Sunday afternoon I took in the last bits of June at Fenner Nature Center’s restored native grassland area. I strolled among innumerable flowers, bees, butterflies, dragonflies, and a few mosquitoes (They’re finally here. Hooray.) and listened to birds trilling and wings buzzing. It was the perfect summer day — the one we remember from childhood — with blue skies and time stretched out in all directions.
About halfway through the afternoon I was joined by a friend who seemed content with my company for a while.
We eventually went our separate ways, I to the pond to look for frogs and turtles, she to another patch of grass.
It was a lovely time away from people and the Internet, though I was disappointed that I could still hear traffic and some kids screaming in a nearby backyard. It has me looking forward to quiet July mornings on Lake Louise before the campers drag themselves out of bed and hiking through Pigeon River Country State Forest in October with my sister.
I asked my husband if he ever feels the pull to be completely away from people and all people-related things. He never has that he can recall. If I don’t get that kind of alone time in the natural world, I start getting anxious. We are both reluctant suburbanites. He would prefer to live in a high rise in New York or Chicago or Boston. I’d prefer to live in a log cabin on a remote island off the shore of Lake Superior. The day after I shot these pictures, he and our son spent an impromptu day in downtown Detroit, riding the People Mover and checking out the skyscrapers.
When I think about it, this is practically the only difference between us anymore. We’ll have been together 20 years this October (since I was fifteen), and in that time we’ve grown up and into one another so that we really are one, as we should be. Our culture so prizes individuality that I think this notion is rather quaint these days. But when it works, there’s nothing better.
Remember way back when wetlands were just called swamps? Someone in the 1970s or 1980s apparently endeavored to put a more positive spin on these soggy topographical features. Wetland sounds so much more pleasant than swamp, after all.
Well, if you hike north from the Upper Falls at Tahquamenon along the Giant Pines Trail Loop and the Wilderness Trail Loop, you will find yourself in a landscape that tends strongly toward swamp. Remember the soggy areas Alison and I encountered on the trail between the Lower and Upper Falls? Multiply that by, oh, let’s say 500–or 50, I don’t know. But whatever the correct number, if you plan to hike this section prepare to get your feet wet. Also, unless the DNR or whoever gets out there with a chainsaw soon, prepare to duck under and crawl over many, many trees.
Despite some sludgy trail conditions, there were some nice surprises early on, like this enormous, 185-year-old white pine tree, which was approximately 120 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter, and has a circumference of nearly 16 feet.
My sister looked pretty small next to it.
Not far from this mammoth lifeform we found this fat little caterpillar, which I think will be a Luna Moth when it’s all grown up.
But not too far into our second hike of the first day, the surprises turned simultaneously more unpleasant and more impressive.
Alison and I first noticed a tree across our path that had obviously been cut down by a beaver–its distinctive teeth marks cluing us in. A moment later we realized that we were walking alongside a lake. And that the water level was a foot or so higher than the soggy ground upon which we were treading.
Yes, we were at the edge of a beaver’s carefully constructed dam.
And, as I said, we were alternately amazed and irritated. The amazement is obvious. Beavers are incredible creatures with incredible talents. The beaver here had created his own perfect environment. That first photo in this post was of the beautiful wetland home he had made possible by building this:
He built it not across a rushing river but along the outskirts of the slowly moving water of some sluggish swamp, and we were on the very edge of it. It’s an enchanting position to be in.
The irritation may not be so obvious from these photos. But this next one may give you a hint:
You see that slim tree with the blue painted blaze? That, my friend, is the indicator of the North Country Trail. And, as I’m sure you noticed, it’s been incorporated into this beaver’s swimming pool. In fact, the beaver had obliterated much of the trail. I don’t know if he just made this dam this summer or if it really has been a long time since anyone at Tahquamenon Falls State Park has bothered to groom their backcountry trails (I kind of suspect the latter, frankly). Either way, it was slow, wet going here. It was swamp here.
At one point we realized that the only semi-dry option to move forward was to walk along the top of the dam itself as we tried to get back on the trail. We stepped gingerly, grasping at branches the beaver had as yet left untouched, leaned away from the water, and prayed that he was a good builder who didn’t cut corners.
We did make it past the wetland eventually, but with very wet shoes and socks and more than a few near-misses. As evening approached and the gray skies above rumbled a warning of the storms we knew were supposed to come that night, we tried to make up time as we rushed toward the Wilderness Campsite. We got the tent up before dark, ate a late supper, and used the surprisingly unsmelly and amusingly exhibitionist toilet.
It made me think of this iconic moment from Scrubs:
We bedded down for some much needed sleep as the forest darkened swiftly around us and flashes of lightning occasionally lit up the tent. As we fell asleep that night, or else as we woke the next morning, it’s hard to recall, we heard the strangest bird call, like a cartoon siren that ended with a honk. Or like a loon on steroids. It sounded like it had to come from a very large bird. After listening to some calls, I think it is quite possible it was a sandhill crane. Go to about the 1:50 mark on this video and you’ll hear just about what I think we heard:
In the morning I remembered to get a photo of our campsite before we packed back up to face yet more trail challenges and more rain on the way to our next campsite.
We were surrounded by utter silence, complete solitude, and zillions of wild blueberries (the presence of which during our entire hike had me ultra aware of the possibility of encountering black bears fattening up for winter).
This morning spent a very peaceful morning alone walking the woods of Fenner Nature Center with my camera. Pre-motherhood, I did such things quite often. Once you have a child tagging along it is a different experience. Still a good one, but different. As the sun was rising into the hazy morning sky, I walked at my chosen pace with silent steps and no speech, listening to myriad birds singing springtime songs and watching the woods for things to photograph.
Not too far into my walk I saw the flashing white tail of a deer as it bounded out of my path. So I stopped, then moved forward slowly until I was at a point where I could see her through a little clearing in the trees. She looked at me, assessing the threat level. I was still, waiting for her to decide I could be trusted at that distance.
We looked at each other for several minutes. Then she started nibbling at the burgeoning plant life around her and flicking her white tail. This seemed to signal her friends. She was joined first by one other doe, who regarded me with just a bit of suspicion before she too began foraging. And soon thereafter two more friends joined them before they all moved on into the woods.
It occurs to me that this is how our ideas come sometimes. We are out enjoying life when a flash of white catches our eye and we stop a moment, then approach the idea slowly so as not to scare it off. We watch it closely, take in its form, maybe snap some photos or write some notes in order to capture it before it moves on. And if we are patient enough, more ideas come tumbling into the clearing in our mind.
Ideas can be timid, fleeting. Push too much and they can be pushed right out of our minds. But patience, stillness, a willingness to observe and record, can capture them forever.