In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, winter comes early. You can feel it when the mercury drops to 30 and you’re in a summer cottage with just a fireplace for heat. And so it was one late fall day, when Smokey and I were the only dog and person left on the island. Cold rain fell on the forest floor, covered with birch leaves and pine needles. These woods, full of pine, spruce, balsam and cedar, are like a Christmas postcard.
We were on the far end of the island with an hour left of the gray, afternoon light before we had to shove the boat back into Lake Huron and head for home. We walked the path up the hill and away from the water, into the woods toward the great stand of pine. Smokey wanted to run ahead as usual, but I made him stay a step behind me. First, my 12-gauge shotgun was loaded and pointing forward. More important, though, that morning, I’d heard a new sound. Just across the marsh, a band of shrill, chaotic voices erupted. Not human. It had to be coyotes, a big group.I’d heard them howl on fall nights when the island was deserted. But this was different. Either a feeding frenzy or a group fight. And they were close.
Afternoon brought another first.Down the shoreline 75 yards, a doe walked onto our beach and into the cold water.She swam the channel, making the 150 yards to the mainland in minutes. I imagined she was abandoning the coyote-infested island, and with vultures circling the cottage the past few days, who could tell?
Smokey’s an athletic, 70-pound Airedale. But he’d be no match for a pack, and I envisioned a friendly female luring him deeper into the woods. So for our late afternoon walk, I loaded three shells, and kept Smokey right with me. Far into the woods, a huge jack rabbit jumped across our path. Off he went, and off went Smokey. “Smokey! Come!” To my surprise, he did.
I’d heard that if you’re hunting a rabbit, he’ll circle and finally return to the same spot. I wasn’t hunting but thought I’d test the proposition. So Smokey and I settled on the soft forest floor, my back against an old cedar tree. We waited, motionless and listening. The rain dripped from the trees, and balsam filled the air.
How long does the rabbit take before coming back? I hadn’t heard that part. Time passed. Smokey watched me for a while, then fell asleep. I peered into the dense woods. I thought of three Michigan friends — each in his 80s — who died this fall. One was a Cincinnati doctor and my favorite cousin’s companion after each lost their spouse. Another lived here his whole life — my family’s closest local friend for three generations. The third was the grandson of the founders of the old hotel, which lured my great-grandfather north long ago. Unusual for three favorites to go in the same year. And as each year passes, more and more spirits whistle in these woods.
The light through the treetops was fading. Proposition tested. No rabbit. Soon it would be dark, and we had to walk the rest of the path. Which we did.
Welcome to the winter issue. We hope you enjoy the 250th anniversary cover illustration by Carolyn Kelly (more on the 250th in coming issues.) This issue is packed with great stories, from Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s account of his remarkable life to Chico Harlan’s tapping of the local beer scene.
There are 20 other features from the best writers and photographers around, including John Beale, whose pictures chronicle a year in the life of the Allegheny River. So put the logs in the fireplace, crumple up the newspaper, light it and read on.