By Ranger Steve Mueller
It is the time of year when people are thinking of getting on the ice. Polar bears hunt seals from the ice. We hunt fish or maybe just enjoy a walk on open ice of meandering streams or on lakes.
When I lived along the headwaters of the Mississippi River in the section that is classified as “Wild and Scenic,” the river froze thick in winter. We experienced below zero temperatures from about Christmas to mid February. Day temperatures were up to about zero and night temps were -20 F or -30 F except on cold nights when it dropped to -40 F.
I waited for solid ice before venturing out. Unfortunately, some are too anxious. A young father and vice-president of a local bank traveled by snow machine on a lake and never returned. It amazed me that when I would leave Minnesota for a Michigan Thanksgiving, Lake Bemidji was mostly open water. Four days later when I returned, people were driving pickup trucks on the ice to open water. Brave or foolhardy?
Where I lived, I hiked through knee to thigh deep snow to the wild section of the Mississippi. It was a peaceful joy to reach the river. The ice was bare and windswept. Walking was easy. Where shallow snow was present, I could follow fox tracks. The fox knew the easy travel routes. I lived along the first 35 miles of the river between Lake Itasca (the headwaters) and Bemidji. After Lake Bemidji, the river no longer qualified for the Wild and Scenic status. It does remain scenic and many areas still have wild character.
The woods were quiet in winter but red squirrels sometimes chattered at me, common ravens croaked over the forest. Black-capped chickadee, evening grosbeaks, purple finches, common redpolls among others kept me entertained at home feeders. The river was quieter except for occasional conversations it initiated.
The ice was friendly and talked to me. I wondered if it was sending mixed messages but it was not. I would hear loud cracks and snaps. I could peer down 2 to 3 feet into some cracks. The river said it was safe for walking. For that matter it would be safe driving but that section of the river was not accessible to motor vehicles. Not even snow machines accessed the area. That pleased my senses of sight, hearing, and smell. Wild places are best enjoyed when we allow nature to make the sounds, sights, smells, touch textures, and taste. Wild places for nature niches are wonderful for supporting wildlife and for our visits and experiences.
In the southern Michigan climate, ice is more treacherous than where it got cold. Respect nature’s whims for freezing and thawing. Learn to live with nature. The alternative is to die by natural events. Enjoy the coming long or short winter.
One last story. I wondered if the fox I was following was male or female. She eventually told me. She squatted to urinate between her tracks. A male would have lifted a leg to grasses along the riverbank. Read the landscape like a good book and behave appropriately for your safety and the health of wildlife that make it home.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.