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Last Cast Oct 24 08

“Young man,” laughed the farmer, “you’re sort of a fool!

“You’ll never catch fish in McElligot’s Pool.”

—Dr. Seuss, McElligot’s Pool

I must be crazy to think I’m going to catch fish today. That, or just a fool like Marco, the main character in the Dr. Seuss picture book.

Then again, I really don’t expect to catch a thing. I may hope to, but that’s different from actually believing—on this chilly, bright day near the end of October, with a stiff breeze sending miniature wavelets against the scalloped edges of old lily pads—that I stand a virtue’s chance in Vegas of actually hooking a fish. Not on a day like today with a skill level like mine.

No, I’m really here to say good-bye. Good-bye to fishing for the year. Good-bye to warm-weather activities, as autumn wanes into the short days and long months of another Michigan winter. Here in this small park in my hometown of Caledonia, surrounded by pied maples, I stand at the edge of both Emmons Lake and the first snowfall, preparing to make my last cast of the season.

Swiiiiiish…splut!

My lure slices sideways through the breeze, which catches and carries it toward the edge of the lily pads. It’s a bit dicey casting across these southeasterly gusts, but that’s part of the package of fishing on a fall day.

I retrieve my lure without so much as a nibble—in that expectation, I am not disappointed—and cast again. If anything in my tackle box has a hope of producing, this is the lure. It’s the one favored by my buddy, Big Jim Borreson—a white-and-chartreuse, shallow-water lure that never seems to fail him. There’s nothing scientific about ol’ Jim’s approach. I don’t know why he even bothers to bring the rest of his fishing tackle with him, as he never uses anything other than this one lure, and apparently doesn’t need to. We’ll be out on a lake, casting toward the weeds, and I’ll be throwing everything under the sun into the water with no results, other than tiny bubbles rising to the surface where the fish are laughing themselves silly. Meanwhile, Jim will proceed to haul in mule-sized bass as methodically as if he’s on an assembly line. That’s the power of this white-and-chartreuse lure. It borders on the miraculous.

Today, though, even the miracle lure seems to have lost its pizazz. I move down the shore a bit, try a different spot. Here…maybe by these reeds.

Swiiiiiish…splut! Retrieve…

Then again, maybe not.

Nope, a change of location isn’t going to do it. But that’s okay. It’s enough that I’m outdoors, taking in the freshness of the air, the brilliant blue of the October sky, the silhouette of dark reeds against cobalt waters. This is a good day, a very good day.

And it is time.

Swiiiiiish…splut!

Last cast.

I can feel the lure wriggling through the water, catching at the bottom as it nears the shore. I guide it through remnant clumps of old algae, lift the tip of my pole, and bring in the miracle lure minus its miracle. It will not touch Michigan waters again this year.

But beyond the snow and ice of the coming months, next year beckons. It will be a good one—I just know it. Somewhere out there is a miracle bass that missed its opportunity this year. But I believe in second chances.

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Written by Dave.

I’m hiking down a trail in the Skegemog wetlands with my buddy Dewey (aka The Scurvy Rascal, aka Scurv, aka Duane, if you’re a stickler for plain first names). Autumn is approaching full blaze in the Traverse City region, and this is a great time for taking to the woods with a camera. An overcast sky can’t suppress the exuberant crimson of these maple leaves, or the bone whiteness of the poplars.

This time of year is a parable of light—light that reveals what has been hidden and creates what was not there. The waning days trigger changes in the chemistry of plants, the results of which play out dramatically across the wooded Michigan hills. A mysterious alchemy occurs as green chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, unmasking the gold of autumn and couching it in an ensemble of red, purple, and orange.

I stop to snap a photo of a maple leaf against its mottled, forest background. Two weeks ago, this leaf was bright green; today it is a revelation of yellow and orange. But nothing is here that was not here all along. Concealed by the leaf’s green pigment, the yellow carotenoids and orange xanthophylls have remained unseen until now, when, for a brief time, they step out of hiding to help create the spectacle of autumn color.

I’m reminded of a verse from the American poet Bliss Carman’s “Vagabond Song”:

“The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry

“Of bugles going by,

“And my lonely spirit thrills

“To see the frosty asters, like smoke upon the hills.”

“The scarlet of the maples.” Yes, that says it well. Some maple trees are so fully cloaked in red that they look as if they had been dipped in a bucket of paint. Unlike the yellow and orange hues, however, the reds and purples of autumn leaves are not a revealing, but a transformation, a product of light interacting with sugars to produce brand new pigments called anthocyanins. They’re what give us the scarlet of the maples and the shocking purple of the asters on the hills.

A single tree, and even a single leaf, is often a crazy quilt of pigments—subtle at first glance; striking at a second look. No artist ever painted a more dazzling masterpiece than the hand that paints the leaves of autumn.

The trail takes Dewey and me into the interior of the swamp, and shortly after, we hit an impasse. Recent rains have flooded the path, and neither of us feels ambitious enough to get his feet wet. It’s time to head back. The day is growing old, and a mug of craft ale at Short’s Brewery in Bellaire is calling. This moody October day has been a paradox of sombre gray and bright colors. Tomorrow will be sunny, transfiguring the leaves with light. And the parade of another Michigan fall will continue in breathtaking sublimity.

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Written by Dave.

You’d think that a tree with the whimsical name “sassafras” ought to have a bit of spunk to it. You’d be right. Everything about the sassafras tree is quirky, offbeat, and, well, sassy. Its oddly twisting branches. Its brittle, orange wood. Its rainbow autumn hues. It’s pungent, spicy aroma.

And certainly its strangely shaped leaves.

No other native Michigan tree has foliage that even remotely resembles the striking, three-lobed leaves of the sassafras. Festooning its branches like miniature cartoon hands, they make sassafras the friendliest tree of the Michigan roadsides, seemingly always ready to shake your hand.

Not all sassafras leaves look the same, though. The variety of leaf shapes on a single tree is a distinctive trait of the sassafras. Besides the three-lobed kind, some leaves have two lobes—a large one and a smaller one, like a mitten—and others are simple ovals with no lobes at all.

Sassafras loves its own company and forms groves along woods edges, where it can soak in plenty of sunshine. Driving through a state game area earlier this week, I found myself winding through a virtual sassafras corridor. At a turn-off I pulled aside, got out of my car, and looked around me. Backlit by the October sun, a canopy of sassafras leaves glowed overhead like Japanese lanterns. Up the road and down it, golden groves of sassafras blazed against a background of dark green pines and multihued hardwoods.

Yellow is just one of many colors on the sassafras’s broad fall palette. Farther down the road, a dazzling collage of oranges, reds, and purples painted the trees. The wide color range is likely due to a number of factors—location, age, water, sunlight. For all I know, sassafras may even go through stages of coloration, deepening with time. Don’t quote me on that; it’s purely my speculation. What I can say with confidence is that, when you consider its varieties of form and pigmentation together, sassafras outstrips all other trees in Michigan. As for sheer beauty, in my book it holds its own against that monarch of autumn, the maple.

How sassy is the sassafras? The sass-factor doesn’t stop with the leaves. Break off a twig, or better yet, a small piece of root, and smell the spicy aroma. What does it remind you of? Think summertime and a dark, ice-cold soft drink with a big mound of vanilla ice cream floating on top. That’s right—sassafras is the source of the original root beer, or “sasparilla.”

And of course you’ve heard of sassafras tea, right? Pungent, hot, truly delicious, and so easy to make. Harvest a piece of the root—you don’t need much, maybe six inches of a good, thick section—then clean it, crunch it up a bit, and boil it in a quart of water until the liquid turns a deep orange-brown. Sweeten to taste and enjoy.

Don’t, however, make it your daily hot beverage. The tonic benefits of sassafras tea are well rooted in folk medicine; however, safrole, the tea’s main flavoring ingredient, was declared a carcinogen by the FDA in the 1970s. So before you drink that first cup—or before you decide not to—read this balanced, informative article. You’ll appreciate both the qualified, cautionary advice and the reassurance.

The sassafras. It’s the sassiest tree going, and so much a part of our state that its mitten-shaped leaves even resemble the Lower Peninsula. Used in everything from Native American bows, to perfumes, to pharmaceutics, to beverages, and beyond, this flamboyant harlequin of October is a tree of endless fascination, and an autumn glory of the Michigan backroads.

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Written by Dave.

Last Cast Oct 24 08

“Young man,” laughed the farmer, “you’re sort of a fool!

“You’ll never catch fish in McElligot’s Pool.”

—Dr. Seuss, McElligot’s Pool

I must be crazy to think I’m going to catch fish today. That, or just a fool like Marco, the main character in the Dr. Seuss picture book.

Then again, I really don’t expect to catch a thing. I may hope to, but that’s different from actually believing—on this chilly, bright day near the end of October, with a stiff breeze sending miniature wavelets against the scalloped edges of old lily pads—that I stand a virtue’s chance in Vegas of actually hooking a fish. Not on a day like today with a skill level like mine.

No, I’m really here to say good-bye. Good-bye to fishing for the year. Good-bye to warm-weather activities, as autumn wanes into the short days and long months of another Michigan winter. Here in this small park in my hometown of Caledonia, surrounded by pied maples, I stand at the edge of both Emmons Lake and the first snowfall, preparing to make my last cast of the season.

Swiiiiiish…splut!

My lure slices sideways through the breeze, which catches and carries it toward the edge of the lily pads. It’s a bit dicey casting across these southeasterly gusts, but that’s part of the package of fishing on a fall day.

I retrieve my lure without so much as a nibble—in that expectation, I am not disappointed—and cast again. If anything in my tackle box has a hope of producing, this is the lure. It’s the one favored by my buddy, Big Jim Borreson—a white-and-chartreuse, shallow-water lure that never seems to fail him. There’s nothing scientific about ol’ Jim’s approach. I don’t know why he even bothers to bring the rest of his fishing tackle with him, as he never uses anything other than this one lure, and apparently doesn’t need to. We’ll be out on a lake, casting toward the weeds, and I’ll be throwing everything under the sun into the water with no results, other than tiny bubbles rising to the surface where the fish are laughing themselves silly. Meanwhile, Jim will proceed to haul in mule-sized bass as methodically as if he’s on an assembly line. That’s the power of this white-and-chartreuse lure. It borders on the miraculous.

Today, though, even the miracle lure seems to have lost its pizazz. I move down the shore a bit, try a different spot. Here…maybe by these reeds.

Swiiiiiish…splut! Retrieve…

Then again, maybe not.

Nope, a change of location isn’t going to do it. But that’s okay. It’s enough that I’m outdoors, taking in the freshness of the air, the brilliant blue of the October sky, the silhouette of dark reeds against cobalt waters. This is a good day, a very good day.

And it is time.

Swiiiiiish…splut!

Last cast.

I can feel the lure wriggling through the water, catching at the bottom as it nears the shore. I guide it through remnant clumps of old algae, lift the tip of my pole, and bring in the miracle lure minus its miracle. It will not touch Michigan waters again this year.

But beyond the snow and ice of the coming months, next year beckons. It will be a good one—I just know it. Somewhere out there is a miracle bass that missed its opportunity this year. But I believe in second chances.
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Written by Dave.

The Cutlery Barn Oct 31 08

The sign says “Cutlery Barn.” I’ve seen it countless times driving up Lincoln Lake Road past the turnoff to Fallasburg Park north of Lowell. I always assumed that some outdoorsy type was manufacturing hand-made knives, and being a knife lover, I’ve been curious about the place. On a couple occasions, I’ve pulled into the drive, but the shop appeared closed and I left without knocking.
A couple weeks ago, I finally caught the doors open and the owner available. He may not craft his own blades, as I had thought, but Clarence Worst is nevertheless the proprietor of one fabulous operation. If you like knives—and what hunter, fisherman, hiker, or camper doesn’t take an interest in so essential a piece of outdoor equipment?—then you owe yourself a visit to the Cutlery Barn. You truly will feel like a kid in a candy store. And I don’t mean just any candy. We’re talking Godiva Chocolates, many at Snicker bar prices.

It’s not my normal practice to write about retail operations in these Waterland Living blogs. My interest is to craft outdoor articles, not free advertising. Every once in a while, however, I stumble across a venture that I find unique and exciting, and that I connect easily and integrally to the outdoor experience—something too good not to pass on. The Cutlery Barn fits that description.

The first thing that will strike you when you walk through the door is the remarkable variety and quantity of the inventory. This is far more than a place to go and purchase a Buck knife. You’ll find those here, to be sure, but you’ll also find a huge selection of specialty cutlery, collector’s items, swords, throwing knives, spears, Bowie knives, stilettos, survival knives…the list goes on.

And of course you’ll find hunting knives. That’s what you’re really after, right? Something you’ll be proud to strap to your belt or slip in your pocket when you head for the grouse woods, the hiking trail, or the hunting camp; a piece of quality outdoor cutlery that looks great and performs flawlessly. Take a tip from me: after you’ve been to Gander Mountain and Cabella’s, visit the Cutlery Barn. You’ll congratulate yourself on your wisdom, and you’ll be delighted with what you find.

Need a pocket knife? Clarence showed me a case that displayed twenty-two different styles of bone-handled beauties. They were a make I haven’t seen elsewhere, and I would have snapped one up in a heartbeat had I not already set my sights on a couple throwing knives. These magnificent little folders were just for starters, too. How about an Old Timer? You’ll find a selection of those venerable, discontinued pocket knives, along with many other makes and models, all at extremely reasonable prices. The pocket knife selection alone is worth the trip.

But chances are you’re looking for a sheath knife. Once again you’ll be beyond pleased. Here in this little shop out in the sticks, your greatest problem will be the frustration of having to choose from so many beautiful pieces of steel. You’ll find knives sporting handles of leather, wood, synthetic materials, and bone; knives that range from the ruggedly functional to staghorn handled works of art made for both the eye and the field. A number are of a quality you’ll feel certain puts them well beyond your budget. Not so fast—you just may be in for a delightful surprise. True, the Cutlery Barn isn’t giving knives away. But everything is reasonably priced, and sometimes remarkably so. You just may walk away with something you never imagined could be yours.

Clarence began collecting knives back in his high school days, and he’s retired now, so he’s had many years to acquire his knowledge of cutlery. The Cutlery Barn is his retirement occupation. Since the variety it offers in hunting knives alone can seem a bit overwhelming—the photos in this blog give you just a small sample—I asked Clarence to pose with one of his personal favorites. He gave the matter a little thought, then selected an elegantly simple knife.

A great knife is part and parcel of the Michigan outdoors. If you’ve got the woods and waters in your blood, treat yourself to an hour at the Cutlery Barn. Whether you walk away with a new knife or just a few ideas, you’ll consider your time there well spent.

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Written by Dave.

Tamarack Candles Nov 7 08

When I was in my twenties, I penned the following lyrics to a song:

The tamarack trees are luminous gold

And the heath is purple upon the moorland.

Old corn, withered and brown, in straight rows waits to be blown down.

Cold breeze in fiery trees

Sends waves over the far hills.

Sky blue lake water hue;

Wild geese flying away.

Set to a Celtic-sounding melody, the words were my attempt to capture the feel of a northern autumn. Still today, years later, I think I didn’t do half bad. I certainly got the part about the tamaracks right.

Now, from late October through early November, is the time when these larches of the northwoods light the wetlands like golden candle flames.

The tamarack is an anomaly, the only needle-leaf tree in Michigan that turns color and sheds its needles in the fall. It is, if you will, both coniferous and deciduous, a distinction shared by no other tree except the cypress, which doesn’t grow this far north.

In the lower peninsula, the tamarack is strictly a wetland tree, a denizen of the swamps, bogs, and fens. Across the bridge, however, it becomes much less selective about its habitat, and you’ll find it growing everywhere from soggy muskegs to rocky roadsides. With soft, pliable needles sprouting in tufts, tamarack’s feathery appearance is a model of truth in packaging. Hug a spruce tree and you’ll get poked and pricked; hug a tamarack and you’ll get tickled. It is a delicate tree, sensuous, beautiful in both looks and attitude.

In the spring, the tamarack groves don a faint wash of sea green as the first sprigs of needles begin to emerge. Tiny, round, reddish cones follow as the trees fluff out into the full foliage of the growing season. But it is in the fall, when their needles turn golden, that the tamaracks emerge into resplendence, painting the marshes with sunlit gold—luminous trees burning with an inner light, crescendoing into a blaze and then fading, dropping their needles, and settling into the skeletal silhouettes of winter.

Yesterday I found myself hiking through an archway of tamaracks that spanned a fen trail in Middleville. The day was as blue and warm an Indian Summer gift as one could hope for, particularly in November, but the wind was doing its business and the air was filled with leaves. Amid the aerial dance of maple, sassafras, and oak, tamarack needles glinted like specks of gold. I stopped, looked up through a weave of gilded larch branches toward a sunny treetop, and was rewarded with a faceful of needles. The tamaracks were still yellow, but fading, past their prime and ready to molt. The merest touch triggered a cascade of needles.

In another week, perhaps two, the glory of the tamaracks will have become Ichabod. But only for a time. Five months from now, as the sun climbs higher into the heavens of April, the tamaracks will once again clad themselves in feathery green. And in the broad, wild wetlands of this state that I love, a new circle of the seasons will commence.

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Written by Dave.

Moonrise over Gun Lake Nov 14 08

Last night, after playing a gig at Gun Lake Community Church, I emerged into the parking lot to see the silvery disc of the Snow moon flying high above the treetops. Filtering its radiance through a veil of cirrostratus, it reminded me that the snowy months are at hand.

“Hunter’s moon,” observed Ken, the tenor sax man, but he miscalculated by a month. The Hunter’s moon occurs in October. After September’s beloved Harvest Moon, the Hunter’s moon is probably the best known of the different full moons.

Folklore has a name for the full moon of every month. Thirty days from now, the Winter moon will grace the Michigan skies. In January, through rifts in ragged clouds and howling snows, the Wolf moon will light the northwoods night. February will bring us the Ice moon. In March comes my personal favorite as a storm chaser, the Storm moon—and so on through the ensuing months and seasons: Growing moon, Hare moon, Mead moon, Hay moon, Corn moon.

But that list is just one of many variations on full moon names among different cultures and mythologies. The Farmer’s Almanac, for instance, lists the following moons, beginning with January: Wolf, Snow, Worm, Pink, Flower, Strawberry, Buck, Sturgeon, Harvest, Hunter, Beaver, and Cold. The names in this list all have Native American roots, and reflect a keen awareness of times and seasons.

But beyond their practical application as a simple calendar vitally linked to soil, hunt, and trade, the moon names for me capture something of the mysterious beauty of the moon. The poet William Blake expressed it enchantingly:

The moon, like a flower

In heaven’s high bower,

With silent delight

Sits and smiles on the night.

Last August, sitting on the shore of Gun Lake, I watched another of countless sunsets ignite the sky and then fade into twilight. It was a sight that will never grow old for me—fiery clouds dimming into a molten smolder, lights flickering on around the shoreline like jewels in a radiant necklace.

As dusk deepened into night, the Corn moon rose in the east, golden and majestic, like a Gypsy’s earing. The moon trail on the waters paved a shimmering path to the far shore, changing from yellow to silver as the moon ascended her ladder in the heavens. While the grown man in me knew better, the child in me wanted to walk that shining path to its far end, then step off it into the sky and stride up and onward toward that gleaming disc. Haven’t you yourself felt at times a similar longing—something inexpressible and poignant that comes not from logic or reason, but from a place inside where the sense of wonder and mystery dwell?

The Moon When Horns Are Broken Off of the Choctaw Indians has come and gone. In another month, the Oak moon of Medieval England will greet us with her cold embrace. The moons of winter have arrived. But the Planter’s moon of colonial America is not far in the offing, when warmer winds return to breathe life upon the land.

 

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Written by Dave.

Where the Wild Cranberries Grow Nov 21 08

I’m sure you recognize these. After all, chances are excellent that you’ll be eating them in another week.

That’s right, cranberries! A traditional part of the Thanksgiving table—the tart, ideal counterpart to the rich fare of turkey, dressing, and sweet potatoes.

Good job! You’ve passed the Cranberry Identification Test. Big gold star for you.

It goes without saying, then, that you also recognize these.

What? You say you haven’t a clue? Can it truly be that one who has consumed such vast multitudes of cranberries over the many holiday seasons—one who just seconds ago breezed through the Cranberry Identification Test without straining a single brain cell—doesn’t recognize cranberry vines? Let us by all means correct this, so that next week, when you pile that tasty, red relish on your plate, you’ll enjoy it all the more for knowing a few things about cranberries and where they come from.

The only difference between the cranberries you buy at the store and the kind you’ll find in the wild is habitat. Commercial berries are grown in flat, level sand beds, slightly raised at the center for drainage. Since cranberries love moisture, the beds are irrigated regularly. When harvest time comes in late September and October, the area is flooded. A special harvester is then driven over the tops of the cranberry beds, and the cranberries float to the surface. The result is a spectacular sea of bobbing red berries, which are corralled into one area and then collected.

That’s the modern commercial approach, but it wasn’t always that way. Cranberries are a native, woody plant, and in the beginning, starting back with the Native Americans, they were harvested from the wild. You can collect them yourself if you’re so inclined, though you’ll need to exercise caution, as I’ll explain. First, though, you need to know where you can find them.

Time for another question: What do you see in this picture?

Hint: “A bunch of trees and grass and stuff” is not the correct answer.

You’re looking at a classic Michigan cranberry bog. Specifically, you’re looking at Saul Lake Bog, the first and still one of the more outstanding holdings of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. Located to the north of Six Mile Road in Grattan Township, Saul Lake is one of numerous bogs in the kettlehole region east of Rockford.

It is quintessential wild cranberry habitat. Once you’ve found a place like this, finding the cranberries themselves is no great trick. Just walk out into the bog and look down. You’ll see the woody vines trailing everywhere across the sphagnum moss. And if you’re a wild plant buff, you’ll make some other delightful discoveries as well.

Don’t, however, plan on cranberry picking at Saul Lake. That location is protected, and the Conservancy urges visitors to stay on the boardwalk, not only to protect the sensitive habitat, but also to protect themselves.

Which brings me back to the point I had made earlier about exercising caution should you decide to go cranberry picking next year. Bogs can be treacherous places. In Michigan, most of them form as rafts of vegetation growing out over a lake. Sphagnum moss forms a thick, lush bed for a specialized community of plants to grow in. As the raft thickens over time, leatherleaf and other shrubs move in, and eventually, tamarack and black spruce trees.

The thing to remember, then, when you’re walking on a bog, is that you’re actually walking on a mat of plant material floating like a carpet on top of water. Give it a little bounce and you can actually see the bog quaking and undulating up to twenty feet away. Some areas are fairly solid, but others are quite thin, and the danger of falling through the mat is real.

My point: don’t go cranberry picking alone unless you’re familiar with the area. Stay away from areas near open water or the center of the bog, where the mat is likely to be thin. And besides a bucket, bring a good, stout walking stick to test the ground with and to give you some leverage should you in fact get stuck.

That being said, I have never had a mishap in a bog, and as an amateur naturalist, I’ve spent many years hanging out in such places. Treat them with respect and you’ll get much more out of picking cranberries than a bucket of berries. You’ll experience the pristine, exotic beauty of one of Michigan’s most unusual and unique landscapes, one that invites exploration at all times of year.

Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving—and enjoy your cranberries.

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Written by Dave.

The Lupine Prairies Nov 28 08

That big splotch of violet on my radar means snow to the north. Right now, White Cloud, Stanton, Mecosta, and Edmore are getting a little taste of winter. We’ll see some of that here in Caledonia as well sometime today, but right now the sky is partly sunny, filled with long, gray cumulus floating by like battleships. I like this kind of day—not sombre, just moody, a patchwork of character and interest lit by passing flashes of sunlight, gilded cloud edges, and swatches of blue.

Given my druthers, though, I’ll trade the blue skies of November for those of May, and the purple on my radar screen for purple lupines in the field.

On open hillsides, roadsides, oak barrens, and dry sand prairies—anywhere sandy soil and plenty of sunlight connect—you’ll find the striking spires of the wild lupine growing. Regrettably, due to fire suppression and habitat loss, you won’t find lupine as often as in days gone by, but where it does grow, it often does so in spectacular stands. Lupinus perrenis reaches its zenith in southern Michigan. In some places, such as the oak savannas in the Allegan State Game Area, colonies of the plant are managed in an effort to enhance populations of the Karner Blue Butterfly. A federally endangered species, the Karner Blue lives only where the wild lupine grows, and it appears to be picky about its lupine, too. Ten counties in Michigan harbor known butterfly populations, though lupine certainly grows elsewhere.

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Used in Native American medicine to stop hemorrhage and vomiting, wild lupine also goes by a few other, rather fanciful names. “Bluebonnets” and “old maid’s bonnets” are self-explanatory: a spike of the flowers resembles a miniature hat rack filled with tiny bonnets. “Sundial” is more obscure. I haven’t managed to locate a name origin via the Internet, but I can at least hazard a guess. If you use your imagination, you can easily see a resemblance between the splayed, palmate leaves and miniature sundials.

Taxonomically, lupines have gotten a most undeserved rap. The name comes from the Latin word for “wolf,” tracing to a Native American belief that the plant devoured the nutrients in the soil—an understandable but false notion. The sandy and rather stark conditions where lupine thrives aren’t the most hospitable habitat, though butterfly weed, horsemint, and a few other field plants love such environs. But lupine, far from impoverishing its surroundings, enriches them. A legume, lupine fixes nitrogen in the soil. Don’t, however, look to wild lupine as a forage plant just because it belongs to the pea family and produces pods. Some species of lupine do in fact make great food sources, but the alkaloids in Lupinus perrenis are toxic—of possible medicinal value in small amounts, but poisonous and even deadly in larger doses.

So forget about adding wild lupine to your table fare. Just enjoy feasting your eyes on it when it’s at its prime. Along Alden Nash Avenue heading north from I-96 toward Lowell, if you keep your eyes open you’ll spot a hillside that in late May and early June is a wash of purple lupines. A house sits at the top of the hill, and I suspect that the folks who live there know what they’ve got growing on their property and are intentional about encouraging its growth. I like to think so. Driving past that hillside is a treat, and an encouragement that humans and nature not only can coexist, but were created to. That was in the original blueprint when God set Adam and Eve in the garden to cultivate it and protect it. I’ve got to believe it’s why we recognize and appreciate beauty wherever we find it. There’s no lack of it in the Michigan outdoors.

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Written by Dave.

Shear Funnels: When Michigan Weather Does Strange Things Jan 2 09

We”re barely into winter and already I”m looking ahead to storm season 2009. That may seem strange, but for me it”s only natural. I”m a storm chaser—an identity I take pride in because of the intense passion and personal investment it reflects—and my obsession with severe weather by no means goes into hibernation when the snows fly. Rather, it seems to increase. I dream of cloud turrets muscling up through the springtime troposphere, flattening at the tops into the anvils of warlike cumulonimbi. I long for the feel of moist air pumping in all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, and of warm southeast winds spiraling into deep low-pressure systems moving in from the west. Believe me, the kind of itch I”ve got keeps me scratching all year long.

That”s not entirely impractical, either. Last year, my first storm chase was on January 7. A month later, on February 5, my chase partner and I were back on the road. Both events turned out to be significant tornado outbreaks which reached surprisingly far north. They just weren”t Michigan events.

Michigan most certainly has its share of violent weather, though, and it can come at times when you feel sure that the thunderstorm machine has shut down for the year. Still, most of our big weather occurs from April through June, and then again, more conservatively, around late September through October. Those are the times when moisture, large temperature contrasts with height, jet stream support, and wind shear are likeliest to come together in the finely tuned combination necessary for derechoes, supercells, and tornadoes.

During those times, even if we”re not getting severe weather, every once in a while we casino on-line can get something pretty strange.

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a5shearfunnelOne day in the middle of June last year, sitting in my living room recliner, I happened to glance out the sliding glass door to my balcony and did a double-take. Snaking sideways off of a low deck of clouds half a mile away was a perfectly formed shear funnel. There it was—long, sinuous, a beautiful example of what can happen when exactly the right conditions preside. A product of wind shear and condensation near the level of the cloud base, the funnel presented no danger. Not that I”d have wanted to run into it while parasailing, but it lacked the stuff necessary to become a tornado. Its fascination didn”t diminish, though, nor did its aesthetic appeal. You just don”t see one of these babies every day, and this one was a beauty.

The funnel must have existed for a while before I noticed it, and it persisted for a good five minutes or so after—plenty of time for me to grab my camera and snap a few photos. The two images here are the best of the lot. Why am I sharing them with you now, in the middle of the winter? To be frank, because I wanted a break from snow-and-ice photos. Because I thought that you, too, might appreciate something a little different, and shear funnels surely are that. And because I thought you and I could both use a reminder that warmer months lie ahead. They may not be rounding the corner quite yet, but they”re not all that far down the road.

Michigan is not “Big Sky Country” like the American West, but the view here still includes up as well as down. When the snow cover finally melts under the rays of a warmer sun, keep your eyes on the sky as well as the burgeoning countryside. The atmosphere is a landscape in its own right, and sometimes the scenery will surprise you.

Written by Dave.

Snowfall on the Michigan Backroads 12 12 08

I expected to have hit the grouse woods by now with my old, twelve gage Winchester. Today, with the cutoff date for grouse season just a couple weeks away and the holidays at hand, I suspect that’s not going to happen. It’s okay, though. I’ve discovered a new form of hunting, and with the partridge cycle at its low, this kind shows much more promise. Armed with my Canon EOS 400 camera, I’ve been returning from the fields with my game bag full. And what’s particularly nice is, there’s no limit on photographs.

Better yet, outdoor photography season runs year round—and, to my surprise and delight, I’m finding that winter in Michigan brims with subjects. Everywhere I turn, I see images waiting to be captured, hidden amid the trees, nestled in snowy meadows, drifting through the sky, parading across hillsides.

The landscape has stories to tell, hinterland dramas recorded in the Braille of rabbit tracks in the snow, the cuneiform of tangled roots at the base of a fallen tree, and the ghostly expression of an old, weather-worn stump where woodpeckers have been chiseling away.

You don’t have to look far in the wintry countryside for photos that practically compose themselves. The pictures are there, waiting for you. All you have to do is pull aside, get out of your car, and look around. There, in that roadside swamp—see how the slanting sun dapples the tumbled, frozen terrain? The swamp is a jigsaw puzzle of snow and ice, light and shadow. Can you put it together with your lens?

Farther down the road, you park by a nature preserve and head down the trail. The rabbits have been busy here, weaving crisscross trails over the snow. Other creatures have left their signature footprints as well—whitetail deer, raccoons, various birds, perhaps even a red fox. The forest floor is a vast white page spread beneath the trees, written like a diary with the winter activities of wild animals.

Forging onward, you head up a small rise, then back down, emerging out of the woods into open marshland and the light of the waning day. On the other side of the snowy flats, dark, wooded hills rise into shadow, set against a patchwork canvas of sky and cloud. But here on the trail, the sunlight searches out hidden corners and conspires with the snow to turn commonplace objects into strange and wonderful art. That trailside bench up ahead, for instance, is nothing you’d want to sit on right now, but it’s magical to simply look at.

Back in early November, as the leaves of autumn faded and fell away, I wondered, in that dreary interlude before the first snowfall, what opportunities the coming winter would hold for someone like me who doesn’t ski or snowmobile. Now I know. As with the rest of the seasons, winter in Michigan possesses its unique brand of grace and grandeur. This is the time of year for crackling log fires, mugs of robust, black stout, and good books. But it’s also the time to layer up, head outdoors, savor the ice cream air, and enjoy the confectionary artistry of the northwoods in the winter.

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Written by Dave.