Late October is always a bittersweet time of the year here in northern Michigan. Unlike the yearning we feel for spring after a hard winter, we feel a bit melancholy as we prepare the equipment from our AuSable River canoe livery for their long winter hibernation.
Cleaning up and repairing the canoes and kayaks for their wintertime trestles and deflating and storing the rafts and tubes in the barn feels a bit like saying farewell to old friends at the end of summer camp. We have our memories of lazy days canoeing down river, watching the trout jump, and while we know we’ll see them again next season when the softening breezes gently awaken the pines and the hardwoods from their winter slumbers, we are still a bit wistful about saying good-bye.
At the same time, though, fall is the most glorious of all the four seasons up north. While hot, leisurely days on the river lull us into sleepy summer dreaming, autumn sharpens our senses. We crawl out of our beds one morning in October to find the air has crisped, as we are jolted out of our summer stupors. The red maples and red oaks recast their lush, green leaves into reds so brilliant that they seem to make the rest of the world around them look drab. As the rich red leaves fall from their branches, they mingle on wooded pathways with the burnished gold leaves of the birch and aspen trees, forming a colorful mosaic — a ground quilt that tempts us from our work to come explore in the wilderness.
One day the lure was too much to resist and I decided my chores could wait. I removed the sneakers I was wearing in the livery yard and pushed my feet into my hiking boots. Slipping on my red barn coat, I stepped out the back door and headed for the path in the wood.
The leaves rustled like paper beneath my feet as I trekked my way to the back of our property. The sun, high in a clear blue sky, was warming, but the air was cool and invigorating. I walked up a small hill when I felt compelled to look up. My eye caught the outline of a large bird overhead circling over the river in front of the dam. I stopped to get a better look. Cupping my hands over my eyes, I focused as best I could on the bird. Immediately I could tell it was an eagle. His white head and tail, black body and broad wings were unmistakable.
For just a few moments I stood watching him. Suddenly, he dove below the tree line and out of my sight. I was sure he spotted a meal swimming in the river. The fishing for both man and bird was good there in front of the dam.
I waited before I resumed my walk, hoping he would come above the trees so I could see him again. A second or two later he flew up into my line of sight once more, and perched at the top of one of the tallest pines, I glimpsed his freshly caught meal still quivering in his talons. When he finished he took flight, his wings beating the air. I stood there with my hands still cupped over my eyes watching as he flew down river and out of site.
Only a few steps later I was at the path that took me into the woods. As I hiked through the trees I gazed at the red and yellow canopy over head. The sun shone through the leaves, illuminating them, and infused the air with a golden cast. Having reached the heart of the woodlands where the trees were densely populated, I stopped and savored the colors that were all around me. I mourned the fact that in just a few weeks’ time snow clouds would reign in the sky, the trees’ branches would be bare, and today’s gloriously sunlit red and yellow leaves would be on the ground, mud-covered and trampled.
Something stirred at my feet that brought me out of my meditations. The leaves on the ground in front of me moved. A chipmunk was finding his way under the mosaic that covered the path. The moment he poked his head out from underneath a red maple leaf and saw me towering over him, he scurried away to find cover under nearby ferns. I chuckled at my little friend’s skittishness. Chipmunks have been one of my favorite northland animals. They are always so quick and busy, cheerfully going about their business.
At that moment I realized the wood that surrounded me was alive with all manner of chipmunks, squirrels, and birds hurriedly preparing for winter. I was so engrossed in the mural of leaves that I didn’t hear the cacophony of birds until just then. A pair of brown squirrels scurried around on a couple of branches nearby. One stopped what he was doing, sat on his haunches, and eyed me. Flicking his bushy tail, he chattered away as if to say, “Get busy!” Amused at his scolding, I knew that I, too, had chores to finish before winter arrived.
After taking one last long gaze, I turned around, shoved my hands in my pockets, lowered my head against the anticipation of winter’s chill, and headed in the direction of home.