Monday, May 26, 2014

Drumming Grouse


Every spring I wonder how the grouse are doing. The winter weather is seldom a worry, but this past one was tough. Long stretches went with temperatures daily below zero. Usually abundant snow keeps the ruffed grouse from freezing, when they do their snow roosting thing, but where we hunt the snow came late.
The spring is what worries me. Cold wet weather raises havoc with the young broods, so every year I keep my fingers crossed. I pay more attention to what the weather does at our Camp Grouse than I do at our home.
Where's the warblers?
A week ago we opened up Camp Grouse, turning on the water and cleaning up all the dead bugs that materialize every winter. The leaves on the trees weren’t as big as mouse ears and the notorious black flies hadn’t materialized yet. On a few shady north-facing slopes small patches of snow hid in the shadows.
Up the hill from the house I heard grouse drumming several times. Below the house our dogs bumped a woodcock along the stream. The warblers flitted about the trees, staking out their summer turf and amazing us with their colors. And several places we hiked the drummers serenaded us.
So I’m optimistic, yet I don’t put too much stock in spring drumming counts, even though there were more grouse drumming this spring than either of the two previous ones. Two years ago I heard absolutely none, and it turned out to be the best season of my life. Last year I heard almost none, and the season was above average.
So we’ll wait and see, and hope this season is a good one. I think it has more to do with the weather the next few weeks than how many grouse I heard drumming.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Openings

They are a long way in, over a rocky road that is barely possible at times, even crawling along in four wheel drive. The term “openings” was new to me, but it is what the locals call the fields left by long-gone homesteaders. Holes in the forest is what they are, openings.
A friend who had grown up in the area showed me the way in. At a certain point, you have to park and walk the rest of the way, but four wheelers make it in and out to a couple of nearby camps. The snowmobilers maintain a bridge over a large stream that flows north, which makes crossing easier.
The area before the openings is logged hard, so it is good grouse country. It’s also flat, at least for our neck of the woods, and thick, so I find it easy to get “turned around” there. We’ve taken a lot of birds out of those woods.
But the openings are special, where you step onto grass and large pines stand overlooking on a knoll, with blue sky stretched overhead. The forest tries hard to creep back in, and I am sure it will with no one mowing the fields. Beneath a mammoth white pine there’s a small cellar hole. I always wonder if the pine stood there when the house still remained.
What did the people grow? The summers are short and the winters long. Was there a barn? Maybe this coming summer I’ll walk in there with the dogs to look around again. Could there have been more than one family? It is miles to the nearest village.
I get distracted around abandoned home sites. If we locate their dump it’s like finding a gold mine. Everything must have been precious in those hard times, and I’m sure little was thrown out unless it was totally useless. But their useless might be a treasure to me. I’ve spent hours, sitting on my butt, digging out old bottles and unidentifiable pieces of rusted iron, while the guns rested against trees and our dogs waited impatiently.  
An ancient stone wall, sagging and moss covered.
Where did the people go? What drove them away? The rocky soil? Cold winters? The isolation?
Did they leave during the chilly years after the volcano Krakatoa erupted in 1883? It took five years for the world’s weather to get back to normal. Mount Tambora did the same thing in 1816, but made it so cold that it was referred to as the “year without a summer”. It snowed in June and water on ponds froze an inch thick. Frosts happened in every month, disrupting agriculture in New England and Europe to the point that thousands starved. I read once that between 10 and 15 thousand left Vermont during that time and headed west, hoping for a better climate and fewer rocks. But if those openings had been abandoned that long ago, I think they would have grown in long before now. Maybe not.
So I’ll probably never know for certain. Those openings, while they still remain, are a testament to tough people that tried to carve out a dream. The stone lined cellar holes will last long after the fields have grown in, but eventually all will be forgotten.
I will visit them all again, and wonder.