As I stood at the kitchen window that faced south toward the gravel parking lot of our canoe livery and fly shop, I felt the breeze drift in. I stopped what I was doing, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. The freshness of the air was glorious.
Even though my two younger children were at the dining room table waiting for lunch, I made myself stand there and embrace the warm air. It only takes one Up North winter to learn that you do not take a moment like this for granted. After a few slow, deep breaths, I could sense it. Pine. There is nothing more invigorating than the scent of fresh pine as it lingers in the air. It’s one of the reasons I love living Up North.
Living in northern Michigan requires a kind of hardiness of spirit because the winters, while breathtaking in their beauty, are something to endure. To appreciate what it is like to travel the long journey of the winter months and come out on the other side to spring, you have to experience it fully by living in the Northwoods. It is not enough to come up for a weekend or two. You have to feel the transformation of the air, as crisp fall days slowly turn cold and then bitter. You have to witness the snow that falls before Thanksgiving, continues until early April, and is punctuated by hearty snowstorms. By the time March arrives your bones ache for spring, and any sign no matter how small gives you hope that warm, leisurely days on the river will soon arrive.
Those earliest signs of spring can be elusive. Even when the snowdrifts are still so deep that you sink to your waist, the air can carry the subtle but unmistakable warm scent of spring. It is a sign that the pines and the hardwoods are stirring as they approach the end of a long hibernation. I was snowshoeing through the path in the wood at the back of our property when I got my first trace of the softening of the trees. I maneuvered my snowshoes over and around a fallen tree, when the wind whistled through the needles and caught me full in the face. I stopped, put my face in the air, and inhaled deeply the distinct and unmistakable warmth and freshness that signaled spring. It was at that moment that I knew the days would be different. My mood and my attentions shifted to spring.
Then, as I stood in front of the kitchen sink and savored the pines, I noticed the tiny green buds peeking out of the branches just outside the window. Just the week before the cherry trees had been bare and expressionless but now the buds swelled from their branches, and in just another week or so, there would be blossoms in their place. My mind flashed forward to July and to the aroma of freshly baked homemade cherry pies.
My attention was drawn through the branches to the three SUVs that were parked in our gravel lot. Six fly fishermen, lawyers from downstate, had ventured north for their annual fishing trip, a getaway from their frenetic world even if only for a day or two. I could tell by watching the way they unloaded their fly rods and their gear and strapped on their waders that they were relieved to be in the north. Their movements were animated and they laughed big, like men who had just had a burden lifted from their shoulders. Just a few yards away was the river they had waited all winter to visit.
Like so many fishermen before them, these men were drawn to the historic AuSable River and its calm, steady current that winds its way from Grayling to Lake Huron. The stretch of the river we call home is just below the Mio Dam. It is a wild portion of the river that eagles, cranes, ducks, beavers, and other animals call home. Anglers from all over the world have come to call it the Trophy Waters because of its large number of trophy-sized brown and rainbow trout.
The six lawyer-fishermen will ply their fly fishing skills here, which they have done for several years now. With hands firmly gripping graphite rods instead of pens and Blackberries, they will cast tight fly lines and watch intently as the Hendricksons, StoneFlies, and Blue Wing Olives they bought at our shop settle on the surface of the riffles. They will stay on the river all day and into the early darkness, waiting, hoping for the sudden thrill that comes when a fish finally rises and bites. But these men were drawn here for more than just the trout and the beauty of the river.
Like the softening of the trees after a hard winter, the AuSable can soften and renew a spirit that has been worn down by the stress of a busy and out of control life.