this time to the highways. We again headed north and west, but over a different route.

Again, we found plenty of fall colors remaining and glorious landscapes all of us had never seen. Some took me by surprise.

One of the girls was driving as we rolled south through a few tightly spaced countryside communities. As the blacktop wound through the trees, a fantastic wetland appeared at the left side of the road.

It not only grabbed me with its sweeping beauty but had me asking the Mool to turn the car around and get me back there. Throughout the day, the ladies were very kind, indulging my frequent requests to stop the car so I could click my camera.

We found one place where a family of trumpeter swans was feeding at the edge of a wetland not far off the road. We stopped the car, got out and approached quietly. The only sounds were the soft calls the birds made to each other and the noise of our feet approaching on the roadway.

The swans made no move to fly away.

Instead, they kept feeding casually. I truly think they recognized us as a family too. This may have been the first time the girls had seen trumpeter swans, certainly at this close range.

At the back of this gorgeous place where the skies seemed to go on forever, another pair of swans was afloat, meandering between reeds and cattails. We never got close to them.

The air cooled down late in the day, wrapping a chilly blanket of “autumn-ness” around us. The air felt good in my lungs.

We walked along a road at an old prisoner of war camp, after the Tater rolled the car up over a two track, past the old rotting and moss-covered wooden gate posts.

I showed them how the surrounding forest had grown up all around here, recapturing this once busy place. I scraped my bootheel through the dead leaves and some duff to reveal an old stone pathway I knew to be there.

In no time, the girls were reading the lay of the land differently than perhaps they ever had. They could discern flat places where foundations were still intact, buried under the leaves, lichen and grass, or places where trees had filled in rectangular areas once open and wide.

I knew they had been captivated with the place when they began to snap some cellphone pictures. I was thrilled to see them looking, seeking and discovering.

On the road home, we were headed in the opposite direction of a rosy, orange and pink sky brought to us courtesy of the setting sun. This fading light, coupled with the silhouettes of trees against the sky, and even approaching headlights flickering in the far distance as they approached, brought more scenes to shoot.

I have come to realize over these past couple of weekends that I am in love with the turning and twisting of roads, rivers and railroad tracks. I photograph them constantly, without really knowing why, other than that my eye is drawn to them.

“I’ve got so many pictures like this, why do I keep taking them,” I asked my wife.

“So what? They’re all different,” she said.

I imagined myself like Richard Dreyfuss’s character in “Close encounters of the Third Kind,” building Devil’s Tower at his dining room table out of mashed potatoes.

“This means something.”

Like that character, I can’t really put into words what hold the power of landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes has over me, but I’ve tried here and elsewhere.

However, like all those photographs I’ve taken over many years now, these attempts seem to come up short – no matter how beautiful – in capturing what I saw or how I felt at the time I was there.

I think it must be like trying to replicate a lot of things in life with words, music, film or other means. How do you accurately depict love, sadness, happiness or inspiration?

Attempts are likely doomed to result in pale comparisons to the real thing. For some reason though, I continue to be driven to try.

I think in the end the best thing I can do is encourage others to experience these things for themselves.

To borrow another sci-fi quote: “The truth is out there.”

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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