Saturday, December 31, 2011

Closing up Grouse Camp

     Everything ends, whether it is spring, summer or fall, day or night, and the hunting season is no exception.  The leaves have long dropped and the trees are all silvery sentinels, waiting for the snow to pile up deep around their bases.  Most of the song birds disappeared over a month ago and the geese no longer honk up high in the sky.
     My bird hunting companions have all gone back to the flat country, only my two dogs and I remain.  The last day or two is usually spent in the woods alone with them, often with the intention of looking for new cover to hunt the coming year.  With the barren trees it is easier to see distant ridges and hillsides than it has been any other time of the year, so I drive almost empty logging roads, stopping occasionally to poke around with my girls someplace that I’ve never been before.  Somehow it just feels right. 
      On what I know will be the very last hunt of the year I seek out an old favorite covert though.  A couple of years it’s been over on South Hill, with the snowmobile trail, abandoned orchard, and alder thicket.  Once it was the alder patch on the other side of the stream from our camp, but it felt so empty, with the woodcock long gone and all of the grouse missing, that I’ve never hunted there as a last hunt again.  And one year I hiked up North Hill, mostly for the views of rolling hills that seemingly stretch out forever, but found the abandoned orchards empty, as I thought I might. 
     Most often the last hunt is up the hill from our camp, through mixed age forest and along old grown-in skid roads, up steep country to a boxed-in basin where weeds and grass keep the forest at bay, creating a natural opening about the size of a suburban house lot.  There always used to be a half dozen grouse on that hunt, but the forest is maturing and the number now is more likely to be half that.  It’s the memories that keep me going back though, and on that last hunt of the year that is what I seek.
     The bird seasons always seem too short, and the years so few, but there are certain places memories accumulate, like snow or leaves do in the corner by the bulkhead.  One August, when we thought we’d lost our crazy Vizsla, we found her pointing a whole covey of grouse up on a rocky knoll way up that hill.  In a dozen places I can still see my oldest wirehair pointing grouse, often finding birds in almost the exact same location year after year, like one particular cluster of red twig dogwood that almost always produces.  Oh, there have been bumped birds and lots of missed shots, but if any of this were easy we’d soon get bored with it.  So I now laugh at the follies and rejoice at the triumphs, relishing both with almost equal joy. 
     I remember my youngest wirehair standing next to her elder, together pointing the first grouse of that bird hunting season, which was also the youngest one’s first point on a ruffed grouse ever.  Remembering their contentious retrieve, with each of them bringing me back a wing while the breast of the bird stayed where it fell, still makes me chuckle.  Fortunately, since then they haven’t been as argumentative.
     And somewhere along that last hunt of the season their bells will stop and I’ll walk up a partridge, and maybe we’ll get to bring it home, or maybe not.  It doesn’t seem to matter as much as it used to.  Hopefully it will be another memory that sticks though.
     We’ll be back at the house when the shadows are gone.  Whatever is left in the refrigerator will make dinner; it has to be empty and off when we leave.  The dogs will be fed, probably getting some bonuses out of the collected leftovers in the fridge, and my gun will get a good cleaning, and then I’ll whittle away at the chores, things like sheets cleaned, clothes collected, and my desk packed up.  And when I’ve done all I can do until morning, I’ll curl up in my favorite chair and savor a single malt along with a favorite book, until I just can’t stay awake any longer.
     In the morning the heat is shut off and the water drained from the pipes.  The dogs always know what is happening and stay near the stacked gear or the door, their heads down and resting on their paws.  As I shuffle about closing the house up, I sometimes talk to them just because it makes me feel better.  The older dog will look reserved, accepting our departure as I do, but the younger will watch in disbelief, as if to say, “Why can’t we stay here and hunt forever?”
     Spring will come soon enough and we’ll be back to chase trout and listen to the grouse drumming in the woods.  The way time passes, with ever increasing speed, bird season will return before we know it and we’ll again hunt.  I have to wonder though how many more seasons my oldest dog will hunt, with her accumulated wisdom and white muzzle.  And my years can’t go on forever either.   
     When the truck is packed, my girls will anxiously jump onto the back.  I know they’ll soon be asleep and in dreams of hunts for the long trip home.  I envy them that.          

Sunday, December 25, 2011


     There’s never been a Christmas hunt for me.  Somehow it just seems wrong to kill on Christmas day, and even the wild things deserve a day of rest.  I know that hawks still harass the grouse on this day, or that snow or freezing weather can make life miserable for my favorite birds, but none of that is my doing.  Instead, I’ll spend the day inside with loved ones and the dogs, all of us warm and snug.
     Hopefully under the tree there’s a book or two about dogs or bird hunting for me to read during the winter months, maybe even a new knife or other toy.  Later we’ll eat too much and walk the dogs in the fields out back.  It’s a great time to remember just how lucky we all are.
     Merry Christmas to all.     

Two of our sleeping dogs with their visiting cousins, all sharing the heater.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


     About four years ago, my German wirehaired pointer Chara and I left our New Hampshire house walking northwest, more or less parallel with the brook that runs along the bottom of the valley. I knew it would be the last hunt of the season and we had the whole day, so there was no hurry.
     I’d traipsed this same course the year before, so I picked our way carefully.  To the right the land climbs steeply, in places sheer ledge that is almost impossible to go up or down.  A stream the width of a single lane road hurries down the valley to the left, impossible to wade across except in the driest of seasons.  Much of the flat area along the banks is covered with alders and softwood trees, but in a few places the hill comes straight down as ledge to the water’s edge.
     Not far from the house, beneath tall spruce and fir trees, a partridge flushed wild ahead of us.  Chara was younger then and full of enthusiasm, so it may have been her fault, sometimes it is hard to tell. 

     It is excellent bird country there, a plateau covered with softwood trees as big around as my waist, but with openings in the forest that are filled with weeds and leaning alders.  Where the hill rises it does abruptly, hemming one in between it and the stream.  We poked along, crossed an old abandoned beaver dam and then followed a narrow shelf between the water and the hill.
     That shelf ends where ledge plummets into the rushing little river, but a person can carefully climb up a bit and go along the top of the granite face, which we did.  On the other side, the land becomes less steep and is covered with hardwoods, mostly maple and birch, which go down to the stream and uphill to where it’s desperately steep again.  A major game trail crosses there and climbs the hill, the first place that animals have been able to go up the hill at all for almost half a mile.
     Ahead the water takes a turn to the southwest to detour around a large bony knob in front of us, which is covered with spruce that reach for the sky, and one giant white pine that towers to the heavens.  In several places the mound is faced with sheer granite, the largest expanse bending the stream.  We detour inland up into a tight little valley that is blanketed with knee-high ferns that remain boldly green.  It felt like elves should live there somewhere.
     The going was rough, with ground made of barrel-sized boulders covered with slippery moss and all hidden beneath the ferns.  I chose a route up on the hillside some, where the ground was mostly fallen leaves below large hardwood trees.  Chara stayed the course though, hunting the tiny valley’s bottom.
     My mind wandered, taking in the surroundings, and then I noticed Chara was acting birdy as all hell.  I tied to catch up to her, but as I worked downhill the footing became rougher and hurrying proved impossible.  About thirty yards ahead of the dog a grouse flushed from the ferns.
     The valley petered out into a large hollow that ran ninety degrees to our course.  It looked like every other tree there had fallen down, dropped like pick-up-sticks and every which way.  Most were softwoods or poplar, and picking a path through the chaos took time.
     On the far side of that mess, softwood trees grow downhill to the stream and open hardwoods cover the land up the hill to well beyond where one can see.  I chose a course slightly up the slope and through the hardwoods, hoping to find an ancient beaver pond that I’d visited once before.  The softwood/hardwood edge had provided plenty of birds on my previous visit to that country, and at that point I planned to save it for the hunt home.
     After the softwoods of earlier the hardwood stand felt wide open.  I could see a hundred yards or more in every direction, but it sure didn’t look like bird country.  And it wasn’t.  Eventually, a wall of green foliage that ran up and down the hill intercepted our course.
     We entered the softwoods and immediately crossed game trails.  Young birch and poplar mixed in with the conifers.  A moose rub shined on a maple trunk. 
     Chara started to get birdy, sorting out scent, but we never found one. 
     Walking diagonally across the grade, we gradually climbed into woods thick with young poplar, birch, and maple, all no bigger than my forearm.  An old logging road, edged with young softwood trees, slanted across our path and we followed it upward into almost flat country that looked familiar.
     Clusters of fir trees, about the height of a bread truck and not much bigger around, grow where the young hardwoods meet the edge of the old beaver pond.  The pond is more meadow than pond, all silted in and much of it covered with blown down cedar trees, creating an opening in the forest about the size of a football field.  In the center a small puddle remains, not much larger than a residential swimming pool.  Chara started to get birdy again next to one of those clumps of young fir trees, so I watched and waited, gun held at arms.
     A partridge exploded out of a fir next to my right ear.  I barely saw it.  Then a second one burst unseen out the far side of another tree.
Chara still worked the ground, sorting things out, her bell frantically ringing, and I waited.  Where the softwood trees thinned out into hardwoods she locked up like a statue. 
     I started toward her, and then a third bird took off, barely seen and about twenty yards ahead next to a blown down fir tree.
     The far side of the meadow is thick with softwood trees, and I thought about exploring over there and then down to the stream, or maybe hunt right back down the hill to the stream from the closer side of the opening, either of which would have led me to the softwood edge along the stream to follow it toward home.  I suffer from a malady though called “I-wonder-what’s-around-the-next-corner-ism” and, standing there, it pulled me in many directions. 
     It is a disorder that’s sometimes even stronger than my hunting addiction.  Finally, I decided to see how far I was from the top of the hill, which probably was the direction of the least amount of partridge.  But you never know….
     Upward we went, past maples and birch and even some beech trees with their bark like  elephant skin.  It seemed like forever, but I don’t really know how long the trek was.  There weren’t any birds, but I didn’t expect any unless we found different cover.
     About the time my legs really started to ache and it felt like my heart would pound itself to pieces, we came to an opening, either a small abandoned field or grassed over logging yard.  On the far side an old woods road disappeared southward, into the trees and upward.  Following, things started to look familiar.
     Pin cherry, mountain maple, white birch, and red maple, all not much bigger around than my wrist, covered the ground.  I thought I might have been on that road once before, coming in from the other direction and when snow bent most of the trees to the ground.
     Sure enough, the road crossed over a shoulder of the hill and started down into a bowl that I had hunted before.  My watch told me it was getting late, so I decided to hunt that basin and then work back down the hill toward home. 

     It’s a boxed in flat spot, surrounded by shoulders of the hill on three sides, up quite high and mostly wet underfoot.  There’s a large opening, filled with tall grass, weeds, and shrubs, all bordered by big spruce and fir trees.  Three long abandoned logging roads converge there, and maybe it was an old logging yard at one time.   The only manmade structure is a lone wooden post that stands in the middle of the opening, tilting to one side.  Every time I visit that spot we find partridge, but I’ve only killed two there over the years.  Usually the birds dash across the opening and disappear among the green boughs faster than my reflexes let me shoot.
     We worked the opening counter clockwise, as I always do.  Usually Chara searches the edges through the weeds and bushes, and I follow just back and further out in the woods a bit.  In the same exact place that it had happened before on two different occasions, Chara went on point just outside thicket of red twig dogwood.  I approached over a hardwood-covered knoll toward Chara’s silent bell.  As if in replay, two birds burst across the clearing and disappeared into the waiting limbs of spruce and fir trees, exactly like on the previous visits.  My gun rose to my shoulder, but I never touched the triggers.
     Chara started to hunt again, and I followed, continuing up the tote road that goes east.  At the height of the land I turned us around to start homeward.  We didn’t go twenty feet when a lone partridge burst up and away from the backside of an old maple tree, just behind my left shoulder and not fifteen feet away.  The bird was smart enough to fly low and remain behind the tree all the way, and I barely caught a glimpse of the bird before it disappeared over the crest of the basin.
     We hunted hard on the way down the hill, wanting to stretch the day, and thoroughly worked each of the spots likely to hold birds, but never found another.  Some days are like that.  My legs grew wobbly and my feet hurt by the time the roof of our house came into view.  Chara still hunted diligently, never giving up until we reached the edge of our field.  It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d found partridge or woodcock right there, but I’ve never even tried to shoot one so close to home.
     Stepping out into the grass, I opened my gun to see two empty chambers.
     I had walked for almost four hours over miserable country, hunting hard, seeing eight partridge flush, and all with a gun that I forgot to load. 
     I never told Chara.                 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

First Snow

     The fist snow usually isn’t a hard or driving snow, more likely drifting flakes that accumulate slowly, or maybe even melt as they touch the ground.  Sometimes it is silent, the soft flakes absorbing all other sound in the woods, but more often the flakes are harder and bounce of still clinging leaves, creating the sound of trillions of tiny bells.
     Clothing is adjusted to keep the flakes off of one’s neck, maybe gloves come out if they aren’t already on.  The dogs hunt just they did as before the snow started and I often wonder if they even notice it.  But later, when the hunting is done for the year and the snow is deep, they will prance and play in the stuff, caught up in wonder just as we are.
     Sometimes the partridge disappear with the arrival of the first snow, yet other times they seem to sense an urgency and come out looking for that last good meal before winter covers everything over.  Can they guess the amount about to fall?  I often think so. 
     Lingering woodcock will wander to the bare ground under a nearby softwood tree, or maybe the soft wet ground along a stream that melts the freshly fallen snow.  Even the dogs know this and look for them there in accumulating new snow.
     Yet the snow reminds us that winter is coming and soon our hunting will be done for the year.  Later, when the snow gets too deep for the dogs to work, the guns will get a final cleaning and be tucked away in their safe.  In the meantime, we must collect memories to savor through the dark winter nights. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Back to The Valley

     The drive in is about nine miles over a small mountain, and the after crossing the river it is either left further into the wilderness, or to the right and another nine or ten miles back out to the a different paved road.  We went left.
     About another six miles up the road I parked in the same place that I did back the end of October.  The woods looked more open, with the weeds squashed down by snow that had come and gone.  Every tree was stark naked, not a leaf remained anywhere except on the ground.
     Alders, twice as tall as I, cover an old logging yard there.  Behind them the land climbs gradually upward with lofty hardwoods growing among old spruce and fir.  Across the road young fir trees huddle together like cliques in a school yard, each separated by open expanses of bent or flattened weeds and grass.  Scattered maples and poplar sprouts remained upright, obviously unfazed by the earlier snow.
     Chara pranced a few steps from the truck and locked up on point, staring into the alders.  Hurrying shells into my gun, I slid by her and a partridge disappeared into the limbs of fir trees.
     We hunted behind the alders, more or less parallel with the road, and then crossed to the lower side, drifting between the clusters of fir trees.  About the sixth clump Chara’s hind end went into over-drive and then she froze, pointing into a tangle of green needles and gray trunks.   In the shadows I saw a boulder poking out of the earth, and as I committed to walk around the left side of the trees the partridge burst out of the right, a sound unseen.
     The scenario was played out again, and then again.  Two hunters might have shot some birds.
     Chara pointed into another cluster of firs, older ones this time, and I approached silently across bright green moss.  A partridge that looked the size of a turkey exploded almost at my feet.  Reflexes brought my gun to my shouleder, but as I slapped the trigger the bird ducked around a yellow birch trunk, which collected most of the shot.  I swear Chara struggled to control a laugh.
     A ways further a bird flushed wild from a thicket of raspberries, and another was pointed on the way back to the truck, but both escaped unscathed.
     Unloading my gun and putting it into the truck, I congratulated myself on the valiant conservation effort and the breeding stock that I have left behind.  Chara looked quite proud of herself, as she should with about a half dozen successful points. 
     Another spot further up the road deserved the same treatment.  There the thick new growth of a fifteen year old clearcut covered the hillside above the road.  Chara plunged in and I followed as best I could along wet and lumpy skid trails.  We didn’t find any birds and, if we had, I doubt shooting would have been possible in that thicket.  Eventually our course brought us back out to the logging road about a half mile from the truck. 
     We dropped to the lower side and worked back between the road and a roaring mountain stream.  Nearing the truck Chara’s hind end went into overdrive and, with her nose scouring the ground, she obviously followed a traveling grouse.  The trail went through thick grass, under clusters of young fir, beneath a blown down dead fir tree, directly over the top of a moss-covered boulder, across a log, back into a stand of little fir trees, and then into some raspberries that had claws like a bobcat.

     About fifty feet ahead of us, at the edge of the logging road, old Mr. Partridge decided he had enough and burst up and over the road, to never be seen again.
It was time to call it a day.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Back from the Big Woods

     What a trip!  Warm weather had erased all the snow, but a new dusting covered the ground when we woke our first morning.  Up higher, where we hunted the first day, an honest inch sat on the ground.
     My older wirehair, Chara, and I hunted the same cover that held grouse last fall and came up empty.  Dropping down through the cuttings we picked up the edge of the softwood that ran along the river and followed it back toward the truck.  Sure enough, we found lots of our partridge, but the ground was steep, the woods thick, and the walking tough. 
     We found small plateau stuck out in the river, covered with spruce, birch, and fir.  On the side against the hill an old beaver pond hid in the shadows.  I started taking pictures, and then realized I couldn’t hear Chara’s bell, and she was only thirty yards away a few seconds before.

     I jammed the camera in my pocket, spoke her name, and two partridge burst from the edge of the pond just below my perch.  One flew straight away and I knocked it down with my second shot.  With dismay I watched it bounce on the ice and then sliiiiide…and for a moment I hoped it would slide to the shore, but no.
     In a panic I called Chara, not wanting her to run out onto the ice.  Seldom do I regret having let her “unlearn” the steady to wing and shot routine, but that was one of those moments.  Fortunately she never saw the two birds, which took off twenty yards from where she pointed, and she immediately started to hunt again.
     I called her to heel, then brought her to the edge of the pond and had her stay while I searched for a stick long enough to hook the partridge and slide it ashore.  It was about eight feet out and the ice was only about a half inch thick, and, like most beaver ponds, there was no bottom to the mud I am sure.
     My retrieve was successful.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

One More Weekend

      Tomorrow afternoon I head back up to Grouse Camp for one last weekend.  It’s a bonus weekend, something that only happens once in a while, certainly not every year.  There hasn’t been much snow and the temperatures have been mild, so I’m optimistic.  Some years there is just too much snow for dogs to work.

     So where will the grouse be hiding?  Much of that depends on the amount of snow and what the weather deals.  Time will tell.  I’ll be alone with my older wirehair, just the two of us, like we used to hunt most of the time.  She’ll revel in her task.  I plan to take loads of pictures to remember the weekend all through the winter, spring, and summer.
     I’m sure we’ll poke around the softwoods down where the stream runs below the house.  There’s shelter and abundant food for the grouse there.  That logged over lot just over the town line had tons of birds in late October, so I’ll have to see if there’s still a few hanging around.  And late one day we’ll have to check the clearcut by the apple trees and old field, that place from where a guy can walk for thirty miles to the east before he runs into another paved road.  I just like the thought of that. 
     The one thing that I am sure of is that time is going to pass way too fast. 

I Like Old Things, But…

     Deer season opened here, not something to get particularly excited about, but I do get out for a bit.  I dug my bright orange coat out, knowing that all the paraphernalia that I like to take with me would still be in the pockets from the last time I wore it, almost a year ago now.  Just to make sure everything was as it should be, I dumped out the pockets to double check.
     There’s the short rope, a ZipLoc bag with paper towel in it, a length of string, a plastic case that hold shells so they won’t rattle, and a compass that has guided me to lots of wild places. 
     But the compass’s needle wouldn’t move.  That’s the second old compass that I’ve dug out this fall with the needle stuck.  Both of the compasses are about the same vintage, bought back around 1970, and made by one of the big-name companies.

     I doubt it’s planned obsolescence on the manufacturers part.  The guy running the company when those two compasses were made is probably dead by now.
      So I guess I better check more of my favorite old stuff to make sure it is still working as it should.