Column: Day outdoors is what the doctor ordered

MARQUETTE — It had been one of those days, the kind everybody has now and then, when too many deadlines and obligations crowd out the fun in life.

For me, those days don’t just come out of nowhere, but rather, usually fall at the end of a long period of not having made it out to the woods and water for any real time to plug in to nature to recharge.

No gurgling brook, no mourning cloak, no columbine, no witch’s butter – nothing but days packed full of commitments, lined up like a row of dominoes.

During those times, my smiles are hard to find, even simple challenges seem harder than usual, and I’m bothered by a general ooze of discomfort. I become disaffected and disturbed. It feels like my bloodstream is dried-up and cracked.

It’s about this time, when I hear the dominoes clicking together and falling behind me, that I know I’ve got to do something before they catch up to me and knock me off the table onto the floor.

“And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men …”

In a rush, I arrived at home looking for a quick turnaround to get out the door to find the water with my fishing rod as soon as I could. I grabbed my gear and threw it into the back of my Jeep.

I recently bought a new camera and had thought about taking it with me, but then I was afraid that would distract me from time spent presumably hooking and landing monster trout, which seemed to be the most persistent itch I was hoping to scratch today.

So, I decided to leave the camera at home to keep my cellphone company.

Burning up the blacktop, it seemed like the horses under my hood couldn’t run fast enough to get to the dirt road. I was quenched with a big feeling of relief when I felt the wheels of the Jeep hit the gravel and I saw the dust billow up in my rearview mirror.

Not far past the first big corner in the road, a deer jumped out in front of me and ran into a jack pine stand off my driver’s-side door. I slowed down and pulled over, rolling down my window.

The doe stood about 40 feet into the trees, looking back at me.

“Hello, you baby,” I said. “I’m just saying ‘hi’ to you.”

She cocked her head slightly as I spoke.

“Maybe you’ve never heard a human voice before, huh?”

We watched each other for a few more seconds. Then I slowly started to roll the Jeep forward.

“Good-bye, you baby.”

In a little while, I stopped on a bridge to look at the river. The currents in the black water moved in a languid fashion, slowly rolling back and forth, producing small whirlpools in some places. The sky was sunny and blue, with the shapes of clouds passing overhead reflected in the water.

I didn’t sit for long. My itch was nagging me onward.

Deep puddles and mud I had encountered on the roads out here a couple of weeks ago were now gone. The water in the creeks and the vernal forest ponds had also retreated. This seemed like good news for fishing.

The deeper I got into the forest, the less I could stand to have my Jeep’s music box playing. Jerry Lee Lewis would have to wait for “Another place, another time.”

The road had narrowed considerably. I slowed down, the dust settling behind me. And with that, the songs of the wind, the birds, the grasses and the pines, and the swirl and hiss of inspiration rushed into the Jeep through the open windows.

At a marsh where a small creek trickled through a culvert under the road, I stopped for a minute or two. A bright orange and black Baltimore oriole landed on a branch out above the reeds, just a few feet outside my open window.

I reached to the backseat for my camera.

Not there.

Damn.

Instead, I snapped the image in my mind. I hoped it would last a long time. I’ve taken some mental pictures that have lasted decades. Some real pictures are like that too, while others just fade away or are lost or discarded.

Rounding the last bend to my fishing spot, I scanned the usual parking places, hoping no one else would be there. I was disappointed to see a pick-up truck tucked into the grass alongside the stream.

There was no sign of any anglers. The water was flowing at a Goldilocks level, though the sun seemed a bit brighter than I’d anticipated. I followed a muddy path downstream, finding tracks of what I judged to be a man and a boy at almost every hole.

I caught a couple of trout, but nothing I’d keep for the frying pan. I moved on, finding an unusually high number of anglers out in the woods. Maybe I should have brought my camera after all.

Throughout the pleasant afternoon I was slowly making a big circle back toward home. Almost to the place where I’d hit some blacktop again, I came upon a place where loggers had cut during the winter.

It still amazes me to see how different the landscape appears after a forest prescription has been delivered. I had just driven through a place, a couple miles back, where the landscape had looked like this not long ago, but was now growing up in pretty, little thin-stalked aspen, with shimmering green leaves.

The road ahead of me suddenly turned to mud and then mud holes that were filled with deep tire ruts. The muck and water went around the approaching corner. After a few minutes of contemplation, I decided to turn around and go back another route, which would put me out of my way by a few miles.

I didn’t want to bury the Jeep, even though it looked like I could have made it through if I hit it just right. I looked at the bright side – more woods to ride through.

Someone had used a brush hog implement of some type out here, twisting and ripping the branches off many of the roadside trees, some whose branches were growing as high as 20 feet off the ground.

I couldn’t see the purpose of this, especially that high up. The tree branches were splintered and cracked in jagged, vicious scenes shocking to see.

I rolled past slowly, looking for understanding – like passing an accident scene.

As the blacktop neared, I took more mental pictures I would try to keep burning in my mind. These were placid scenes of soft forest openings where low grasses and blueberry bushes grew, lazy waterways and the dirt road twisting out in front of me.

A good distance down the highway, I pulled onto the shoulder of the road, following two cars ahead of me. I expected an approaching emergency vehicle.

Instead, the drivers of these cars hopped out with their cellphones and trotted across the highway. About 30 feet off the side of the road, a moose stood, calmly looking at the people taking its picture.

This time, I knew better than to reach for my camera. Instead, I watched the fascination the numerous people stopping had with the moose. There were moms and dads with their kids, vacationers and people just trying to get home from work.

At one point, cars were backed up on the highway 10 deep. One grouchy driver laid on his car horn for a long while as he passed the moose. I was close enough to home that I went back for my camera.

When I got back, the moose and all the shutterbugs were gone.

Driving home again, I promised myself I’d find some real time to spend outside in the days ahead – time when I wouldn’t be trying to wedge a trip to the woods in between a row of dominos.

With that, I turned the music back on.

It’s not her heart Lord, it’s her mind. She didn’t mean to be unkind. Why she even woke me up to say good-bye.

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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 pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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