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Michigan Ag News Headlines
Winter into Spring Remembrances and Connection
By: John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources - 03/12/2018

From the earliest times I can remember, my folks would take me -- and later, all of us kids -- out to the woods for rides in the old station wagon, picnicking, fishing, hunting and wildlife watching.

Whether catching frogs, turtles and snakes, pulling leeches off ourselves after swimming in a warm summer lake or seeing a family of bears out for an evening play session, those outdoor adventures were simply wonderful. Fortunately for me, my parents understood the value of forming a connection with the natural world outside and wanted to pass that experience, wonder and amazement down to their four children.

I was also fortunate to grow up in Michigan, where natural resources abound.

During this time of year, for whatever reason, we didn't do much as a family outside. Outdoor winter excursions would come later for me.

However, my parents would still take car rides with us, to see the woodlands and the frozen rivers, covered with snow and the tracks of animals. Back and forth across the river, those tracks of foxes, rabbits and deer formed soft, delicate crisscross patterns.

My folks kept the car heater running, a candy bar or maybe some potato chips available and the old General Motors factory radio in the dashboard playing what we'd call today classic music. Back then, we just knew it as the local AM radio station -- all kinds of styles of music mixed together.

As I grew older, I continued to keep the outdoors a prominent part of my life. Outside, under the trees and the constellations, in the fresh air with the smell of wildflowers and cherry blossoms, my heart would lift, even in dark times of heartbreak, worry or concern.

For a decade or so, I moved to California, where I went to school, got married and lived out more than one dream of a small-town kid enchanted with the City of Angels.

Even in a city of several million people, I found great adventures in the outdoors. Not far from town there were mountains with bighorn sheep, little gray screech owls and mountain lions.

There were also deserts with beautiful sparrows, tarantulas, big desert tortoises, hummingbirds, jackrabbits, orioles and more than one kind of rattlesnake.

Farther north in the Golden State, on a trip with a good friend, I found myself walking through the snow with the springtime breaking out all around me. The water in the river was rushing, the sunlight was warm, but the breeze was still chilled, blowing off the snow.

It reminded me so much of being at home here in Michigan. I walked across a big tree that had fallen across the river, my boot heels making the wood sound hollow, my jean jacket over my shoulder.

I returned home to Michigan about a decade later, divorced and remarried with two boys of my own left back out west in that big city -- the only place they had ever known as home.

I missed the four seasons of Michigan, maybe even especially winter. I had wanted to come home for years, and with my dad taken ill, it seemed like this was the time. I returned on a cold December day.

Back among the wintertime woods, my spirit soared hearing the dialects of the common birds -- like white-breasted nuthatches and song sparrows -- that differed from those of their California kin.

I began to search out all those places we used to go as a family when I was a kid, but I wasn't going to wait until summer to do it.

One thing my experiences in California had taught me was to do something when you have the chance -- despite our tendency to presume otherwise -- it might be your only opportunity.

Those outings formed the basis for what would become many years of continued winter exploration -- hiking into the quiet, snowy woods to frozen waterfalls, ice caves or scenes in the backcountry you could never see in summertime.

Walking to the same waterfall, at about the same time each year, can produce surprisingly different results, given the individual characteristics of any one winter.

A hike to Black River Falls in Marquette County in March 2012 found the river raging, wide open and rolling over its banks. This was an especially warm late winter/early spring period.

A mid-March trip to the same falls the next winter found the waterfall comparatively silent. The river was frozen and snow-covered, with only a hole or two visible in the ice where the river was open. Brown foam from the tannin-laden waters pushed up into a pile near the base of the falls.

A January 2009 visit to Munising Falls at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Alger County found a tremendous ice column extending from the top of the sandstone cliff to the bottom of the falls, a drop of about 50 feet. The front of the column had melted away, with free-flowing water tumbling down inside, splattering on the rocks below. All the trees had been flocked beautifully with a recent fall of heavy, wet snow.

Not far away, a similar scene was found in January 2007 at the Laughing Whitefish Falls Scenic Site in Alger County. A recent snowfall had cloaked the woodlands in a frozen white gown, the falls themselves cascaded a hundred feet down a limestone outcrop, creating a bridal veil for the winter queen.

In 2003, my two boys came east during the late wintertime.

They had done this before, when we had sat outside in the hot tub on the back deck with the temperature hovering around zero degrees. In their shorts only, the barebacked boys got out of the tub and rolled in the cold snow in the yard.

On this later trip, we enjoyed some warm late-winter temperatures for a trip to the Eben Ice Caves, which are nestled in the Hiawatha National Forest's Rock River Canyon Wilderness -- past a farmer's field and down a slick path through a plateau that is home to a northern hardwood forest.

The boys loved the chance to walk behind the cold curtain of stalactites and stalagmites made from ice of beautiful cool shades of blue, northern-lights green and agate yellow.

I loved the chance to see them again, to spend time with them and to hopefully give to them what my folks had given me, a clear, direct connecting experience with nature and the outdoors.

Over the years, we had several trips into nature, mostly centered around trout fishing. We've all turned more than a few pages since then. I divorced a second time, moved from a home along the Lake Superior shore and lost my dad about a decade ago.

My boys are grown men now, and my oldest made me a grandfather recently, with a baby girl born last October. She is simply beautiful and magnificent.

Meanwhile, through my girlfriend, Liana, I have become well-acquainted with her two 12-year-old twin daughters, who have often taken to the winter woods with us.

We form human chains to get closer to the waterfalls, have great fun winter cabin camping at state parks, spend time with s'mores, friends and each other around the warm, crackling fire.

We've also taken lantern-lit snowshoe hikes, looked for gray jays and other forest friends in the local high country, made snow angels, thrown snowballs and -- more than once -- stood silently on a bridge with our eyes closed, listening to the river talk to us as it bubbled up, through and over the ice and snow.

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