Remembering and making memories in the outdoors

MARQUETTE — “I must have washed my hands in a muddy stream,” – Joe T. Babcock

And now I go out walking again, barefoot in the wet, muddy places where the cow slips are already set to bloom. Their gloriously bright yellow pedals reflect sunlight onto the bright, green leaves of these plants that are associated so strongly with springtime here in these great north woods.

The shimmering golden tone reminds me of holding a buttercup up to the chin of a playmate or sibling as a child to see a similar reaction. Twist the flower stem in your fingers and the reflection flickers.

Those images were cast onto the film in the back of my mind years and years ago, in days of summertime, past the steel gate to the dried, brown grasses where bright orange, red and yellow hawkweed grew.

In those times, we kids all mistakenly called the flowers Indian paintbrushes, which is the name of a wildflower that grows in this region, but is a different species altogether.

Dark, black bog mud squishes up and out between my toes. There are the high-pitched, metallic beep-like sounds of spring peepers all around me, those tiny woodland frogs with the cross-shaped markings on their backs.

The trail I am on was covered with water recently, like so many places. The heavens sent a cloudburst, that turned into a gully washer and then, as it grew in intensity and volume, a sod buster that tore out embankments, roadways, trails and hillsides as the water raced for the nearest low places.

Where the water deepens on this trail, I opt for walking on a small log that bisects this puddle in the mud. As I walk, I wonder to myself why I do this with my feet already wet and muddy.

Then, my memory snaps back to another time in the woods in the black mud. No, not once, it was twice. The first time involved my trying to cross a small strip of grass-covered peat alongside a small creek I was fishing.

It was a sweltering July afternoon. I was wearing fishing waders and was already too warm, but I began to sweat even more when I sunk quickly into the mud – up to my thighs.

It wasn’t a slow quicksand type of mucking it was quick and I was in. The slow part came in trying to pull myself out with the suction tight around my waders and legs. Finally, I popped one boot out of the mud with a loud sucking sound.

I was then able to use both of my hands to pull the other leg out.

Holy La Brea Tar Pits, Batman!

The second time was a similar set of circumstances, but worse. I was again in waders out fishing when I tried to cross from one grass-covered mound in a wetland to another. In between was the thick, black mud.

After my footing slipped from the far bank, I went in quickly and went down just the same. This mud had more water in its consistency, and I was pulled down fast. My feet could not feel any bottom.

As I moved, I was sinking farther. I quickly grabbed for some of the bright, yellow-green grass growing on the small bog islands around me. I sank up to my armpits in the mud, not sure how I was going to get out of this.

Holy, liquefaction, Batman!

I tossed my fishing pole back toward the grasses and it landed safely. I was still holding onto the grass with my other hand. I stayed there for a few minutes neither sinking farther, nor finding a way to pull myself out.

I thought for a few more minutes, fumbling the problem around in my head like a young boy plays with a Rubik’s Cube. I finally realized there wasn’t much of a way out other than to basically fall forward as much as I could and “swim” through the mud back to the more solid mud I had left behind me.

I think it’s human inclination to not want to lie down face-first in the mud, but I didn’t really have a choice. I made it back and felt fortunate to do so.

On other occasions, I have stepped into mud or muddy water up over my knee boots, but this time was the worst. So, my brain apparently keeps account of these incidents and so now even when I am through a small puddle, when confronted with the choice of walking through it or walking over the log instead, I take the log.

I guess that’s good. I guess I’ve learned something from past mistakes.

As I recall, only a couple of small fish were caught that day. It was one of those times when you feel like the effort significantly outweighed the benefits.

From the muddy trail, I make it out to the gravel road, and I see a garter snake sunning itself. I move closer, talking to it.

I am permitted to approach to within a foot or so with the snake moving nothing but its tongue, sensing what it can about this sudden and towering figure standing so closely nearby.

I talk a bit more and then turn around and move away slowly. The snake never moved. I mentioned that it might be a good idea to get off the road before it gets run over by a car.

Driving down a road today, I saw trash littered at the end of a driveway, the result of garbage cans that had been toppled and ransacked by crows and ravens. The birds, related to blue jays, are incredibly smart.

I watched one of the birds that I identified at 55 miles per hour as a raven, grab a metal trash can lid in its mouth trying to pull it off. The bird jerked its head up with a firm grip on the lid handle, trying to pull it off.

I thought this was fascinating. I’d never seen that before. It looked like this raven had learned from his or her experiences as well.

It didn’t get the lid off that I saw, but I had no doubt it had done this before and would do it successfully again, maybe as soon as my vehicle made it around the next bend in the road up ahead.

Another thing that struck me this week was kind of a juxtaposition of opposites. The Northern Michigan University Forensic Research Outdoor Station is located next to the office I work at in Marquette.

The place some call “the body farm” is designed to study the effects of outdoor conditions, especially wintry conditions, on the decomposition of bodies.

At this time of year, when I get out of my vehicle at work in the morning, there are beautiful songs of robins, finches and other birds soaring into the skies from the trees situated alongside the facility’s fencing.

One day this week, this struck me as the oddest positioning of things – kind of like when I go to visit my dad and see birds building nests in the trees at the cemetery. Clearly, the significance of that place too is lost on them.

My bare feet on the gravel road are warm today. I think my feet have gotten used to the cold over the winter, but soft when it comes to walking on rocks and stones. So, I start today to break them in again.

Spring arrived here with one big, blustery day of gusting winds, unseasonably warm temperatures and then rain that followed a few days later. As I walk, the buds have popped out on the trees, the grasses have green rapidly and there are brightly colored spring migrant birds everywhere.

Like them, I have returned to these woods to again walk the roads, the muddy trails and the grassy fields with my endless questions, too few answers and so little time.

I keep moving ahead, limping along in my limited human condition.

— — —

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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