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Archive | Outdoors

Caution can help prevent human-caused wildfires

This stand of trees near Lake Superior was severely damaged during a wildfire.

By Kelsey Block, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

It was a snowy day near Grayling in March, 1990. A homeowner had recently cleared a section of land and planned to burn the resulting brush piles. Logs and branches were piled high, ignited and monitored. The large piles smoked and smoldered for a few weeks before putting themselves out. All seemed well.

A month later, the fires rekindled and, again, seemed to burn themselves out.

Three weeks later, a neighbor noticed the stubborn piles were burning again. In less than 20 minutes, the fire escaped into the surrounding forest.

Burning conditions can change very quickly in the spring. Consider composting as an alternative to burning, and, if you do decide to burn, never leave the fire unattended.

As it turns out, the fire had never gone out in the first place. It had been burning deep in the middle of the pile from mid-March to early May. On May 8, the wind picked up, bringing a new air supply to the pile’s interior and helping the fire to grow.

Crews contained the fire in less than two days. But, by the time it was all said and done—almost seven weeks after the first flame was sparked—nearly 6,000 acres had burned, $5.5 million in property had been lost and $700,000 in timber had been destroyed.

Firefighting equipment and techniques have continually evolved since that Stephan Bridge Road fire nearly 30 years ago, but one thing stubbornly remains the same: nine out of 10 wildfires are caused by people.

“Almost all wildfires in Michigan start by accident,” said Jim Fisher, Michigan Department of Natural Resources fire program manager. “The wind picks up and a brush fire gets away or a campfire smolders and comes back to life.”

Approximately 600 wildfires are reported in Michigan each year, and out-of-control debris burning is the top cause. 

 The Stephan Bridge Road fire was a tough lesson to learn: even when precautions are taken, fires can still escape.

You can take some simple steps to fire-proof your property. Clean out your gutters, mow the lawn regularly and consider landscaping with plants that are fire-resistant. The driveway of this home acted as a fire buffer during the Duck Lake Fire in 2012.

It’s especially important to use caution with fire in the spring. March, April, May and June are Michigan’s busiest months for wildfires, claiming 83 percent of fires in 2017. 

The dead grass and leaves from the previous year dry very quickly as days become longer, temperatures begin to rise and humidity levels are often at their lowest points.

“In Michigan, the soils are sandy and don’t hold moisture. We usually get rain and then a low relative humidity when a weather front moves through. We can get a couple inches of rain and, in two days, have a 5,000-acre fire,” said Chris Peterson, fire and aviation staff officer for the Huron-Manistee National Forests.

Fire activity also peaks on weekends. Last year, 48 percent of wildfires occurred between Saturday and Monday.

“Folks come up for the weekend and they burn and don’t put out their fire. Then it comes back to life on Monday,” Peterson said.

So far, 140 fires have burned 826 acres in Michigan this year.

What can you do to prevent it?

For starters, always check for a burn permit at www.michigan.gov/burnpermit or your local fire department before you burn yard debris and brush piles.

“Burning conditions can change very quickly, especially this time of year. The wind can switch suddenly, and the fire can get away from you,” Fisher said. “Never leave a fire unattended and always keep water nearby.”

You can also take some easy steps to protect your home from wildfires—especially important since 63 percent of fires start on private property.

“Fire-proof your property. Cut back trees and brush and plant vegetation that does not carry fire. Don’t park equipment, boats or trailers up next to burn piles or in thick vegetation,” Peterson said.

Examples of plants that are resistant to fire include those that retain moisture, like hostas and succulents.

Make sure your house number is easily visible and leave room for emergency responders to work in the event a fire does occur.

Bill Forbush, City of Alpena Fire Department chief, urges people not to be complacent about fire safety. It’s just as important to have working smoke detectors in vacation residences, cabins and campers as it is to have them in your permanent home, he said. 

“Some people say, ‘it can’t happen to me.’ People don’t anticipate that there will be a problem. That’s not always the case,” he said.

Whether you’re burning brush or lighting a campfire, be absolutely sure your fire is out before leaving it unattended.

“One bucket (of water) isn’t going to do it. Turn the coals over and wet it down thoroughly,” Forbush said.

In the event your fire does escape, call 9-1-1, and don’t try to put it out yourself. 

For more information on wildfires and fire safety, go to www.michigan.gov/firemanagement.


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Science and Emotion

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche


I am told as a biologist I cannot be emotional. Yet everything I live for, strive for, and believe in is in the dirt outside my door. The dirt outside my door is being carried away and someone says I have not the right to be emotional because I’m a scientist?—Ranger Steve Mueller 7 October 1974

In May 1973 I fell completely in love with Bryce Canyon Nat’l Park and was fortunate to become employed as a ranger there in 1974. My daughter was born there in 1980, my career and family took us in new directions but my heart and soul remained scientifically and emotionally true to that remnant of Eden.

I began working for the creation of Grand Staircase wilderness that lies between Bryce Canyon NP and Grand Canyon NP. The fragile desolate area stretches 80 miles north to south and 150 miles east to west. People recognized the uniqueness and fragility of the area. Focus groups worked for suitable protection.

Competing interests differed. Since the 1920’s, compromises developed. In the 1990’s President Clinton used the Antiquities Act to established Grand Staircase National Monument on public land. It did not meet some of my desires for protecting part of Eden that remains on Earth. It did not meet the desires of others wanting to exploit its cultural and natural resources for short term personal gain. Difficult compromises developed. 

States are granted school land sections as a process of deeding when States are established. Utah wanted compensation for state lands within what became Grand Staircase Nat’l Monument. The federal government deeded other federal lands richer in oil, natural gas, and coal to compensate Utah. 

The establishment of Grand Staircase NM became a long term economic boost for small towns. Recreation increased along with rapid growth of sustainable businesses during the past twenty years. Mining, pollution, and landscape destruction are not compatible with fragility of the arid environment and unique ecosystem species. 

Dr. Dave Warners, Calvin College biologist stated, we’re not heading in a good direction on our current path with the relationship between global temperature, CO2 levels, human population and the prevalence of species extinction that approximates 50,000 species going extinct annually. He suggests:

Preservation—setting aside natural, protected areas, such as national parks

Conservation Biology—Managing those preserved areas

Restoration ecology—Improving degraded areas

Reconciliation—the process of deliberately sharing our habitats with other species.

Compromises developed for establishing Grand Staircase NM. Congress has sole authority to make adjustments. President Trump does not agree with our laws and claims he can dictatorially exempt designated laws protecting the monuments, environment, and private property like those along the Mexican border. He is taking public and private land without due process of law.

Wilderness Society president said, “The Trump administration is ignoring local communities and undoing the thoughtful participation of countless individuals that led to the creation of these national monuments.” She added the Wilderness Society will stand up against the Trump Administration’s illegal actions in court where the facts are on our side. Allies in eight national conservation groups, the $887 billion outdoor recreation industry, and five Native American Nations have sued to restore the protections of Grand Staircase and Bears Ears National Monuments that were established through public involvement and compromise. 

Bill Spalding, business owner by Grand Staircase said, “Without the monument, our business wouldn’t exist.”

I continue scientific nature niche research in the region and emotionally recognize remnants of Eden need protection. I encourage influencing your representative and senators to protect Grand Staircase and due process of law from illegal dictatorial exemption. Rep. Amash has not been favorable toward monument protection.

I have spent scientific and emotional energy for over 40 years with the specific mission to protect the Grand Staircase ecological integrity. Compromise was reached. An illegal dictatorial decision by the Trump administration has negated my life’s work and a reader in January told me I do not have the right to be emotional – stick to science. Other readers have applauded my efforts in defense of creation care. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Monarch butterflies a sure sign of summer 

A monarch butterfly on milkweed. Photo courtesy of the Michigan DNR.

One of the state’s most distinctive signs of a new season is on its way—the brightly colored monarch butterfly. A well-known and beloved butterfly species in North America, monarchs, unfortunately, have become a much less common sight in recent decades.

The eastern monarch butterfly population has declined by more than 80 percent over the last 20 years, primarily from habitat loss, both in their summer range—including Michigan—and in Mexico, where they spend the winter.

“Adult monarch butterflies require a variety of flowering plants for nectar,” said Hannah Schauer, wildlife communications coordinator with the DNR. “Grasslands provide a mix of plant species that pollinators, like the monarch, need – with both early- and late-blooming plants and those that flower mid-summer.”

Monarchs returning to Michigan will depend on these early-blooming plants to refuel and build up their energy, so they can lay eggs for the next generation.

Grasslands also support milkweeds, vital to the monarch’s reproductive cycle because they’re the only species of plants that monarch caterpillars eat. Milkweeds also provide food resources for other animals.

A backyard garden can provide important habitat for pollinators, too. As you plan for this year’s garden consider the tips at https://www.michigan.gov/documents/dnr/mi_pollinator_gardening_tips_615821_7.pdf. When you do start spotting monarchs, be sure to report those sightings because it helps inform conservation decisions here in Michigan. Report sightings and track their migration at Journed North http://www.learner.org/jnorth/.

Related, the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies recently shared a new draft plan aimed at reversing the decline of the eastern monarch butterfly population and is welcoming public review and comment on it. See it at http://www.mafwa.org/.

Find out more about ways you can help monarchs in Michigan by visiting michigan.gov/monarchs or contacting Hannah Schauer at 517-388-9678. 

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DNR reminds boaters to put safety first


National Safe Boating Week runs May 19-25 and Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers urge boaters to follow important safety tips for an enjoyable time on the water.

National Safe Boating Week set for May 19-25

As boating season nears, Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers encourage boaters to protect themselves and others by following important safety tips.

Saturday, May 19, marks the start of National Safe Boating Week and the DNR wants all Michigan residents and visitors to have fun while exercising caution and obeying the law.

“Michigan offers countless boating opportunities,” said Lt. Tom Wanless, boating law administrator for the state of Michigan. “But having fun on the water also means being safe. Taking simple precautions, always staying in control of the vessel and following the law will help ensure an enjoyable outing.”

Boaters born after June 30, 1996, and most personal watercraft operators must have a boater education safety certificate.

Wanless encourages boaters to:

Wear a life jacket. About 83 percent of drownings resulting from boating accidents in the U.S. are due to people not wearing life jackets. In Michigan, anyone under age 6 must wear a life jacket when on the open deck of any vessel, but wearing a personal flotation device is recommended for everyone.

Avoid drinking alcohol. Nationally, alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents where the primary cause was known. 

Make sure the boat is properly equipped and equipment is in good working order. In addition to legally required equipment such as life jackets and fire extinguishers, always carry a first-aid kit, nautical charts and an anchor. Make sure navigation lights work properly.

File a float plan. Always inform family or friends about the details of your trip. Let them know when to expect you back. Give them phone numbers for the local emergency dispatch center and U.S. Coast Guard in case you don’t return on time.

Stay alert. Watch for other boats, swimmers, skiers and objects in the water. This is especially true when operating in crowded waterways, at night and when visibility is restricted.

Carry a cell phone or marine radio. Be prepared to call for help if you are involved in or witness an accident, your boat or the boat of another becomes disabled, or you need medical assistance.

The DNR also recommends a boating safety course for anyone who plans to use a boat or personal watercraft. Classes are offered at locations around the state and online, making it convenient and affordable.

Visit michigan.gov/boating for more information on boating safety, enrolling in a safety course, boat registration, and boating access at Michigan’s parks, campgrounds, harbors and marinas.

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Butterfly counts


By Ranger Steve Mueller


Mark your calendars. Butterfly count participants will receive Mo Nielsen’s book Michigan Butterflies and Skippers as a bonus. Discover butterflies in a variety of local habitats with people knowledgeable in butterfly identification. It is a great way to begin learning some of the 170 species known to Michigan. Join with the West Michigan Butterfly Association on a count for fun and learning.

Counts are sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) and cost $3 for each participant. The money is used by NABA to create a publication documenting butterfly abundance, distribution, and trends throughout North America. Scientists make use of citizen science data. About 17 counts are held in Michigan annually. Make it a family event. Contact Ranger Steve for more information about Michigan counts. He is the regional editor for all Michigan counts and can help connect with any Michigan count leader. Your help spotting butterflies is desired. Knowledge of butterflies is not required.

We carpool to various sites in the 15-mile diameter designated count circles. Have a good time discovering in the outdoors, learn species identification, habitat associations, behavior, and nature niche needs. Participate for part of the day or stay all day. 

Bring a bag lunch, plenty to drink, snacks, and dress with lightweight long sleeves and pants to protect from any biting insects or raspberry thorns. Some exploration is off trail when searching for butterflies. 

Local count dates and meeting locations:

June 30, 2018 (Sat) 9:00 a.m.

Allegan Butterfly Count – Allegan Co. 

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

Meet at the Fennville Allegan State Game Area headquarters, 6013 118th Ave, Fennville. odybrook@chartermi.net


July 5, 2018 (Wed) 9:00 a.m.

Newaygo County Butterfly Count – Newaygo Co. 

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

Meeting at the grocery parking lot at the corner of M82 & M 37 in Newaygo. odybrook@chartermi.net


July 7, 2018 (Sat) 9:00 a.m.

Rogue River Butterfly Count – Kent Co.

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

(Kent, Newaygo, Montcalm Counties)

Meet at Howard Christensen Nature Center Welcome Center 16160 Red Pine Dr. Kent City. odybrook@chartermi.net


July 14, 2018 (Sat) 9:00 a.m.

Greater Muskegon Butterfly Ct – Muskegon Co.

Leader: Dennis Dunlap 

Meet on Mill Iron Road from M-46 (Apple Ave.) east of Muskegon at second set of power lines that cross the road north of MacArthur Road. dunlapmd@charter.net

Rain day alternates will be the next day. Sign up with Ranger Steve so unexpected changes can be shared.  

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Find a fawn? Enjoy the experience, but from a distance

Young fawns like this often are found alone in the wild this time of year; best to leave them alone.

A thicket, a patch of tall grass, a quiet spot in your backyard—what do these places have in common? All are locations where fawns have been found throughout Michigan. For the first few weeks of a white-tailed deer’s life, the mother will hide it in secluded spots, a behavior that helps reduce the potential for predators to find the fawn. 

Hannah Schauer, a communications coordinator for the DNR’s Wildlife Division, said that while fawns may appear abandoned, they rarely are. “All wild white-tailed deer begin life this way,” she said. 

In fact, the mother’s placement of the fawn and the fawn’s own excellent camouflage are further strengthened by one more natural defense that will help the animal stay hidden from predators: Fawns are virtually odorless when they are young!

For all of these reasons, Schauer said that if you do come across a fawn on its own, the best thing to do is not touch it. 

“There’s a very good chance the fawn is exactly where it is supposed to be,” she said. “It’s not uncommon for a deer to leave her fawn unattended, so no attention is drawn to the fawn’s hiding place. When she feels it is safe, the mother will return periodically to nurse her fawn.” 

Schauer advises leaving fawns alone and simply enjoying the experience from a distance. “Leaving baby animals in the wild ensures they have the best chance for survival,” she said. 

Only licensed wildlife rehabilitators may possess abandoned or injured wildlife. Unless someone is licensed, it is illegal to possess live wild animals, including deer, in Michigan.  

Help keep Michigan’s wildlife wild. Learn more at michigan.gov/wildlife or contact Hannah Schauer at 517-388-9678.

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Seeing Spring wildflowers


By Ranger Steve Mueller


Bloodroot flower by Steve Mueller.

Wildflowers abound in and around our yards. Adder’s tongue, also known at trout lily, has spotted leaves like a trout’s body. Their yellow drooping flowers burst forth with color during the opening of trout season at the end of April. By June, not only will the flowers be gone but the leaves die, decay, and release nutrients back into the soil. Those nutrients will nourish other plants just getting started on their annual cycle. 

Spring beauties carpet the forest floor in late April and early May but will disappear from view by June. Like trout lilies, they complete their annual appearance in weeks. Both species remain alive under the soil surface. They are not like annual plants that thrive during the summer months and die completely except for seeds that carry their species to next year. 

Species have unique mechanisms for passing germ plasm forward. If the environment is adequately stable, the species will not become threatened or endangered. It will thrive for millennia. Our lives are short but we can observe and see the beautiful stream of life continue by providing healthy living conditions in our yards.

Bloodroot flowers have already come and gone. Their stunning white flower petals and yellow stamens persist only a few days. The roots have a red pigment that is used as a dye. Unless the plant is dug up, the root’s pigment remains hidden to our interested eyes. Rarely, do I dig one up. I have seen their bloody beauty. I love the plant and flower so I do not desire to disrupt its life just to see at its inner fluids any more than I desire to cut a friend to see the color of her blood. 

Marsh marigolds have yellow petals coated with shiny wax. They are in the buttercup family with other species that have similar flowers. An identifying character for buttercups is the massive number of male stamens clustered in the middle of the flower. Those that flowered first were in open wet areas with others from more shaded areas flowering later. We clear some areas to maintain best habitat conditions to meet their nature niche needs. Too much clearing along Little Cedar Creek would allow excessive sun radiation on the creek and warm the cold-water habitat brook trout require for survival. Maintaining shrubby vegetation along the south side of the creek is important to aid life giving physical conditions for the fish. 

Small-flowered buttercups and swamp buttercups have yellow flowers resembling marsh marigold flowers but the leaves and growth forms differ. The marsh marigold’s large rounded leaves hug the ground. Common buttercups have deeply dissected leaves on a tall stem. The small-flowered buttercups with tiny flower petals have kidney shaped basal leaves. All have a large number of stamens at the center of the five petalled flowers. The stamens release pollen at a different time from when the pistil is receptive preventing self-pollination.

Spring cress flowers are early bloomers included with the white flowers in field guides. This makes identifying a bit more challenging. When they first flower the petals are pink but soon become white. Unlike buttercups that have five petals, spring cresses are mustards with four petals. Yellow rocket is a non-native exotic mustard that proliferates in disturbed areas. It will carpet a farm field with its yellow blooms each spring. A close look will reveal each flower has four petals. 

Native violets are spring wildflowers with difficult identification challenges. The common blue violet is one of the easier ones to recognize. It has a dark blue flower on a stalk that comes from the ground. Its leaves are stemless also coming directly from the ground. Other blue violets have a small erect stem with leaves and flowers diverging from the stem. Yellow violets are leafy stemmed. Violet petals are fused together. 

What flower details will you see this spring? There are over 300 species of plants at Ody Brook. We have barely begun to consider the diversity and beauty that shares our living space. Your yard can be amazing. Enhance biodiversity conditions for native plants that best serve insect, bird, and mammal ecology. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Morning Hiccups


By Ranger Steve Mueller


Hic hiccup, hic hiccup can be heard in your yard early in the morning but not as likely later in the day. I refer to the blue jay’s morning call as a case of the hiccups but have not heard anyone else use that descriptive term. We each experience the world differently but hopefully it is with joy.

I told a friend blue jays are a rare sighting at Ody Brook during the winter. Some people see them in yards year-round but it is impossible to know if they are the same birds that are here in summer. Banding studies have shown summer residents migrate south. That indicates winter jays in the yard are northern migrants. 

Now that spring migration is underway, large flocks of blue jays are moving north. It implies jays are moving to breeding territories. Hopefully, your yard provides suitable nesting areas to meet their needs. Wilderness areas are essential for survival of many native species but they are not enough. We can provide living space on the small piece of Earth we inhabit that is equally important for species we consider common. 

A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) perched on a tree branch. Photo by Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us).

Spend time in the yard relaxing and listening to the sounds of insects, birds, mammals, and frogs that add intrigue to our lives. Only one or two blue jays are currently guests at our bird feeder. Instead of a large flock passing through on their way to breeding sites, these birds have selected this site for summer breeding. 

I do not know what the hiccup call in the morning means to other jays or why it is used in the morning. A variety of calls are used and some I understand. Jays “like” to notify others of their displeasure with some neighbors. That might even be you. They give alarm calls to announce your presence.

When they locate a sleeping owl or see a hawk they will make a loud alarm call that attracts many bird species to see what is happening in the neighborhood. They gather near the perched predator and do their best to roust them. If the predator takes flight, jays and other species fly in from behind and peck the pursued bird on the back of the head. I have witnessed such attacks where the predator has blood streaming from its head. 

People, birds, wasps, and a great many life forms are protective of their living space and offspring. Birds are a good example of species that do their best to successfully protect and raise a family. I suspect the jay’s morning case of the hiccups has important meaning for its species but it will remain as secretive as our conversations are with dogs, cats, or birds that share our homes. Some phrases are understood but many are not. 

Some sounds give us pleasure and some warning. We like to sit on the porch enjoying a world filled with nature but sometimes it is not easy. There are those who try to kill neighbors. That is a sad commentary. People go to the store and purchase poisons to eliminate what are considered unsuitable neighbors. It is better to learn to be a good neighbor and adjust our behavior to share the world. 

We sit on our porch in spring sunshine and mosquitoes leave us alone. We have cleared the area around the house to allow good sun penetration to lounge chair areas. When it is cloudy, the buzzing sound of mosquitoes lets us know those females want our blood to nourish developing eggs. Male mosquitoes ignore us except as an indicator that females are likely present. The males could care less about our blood. They have amorous interests concerned with procreation. 

Various species have sounds we enjoy or use as warning. I have never liked the idea that the world is for me only. No trespassing signs are offensive but I understand that human visitors do not always comply with stewardships goals of people holding property titles. We allow people to walk Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary but request they call or email first to learn expected neighborhood behavior that protects the livelihood of other species claiming the property as their home. Our mission is primarily to protect and increase biodiversity. It gives me the hiccups when people are not good stewards of nature niches for the world we inherited with our birth. Use chemical killers sparingly, care for creation, enjoy, and protect life that surrounds us. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Bringing it all back home, from field to table

James and Jeff Pepin with some of the brook trout they caught from a stream in Houghton County.

By John Pepin, Deputy Public Information Officer, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Being a divorced parent with children involved is tough for anyone.

Those circumstances are made more difficult when parents and children live a long distance away from each other.

In my case, I was living out west when I got divorced. I moved back to the Upper Peninsula, where I was born and raised, leaving my two young boys 2,283 miles away in southern California.

According to online mapping information, it’s a drive via I-80 or I-70 with traffic, of 40 hours and 16 minutes each way.

It would be years before I fully realized the mistake I made. I had failed to consider the impact that distance, coupled with time, would have on our relationship and the challenges we would face apart.

For them, it was hard to understand a dad who would leave and go so far away, missing out on all their activities, events and changes. We had been a team, sharing lots of laughs, playing football on our knees in the house, fixing stuff, going to the park.

For me, it was hard to see these guys only in the summertime—missing all those same changes, events and activities—watching me fade from importance in their eyes as someone they were losing real familiarity with the older we all got.

At the same time, I was home and closer to my dad, who had been ill. To me, there were no easy answers to any of this.

No matter the situation, one thing I was always hoping to do was cement a connection between my boys and myself and the natural world outdoors.

Before I left California, there had been at least a couple camping trips with my oldest son, James, who wasn’t very old at the time. I took him with me on an overnight outing surveying spotted owls for the U.S. Forest Service in the San Gabriel Mountains.

It was his first time camping out, and we set up our tent on a hill high above the graveled canyon floor. We saw hummingbirds buzzing between the flowering plants, and a northern pygmy owl came to visit after we whistled him into sight.

That night, we heard a mountain lion down in the canyon. 

On another outing, my youngest son, Jeff and his mom were along with James and me when we all camped at Sulphur Springs, a spot tucked into the mountains above Los Angeles, where a trickle of water attracted a nice variety of birds and other wildlife.

I also liked to take the boys for nighttime rides out into the Mojave Desert near the Devil’s Punchbowl. I used to let them sit on my lap and steer my pick-up truck out under the stars on those dark, black-topped roads.

Once, young Jeff announced upon our return, “I ‘drived’ in the desert.”

Back here in Michigan, on one of their summer trips home, I took the boys to Houghton County, where we spent a few days in a cabin, taking day trips fishing for brook trout, checking out waterfalls, rocky rivers, deep woodlands and mosquito-clouded back roads.

They slept in bunk beds. We cooked on a grill outside the cabin door. The old deer camp-styled cabin was comfortable, with soft mattresses and thick blankets that held the damp nighttime air at bay.

I taught them how to tie a hook on their line, bait a hook and read a river to find fish, and they watched me clean and cook the trout.

A few years later, the boys had again returned for an annual summer visit. By now, they had learned a thing or two about how to fend for themselves. But while they had learned some things, I found out that others were still beyond their reach.

One day while I had gone to work, they planned to watch television and relax much of the afternoon, cooking hot dogs and macaroni and cheese for lunch – typical kid stuff.

When I got home from work, I asked how lunch was. They said they could only eat the macaroni and cheese, having to go without hot dogs because an electrical breaker had tripped, leaving them without the microwave.

“Why didn’t you boil the hot dogs in a pan on the stove?” I asked.

“You can do that?” they asked, incredulous.

I was shocked.

I thought they were kidding.

They were not.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I think, in that one brief instant, that I realized on some level I had failed them. 

This was perhaps one of the first indications for me that there was a whole network of cracked and unseen fault lines underlying the framework of our trying to make the best of this long-distance parent-child relationship.

A few more years had passed by the time we decided to return to the cabin in the woods for another “fishing excursion.”

This time, there was more indifference and less understanding between us. The awkwardness was palpable. There was tension I didn’t understand. We had continued to grow further apart.

But none of that stopped us from enjoying ourselves at the cabin and hitting the streams for a couple of days. As I drove, Jeff was in the front seat navigating, looking at a map.

At his direction, we stopped along a green, grassy meadow off the highway, where a small stream snaked its way into the woods, near an old concrete bridge that had fallen into disrepair.

Within a few casts of our spinners, we had a few nice fish. We repeated this process as we checked out the countryside, exploring new waters.

At a shallow, log-bottomed pond, with darkness on its way, James caught the biggest trout of the day.

Back at the cabin, the boys helped clean the fish. This time, I would show them how to cook up the trout in a frying pan on the stove, and they would learn by doing.

They helped wash and flour the trout.

“Just so you know, we’re going to be using real butter to fry these fish in—none of that low-fat crap,” I said, smiling.

I gave them the finer points—watching the color of the fish turn from opaque gray to white to know when the trout were cooked all the way through. I reminded them how to lift the spine to pull the rib cage and the rest of the bones out, flaking the fish off the bones onto the plate.

I also reminded them to eat the crunchy, butter-fried fish tails and to leave the skin on for some of the best taste.

Since James had caught the biggest fish, he was the first to try the fish. Jeff and I watched silently in anticipation.

“That is so good,” he said.

That’s all we needed to hear. We picked up our forks.

This trip back to the cabin would also be memorable for us, but not in the same way the first trip had been.

This time, it was more of a benchmark delineating how far we had drifted apart—but along with the fault lines we found, I know now there remained an enduring love and memories of the closeness we had shared way back before the divorce, before I had moved away.

I was pleased to hear the boys had been taking their own fishing and camping trips out west.

It took a half-dozen more years—more valuable time lost—before we were able to finally meet in the desert out west to settle our differences, men to man.

I had been asking them to grant me more access to their lives and their time. Clearly, they didn’t have to agree. They had grown beyond me long ago.

On my end, the older I got, the more I needed them, the less I saw them. I explained how, as the years go by, time gives you perspective and wisdom to see your faults.

I could only offer my truth and my love.

On a January afternoon, my plane circled and landed in Albuquerque. We headed south along I-25 toward the Rio Grande. We passed numerous roadside memorials and beautiful, small desert cemeteries.

Jeff, John and James Pepin out for a southwestern-style meal together in New Mexico.

We enjoyed the hot springs of Truth or Consequences, had some great local food and experienced the amazing Blue Oyster Cult in concert.

At New Mexico Tech, I shot some hoops with the boys, toured the campus and was surprised to find samples of almandine and chamosite from Michigamme, and Kona dolomite from Marquette in a display case at the school mineral museum.

We later sat in my little motel room there in Socorro. I had said I wanted to talk with them. After we heard each other out, we agreed to work together to reconstruct our lives together as much as we could—going forward.

They graciously accepted me.

I have visited both of their homes. I am so proud of them and the men they have become.

I’ve been introduced to my beautiful granddaughter Evelyn, who was just born this past autumn. I met her lovely mother in person too, and her parents.

I had missed the wedding—another time I had tried to do what I thought was best, but realized later, it was a time when my pride and insecurity tripped me on my face.

Last week, I talked with the boys for over an hour on a video chat. I got to see Evelyn eat her peas. We talk over the computer regularly now.

We have plans to reconnect in Michigan sometime soon.

With the trout season opening Saturday, it wouldn’t surprise me if we soon found our way back to the red-and-white cabin still sitting under the pine trees, just up the trail from where the river gets wider.

We could fish again together, walk those old dirt roads, talk about the good times way back when or just sit on the front porch of the cabin, watching the sun go down over the trees, waiting for the stars to come up.

Whatever we do, I know I’ll be happy to be there.

Want to take someone special fishing? Get more information on fishing in Michigan, including seasons, tactics, fish identification and more, at www.mi.gov/fishing.

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Hunting Michigan morels with Mi-HUNT

Gathering morel mushrooms is a gratifying pursuit whether with friends and family or alone. This photo was taken during a 2015 morel mushroom hunt in Windsor Township in Eaton County.

By Andy Evans, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

It was early May, and a certain spring activity was on my mind—looking for some tasty morel mushrooms in the beautiful hardwood forests of northern Lower Michigan.

As that Friday’s work shift was drawing to a close, I thought about places on state-managed land that I might find a new “honey hole” – a spot covered with morels.

A new weekend adventure would soon be at hand, and an amazing forest with rolling hills awaited. We are quite fortunate here in Michigan, having over 4.6 million acres of state land to explore.

The next morning, I grabbed my compass, jackknife and mesh bags and then headed for the woods. That hunting spot I had in mind turned out to need one more warm rain, so no mushrooms had popped up that night. I did find a nice deer run, however.

Truth be told, every morel hunt is ultimately a success, as you always find plenty of fresh air and sunshine in Michigan’s great outdoors.

More than a handful of beautiful Michigan morel mushrooms.

Aiding the hunt

The key to putting me in the right area was an interactive map application maintained by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources called Mi-HUNT (www.mi.gov/mihunt).

I learned about Mi-HUNT through my work at the DNR’s customer service center in Gaylord, and I often recommend it to our customers. This mapping tool delivers a wealth of information right to your computer or mobile device.

When looking for morel mushrooms, I often target hilly areas covered in hardwoods, along with burn scars from recent forest fires. Mi-HUNT provides customized maps of state-managed land, showing ash and other upland deciduous tree cover types.

Mi-HUNT has topographic maps and maps that show what types of trees are on state-managed land, as well as aerial photography for any area you zoom in on. You can also find more DNR information to target morel mushrooms at Mi-MOREL.

The Mi-HUNT tool lets users include or exclude layers of information on the maps they view. These layers include recreational facilities, trails, hunting lands, cover types, township, range and sections.

Base maps include 7.5-minute topographic quadrangles and aerial photos depicting leaf-off conditions from 1998, provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, and 2009 leaf-on images from the National Aerial Imagery Program.

To help a user’s research, a guide on the left side of the Mi-HUNT page indicates how densely wooded a place will be, indicated by numerical value, and what type of trees dominate the area, shown with a color.

Mi-HUNT maps also show contour lines to help users find the hills and other elevation highs and lows. From viewing the Mi-HUNT map screen, I was able to locate hillsides with ash and other hardwoods.

Sliced morel mushrooms ready for the pan are shown.

A morel primer

If you have never tried morel mushrooms, you might want to explore their culinary power. Some people describe them as nutty, some say meaty – but most agree the morel truly is unique.

They can be added to many dishes, sauteed in butter and onions, or fried. You will be rewarded with a great dish to share with family and friends, from Michigan’s natural wild bounty.

If you have never collected morels before, here are some tips for the first-timer:

Remember to bring your compass or GPS unit, and plan a route that will bring you back to your vehicle. Remember to let someone know where you will be that day – let’s call that filing your “mushroomer plan” for safety.

Always cut or pinch the mushrooms off at ground level, to protect the lower portion of the fungus and ensure mushroom regrowth in future years. Pulling them out can do permanent damage. This is where a jackknife comes in handy.

For that same reason, and to maintain a good nourishing layer of leaf litter, you should never rake an area for morels or drive an off-road vehicle cross country. For more information on using ORVs in Michigan, you can visit  www.mi.gov/orvinfo.

Using a mesh bag (such as an onion bag) will allow your collected morels to stay drier, versus using a paper or plastic bag.

Most important of all, know what you are eating! You will need to know the difference between a “true” morel and the “false morels,” such as beefsteak mushrooms, which are poisonous.

Try to work with an experienced morel mushroom hunter. In addition, there is a very good mushroom identification booklet available on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website. Note that the true morels are hollow when sliced open lengthwise, and that the bottom edges of their caps are attached to the stem.

More Mi-HUNT help

Are you new to using interactive maps, or are you new to Michigan? Mi-HUNT is ready to help you plan all kinds of outings.

The Mi-HUNT webpage has video tutorials to help users quickly get up to speed on using the application, whether they are mobile users or using a desktop or laptop computer.

The webpage also provides useful links to other information on wildlife viewing, public hunting land maps, game areas, waterfowl hunting, and downloadable geographic data.

For those looking to improve their chances while on the hunt, be it for morels, deer, fish, camping, hiking and more, a good place to start is Mi-HUNT.

Let this application help make your expedition for morels memorable, just like it helped me with my hunt.

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