It’s a Wonderful December: A Frank Capraesque Memory

Snowshoeing around Lake Emma.

December 2005 replays in my mind like a Frank Capra movie. The marquee reads: It’s A Wonderful December, but no bank auditors or near-death experiences mar my memory. Time has smoothed the rough edges until all that remains are ski tracks disappearing into deep woods. In my mind, the month was spent on skis, devoid of sleeping, eating or working.

And, based on the snowfall we received, that might have been a possibility. The snow began to fall during early December, leaving our already sleepy corner of northeastern Michigan even drowsier, covered in a thick, white blanket. Ice formed over our inland lake, which moaned and groaned as if protesting the early invasion, and animal tracks crisscrossed our yard.

Cross-country skis leaned against the wall next to the front door, and snow-shoes littered our entryway, slush melting around them. Discarded boots hovered nearby. The snow eased, but the temperatures dipped, preserving our winter wonderland.

One morning, while driving to the Black Mountain Recreation Area outside of Cheboygan, Mich., we took a corner too fast and spun off the icy road. Our car landed in a ditch. Within minutes, a vehicle stopped, and three men tumbled out. Ski boots covered their feet, and they jumped into the ditch with us, pushing and shoving our little car.

Soon the conversation turned to skiing — trail conditions, deep snow and winter’s blessings. Our car was almost forgotten as we swapped stories and shared memories. It seemed as if the early snowfall had infected them the same way it had us, and nothing could damage the cheerful mood. Another Good Samaritan with a truck eventually pulled us out of the ditch. The skiers, their conversation still on snow, clambered back into their vehicle.

Later that month, just before Christmas, we observed Rogers City’s annual holiday celebration. Dozens of trees in Westminster Park brimmed with lights. The moment spun with emotion, and I half-expected Jimmy Stewart to walk down the street, wishing me a happy holiday.

Christmas in the Park, painting by Debbie Stiller.

Then, a few days later, the rain arrived, melting the snow, as well as the magic. It was the moment in a Frank Capra movie when the main character tears up, and the audience leaves with a moral message. December 2005 taught me that when nature beckons, I must stop and listen.  And if she leaves a gift at my doorstep, crooking a finger at me to step outside, then I have no choice but to follow and unwrap it slowly, enjoying the moment while it lasts.

And I hope you too have similar moments during the upcoming season, where the true meaning of Christmas reaches out and holds you, wrapping you in a peaceful embrace that stretches across the winter and into next year.

(A version of this essay first appeared in the “Quiet Sports Colum” of Whisper in the Woods (Winter 2007/2008).)

Leaving Lake Emma

lake_emma_sunset 010We left Lake Emma for the final time as homeowners under a gray sky, swollen with rain. Memories trailed behind us, mingling with falling leaves–a collage of years fused onto amber, pink, and burgundy tree bouquets. Sun pricked through the clouds and illuminated a cluster of yellow leaves, an autumn lantern, lit from within, fragile and temporary.

We arrived at Lake Emma on a similar day almost fifteen years ago, and settled into its rustic ways… Or rather Lake Emma settled into us.

Brilliant fall colors exploded like Vegas showgirls next to their Puritan evergreen cousins. And on that first night, the sun slipped along the horizon as a huge flaming ball, leaving behind pink cloud islands floating in the sky. A soft duskiness draped itself around us and never left, filling us with a quiet peacefulness, the solitude of Michigan’s remote inland lakes.

Through Lake Emma, I learned the seasons of the north woods. Spring brought fiddleheads, crouching low, readying themselves for their summer performance when they sprang into ferns, a musical collaboration with nature. Turkey vultures, like a coven of witches, hunched over roadkill or perched on treetops, observing passersby.

Loons dominated summer nights with their eerie call, and during a paddle up the Ocqueoc River—Lake Emma is its headwaters–clouds of ebony jewelwing damselflies erupted from beneath a cedar. KayakThe moment carved itself into my memory as the jewelwings—every bit as beautiful as their name—fluttered around me, creatures from a fairy tale, ethereal and illusive.

Doubletracks snaked into dark woods, and thick weeds, like sea-serpent tentacles, reached out from Lake E’s murky depths. Bears lumbered across dirt roads, and a bobcat, carrying a rodent, once bounded in front of me as I biked along.

Chalk-fronted corporals—a type of dragonfly–gathered on our sandy driveway by the dozens. They seemed to join me when I jogged, rising up next to me, like combat pilots, and fighting off deerflies—the nemesis of Lake Emma. Lake EmmaWinter occasionally snowed us in, leaving us forgotten by the outside world, and we’d ski along the roads, as if cars had never existed.

It’s the place where I rediscovered Jane Austen, reading Emma, appropriately enough, as the red pines shimmied with the wind and sunlight danced on the knotty pine walls. Lost between pages, only Ms. Austen as company, the day passed and shadows lengthened, keeping me embraced in Lake E’s perfect silence.

I might have left Lake Emma, but it will never leave me.

Places we love, like the people we’ve loved–to borrow from Proverbs 3:3–are bound around our necks, written on the tablets of our hearts. Their presence, even when we aren’t fully aware of it, influence our lives in countless ways.

SunsetKayakLake Emma resides deep inside me—a cloud of ebony jewelwings, forever fused to my soul.

Forget Punxsutawney Phil, I say summer is around the corner…

Pigeon RiverForget Punxsutawney Phil, I say summer is around the corner… or at least in my mind, which seems fixated on warmer days filled with biking, hiking, and splashing in Lake Emma. Blame it on the dreadful weather forecast–rain: a word one never utters in a ski town. So, I’m allowing myself to drift away from the gloomy drizzle, which is turning my ski trails and slopes into mush, and remember a sun-smothered day surrounded by greenery and butterflies, a little like stepping into a children’s book.MTB


A blue cloud hovered over the mud puddle. It burst apart as my mountain bike bounced, then splashed, through the water. Dozens of butterflies flitted around me. Their delicate wings sliced through the air, so close I imagined a soft caress. I pedaled past them and they rejoined, becoming a cloud once again and settling near the water.

I hesitated, straddling my bike, and turned around. A butterfly fluttered its wings and rose, but the others were still. They appeared as one being, a giant winged creature of a blue so extraordinary it seemed not of this earth.

The moment felt like a gift, as if I had tumbled into a favorite storybook: The Secret Garden mixed with a dash of The Wizard of Oz. Few creatures whisper magic like the butterfly and its winged friends. I had never thought much about these insects until we bought our house in northern Michigan. There, among the red pines and restless wind, they gather like welcome guests, friends returning after the brutality of winter.

SunsetKayakA few years ago, while paddling the headwaters of northeastern Michigan’s Ocqueoc River, I rounded a corner and encountered dozens of green damselflies. My paddle dangled in my fingers, and they descended upon my kayak. I drifted in the narrow river. Their wings vibrated in the sun, and they moved constantly, sensing what I was unable to see.

Last summer zebra-striped dragonflies zipped along while I paddled the Upper Peninsula’s Indian River. At times they crashed into me, their bodies feeling strangely powerful. And on northeastern Michigan’s Black River, butterflies flounced among white pom-pom flowers, the scene so perfect it belonged in a children’s picture book.

These winged creatures are nature’s showstoppers, never failing to entertain. Returning one evening from a hike, my headlamp caught a giant, brown moth gathered on our porch. Attracted to the light splashing from inside, it looked almost prehistoric. Petite pink-and-yellow moths rested nearby.

On another kayak trip, my paddle skimmed over northern Michigan’s Lake Emma. Drops flew in the air, and I noticed a black-and-white dragonfly playing in the spray. It flitted here and there, in and out of the moisture. I paused, captivated by the charm of a dragonfly’s water dance, another opportunity to see how magical, how astonishing the world really is.