By Mitch Mode
A day last week. Twenty-five degrees at dawn; snow pellets, north wind. November cold except in November you expect it. That makes it easier to take. November weather the last week of April? Different story.
I loaded the kayak, drove to watershore, pushed off into a stiff wind. Gray water broken by waves; sullen sky heavy with cloud. I unzipped the jacket partway and pushed the camera lens in to protect it from splash. Then I paddled across the half mile of wind-blown water to seek shelter in the lee of the far shore.
It was cold and the sun never broke through. I saw birds, migrants, yellowlegs and snipe, birds you see in spring as they move north. Birds of passage; flight birds.
The yellowlegs’ gray buff breast stands out; learn to look for that and you’ll see them from a distance. Long, yellow legs; long bill; birds of graceful form and swift flight, wings long and tapered like the blade of a scythe. Snipe are the size of your fist with an absurdly long bill, colored like dead grass. But you can see them also if you’re lucky.
I stayed for a few hours, squinting through the viewfinder on the camera. Then I packed up and drove home. The dogs sniffed the pants legs for the story they could tell of a marsh and of water and of wild air. I made a cup of coffee and Sally came downstairs.
She asked how I’d done, meaning if I’d gotten any good photos. I told her “OK”, but that I’d had to quit because the gloves froze stiff and I could not feel the controls on the camera. And that was true.
She said she guessed that that was not the smartest thing I’d ever done. I sipped the hot coffee and tried to come up with an answer. No luck.
Next morning was colder. I went out again. It was calm at daybreak and sunny and I got on a heron as it hunted fish. The heron was patient and methodical, wading up and down and around a shallow weedy area. It worked that area as if there was a grid pattern painted on the weeds and the heron was following the lines. It never took a fish. It was still cold and I thought to myself, “That’s a hard way to make breakfast.”
I heard something, something light and indistinct like the wind itself and I turned left and there were 4 green-winged teal 20 feet from me and the sound was the sound of their wings when they landed. There was a moment when nothing moved then they settled in and I slowly turned the camera and the viewfinder was filled with the image of the small duck in perfect light and the only sound was the sound of the camera shutter.
Then they took wing and were gone as blown leaves in October wind.
They were gone as the yellowlegs will be gone and the snipe and the swans and the birds of spring passing. Gone all of them, gone north but they may as well disappear into thin air like a card a magician tosses and makes it disappear.
It is for the briefness of their passing I leave the warm house on a cold day when the gloves freeze hard and the wind bites sharp and my wife wonders at my common sense.
We see autumn as the time of passage when leaf glows bright and days shorten and winds portend change. We mourn in a sense for that passing. And we vow that we will not waste a day in the fall time for if we miss a day we miss a measure of the season.
Springtime is the same. The yellowlegs call their krilling call across the marsh; then are gone. Snipe hunker close to the mud, the better to hide. The next day, gone. The swans float like sailing ships, bright white in the morning sun. When they fly they are pure white as if lighted from within and then they too pass.
For a week or two or three or four the morning air is filled with birdsong and the sky flashes with birdwing. Miss a day, miss part of the season. And for that the cold and the wet are bearable for those moments on the mornings when birds linger and rest and present us with wonder. There is more. There is, come springtime, that heavy, rich scent that is unique to spring. It fills the air, fills your lungs when you breathe deep. There is nothing in nature that has the power of the sweet smell of springtime. It is there at dawning in April and May. It is there in the last gasping days of winter when dark dirt comes from under snow.
That perfumed air is there for the anglers and the early morning walkers. Ask this weekend’s fishermen about it; they’ll know. It is there like ground fog in the morning when the birds call and in the evening when shadows reach out. The air of springtime is as unique and as precious as autumn color. And, like the color of fall and like the birds of spring it passes, not to return for another span.
If you miss those days and that heady scent of spring you miss something as special as the birds of the spring. For that, for all that, the cold and the snow of a late April day are a small price to pay.
A week later, 20 degrees warmer at sunrise. I go out again. There are birds in the air, different ones from a week ago. If you catch the wind just right you can smell the scent of spring. But even in a week’s time things have changed. And will change again on each new morn. And again. Until spring has passed as the wild birds have flown, as the leaves fall on autumn breeze, as reality becomes memory.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Sporting Goods in downtown Rhinelander Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.