Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Hill

      The hill has an odd name. It is named after the same man as the town it is in, but that is all I’m going to tell you. Years ago it was out in the middle of nowhere and I hunted deer there and birds too. A memory sticks of walking out of the woods, moments after legal shooting time had passed, and seeing a monster buck ghost cross the woods road ahead of me. But that is another story.
      What made the hill special were the old farms. Up on the top there were two, both long abandoned, but marked with sagging homes settling into old stone foundations. In the overgrown fields game had trampled paths between the scraggly apple trees and the cedar swamp down below. Old tote roads crisscrossed the upper wooded slopes, and every single one of them seemed to lead exactly where you wanted to go. It was that kind of magical place. In a field, halfway down the eastern side of the hill, stood a box-like camp where an old woman lived by herself during the summers. I wish I could remember her name, she was in her seventies when we met.
     Somehow, two decades slipped by without visiting that hill, but finally I went back with my German wirehaired pointer pup named Chara and my Parker shotgun that had turned a hundred years old that year.
Busted up country
      Unbeknownst to me a horrific ice storm had flattened the trees a few years earlier, obliterating most of the landmarks. Up on the top of the hill two homes had been built near the ancient fallen ones and the old fields there were posted. Travel through what had once been woods was impossible, with ice-shattered trees broken and lying in a tangled mess. Chest high raspberries flourished in the new sunlight, with waiting claws that seemed incredibly sharp.
      After an hour or so of searching, we found that little camp in the field halfway down the hill. Someone had been there recently and it looked much like I remembered it. Above the house a basin had been re-dug next to a spring and firewood was stacked on the far side of the porch.
      Where an old footpath came down the hill into the field, I tried to pick my way between the raspberries’ thorns. A fallen maple trunk blocked the way, then another, then six more and the path disappeared among tangles of new raspberry vines. And then Chara flushed a grouse.
      She went into overdrive, pushing under or jumping over obstacles and oblivious to the vicious briars. Several more grouse exploded into the sky. I sat on a log and watched, knowing she would be back eventually and was learning a lesson along the way---dogs can’t catch grouse.
     Her tongue looked a foot long when she came back panting. Even that had been pricked by the thorns and wore flecks of blood. We found that spring fed puddle near the house and she stretched right out in the icy water to drink her fill. I wondered what had become of the woman that used to live there, she should have been over a hundred at that point. And who kept the place up, mowing the grass and piling the firewood? Obviously someone used the place in the summers.
      Sauntering out the old tote road toward the truck, Chara continued to hunt, but at a slower pace. It was obvious she would grow into one heck of a bird dog. I carried my old Parker shotgun broken open and draped over my shoulder. It had been quite a day. And of course a lone grouse dropped out of a busted-off old spruce and flew straight away down the road, offering one of the easiest shots a man could ever hope to see.

Chara in her younger days.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Squeaky Snow

    As I write this it is late December at Camp Grouse. Among the hillside hardwoods two feet of snow covers the ground. Temperatures have been below zero for days and dipped down to thirty below a couple of nights. Cabin fever starts to set in after a while and when temperatures climb to near zero it is time to put on the snowshoes.
      Our younger German wirehair, Maggie, is game to go. She loves winter and rolls in the snow daily. Colby, our older girl, will pretend to want to go, but after I leave she’ll curl up quite content beside the wood stove to dream of summer.
      From the house, Maggie and I head down into the softwoods, snow squeaking with every step and our breath in a cloud. She bounds through the snow with enthusiasm. In the shelter of the spruce and fir trees the snow is hard, crunching beneath the snowshoes despite the dusting of fluff on the top. Maggie can easily dash about atop the snow, following the confusion of snowshoe rabbit tracks.
      Deer have passed through, punching deep imprints in the hard snow. The coyotes barely made tracks, but traveling on top with such an advantage over the deer.
      Our favorite brook trout stream is silent, capped over with ice and snow. It is hard to imagine trout fishing and I wondered where the brook trout went for the winter. Surely they are not in the same riffles as they were in July, but probably in the deep dark holes where the current is slow or nonexistent.
      We follow downstream. Maggie shows no interest on going out on the ice, which is what I had hoped. I like smart cautious dogs. They seldom get porcupined or skunked more than once.
      Snowshoes on crusty snow drown out any other sound. Mice tracks, squirrel tracks, rabbit tracks, all create a puzzle. Fat well-spaced trunks of conifers cover the plateau along the stream, making travel easy.
      We pass where the coyotes killed a deer the previous winter. Maggie sniffs about and I wonder if there could still be scent after so much time. Dogs amaze me with their noses and nothing seems impossible. She squats to urinate, to say to the coyotes “Hey, I was here”.
      Leaning alders, bent by the snow, block the path and I crouch to walk under them. A busted fir tree, broken by an early winter wind, demands a detour. Another fallen fir, this one uprooted, reaches out halfway across the stream. Eventually the stream pinches against a steep ledge to cut off our course, so we turn back and inland to follow the edge where the softwood trees of the lowlands meet the hardwoods of the hill.
      The snow is deeper, but Maggie still flies about, first up the hill then down into a thicket beneath a cluster of firs. She points, relocates, points again, and then zips off to hunt still more. 
      Grouse tracks cover the snow where she stopped. I stare up into the trees, hoping to glimpse one, but see none. I did not bring a shotgun. With the extreme weather I really don’t feel like bother them and seeing the tracks is enough for me.
      Heading uphill and back toward home, another shattered fir tree blocks the path. I trudge around it beneath three big softwoods. Ahead of me, Maggie again points for a moment before charging onward. Grouse tracks go every-which-way where she stopped. The bird never wandered far, but created a tangle of tracks beneath a cluster of young maples, all in an area the size of a large dining table.
      I search among the tree limbs, but again find only empty branches. Hopefully the bird is sitting somewhere safe with its belly full. We are close enough to the house, so, if this one is a male, we will sit on the deck and hear his drumming in the spring.
      A late day chill reminds us it is late. The low winter sun has slipped behind the hills early and the sky has dissolved from blue to the color of steel. Up the hill we find a skid road that takes us around the bottom edge of another softwood stand. Water runs beneath the snow, creating a murmur that is almost impossible to hear. In the summer mud would be everywhere, but a pristine white blankets everything. The deep snow makes breaking trail work, but Maggie still bounds about. Eventually, the road leads to the far end of the field behind our home and I can see smoke wafting up from the chimney.
      There is no place I would rather see or be.