By John Pepin, Deputy public information officer, Michigan Department of Natural Resources
I was heading west along the highway, with the wipers slapping raindrops off my windshield. The rhythm was something I could feel.
In the distance, along the horizon, I saw a wide stretch of white-gray clouds rolled up on their leading edge, heading toward me.
The color and apparent texture of the clouds reminded me of a heavy woolen sweater, but there was nothing going to be warm about this.
Rather than a soft comforting sweater or blanket, this formation was bringing a harsh and swift delineation between this relatively warm November afternoon and a rather dramatic sinking into the icy clutches of wintry weather.
The change was abrupt and would soon bring snow showers.
Within a couple of days, more than a foot of fresh snow would be on the ground in many parts of the region.
I watched a doe move slowly between the trees amid the falling snow. She dipped her head low to eat some of the snow.
We tossed October’s jack-o-lanterns out into the backyard along with a small bag of store-bought apples. In some parts of the state, feeding deer recreationally is not allowed, but it is where I live.
I wanted to watch the deer in the snow. It didn’t take long before a yearling appeared at the edge of the woods.
The deer approached cautiously, walking in, following in the tracks of another deer that had been there sometime during the previous nighttime. The deer followed its nose to the place where the food was being covered with falling snow.
When it got close enough to see the pumpkins, it stopped and backed up. It appeared this might have been the first time the deer had ever seen a pumpkin. It sniffed around at the snow off the edges but didn’t move any closer.
Within a minute or so, a doe approached and did not hesitate to begin eating one of the apples. The deer crunched the fruit between its teeth and the juice from the apple dripped off both sides of the deer’s mouth.
Standing, watching, chewing, listening.
Now the yearling was more willing to approach. It began chomping an apple of its own. In a couple of minutes, both deer had wandered back into the woods.
It wasn’t long before they soon returned, bringing with them another doe and two more yearlings. I wondered whether they specifically left to retrieve these other deer, or had simply come across them in their travels and they followed along.
I also wondered how they would communicate that exactly.
One of the yearlings jumped around and ran a wide circle trail in the snow. It acted like a cartoon deer in a Christmas special on television. I expected to hear it talk or even sing.
Another yearling nuzzled its head up underneath one of the does and appeared to be trying to drink milk. It seemed late in the year to see this behavior, but I was seeing it, nonetheless.
The does started crunching into the frozen jack-o-lanterns. One stuck its head inside the opening at the top of one of the pumpkins to eat.
Eventually, the two does were standing face-to-face with one of the bright orange pumpkins sticking up out of the soft, white snow between them.
As the doe on the left put its head down and crunched a bite, the doe on the right extended its front left foot and slid its hoof down the front side of the deer, attempting to push the other doe back.
This happened a couple more times, but the competing doe didn’t stay away for more than a few seconds. I again wondered if that first doe I had seen that day had invited the second to come to the food pile to eat.
If it had, why do it if you are then going to compete with your dinner guest for food?
By this time, one of the yearlings had wandered off somewhere out of my view. The other stood between the two does and continued to eat with them.
When I slipped out the back door and moved closer, the deer saw me. At first, it appeared they intended to dash away. But when I looked to my left into the woods and then at the ground, they went back to eating and were undisturbed by my presence.
Deer are beautiful, graceful animals, albeit it in kind of a subtle, unassuming way.
It would not be long before night would fall on the scene.
I returned in the very early morning, stepping outside into temperatures more often expected during January or February. The moon cast a beautiful bluish-white light over everything.
With the reflection of this light off the snow covering the ground, the scene appeared magical and out of this world somehow, as though this was a landscape on a whole other planet. There were stars shining, big and bright in the black sky.
The icy temperature made everything even clearer. There was no distance whatsoever between the snow and ice and the cold of the air.
I wondered what it being this cold this early in the season – not even winter yet – would mean for the weeks and months ahead.
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, “Michiganders should be prepared to pull those puffy coats out of storage and bundle up with full force.”
With the morning barely born, I was back out on the highway again. This time headed to the east toward what would eventually be the rising sun.
Smoke drifted in long, trailing plumes that curled at their ends. I knew these formations well. I remembered them especially from my young days as a kid who walked to and from school all winter long.
It was a little more than six blocks to school. The trip seemed like a long way, but I eventually started to enjoy it as I found shortcuts and distractions, like sliding down steep and ice-slicked roads and sidewalks on my feet.
We kids knew the neighborhoods inside and out. We had shortcuts through vacant lots, in between buildings, across parking lots and over fences.
Locations would take on names for “significant” occurrences that took place there, like “the place where we found that dead pigeon.”
We knew which residents who lived along the streets were grumpy, irritable or nice.
I remember walking past the old inn, which was located about halfway on my journey. There was a big brick chimney that belched smoke.
Starlings would sit and talk along the rain gutters at the edge of the roof, from early in the morning until late afternoon when I was on my way back home.
They are good mimics, and listening to them you can hear sounds of other birds and sometimes even human creations, like mimicked sounds of car back-up alarms.
This morning, it was 14 degrees all around me. As cold as it was, I knew I had been out on much colder mornings, even way back, as a kid.
I remember I’d climb up to look out the bathroom window to see the temperature reading on the bank clock before I’d get ready for school. I remember seeing those minus signs in front of the numbers in the teens or 20s that made me shake.
No matter what, 14 degrees – and probably much colder farther inland – was cold for November.
The lake was still and flat, with a frosty mist floating over it. The reflection of lights from the town looked strange. The icy, blue-gray surface of the lake looked like steel or aluminum.
Everything seemed to be moving much slower than usual, presumably because of the cold that had gripped it. I shook a bit watching out the window as I drove, even though the heater was blowing warm air my way through the dash vents.
The changing of winter’s guard has seemingly taken place a good month before the first day of winter. Time to trade in my leaf rake and grasscutter for a shovel and snow thrower.
The time for trying to squeeze just a little more autumn out of my year is done. The zesty orange of those warm mellow days, of pumpkin spice and apple cider, has shriveled up and dried on the vine.
It won’t be long before it turns black and drops to the ground to decompose.
A few months from now, with the budding of spring, it will be born again – new growth on the branches, hope in my heart, blood in my veins and another wintertime fading fast in my rearview mirror.