SPOONER — Mother Nature is a lady of many moods and continuously changing seasons. Sometimes she can be angry, harsh as a biting winter wind roaring across a northern clearing. She can be as fierce as a gray November lake, her waters boiling and screaming, with snow blowing sideways.
Her moods quickly change. When her angry winds die down and quiet snowflakes fall, the land is quickly blanketed in a soft whiteness.
Mother Nature can be warm, bathing her landscape in the fresh green of a springtime morning. She can storm, but spring and summer in the North are often peaceful.
Then comes autumn, the season of transition, one part vibrant color, one part cold and chilling, a prelude to a return to winter. These are the seasons of the North.
We begin our tour of the seasons as the new year dawns and winter establishes a firm hold on the landscape. January brings a new year and normally more snow and cold. If the snow arrives early and deep, even the largest buck will struggle. The black bear has long since retreated to a den to sit out winter in a kind of pseudo-hibernation.
On the lakes the onset of intense cold can make the ice thicken and shift, producing thunderous noises. Similar sounds occur in the spring as the ice begins to soften and pop, like a sleeping giant waking.
On a clear, dark night in late January the aurora borealis, or northern lights, dance across the sky like wave after wave of color — whites, purples, reds, pinks, greens, blues — pulsating and glowing as if almost alive.
A thick coating of white hoarfrost covers the landscape as the sun breaks through the thick clouds for a moment on a bitterly cold morning. And then it is gone, and grayness once again engulfs creation.
Chickadees flit about here and there, traveling from bush to bush, greedily munching on life-sustaining seeds and dried berries.
How do these tiny bundles of energy survive the frigid nights with but a few feathers to protect them from the sub-zero nights, nights so cold that unprotected human ears, cheeks and lips ache after only a few moments exposure? If there is an inspiration to those of us who call northern Wisconsin home, it is that tiny survivor, the chickadee.
Late afternoon brings the filtered yellow light and deep blue shadows of impending nightfall. Skeletons of aspen trees once loaded with leaves stand naked against the horizon as the final light fades.
A bluejay puffs itself up against the cold as a noisy red squirrel chatters, its tail bobbing as it chews on a small piece of standing corn from a farmer’s field. A coal-black raven sits high atop a tall oak, giving him a commanding view of all that passes below. He is hungry, having not found a meal in two days.
A trio of whitetailed deer wander through a spruce swamp along a well-used trail. Energy is life in late winter, and these deer have used much of the fat reserves they entered the season with. Along the way they pass the carcass of one of their own, an old buck too used up by the rut to survive another hard winter. He laid down his heavy head last night and closed his eyes for the final time. His days are over. Yet in his passing, others will find another meal and survive.
Spring arrives and nature seems to welcome it. The bone-chilling times are past. Geese return and red-breasted robins begin showing up, seeking earthworms as the final clumps of dirty winter snows melt away. The sun’s warmth is soothing, and the snow will not last long, nor will the honeycombed, black ice that remains on the lakes. A few good days of wind, and the water will be open once more. Nature’s pulse is starting to beat faster.
New buds begin to form on trees, and while night might still deliver a few inches of slushy snowfall, it quickly melts in the daytime as temperatures soar into the 60s. The frozen ground of morning quickly gives way to the mud of afternoon.
May brings chilly, dark nights and heavens ablaze with twinkling stars. Around the lake the sound of migrating ducks splashing in the shallows, peeper frogs in the grass and a solitary loon whistling mournfully combine to make a chorus of life.
Wildflowers, from violets to marigolds, grow on the forest floor, which only weeks ago was encased in snow and ice. Already spring winds are drying the landscape, sending clouds of dust into the air. One day it might be 80 degrees, two days later morning will dawn to frost-covered fields. May is truly an undecided month.
Songbirds greet dawn with an explosion of sound. Elk, moose, and whitetailed bucks are already beginning to sprout velvet-covered antlers. Tiny leaves burst out of their buds, unfolding in the sunshine, the freshest, greenest color imaginable. Green is everywhere.
June arrives, and the freshness of spring is beginning to pass into summer. Although daylight might break cool, by mid-morning it can be humid. Spring, like autumn, is a fleeting time. It is a time when plants seem to grow before your eyes, from forest floor to cornfield and back yard garden. And, of course, the first mosquitoes and flies begin to buzz and annoy.
A delicate goldfinch bathes in an early morning puddle, as not far away a red-winged blackbird rocks back and forth atop a cattail. A raccoon washes a meal in a small stream before eating it. Summer is in full bloom, and the first 90-degree temperatures of the season arrive. At the lake, a great blue heron waits patiently, then drives his long beak into the water and emerges with a crayfish.
Summer brings more heat, and sometimes it seems relentless. But Mother Nature still serves up special treats, perhaps in the form of a beautiful red wild rose, maybe in the form on a wide-winged bald eagle catching a morning thermal and screaming across the sky.
These are the days of plenty, when deer get fat on nature’s bounty and their red coats shine against the backgrounds of green leaves and tall yellow prairie grasses.
Cascading water, coupled with the sound of leaves rustling in the soft wind, is an open invitation for an afternoon nap along the stream.
This month brings more warm days. Bobcats, deer, and black bears hide from the heat in the darkness of the forest. Wildlife waits out the heat, emerging to feed in the cooler night hours. Blackberries hang heavy on their bushes, and wild birds eagerly eat them. Bears eat them also, starting to put on fat for the coming winter. In the twisted brush, an empty sparrow’s nest sits as a reminder of recently passed spring, the remains of two tiny egg shells littering its bottom.
August melts away, and as it does the heat of summer begins to melt away with it. This is a month of transition, and summer is fading.
September blows in on a hot breeze, but by the end of the month there could be snowflakes in the air. In the forest, the beaver busily lives up to her reputation, hurrying to build her lodge, chattering kittens by her side. The water has grown stagnant in places, beaten by the summer sun, it’s surface covered by vegetation that begins to change from green to yellow. Along the river, change is also visible in the sugar maples as oranges and yellows and reds paint the leaves. Canada geese fly overhead in long V-shaped flocks as Mother Nature waves her hand and signals the change of seasons once again. A few nights ago it was too hot to sleep. Now an extra blanket needs to be placed on the bed. The trees are on fire with color, and on the forest floor ferns and underbrush begin to turn brown, die, and crumble.
October arrives in a wash of color. This is Mother Nature’s finest hour, and she paints the landscape with a multi-hued brush. The autumn leaves are in full color, numerous shades of red, orange, and yellow.
Mother Nature’s children are busy. A squirrel stores a winter stash of acorns and seeds. Flocks of birds gather, swirling overhead as they prepare to migrate. Frogs and turtles bury themselves into the mud and prepare for a long sleep.
With a cold breath, Mother Nature coats the morning landscape with a first frost. Darkness covers the region earlier now, and fog rises from the rivers and ponds where the water is warmer than the air. Mushrooms form on the moist rocks and on the dark sides of shaded trees.
The trees, so colorful only a moment ago, are bare and gray. The sky is steel blue and the morning sun blazes orange, but there is no warmth to be found.
At the larger lakes the gray waves look and feel cold, and the wind seems to howl a mournful sound as it blows relentlessly. In the bay a small muskrat nibbles on vegetation. Ringlets of ice have formed around the base of bulrushes.
Out in the hills a deer hunter checks his tree stand, not far from the same trail the old buck used to enter the tamarack swamp. The hunter’s heart races as he finds a fresh rub line. Memories of past hunts flood over him, visions of bucks missed and bucks taken, of old friends hunted with and those no longer around to share the camaraderie of the hunting shack.
December arrives along with the drifting Christmas snows, but in nature there is no celebration. Winter is a hard time. Small birds struggle to keep warm, searching for what few seeds might remain. Some animals hibernate, others migrate. Many remain and endure the wrath of winter.
The landscape disappears under a blanket of snow, and the snow can tell Mother Nature’s stories. A wing pattern shows how a ruffed grouse exploded into flight when startled by a red fox passing too closely. Hoof prints joined by converging paw prints tell the story of a pack of wolves closing in on a deer, and the large red blood patch near the swamp tells how the encounter ended.
December mornings are dark, and the sun struggles to rise by 7 a.m. Days are short, and the sun disappears by around 4:30 p.m. as darkness once again engulfs the land.
January arrives, and the journey has come full circle. Nature is once again in the grips of winter, and every day of survival is a struggle. But the struggle continues, and life goes on.
Spring will eventually come again to the wild North, and the ongoing drama that is life in the outdoors will begin once again.
Thornley is outdoors editor for the Spooner Advocate newspaper.