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Column: Surprise encounter in the woods

“Summer’s end’s around the bend, just flying,” – John Prine

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MARQUETTE — The afternoon couldn’t make up its mind between sunny skies, cold winds and clouds threatening rain. I decided to spend those hours traveling gray-graveled backroads, looking for some respite from the hurry here and there of everything.

I wanted to see if I could still hear myself think.

I felt as though the overcast skies had found their way into my bloodstream, leaving me feeling like my veins were filled with lead and my brain was sagging. That’s exactly that kind of feeling that lets me know it’s time to get outside.

I was out in a part of the peninsula I only get to visit in passing, usually only when I’m on my way to someplace else. I was hoping this opportunity to turn down a few of these roads I had rarely, if ever, been over before would be just what I needed.

The autumn was showing her colors now, not to any tremendous degree yet, but there were certainly entire trees of flaming crimson, tangerine, lemon and sunflower gold.

I stopped a few times to snap some photos for a collage I thought about creating called “Study in Scarlet.”

I was certainly enjoying the changes in topography, which ranged from jack pine barrens, sandy plains and northern hardwoods to wetlands with cattails turned amber and bronze to fit the season, open farmlands, highland views and a descent into a steep dark canyon.

In one place, the forest was stunning to see, set in a greenish-white cast from the lichen covering the trunks and branches of the aging jack pines. I knelt next to a red pine into a soft, wet cushion of reindeer and sphagnum moss that was growing over the forest floor like a thick carpet.

Birds were on the move, with more than the usual number of hawks around, including one broad-winged hawk that lifted off the road with a chipmunk or a mouse in its talons, a merlin that shot across the road in front of me, and a northern harrier that dipped as it flew crossing over a lush green field.

Handfuls of barely discernable warblers were flitting through the trees in their drab, washed-out fall shades of grays, yellows and greens. Surprisingly, though there were plenty of tracks, I didn’t see any deer.

A mouse darted across the road. The surface of the water in the stream was being swirled by the winds in an elegant fashion – creating twirling circles that moved toward me from upstream.

I came over a couple of very old bridges, one with tall, decorative concrete rails. There were no dates on the steel plaque on either side of the span, but it was clear these bridges were old — I’m guessing maybe 1930s or earlier.

A rusted set of railroad tracks headed north and south from the road I was on. Its bed was choked with saplings and yellowed and slouched bracken ferns. Alongside one of the bridges, I found ripe blackberries, along with goldenrod, purple thistle and nodding white queen Anne’s lace.

The temperamental nature of the weather left the skies rolling and tumbling. On a corner in the middle of almost nowhere an apple tree, likely planted by an old homesteader, had overtaken the house, which was now in barn-wood ruin.

Conversely, the apples on the tree that was growing through the front doorway were big and bright red. Other than this hearty apple and a quaking aspen, this was open country. Strange to see. I took a few photos here too.

I was rounding a corner when I saw a road off to my left that had puddles overflowing each of the two tracks. With the firm gravel road bottom beneath me, I drove on ahead to see what I could see.

Not very far down the road, there was a big area of grass freshly pushed down, likely where a moose had slept the night before. It was far too big an area for a deer.

I slowly pushed through the deep puddles which looked like they had been there for days, likely since a big dump of rain we got a week or so ago. I moved past the last puddle and the countryside opened-up with the help of a power line cut.

I could see the road kind of snaked up into the hardwoods. I decided to turn around just past the power line. As I was backing up, I glanced down the road out my driver’s side window.

Just then, a large animal briefly appeared at the edge of the dirt roadway before it ducked quickly back into the tall grasses and brush – it was a wolf.

I drove directly to the spot and stopped the vehicle.

I got out with my camera and looked around, but I couldn’t see where the wolf had gone. I drove slowly, looking back in my rearview mirror.

I had the odd feeling of “did I really just see that?” come over me.

Back at the intersection, I turned slowly to the right and saw a couple of ruffed grouse fly low across the road into the dark undergrowth. Then I looked ahead in the road.

I couldn’t believe what I saw.

There was a wolf standing there in the middle of the road, looking in my direction.

I had just seen the first one less than five minutes ago. My mind started quickly calculating whether it was the same animal because the power line crossed the road here too, but the distance was too far for that short of time.

As I approached slowly, the wolf turned and started heading up the road in a slow lope. I thought it would be gone in a second, dashing off to either side of the road.

Instead, the wolf kept running up the road ahead of me. I continued to follow behind and the wolf continued to trot, until after about 200 yards, when it cut into the brush on the left side of the road.

This was a big wolf, brownish black and beautiful.

I stopped my vehicle and got out. The hard, packed gravel on the road didn’t allow for tracks to imprint, but I did see where the rocks had been scuffed up before the wolf dove into the ferns and brush.

In the middle of the road just beyond this place was a piece of rather fresh wolf scat that was obviously deposited there not long ago. I sat quietly in the car for a good 20 minutes, hoping the wolf would duck back out onto the road.

I had hoped to get a picture, but the wolf did not re-emerge while I was there. I drove down the road a few miles, turned around and came back, hoping that might do the trick, but it didn’t.

I felt fortunate to have had this exhilarating experience.

The gravel crunched under the car wheels as I drove with the window open, the cold wind whipping in from outside, sweeping across my face.

I stopped a couple more times on the way back to take pictures along the big river, which was flanked with more old pines, covered in greenish-white lichen. The water was low with visible yellow grass strung out like hair across the river bottom.

Most of the rapids that rushed through this stretch were now just swirls moving between big black boulders that jutted out of the water.

I got back in my car, shut the door, started the engine and soon disappeared down the gravel road, around a big corner into the gathering dusk.

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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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