The beauty of a U.P. winter night

MARQUETTE — Beautiful deep shades of blue continued to permeate my world as the moon, skulking, began to slowly climb out from behind the bare trees into the early night sky.

This time of the season, there is something about the combination of ice cold and the shadows – dark, blue, black and reaching – cast across the snowfields by the sunlight reflected off the moon that bring out hauntingly incomparable scenes.

The numerous shades of blue in the light of the night amaze me.

They remind me of a time when I was a kid working on a paint-by-number oil painting of a white-tailed buck standing majestically in the snow. I was captivated absolutely by some of the brilliant colors in those pooled, wet and glossy oil paints – especially the blues, greens and varying shades of browns.

Painting by numbers is kind of a weird concept, but it was a cool pastime. However, I seem to remember I messed up one of the colors or something and painted the rest of that buck picture without any adherence to the color scheme.

When you’re a kid, adults seem to think you need something to do other than just be a kid – some sort of “project” to work on. I remember not only painting by numbers, but building bowls out of popsicle sticks, assembling model cars and planes, drawing with Spirograph, pushing those Lite Brite colored pegs into a light board, a chemistry set or two and a rock polishing kit.

It was no different for girls. My sister had an Easy Bake Oven, which was basically cooking brownies, small cakes and other goodies over the heat from a light bulb.

As a family, we sometimes worked on jigsaw puzzles, even my dad. I remember clearly a winter scene puzzle, with a snow-covered red-brick bridge and a stream running through the foreground.

The trees in the picture were big and bare and the pieces of the puzzle were small -the tiniest I’d seen up to that point. I think this was a 1,500-piece beauty. I loved puzzles. Event the cuts of the cardboard pieces were intriguing.

My favorites jigsaw puzzles were always those with sweeping landscape scenes painted with gorgeous blooming flowers, waterfalls, bridges, autumn leaves, lakes and streams – all with spectacular colors.

As a kid, I used to stare back and forth between the picture on the cardboard box of what the puzzle was supposed to look like and the dozens and dozens of colored pieces spread across the card table.

Crowded around that table with my family, I remember feeling like a million bucks when the kid was able to fit in even one piece, especially if it wasn’t an edge piece. Those were almost too easy.

I still love jigsaw puzzles, but rarely find the time to work on them anymore. I often envision the puzzles I could make from the photographs I take. Sometimes, when I’m framing up a landscape scene in the viewfinder, the image looks like a puzzle I’d love to put together.

In hindsight, all these pastimes appear, ironically, to me – though confined and controlled in a coloring inside the lines sense – to have been some early sources of creative exploration, inspiration and expression, while also stimulating the brain in helpful ways.

Cold blue nights also tend to make me think of Vincent Van Gogh and his thrilling masterpiece “Starry Night.” I imagine him being enthralled with the nighttime scenes, just as I am. So blue and lonesome, so cold and true. Like the “Mona Lisa,” you know a painting is great when they write a song about it.

Speaking of stars, Roy Clark, co-star of Hee Haw, master instrumentalist and cornpone comedian died Nov. 15. I couldn’t believe the report I watched on the CBS Evening News.

For a figure who captured my imagination, made me feel so warm, so good with his singing, his pickin’ and a-grinnin’, a story mentioning his death lasting a few scant seconds seemed shocking and perhaps even disrespectful – especially since Hee Haw was originally on CBS when it debuted in 1969.

I think about how many two- to three-minute feature stories I’ve seen on the national news about everyday dogs and cats. I don’t get it. I imagine someone in a room somewhere saying, “Buck Owens, he’s worth 20 seconds; Merle Haggard, George Jones, maybe 25, Johnny Cash, might be a full 30 seconds.”

I guess it’s like speed limits in the small towns scattered across the country.

I often wonder how they decide which communities are worthy of slowing down to 25 miles an hour for, seemingly out of respect.

Some towns out in the sticks require drivers to slow down to 35, while through others, drivers blowing through at 45 or even 50 is just fine. No need to slow down there, nothing happening.

Seemingly, nobody worth thinking about lives there.

That’s OK.

The starlight from folks like Buck Owens, Roy Orbison, George Jones, Tom Petty, Rick Nelson, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Clark will shine on for eons to come, no matter what.

Through the trees in the blue woods tonight, a soft snow begins to fall. Out in the blackness, deer move among the shadows.

Somewhere the deep voice of an old hoot owl echoes through the wind from the pines. The night grows colder and darker.

I awoke during the early morning hours. I had been dreaming a strange dream, the kind that makes me profoundly sad when I find myself awake. So much loss, so much fallen away that won’t ever be coming back this way again.

I got up. I walked over to the window, pulled back the dark blue curtains, rested my elbows on the window sill, put my hands up against my head and gazed outside.

The moon had moved across the sky and was nowhere near as bright. Instead, the starlight shown, twinkling through the constellations hanging in the sky, from the silent black velvet background of space that goes on forever.

It was too damned late and cold now to go out walking on the road, especially with the snow falling. Be that as it may, I felt like walking – a good long way.

I close my eyes. I recall the Mojave Desert. The warmth, the sands and the beautiful understated desert landscape. Black-throated sparrows and bullock’s orioles, tarantulas and sidewinding rattlesnakes.

Back in bed, the covers are still warm as I pull them up around me. I sink into a sleep again, drifting back under, hoping to drift slowly to the bottom of my consciousness where I will lie dead asleep.

Outside the window a shooting star sputters across the galaxy, burning out in a matter of scant seconds – all we are is dust in the wind, sands on a beach, one in eight billion persons braving an existence on this planet, spinning around, trying not to fall off.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 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. Send correspondence to or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.