Every September, at about this time of the month, arrive some unmistakable signs that one of the most delicious times of the year is arriving. Delicious, that is, if you love the drama and excitement of radical changes in the world around us, and—especially—if your pulse quickens when you imagine peering through cattails at bobbing duck decoys, or looking down from a tree stand, ready to draw back your bow if the source of the crunching on the trail wears a handsome set of antlers.
One of these unmistakable signs is the flipping of the temperature regimen between air and water. When overnight temperatures fall below water temperature, sunrise on the lake where the family cabin sits brings a wispy, misty fog on some mornings or a solid bank of damp grayness that can blot out every island or shoreline landmark, and only those with lake knowledge and good navigation skills set out before the fog burns off.
The first maples to pop into full Technicolor are an equally unmistakable sign, and even more dramatic. Saturday morning, covering the dozen miles from the cabin to a local café to score caramel rolls still warm from their oven, the sun was up just enough to illuminate the tree line on the hills to the west of the county highway. Maples there are scattered thinly among the birch, aspen and jack pine that mostly populate this tree line, and—though few in number—these sentinels were ablaze in the way that only the slanting rays of early morning and evening light produce.
There is a saying in art, or is it literature—maybe both—that “less is more.” For me, that’s how it is with the transformation of maples, birch and aspen in September and October. Many think it’s about peak color. Television weather segments at this time of year invariably show a map of Minnesota divided into irregular patches, these boundaries revealing state forests’ progress toward that ultimate stage called peak color.
You could get the impression that the only worthwhile time to view the season’s unique arboreal beauty is when a forest’s color is at its peak. Tourism brochures, postcards and travel guides portraying autumn’s appeal leave the same impression. If you were a photographer trying to sell your images to a photo editor or art director, those are the images you’d expect to pay off.
But as a member of the less-is-more school, I find just the opposite to be true. While on my Saturday morning caramel roll expedition, rounding a curve or rising out of a dip, I would pass a single maple that stood out in brilliant crimson or orange against the pale green of its neighbors. If I were an artist, that’s how I’d paint it; a subject all the more striking because it stood out against the canvas of forest greens.
It may be overstatement to call the luminous, flaming oranges and yellows and reds of these transforming leaves delicious. But their impact is almost enough to make the sensory leap from sight to taste.
Delicious, too, are the dilemmas we face this time of year in deciding how to spend our time, when so many pursuits of the outdoors are an option. Out front from the cabin this same Saturday brought a parade of anglers. By day, a number of them were leveraging long rods, heaving what must have been puppy-size lures, based on the splashes they made hitting the water; muskies the target, obviously. By night, the darkness was punctuated by the safety lights of boats that were slow trolling down the length of a break line or weed line; certainly prospecting for walleyes.
Mid-day, while planting little bluestem prairie grass in a shoreline restoration, there came a sequence of three closely-spaced explosions to the north. They startled some, including my wife, but only reminded me that the early Canada goose hunting season is on, and the farmer across the road—in whose fields the geese routinely feed—was attempting to claim his toll for that privilege. A neighbor who was closer to the action confirmed that the farmer was indeed going to have the option of wild goose for Thanksgiving.
Then, too, last Saturday was the start of the archery deer season, as well as the kickoff to the season for ruffed grouse. Mere days away, Sept. 26 is the start of statewide duck hunting. Many waterfowl hunters have been scouting their favorite wetlands or shallow lakes to check local bird numbers, touching up paint on duck decoys and seeing to other tasks that some find almost as much fun—almost—as the hunt itself. Stream trout anglers here in the North are on borrowed time, some putting in their last days on-stream as the 2020 season draws to a close on Sept. 30.
As the late, much-admired outdoor yarn spinner Gordon McQuarrie once wrote “…how fine it would be if throughout the year this season would hang on dead center … to be sure these are mere dreams of perpetual paradise.” Delicious dreams, for sure.