My wife, son and I hiked through Meadowbrook Park near sunset this evening to enjoy the end of a chilly, but sun-filled February day. Clouds began to gather on the horizon as we made our way from the western parking lot towards the prairie viewing platform on the far eastern side of the park. The color of the landscape constantly shifted between intense gold and dusky brown to black as the setting sun moved between the clouds.
My son was excited to see the beaver dam, so we began our hike along the path that parallels the Meadowbrook stream. As we walked closer to the dam, we saw fresh evidence of beaver activity along the shore. I don’t know how many beavers are living in the park, but the number of trees being gnawed out of existence is impressive.
The water behind the beaver dam was higher today that in my previous visits, and the shoreline was soft and muddy under our feet. I had hoped to cross the stream over the top of the damn, but the high water submerged most of earthen embankment. We decided instead to walk further down to the man-made bridge.
Once across the stream, we followed the outer edge of the brush along the stream. The dried wildflowers slowly moved in a gilded dance between the trees. There is something magical about the light near the end of the day. It brings a saturation to life that only exists as the day is waning.
Once around to the opposite side of the dam, the beaver’s work was even more apparent. The narrow stumps of trees lined the entire southern bank of the stream, shining like piers awaiting a the return of the town fishermen.
Fewer and fewer stems of spent wildflowers stand upright on each of my visits to Meadowbrook. Wind, snow, and the constant travel of deer through the park slowly flatten the skeleton of last year’s prairie. I am not sure if and when the park district will cut back the prairie areas, so I consider myself fortunate each time a beautiful frame appears in my field of view.
We walked around the slow, sweeping curve that forms the southeastern edge of the park, listening to the rustling of the grasses and the calls of red-wing blackbirds perched high in the trees. My wife, who grew up in a rural area of Michigan, smiled as she closed her eyes to remember these sounds of her childhood.
We arrived at the viewing platform, as the sun moved behind a large bank of clouds, sending its rays in filtered beams upon the distant treeline. Against the brightness of the sun, the prairie darkened and lost detail.
Minutes later, the sun emerged from behind the clouds, momentarily returning a golden wash to the acres of Indian grass and bluestem.
On our way back through the park, we plodded through muddy paths along the stream. The lessening light muted many of the details of the park, the only remaining color in the rainbow of gold and blue sky reflected in the water.
As we neared the end of the prairie, my son suddenly stopped, frozen in mutual inquisitiveness with two white-tailed deer near the our path’s final turn. I’ve encountered deer on every one of my trips to Meadowbrook this year, and in each case they’ve kept an extremely comfortable buffer between us.
Tonight, the herd of deer — which numbered five on each side of the stream — seemed either curious or defensive, probably the latter. They cautiously walked closer to us, occasionally pawing the ground and flipping their heads in a show of intimidation. We slowly began to walk in the opposite direction to give them clearance to pass through, but they seemed to come closer to us the more we tried to walk away.
We decided to stay in one place, and the herd eventually lost interest and moved on through the grasses. I looked down at my son’s face and saw the kind of amazement that only a close brush with nature can produce. He’s always had a fascination and admiration for animals, but has never been this up-close-and-personal with an animal in the wild.
I’ve been hoping that my family would join me as much as possible as I explore Meadowbrook Park over the course of 2012, but today was the first time they’ve been able to share the hike with me. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect ending.