Outdoors North: Effects of late-storm devastation not fully realized
“I’m tore down, I’m almost level with the ground.” – Sonny Thompson
It was a strange set of circumstances confronting me as I headed up from a main dirt road back way to the higher country where the road narrows, and the silences grow deeper and more profound.
The circumstances I’m referring to involve a very pronounced crossing of the seasons, an unexpected changing of the guard, a full fortnight into the month of May.
The tremendous extra-late winter storm that shocked and pounded the region with gusting blizzard winds, and a dumping of more than 30 inches of snow in some places, had mostly blown and melted away by now.
But the effects of the storm’s devastation had hardly been fully realized.
Meanwhile, temperatures had soared to near 80 degrees. The warm winds brought scores of migrating birds to the region and worked to pop open buds on trees and forest garden blooms.
It was kind of like the meeting of two massive opposing air masses and I was walking along the frontal boundary. I could sense clearly the two divergent realities before me. On one hand, the wake of yet another late winter storm; and on the other, the rushing in of springtime in all its wondrous glory and splendor.
My hope was to reach the shores of an inland lake that reflects like a gigantic mirror the heavens above. There, the sky is ruled by eagles and the water the providence of loons.
The shoreline is adorned with birches, maples and oaks – in living forms and those died away, as the trunks of some of these once beautiful trees now amass collectively on the sandy beach as driftwood homes for squirrels and mice.
It is one of those beloved quiet spaces, where the gnawing and grinding of the teeth on the wheels of this world cannot be heard. It’s a place where I can feel my entire inner being loosen, a setting where I sense the rusting and locked-tight bolts turning and twisting off.
There’s a breaking and a snapping and tearing away, a shedding of a crusty exoskeleton and the emergence of a spirit fresh and renewed.
Here, I can begin to relax inside, regain the ability to hear myself think and drop my metal shackles, burying them in the sand.
But the dirt and graveled road to this place of respite and recovery I’ll not reach today.
Before I had gone very far at all, I was amazed to see the tremendous damage wreaked by the storm.
The road I was on, once up around the bend and over a small hillside, was still covered in snow, ice and muddy ruts. There were numerous places where passersby had used limbing saws or chainsaws to cut through the branches and trunks of fallen jack pine.
It looked as though a timbering crew had been working along either side of this backwoods byway. But the tree felling had all been done by the wilds of the winter storm.
It must have been horrific to be in these woods during that time, to hear all the wailing and howling of the winds exacting a cracking and snapping of branches and tree trunks and the collapsing of entire trees down to the earth with a tremendous sigh and thud.
To be sure, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it does indeed make a sound – a terrible sound.
Several two-track side roads were still completely impassable as trees blocked passage by standing where they fell like toothpicks on a sandy beach, crossed and leaning, some downed to the ground.
It was clear to me the road leading to the lakeshore would at some point be impassable today. At this point, I wasn’t sure it would even be drivable over the whole summer season.
The destruction in the woodlands all around was incredible. It’s not only in singular places like this one. The damage in evidence is widespread and crippling for miles and miles.
I stepped to the face of a ridge, just a few feet away, that allowed me to perch above the river valley. I was now on the opposite side of the frontal boundary.
The sun shone brightly over blue and winding rippling waters below me. Red-twigged dogwood was growing thick along the water’s edge. Male spring peeper frogs sang from the slower confines of vernal pools.
It was going to be another warm day today. I spotted a pair of brown thrashers, showing up brightly in their cinnamon plumage against a bare gray and black thicket of sticks they were hopping through.
This place will likely make a good nesting spot for them. If I was a bird, I think I would like to build my nest close to the ground in a protective thicket along a pretty, little stream too.
A look to my right across the valley floor shows a green wall of pines extending to what I guess would be about 100 feet high above the valley floor.
About halfway down that wall, fresh and oozing marks of the storm were visible even from my location almost a quarter mile away.
A dozen or more of the pines had been snapped off at a height of about 35 feet, their crowns dropped and blown away, like Russian thistle tumbleweeds out west.
The air was filled with the songs of twittering birds and the flowers of springtime had not only sprouted but were already in bloom.
Bright yellow marsh marigolds that my mom always called “cowslips,” trout lilies and even the white flowered-cherry trees were putting on a flowery showing. The leaves of quaking aspen, beeches and ironwood were beginning to unfold themselves.
It was kind of like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The blossoms and birds of May showed up and presented themselves like they always do – like Christmas did in the Dr. Seuss story, even though the Grinch, or in this case the winter storm, tried to stop it from happening.
The storm tore the trees down and covered the ground
With two feet of snow for miles around
But Madame May wasn’t worried, she steadied her aim
She opened her arms and springtime came just the same
A few miles away, big, brown chocolate-milk puddles stretched across a dirt road to my left. Fresh moose tracks were imprinted in the mud along my route.
The lakes and streams that were overtopped with snow melt over previous days were still high but had dropped significantly. The low growth of ground pine, trilliums and trailing arbutus had started their reach and run.
The day before, I had been on another forest background, one that I thought -because of its prominence – would have been cleared and brushed days ago.
Instead, the road was pocked with mudholes and washouts and the countless trees that had fallen across the road had only been pushed off or cut to allow vehicles through by motorists and residents with chainsaws.
In most cases, the clearing through the trees was only wide enough for a vehicle to slip through. The cuts in the trees were not all in the same place, so driving along this road put a driver on a serpentine ride, even though this was primarily a straight road.
There were patches of dirty snow along the road here too, mostly in the shady spots under the trees or on north-facing slopes. Occasionally, a deer would step out into the road and then trot away off to either side, sometimes raising their white tail flag.
The blue sky was filled with puffy cumulus clouds when I reached a favorite spot I know where a river glugs its way slow through a wetland underneath a wide-open piece of sky. The backdrop is a “forest green” stand of spruce trees.
I took several pictures to add to my collection of images I’ve taken here during various seasons. I think the early springtime never had much of a chance to settle in this year. It probably only lasted a handful of days.
It was clear to me now that the busting open of springtime’s arrival, if it hadn’t started sooner, had certainly begun today.
However, I felt as washed out as the road, craving that sense of renewal I’d anticipated at the lake. I felt happy to see and hear the birds and blooms, but it seemed as though they were arriving here unaware of the wilds of winter we’ve seen.
Clearly, these creatures of spring were new and ready and excited to be back home after a long winter’s vacation.
It felt more like autumn to me, with a sarcastic snap still on the wind and me, like a cornfield scarecrow, missing a bushel’s worth of arm straw. No grin on my burlap-stitched face and the brim of my field hat bent down.
Ragged, but still standing, with this wooden post to hold me up.
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.