Friday, March 9, 2012

The Nostalgia Run

Every year I do it, make the big circle from our grouse house, traveling back through time and country into memories.  The trip is always made alone with just the dogs to accompany me, often the day after hunting buddies have left for the year.  It somehow seems right then.
     About an hour south is the alder patch by the river.  It used to be behind an old dump, but the dump has long since been capped, and where there used to be a field to cross it is now a stand of softwood trees so thick that to walk under it is like stepping into night.

     There may not be any woodcock out on that peninsula in the river, and if there are it’s usually only one or two, but the majestic silver maples still stand with limbs joyously reaching up to the heavens.  Longer ago than seems possible, my first bird dog hunted there and I can still see him beneath those trees, poking through ferns and under the alders.  His first water retrieve came from that river.  We made quite a team.
     Not twenty minutes away by truck, I’ll walk in an old tote road to a three acre field with a small weathered camp in it.  Almost four decades ago, when I worked as a logger in that country, I met a spry wisp of a woman who lived in that camp without electricity for four months of every year.  At seventy-three years of age, she seemed to be in perpetual motion and went hiking in the White Mountains two or three times a week.  Her daughter and son-in-law now use the place, but are always gone by the time bird season comes around. 
     I have their permission to hunt the old apple trees in the pasture.  Except for that field, much of that country has changed since I first hunted it, both by loggers and a major ice storm, but usually we’ll find grouse or maybe even a woodcock if the weather is warm.
     From there we’ll drive up along the river, which is the route I used to commute to the logging camp, and that brings in another set of memories.  If the weather is nice I’ll probably eat my lunch somewhere along the way, letting the dogs sleep under the truck or swim.  Another twenty or so minutes north we’ll park beside what used to be the biggest alder patch I’d even seen.  Poplars are poking above the alders now, and someday the alders will give way to the taller trees.
     There are always woodcock there, both resident and transient, until the snow drives them south.  On a bad day we’ll find six, on a good day many times that.  Around the edges will be grouse, sometimes one or two, sometimes a half dozen.  We can hunt an hour or an afternoon there.   
     On the way home I’ll stop at the local sporting goods store, not because I need anything, but because I like poking around among guns, fly rods, wool clothing, and a cliental that I can relate to.
      Back at our camp, I’ll clean the birds, then the gun, feed my girls, and then pour a little golden liquid into a tumbler.  With my boots off and feet up, I’ll re-live the day, as I will again the next year.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Big Rock

We walked in about a mile along an old logging road, poking through some likely looking cover on the low side.  That country always holds some grouse, woodcock too, but we hadn’t seen much more than a couple of sparrows.  The dogs kept bounding along with enthusiasm, hunting with heart, never discouraged.  We should strive to emulate them. 
     The weather didn’t feel right, too warm or something.  Some days feel birdy and that one hadn’t up to that point.  We stopped to admire the view from an enormous abandoned logging yard.  To the north a green valley, complete with old farms, a distant one-room schoolhouse shining white in the morning sun, and a winding stream, disappeared into the hills of the northern forest.  Far down below us, the highway’s winding asphalt snaked up a different valley, following the river. 
     From the highest point in the yard we could look over most of the tree tops on the low side.  Chara, my German wirehaired pointer, poked around a thicket on the opposite side of the clearing.  My friend made some comment about the boulder at the edge of the forest, almost round and completely on top of the soil, and about as tall as a bus.  That’s when I noticed the ruffed grouse strutting nervously along our side of the rock.
“Bird,” I said, taking a step that direction. 
     My friend followed and about two steps later the grouse took off low.  I fired my two shots and so did he, but the bird never flinched.  Neither did the second one that followed the first when, but of course our guns were empty then.
     We followed them down the hill, into a thicket of pin cherry trees not as big as my wrist.  Some greater power had mixed in a healthy dose of raspberries, just to make it really memorable.  In no time we both perspired profusely.  Chara, sometimes as close as twenty feet, remained invisible, but we could hear her bell.  One bird burst away unseen, then another.  We cursed and swore a bit.  A little further a third took off.
     When the land started to level out a bit, spruce and fir trees provided a break from the brambles and pin cherry.  Among the softwoods two grouse played cat and mouse with us, only letting us catch quick glimpses before disappearing into the green boughs. 
Walking into the softwood stand and then out the other side was like walking in the front door of a house and then out the back, about that far.  On the other side we found another logging road and stopped to cool off for a bit.  The dog found a stream, and stretched out in the cool water for a minute before resuming the hunt. 
     We followed, staying mostly in the gravel road, enjoying the easier walking.  Through the softwood trees on our right we could see the river close enough to throw a stone in, and on our left clusters of young spruce and fir broke up the small hardwood trees crowding together.  The dog worked through all the birdy looking cover, but kept coming up empty. 
     Finally, among mixed softwood and poplars on the river side, Chara went on point.  As we approached, the bird flushed wild, offering only a lousy shot.
     Where the road started to climb away from the river we pushed through raspberries to hunt a mixed stand of poplars and alders, with enough young spruce and fir added in to provide dense cover for our quarry.  It looked like perfect grouse cover, but we only found a few woodcock and finally scratched one down.  They certainly don’t add much heft to a game bag, but it felt better than nothing.
     Further up the logging road, well after it had turned and headed us back toward the truck, Chara went on point beneath tall leggy spruce.  We walked in, but found nothing.  After coaxing her on, she pointed again, then hunted ahead to the right, locked up about solid, but then went to relocate about the time the bird flushed a couple of hundred feet ahead of her.
The road is a steady uphill climb and we trudged on.  No matter what you wear upland hunting on a day like that it feels too warm.  And then again the dog started to get birdy next to the road.  A bird flushed far up the hill.
     We walked on, but then I stopped and said, “See what’s in the road ahead?”
     “A bird?”
     “Looks like two partridge to me,” I said.
     We walked on slowly, the dog at heel.  The birds seemed oblivious.  About fifty yards from the birds I stopped and stayed with Chara, while my friend continued on.  When he was about thirty yards from the birds their heads went up and they started walking toward the side of the road.  With weapon at arms and walking briskly, he approached.  As the birds took to flight, raised the gun and fired twice.
     I think it is impossible to kill a bird that way.  The next time we’ll let them walk into the woods and have the dog point them.  This was suggested by my dog, who watched the whole event.
     The remaining trudge up the hill to the truck was only memorable for the effort involved.  I keep reminding myself that if any of this was easy we would all get bored.