Column: A journey down a well traveled pathway

“That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime, of old dogs and children and watermelon wine,” – Tom T. Hall

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MARQUETTE — With the bony, white claws of the Wintermaker still clutched tightly around late April, I followed my footprints down the driveway toward the mailbox.

I noticed my tracks in the deep snow from the day before had been used overnight by a deer making its way from the cedar trees along the driveway’s edge to the county road.

This reminded me of how animals and humans tend to use some of the same means to travel from place to place. Ravens and crows, wolves, loons, moose and other creatures follow the roads humans have made to reach destination points.

For some, these shared transportation routes are where the walking is easier. For others, they are dangerous and formidable barriers to cross. Loons can mistake paved roads for waterways, landing on them.

I was out fishing one time and walked up over an embankment in time to see a river otter stop behind a guardrail along a road that separated the two of us.

A car was coming down the hill and would soon cross the river bridge. I stopped to see what would happen, nervous the otter might run out and be struck by the approaching vehicle.

Instead, the otter stayed behind the guardrail post and ducked its head under the metal to watch the car pass. When it did, the animal bounded its way across the road in my direction and quickly slipped off into the water to head downstream.

I think a check dam and sea lamprey barrier situated just upstream from the bridge discouraged the otter from moving downstream without crossing the road. It’s all very interesting to think about and I’m glad I got to see it.

Heading back from the mailbox, the air was filled with sounds of the springtime, despite the wintry blanket covering just about everything. There were the birds, of course, whose spirited spring songs were seemingly bursting with excitement about the longer daylight hours.

Birds and animals are making plenty of other sounds too, many we haven’t heard for months. There’s hoots, cries and whistles, tapping and pounding, scratching and clawing and the scampering of chipmunks and squirrels up and down tree trunks and across branches.

The cold north winds make it seem like even the clouds are making noise as they pass swiftly overhead. It seems late to have this much snow hanging on so long.

Northern saw-whet and barred owls volley songs back and forth through the blackness of the nighttime. Deer emerge from the trees to take short walks along the edge of the pavement before turning back into the woods.

They follow their narrow paths down to the edge of the lake, where the retreating ice offers places to find a drink of water.

In the wee hours, the silence takes on a pronounced atmosphere of its own. To me, it’s comforting. Its presence lets me try to have a chance to hear myself think and what imperceptible truths the stars might have to tell.

With the morning broken, I decided to make my way down to the lake to see what was happening there. Around the rim, fallen pine trees lay submerged, encased in ice. The riparian woodland around the creek that feeds the lake had been ravaged by beavers.

There were pointed trunks sticking up out of the ground in numerous places. Brush had been pulled back by someone from the upstream side of a culvert that moved the creek under the road to the lake.

Where the stream gurgled and twisted, downstream of the culvert, I stood looking into the water. I didn’t see any fish, but I did see the floor of the creek covered in sticks washed downstream from the beaver workings.

There were plenty of branches that had recently had the bark stripped from them by the beavers. Across a decent stretch of open water, hooded mergansers chased each other, while red-winged blackbirds and common grackles croaked and chucked from the lakeside bushes.

Canada geese stood on the ice honking and flapping their wings. Two geese were displaying to each other, their necks stretched out long, hung flat just over the surface of the water. The birds made weird croaking sounds.

One of the geese waddled up the snow-covered embankment to get up to a grassy place onshore. There, the goose lay in the short grass and began pulling lichen and bark from the base of an old maple tree with its bill.

The material that was pulled away was placed in a pile nearby on the ground. Clearly, this was a nest under construction. I returned the next day to find the goose incubating two large, white eggs.

I had kept a wide distance, using the lens of my camera to get me close enough to see and to take a few pictures. In addition to grasses, the nest was lined with feathers and small sticks.

Not too far from here, another pair of geese were feeding at the edge of an ice floe. Years ago, I came upon a mallard nest when I was fishing a small creek. I found it as I flushed the birds from along the stream.

There were numerous eggs in the nest. Birds that nest on the ground, like ducks and grouse, often have many eggs in their clutches as nature anticipates several will be lost to predators and other dangers like spring flooding.

I didn’t find the mallard nest on this day, but I knew it was close by.

This past week, a reader sent me a beautiful picture of a northern saw-whet owl with its face sticking out of an old wood duck nest box. The owl sat watching the occupants of the property during the better part of the day.

While I was watching the mallards, I tapped on a couple of trees with old flicker holes in their tops but wasn’t lucky enough to get a response from any nesting or roosting owl.

My search continues.

The inland brook trout season starts tomorrow, though the wintry conditions will make it tough to reach many places where the water is suitable for wetting a line. Inland lakes are still mostly locked in ice.

I feel like I’m in a time wrinkle or something, with things seeming to be almost stopped, while at the same time whizzing by underneath me like a racing river.

The natural scenes around me also seem to contradict themselves. There’s snow covering the ground, and floating in the air, while the birds are nesting.

I keep telling myself the summer sun will soon be here, with mellow days and easy nights and a familiar comfort that comes from relaxation, relief and rejuvenation.

In the meantime, I’ll follow the deer in my walks through the snow, down the county road and across the places where the snow has melted away in patches from the countryside.

I’ll find a boulder or a cliff to sit on, above the river, where I can listen to my heart and feel the north wind in my hair, cutting down sharp across my face, stirring my soul.

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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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