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The scent of wild olives and lilacs.

Trees leafing out in the warm May sun.

Fishermen finessing their catch through a swift current..

Sandhill cranes ratcheting in the wetlands. 

I love spring in Michigan, don’t you?

Beyond winter’s snowy domain lies the season when the land returns to life. Spring may come to our state later than we’d like, but when it arrives, it does so with energy. The redwing blackbirds reappear to stake out their territory in the countryside. Trout lilies and hepaticas grace the woodlands, and marsh marigolds light the swamps. As the days lengthen, the warming skies alternate between glorious fair weather and lightning-laced storms. It’s all part of the drama and pageantry of spring in this beautiful and diverse state of ours.

I came across Lucy Kish and Charlie Ellis at the Flat River Grill in Lowell. They couldn’t have picked a more pleasant evening to enjoy dinner there on the outdoor patio, with the river gliding by just a stone’s throw away.

“What do you love about spring in Michigan?” I asked them.

“The trees leafing out,” Lucy replied. “The flowers,” said Charlie. “The warmer weather—though I’m a four-season guy.”

I suppose it’s because we get all four seasons here in Michigan that spring is so special. And Charlie is not alone in appreciating the flowers. After winter’s black-and-white austerity, the explosion of color that characterizes April, May, and June is a highlight for anyone who calls Michigan home.

I myself am pretty gonzo about the spring flowers. With its abundance of water and vast variety of ecosystems, Michigan is a botanist’s dream, home to hundreds of colorful treasures such as the wild phlox in this photo. But of course, this time of year offers plenty of other delights as well for the outdoors enthusiast.

In Fallasburg Park, while I was photographing the Flat River from the footbridge, a fisherman worked his way out into the water and began casting. At least one of the things he loved about spring in Michigan seemed pretty clear, but I asked him the question anyway.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “I come from Austin, Texas. There, you have to travel a long way to see the countryside. Here…” He shrugged. “The outdoors is easy to get to.”

Indeed it is. Whether your passion is fishing, or gardening, or hiking, or turkey hunting, springtime in our state is a season when the outdoors opens for business with as many options to offer as there are kinds of people to enjoy them.

What’s to love about Michigan this time of year? Chances are, you’ve got answers of your own.

So…what do you love about Michigan in the spring?

Why not drop us a comment and share your thoughts.

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Written by Dave.

Covered Bridges of the Flat River may 29 09

I have yet to see a river in Michigan that wasn’t a beauty to behold, at least in its better stretches. But the Flat, unmarred for most of its journey from its headwaters in Six Lakes to its juncture with the Grand in Lowell, is an exceptionally lovely river.

Granted, my opinion may be a bit slanted, as I know the Flat better than any other river except the Thornapple. Years ago, a friend and I canoed from Belding to Lowell, a distance of eleven miles as the crow flies. But a river isn’t a crow, and its ideas of how to get from point A to point B involve many a twist and turn. Going by memory and looking at the map, I’d say that my buddy and I covered roughly twenty miles in what amounted to a full working day of paddling—so precisely an eight-hour shift that we could have punched time cards by it.

Years later, I and my pastor at the church I attended dropped a couple of kayaks into the water up at Greenville and drifted downstream all the way down to Belding. The crow on that day would have had an easy five-mile flight, but the river had its own creative ideas about how to accomplish the trip. Not having looked at a map, neither of us were prepared for all those curves through the state game land, and particularly for the diversion we encountered on what we thought was the last leg of the journey. At a rough guess, I’d say we paddled twelve miles that day.

But time on the Flat River is always time well spent. With high, wooded banks punctuated by marshy shores and open fields, and with broad, lazy backwaters above its dams, the Flat offers an ever-changing feast of scenery for kayakers and canoeists. Among its most distinctive and picturesque views are its two covered bridges.

Five river miles upstream from Fallasburg Park lies Whites Bridge. A historical marker tells its story:

This picturesque covered bridge, one of the last of its kind in Michigan, was built in 1867 by Jared N. Brazee and J. N. Walker, builders of several covered bridges in this area. The name of the bridge derives from the White family, a prominent pioneer family. The crossing of the river here was known as White’s Crossing before the first primitive bridge was built. In 1840, a bridge of log-corduroy construction was erected. It was replaced by this covered bridge, costing $1,700. It is of the through-truss type with a gable roof. The hand-hewed trusses are sheeted over with rough pine boards. Wooden pegs and handcut square iron nails are used to secure the various parts of the bridge. White’s Bridge has been in constant use since 1867, proof that it was well made.

Just upstream lies the Whites Bridge Dam. The stretch of river that begins below the dam and flows below Whites Bridge past Fallasburg Park and on into Lowell is, in my opinion, one of the prettiest pieces for kayaking—or canoing, though when the water is low, parts of it are a bottom-scraper.

Once you reach Fallasburg Park, look for the Flat River’s second, better-known covered bridge. The Fallasburg Bridge lies at a curve of the road on the southeast fringe of the park, right by the historical village of Fallasburg. If you live anywhere in Kent County, and if you enjoy picnicking at parks and outdoors activities, then chances are good you not only know of this beautiful old bridge, but have driven over it at one time or another. It’s a sturdy and serviceable tribute to the craftsmanship of the pioneer era in Michigan. Just be careful not to speed across it. A sign on the bridge advises motorists that there’s a $5.00 fine for proceeding any faster than a walker’s pace!

The covered bridges of the Flat River. Rustic, rugged, and elegant, they’re a part of Michigan history—a reminder of simpler times when beauty, form, and function came together in things that were made to last.

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Written by Dave.

The Scent of Locusts June 5 09

When you’re this close to a clump of locust blossoms, it’s a given that you can smell them. The fragrance comes with the view—and that’s a good thing, I think you’ll agree. The heady scent of black locusts is a part of their considerable beauty, and one of the delights of the Michigan countryside this time of year.

In late May and early June, all across the state, groves of locust trees step out of hiding and array themselves in lavish festoons of white blossoms. The locust isn’t exactly a flamboyant tree, just one that attracts attention. Any other time of year, its beauty is subdued, the knobbly branches and delicate, ladder-like braids of compound leaves melding unremarkably into the green texture of the landscape. But now, in this lush season of rings and weddings, is the time when the black locust stands resplendent, like a shy maiden who, donning her wedding gown, is transformed into a stunning, richly perfumed bride.

Drive down any country road and chances are good that you’ll encounter the black locust. Here is a cluster of trees overarching the way ahead of you on either side. Yonder stands a solitary giant clad in white. In the distance, a grove on the edge of a pasture shines in the slanting sun. Its amazing how a tree one rarely notices for eleven months of the year suddenly seems to be everywhere.

Yet it’s the smell of the black locust that I find particularly captivating. There have been times when I’ve found myself tooling down the road with my car windows down, not paying any particular attention to my surroundings, when suddenly an intoxicating fragrance has filled the air. It’s a scent that’s impossible to ignore, or—once a person has experienced it—to forget. Instantly I’ve snapped to attention and, sure enough, found myself passing through a cluster of locust trees conducting a seminar on the sense of smell.

Okay, riddle time: how is the black locust related to your supper time? Answer: it’s a member of the pea family. That’s right—that fifty-foot-tall tree decked with white flowers growing by the woods edge is related to those jolly little green peas you pile onto your dinner plate. Just compare the flowers and seed pods of the one to with the other and you’ll see the resemblance. Not that you’d want to shell out the long, brown pods of the black locust, cook the beans, and eat them. The pea family is a huge family with a lot of members, and not all of them are edible. Some are in fact toxic, the black locust being a case in point. So please refrain from any ideas of including it in your table fare.

But definitely take time to enjoy the beneficence that this tree has to offer your visual and olfactory senses. Now is the time. Out there, where the road winds over the next hill and the late afternoon sun gilds the landscape, one sniff is all you need to remind you that the locusts are in bloom.

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Written by Dave.

When you think of Michigan, you can’t help but think of water and lots of it. Sixty-four thousand nine hundred and eighty inland lakes, according to DNR statistics. Three thousand two hundred and eighty-eight miles of Great Lakes shoreline—or 4,987 miles, if you include all the Michigan islands. As for rivers, don’t ask. You’ll hurt my brain. The point is, this state of ours, surrounded as it is by four of the five Great Lakes, is abundantly blessed with water.

So if you’re a fisherman, it’s a no-brainer that the fishing here is fantastic. Whether you’re a bass pro armed with cutting-edge equipment or a kid hunting for panfish with a cane pole and bobber-whether you enjoy trout fishing in the solitude of a northern stream, or trolling for walleye in the broad waters of Lake Erie, or muscling in steelhead at the Sixth Street dam in Grand Rapids, or prowling the choppy waters of the Keweenaw Bay in search of lake trout–Michigan is unparalleled when it comes to the kinds of fishing you can do and the abundance of fish at your disposal.

Just ask Ben Kroll. Ben lives in Hamilton, but when I ran across him, he was bringing in his boat after a session out on Hall Lake in the Barry County State Game Area. Since my own experience with that location has been limited to an occasional bit of shore fishing, I was curious what Hall Lake had to offer from the vantage of a small craft. Mostly panfish, Ben said. Bass, too, but not big ones. If you like to eat bluegills, though, this is a great lake. Ben told me he likes to fish for ‘gills using a fly instead of live bait. He is first and foremost a fly fisherman, he said, showing me the fly rod and reel he takes with him on the waters along with the rest of his gear.

“So tell me,” I asked, “what do you love about fishing in Michigan?”

“The variety,” Ben replied. “No two lakes are the same. The fishing here isn’t bland. There are a lot of fish, and a lot of ways to fish them.” Ben enjoys all of those ways, but being a fly fisherman at heart, his favorite approach is river fishing. “Steelhead are fine,” he said, “but I’d rather fish for brookies and rainbow trout.”

Holly Woodsworth would agree wholeheartedly with Ben’s love for rivers. When I met her, she was sitting on the bank of the Grand River in Lowell, waiting for a strike on one of the three lines she had in the water. She’s a friendly, gregarious woman, and when I asked her what she loved about fishing in Michigan, her response was immediate. “Lots of fish!” she said. Holly used to live in New Mexico, a state not exactly known for its blue ribbon fishing waters. Here in Michigan, she and her husband and three young daughters can fish to their hearts’ content.

“My dad first took me fishing when I was three years old,” she told me. She’s been at it ever since. “Fishing is so relaxing and calming, especially here on the river,” she said.

To me, Holly was perfect proof that you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to enjoy a day of fishing. Her setup consisted of three good, old-fashioned close-faced reels, and while I didn’t ask, I’m almost certain they weren’t matched up with $300 Loomis rods. But what caught my eye was the rig she was using to prop up her poles while she waited for a strike: a stout branch stuck in the ground, with a perfect right angle to it that supported Holly’s poles perfectly.

Earlier that day, the family had been fishing up the road a few miles on the Flat River. Holly’s husband had left his pole momentarily, and when he turned around, it was disappearing into the water. Naturally, he did what any smart, sane outdoorsman would have done and waded in after it. Grabbing his pole, he discovered that a fish was on the other end. A BIG fish. After a brief but intense battle, he hauled in an immense sucker–not necessarily the specialty of a river loaded with smallmouth bass, panfish, and trout, but what the heck. You take what you get, have fun with it, and then release it if it’s not what you’re looking for. Not everything has to end up in the frying pan.

If you love to fish, then I need not tell you what a paradise Michigan is for pursuing your passion. But you can probably tell me. What is it about fishing in Michigan that you love? If you’d like to share your thoughts, your knowledge, a favorite fishing tale, or whatever, please drop us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.

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Written by Dave.

Along the Loda Lake Trail July 19 09

I had thought the time for pink ladyslippers was past, at least in the woods if not in the bogs. But a few late bloomers gave Lisa and me a pleasant surprise earlier this week along the trail at Loda Lake.

Dave has already written about this remarkable backwoods wildflower sanctuary in a previous post, but the subject bears revisiting. I’ve known of Loda Lake since I was twelve or thirteen years old, and it is truly a special place. Located in the heart of the Manistee National Forest eight miles north of White Cloud, sixty-one miles north of downtown Grand Rapids, and eighty-eight miles from my hometown of Caledonia, the lake is situated in the transition zone between the hardwoods of southern Michigan and the northern forests that extend from around Newaygo toward the bridge. Between Dave’s post and the Loda Lake website, you can get a good feel for the sanctuary’s history,  a partial list of its flora, and other details. No need for me to repeat what has already been said, but I thought you might enjoy a few personal glimpses from along the trail.

It had been quite a few years since my last visit to Loda Lake. But nothing about the place had changed. The only noticeable human impact has been minimal and positive—some handy, low-key interpretive markers along the trail that identify various native plants such as partridgeberry, trailing arbutus, and starflower. The boardwalk through the wetlands and the lakeside trail were as I’ve always remembered them, as is the tranquility of the place.

Lisa and I began our hike at the boat launch, where pitcher plants were blooming in the boggy shoreline. From there, we followed the trail east around the lake, stopping at different places to take pictures and savor nature’s subtle offerings to the senses: the faint, sweet smell of wetlands…Impressionistic lily pads dotting the water…the taste of fresh wintergreen leaves…the call of a woodpecker from somewhere nearby…the dance of dragonflies by the shoreline.

Loda Lake was the first place where I encountered the painted trillium in Michigan. That was many years ago, back when I was a kid, and the painted trilliums were not endemic, but had been transplanted. I have no idea whether they still grow at Loda Lake. I suspect that they didn’t survive long, as the habitat may not have been quite right. But hundreds of other Michigan wildflowers, ferns, mushrooms, trees, and shrubs find perfect conditions within Loda Lakes’s varied ecological niches—its old farm, fields, pine plantations, northern hardwood forest, bog, and the lake itself. The wildlife, too, enjoys plenty of cover and room to move about, even deep-woods denizens such as the pileated woodpecker. If you’re lucky—or unlucky, depending on your point of view—you may even spot an occasional black bear.

Loda Lake. Named after an Indian princess, it captures and preserves a slice of natural Michigan. Come savor the whisper of the wind through the treetops, the scent of white pines, and the play of sunlight on the waters. It’s an easy and pleasant drive north of Grand Rapids and beyond Newaygo to the place where the northwoods begins.

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Written by Dave.

Beyond the Blockhouse: Muskegon State Park July 26 09

A hobbit trail leads to the Bog Bench at Muskegon State Park. To be sure, there are many hobbit trails that wind through the wooded back dunes north of Muskegon, but this one is special. From its trail head at the storied Blockhouse that overlooks Lake Michigan and all points surrounding, it descends into a hardwood forest, clambers back up the side of a dune, then leads you across a small blowout and along a wooded ridge of knobbly witch hazels, entish oaks, and elvish white pines. From there the trail descends into a forested valley and traces the shore of a jewel-like bog lake bordered to the south, west, and east by more dunes, and to the north by flatter, less topographically challenging forest land.

I have tramped through countless woodlands in my four decades as an amateur naturalist, but I have never seen another woods so filled with mystery and magic as these. They are Sherwood Forest. They are Lothlorien. I’ve not yet seen a leprechaun scamper into hiding among the lowbush blueberries, but that just goes to show you how secretive leprechauns are. As for hobbits, I’m waiting for the day when I find one sitting on the Bog Bench. I’ll step off the main trail through an archway of pine branches and there he’ll be, smoking his pipe and contemplating the afternoon sun that dances in mirror fragments on the waters.

I could go on at length about the bench that sits on the shore of the tiny lake and overlooks an island of the encroaching wetland…about the trail as it follows its course around the lake and along the shoulders of wooded dunes shaded by hemlocks and woven with trailing arbutus…and of course, about the famed Blockhouse perched high atop a sandy pinnacle off of Scenic Drive, overlooking the land where lumberjacks once harvested long-vanished forests of virgin white pine. But there are other sides to Muskegon State Park as well. Broad, sandy beaches. Campgrounds. A channel where the Muskegon River, after broadening into the wide waters of Muskegon Lake, empties at last into the vast expanse of Lake Michigan.

On this day, after circling the lake and ascending the hobbit trail back up out of that mythical valley, Lisa and I headed south down Scenic Drive past the beach to the channel. Sailboats plied the waters past the lighthouse, heading inland after an afternoon out on Lake Michigan. A handful of fishermen were trying their luck on a walkway next to the main boardwalk. A wide variety of dogs were out walking their people—a Jack Russel terrier, a chihuahua, a couple of magnificent collies, and more.

From the pier, we headed back north to the beach to watch the sun set. Evening along the Lake Michigan shoreline is magical, and this evening was especially so. Orange-rimmed turrets of storm clouds far to the north thrust skyward, silhouetted by the melon sky. A host of sea gulls wheeled through the air, descending for the night with the sun. Blond sand and green marram grass blazed in the last rosy rays, then gradually receded into shadow. A beautiful afternoon on Michigan’s west coast had crowned itself with a radiant sunset.

And now, at last, it was time to go home.

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Written by Dave.

Big Wind over the Big Lake July 3 09

There are few spectacles more imposing in the Great Lakes region than a squall line rolling in off of the big waters. If you’ve ever seen it happen—if you’ve stood on the dunes and watched as a menacing wedge of clouds has advanced toward you like a giant, scowling eyebrow—then you know exactly what I mean. The green lake waters turn dark as the sunlight flees from the sky. A hush falls over the landscape like a blanket. And onward comes that great arch of cloud, stretching from horizon to horizon, a vast harbinger of gale-force winds, torrential rain, marble-sized hail, and a mighty extravaganza of lightning and thunder.

Storm season came late to Michigan this year. An inordinately cool spring kept the big weather in check longer than usual, but it did finally arrive, and I welcomed it with open arms. As a storm chaser, I look forward to the first spring storm the way a kid looks forward to Christmas. I love stepping outside under balmy, bright skies, sniffing the year’s first exhilarating fetch of good Gulf of Mexico moisture, and watching nicely sheared cumulus towers pile up through the troposphere and morph from benign little cotton puffs into war-like giants. Man, how I love a good storm, don’t you?

Storms in Michigan come in a few basic varieties, with some kinds being more common than others. The wall cloud in this picture is a sight you’ll rarely see in our neck of the woods. Once in a while, though, when conditions are right, you may encounter one. Most folks would just as soon not. It’s a sight that sends storm-wise Midwesterners scurrying for their basements, as a tornado can develop out of such a cloud in a matter of moments.

A wall cloud often—though by no means always—forms in the part of a thunderstorm that appears to be the least stormy. To the north, rain and even hail may be falling, while the wall cloud itself descends from a rain-free cloud base on the southwest, rear part of the storm. Just behind it and to the south, the sky may be clear and the sun may be shining. Don’t let that fool you! This is the business end of the storm, the part that is greedily ingesting massive amounts of the warm, moist air that fuels a thunderstorm the way gas powers an automobile engine.

The wall cloud pictured above was shot from a distance of maybe half a mile. The whitish area in the foreground was rotating vigorously and moving directly toward my storm chasing partner, Bill, and I at around 35 miles an hour. We stayed in our location long enough to snap a few photos, then skedaddled. The storm never put down a tornado during the time that we tracked with it—the surface winds weren’t right. Had they shifted to the southeast, though, I think things would have gotten considerably more interesting in a hurry.

Here’s a tip: if a thunderstorm is moving toward you and you can feel a warm wind rushing into it (not a cool wind blowing out of it), watch out. Trouble is very likely headed your way.

In contrast to a wall cloud, an arcus cloud (or shelf cloud) usually looks a lot more menacing than it really is. It’s a much more common cloud formation than a wall cloud. You’ll find it at the front end of an advancing thunderstorm; it’s a low, wedge-shaped structure that looks all the more threatening for the black skies that follow directly behind it. Like a wall cloud, a shelf cloud shows motion. However, a wall cloud will exhibit vertical rotation, like a giant carousel, while a shelf cloud’s motion is primarily lift, and any turning will be horizontal, like a huge rolling pin.

Look for quiet air as an arcus cloud approaches—the proverbial calm before the storm—then a cool, brisk breeze that builds and builds, sometimes to as high as 60 or 70 miles an hour, and rarely even faster. Once you begin to feel that wind, you’d better be heading for shelter if you haven’t found it already, because the rain that follows is usually a soaker of the first order.

Watching a good thunderstorm roll in is always a worthwhile experience. But it’s a doubly impressive sight on the Lake Michigan shoreline, with lightning bolts flickering on the horizon and thunder grumbling in the distance as the glowering shelf cloud steamrolls toward you across the sky. Next time stormy weather threatens to end your fun at the beach, don’t be too quick to leave. Stick around. The show is about to begin, and you don’t want to miss it.

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Written by Dave.

Prickly Pears July 10 09

My sister and I were driving back home from Texas last week when we came upon the prickly pears. There they were, thousands of the showy, yellow flowers at the peak of their bloom, dotting mile after mile of the median between the north- and southbound lanes of the Interstate. It was exactly the kind of scene I’d have expected to see in Texas—only we weren’t in Texas. We were in Michigan.

If I were to ask a thousand people to each name five Michigan wildflowers, I’d be surprised if a single person mentioned the eastern prickly pear. Cactus just isn’t something folks expect to find growing wild in our state. But it does. Opuntia humifusa—or devil’s tongue, as it is sometimes called—is as much a native of our landscape as the sugar maple and the May apple.

The plants database of the Natural Resources Conservation Service presently indicates that the eastern prickly pear occurs in ten Michigan counties , all of them on the western side of the state. However, that is doubtless a conservative number. In fact, the photos in this article were taken five miles west of Hastings in Barry County, a county not shown in the distribution map for the plant. Conscientious amateur botanist that I am, I submitted a report to NRCS, and I expect that at some point, Barry will be added to the list. But just about anywhere where you find plenty of sand and sunlight, you’re also apt to find the cactus. Sand dunes. Oak barrens. Tallgrass prairies Open Jack pine forests. Railroad rights-of-way. Hillside prairies. Prickly pear may not always be as visible as it is in early July, when its butter-yellow, carnation-like blossoms light the sandy fields and roadsides like miniature suns, but for sheer fascination alone, the plant is a show-stopper any time of year.

The eastern prickly pear likes to form mats, making it probably the most formidable natural ground cover in our state. You can see it at its finest along M-82 heading from US 131 toward Newaygo. Both Newaygo and Allegan Counties are strongholds for what remains of Michigan’s once extensive tallgrass prairies, and the stretch of M-82 west of US 131 harbors a number of typical prairie plants. The prickly pear is one you simply can’t mistake for anything else, and this time of year is when you can easily spot it as you drive down the road in your car.

The striking, flat pads that are the hallmark of Opuntia are actually its stems. The needles—as is true of all cacti—are the plant’s modified leaves. Oh, and about those needles: while the sharp, spiky doohickeys clearly say, “Don’t mess with me,” you also want to avoid the little tufts of orange-brown hairs that surround the bases of the spikes and dot the pads like small eyes. Called glochids, they can cause severe skin irritation upon contact, and the merest touch can cause them to dislodge from their eyelets and find a new, hard-to-eradicate home in your skin. So, a word to the wise: devil’s tongue may look cute, but it’s by no means cuddly.

It is, however, edible. Carefully peeled to remove the glochids, the fruit can be eaten or turned into a jelly, and the pads can be diced and used in salads or even fried. Don’t take the culinary value of prickly pear on my recommendation, though. I haven’t eaten it myself, and I presently consider the best use of the plant to be simply enjoying it for its beauty and interest. The yellow petals have a translucent quality that reminds me of the colored paper one uses for filler in a gift bag. They’re as lovely as any rose you’ll ever find in a garden, and a colorful reminder of the natural diversity that exists in this great, rugged, wonderful state of ours.

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Written by Dave.

Deep Ducks July 24 09

Ducks are deep. I say this with some hesitancy, since I also happen to think that Ronald McDonald is deep, an opinion not shared by everyone. But ducks are deeper. They’ve just got to be. Any bird that appears on the surface to be as comical as a duck has got to have plenty going on below the surface.

Then again, maybe not. It’s possible that hidden beneath all that comicality—beneath the absurd waddle and that impossible-to-take-seriously quack—is a mind that is thinking, “Duh.” In fact, based on my personal duck experiences, I have to admit there’s solid evidence that ducks are just plain dumb. Their drollery isn’t just a cover-up to keep us fooled while they plot to take over the world.

I guess I just like to think that ducks are deep because: 1) it’s fun to say; 2) saying ducks are dumb could get me blacklisted by duck lovers; and 3) dumb as they are, ducks are nevertheless beautiful birds. And it’s that mix of beauty and goofiness that makes ducks so entertaining, and beloved by so many people.

Grand Ledge west of Lansing has one of the best duck feeding stations you’re likely to find. Off of the parking lot across from the island, a short stairway takes you down to the edge of the Grand River. A contingent of ducks has found this location to be a pretty good thing, as thoughtful humans show up regularly to feed them. The place is a veritable melting pot of duckdom, with ducks of every ethnicity and even a few geese coexisting beautifully, united by their shared appreciation for an easy handout. We could all learn something from them—that is, if they could communicate with us in relevant terms. “Quack” may be amusing, but it’s not particularly enlightening.

The island I mentioned above is an attractive place. A footbridge takes you from the parking lot across a channel of the river to the island’s east side, facing the gazebo. From there you can walk a quarter of a mile down a wide, nicely paved path to the westernmost point, where there’s a clear view upstream toward the railroad trestle that spans the two high banks east of Fitzgerald Park.

While the ducks like to convene on the flat sandbar across from it, the island itself is a favorite location for human activities. Wedding parties use it for photo shoots, shaded by stately poplars with the river drifting leisurely by in the background. Craft fairs add a splash of color and interest toward the latter part of the warm months. Walkers, fishermen, and picnickers all find the island a place to unwind and lose the fast pace of life to the unhurried current of the Grand River.

It’s a lovely place. And of course, there are the ducks. From mama mallards leading miniature flotillas of irresistibly cute ducklings, to pure, creamy white beauties, to big bruisers of indeterminate (to me, at least) species and origin, you can’t miss them. If you want to win some friends for life, or at least for fifteen minutes, just bring a few slices of bread with you. You’ll get plenty of entertainment out of the deal.

Don’t expect much more than that, though. If you’re looking for a truly meaningful exchange that rises above the duckish instinct to eat, forget it. Ducks aren’t that deep.

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Written by Dave.

Michigan Seasons Now and Then July 31 09

Picture yourself standing in a beautifully landscaped garden, gazing across Gun Lake at the far shoreline. Out on the waters, swimmers dive off of pontoon boats while speed boats go whizzing by with skiers in tow. Closer to land, at the ends of the countless docks which string along the lake’s circumference like wooden beads on an immense necklace, shore fishermen are making their appeals to the local bass and panfish.

Such is the view along the walk at the Bay Pointe Inn on the southwest side of Gun Lake—a view that epitomizes the fullness, the warmth, and the pleasantness of a Michigan summer. In July, you can treat your eyes to many other vistas that convey a similar feeling: long stretches of sand dunes bellying up to the broad, shining waters of Lake Michigan…far-reaching fields of tall, emerald corn ripening in the dog-days sun…colorful boats patrolling the channels at Holland, Grand Haven, and Muskegon while walkers of every age mingle along the piers…campgrounds filled with tents, voices, the laughter of children, and the smell of burgers cooking over Coleman stoves. Summer in Michigan has a thousand expressions, all with a similar, welcome feeling about them. The Gun Lake panorama is just one.

Here is another view across Gun Lake. This one, however, was taken not only from the opposite shore, but also from the far end of the year, on one of the coldest days of January, 2009.

Remember winter?

Here at the cusp of August, amid the flush of summer greenery, it seems incredible that the snowy season even exists. But when we’re in the midst of winter’s frigid, dark belly, it’s hard to believe it will ever end. That polar contrast is one of the ironies of Michigan—to some, a blessing; to others, a curse. No matter how you look at the seasonal extremes, though, one thing is sure: they provide a drama and interest that only those who live in the snow belt can appreciate.

Michigan now and Michigan then. Michigan in the summer and in the winter, in its festive colors and in its funereal starkness. Remembering one helps us keep the other in perspective. Strange as it may seem, our long slide toward winter has begun. But we have yet many, many bright, warm days ahead of us before the last of the painted leaves drop and the snows begin to fly. Here in the height of summer, images of winter have a beauty that’s much easier to appreciate when we can enjoy it without having to experience all that accompanies it.

Today there is no bitter cold. Today the sun sets around nine o’clock, not five. The single-digit temperatures that attended this last photograph when it was taken aren’t present to chill either you or me to the marrow. That’s one of the pleasures of photography: we get to enjoy the beauty of then with the convenience of now.

Of course, that principle works equally well in reverse. Sometime this winter, you’ll no doubt find a splash of summer color in this blog to remind you that while winter can seem long and cold, it’s not forever. Some of you, the snow-lovers, may wish it was forever. Others will feel glad for the encouraging reminder that the warm months will inevitably arrive once again.

Enjoy your summer, and don’t fret about the winter. Both seasons have their unique beauty. That’s the blessing of the Michigan seasons, both now and then.

 

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Written by Dave.

View from the Dune Top: P. J. Hoffmaster Park Aug 7 09

I don’t know why the DNR hasn’t constructed an escalator to the dune overlook at P. J. Hoffmaster Park. No doubt it was just an oversight on the part of the planners, but it’s one I wish they’d correct, because trudging the stairway all the way to the top of that ridiculously tall sand mountain is a killer project. To make matters worse, the number of steps—somewhere around a million, is my guess—continues to mysteriously increase the older I get. There was a time when I think there were just a couple hundred, so I feel that the escalator is long overdue. Budgets being what they are in this state, though, I doubt I’ll see it anytime in my lifetime.

Ah, well. It’s probably just as well. Hoffmaster is a park made for hikers, for people who appreciate the natural landscape and are willing to work a little to enjoy it. The view from the dune top is grand, and well worth the effort it takes to make the redoubtable climb. There’s also plenty to see along the way. Beginning at the parking lot next to the park’s interpretive center, a well-maintained trail winds through a beech/hemlock/maple forest. In that hushed, emerald cathedral, you’ll find plenty of things to capture your interest if you fine-tune your senses to “subtle.” Listen for the call of a pileated woodpecker. Or keep your eyes peeled for the Frog Orchid, which abounds in this location.

But the crown jewel of this particular trail is unquestionably the sweeping panorama which unfolds at the top of the dune stairs. Passing through an archway of white pine branches, you make your way up the final steps and emerge onto a small viewing platform. From that vantage point, the vast, shining waters of Lake Michigan spread out to your west under the blue canopy of summer sky, a cool lake breeze ascends the dune face and whisks the sweat from your forehead, and to the north the treetops part to reveal the sandy top of Mount Baldy a third of a mile away.

It’s a sublime view, and as changeable as a kaleidoscope. Visit at sunset when the sky is a drama of multi-tiered clouds, and watch as the golds and reds and purples light the vapors and fade into a smolder on the shimmering waters. Come at fall, when painted trees stretch to the horizon. And listen at all times for the eternal whisper of the waves that roll, tirelessly and unendingly, onto the distant beach.

The beach. That’s another aspect of P. J. Hoffmaster Park that merits the hike, and there’s another leg of the trail that will take you there. I’ll say little about the mythical woods through which that trail passes like a brief excursion through Never Never Land. You can experience it for yourself, and you’ll be glad you did. Just make sure you make the hike down to water’s edge. No trip to the park would be complete without cooling your bare feet in the waters of the big lake, or strolling down the sandy strand amid the dune grass, or enjoying the view of the shoreline stretching off into the distance with the dunes on one side, Lake Michigan on the other, and the broad summer sky spreading overhead.

Stay awhile. What’s the hurry? Watch the sun set. The walk back to the parking lot isn’t far, and your car will still be there. So lay back in the warm sands and enjoy your time here. For most of us, such moments are far too few, and it’s good and wise to savor them when we can.

 

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Written by Dave.