First Real Snow

Last night it began to snow and it is still snowing now. Monday morning. Veteran’s day. There are still leaves on the big Norway Maples in the back yard. Still yellow leaves scattered across the back gardens that I didn’t have the energy to deal with after my son and I raked up the elm and ash leaves in the front, the refuse of two doomed trees.

The ash is one of the last standing around here, but the emerald ash borers did finally get to it and it is slowly dying, shrinking back each year so that only the middle of it gets leaves at all while the extremities are dead and brittle and break off in high winds of under heavy snow and ice. It is marked with a big red circle of spray paint, like a bullet wound seeping blood, and will be taken down by the city some time in the next year or so. In the meantime, I wouldn’t park under it if I were you.

The elm was an accidental planting, the result of using free mulch several years back. As far as I can work out, someone else was losing an elm tree to some sort of bacteria or fungus and had it cut down and chipped up and that is what the city brought me to mulch with when I inquired about free wood chips the year after the big ice storm took down so many limbs. I’d been expecting chips from dead trees, but this one still had some life in it (and seeds, apparently). So now it’s progeny grows at the confluence of three property lines and no one took it down when it was a sapling and manageable. So at some point in the next five or ten years, it will start to die and we’ll all have to chip in to remove it. Though I’m pretty sure it’s my fault to begin with.

This spring I planted some trees on purpose. Three varieties of Japanese maple, a Japanese cherry, and one little redbud that was just a weed on the other side of the fence, which I transplanted to my garden and watched carefully all summer (they do not like to be moved). And now all those little baby trees are gathering snow in their bare arms, saving it to drink later when we have a warm-up. Which we will. The ten-day forecast includes several days that reach 40 degrees. Rain is predicted. I may yet get all those yellow maple leaves up, even if they are wet.

There are still a few other chores to do. I must wrap my new sky pencil holly in burlap. I must remove the bamboo fountain and the water pump, which I meant to do this weekend but forgot in my exhaustion and my desire to finish reading a book. I did manage to remember to get the cover on the outdoor furniture.

As we enter the season of cold and snow and ice and clouds I am content. I feel a release of breath. A busy season is ending. A shivering, staying-put-and-reading-and-writing one has begun. I have a few more events this month to support the release of The Words between Us, but nothing scheduled until April of next year (and no intention to put anything on the calendar before that month). I have a book that has steadily made its way from my brain into the tips of my fingers over the past year and is ready to be written. I have cozy slippers and a wood-burning fireplace and a small dog that lives to cuddle.

So yeah, I’m ready for winter. Even if the yard’s not.

Sweet September

In September, the house is sheathed with spiderwebs. At every corner of every window they build their deadly, gossamer castles and lie in wait, bloated and insatiable.

Crane flies perch and hover at windows and doors. Fledglings pick at the seeds of weeds I’ve left to grow unchecked all the hot summer long.

Grasshoppers munch, leap, munch, leap, fly.

Some flowers are spent.

Others are just beginning to bloom.

Others send out a few last blooms as an encore to June’s performance.

The nights are growing longer minute by minute.

Everything that flies or crawls or hops is preparing for the harder, colder season ahead.

 

Even me.

I finally trim back the overgrown and uproot the unwanted.

I remember how much I like tea.

I go on a real grocery shopping trip.

School has begun. Summer, for all intents and purposes, has ended.

And I am not sorry to see it go.

I never am.

Hiking the Manistee River, Day Three

Sometimes, pictures are all you need.

Up from Red Bridge, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Witch Hazel, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Slagle Creek, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Waterfall, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Waterfall, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

 

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Sunset on birches, Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

Manistee River Trail, Lower Peninsula, October 2016

If you ever get a chance to hike the Manistee River Trail at the height of fall color, I highly suggest you take it.

Hiking the North Country Trail Side of the Manistee River, Day Two

After a night of interrupted sleep, we packed up our stuff and headed back down the trail, intent on reaching the Red Bridge campground on the river below. Here’s some of the beauty we saw along the way…

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

Red Hill Overlook, North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

North Country Trail, Manistee River, October 2016

After a time, we left the North Country Trail and took an auxiliary trail that would bring us down to Red Bridge and connect us with the Manistee River Trail on the other side of the river.

Manistee River Trail, October 2016

We were surprised to find that the campsite was right by the road and a big parking lot, but neither of us felt compelled to go any further at the moment in hopes of finding a more remote one. You’d be surprised how compelling the idea of a picnic table is after just a couple days of hiking.

We settled in along the Manistee River among some beautiful marshy wetland areas.

Manistee River near Red Bridge, October 2016

Manistee River near Red Bridge, October 2016

Manistee River near Red Bridge, October 2016

As the sun set, we read and enjoyed the fire. Our second night would be much less eventful than the first.

That night I heard only coyotes and a great horned owl, prelude to what would be an enchanted morning…

[to be continued]

Night Screams, Gunshots, Mystery Guests, and Other Sinister Nighttime Visions

If you’ve never slept in the deep woods, perhaps you are not familiar with just how eerily quiet it can be. At home, my husband and I both have white noise to cover the silence. A fan or the air conditioning or the furnace is often running. My son has the sound of his aquarium and the soft sounds from his CD player to lull him to sleep. But on a still, windless night in the woods, you can hear the silence. And because you are straining to hear anything at all, when a sound does present itself, it can feel strange, larger than life, and sometimes a bit threatening.

During our three nights on the trail, I heard the echoing chorus of coyotes, the hooting of owls, the call of sandhill cranes. I heard the pattering of rain and falling leaves. I heard the crash of a waterfall and the swish-swoosh of wind in the trees.

But that first night was very, very quiet.

Until the screaming started.

My sister and I both heard it and we both had the same thought: Is someone getting murdered out here? We had heard gunshots earlier, but my perusal of Michigan hunting season information suggests that these shots were likely directed at wild turkeys, not humans.

I listened very closely each time the sound occurred and was comforted that it was exactly the same each time. So no, no one was getting murdered — screams would be varied in tone, pitch, and volume if you were under attack. This was the call of an animal.

I assumed at first it must be a screech owl, but as I listened to many recordings of screech owls (and a bunch of other owls) I realized that this wasn’t exactly what I heard. So I branched out and found this:

Yeah…that’s what I heard, all right.

Here’s another one (the scream starts just after the 0:25 mark):

We heard the jarring and disconcerting sound of what I now know to be a fox perhaps half a dozen times, then it stopped. And we went back to sleep.

Sometime later, I heard much quieter sounds…much closer. A kind of heavy ambling sound, accompanied by a looming but dim shadow over my head on the tent. A soft scuffling. Then silence, but with what dim light entered the tent from the moonlight on this cold, clear night I thought I saw the tent material getting closer and closer to my face, as though someone or something was pushing it.

I quietly extracted my arm from the straight jacket of my sleeping bag and pulled my pistol from its holster, which was resting within easy reach. Five years ago when my sister and I had hatched our yearly hiking plans, my husband had insisted I get my CPL. People got murdered on trails sometimes. A bullet wouldn’t stop an angry grizzly bear if I was out West somewhere, but a quick succession of them could certainly slow a black bear (provided you’ve got more than a .22 caliber, which I do).

My heart pounding, I waited with my hand on that gun. Waited for the terrifying sound of someone unzipping the tent or the slash of claws through the nylon near my face. But nothing happened. And nothing happened. And nothing happened. Had I dreamed it?

Eventually, I calmed down enough to go to sleep.

Now, sleeping on the ground is uncomfortable, and the first night especially I think most people tend to wake up a lot. And I did wake up a few times after the incident with the shadow and the shuffling footfalls. And every time, I heard my sister’s light snores from the other side of the tent — and the steady, low breathing of something on the outside of the tent, maybe only a foot from my head.

My nighttime visitor was still there. And I could assure myself that it was indeed an animal because a person certainly wouldn’t be sleeping out there in the 35 degree night air. It was a large animal with a deep lung capacity. Because it was just sleeping, I wasn’t worried. I went back to sleep.

At about 3:00 AM, my sister woke me up because she needed to go to the bathroom and I was blocking the door of the tent. I stopped her and told her of the sounds, the shadows, the low, deep breaths.

“Something was sleeping out there — a deer or a bear — and I don’t want you going out there and surprising it.”

She confirmed that I hadn’t been dreaming — she’d heard whatever it was arrive as well, and at different time, she had been awakened and heard it breathing. But at that point, neither of us heard anything and nothing was going to stop her from going to the bathroom. Alison checked her surroundings, used the forest facilities, and we went back to sleep.

When morning finally came, it was so cold that neither of us really had much desire to leave our sleeping bags. But then I remembered our nocturnal visitor, got my camera, and got up to search for signs of what really was on the other side of a few microns of nylon. I looked for hoof prints and fur, though I knew in my gut it wasn’t a deer — they just don’t sound like that when walking. I saw no fur, which deer tend to leave behind anywhere they’ve been, and no hoof prints, which are the easiest wildlife footprints to identify.

What I did see were some long, straight scratches — the longest probably about the length of my index finger — and a few shallow marks of foot pads. Here is just a sampling:

 

 

 

Now, except for cheetahs, felines have retractable claws, so they would not leave claw prints. Also, the only cat big enough to make that size print — a mountain lion — isn’t found in the lower peninsula. So I had two choices.

This could possibly be a canine, like a fox (too small), coyote (also probably too small), or wolf — and again, you don’t really find wolves the lower peninsula. Plus, anyone who has ever spent any time with dogs could recognize how a dog or doglike creature sniffs and moves. This creature was not doglike.

The only other possibility is that it was a bear.

Why not a large, sluggish raccoon or a porcupine? Well, a few reasons. The shadow was too big, the sniffing in too low a register, the claw marks too big, and also raccoons and porcupines sleep in trees, not on the ground.

So I am 99% sure my sleeping companion was a black bear. Probably a younger individual just because of the size of the prints and claw marks. And my theory as to why it decided to sleep with us? 1.) It was a very cold night and the tent had to be warmer than the air around it because our bodies were in it. 2.) Perhaps it is this youngster’s first season away from mom and it was looking for companionship.

You may come to some other conclusion, but for my money, I slept with a bear Friday night.

Hiking the North Country Trail Side of the Manistee River, Day One

I left Lansing Friday morning after breakfast with my husband at the Good Truckin’ Diner for a two and a half hour drive I intended to take three hours to make.

Driving North on I-127 in late October

I padded my drive time so I could pull over now and again and take pictures on the way up.

Driving north on I-127 in late October

Because while we’re still a week away from peak color here in mid-Michigan, I knew it wouldn’t take long before I started seeing some nice, full color as I headed north.

Driving north on I-127 in late October

It was cloudy but colorful, and the further north I got, the more the sun broke through. As it turned out, I was actually a wee bit late meeting my sister at the Marilla Trailhead of the North Country Trail (circled on the map below in red).

Our plan was to jump onto that red dotted line you see that indicates the North Country Trail and head south to the second of two creeks to set up camp for the first night. The fellow below was waiting a few steps onto the path to welcome us and bid us best wishes.

Garter snake at Marilla Trailhead, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan

The trailhead path began as a gently sloping descent toward the NCT, which would take us up and down and along narrow ridges pounded out of the painted hillsides by generations of feet.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Leaves of yellow — poplar, maple, birch — were sprinkled here and there with orange and red and rusty brown from other types of maples, beech, elm, and oak.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Most of the ferns were dried and brown, though that first hour we got fairly wet with drizzly rain which fell intermittently and not enough all at once to really feel like it was raining. Every once in a while along the first part of the path, we were treated to overlooks like this…

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The light spots in the distance are parts of the hillside on the other side of the Manistee River that have collapsed, leaving sand faces that look like dunes. In a couple days, that’s where we would be hiking.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The sun peeked out from the clouds regularly to set our surroundings glowing.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

And I was glad that circumstances and schedules had pushed our trip so late in the season.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

We got supremely lucky that Michigan’s fall colors were late in coming this year.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

It sometimes seemed as though they must have known, must have held back until Alison and I could get up to see them. And after holding back, they had to let go in the most brilliant way.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

And even on this cloudy day, we could see for miles. This would be our home for four days and three nights.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Though we marveled at the grand sweep of the forest, we were careful to notice the little things as well. Mushrooms and mosses of many kinds. Lichens and bearberry.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Eventually we turned away from the big river and spent much of our time weaving our way through ravines choked with trees.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The first creek we crossed was Eddington Creek. Alison and I are both fans of creeks.

Eddington Creek, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The sweet singing sound and the ambling way they cut through the forest are enchanting.

Eddington Creek, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

But this was too soon in the hike to stop for the night. There was another set of creeks (unnamed, but very clearly on the map as squiggly blue lines) further along the trail and it was my intention that we would camp near one of those.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

So we hiked on. We crossed paths with other hikers, with mountain bikers, and with friendly dogs wearing saddlebags and broad dog smiles.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

We saw innumerable beautiful trees. We talked about our jobs and our families and our nation. And eventually we realized that the creeks we were searching for were either left far behind or not there to be found. We ran into another couple hikers, compared notes and maps, and discovered we were at least two miles further along than we thought, and we were also at the highest point on the trail. My explanation is that the streams we never saw are likely only running in spring when the winter snows are melting.

Campfire, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Luckily, we had plenty of water for the night. We chose a spot just off the trail, made a fire, and set up camp. It got steadily colder and darker until it became clear that the best thing to do was to layer up, don our warm hats and gloves, and tuck ourselves into our sleeping bags to capture our body heat. Even so, our toes and noses would be freezing in the morning. The night would be very cold indeed — 35 degrees Fahrenheit (less than 2 degrees Celsius, for my international readers). And very quiet…for the most part.

A cold night (35 degrees) camping along the North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

But we wouldn’t spend the entire night alone. Keep your eyes on that spot to the right of the tent, between the tent and the tree. Because there, in that space, we would have a midnight visitor…

[to be continued]

Another Great Hiking Trip in the Books

My sister and I spent the last four days hiking the gorgeous Manistee River Trail/North Country Trail during peak fall color.

Watch this space over the coming days for pictures, tales of close encounters of the Ursidae kind, freaky night sounds, and more!

Fall Flair in the Garden

Late October is still a great time for the garden when you have these beauties in your beds.

Beautyberry Bush
Beautyberry Bush
Autumn Joy Sedum
Autumn Joy Sedum
Endless Summer Hydrangea
Endless Summer Hydrangea
Red Carpet Rose
Red Carpet Rose
Rosa Bonica hips
Rosa Bonica hips
Annual Geraniums
Annual Geraniums
Oakleaf Hydrangea
Oakleaf Hydrangea
Japanese Anemone
Japanese Anemone

In Which the Trees Finally Put on Their Autumnal Attire

In the immortal words of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, the trees, they are a changin’. I may be paraphrasing there…

Black Walnut

Fall color has been a long time coming this year, but now we are seeing the yellow, orange, and red, warnings to the birds and squirrels that time is running out to put away their winter store.

Sugar Maple

Signs for us that that beautiful season of winter is around the bend, waiting for us with a cozy fire, a blanket of snow, and five months of dark seclusion in which to read and write and hibernate after the frenetic race of the warm months.

Maple

I know I am looking forward to it…even if you aren’t. 🙂