Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How to Walk in the Woods

Ruffed grouse hunters are a peculiar lot and walk with an unusual gait.  This extraordinary stride carries them over irregular ground, past nasty thickets of twisted tangles, and transports them for hours on end across countless miles without hardly a stumble.
It takes years of practice, and possibly no one really masters it unless they start to develop the skill as a child.  The pace is rather rolling and loose, fluid, almost floating through the forest rather than pushing into it.  Grouse and woodcock cover is often thick and tangled, not to be traveled without due deliberation, so this skill is worth developing if at all possible.
Where's our truck?
As one walks their eyes should constantly scan ahead for the easiest course through the forest maze, but it must be done at an almost subconscious level or it would sidetrack the hunting experience.  Zigzagging around obstacles requires far less energy than wading through even the smallest thicket, and bending to walk like a crab under low limbs tires back muscles and thighs as well as creating a stance from which it is impossible to shoot. 
Of course, until it is truly subconscious, this struggle for surrounding-awareness is distracting, particularly if you are trying to keep track of your dog, the hunting partner that you started the day with, and where on the earth you actually are.  Keep practicing until you can do it at an intuitive level while doing other things, like trying to figure out why the batteries in your GPS didn’t last as long as you thought they should.
This brings up topography management, or, in layman’s terms, keeping track of where your feet are landing.  Again, it should all be with the same subliminal level of thought that you pick a path through the trees with.  Using your lower peripheral vision, watch for obstacles such as fallen limbs, mud holes, and interwoven weeds.  When you step in a hole and mud goes up to your knee, you will know there is still work to be done.
Stride control is another critical skill, particularly if one wants to avoid flopping down on your face regularly.  A foot should never be lifted off the ground until the other is firmly planted, and when it is lifted it should be brought well up so as not to catch on low branches, interwoven grasses, or twisted vines.  Each leg should be straightened for an instant as it carries the torso forward, which gives it a momentary chance to rest, albeit a short one, and as each foot rocks forward the hunter should ride it up onto the ball of the foot to stretch the step as far as possible.  A hurried pace will frequently land you horizontal and embarrassed, while a slower steady pace will carry a hunter upright for hours.
Where are we?
Falling is an art in itself.  Every grouse hunter trips or steps in a hole occasionally, and, unless it is a frequent occurrence, it should not be cause for concern.  Landing is the part to fret about.  At all cost, one’s gun should be held upward and off the ground.  Never use the gun’s stock to break the fall, which could have disastrous results directly proportional to the beauty and value of the walnut in the stock.  If the muzzle comes anywhere near the ground be sure to check for blockage, as ruptured barrels destroy a gun’s value, as well as fingers, and possibly eyes. 
An experienced faller drops loosely to the ground and sort of rolls to one side on landing, while all the time holding his shotgun upward.  Cussing is allowed.  Fortunately our dogs never report our clumsiness or even seem to notice it.  Remember, a broken arm will mend, but a broken stock never will.
Stamina comes easily for twenty year old athletes, but older hunters require a routine of regular walking to prepare for the fall season.  We are fortunate to live where there are areas of ample waist-high brush that one can push through to strengthen legs.  If a hunter is unable to locate similar terrain near his home there are alternatives.  A favorite is to fill two burlap bags each with about twenty pounds of sand and then tie a six foot length of rope to each.  Next, tie the free end of each rope around an ankle.  Walk around the backyard while dragging the bags of sand and soon the leg muscles will be firmed up and ready for the fall, and as a bonus the cardio vascular system will also be brought up to speed. 
If neighbors cannot see you exercising, carry your heaviest target gun with you to gain upper body strength, but if you live in a suburban area and are visible to strangers it is best to carry small dumbbells in your hands to avoid a visit by the local SWAT team.
To test your newly developed woods walking skills take your dog to favorite cover and let him loose.  Put on a broad brimmed hat and start to follow, just as you would on a typical bird hunt.  At the start of this trek though look at your watch, and then keep count of how many times your hat is knocked off as you follow the dog.  When you’ve had all that you can stand, and are hopefully are back at your vehicle, look at your watch again to see how many minutes you’ve been in the woods.  Then divide that number into how often you had to pick up your hat.  For every fall you took where a knee actually hit the ground subtract fifteen, and if you flopped out flat subtract twenty, unless you refrained from cursing, then only subtract nineteen.  If you stepped in a mud hole that went over your boot-top, subtract twenty-seven, but if you never lost track of your dog during the entire walk add thirty two.  If at any time a stick poked you in an eye so that the eye actually watered, take away another forty-one, but if you wore shooting glassed and they were only knocked off ad five.  The resulting number is your wood walking quotient. 
Any number below twenty-three means there is still work to be done.      
Finally easy walking.

             This piece of wisdom first appeared in RGS magazine. Please support that wonderful organization.