Watching the last breaths of icy-cold wintertime

MARQUETTE — “Riding the storm out, waiting for the thaw out,” – Gary Richrath

After a few days of elated joy brought on by the arrival of springtime to these great north woods, nature dug into its bag of tricks and lobbed up at least one more googly ball of splat.

Overnight, misting rain turned to larger raindrops which then froze to everything they landed on or rolled over. This was followed up by gusting winds and snowfall.

The confluence of these meteorologic factors produced a late-season snow day for hundreds of schoolkids, electric service disruptions to many homes and businesses and a winter wonderland for everybody.

I had stepped outside a couple of times during the storm. The sound was amazing to hear. The ice-covered tree branches were being pushed into each other by the winds, which made a sound not unlike someone walking through beads strung over a doorway.

Closing my eyes, it was easy to imagine the sound ushering me over the transom and into a head shop in the backroom of my 1960s and 1970s brain. The room is cluttered with everything from black-lite posters, lava lamps, flickering beer can light bulbs and smoking paraphernalia to bootleg vinyl records, like Bob Dylan’s “Great White Wonder.”

Back from the Ozone of the North in my mind, the winds had cut sharp and broken the limbs from several of the trees. The swaying and the extra weight on the branches likely caused a breakage, with a tree or branch striking and downing a line to produce the power outage at our house.

A few bigger branches that I didn’t know were dead or near dead had fallen into our front and back yards. One big maple tree branch lay in the snow in serpentine fashion, looking like a big, gray elephant’s trunk that might have chased a bag of peanuts into the snow and then out again.

Mourning doves had taken to crowding themselves up against the house to keep warm. The frozen rain had fallen and dripped from the roof of a hopper bird feeder.

The ends of the feeder were accessible to the doves and redpolls, but if viewed from the front or back, it appeared the birds had been incarcerated in some sort of ice prison.

After dark, I walked back to the woodpile to get some wood for the fireplace. I whistled to see if I might be able to get a response from the saw-whet owl I’d heard a few nights back. Surprisingly, the bird began singing almost immediately from the spruce trees standing behind the woodshed.

I didn’t get to see it, but I was thrilled with the encounter, nonetheless.

The late-season storm reminded me that the days of huddling close to the fireplace and eating delicious soups were not yet over. Cool. More golden mushroom, tomato bisque and split pea with ham – not forgetting about the warm breads and butter too.

The morning after the storm, I looked out the window to find that glorious winter wonderland I mentioned earlier. I grabbed my camera and went out, bent on capturing some of this wonderment for posterity.

The trees, of course, were the main attraction. They were heavily flocked. It looked more like Christmastime than late March. The scene was breathtakingly beautiful. I tried to zoom out in my mind’s eye to see myself here walking alone in this stunning scene.

Doing things like that helps me take note of the things I have to be grateful for in every moment and the tremendous blessings available just outside the doorway pretty much everywhere in this northern retreat.

After taking a few photos, some I thought might make great jigsaw puzzle scenes, I headed down the road for more of the experience.

I noticed a great many animal tracks in the snow.

They included one canine track with a line across the heel portion, letting me know this was a red fox. There were also long-tailed and short-tailed weasel tracks, gray and red squirrels and white-tailed deer.

I was working my way out toward my wishing place, which was no doubt snow-covered, craggy, windswept and forlorn. However, I knew the view would be spectacular.

As I neared the place, I could see heavy white pine branches had been forced to the ground by the storm. They were slumped against the trunk of the tree, broken and bent.

Minutes later, I stood above a smaller pine bough in the snow, looking at it through the viewfinder of my camera. The branch had broken through a sugary ice-crust on the snow, but it too was broken into many pieces.

The needles of the branch laid atop the snow. The whole image looked much like a person on the ground would if they had fallen from the same height. This was a striking correlation to make.

To get to the wishing place, I needed to climb over a bank of snow that had been pushed up high. I kept trying to gain traction in my steps but, like the pine bough, I broke through the crust of the snow, sinking in soft snow past my knees deep.

I remained undeterred and pressed on.

The ascent to the pinnacle of the rocky throne was in some ways easier than at other times of the year, with the snow making for shorter distances between the top and the bottom of stretches and climbs.

Once at the top, it was as I anticipated. The view was incredible. It truly was like seeing a Christmas card. The trees were all clothed in white, fluffy robes of snow and some of them wore ice-crystal crowns.

It was like being inside a snow globe. I half expected to see a princess dressed in pink pirouetting over the ice on the lake with music box music playing in my ears – perhaps Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies.”

More animal tracks and broken tree limbs up here. Below me, off in the distance, I could hear and see a pickup truck headed up the county road, following the rim of the lake off into the distance.

With the vehicle gone, the quiet again enveloped and consumed me as I stood next to my old friend the white pine, who has likely been standing there, trying to keep a toehold in the rocks for more than a hundred years.

The wind was still blowing into my face with a high Arctic accent, but I did not care in the least.

I realized that these were likely going to be among some of the last breaths of icy-cold wintertime for another few months. I welcomed the invigorating cold and the power of those old, north winds.

As I was heading around the edge of the rocky ledge, the sun began to peak through the clouds, bringing new colors and shades popping out everywhere across the gorgeous and rugged landscape.

I took more pictures of the pines, the birches and the aspens. The snowy scene was incredible to try to take in. The fresh air, the quiet and the solitude enchanted me as they always do.

About this time, another realization swept over me. That of understanding how much I had missed being outside walking around and exploring, even though I had done so just a few days earlier.

I am reminded again that I don’t think I am supposed to leave nature but do so as a human construct. I feel so much a part of the surroundings, but at the same time, I sense that humans are somehow strangers to this scene.

Someday, I hope all these things will be revealed and the truth and understanding I have long wished for will wash over me and soak deep into my entire being.

Meanwhile, I will do what I do – do what I must – walking and thinking and searching and looking, trying to find out what I can. I’ll keep reading and listening too. I think there are tremendously big truths to be discovered from the smallest of things.

Yet again, here’s to terra incognita.

— — —

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.


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