Past is relived at winter place

MARQUETTE — There’s a place I know not far from home where beautiful white birch trees stand together on a rugged hillside that overlooks a shallow, peaceful lake.

I’ve known this place since my youngest days.

In the summertime, there are tables and grills here for picnicking. Now, on this chilly winter day, deep snow has drifted and been blown up over the top of the hill. The tables have been put away and the grills are buried.

Down below, the lake is frozen, covered with snow and ice. A winter or two back, we snowshoed across to enchanting trails that bend and bow through the woods and turn higher toward a jagged rocky bluff.

When I was a kid, we would sometimes come here at night after supper or on Saturdays. In those hallowed days of yore, we’d do anything to get outside to play.

We’d climb aboard a massive toboggan that was housed inside a small shed. We’d enter from a door at the back, sit down in a line and get ready to ride. The more weight, the faster we’d go.

With the help of some adults, our wooden chariot would crunch slowly toward a waiting chute. They’d push, and we’d fly down a steep iced ramp, holding tight to the ropes at the sides of the toboggan.

We shot down the embankment and glided along a flat section of the trail that ran alongside the lake into the darkness. This was fantastic fun, a trip short on distance, but long on thrills and excitement.

I remember my sister and I riding our silver metal flying saucers down over the hard-packed snow of a bowl in the topography, situated on the other side of the hill in the shadow of the birches.

Space was a big deal in those days. President Kennedy had set the country’s eyes on the moon, not long after Sputnik and the UFO craze of the 1950s, so it made sense flying saucers were the rage with kids.

They would spin you around and drop you down hard if you hit a gully or a dip just right. I still can’t figure out why, but crashing those saucers, sleds and sleighs was always more fun to me than anything.

Maybe it was the lying motionless on the ground looking up at the sky that was so cool, feeling the wind brush across my face. Or maybe it was the speed, the unpredictability of the ride or the craziness of so many other kids crisscrossing as they were flying down the hill.

My folks would wait at the top of the hill for us to climb or crawl back up. Then they’d give us a good push once we were seated back in the saucer.

All of this was recalled when I took a ride out near the saucer bowl recently to take pictures of the wintry scenery.

When I approached, it was like the opening skating scene of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The snow was falling softly.

I was overjoyed to see kids crisscrossing the bowl on all kinds of modern “snowcraft” with parents waiting at the top of the hill. My mind shimmered back in time.

Nothing had changed, really. It was amazing.

It seemed like I was looking into a snow globe scene from my childhood days.

It also looked like the same cast of characters too.

The kid sliding face-first down the hill on just his snowsuit was there. The girl sitting in a plastic toboggan at the top of the hill facing the wrong direction was there too, as were a couple of kids sprawled over the snow, their thin slippery green snow skimmers crashed together.

Somebody had a beach air mattress. There were daredevils jumping a cascading series of icy moguls at the edge of the bowl. Two kids sitting in their snow darts nodded at each other before pushing down the hill, into the woods, toward the lake.

I’m sure the kid slurping her runny nose was there, just like the kid that always showed up on winter outings sucking on the snowy end of a mitten, the other one missing.

I wondered how long it would be before the kid with his hat pulled down over his eyes would come pulling a slider up the hill.

This was all magical for me.

Earlier this winter, I was disappointed to discover the toboggan slide has been closed for years. I guess I thought the days of flying saucers and skimmers had gone the same way. I’m so glad they haven’t.

In these days of darkness and desperation, any and all signs of hope, peace, help and happiness are welcome here.

The simple sight of those kids shooting across the snow was hopeful for me. The happy sounds of their young voices reminded me of the songs of summer birds – like drinking a whole big bucket of good medicine.

A day or so later, I found myself standing at the rail of a bridge a hundred or so feet above a cold, black river that reflected the surrounding scenery like a mirror. The trees were covered with snow and ice.

I was looking upstream seeing that the water was barely moving. I thought about how just a couple of miles away, the current was strong and swift, forbidding any attempts to cross, especially at this time of year.

Suddenly, I heard a strange sound I couldn’t immediately identify, like that of someone shaking out a heavy jacket in one good shake.

I turned to my right in time to see a bald eagle working to move away in mid-air. She was just a few feet away from me. She had likely been following the river and decided to glide over the top of the bridge, not expecting to find me.

I watched her as she banked and dipped toward the river. The eagle continued upstream, much closer to the water now – a couple of flaps of her wings and then gliding again.

I wished she would have taken me with her all the way upstream, over the raging waters and farther still, to the peaceful basin behind the power dam. Floating and circling in the air like a guitar solo, then moving on to a nest among the tall white pines, high above the lake.

Of course, she didn’t take me with her.

Instead, I was left to walk back up the hill to the car in the wind. The sound of my boot heels in the sand on the blacktop made it seem colder than it was.

She returned to her world and I returned to mine, but within those few seconds that passed we shared a daydream.

I wonder if she knows she’s the symbol of the nation?

It’s warmer outside tonight. The stars are hiding. My headphones are blasting the Jayhawks and it’s blue around the corners of this room.

And smile when you’re down and out. The stars on the horizon, stretch as far as the eyes can see they represent the souls of those like you and me, and smile…

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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.