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.