Sunday, December 14, 2014

December Frosting

Colby, wondering why I can't keep up.
The six inches of snow began to look more like eight. It hadn’t slowed the dogs, but with every step down the abandoned logging road I reminded myself how much more work it would be on the way back up. The forest looked like a fairy land, with snow stuck to the trees and still coming down. A half mile down the hill lay the covert that always has birds.
Where the thick softwoods opened up, near a trickle of a stream, a grouse exploded off to the left, unseen. Juno’s bell rang nearby, and obviously the young shorthair had bumped the bird. Yet the thunder of wings was still music to this hunter’s ears. Colby hunted doggedly off to the right.
A frosted alder swamp.
The first weekend in December can bring anything to the north woods, from bare ground to abundant snow. I had driven north under the premise of checking on the contractor doing work at Camp Grouse, but of course brought a shotgun and my girls.
Where the road dipped into a hollow and crossed a stream the dogs’ bells jingled off of either side. I stopped to listen. My two girls couldn’t have been happier, dashing back to check on me and then diving off into the woods again, and neither could I.
A short way further on a grouse exploded from a thicket only ten feet away, leaving but a glimpse.
Snow silenced bell.
The snow continued to fall, drowning most sounds and muffling the dog’s bells. Down the road a piece, Colby stopped beneath a fir tree and looked up. Approaching, a grouse sailed away down a steep slope into the safety of a dense softwood swamp.
Where the road met an alder thicket the dogs both got birdy, but none were found. Colby kept glancing up into the fir trees, but the pup still hadn’t figured out that grouse sometimes sit among the branches.
Red twig dogwood among the alders.
In the alder patch a moose had been feeding on red twig dogwood and, looking at the tracks in the snow, it had been there only minutes before our arrival. The creature’s scent must have lingered, because both dogs looked about apprehensively.
By then my legs felt like lead and the falling snow had turned to sleet. The dogs hadn’t slowed, but the deep snow had to have been work for them too. We turned around and started back.
It is nice to know those birds will be there in the spring to breed.

Colby hunting the edges.

With tired legs, almost out of the woods.

Tired girls in front of the heater, back at Camp Grouse

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Our pup Juno.
     It was going to be the last hunt of our two week trip and, with four pairs of pleading eyes, none of the girls could be left in the truck. Bell collars were slipped over four necks and down the hill we started.
     Anyone who claims to be able to keep track of four dogs in the northern ruffed grouse country is delusional. Sometimes one would be in sight, sometimes two, maybe once in a while three, but seldom four. The last time I’d heard bells ringing like that it was the dancing Hare Krishna people in Harvard Square.
     The young shorthair, Juno, bumped a woodcock.
     Georgia, the older shorthair pointed another woodcock, but then busted it as her younger half-sister came charging up.
     The two wirehairs worked closer to the edge of the logging road, looking very businesslike.
     Juno crossed into alders on the road’s far side. A startled grouse rocketed back across the logging road.
Colby on point
     Through fence post sized poplars we worked. Down near the bottom, where an edge created by a snowmobile trail cut off our course, the younger wirehair, Colby, locked up on point. Soon Chara, my time tested wire hunting her fourteenth season, joined her, backing from fifteen feet away.
     That woodcock ended up in the bag.
     A second grouse zipped across the road.
Georgia on a woodcock
The turmoil continued, bells ringing everywhere, but it was a dry stretch with no birds. Following a grassy logging road down a slope, I spotted three people coming our direction.
     In ten years of hunting the north woods, I have never bumped into anyone actually out hunting in the woods. Never ever.
     One of the three was tightly holding the collar of his German shorthair pointer, obviously wondering “What the hell is all that racket?”
     Feeling a bit of a fool, I called the dogs in. I mean, who the heck hunts ruffed grouse with four bird dogs at once? We sounded like a bunch of dancing gypsies.
    Then I recognized the man holding the shorthair’s collar. He said, “Jerry, you need to get a sled for all these dogs.”
     It was Tom, a great guy and a guide from Tall Timber Lodge. He introduced the two sports with him and we chatted for a while. The dogs all got to know each other. I still felt a bit silly for the commotion we’d been making out there in that grouse covert. After several minutes, I wished them well and we went on our way.
     Through some great cover we found nothing, but then my girls all came barreling out to the logging road to race ahead of me, except Chara, whose racing days now happen in slow motion now. About fifteen feet in front of me, she slowed, turned her head to the left, and locked up like a statue. The other three dogs had flown right by that spot. It was a variation of the tortoise and hare story.
Chara, pointing a woodcock.
     Entering the weeds, a woodcock popped up and disappeared immediately into a cluster of softwoods. My shot was in vain.
     We continued on, which brought on more of the same…clanging bells, fleeing birds, and dashing dogs, with an occasional point, which once or twice contained multiple dogs frozen simultaneously. Several times I just stopped to laugh. It was a hunt that will be remembered for a long time.
     Pandemonium can be fun.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Remembering October, 2014

     Every bird season is good, just some are better than others. This past October was no different.
     Grouse numbers were down, way down, to the lowest flush/hour rate since I’ve been keeping records. Woodcock numbers were up some, but averaged together the total was still well below the norm.
     Probably many of the year’s young died from pneumonia, caused by the previous cold wet May. The hens, determined to perpetuate the species, nested a second time. Many of the grouse that we shot were very small, obviously not full grown.
     Good friends who’ve been regulars came up from the Vineyard, while some others who’ve been regulars couldn’t make it and were missed. Peter Corbin, the sporting artist (, made a return trip and brought Jim Kline for two days of gunning. The best hour of those two days was the last, where the dogs did some excellent work and we moved seven grouse.
Georgia, pointing a woodcock
     Georgia, our borrowed sweetheart shorthair, had another spectacular season. She was the first to point and pointed as many grouse as any of the other dogs. For a dog that lives among non-hunters and comes up to hunt with us each fall, she’s a rock star with impeccable manners. It’s all in her breeding, because nobody has ever done any real bird work with her.
     Colby, the youngest of our wirehairs, was as reliable as ever, hunting diligently within a comfortable range. Her canine cruciate ligament problems of the past are a distant memory.
     Chara, my older wirehair, hunted an hour or so most days, and even took a day or two off, it being her fourteenth season. She solidly pointed three grouse, and I took some great pictures of her, but never managed to kill a grouse over her. I lost count of how many woodcock she pointed.
Chara, hard on a grouse
     Our youngster, Juno, pointed grouse several times. How long she would be steady was always an iffy thing, but she did great for only a little over a year old. For reasons that I’ll probably never understand, she seemed to point grouse more readily than woodcock, and I would have expected the opposite. She bumped dozens of woodcock.
     The first day all four dogs were put out at once to burn off steam, after the long five hour drive north. Clanging bells and dashing dogs created pandemonium, and it was impossible to keep track of everyone. Then Georgia went missing, but the new e-collar with the pager function found her. She was only fifty feet away, on the far side of a spruce, solidly pointing a grouse.
Peter Corbin 
     And the last morning, when most of the day would be spent closing up Camp Grouse, to be followed the next day by a day-long drive home, all four of the dogs were put down on the ground again. Of course the girls had a ball. We found thirteen woodcock, and managed to point over half of them, sometimes with multiple dogs pointing one bird. Chara made one spectacular point, right beside the logging road, after all the other dogs had raced by. Mayhem reigned though and only one woodcock came home in the bag.
     Every year there’s some bad weather during our two week trip, usually a couple of days of rain, and most years there’s enough snow to turn the ground white at some point, but it never stays. This year we only saw a few flakes, but almost every day either rain or mist soaked everything, and the cloud cover never wanted to go away. Only on the last day did blue sky poke through the clouds.
     Yet there were friends, dogs, birds in the bag, loads of laughs, and dozens of memories, with new country explored and fresh stories to tell. What more could one want? It was a very good year.

Adam Moran, making our lunches.

Barrel bands on a long-gone farmer's rock pile.

Juno bringing me a woodcock.
Juno, soaking up the sun.

Georgia and Juno, next to the heater.
Colby, nailing a woodcock
Heading toward next year....

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


An old pin-on compass.
Making a list…matches, lunch, dog biscuits, water, GPS, compass…the list goes on. It’s going to be an all-day affair, hiking into new bird country far from anywhere. Images on Google Earth hint of new coverts. It used to be the dreaming was done over topographic maps and mixed with a good imagination. Google Earth works better.
The two younger shorthairs, Georgia and Juno, will accompany me. Hard hunting the previous two days will keep the older wirehairs sleeping and content at the camp. It will just be the three of us, so there will be no worries about boring someone if there aren’t the birds we’re hoping for.
The woods seems bigger when I’m there with just the dogs and miles from the pavement. Damp leaves silence our steps as we follow a straight old logging road through maples and birch and up a small rise. With the tall straight maples and hills in the distance it definitely feels like New England.
An old pasture, abandoned decades ago, opens up in front of us. The empty blue sky between the rounded hills to the east and west indicates the direction to go. One sixty-two on the compass, remember that for when the trees hide the hills.
On the far side, beyond towering poplars, the land dips down until it enters softwoods and flattens out. Georgia dashes along where the two forests meet and then she turns to stone.
Hurrying over, a grouse flushes far ahead.
Calling them in, the girls lead into the softwoods. We hunt to the east, finding the edge where the softwoods and hardwoods meet, and then work toward the south again. Juno bumps a grouse, and then a second one rumbles away. An almost imperceptible old logging road angles ahead and to the right, barely kept open by frequently traveling moose. We follow to another opening.
The ground is wet and the grass thick, almost waist high. We work back into the woods to circumnavigate on firmer ground. Where another logging road comes down the hill a yellow sign with a black arrow marks the turn of a snowmobile trail. Near a cluster of young firs the dogs get birdy.
Georgia freezes. Juno copies. Stepping around the trees to the right the bird flushes to the left.
The snowmobile trail heads the right direction, so we follow under dark softwood trees where it feels like a tunnel. Soon a third opening exposes the blue sky. The ground is firmer, so we step out into the sunshine.
An ancient apple tree.
A tall white pine over a small knoll looks familiar. Beneath the tree is a little stone-lined cellar hole. I’ve been there before, hiking in from a rough logging road to the south. Two young wild apples stand near high-bush cranberries where the forest meets the ancient field. It is grouse country.
An ancient stone wall.
We follow the old road through hardwoods to a familiar wood bridge that’s maintained by a snowmobile club. Under us a stream hisses into the valley and it looks like woodcock country. Georgia and Juno stop in the rushing water to drink. From there it is only a couple of miles to where I had parked years earlier to walk in there from the south. Slipping off my gunning vest, I fish a sandwich from a pocket and settle against a log to share lunch with my girls.
We’ll follow the stream down to where it meets the softwoods and then hunt the edge back, but first I’ll let the sun warm my face.
My adventures used to be ten days long, sometimes even ten months long, but now aren’t even ten hours long, yet I seem to appreciate them more than ever. And at the end of the day, a hot shower and ice cubes for the scotch make them seem so civilized.

Woodcock country....

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

His Road to Tinkhamtown

     An old friend is in dire straits, at that point in life where he doesn’t know where he is or recognize the people around him. Most of the time he just sleeps.
     The last time I visited, his only smile came when I mentioned that us bird hunters had to stick together. Other than that he mostly stared ahead, his eyesight weak or non-existent. When he started a sentence it would be lost before finished. The tall lanky man that used to stride through the woods so easily had almost become unrecognizable.
     He used to ask how the birds were, which always meant ruffed grouse, and then asked about the woodcock too. Talk would turn to weather, as it always does in New England, and then to guns and dogs, you know, the important things in life. Not that many years ago he would accompany me on hunts.
     Now it is hard to tell what dreams play out while he sleeps. I like to think he’s reliving the good times, dreaming of friends and family and the German shorthairs that have been in his life. Which of his old Ithacas is he carrying? It’s number eights in his pocket, you can bet on that.
     So I’ll stop to visit on my trip north, chat with his wife, talk about the good times, and remind ourselves what great memories he accumulated. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Roughing It

Camp Grouse
Roughing it is hard to define precisely, and depends a bit on where you are in your life. We started out backpacking, stomping all over the mountains of New England until our legs ached and toes blistered.
Canoe camping seemed like a civilized step up. Bottles of wine and canned meats could easily be carried. No more drinking that 151 rum we used to carry because it packed “the most punch per pound”. Even with a few portages sprinkled in the trip, bringing along “luxuries” wasn’t a problem.
The tent could be bigger. A cast iron frying pan improved cooking. Even a reflector oven and Dutch oven came along. Cooking was my task and I loved it and we all gained weight on every trip. Wonders can be done over a campfire and Coleman stove.  And we could even bring along a paperback book or two!
And then I discovered sailing, and poking along the coast brought the same sense of exploring and self-reliance that trekking the big woods had. And the books could be hardbound!
Into the boat I plumbed running hot and cold water, added refrigeration that could keep things frozen, cooked on a two burner gas stove with a real oven, and, best of all, when the weather was nice the women wore bikinis. Those southern seas beckoned.
Starting the day.
Now we rough it from Camp Grouse, located in the big woods up north, where we hunt rugged country until our legs hurt, following behind faithful dogs that never give up. And at the end of the day we adjust the thermostat, take a hot steamy shower, slip into clean dry clothes, sip cocktails while cooking dinner, maybe read a bit from our sporting library, and then sleep just as soundly as our dogs.
So I’m heading north the end of the week for two weeks of hard hunting. That’s roughing it at my age.

My sleeping girls.

Monday, October 6, 2014

When is it Wild?

Every part of the country I hunt has been trampled at some point. Heck, the Native Americans arrived there right after the ice receded about eleven or twelve thousand years ago. The Europeans traipsed through there trapping and hunting three hundred or more years ago, then came back to take the timber. And except for the rarest of patches, all of that country has been cut more than once.
A stonewall left by farmers long ago.
Farmers stopped heading north at about the latitude of where our Camp Grouse is. The winters were just too harsh and the land too bony to go further. Those that made a go of it there mostly abandoned the country years later to head west, where the stories sure made it sound better. Anything must have sounded better than all those stones. Only the toughest stayed.
The Native Americans in southern New England had established an agricultural society, clearing land and planting crops. Up where we hunt they existed only by hunting and gathering. They already knew.
But when I get miles back in the woods it still feels wild to me, even if others must have been there before. Occasionally, I’ll find an old stone wall or foundation and wonder about who had been there and what happened to them. Life must have been tough, with long miles walked to anything resembling civilization, and brutally cold winters. Talk about feeling alone.
Much of that remote county is now accessible by logging roads. Walk up into the woods though and you’ll find traces of grown in logging roads, mostly shaped by strong backs using shovels and grub hoes, back in the days when logs were twitched with horses. Some hillsides have long shallow depressions every hundred yards or so, more or less following the contours yet gently descending. They didn’t like to twitch the wood too far with horses, and on those roads the logs would be loaded onto sleighs to slide down to the frozen lakes. In the spring, when the ice melted, the wood floated down the streams to the mills.
Georgia clearing an old stone wall.
On the topographic maps you still see places marked a B Camp, Camp Felton, Camp 9 and such, all long gone logging camps. To someone who grew up enthralled with the woods of northern New England the names ring like magic. Sometimes we’ll find what’s left of one, either parts of an old cast iron stove or a rusting bedspring, all miles from nowhere.
Who were the last ones to visit? Maybe nobody had for years. Where did the wood go? What’s the nearest river? Was it logs or pulp? The records are long gone.
The history makes it interesting. The gaps in the history keep us wondering. And it’s all remote enough to be wild in my book.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Dogs Aren’t From New England

Every morning I put a dollop of whole milk yogurt on top of the kibble that I feed my dogs, for the probiotics involved. Or maybe it’s just because they love it. This morning, watching them gobble that up before attacking the dry food, I thought “they can’t be from New England”.
Raised in New England, where traces of the Puritan ways still linger, you are taught to save the best for last, suffer through the drudgery before savoring the sweet, get all the work done before sitting down, and use up all of the old before starting the new.
That certainly isn’t how my dogs see life.
My dogs eat desert first. Okay, I’ve said it.
The only drudgery that my dogs might allow in their lives would be suffering through a bath, otherwise all they do is play, eat, and sleep. And in that, hunting and training, which they love, are included in play.
I want to be like a dog and eat desert first.
Wouldn’t it be a shame if a gigantic meteor destroyed Earth while the strawberry shortcake waited for the main course to be finished?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Like the Days Before Christmas

The geese have been flying overhead, sometimes six or a dozen, other times fifty or a hundred, all honking and heading west late in the day. I’ve never figured out where it is they go. During the morning dog walk they fly east, creatures of habit, to feed in fields during the safety of daylight.
Non-hunting friends ask if I’ve been hunting, not realizing it is just a fall event. In the woods behind the house the ferns are turning golden or the color of rust. The air smells of dried grasses and hundreds of grackles sit on the power lines beside the street, contemplating their departure. In the mill pond down the road clusters of ducks feed, where a month or more ago clutches of young followed the hen mallards.
Hunting catalogs clutter my desk and I’ve printed out the “Bring to Camp” list from my computer. Additions will be penciled in and a few items crossed out. For the most important weeks of the year, nothing can be forgotten.
The dogs know what’s ahead, at least the older two. The youngest hasn’t made her first trip north during bird season, but she’s raring to hunt. This afternoon she cautiously pointed a planted pigeon from almost thirty feet away. That looks like the making of a grouse dog to me. They sleep at my feet to keep track of me.
Several times a day I bring a calendar up on the smart phone, trying to figure out who is visiting Camp Grouse when and how to line up all the opening days. Grouse season is the priority, but it’s nice to catch the opening of our two duck seasons too.
The gun safe is unlocked evenings, so the favorite gun can come out and be hoisted to the shoulder. It feels familiar and swings faithfully along the line where the wall meets the ceiling. Daily it brings back assorted memories, and then is wiped down to be put away. Usually a second or third gun comes along as a backup, and which one is a difficult decision that will wait until departure day.
Hours are spent searching Google Earth, looking for undiscovered logging roads and hidden coverts. It’s almost as much fun as being there. The hunting journal is reread, particularly the notes made at the end of each season, which remind me of what to do different in the future. Lists are made of places to hunt, both new and old favorites, and coverts to ignore because they are past their prime.

Time passes slowly, like the days before Christmas.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


     It happened a couple of years ago, we were about twelve miles in the woods, two or three from where we had parked the truck, trying to find our way to a particular lake using old logging roads and snowmobile trails. The three dogs were with us, Chara, the oldest German wirehaired pointer trotting not far ahead, Colby, our youngster GWP staying maybe a hundred yards ahead, and Bella, our crazy Vizsla bouncing around somewhere between the two.        
     The dogs knew we weren’t hunting but hiking, so mostly they stayed on the trail and only made occasional short forays into the trees.
     After walking almost an hour over a ridge on hot sunny logging roads, we had dropped down into a valley, where a narrow snowmobile trail took off to the east through thick hardwoods. The dense understory on both sides and abundant foliage overhead made it feel like a tunnel.
     Near a stream, Chara trotted off to the left and stopped twenty feet from the path. I stopped too, thinking grouse.

      Bella noticed Chara standing still and galloped in. Her usual routine was to bolt toward Chara but then to circle around to pin the bird between the two of them. Instead, she stopped almost beside Chara.

     The two of them stared into the woods, not in what I would call a bird dog’s point, but with heads held high as if trying to see.
     And then about thirty feet beyond the dogs the bushes shook and something large moved. My first thought was “deer”, because that is what it would have been back home. But I didn’t see a deer and the critter only moved a few feet. What I did catch was a glimpse of something dark, and then I lost sight of it among the moving undergrowth.
     We could hear something not far away moan like an infant. And then toenails scratched on bark. The two dogs never moved. Our third dog, Colby, came trotting back and I stopped her with a “whoa”. 
     I said, “This way girls,” and the dogs agreeably turned so we could hurry on our way.
     My best guess is a bear with a young one.