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The River Otters of Fishtown oct 2 09

Let me admit it up front: my otter images are not the best photos I’ve ever taken.

On the other hand, they’re the only otter photos I’ve ever taken, because until now, I’ve never seen otters up close. In fact, until this spring, when I caught a momentary glimpse of one along the Coldwater River, I had never seen a river otter at all. For an animal with such a wide range in the United States, it seems to be pretty choosy about where it resides, at least here in Michigan. Or maybe I just don’t get to the right places—though with as much traipsing around as I do, it seems strange that, until just a couple weeks ago, I had spent fifty-three years on this planet without a single otter encounter.

Whatever the reason for that may be, it’s not because river otters are shy and reclusive. That they’re not, the little showmen. The personality type that has been dubbed the “otter” is playful, fun-loving, and loves a party, and those qualities describe its namesake down to the whisker.

But let me backpaddle a bit and tell you what brought Lisa and me to Fishtown harbor, where the otters play.

mlSailboat1In last week’s post, “Sundown at Sleeping Bear,” I described our day trip through the Leelanau peninsula. But a single post can’t possibly do justice to such a journey, any more than a single day can offer anything more than a quick, tourist’s thumbnail of all that Leelanau and the Traverse City region have to offer. The area is breathtaking, and as the trees turn color, it is moving into its most glorious time of year—a season when the problem with owning a camera isn’t finding things to photograph, but finding time to photograph the nonstop possibilities that beckon from every angle.

On the beach by the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, at the very tip of the peninsula, a stately schooner sailed by in the distance, its white sails catching the pure light of a crisp, electric-blue September afternoon. Farther south down the North Manitou Trail, oak trees on a woods edge bordering the sandy strand of a northern lakeshore glowed like emerald lanterns, backlit by the sun. Between and beyond these views were countless others: broad fields that stretched toward the green-clad bulks of forested hills…a bright-red wayside church, beautifully maintained and as picturesque as anything New England could offer…rustic farms rambling across vast, tumbled acres of cropland…azure lakes dappled with cobalt blue and ruffled with patches of shivery wavelets…the eyes lack no good thing in Leelanau land.

At length, we arrived in the town of Leland, and a quaint little assortment of shops along the boardwalk of a channel to Lake Michigan. This, the road signs informed us, was “historic Fishtown.”

I was taking photos of some boats when Lisa called to me from farther down the walkway. As I joined her, she pointed toward the channel and said, “Look. Otters!”

And there were—three of them, frolicking in the water like puppies. Me being a male, I don’t normally include the word adorable as a part of my working vocabulary, but I have to say, these little guys were adorable. Graceful, too, and fast as torpedoes in the water, and not at all bothered by the small klatch of tourists standing there gawking at them. In fact, they seemed to enjoy the attention, even thrive on it.

With their friendly, fun-loving mannerisms, river otters seem like they’d make wonderful pets, provided you’ve got a really big bathtub that you keep stocked with fish. In Asia, otters are actually trained to fish for their owners. Here in Michigan, though, I’m glad to see them living wild—irresistible, bewhiskered, joyous clowns of the great outdoors.

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Written by Dave.

As the Green Months End Oct 9 09

If April is the beginning of Michigan’s green season, September is the beginning of the end. Like April, it is a season of contrasts. But the contrasts are gentler contrasts—not an explosion but an implosion, a graceful fading of summer heat into cooler temperatures, long days into early sunsets, and the lush emerald of the fields and woods into the gilding of the goldenrods and the colored pointillism of the trees.

The wetlands are the first to show the signs of autumn. As early as August, you can see the blush of the year’s mortality tinging the swamp maples. By mid-September, the bogs, marshes, and fens are a quiltwork of scarlets, maroons, and yellows, of purple-brown heaths, lush green tamaracks, and blazing red shrubs.

About those shrubs: be careful. Poison sumac is the glory of the swamps in September and October, but resist the temptation to harvest its multi-colored leaves for a table display. They may be beautiful, but trust me, your satisfaction will be short-lived once you discover just how far the price-tag exceeds the rewards.

Just about any other plant is more gracious. In the meadows and along the roadsides and railroad tracks, bright, yellow sunbursts of Butter-and-Eggs thrust their wild snapdragon blossoms above the field grass. Prickly teasels stand at attention like British soldiers in purple hats, drawing the attention of preoccupied bumblebees. Among the weeds, an army of grasshoppers bustles and flicks. All around is color and activity, the drama of a growing season drawing to its close.

mlLightningThe sky, too, is a pageant of seasonal change. On Tuesday, October’s first really deep low-pressure system blew across the state—the kind whose high winds will, two or three short weeks from now, strip the leaves from the trees en masse. These are the days of crackling blue skies scoured of moisture and breathtakingly clear; and of scowling, iron-gray clouds that pour down a colder rain and make us glad to be sitting indoors with a cup of hot coffee.

Yet, while the great storms of the spring are far behind us, this time of year holds its occasional surprises. As the summer weather pattern begins to break and the polar jet shifts southward, bringing with it the first pushes of Arctic air, severe thunderstorms get a crack at a brief, second season.

A couple weeks ago, my friend and fellow storm chaser Kurt Hulst and I drove out to Holland to intercept a squall line moving across Lake Michigan. The storms were fairly low-topped, but lightning breeders nevertheless.

Setting up our cameras on a stairway down to the beach, we caught the light show as the line drew closer and closer, rocketing along at forty-five knots. Few spectacles in Michigan are as dramatic as watching a storm advance over the big waters, and this storm was a nice one. Perhaps it will prove to have been the last decent display for another six months. It kind of looks that way right now, but I hope I’m wrong. Nothing is certain until the snows fly. When you’re a weather buff, that’s an added virtue of autumn in Michigan. It is, as I’ve said, a season of contrasts. You may have a good idea what to expect, but there’s plenty of room for serendipity.

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Written by Dave.

Call me superstitious, but I feel unlucky whenever a cannon is pointed directly at me. So I felt glad when they turned this one downfield, where the Southern army was massing it’s forces—all twenty of them, from what I could judge. Granted, it wasn’t much of a massing, but it’s hard to muster up Confederate troops these days. Union troops, too, for that matter. Nevertheless, between the two sides there looked to be enough players to make a skirmish, though the presence of the cannon suggested that it might be a short one.

Lisa and I were at historic Bowen’s Mills in northern Barry County, where a Civil War battle reenactment was about to commence. For the past couple of hours since our arrival, the Union platoon had been hanging about near the village green as visitors strolled through the grounds, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Cider Days Festival.

I’ve known about Bowen’s Mills for years, but I had never taken the time to explore it. Man, what I was missing! There is far more to the place than I ever imagined. With its active mill that produces everything from buckwheat flour to apple cider; its historic buildings dating as far back as 1840; its arts and entertainment center for weddings and social events; its animal farm with sheep, chickens, Percherons, and an old Tom turkey that loves to be petted; and more, this is a destination location, a wonderful place to put on your calendar and make an afternoon of.

In the encampment on the periphery of the battlefield, numerous men and women in period attire created an atmosphere of authenticity as they plied their crafts. From tent to tent, you could see demonstrations of everything from old cookware and campfire meals to prototype sewing machines and handmade garments.

By and by, the Union platoon filed into position up by the old gristmill. Hats came off, a dedicatory prayer was said, three salvos were fired into the air, and then the troops marched into position in anticipation of battle.

They didn’t have long to wait. In short order, a small cloud of children fled screaming from the old schoolhouse at the far end of the village, announcing the arrival of the Confederate army. Then the shooting commenced.

I was impressed by the quantity of lead that flew. I was even more impressed by the low mortality rate, but that was just wisdom. With the limited number of soldiers on hand, each side had to conserve on the dying or there’d have been no one left to fight by the time the action moved upfield in front of the audience. The result was that both sides whanged away at each other for quite a while without anyone scoring a hit. It was some petrifyingly poor shooting; they’d have inflicted as much damage on each other playing Parcheesi. Even the cannon, which went off suddenly with a bone-gelling blast, produced no effect other than possibly, in some of the onlookers, an intense longing for a change of underwear.

By and by, though, the conflict shifted to directly in front of us, and at that point a Union soldier finally took a ball. It killed him instantly, from all appearances, though not so thoroughly that he didn’t manage to pull his hat over his face a few minutes later to shield his eyes from the sun. It’s not easy being a corpse.

Shortly after, a rebel soldier went down, sprawled spread-eagle on the ground, his fingers twitching. Now we were getting somewhere. A young Union troop was next, and this guy really went the extra mile. He’d brought with him a little cap of red dye that he could chomp down on, and…well, you get the picture. The carnage was underway.

While I’m poking a bit of gentle fun at some of the humorous points in this drama, let me say plainly that it was superbly done, offering a fascinating taste of the Civil War battlefield. The engagement was well-scripted, the actors put their hearts into their roles while at the same time clearly having fun, and I enjoyed the show immensely. The Union army eventually drove away the invaders and the village was saved, which was what we’d all been hoping for. Then, as the smoke cleared—there was a lot of smoke—the casualties miraculously picked themselves up off the ground, the crowd clapped and cheered, the troops took a bow, and everyone was happy.

Barry County has some beautiful jewels tucked away in its rural setting, and Bowen’s Mills is one of them. If you live anywhere within a hundred miles, don’t be like me and wait half your life before you discover it. Hop in the car and go. And bring your camera. You’ll be making some memories that you’ll want to revisit.

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Written by Dave.

Swan Song of the Leaves Oct 30 09

This is the time of the last of the leaves. As I write, a deep low pressure center is moving out of northeast Minnesota into Ontario, dragging with it a steamy plume of unseasonably warm, moist air and high winds across the Great Lakes region. It is the inevitable leaf-stripper of late October that denudes the trees, leaving them standing as forlorn black silhouettes against the gray sky to await the coming winter. The swan song of the leaves is the sound of the wind.

It certainly isn’t the call of swans. The mute swans we have here in Michigan are aptly named. They make very little sound unless you get too close to them, in which case they let you know in unmistakable terms. In the millpond along the Paul Henry trail out by Middleville, the swans have found a haven and have been busily increasing their numbers. The mature birds are splashes of breathtaking, snow-white incandescence that light up even a dull October afternoon. But the first-year adolescents have a beauty of their own, a composite of chocolate feathers against the emerging whiteness of adulthood.

The younger swans were patrolling the waters and the older birds were busily preening themselves as Lisa and I set out on the Middleville trail the other day with our cameras. Lisa was out to photograph the swans. I wanted to capture the last bit of color before the winds took it.

Not that there was much color left. It’s amazing how swiftly the fires of autumn finally fade and die, leaving only stray sparks to remind us of the blaze that lit the maples, the oaks, the sassafras, and the poplars. Two weeks ago the forests were in their glory. Today, a solitary vine of green, gold, and brown leaves trails through empty branches like a stubborn memory.

Let me not forget the willow thickets—first to leaf out in the spring, last to fade in the fall, clusters of gold amid the somber cattails and wetland grasses. Then there is the watercress, green the whole year round in the flowing current of the streams and backwaters. And on moist, wooded hillsides, the gnarled branches of the witch hazel are festooned with spidery, yellow blossoms, just in time for Halloween.

Yes, there is still color to be found as the autumn fades. Very little, to be sure, but it is there. Even the oaks, whose subdued, rusty-red hues render them as maiden aunts against the flamboyant maples at autumn’s peak, retain their leaves long after the party is over. When December snows mantle the forests, the brown-clad oaks are a reminder that the world has not been reduced utterly to black and white.

Walking back toward the car, I came upon a lone milkweed pod hanging from its stalk like a perched bird, its seed parasols trailing out of its side like silky plumage, waiting for the wind to catch them and carry them away. As the embers of the autumn wink out, as the swan song of the leaves sings its blustery melody, I think: today, somewhere out there, that handful of milkweed seeds is spinning along on the gale, bearing with them the life and promise of a spring not yet seen and a summer yet to come.

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Written by Dave.

Tom Turkey Nov 6 09

Let me introduce you to a friend of mine. This is Tom, and he’s a real turkey.

I know that’s not a very nice thing to say about someone, but in Tom’s case, truer words were never spoken. Tom is the resident turkey of the small animal farm at Bowen’s Mills. He’s also about as nice a guy as you ever could hope to meet. Think of a big, friendly black Lab, only round, with two legs, wings, a beak, and covered with feathers. That’s my buddy Tom—and he’ll be your buddy, too, once you meet him. He likes people and he likes attention, and he loves getting that wrinkly, red-and-blue head of his scratched.

Tom is sort of the unofficial mascot of the Bowen’s Mills menagerie. There are plenty of other critters there as well that kids and grownups alike will find irresistible. Immense, noble Percherons, powerful enough to haul the ponderous cannon used in the Civil War battle reenactments. A long-necked alpaca with the biggest, most soulful eyes and longest lashes you’ve ever seen. A flock of sheep whose wool finds its way into the hands of local knitters. Chickens of various types, the most engaging being the silkies, with their white, downy feathers.

Speaking of which, from my point of view, chickens are chickens, and most chickens can command my attention for a limited time at best. But silkies are different. They’re beautiful birds, with feathers so fine that it’s as if the birds never outgrew their fuzzy, chick stage of development. Silkies almost beg to be cuddled and petted—though, realistically, I doubt they would appreciate the experience nearly as much as the person doing the petting. Fluffy cuteness aside, they’re still chickens, and not given to sloppy sentimentality.

The pony, on the other hand, seems to dote on getting his forehead scratched. If you can look at this gentle little guy and not immediately feel your heart melt, you’re made of steelier stuff than I am. “Awwww!” is the only appropriate response when he comes ambling toward you, and while he may be hoping for a tasty handout, he’s quite appreciative of a simple petting.

As is Tom. If ever a bird were personality-plus, Tom is that bird, and he surely enjoys a good scritching. My encounter with him being my first experience with turkey scratching, I was surprised to discover how hot his colorful head and neck skin felt to my fingers. Touching it was like touching a blue and red radiator. I was told that Tom can change the mix of those colors at a whim. It’s all about attracting a mate. I’d give it a try myself if I weren’t already quite pleased with the lady I’ve got, who would probably be less than impressed by such a display. There’s no accounting for taste.

mlTomTurkey1But I digress. This final picmlTomTurkeyture is a closeup of Tom. You can see for yourself what a handsome fellow he is. If you feel so inclined, head over to Bowen’s Mills while the weather is still cooperative and get acquainted with him personally. And if you can’t make it till after Thanksgiving, don’t worry. Tom will still be around. He’s an old turkey who has survived many a holiday. He’s got it pretty darn good as far as turkeys go. But it couldn’t have happened to a nicer turkey.

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Written by Dave.

I have a theory and I’m about to prove it. But first, how many of you are deer hunters? Raise your hand.

Very good. Kindly exclude yourselves from the following poll.

As for the rest of you, how many are huge fans of November?

Hmmm…okay, let’s try that again: if you love the month of November, raise your hand.

Just as I thought. According to this scientific poll, out of the vast handful of my non-deer-hunting readers, not one of the four of you is all that crazy about November.

I’m not surprised. Here in Michigan, only a deer hunter could love this month.

As I write, the weather outside is blue and the temperature is in the lower sixties. It’s an absolutely glorious day, but it doesn’t fool me, and it doesn’t fool anyone who has lived in this state for any length of time. We know what lies around the corner.

I hate to sound negative, but of all the months of the year, November is the emptiest. Here it stands, forlorn as the ghost of some old, gray hobo, bereft of autumn’s vivid hues yet not quite committed to the black and white of winter.

This is not the most rewarding time to take a walk in the woods. Still, if you keep your eyes open, you’ll find hints of color here and there. A straggler beech tree, hanging onto the last bit of bright green and yellow in the forest. The mottled, tri-lobed leaves of hepatica, also known as liverwort for the plant’s supposed resemblance to the human liver, accenting the ground here and there. But in November, such things are just fading memories, like the echoes of a parade that has passed.

If I’ve found an image that captures November for me perfectly, it’s the Carlton Center Church at Charlton Park (and yes, “Carlton” and “Charlton” are spelled differently). Viewed in the late afternoon with the sun slanting in between streaks of alto-stratus, the beautiful old church takes on an eldritch feel, nestled among the stark silhouettes of large, leafless trees. For that matter, the historic village as a whole, bustling with activity in the summer, reminds me of a ghost town this time of year. The only thing missing is tumbleweeds blowing through the empty streets. I may write the Barry County Parks service and recommend that they provide some.

Surrounding the village is a 298-acre recreation area with a large swimming beach, boat ramp, and hiking trails. But the village is the park’s crown jewel. Located on Thornapple Lake between Hastings and Nashville, Michigan, this unique location first sprung up as a pioneer settlement called Indian Landing. In it, you’ll find a working lumber mill, a blacksmith shop, a bank, the one-room Lee schoolhouse, and many other buildings that harken back to a long-lost way of life.

During the warm months, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the park is alive with visitors. But in November, silence reigns.

The chatter and rustling of black squirrels and the occasional hammering of a woodpecker were the only sounds of activity as Lisa and I roamed the grounds of Charlton Park yesterday afternoon. Other than those, the place was quiet, as empty as November itself.

There are ghosts in the village. I saw one of them peering at me through the window of a darkened shop as I walked down the plank sidewalk.

Okay, it wasn’t a ghost, it was an old doll. A very old doll. In today’s world of high-tech toys, it probably wouldn’t be anything that would rate high on a child’s Christmas list, but back then, it was no doubt the dream of many a little girl. The girls have long since passed through their own Novembers. The doll remains, sad-eyed, remembering.

Sorry, didn’t mean to creep you out. But that’s November for you.

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Written by Dave.

Sunset Theater nov20/09

Saturday dawned blue and beautiful, filled with November haze and blessed with temperatures warmer than we’ve got any right to expect this time of year. It was a great day for a walk, and out at the W. K. Kellogg Experimental Forest southeast of Gull Lake in Kalamazoo County, people were seizing the opportunity.

I was one of them. With snow in the forecast for next week, there’s no telling when I’ll be able to grab another hike through the woods under such pleasant skies. And the well-maintained, easy-to-walk trails at the Experimental Forest offer slices of the outdoors that are accessible and enjoyable for just about anyone.

Don’t let the “Experimental” part of the name fool you. Kellogg Forest is hardly some sterile laboratory with white-cloaked technicians ambling about. Yes, it’s a world-class MSU forestry research site. But what you’ll find there before anything else is a lovely composite of woods, trout stream, wetland, and field that makes you want to stretch your legs and explore what lies over the hill and around the bend.

To that end, the folks who run the place are very accommodating. According to the website,  “Activities include bow hunting, fishing, biking, hiking, horseback riding, and cross-county skiing, driving the forest loop, and several interpretive trails. Guides are available for group tours.”

The afternoon light was waning when I pulled into the parking lot off of Webster Road north of Augusta. michiganSunset_Theater_1Camera in hand, I headed for the covered bridge that spans Augusta Creek and serves as a gateway to much of the park’s trail system.

The creek is one of the many projects underway at Kellogg Forest. Degraded as a trout habitat in the early 1900s by extant agricultural practices, it is currently being restored, thanks to the hard work of Trout Unlimited and assistance from the Kellogg Forest staff.

The stream threads its way through marsh, fen, and brushy swamp, bordered by the upland woods. On another day in a greener time of year, I might have explored its wetlands, but today, the woodland trail beckoned me toward corridors of pine and hardwood trees.

On October 24, 2001, a violent storm system blasted through Kellogg Forest, leveling three of its experimental tree plantations and damaging three more. Fifty-seven acres were flattened by straight-line winds. But what many would have called a disaster, Kellogg Forest saw as an opportunity for research and profit. You can walk through the woods today and see where the gale swept through, and also the ways in which the staff at Kellogg have set about making lemonade out of lemons.

The sun, hovering like a glowing ball just above the horizon, was filtering its last light through a gray weave of November branches as I rounded a turn in the trail and emerged into an opening. There, a convocation of young fir trees crowded the field in an experimental Christmas tree farm.

“They look like a bunch of fuzzy creatures all gathered together, watching a movie,” said Lisa when she saw my photo. And you know, they do: an audience of evergreens convened at the Sunset Theater, watching the sun descend through the forest.

You can catch the show yourself whenever you feel like it. But I recommend that you not wait too long. Outdoor theaters aren’t much fun once the snows start flying here in Michigan.

 

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Written by Dave.

Driving To Battle Creek nov27/09

I was out and about with my camera, looking for things to photograph in a month of the year that doesn’t much stimulate my imagination, when my appetite began tapping on my shoulder, requesting to be fed. Smoked ribs came to mind, along with memories of a tiny mom-and-pop joint in Battle Creek that makes the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted. A couple years prior, I had gotten a take-out at O.T.’s Up-N-Smoke B.B.Q. along M-66, and I never forgot how good the food was. So, at the behest of my appetite, I decided to head for Battle Creek.

The hour of sundown had arrived on the backroads east of Hastings, where I was following my nose, with no particular goal in mind other than to get a few photos. Even on this beautiful, blue-sky evening,  brown November was offering little to grab my attention. Yet high, thin clouds patterned the heavens, and the very starkness of the landscape served to call out its rare points of interest.

There are still apples on some of the trees. Along the roadside, an old relic of some bygone orchard raised leafless branches laden with golden orbs. A couple months ago, I’d have driven past without ever noticing. Now, transfigured by sheer lack of competition, the apples commanded the spotlight, were the spotlight, the only bright color in that otherwise somber scenery.

I think it was in the act of photographing those apples that the notion of heading to Battle Creek made sense to me. It’s a pretty drive along much of M-66, with the road winding through the hills past lakes and wetlands. Surely I would find a few photo ops along the way. So off I sped in the waning light, led by curiosity, impulse, and a hankering for barbecue.

Have you ever considered how greatly leaves define the outdoor ambience of Michigan? In the spring, a hike in the woods is like stepping into an Impressionistic painting, with the trees gently unfurling their buds in a wash of color and light. The fully clad maples, beeches, and oaks of summer cloak the land in opulent green. Autumn’s blaze of color need only be mentioned in order for its images to flare up in the imagination more vividly than any words can express.

But in November and the months that follow, leaves set the tone of the outdoors by their absence. We’re left with bare branches—attractive in their own right to an extent, but there are so darn many of them! And there are five months of them. That’s a long time to be shooting tree silhouettes in a largely black-and-white world.

I made it to Battle Creek, and the ribs were superb. Afterward, I set my tripod on a bridge in the downtown linear park, straddling the stream for which the city is named. Night had fallen on a town lit by its holiday Festival of Lights, and the park was bejeweled with gleaming pinpoints. People strolled the walkway along the creek by Clara’s, an elegant old railroad station converted into a wonderful restaurant. Reflections of sidewalk lamps gleamed in the waters of Battle Creek. The sight was altogether magical, and a worthy subject for my first-ever attempt at night-time photography in an urban setting.

If you’ve never visited Battle Creek during its Festival of Lights, now is your chance. With its live Nativity and its 12 Days of Christmas display, it’s a charming holiday experience. And if a taste of barbecue sounds good, remember: O.T.’s Up-N-Smoke B.B.Q. Just go there, that’s all. You can thank me later for sending you.

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Written by Dave.

Major Snowage dec4/09

It’s here at last, and it hasn’t wasted any time settling in. I’m talking about West Michigan’s first real snowfall of the winter, which arrived Thursday night. Residents awakening on Friday morning opened their curtains and looked out the window at a landscape transformed.

We didn’t get just a little snow, either. I don’t know exactly how much fell, but as you can see from the photo, it was at least two-thirds of the way up to my knees on the trails at Seidman Park north of Ada. I’m six feet tall and I wasn’t standing in a drift; what you see was the average. In other words, we got lots of snow. Major snowage. Snowissimo.

Michiganders fall into two groups: those who love winter and those who hate it. There’s not much middle ground. There is, however, considerable flux. You can start the winter loving snow, and then sometime around February or March, cross a line and decide that you frankly loathe the stuff. Yet even those of us who at best merely tolerate the cold season because we must, have to admit there are moments of unsurpassed beauty and magic which only that pale old wizard, winter, can conjure up.

The first snowfall is such an occasion. An endless host of plump flakes cascading out of the December night, dipping and rising and dancing in the air currents, blanketing the ground in bridal white and lading the trees like thick frosting—this is Michigan winter at its best. When the sun rises on that confectionery landscape, you’d have to be a real Grinch not to admit that it’s a pretty wonderful thing. For that matter, even the Grinch would probably crack a wondering smile at the sight of the new-fallen snow.

Well-layered and with cameras slung around our necks, Lisa and I emerged from my car at Seidman Park and stepped into that fresh, first layer of snow. I had no idea it was so deep! But Lisa is every bit as much an outdoors person as I am, and of the two of us, she’s the one who has deer hunting in her blood. She’s not easily deterred, and neither am I. So off we went down the trail to see what the fields and woods had to offer.

When was the last time I had hiked these trails? My gosh, it must have been ten years ago. Moving to Caledonia shifted my attention to the attractions of Yankee Springs and rural Barry County, and I forgot about places to my north such as Seidman Park and the Egypt Valley State Game Area. That is, I almost forgot. On this snowy afternoon, I’m glad I remembered this beautiful park with its miles of hiking trails winding over tumbled fields, around ponds and wetlands, across wind-blown dunes and oak barrens, and through silent, snow-muffled forests.

There are varieties of snow. I’m no expert on this subject; I just know that it is so. There’s a big difference, for instance, between the frigid diamond chips that fall on extremely cold days, and the big, soft flakes that stick to just about anything they touch and pack readily into snowballs. This latter kind of snow—snow that falls during relatively warm days—is the stuff that clung to the branches and transformed the woods around Lisa and me into a Narnian fantasy. Strange shapes emerge out of such snow. Logs become white-hatted gnomes. Trees become sculptures of white clumps on black trunks that reach skyward, straining toward the graying evening sky.

Love it or hate it, winter is here—the months of minimalism, the season of black and white. At its worst, we’ll live with it. At its best, we’ll call it beautiful. Its beauty may not be the tenderness of spring, the richness of summer, or the flamboyance of fall, but it is there. When peaches-and-cream clouds drift above a sunlit, snowy landscape, then at least some of us will admit that winter, too, is a fair maiden.

Of course, we’re likelier to appreciate her beauty when we dress warmly and carry a camera.

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Written by Dave.

Jones Ice Cream

jonesicecreamstroreIt could be a sin to just have a vanilla here. I am talking about Jones Ice Cream on Main Street in Baldwin. Jones is a long established family business serving up some of Michigan’s finest ice cream. The walls inside make the trip worthwhile in itself. They display many years worth of fascinating memorabilia of Lake County and Baldwin’s history.

Please do not interpret this post as a commercial for Jones Ice Cream Store, it is not a commercial, nor did the staff at MichiganLakes.com receive any financial incentive for this post.  But, as one who enjoys both ice cream and nostalgia, I find this place worthy of recommending to my friends.

Written by Dave.

Rusty

rustySomeone once said to me, “God allows a man to have only one exceptional dog in his lifetime.” I do not know if that is true, experience tells me it may be.

Meet Rusty. Rusty lives along Pine Street, just outside of downtown Holland. He is unique, made out of scrap metal from the Padnos Iron and Metal Company. He is part of an interesting and whimsical collection of outdoor sculptures all created a self taught artist. His work is displayed all thru out Western Michigan including the Meijer’s Gardens in northeast Grand Rapids, as well as the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in downtown Grand Rapids.

Next time you are on your way to Lake Macatawa, slow down you discover a little bit of everything from Rusty’s Dog House to a pair of boxing crankshafts, Eskimo sled dogs and many other fun and imaginative things.

Written by Dave.

farqhuarsOne very warm Saturday afternoon we were making our way from Ludington to Pentwater when we came upon this hotdog stand. We had not eaten since breakfast, so I was ready for a little something to eat and I knew I had to stop.

In my road travels I have learned that so often these simple, unpretentious, out of the way places are places of culinary delight, and this place was no exception. I had the “Cold Blooded Coney, Loaded” for a mere $3.00, and found it was just what I needed to satisfy my hunger and keep me going until dinner.

The bun was soft and fresh and the add-ons were fresh and tasty. Now normally on a warm day, a Coney would not be my first choice of foods. But with all the fresh ingredients on this one, I almost felt as if I was eating a salad on a bun and it was tasty and refreshing. The Coke I ordered was cold and refreshing. In my opinion, you can never go wrong with a cold Coke on a warm afternoon!

I was glad we took the time to stop at Farquhar’s. Not only was the food great, but the gentleman that served us was pleasant and friendly.

Written by Dave.

The First Roadside Park

ionia2Have you ever seen a sign and thought “What’s up with that”? Of course you have. I have driven by this particular sign in western Ionia County along Grand River Drive for the last twenty years. This time I decided to stop and investigate.

The Michigan historic sign states: “Here on old US 16 in Boston Township, Ionia County, the first picnic table along a highway right-of-way was placed in 1929 through the initiative of Allan Williams, county engineer. The table was built of salvage planks formerly used for guardrails.

ioniaThe idea immediately caught on and was adopted by the State Highway Department. The Ionia County Road Commission made the state’s tables until the work became too great. The roadside table became an emblem of Michigan’s hospitality, one which has widely emulated by states the nation over”

It’s interesting; when I visited, there was no roadside table there.

Written by Dave.