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Keeping exploring nature for greater understanding

John Pepin

“If you get stuck down a dead end street, any road up’s alright.”

– Steve Gibbons

When I was growing up in old Ishpeming, in the shadow of the towering Egyptian Revival obelisk shafts of the Cliffs Mine, I charted my muddy path to loving the outdoors by simple, but effective, means.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had the help I did.

First, I was blessed with parents who had a love of the outdoors. They enjoyed taking what eventually was four kids on slow “rides in the bush” to see wild animals and serene places of beauty.

We picked berries and apples for pies. They also took us fishing and to the nearest state park to swim. In the earliest of my kid years, my dad and mom hunted partridge (ruffed grouse), taking me and my sister along.

On these nature outings, my mom packed a picnic lunch and sometimes my dad would stop to pick up a candy bar for us while he gassed up the station wagon. I liked Bit-O-Honey best back then.

I thought that all kids my age were doing these same things with their parents.

I know now that this wasn’t the case.

A lot of kids don’t grow up with parents interested in the outdoors. They also don’t have friends who might invite them to enjoy some nature-based activity they are involved in.

For discovering the outdoors, this puts kids at a decided disadvantage. Even in my little neighborhood circle of friends, there were kids who fished and kids who didn’t.

Through the enjoyment I had experienced in fishing with my parents, my brother and I grew up picking nightcrawlers with flashlights in the backyard on rainy summer nights, riding our bikes to creeks and streams to fish for brook trout.

The fact that nature was available to us close by was important in letting us continue to enjoy our pastimes.

The fishing poles were used were Zebco 202 reels, which came packaged with a fishing pole and cost about $10 at the Coast-to-Coast store downtown, which we could walk or bike to.

We didn’t have much money at all, but we could afford that. We used to sell some of the nightcrawlers we’d pick, putting a wooden sign up on the front of our house, selling them by the dozen for a dollar.

All the neighborhood boys loved seeing fire trucks, trains and heavy equipment building roads or working behind the steel fenced gates at the iron ore mine.

In our running toward the train tracks after hearing the train whistle blow, we’d encounter multi-colored grasshoppers leaping out of the tall, dry summer grasses.

We also lived three blocks away from Bancroft Lake where we were able to bike or walk to – a great place to see and catch leopard frogs, painted turtles and garter snakes.

This was nature presented on an entry level with no cost involved. I can still close my eyes and feel the warm wind blowing and hear the leaves of the weeping willow trees fluttering in the breeze.

We used to build chipmunk traps that we’d bait with pieces of white bread. We’d let the chipmunks go after we’d trap them. We wanted to learn how to build traps and use them, just to see if we could.

At some point, when I was very young, I began enjoying seeing beautiful birds, like evening grosbeaks, cedar waxwings and northern flickers that could be found in our backyard.

In school, we learned how to make a bird feeder out of an old half-gallon milk carton and a No. 2 pencil. Grocery store butchers would provide suet for free, which we would slip into an old mesh orange sack and hang from a clothesline pole out back.

I wanted to know the names of these birds, why some were only seen during the winter and what they ate, specifically. I somehow, likely through my parents, acquired a little Zim guide of birds that I stared at for days until I memorized the names of those roughly three dozen birds.

The neighbor kid had a much thicker book, a hardbacked field guide that showed all the birds east of the Rocky Mountains. I couldn’t afford to buy one, but again I was helped in my learning.

The Carnegie Public Library was just three blocks down the street in a different direction than the lake. In the children’s library I would find Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, sweeping historical books about Vikings and the Byzantine Empire, and the bird field guide my neighbor friend had.

A few years later, when I was able get a card for checking out items in “the big library” upstairs, I would discover great musical talents – like Bob Dylan – through the library record collection.

I would also find more advanced books on history, art and literature. The adult library was quiet and had long tables and wooden chairs, along with big, soft upholstered chairs to sit in and read.

The library was always a magical place for me.

Today, the library is still a great place, but a lot of other things have changed.

With distractions like “smart” phones and social media, kids today in a lot of cases are less inclined to take part in real life fishing and hunting and other outdoor activities.

In fact, the number of people who hunt and fish has dropped precipitously over the past several years. To me, this means with fewer granddads and dads and moms and grandmothers fishing or hunting, more kids may grow up not knowing the benefits, satisfaction and enjoyment of those outdoor activities.

Fishing poles and bait are much more expensive, and the downtown hardware store is gone. It’s rare to see any kids fishing on our old favorite creeks.

For anyone just starting out hoping to discover the outdoors, the learning curve can seem steep. This is especially true of activities like birdwatching that can seem unapproachable for those without a lot of money for expensive spotting scopes, binoculars and field guides.

But the truth is, anyone can be a birdwatcher and a bird lover, and those accessories are not required to begin birding, nor do they have to be exceedingly expensive to be effective.

The same is true for flyfishing gear, though some practitioners might argue that without a particular rod or vest or reel, flyfishing is not much worth the pursuit.

Making all outdoor activities easily accessible for neophytes, young or old, is the best sure bet to increasing opportunities and the ranks of outdoor enthusiasts.

Some programs, like the DNR’s Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program, aim to do exactly this by offering women from diverse backgrounds and geographic areas to try out nature-based activities in a non-competitive, friendly atmosphere.

Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H programs offer activities for young folks to get acquainted with nature and the outdoors. Some of my nature experience was gained as a Cub Scout, earning merit badges on a variety of subjects, learning how to tie knots, whittle wood and perform first aid.

In losing touch with some of these activities that are centered on the earth and the outdoors, I think we lose appreciation for a vital part of our inner selves or the persons we might one day become.

I’d say the same is true for gardening, chopping wood or raising farm animals.

For me, learning nature’s ways and finding where you might fit within that big scheme of things is as important as learning how to read or write.

Maybe you are a boater, a camper or a hunter or an angler, or maybe you are all those things and more. If you are such a person you have valuable skills that you could share with others still looking to find their way.

Maybe you are all those things but have never had the chance to find out.

There are countless people out there who have never had experiences in the outdoors, like sitting around a campfire, seeing a bear or a moose in the wild, or even walking down a dirt road on a quiet, warm summer evening.

Like I said, I was lucky to have had the circumstances growing up that I did.

To anyone not yet initiated or experienced in the outdoors, I encourage you to try something new to get you started – even just taking a walk in your neighborhood with your senses trained toward the things there are to see around you.

Do an internet search, or ask advice from friends, to see what nature-based activities might be offered in your area. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and know that every experienced outdoors man, woman or child was once completely inexperienced.

The road to greater understanding of nature and yourself is waiting for you there ahead, up a winding woods road, down a slow-moving river or out there under starry skies or floating on a quiet inland lake.

Start out slow, stay the course and you will eventually find a valuable treasure of riches beyond the quantifiable abilities of humankind.

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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