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Column: The sights and sounds of spring begin slowly

“There must be a cloud in my head, rain keeps falling from my eyes,” – Dee Clark

— — —

MARQUETTE — When I stepped outside the back door, the sound I heard was familiar to me, but not one I would associate with the white blanket of winter stretched out across the yard.

It was a pattering, uneven rhythmic sound I heard.

Closing my eyes to help focus my listening, my mind took me back swiftly to countless days I’ve spent standing out under the boughs of spruces or cedars, alongside a grassy creek bank with rain coming down.

On those days I’d be fishing for trout hearing the raindrops bouncing off the hood of my jacket. What I was hearing today was quite similar, except this symphony of water droplets had a decidedly more metallic ring to it.

It was like the sound water makes when it strikes something metal like one of my favorite white-speckled, steel blue camping cups or a tin roof – one of those white noises that makes for good sleeping.

On this warm afternoon, what I was hearing was water from melting snow dropping off the edge of the roof and falling down into a hollowed-out cone of ice that resembled a grand crystal fountain – one with a series of nested bowls of various sizes, runnels and rills.

A wind gusted up out of the south, with the sounds of squawking jays and crows in the background. The warmth of the past couple of days seemed to have awakened various creatures of the forest.

Under the maples, on a low hill at the back of the yard, a big tom turkey stepped cautiously forward through the snow, followed by three more diminutive birds. These gobblers appeared to be the same group of four birds that had been in the yard a couple of days after Thanksgiving, but where have they been since then?

The night before I had smelled the perfume of a skunk on the wind.

Across the surface of the lake, deer tracks – enlarged and flattened with the melting snow – zig-zagged back and forth, approaching a hole in the ice where open water was now visible.

The tracks stopped short of the water. Perhaps the deer sensed the ice was weakened, maybe it heard cracking.

I was now behind the wheel, heading south into that wind, eager to see what the rivers and creeks looked like after three days of sunshine and warm weather.

Gliding off onto a snow-packed dirt road, I began to feel the knots slip on the tension inside me. Seeing the jack pines growing thick and green at the side of the road, knowing I was back to one of those familiar places I’d known and loved my whole life, began to relax me.

Built up anxiety from days of not getting out to the woods began to wash away.

That feeling came over me further once I stopped the car just past a bridge over the river, stopped and got out.

Lately, there had been too many tasks to master. The world seems to have slipped sideways, wounded and wobbling.

This right here was exactly what I needed. To just be out among this beauty, solace and honesty – this place where the river turns wide and slow, where truth and reason can still be found.

The lateness of the afternoon had dropped a cobalt cast over the whole of the countryside, with white cumulus and cirrus clouds puffed and smeared across the federal and powder blue skies.

I have known a granite outcropping here along the river since I can remember, but I can’t recall seeing it like this – buried under winter’s snows.

I had to take several looks to find the trail so familiar to me during summertime. The thorn apple trees that have always created a canopy over the path were packed tightly together, folder down under the snow.

In some places, I stepped over tree limbs, in others, I sank into the deep snow up to my thighs. Nonetheless, within a few moments, I reached the river’s edge, which was obscured by an uneven covering of ice and slush.

None of the massive granite rock was visible, still covered under a couple feet of snow. Along either edge of the river in front of me, the water was open and flowing past slowly, while the middle of the stream remained covered in ice and a thin covering of snow.

Deer track trails crisscrossed each other in that snow, while rabbit tracks skirted the edge of the waterline. A small branch from a jack pine tree, pinched off by the winds of some howling storm, lie in the snow with a deep recess around it caused by the dark green branch absorbing the warmth of the sun.

The sound of the water here was much faster than the dripping I had heard coming off the roof. This song sounded like an anthem of freedom, one of delight and splendor – a rolling and tumbling of ebullience.

However, the sound was still quiet with most of the river’s water locked up in ice.

Other than the wind, it was silent out here.

With all the leaves downed, the landscape revealed features I had never seen before, including a small pond that was either an overflow of the river or a feeder.

I walked back out following my tracks and went up the road to the bridge.

On the upstream side, an elongated stretch of open water swirled around either side of a group of rocks. The ice that remained here was cracked, its edges and surface rounded, smoothed and softened over these days of sunshine.

In the snow on the bridge I saw the tracks of a canine that certainly looked big enough to be from a wolf. They were nearly the size of my hand.

Walking across the road, I noticed whitewash on the bridge rail indicating to me that either an eagle or an owl had been frequenting this perch.

I looked down to the water at my left and saw what looked like a thick scattered pile of bird feathers covering the ice. Instead, this was fur from a deer that had died here in the snow.

The bones were picked clean and scarcely much remained recognizable. It was clear to me now the whitewash had come from one or more eagles.

There was a small amount of blood in the snow on the other side of the river, along tracks leading to the river ice. Had the deer been chased and caught or struck by a vehicle and hobbled, it wasn’t clear.

I saw my silhouette cast over the ice downstream. Here, the sun had bathed the cone-covered tops of spruce trees, more thorn apple and some tamaracks. Only high cirrus ice clouds to see, the sky still a staggering blue.

A seam had opened in the ice down the middle of the river, measuring a few feet across. I was too far away, up here on the bridge, to hear the water now. It seemed like the sky was a river too – deep and wide.

Along the riverbank, holes had been melted into the snow revealing uneven bales of dried grass. Winter’s claws were unclenching, slowly.

On the dirt road back, the mud in open areas looked to be the thickness, color and consistency of fudge. The sun was dropping in the sky. I watched the passing tree line along the horizon.

I crossed several creeks on the route home. A few were open and running wild, others looked like white snakes twisting through the alder trees – quiet and covered with snow.

At home, the water was still dripping off the roof. I listened a while, soaking up the day’s faltering rays of sunshine.

It felt good.

— — —

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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