Tuesday, July 19, 2011


About two years ago I hunted up a hill toward a covert that I’d discovered only two or three years before.  Mixed softwoods and young hardwoods cloaked the lower slope of the hill, but then the forest turned to hardwoods, primarily sugar maples with a few young beech mixed in, with almost no understory, creating what almost felt like a park.  To the east the land sloped down into softwoods and eventually a stream, but up ahead I knew a small knoll, covered with pole-size spruce and fir, always contained grouse.
      That small bump in the topography was always something of a puzzle.  Beyond it a few young softwoods mixed with a smattering of young hardwoods, but nothing that I would have ever considered a food source for ruffed grouse.  Yet for several years this spot always produced birds and an abundance of memories.
      On the last hunt there the previous fall, a friend and I saw that a porcupine had chewed on dozens of trees.  Up the hill to the west a small sugar shack sat waiting for spring, and when you stood next to it there wasn’t an un-chewed tree to be seen.
      But on that hunt two years ago, I noticed something didn’t look quite right when I looked through the maples on the hill.  The sky was different or something.  And then I realized the forest ended about where that small knoll rose, and beyond a large clearcut opened up exposing the sky.
      My first reaction was disappointment.  Walking out into the cutting I could look to the west and see the ridgeline.  It looked like the opening in the forest might be as large as a hundred acres.  Almost no slash was left behind, which made for easy walking, but already root sprouts were knee-high and young raspberries poked through the ground.
      I realized that soon the new growth would be taller than I and providing cover for grouse and woodcock.  The covert that I remembered was past its time and soon would have faded away, but the new cutting meant rejuvenation.
      Later that fall I hunted the far side of that cutting, working to the west and up to the ridge.  Near the height of the land and among some spruce the dogs found partridge and I killed one.  The cycle had already started.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Pup's First Duck

Settling back into the brush, I looked to see how the three hand-carved black duck decoys sat.  Each rocked gently, as the small waves slid past, two blocks facing into the wind and one down.  Through the oak limbs overhead I watched gray clouds race by and rain pelted against my right shoulder, but adjusting my collar kept my neck dry.    
            With a firm hand I gently forced my young dog to sit next to me, not wanting to speak over the wind.
 An egret gliding past caught the young Wirehair’s eye and she rose to give chase.  Grabbing her collar I forced her to sit again.  She had hunted before, the uplands, and this sitting and waiting I’m sure just didn’t feel right.  Or like fun either.
            Ducks passed well overhead, in twos and threes, black against the sky.  A big flock of small ducks raced along the far shore, probably teal.  Clouds and rain streaked by.  The young dog still stared to where she’d last seen the egret, her muscles tight and trembling.  Overhead, two ducks made a wide circle and headed toward my decoys.
            As they dropped from the sky, with set wings and coming in fast, I rose from the brush.  Chara sprung to her feet and spotted the incoming ducks.  A hen mallard and a black, I choose the mallard and fired. 
            The duck crumpled and then splashed.  Chara took off like a rocket, hitting the water going full bore.  Looking like she’d done this hundreds of times before, she swam out and brought back her first duck.
            With head down and tail wagging she brought me the duck.  After I took the duck from her she shook, then nuzzled the duck in my hand…tail  still wagging and proud as could be.
            I sat again among the weeds and she sat next to me.  No need to hold her collar again; she sat willingly, trembling as she waited and searched the sky.   
            That’s how a versatile gundog comes to understand.       

Sunday, July 17, 2011

How I fell in Love with the North Woods

Searching for some meaning, while knowing all the answers, that’s a young man right out of school.  Only in my early twenties, bound for wild places and adventures, I strode into the Brown Paper Company woods department’s office looking to a job.  When asked what I could do, I said anything and meant it.
            They sent that flatland joker from Massachusetts out to cut stump wood.  As an ignorant cocky youth I didn’t need to know what “stump wood” was, but I was sure I could do it.  They just pointed me at a stand of softwood trees and told me to fell them, cut off the limbs, cut the logs into four foot lengths, and then stack the wood neatly to be hauled out later by a bulldozer, which would snake a cable around the pile and drag the whole pile with its winch.  I remember eating lunch on the side of a beautiful trout stream and trying my damnedest find some sort of spiritual enlightenment from the hard physical labor, you know, like from Emerson or Walton or something.  But I didn’t ponder the question too long.  Not knowing how much wood piled made for a decent day’s work, I made sure I cut a lot.
The second day the boss came by and told me that I did mighty well and that starting the following week they would put me with a skidder crew, which meant I’d no longer have to move the wood by hand.  I said that sounded great and then went back to flattening the forest.  A short while later, tangled among the severed tree limbs that littered the ground to a depth of three feet, I lost my balance and my chainsaw fell against my leg.  Wet blood trickled down into my boot and I knew that wasn’t a good sign.
About two weeks later I strode into the woods department office again and told them I was raring to go back to work.  They pointed out I could hardly walk, while I insisted that I could.  Hoping that I’d go away, they said they didn’t have any work cutting trees for me.  I said I’d do anything.  They said I could go striking if I wanted to.  That cocky young guy said striking sounded good and asked where and when to report.
It turned out striking was just following the bulldozers as they pushed out skid trails up the mountains.  If anything fell on the machine’s operator I was to go for help.  With the bum leg and the hobble that I had, help would have been slow coming.  And the job paid less than the workman’s comp insurance paid while I’d been out!
A week later I was introduced to the skidder operator that I would work with, a man you would describe as stout with all capital letters.  Even though he wasn’t any taller than I, his every feature, whether hands, head, ears, feet, or lips, was oversize.
From a seat of an ancient green school bus that the company shuttled the cutters into the woods with, I watched this short broad man, dressed in heavy wool clothes, pull a second pair of pants on over the ones he already wore.  The added layer of fabric only increased his girth and ape like appearance.
He was introduced as Batman and later I was told later that he’d acquired that name for the way he drove his skidder, like a Bat Mobile.  He looked at my chainsaw and shook his head, then said something about I should have a Homelite.  My face must have questioned his statement. 
“No saw gets da tree on da ground faster den da Homelite,” he roared with boisterous conviction.  After dispensing that wisdom, he climbed up onto his enormous yellow skidder and drove off, bouncing over logs and rocks up the mountain.
Our yard sat up high on Cambridge Black Mountain in the unincorporated township of Cambridge, New Hampshire.  The piece had only been cut once before, back in the thirties, to take the spruce out we’d been told.  Enormous hardwoods with limbs bigger than most trees, hemlocks with trunks over waist high when laying on the ground, and a scattering of pines that reached for the heavens grew up there.  Batman’s eyes bulged like frog’s eyes when he saw the wood. 
“Dis is da best chance since I work for da companyee,” he said.  Company was always “com-pan-YEE”.
My job was to cut in the yard.  Proteau, who never spoke English as far as I could tell at that point, was our chopper and would fell the trees up on the mountain.  Batman’s broken English did a poor job of explaining what the trees were to be cut into, so one of the Company scalers wrote out the specs.  Batman was so excited to have someone working with him that could actually read that he took the piece of paper and drove the skidder in circles around the yard waving that paper in his hand.
We were paid piece rate, so much per cord or board foot and the three of us split the total evenly.  As the wood we’d cut was loaded to head for the mills, Batman had me start a ledger to keep track of where the wood went.  He said, “Dat way da companyee can no longer steel from us!”
Every day the large wood piled up fast.  The yellow Bat Mobile would growl as it tugged the heavy trees into the yard.  When Proteau worked far up the mountain, Batman’s trips were less frequent and I’d drop trees near the yard.  Pines came in, tapered from three-plus feet on the butt end to nothing at the top, looking like sixty or seventy-foot rat’s tails.  Gnarly old yellow birch, with their red hearts often punky of rot, were cut into pulp.  Fat rock maple, which Batman told me the mills liked best if it had no heart, just like our boss, were cut into logs.  I lopped white birch into bolt-wood lengths for the dowel mills.  The best of ash, beech, and birch went to a veneer mill.
Thanksgiving Day, headed onto the woods to work on snow packed roads, I zipped around a corner and spotted five partridges pecking at gravel in the road.  Reflexes snapped the wheel to the left and my Bronco spun around backwards and slammed against a snow bank.  The vehicle rolled onto its right side with a terrible crashing sound.
Still sitting in the driver’s seat, I waited the explosion that always happens on TV.  Nothing.  I surveyed the situation.  Two chain saws, a five gallon can of gasoline, toolboxes, tire irons and assorted other clutter are piled all over the windows on down side.  No glass was broken.  Standing on the side of the passenger’s seat, I opened the driver’s window and climbed out.
Four loggers helped roll the buggy back onto its feet and I waited a few minutes for the engine oil to find the crankcase again, then I went off to work again.  
I explained to Batman why I showed up late.  All he said was that he knew something had happened because I was never late before, and then we went to work.
Eventually I was offered a job on a mechanized tree harvesting operation and not long after promoted to run it.  It was a dream job for a young guy that loved the forests of northern New England and everywhere we cut we created great grouse habitat. 
I bought a Brittany Spaniel and he came to work with me almost every day.  Fortunately, my boss, a man named Jim Bates, loved bird hunting and bird dogs, and put up with the mud that my dog brought into the company truck.
Eventually life carried me away to other places, but my heart has always stayed up there in the north woods.          

Grouse build Character

Hunting for ruffed grouse is such a “New England sort of thing”.  If you grow up in New England, early on you are told that nothing is as valuable as learning to enjoy hard work with a little misery thrown in.  With those acquired tastes you are promised to succeed at any endeavor undertaken.  That is why sports like skiing (cold and risking broken bones), sailing (wet, hoisting sails, grinding winches, all with the possibility of breakfast going over the side), and hiking (blisters, rain, sore muscles, mosquitoes) are traditional New England pastimes for families with young children.  I like to think activities such as these develop our crusty stoic character, and later produce grouse hunters.
Other than hunting “partridge”, where else could you walk until your legs ache, hoping for the chance that you might get to shoot at a target that you only glimpse and will probably miss?  During this recreational stroll an assortment of brambles will claw at your legs, attempting to shred your clothes, twigs will poke at your eyes and knock off your hat, and, after chasing a lone bird in circles through a twisted thicket for hours, you possibly will become disoriented and not find your vehicle until well after dark.
Those southerners get to ride around in wagons or on horses while the dogs search for quail.  Am I jealous?  You bet. 

Dog days of summer

Ever wonder about the phrase "dog days"?  It is mentioned by the ancient Greeks.  The Romans believed that Sirius, which they called the Dog Star because it was the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, caused the hot sticky weather.  During the hottest months of the year the star used to rise about the same time as the sun.  That is no longer true because of the precession of equinoxes, but that's another subject.  The Roman's supposedly sacrificed a brown dog to appease Sirius, my guess a chocolate lab.

During the dog days here our two GWPs and the Vizsla sleep much of the time, so still that the sound of their breathing is the only way I know they’re still alive.  Early mornings and late in the day they get their walks, usually somewhere that there is water that they can swim in.  Young turkeys are strutting about in the woods behind the house this time of the year and the dogs love to chase them up into the trees.  Lately there have two or three peacocks that have joined the turkey flocks, but they don’t hold much better for a point than the turkeys do.  I have to wonder if the turkeys and peacocks ever interbreed and what they would look like.  And how they’d taste?


Friday, July 15, 2011

When does your bird season start???

The next bird season starts the moment you stop hunting at the end of the present season. 

Think about it...don't you recall all the places you found birds and want to hunt again?  Maybe when you get home you'll write them down or mark them on a map.  Successful hunters do.  And aren't there places you meant to hunt that you didn't get to?  I always start a new list of places to hunt, maybe writing down the location and why it should be a good spot.

In my neck of the woods Christmas comes not long after the end of bird season, so it's an opportune time to replenish worn out clothes or gear while having others pay for them!  A lot of time goes into picking priorities.

And then hours are spent looking over Google Earth during the winter, trying to memorize what the good bird country looked like and then trying to find more.  I guess its hunting for hunting spots.

And then when spring comes its time to look for the couritng woodcock and listen for the drumming partridge.  And the dogs need to be run and maybe worked with a bit.

My gunning season may stop, but my bird season never does.