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Thirty-six hours in the Nichols Arboretum

Tracy Ko/Daily
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By Jeff Waraniak, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 18, 2012

Near the corner of West Ann Street and North Main Street, there’s a blue-and-yellow window sign. “Welcome to Ann Arbor, the biggest little city in the middle," it reads. It may not be the city’s most popular nickname, but it’s accurate. Ann Arbor is by no means big, but with its own train station, helipad, bus system and one very big house, the “little city” of Ann Arbor can occasionally feel big. Luckily, for those occasions, there’s the Nichols Arboretum.

Day 1

7:30 a.m. Sunrise: You may still be sleeping, but Ann Arbor is wide awake. The early morning dog-walkers, joggers and maintenance workers are already halfway through their day by the time you’re scrambling to get to your 10 a.m. sociology lecture. For once, for no other reason than to remember what the morning looks like, join the early risers. Take coffee, donuts or cider and stroll through the iron gates of the Arb’s entrance off Geddes Avenue. Go straight until you reach an overlook with two wooden benches, The Deborah Gimbel Memorial Overlook. Watch the sky turn from gray to pink to blue over a distant North Campus bell tower.

11:30 a.m. Nature Walk: Continuing your early morning excursion, walk down through the Arb’s Main Valley, past the caretaker’s cottage and into the thickest section of the forest. To get there, follow the main road until you reach a path marked only by two trashcans and a stone bench. From here, hike up a hill and expect to see animals. Look for hawks spiraling around tree trunks to snatch chipmunks and squirrels. Watch for deer sparring head to head on hillsides, their two-pointed antlers cracking together above their skulls. The Arb is your very own episode of “Planet Earth” — just remember to brush up on your David Attenborough impression.

2 p.m. Fairy Woods: It shouldn’t be a surprise that the first production of the Shakespeare in the Arb series (ongoing since 2001) was a retelling of the Bard’s fairy-and-forest-filled play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” After all, in addition to the animals that live there, the Arb is home to a sizeable population of fairies. Near the Washington Heights entrance, just past the Peony Gardens, lies a small stand of pine trees known as Fairy Woods and Troll Hollow. Here you can build a home of twigs, leaves and pinecones for the unseen sprites that call the Arb home. If you think you’re too old to be doing these types of things, or somehow above it all, that’s fine. There are plenty of heartless jerks in the world with no imagination, and you can be one, too.

5 p.m. The Golden Hour Run: The evening hours of the Arb are best reserved for exercise. Miles of trails wind through the forest, along the Huron River and into the Alex Dow Prairie — an enormous meadow of tall grasses and plants that stretch to the Arb’s eastern border. If you are a long-distance jogger or adventurous traveler, cross the railroad tracks near the end of the prairie. Next, pass through a gap in the fence to hook up with a cement path that leads to Gallup Park and other city parks.

10 p.m. Star Gazing: The Arb is open from sunrise to sunset, but stick around after the sun has gone down and the tree limbs will start looking like something from a Tim Burton movie — and you’re likely to experience the Arb at its quietest. Bring a blanket, a flashlight and maybe a little romance with you to the Main Valley, where you can look up at the stars. It may not be the night sky over the Sahara, but constellations, planets, satellites and shooting stars can still be spotted overhead on a cloudless night.

2 a.m. Late Night: After a long night of partying, particularly for residents of Mary Markley Residence Hall and Oxford Houses, the traditional sunset closure doesn’t apply. Return to the Arb to wind down, to savor the glow of a wild night, to have the midnight college conversations that will never be forgotten. Just keep in mind that the closed at sunset rule actually does apply, regardless of how much “legal” fun you’re having.

Day 2

8 a.m. Bird Watching: The Arb is a treat for birders. If you’ve ever felt the urge to put a name to the birds you see and hear around campus, chances are a birder can help. Every Thursday at 8:00 a.m. throughout October, a group of amateur and seasoned birders from the Washtenaw Audubon Society gathers at the eastern end of the Alex Dow Prairie. Here, the group begins its weekly fall migration walk. Take a stroll with these friendly folks for a chance to spot chickadees, wrens, jays, woodpeckers and hawks. Walks typically last until 11:00 a.m., but all are welcome to come and go as they please.

12 p.m. Rocks in the River: There are sites in Ann Arbor that have patron saints. The corner of East Liberty Street and Main Street has the Violin Monster; the Shapiro Undergraduate Library has the Washboard Man; and the Arb has Mike Kelly. For decades, Kelly has been rearranging rocks in the Huron River at the Arb’s Riverfront Landing into what he calls, “the heart of Jesus,” according to a previous Daily interview. On warm afternoons, you might spot Kelly wading through the water in long pants, tossing rocks aside to create this arching formation. It may not be your place to help contribute to Kelly’s rock formation, but he’s often willing to chat with passersby.

1 p.m. Quidditch Match: Ah, the fall. Colorful leaves, cider mills, pumpkins and … Quidditch? Yes. Come autumn, it’s time to don your striped scarf, recall your quaffles and bludgers and attend a University Quidditch match at the team’s home field in the Arb’s Main Valley. The team holds practices on weekdays and faces off against intercollegiate teams on Sundays — the University plays Michigan State University this Sunday, Oct. 21 at 1 p.m. It’s a sure way to get into the competitive spirit and to enjoy yet another autumn afternoon in the Nichols Arboretum.