Thursday, February 23, 2017


     It happened back in my early duck hunting days, long before I owned my first duck boat. In those days I used to put a tiny outboard on the side of my old 18’ Grumman canoe and head out into the marshes.  My Brittany spaniel, Zac, usually was my only companion and the canoe would be piled high with decoys.
     That morning was black, with no moon and a thin fog to soak up the stars. Not a breath of air rippled the inky water of the bay. 
     I had grown up around there, so the waters of the inland bay were very familiar. A saltwater river flowed with the tide to a larger bay and then the ocean.  Back in those days, nobody was around that time of the year and no lights showed along the shoreline.  Far to the northwest and across a distant marsh, the dim glow of one streetlight could be seen
     Zac and I headed off in the right direction, my eyesight good enough to differentiate between the black of the water and the still blacker land.  Running lights or a flash light would have destroyed my night vision, so I never ever considered them.  In all the years I’d been hunting there I’d never seen another boat out on the water, so the odds of hitting another unlit vessel were about the same as getting killed by a meteor.
     In the far corner of the bay, where the river entered, I slowed because the tide was low and I didn’t want to break a shear pin.  The bottom was soft everywhere, but not that soft. Finding the middle of river turned out to be a bit difficult.  Eel grass clogged the shallower water. Worried, with the tide so low, we barely made way. My eyes strained to see the banks of the river.
     And then beside the canoe, about amidships, a great white ghost reared up from the black water, appearing over six feet tall.
     My Brittany stood up on her hind legs and almost fell backwards from the boat. In an instant the canoe’s momentum carried my head within an arm’s length of this creature.  Reflexes brought my arms up to shield my face. Spread wings flapped, as big as bed sheets and about to engulf us.
     In one long second, the canoe’s headway carried us beyond the ghost. 
As my pulse returned to normal, the vague shapes of maybe a dozen swans could be seen on the river. Zac stood atop the piled decoys looking aft. 

     Those things should have running lights.    

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Winter Grouse

Our brook.
We walk often in the winter. When the snow is deep enough that the dogs bog down, the plowed logging roads become our choice on weekends. But the favorite is below Camp Grouse, a path that follows where the flat wetlands meet the craggy hill before turning back and following the brook. Most of its course is beneath softwoods or a mixed canopy, and with regular walking the path is packed enough that snowshoes aren’t necessary. Underneath the softwood trees the dogs can usually manage without sinking into the snow too.
          The path can be walked every day for a week without a new animal track crossing anywhere, then, as if in chorus, a half dozen species will have traipsed about. Snowshoe rabbits are the most common, which are hares really. Lately turkeys are probably the second in number. Then there’s a mix of coyote, beaver, bobcat, mice, otter, small birds, deer, and an occasional moose.
Grouse tracks
          The track I am always looking for is Mr. Grouse. Sometimes he is close to our house and sometimes further away. Seldom is he deep into the softwoods, but more likely along the edge where hardwoods mix in. The dogs will sniff the tracks and follow, but they almost never find him on the ground. Occasionally he bursts from a softwood tree high up overhead and the dogs get excited at the sound. I am sure that most often we pass beneath Mister or Misses Grouse and they just watch.
          The population is down this year though, so hearing a grouse isn’t as common as it should be, nor are there as many tracks as some years.
Colby among the long shadows.
When the weather is bitter and the birds are struggling, it is a shame to have them wasting energy on useless flushes to avoid no real danger. I neither encourage nor discourage the dogs. The older one is happy to stay on the packed trail and would be happy for us to move to where winter never would come. The younger dog dashes about, oblivious to the snow and cold. When a grouse does flush out of a tree I cringe a bit, hoping it doesn’t fly far or burn too many calories.
       Last year little snow fell and snow roosting would have been impossible for the grouse. Snow roosting, where the birds dive and borrow into soft snow, keeps the birds warmer on cold nights and hides them from owls and hawks. Perhaps that is part of the reason the grouse population plummeted.
      This year the snow cover is sufficient for snow roosting and, so far, there have only been a few really cold nights. Hopefully the grouse that are in the woods now will still be there to breed in the spring.
      With the lengthening days we should hear the drumming soon.