Waking up at 5 a.m. has its benefits. Early risers who brave the chilly North Country dawn are treated to experiences seldom encountered by those who arise at a more civilized hour. Morning finds me at the end of the dock with a steaming cup of coffee, grateful for a little peace before the kids wake up.
Near where I sit in a dewy Adirondack, rogue bass worry a school of minnows in the shallows. I hear them more than I see them in the early light. They occasionally beach themselves, flopping on the sand until they find water again. Though technically morning, nocturnal sounds prevail: A coyote congregation yips and howls in the distance; closer across the dirt road, a barred owl hoots and bullfrogs garrumph from lily pads as stars wink out above the lake.
Minute by minute, as I nurse my coffee, the brightening eastern sky subtly changes the landscape. A shroud of mist rises as warm water meets cool air — July still being shy at 48 degrees.
Night sounds yield to daylight now. A loon yodels its ethereal tremolo (Up North! Up North!). Owls are nudged aside by sandhill cranes wheeling high overhead, their prehistoric croaks a contrast to the coo of mourning doves. Songbirds merge into a single resonance to the staccato beat of a pileated woodpecker, while a kingfisher’s hyena-laugh underscores angling skills better than mine.
Sunlight glints off a faraway jet filled with travelers going who-knows-where. They all have agendas.
This is mine.
Autumn in the north is a season in motion. Creatures everywhere are in transit, gathering food for the long winter or preparing to skip town. Fair-weather cottage-goers are migrating south as well, leaving in their wake a few stalwarts splitting wood, pulling out docks and winching boats aloft.
Frost-laced ferns wither. Falling leaves blanket the earth calico. Gaudy wood ducks spin nervously in the shallows while bluegill and bass — once willing feeders — retreat to deeper water, beyond range of my flies. Summer, though not far gone, seems far away.
This October morning finds me at my station wearing checked wool and jeans. The lake smells different than it did a month ago — sharper, somehow cleaner. A north wind ruffles the water as waves lap the sandy shore. Slate-bottomed clouds advance and leaves ignite: Wheat-hued tamaracks, crimson sumacs, pumpkin-painted maples, russet oaks, shimmering golden aspens — beauty defined by brevity.
Lifting my coffee, I catch the faint odor of Hoppe’s #9 on my hands; the scent of solvent reminds me I recently cleaned a favorite shotgun. Sitting here, I sometimes hear the snap of a .22 or BOOM of a scattergun as a like-minded hunter tries to pot a grouse or squirrel in uplands beyond the lake. No tonic awakens the pioneer spirit quite like fall.
Inside the cottage, beyond the wood stove’s warmth, leaves rattle across roof and sleet pecks against the glass — winter’s ghost seeking a way in even before quick-departing autumn has fully slipped out.
Not yet, Old Man, but your time will come.
Winter here is stark and bleak, seemingly devoid of life. Plastic tarps on grounded boats snap and pop in the wind as darkened cottages stare out across the dormant lake, silenced beneath a tomb of ice until distant spring.
Adirondacks on our snow-covered deck are stacked upside down and the dock is reduced to a stub; there’s nowhere to sit, even if you wished to stay out here where wind is cutting like shards of glass. Skies are a uniform gray, smothering all but a few faint streaks of sunlight. Leafless trees creak, bowing to the whims of weather or cracking under pressure.
Out here in the elements, it’s tempting to retreat back up to the cottage, puffing out fragrant blue curls of smoke and the aroma of still-brewing coffee, where winter can be watched through the window in the comfort of the kitchen, tying trout flies at the table.
But I linger here just a few minutes more, reveling in the warmth of a battered Thermos and majestic serenity of this Sabbath stillness.
Knee-deep in muddy March, today seemed decades away… yet here it is, tangible as French Press coffee. Down by the lake, ice recedes in sunlight and a mild breeze blows. Redwing blackbirds sing from cattails while martins swoop and swallows dive; soon trained eyes will see dappled fawns materializing in ferns while pink lady slippers sprout and skunk cabbage shoots up.
At dusk, a woodcock flutters over the lake, bound for a nearby field. As stars begin to flicker, he totters out on spindly legs, his nasal buzz more insect than bird, then…
Suddenly, he catapults into twilight, spiraling upward, fast descending: The arrival of this upland migrant portends a softer season; his dance, an anthem of early spring.
The earth is awakening, and I’m here to greet it.
Book author and freelance writer Jon Osborn lives in Holland.