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.