I returned to the woods that year, back when my oldest Wirehair was barely over a year old. Not the urban or suburban forests owned by some conservation trust, but real woods, forest tracts measured in miles, where the land pays its own way. Where the big sprawling timberlands are owned so trees can grow into dollars, woods big enough to get lost in, to walk where deer, moose, and bear tramp more frequently than man; a place where the natural order of things still ambles along, in the same rhythm that it has since the beginning; woods to submerge myself in and wash away the trappings of my daily doings.
My companion, a young German wirehaired pointer named Weidenhugel Chardonnay, came along to teach me a few things, and to remind me of things I didn’t even remember that I once knew. Over a decade had passed since I’d been in that country…it had been that long since I’d followed a bird dog into the forest.
The logging trucks still rumbled by too fast, but the smell of the pulp mill was gone, replaced by the aromas drying leaves and dying grass. In the early morning twilight, we left the motel searching for a particular old country road. Frost cloaked the bottomlands, creating a ghost like world with haze hanging over the river valleys. Driving slowly, I looking for anything familiar that might lead me to a favorite woodcock covert of long ago.
But the world had changed, or I had forgotten, and something was askew. One landmark, an old abandoned dump, I found easily, but nothing else looked right. There used to be a field and a place to pull off onto two wheel ruts, but memories sometimes mix things up and maybe this wasn’t the place at all.
But, as an ember catching a whiff of air, a thought flared from a faded memory. That field of so long ago used to have scattered young spruce and fir trees, most not much taller than head high, scattered over the weedy grass. Perhaps the thick stand of softwood trees, standing almost like a solid wall next to the road, was where the field used to be.
On the opposite side of the road I parked my truck and climbed out, then let Chara bound out onto the pavement. The sun hadn’t climbed over the mountains yet and inside the canopy of spruce and fir trees it appeared to still be night. But there it was—from the side of the road a moss covered path led into the trees. It had to be the place.
From the back of the truck I pulled my old Parker from its case, opening and closing it, feeling the gun in my hands. That shotgun turned a hundred years old that year, worn and wonderful, with tales I wish it could tell.
We trekked into the dark woods and walked silently on the soft spent needles that covered the ground. A hundred yards later the path ended and the sky opened up over a railroad bed...now things looked familiar. We walked to the right, looking for a break in the wire fence, and found one exactly where it used to be, almost twenty years before.
We slid down the banking onto the flats beside the meandering river the color of tea. The land forms a bulbous point, like a giant thumb poking the river across the valley. Overhead, towering red and silver maples arch together, creating a cathedral with a floor of ferns, interrupted by clusters of alders. Not much had changed in all those years.
We zigzagged along the river, Chara hunting hard, her bell ringing constantly. Twice I called her Zac, which caught me by surprise. Zac, a Brittany spaniel long gone, had hunted that same country with me ages before. I laughed and even tried to explain to Chara that it was a compliment, but I don’t think she heard me. The young dog was too busy living the moment and hunting hard.
The river cut off our hunt, where it wound back against the steep bank below the railroad tracks. There hadn’t been a single woodcock or partridge, but it still felt great to be in the woods again, carrying a gun, smelling the leaves, feeling the soil beneath my boots. Chara continued to hunt with determination until we were back up on the tracks. Never give up, don’t get discouraged, it’s fun just to hunt…important lessons she knew from somewhere.
A few miles away, high up on a nearby hill, we looked for old overgrown apple orchards that used to hold grouse. But unbeknownst to me, a massive ice storm had flattened the entire hill top a few years before, bending or breaking almost every wooden stem at that elevation. Broken trees and sprouting new growth hid any landmarks that I might have remembered. The logging road had changed, of that I was certain, but another remembered road was missing.
Finally I spotted wheel ruts that disappeared around a corner into a thicket. Leaving the truck behind, we followed then down to a familiar field.
But the shattered forest surrounding the abandoned pasture seemed impenetrable. Paths or abandoned logging roads that I remembered were lost under the rubble. Chara did her best to poke into the mess, I climbed over tree trunks and fought with twisted limbs, but both of us made little headway. The regenerating plant material had claws like a Maine Coon Cat’s.
But then a partridge busted into the sky ahead of Chara. The young dog’s enthusiasm bubbled over and she bumped two more close by. Up the hill I heard another bird flush. Sitting on a log I waited, knowing Chara would return and the bumped birds would only build her enthusiasm. And maybe the wild flushing birds would teach her a thing or two about patience.
On the way back down the cart path, Chara still wound with enthusiasm and my old Parker broken open and resting over my shoulder, a lone partridge burst from a spruce and offered an easy going-away shot. There was another lesson there…a very obvious one.
Tired legs tempted me to call it quits, but I hated to waste what remained of the day. Chara still appeared eager, so I drove up an unfamiliar gravel road not far from our motel, looking for new bird country. By a tiny field, leggy apple trees and clumps of alders offered promise, so I backed the truck off of the road. Just below us, a partridge flushed wild as the truck’s doors slammed shut, certainly a good sign.
The woods felt right, with bent old apples and young poplars among scattered alders. The damp soil smelled of fall. Chara hunted hard and fast, too fast. A second partridge flushed wild ahead of us.
Working back closer to the road, the young Wirehair bumped a woodcock. Marking where it landed, I encouraged her in that direction. Well ahead of us the bird flew again, this time up over the gravel road and into a stand of tall fir and spruce.
Under the lofty softwood trees, foot-tall seedlings covered the soft ground. Chara zigzagged back and forth through their green needles, her hind end wagging and bell singing, but maybe a bit slower and more methodically than earlier. And then, well away from the road, she locked up on her first point of a wild bird.
Quickly moving closer, I actually spotted the woodcock against the brown needles on the ground. As if frozen, one of the bird’s eyes seemed to be locked on mine. A single step closer and it leapt skyward.
The bird tumbled with my shot and in a moment Chara was on it. Steady to wing and shot might come later. I walked halfway to where the woodcock had fallen and then waited. Chara mouthed her first wild bird with pride before carrying it back and dropping it at my feet. Taking it, I patted the pup’s head and then stroked the bird’s crumpled feathers.
Patience and perseverance are valuable commodities. And as far as I was concerned the woods was just as I had left it over a decade earlier, sort of like an old friend visited after a long absence.