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Overlooking the Portage Canal in Houghton, Michigan

Overlooking the Portage Canal in Houghton, Michigan

So what do you think?  Can it be an outdoor adventure when you visit the city?  I vote yes.  My husband votes yes.  Would you agree?

Years ago, in Wilderness Survival class, our instructor told us we could find amazing wildlife in the midst of cities and suburbs.  Get down on your hands and knees, he said.  Look under bushes, around brushy areas, on the edges of empty lots.  You’ll be surprised.  There’s voles and shrews and rabbits and mice and raccoons and birds of every color and size.  He had even spotted coyote and deer in the cities.  You just have to look in less-obvious areas.  The city contains lots of nature, usually hidden from us in our fast cars and pre-occupied mode.

Today we traveled up to the Copper Country, about an hour from our house.  Years ago the Keweenaw Peninsula boasted many copper mines; there’s still remnants of the old mining operations wherever you look.  It’s even a National Historical Park now.  Michigan Technological University is in Houghton; the population of the city counts about 7,000. 

We like to travel up there every week or so to buy good fresh organic fruits and vegetables at the Keweenaw Co-op (across the Portage Canal in Hancock.)  Today we bundled up in our warm clothes and boots and followed a snowmobile along the canal.  “Be prepared to jump off the trail if a snowmobile comes along,” my husband thoughtfully warned.  Luckily, the snowmobiles stayed away until our walk finished.

Portage Lake Lift Bridge

Portage Lake Lift Bridge

All sorts of interesting outdoor sites seduce the eye in every direction.  There’s a bridge over there, and the hint of sunlight between clouds.  Snow half-covers park benches, grills, walkways.  The city has already pushed huge piles of snow into out-of-way places.  The snowmobile trail crunches under foot, the snow packed nice and tight.  It’s 15 degrees, but not too unpleasant. 

Look!  Over there!  Someone has painted murals on the wall.  A splash of human creativity amidst the white snow and winter skies.  I don’t know about you, but the art somehow lifts the spirits.  It makes me think of how creativity can help us through the long winter months, through the days of darkness and cold.  It brings hope and good cheer….

Mural in snow

Mural in snow

Looking up

Looking up

All you outdoor-love-the-cold-and-snow-people, please step to the side.  The rest of us have to talk.  We have to huddle together in a circle and try to keep warm and discuss this outdoor world.  Shall we light a fire and talk about it?

I don’t know about you, but it’s sometimes hard to open the door and go outside.  It’s especially hard when it’s really cold, but it’s hard many days even when it’s relatively warm.  I wake up in the morning, knowing that the Commitment of this assignment and blog looms, and the Mind starts its litany:  “There’s nothing to write about.  There’s nothing to do out there.  It’s just a bunch of snow.  There’s no interesting pictures to take.”

Fortunately for us, if your Mind is anything like mine, we don’t need to give it much attention.  Just step outdoors anyway!  A half dozen possibilities will present themselves if you’re looking.  Just do it.  I guarantee you’ll find infinite pictures to snap, a few hundred words to describe the indescribable, and an exhilarating glow from spending time in the fresh outdoors.

Today, walking towards the Post Office, contemplating the next Outdoor adventure, my Mind started chanting, “Photo op, photo op, have to watch for a photo op….” when suddenly appeared a young fellow in his early 30’s dressed in winter jacket, hat and….are you ready for this?…..shorts!!!   Oh where is that camera when you need it?  I swear I would have published his picture right here. 

He’s wearing shorts, probably because it’s a balmy 23 degrees, while the National Weather Service in Marquette (about 90 miles away)  is predicting the possibility of breaking a weather record.  Over there it’s been 22 or 23 days of measurable snow.  We have (fortunately or unfortunately) not experienced that much snow yet this year.  I am still going snowshoe-less in less than a foot of the fluffy ground cover.

After meeting the fellow in his shorts and exclaiming about his scanty attire, I drove across the bay and over by the lighthouse.  It’s sometime challenging to figure out where to park when only a narrow snow-plowed road exists.  I found a barely-plowed side area, and headed off into the woods.  Sorry, no lighthouse pictures today.  But look how it appears in a hemlock and spruce forest when you look up instead of down or sideways.  Amazing!  Who says there’s no good photo opportunities in the winter?  Thank goodness the Mind doesn’t know what it’s talking about early in the morning.

Like Nike says to all of us who enjoy the toasty warm indoors winter life:   Just do it.  Open the door and go spend some time outside.  You won’t regret it.  (Now, all you lovers of snow and cold, we’re done with our little discussion.  We’ll be joining you shortly.  Just have a little patience with us.  Maybe we can share hot chocolate afterwards?)

School's out for Christmas vacation

School's out for Christmas vacation

Day nine of this outdoor adventure series.  356 days to go…. Today would have been the typical day I would have stayed inside.  The snow alternated between blowing near white-out conditions, then completely disappearing.  We call this “lake effect” snow.  Inland, nary a flake may fall.  Near Lake Superior the cold winds move across the warmer lake water providing energy and picking up water vapor which freezes and is deposited on the lee shores.  According to Wikipedia anyway.  I am assuming we are the definition of “lee shores”. 

I felt blue today, possibly because of my daughter’s departure yesterday.  Or possibly because I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and couldn’t return to sleep.  It might have been a day to remain inside, but no.  The outdoors beckoned and called and clamored.  So I opened the door and went outside.

Because the pictures were already taken yesterday and the day before, I didn’t need the camera.  Instead, it seemed apropos to do some outdoors meditation.  Instead of busily looking for the next photo shot, this proved a good opportunity to just be present.

Is everyone familiar with meditation?  Here’s a simple explanation: meditation is the act of being fully present with whatever is happening now.  Very simple.  Usually our thoughts intrude like noisy burglars, stealing away our peace of mind.  We follow our thoughts and emotions, hardly realizing that we’re not really seeing the trees, hearing the birdsong, watching the wind whip snow-spirals into new drifts.  We miss the dried leaves on the branches, the whirring sound of a distant snowmobile, the whorls on the tree bark.  We may think we’re present, but we’re not.  We’re often in this dream-land of thoughts, removed from our current physical reality.

So today I simply meditated.  Continued to pull myself back into the present.  Gently noticed that the thoughts were steam-engine chugging and returned to survey the landscape.  Felt the feet in the boots, the fingers in the mittens.  Breathed.  Took a few steps.  Witnessed the thoughts and feelings starting again; returned to the Present.  Again and again and again.  For a half hour, or was it an hour? 

It is so satisfying to do this.  Instead of being peripherally involved in the outdoors, one continues to open to it, over and over again.  One warning.  Do not chastise yourself for Thoughts!  They are natural.  Instead, just gently keep returning to the present.  It’s a lovely gift to give oneself.

Snowman Joy!

Snowman Joy!

Towards the bay

Towards the bay

I invite you to step off the beaten path.  Step off the comfortable road.  Dive into a new place, a new horizon, an uncharted part of your woods.  Don’t be afraid.  Follow your heart into new places.  The rewards will be more than you ever imagined….

Today I started down the road, aiming for the Eagle Pond.  This is a usual hike, and you’ll probably see pictures sometime during the year.  It’s a beautiful pond over which eagles survey the landscape.  You’ll like it.

However, today I was thinking about my children as I walked.  They’re both off on new adventures today.  One has boarded a bus for a fifty hour ride to southern Mexico where he’ll attend the wedding of friends during his Christmas break from the University of  California in San Diego.  Our daughter prepares to leave for Wisconsin, then Chicago, and finally plans to unlock the door to her new apartment in Manhattan later this week.  They’re both venturing into the unknown.  They’re both stepping off the beaten trail to explore new places, new landscapes, new ideas.

With the thought of their adventures in mind, suddenly I detoured from the road into the woods.  No Eagle Pond today!  Instead it had to be something new.  I have rarely, if ever, walked in this particular tract of the forest.  Surprise and wonder are bound to appear when we venture into new areas.  Even if it’s a log perched at an unfamiliar angle, a tree bent down with heavy snow, or a prehistoric-looking pileated woodpecker noisily poking its four inch beak against a rotten poplar….the breath comes a little quicker and livelier as it takes in the newness of the experience.

During wilderness survival class several years ago, we learned about the psychology of familiar trails.  Deer follow easy familiar paths.  If you’re starving in the woods, find the animal trails.  Set your traps beside them.  You’re bound to find some meat.  Why?  Because animals follow familiar trails in the same manner as humans.   We get comfortable trekking in familiar grooves, on familiar roads, on secure trails.

One of the biggest challenges for many humans is to leave the familiar path and venture into the unknown.  Sure, it can be scary.  But it’s bound to deter boredom, lethargy, sadness, apathy.  Creativity and joy lies hidden beside unfamiliar streams.  I am so excited about the kids’ adventures, to discover what they learn in the newness of their travels.

In the newness we stretch ourselves.  We may look silly at times.  But I think it’s worth it.  On that note, here’s a silly photo.  Who knows where that foot will go next?

Where will the foot go next?

Where will the foot go next?

Gray, gray and more gray

Gray, gray and more gray

At 8 a.m. blackness begins to lift as dawn approaches.  By 6 pm. it’s so dark you can’t see the garage.  And in between?  In between it’s often simply gray.  A heavy layer of clouds obscure any dream of sunshine for many days at this time of year.

All morning I pondered the grayness, broken only by occasional breath-taking beauty (like yesterday’s bright red berries.)  Today it’s about 40 degrees, a virtual heat wave, and everything outside the front door drips.  It’s a melting world.  It’s a sodden world.  Walking proves a squishy affair as the watery snow attempts to pull you down.  I spent some time leaning against wet trees, contemplating  this gray world.

And here’s the day’s synchronicity.  I opened one of my favorite magazines, the “Sun” magazine and there’s an article by Victor Frankel, an excerpt from his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.”  As many of you know, Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist sent by Nazis to a concentration camp in 1942.  He refused to submit to despair, focusing instead on the freedom to choose one’s outlook even in dire conditions. 

And here’s what he had to say about gray in the concentration camp: 

Another time we were at work in a trench.  The dawn was gray around us; gray was the sky above; gray the snow in the pale light of dawn; gray the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad; and gray their faces.  I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reasonfor my sufferings, my slow dying.  In a last, violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom.  I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.  At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable gray of a dawning morning in Bavaria.  “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness.

May light shineth in the midst of all our darkness.  May we seek the light, as did Victor Frankl.   May we look for beauty and hope from within the gray hues.

Red winter berries in snow

Red winter berries in snow


Let’s discuss “Danger in the Woods” right in the beginning.  Specifically, the chances of meeting some of our wilder friends, such as mountain lions, wolves and black bear.  How often would you be likely to encounter a snarling pair of slashing claws and hungry (or angry, or disturbed) appetite for humans while sauntering leisurely through the north woods of Upper Michigan?

Any guesses?  Well, my bet is one is much more likely to meet danger in human clothing in any city of the USA than wandering in the woods around here.  Don’t get me wrong; it does happen.  Animals can be unpredictable.  But in thirty years of exploring the backcountry around here, I’ve only encountered two somewhat-scary encounters.

In the first, a snarling pine marten or fisher (please google for pics) scolded  from atop a tall hemlock for at least five minutes before I had the grace and common sense to walk on.  My heart thumped wildly trying to imagine what kind of creature growled so ferociously. 

In the second instance, I almost walked into a black bear poking around in autumn foliage.  Fortunately for awareness, the sound of the snuffling and pawing alerted me.  Although they advise not running away abruptly, I turned tail and sailed out of there faster than fast.  The bear probably never looked up.

And that’s been the dangerous encounters.  If you add road-encounters it gets more interesting.  A moose galloped across the road halfway to Marquette about fifteen years ago.  I thought, “What kind of strange horse is that?” and then watched through the rear view mirror as even stranger photographers leaped from their cars with cameras in hand, chasing the moose for the photo opportunity.  (If I had been writing this blog, I might have been one of those crazy folks….)

Another time, maybe twenty years ago, a panther (also known as a black mountain lion) bounded across the Silver River Hill.  It left the woods, hit the middle of the road with its paws, and dove back into the woods on the other side of the road.  All I saw was a black blur and a long tail.  The tail measured the same size as the panther.  Once again the Mind was slower than the eyes.  “What was that?  Some humongous cat?” 

People have been meeting up with wolves more frequently in recent years, although I’ve only seen one in a field on the way to work.  It stared coolly at the slowing cars.  Some hunters have complained of competing with wolf packs for venison.  People don’t usually allow young children to roam too far in the woods without supervision.  One of my friend’s seven year old sons almost bumped into a coyote while playing down by the river earlier this fall.  He insisted it wasn’t a wolf.  Both he and the coyote took off in opposite directions, fast.

Today I wandered through unfamiliar woods out by where I work.  Now I have to admit something does scare me out there.  Makes me cautious, anyway.  The old-time settlers built shallow wells on their homesteads.  A hundred years later a deer will sometimes stumble into one of these unfilled wells.  There’s rumors of hunters almost falling in.  I walk very astutely in these areas, keeping aware of possible old wells.

Now that we’ve established a relative perimiter of safety in the woods, what do you think of those red berries?  I was SO excited to spot some color in the woods today.  Beautiful red!  It seemed like another Christmas present.  Anyone know what they are?

Christmas morning sunrise

Christmas morning sunrise

Some of you may know we live within the boundaries of an Ojibway Indian reservation.  Traditional Native Americans, those who honor the ways of their elders, often greet the rising sun with a pinch of tobacco.  This tobacco contains sacred herbs like sweet grass, sage, cedar and other “medicines”.  They do this to give thanks for the rising of the sun, for the dawning of a new morning, for the blessings of being alive to experience another day.

I am imagining what it might have been like to live in a small wigwam or hut a couple hundred years ago.  Although you’d fall asleep snuggled beneath cozy deer or bear hides, with a fire crackling in the center of the hut, you’d undoubtedly awake shivering and cold.  And, although the elders assured you that this time of darkness wouldn’t last forever, you might feel the immensity of the winter snows, black nights, frigid temperatures.

Imagine the appreciation of the rising sun you might feel.  Imagine the gratitude for its warmth, its light, its beauty, its spirit-lifting presence.  Perhaps you wouldn’t take this golden orb for granted.  Perhaps you’d offer a bit of preciousness to the Creator that allows the sun to rise yet another day.

I snapped this picture in the early-morning light and hurried back inside to drink coffee with family members, to open gifts, to share breakfast and laughter.  I think we all felt grateful on this day to be alive, to be together (those of us here in the U.P. anyway) and we spoke of friends and family in far-away places.  We missed everyone, but already anticipated when we would spend time together as the year progressed.  And there would be phone calls of connection later on….

This afternoon I returned to tramp through the snow, mostly across the road.  Snowshoes shall be needed soon!  It’s between calf and knee deep, depending on drifts.  If you walk really slowly, meditatively, it’s not too challenging. 

Today the sun has shone brightly all day.  This is a real gift at this time of year.  How many days pass filled with gray clouds.  The blue sky lifts spirits everywhere….people smile more frequently.  Even though the journey of the sun only reaches half-way up the trees, there’s an incredible beauty in the way the light glints and glitters against the snow.  At 25 degrees it feels balmy. 

Gratitude fills my heart this Christmas Day.  Gratitude for the sun, for the earth, and for friends and family everywhere.  Blessings and love to all…..

Ornaments in the snow

Ornaments in the snow

Do the woods know it’s Christmas Eve?  Do the trees have a clue?  Do the chattering chickadees know that it’s a holy night?  And how would we know anyway?

Now before you scoff and insist, “the woods!  are you crazy?  this is a human celebration!” I ask you to pause and consider.  After decorating one of the baby spruce trees with ornaments and considering the photo opportunities, I ventured off into the woods in about a foot of fluffy snow.  That question kept surfacing, repeating itself like a mantra:  Does the forest know it’s Christmas Eve?

So what might be a good definition of Christmas Eve?  Would it be a feeling of sacredness, of holiness, of stillness?  Would it be a hush, a silence, an awareness beyond the Everyday? 

For humans, would this holiness translate as a feeling that inspires us into a deep appreciation of the preciousness of Life and all that it entails?  Would it be a momentary silencing of our incessant thoughts?  And a deep inner soul-knowing that we are more than our limited understanding, more than what we can see, more than what our thoughts can reveal?  That the world is infinite and glorious, and that there exists a dimension beyond our finiteness that might provide hope, teaching, love and joy?

We humans all have different definitions of the sacred.  Yet what exists in the woods, in the spaces of trees and wildlife and snow and earth, often brings us to an inner stillness and connection with something beyond ourselves.  Something holy.  Something sacred.  Something magnificent.  The very rawness of nature sometimes transports us.  It carries us into the arms of something larger. 

People call that “something larger” many different names.  On Christmas Eve, in a stable long ago, a baby birthed that ignited that sacred feeling in many people.  Other traditions have birthed other beings that lit fires of love and connection in other humans.  We sometimes argue which tradition is “true”, but the spirit of Christmas Eve might be described as a hush where we recognize the sacred in All Things. 

I proposed the forest does know it’s Christmas Eve.  The woods lives in the spirit of that sacred hush and carries the ability to transport us into holy moments, 365 days a year.  All days are sacred.  The woods knows that.  It’s wiser than we suspect.

Overlooking Lake Superior as it freezes

Overlooking Lake Superior as it freezes

It would be very easy to cheat with this assignment.  (here’s how, if you’ve decided to spend time outside every day and document it with photos and words.)   Drive around, looking for the perfect photo opportunity.  With crafty eyes, find something beautiful.  Leap out of your car with camera in hand.  Snap picture!  Scurry back to car.  Drive home carefully on the icy roads.  Upload picture, write blog depicting photo, and smile with satisfaction.  An outdoors experience!  Right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  In my book an Outdoors Experience has to be something where you deepen into nature.  You spend time walking, looking, watching.  You let the elements have their way with you.  You get cold (or, I suppose you get hot in the summertime…..only a dream for many months to come…..heat!) 

So today I had an appointment to get my hair cut in our little town.  It’s  a tiny wisp of a town bordering Lake Superior.  I thought it had 1,500 folks within the village boundaries, but my husband has corrected this estimate.  There’s 2,500 men, women and children.  We are not included in the village count, as we live twelve miles away. 

So I thought, “here’s an opportunity to spend some time in the outdoors of our little town.”  Everyone drives from store to store around here.  When we’ve visited larger cities we’ve always been amazed to see that people actually walk.  Here we motor from one end of town to the other.  But not today!  In the spirit of Outdoors, I decided to park the car at the IGA and hike across town.

The wind was blowing mightily.  The wind is always blowing.  It whipped off Lake Superior with ferocity.  It stung, it bit, it snarled.  Even though the bank thermomenter boasted a 21 degree temperature, it felt colder than cold.  It felt warmer the other day at 5 degrees (without wind). 

I headed down Main Street listening to the tinny Christmas carols blaring through the loudspeakers.  Oh, Nostalgia.  “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….”  Wreaths and holly and red ribbons decorated the poles along the street.  People smiled, holiday-warm and friendly.  (It’s the best time of year for friendliness, isn’t it?)

I headed down to the lake.  You see above a snapshot of a lone bench sitting in a deserted park overlooking the lake.  The bay is freezing!  My ice fishing husband will be grinning to discover that tidbit.  I slipped once on the icy side road, but stayed upright.  Then it was back towards Main Street.  Thoughts kept babbling sounding something like this, “it’s cold, it’s freezing, my fingers are numb, my feet are numb, it’s cold, it’s freezing, but man oh man it’s exhilarating!”

On the way back towards the IGA, I heard a lot of quacking nearby.  Oh my!  Please look at the photo below.  There were dozens of ducks lying in the snow.  They obviously weren’t freezing.  Or, if they were, you couldn’t tell.  They didn’t even run from the camera.  A few stretched and waddled, but most remained comfortably cuddled near a small river. 

Anyway, just wanted to tell you I’m not cheating.  This amounted to at least 30-45 minutes of walking.  Honest. 

Ducks in winter

Ducks in winter

Deer grazing in the snow outside the front door

Deer grazing in the snow outside the front door

It’s Day #2 of this year-long “outside” commitment.  I would have never ventured outside today for fun or exploration without this crazy plan of chronicling every single day out in the outdoors. 

First there was work this morning, and we’re leaving for a nearby city in a couple hours for Christmas shopping.  So the Mind ordinarily says, “there’s no time for being outside.  You’ve got dishes to wash!  Work to do!  Home fires to stoke.  And besides, it’s coooooooold out there.  Stay inside!”

Fortunately, this commitment silences that voice.  So after work I dressed in outdoor garb for 5 degrees.  That means:  heavy sweater, hooded sweatshirt, my deceased Grandma’s snowmobile suit from the early 1970’s, two pair socks, heavy ultra-insulated boots from last Christmas’ gift-giving fun, knit hat, warm woolen mittens and….well, that must have been it.  Oh, and grab the camera for taking pictures.

It was warm everywhere except on the cheeks.  But red cheeks are apropos for the holiday season, right?  Also, the fingers became instantly numb after clicking about six photos of snow-covered trees and stumps.  Which picture to post on the blog?  I maneuvered out of the ravine behind our house with its nine to eleven inches of snow (thankfully didn’t need snowshoes yet) and hurried back into the house to look for, with fogged glasses, a ruler to measure the depth of snow.  Stepping back out on the front porch….look at all those does! 

The deer in the photo are family friends.  They visit often.  We can’t get too close to them, yet they’re not scared like stranger-deer.  One of them is named Lempi (a good Finnish sounding name, don’t you think?) because she limps.  She was probably struck by a car.  She’s raised a couple young’uns since her injury, and we keep hoping she’ll make it through the long winters.  Since this winter looks especially vicious, we’re really keeping our fingers crossed.  We throw our vegetable scraps beneath the oak tree, and the deer paw for them.  Later they’ll disappear into the cedar swamps when the snow gets too deep for long treks.

The deer stare quietly as I attempt to figure out the zoom function on the camera.  They lower their heads and munch.  Yet they’re ready to run in three seconds if I venture even a step closer.  You could tame these deer, perhaps, but it might be more cruel to lull them into thinking humans are generally loving considerate souls.  There’s a lot of hunters around these parts who like good venison.  In our pre-vegetarian days, we’ve eaten venison.  Now we give them our veggie leftovers; a better trade, don’t you think?

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