Thursday, August 13, 2020

Natural Wonders


Travel Oyster isn't doing much travel these days.  On March 16, while we were still in Paris, France was locked down in an effort to combat the spread of Covid-19.  We had planned to spend five weeks in Italy after our Paris stay, but that trip had been cancelled back in February.  We hoped we might be able to spend that extra time in Paris, but reality intervened, and we rebooked our flight home for March 20. It was one of the last non-stop Air France flights from Paris to Detroit.  The big rush of Americans had already fled France and the airports in Paris and Detroit were eerily empty.  We were asked to self-quarantine for 14 days on our return to the States.  By the time the two weeks ended, Michigan's governor had locked down the State.


By mid-May, when travel to second homes was allowed in Michigan, we came up to our cabin in northern Michigan. In Italy, where the lockdowns have been very effective, our friends are traveling again, and they tell us that they are discovering the beauty of their own country minus the usual crush of tourists. In our opinion, it's not safe to travel across the United States, so we've decided to concentrate on the natural wonders that are right outside our cabin door.


So far, it has been a beautiful summer with warm sunny days and crisp cool nights. Compared to many, many other people in the United States, we feel incredibly lucky. We sleep on our screened-in porch and in this time of the full moon, the trees cast their shadows across the forest, and the river in front of our cabin sparkles in the moonlight. A black bear visited the other night and finding our bird feeders safely locked away sat and moaned plaintively for several minutes before fading back into the forest. Whether she was crying over the missed meal or for some other private bear sadness is something we will never know.


As I write this at my cabin desk, a ruby-throated hummingbird is sipping nectar from the flowers in the planter just outside my window. As he hovers, his wings beat 55 times a second so that even right before my eyes, his wings are a feathery blur.  When he's had his fill, he zooms off at 75 beats a second. He courts his mate, who perches in a nearby tree, with a pendulum-like flight, rising 8-10 feet above and 5-6 feet to each side of her.  Then they face each and alternately rise and descend ten feet into the air over and over again before discreetly disappearing into the grass to mate.


The bird feeders around the cabin are visited by young families, including a pileated woodpecker mother, who brings her male offspring to feast on suet.  He is bigger than she is, but ungainly and hesitant. He mostly clings to a nearby tree, begging to be fed and his mother obliges. Looking at these large, primitive-looking creatures, spectacular in their black and white plumage with bright red crests, is like looking back millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs, who most scientists think are the ancestors of birds.  It is such a intriguing prospect to think that the dinosaurs never really went extinct, but are right overhead in our big oak trees.


The pileated woodpeckers did all but disappear from Michigan when the state's old growth forests were cut down during the lumber boom of the 1800s. By 1871, all that remained of the habitat that the woodpeckers need to survive were the slash and debris from logging. A drought that summer over much of the Great Lakes region dragged on into October. Crops died in the fields; wells dried up and streams became mere trickles.  Disaster struck when the Peshtigo, Wisconsin wildfire killed somewhere between 1,200 to 2,500 people on the night of October 8 - the same night the great Chicago fire ignited.  In Michigan on October 8, the many small blazes that had smoldered unattended for weeks joined to form a major wildfire that swept across the entire state, burning an estimated 2,000,000 acres and killing at least 200 people. Left behind in the aftermath was a state devoid not only of forests, but also of wildlife, birds, and even the fish in the rivers.

In the intervening 150 years, nature has returned to Michigan. The river we canoe, the Pere Marquette, is famous for its trout fishing and its autumn salmon run. The forest the river flows through is lush and its banks are abloom with wild Michigan lilies.  On the nearby lake where we fish for bluegills, some evenings a solitary loon keeps us company. A beaver, taking advantage of the absence of forest managers who might impede his work, has felled trees and built an impressive dam that has reduced the flow at the outlet of the lake to a trickle.  In the last couple of months, the lake has risen several feet and new grasses and beautiful pink smartweed are blooming along with the Monet-like waterlilies.


Growing up, Sundays at the beach were a hallmark of summer.  It was an hour and a half drive on back roads through New Jersey farmland to the Atlantic Ocean - known in New Jersey as "going down the shore."  When the beach was tauntingly close, you came to an old wooden bridge over Barnegat Bay, where traffic always backed up until finally you crossed the bridge with the boards rattling under the tires of the family car.  For our beach experience now, we drive 40 minutes to Lake Michigan, an "ocean" without salt, where lighthouses dot the shores. Finding an isolated, uncrowded beach is easy, and in August, at least by Michigan standards, the water is pleasantly warm. 


For human company, we go five miles into the town of Baldwin where the twice-weekly outdoor concerts have resumed.  We bring our own chairs, wear masks and social distance. A good portion of the audience stays in their cars where they listen to the music on their car radios via a short-wave transmission.  Applause is a chorus of horns honking. It's not the normal mingling, but still, it's comforting to see and talk to friends, even at a distance and music always soothes the soul. 


By the time we get back to the cabin, the barred owls are calling, the coyotes are howling and another day has ended.


Stay well. Keep washing your hands, wear those masks and social distance.

For more photos, click here.