Thursday, January 11, 2018

Squeaky Snow

    As I write this it is late December at Camp Grouse. Among the hillside hardwoods two feet of snow covers the ground. Temperatures have been below zero for days and dipped down to thirty below a couple of nights. Cabin fever starts to set in after a while and when temperatures climb to near zero it is time to put on the snowshoes.
      Our younger German wirehair, Maggie, is game to go. She loves winter and rolls in the snow daily. Colby, our older girl, will pretend to want to go, but after I leave she’ll curl up quite content beside the wood stove to dream of summer.
      From the house, Maggie and I head down into the softwoods, snow squeaking with every step and our breath in a cloud. She bounds through the snow with enthusiasm. In the shelter of the spruce and fir trees the snow is hard, crunching beneath the snowshoes despite the dusting of fluff on the top. Maggie can easily dash about atop the snow, following the confusion of snowshoe rabbit tracks.
      Deer have passed through, punching deep imprints in the hard snow. The coyotes barely made tracks, but traveling on top with such an advantage over the deer.
      Our favorite brook trout stream is silent, capped over with ice and snow. It is hard to imagine trout fishing and I wondered where the brook trout went for the winter. Surely they are not in the same riffles as they were in July, but probably in the deep dark holes where the current is slow or nonexistent.
      We follow downstream. Maggie shows no interest on going out on the ice, which is what I had hoped. I like smart cautious dogs. They seldom get porcupined or skunked more than once.
      Snowshoes on crusty snow drown out any other sound. Mice tracks, squirrel tracks, rabbit tracks, all create a puzzle. Fat well-spaced trunks of conifers cover the plateau along the stream, making travel easy.
      We pass where the coyotes killed a deer the previous winter. Maggie sniffs about and I wonder if there could still be scent after so much time. Dogs amaze me with their noses and nothing seems impossible. She squats to urinate, to say to the coyotes “Hey, I was here”.
      Leaning alders, bent by the snow, block the path and I crouch to walk under them. A busted fir tree, broken by an early winter wind, demands a detour. Another fallen fir, this one uprooted, reaches out halfway across the stream. Eventually the stream pinches against a steep ledge to cut off our course, so we turn back and inland to follow the edge where the softwood trees of the lowlands meet the hardwoods of the hill.
      The snow is deeper, but Maggie still flies about, first up the hill then down into a thicket beneath a cluster of firs. She points, relocates, points again, and then zips off to hunt still more. 
      Grouse tracks cover the snow where she stopped. I stare up into the trees, hoping to glimpse one, but see none. I did not bring a shotgun. With the extreme weather I really don’t feel like bother them and seeing the tracks is enough for me.
      Heading uphill and back toward home, another shattered fir tree blocks the path. I trudge around it beneath three big softwoods. Ahead of me, Maggie again points for a moment before charging onward. Grouse tracks go every-which-way where she stopped. The bird never wandered far, but created a tangle of tracks beneath a cluster of young maples, all in an area the size of a large dining table.
      I search among the tree limbs, but again find only empty branches. Hopefully the bird is sitting somewhere safe with its belly full. We are close enough to the house, so, if this one is a male, we will sit on the deck and hear his drumming in the spring.
      A late day chill reminds us it is late. The low winter sun has slipped behind the hills early and the sky has dissolved from blue to the color of steel. Up the hill we find a skid road that takes us around the bottom edge of another softwood stand. Water runs beneath the snow, creating a murmur that is almost impossible to hear. In the summer mud would be everywhere, but a pristine white blankets everything. The deep snow makes breaking trail work, but Maggie still bounds about. Eventually, the road leads to the far end of the field behind our home and I can see smoke wafting up from the chimney.
      There is no place I would rather see or be.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Worm Soup

      The rain had finally stopped. It was time to get the dogs out hunting again. With the youngster in the house, Maggie, that meant looking for woodcock, because no finer bird was there ever for training a young pointing dog.
      The woods was soaked after three or four inches of rain in only a matter of hours. Winds had approached hurricane force and the power was out back at the house. Hundreds of trees were down everywhere. Logging roads would be impassible, unless one hacked their way in with a chainsaw. I opted for easier going and picked a covert next to a state road.
      Soft wet ground, like runny chocolate pudding, oozed down the hillsides. We pushed through raspberries and then blackberries into a stand of young alders. Maggie and Colby were in hyper mode, hunting hard, oblivious to the mud. Down the slope we sloshed. Then, where water puddled among alders, a bumped woodcock flew back over my head.
A rock pile left by a farmer.
      Clumps of young firs, growing on a series of hummocks the size of overturned bushel baskets, divided the alders from more poplars. We skirted an enormous pile of moss-covered rocks, left by a long gone farmer, and another thicket of blackberries. More fencepost-size poplars stood above bent and brown ferns, then into another cluster of alders we waded. Where were the woodcock?
      Far ahead, Maggie’s bell screamed silence. Colby’s still rattled off to my right. Then Colby’s fell silent too. Silence. Two dogs were pointing, what to do? How long would the young dog wait? I quickly stepped in front of closer Colby, knowing that if a bird flushed a gunshot would send Maggie into overdrive.
      No bird, I breathed relief, then hurried toward Maggie, while saying to Colby, “There’s no bird Colby. Where is Maggie? Let’s go find Maggie. This way girl, come on, this way.”
      Colby zigzagged through where she thought the bird was, but, finding nothing, she galloped ahead, disappearing into the alders. Ducking under and stepping over limbs and leaning trunks, I first saw the unmoving white of Colby’s coat and then Maggie’s brown silhouette, like a statue a dozen feet ahead of her. My heart pounded.
Soggy ground. How many dogs in the picture?
      Trying to approach through the tangle was frustratingly slow. And I needed to be able to stand to shoot, but the world was a jumble of limbs and trunks. As I stepped over a roadblock of tilting alders, the bird tweetered toward the sky. A shot is pointless, but tried anyway. The bird disappeared into the swamp.
      The dogs went into overdrive, fueled by bird scent and gunfire. We worked downhill to where thick grasses grew between the alders. Water was everywhere and the ground felt like stepping on a soggy pillows. Turning to the right, we followed where the saturated bare ground met the soaked grasses.
      In a spot wetter than most, puddles and pools dictated detours. Maggie pointed thirty yards ahead. As I tried to find a route towards her, Colby pointed to my right. White splashes covered the ground. A step toward Colby sent another woodcock aloft, but a shot was impossible. I hurried toward Maggie and a second one launched, offering an easy going away shot.
      After that the dogs were wound tight, with bird scent is in their nostrils and the taste in their mouths. Hunting hard and fast, they covered a lot of country, while I struggled to keep up. The scenario repeated three more times in the swampiest of places. Only one more bird fell to the gun.
      What were these birds eating? Drowned earth worms? Marinated in rainwater? How did the woodcock stay dry? Ducks would have swum happily between the trees.
     After we turned back toward the truck, I attempt to steer the dogs toward an old apple tree where ruffed grouse like to loiter. To my left, Maggie was up the hill further than I wanted and out of sight. Then her bell fell silent. I coaxed Colby in that direction, hoping she would find her for me.
      But Colby went on point where a small stream created an expansive quagmire in a flat spot. That woodcock flushed well ahead of me and disappeared into a cluster of firs. Colby dashed off toward the apple tree. Mumbling to myself, I headed toward Maggie and called Colby back.
      The young dog’s bell jangled again, then a woodcock weaved through the trees toward me, passed overhead, and disappeared down the hill. Impatient Maggie charged along in hot pursuit.
Wild apples and an abandoned field.
      The three of us followed the bird’s path into intertwined alders. Maggie’s bell went silent, then Colby’s too. I followed to the edge of a gully, where I could barely see both dogs locked on point not forty feet ahead of me. Stepping, twisting, crawling, and cursing, I pushed in. The woodcock tweetered upward and then down the hill, dropping like a stone beside a lone fir tree.
      We followed. The dogs hunted hard, tearing up the turf with water splashing. The bird seemed to have disappeared, but then took off next to my right foot. I never lifted my gun and neither of the dogs noticed it go.
      Hunting again toward the truck, both Maggie and Colby each found another woodcock where another tiny trickle wound down the hill, but in the tangled jungle both flew off without a shot being fired.
      Later that day we hunted across the street among ancient apple trees that the grouse love. We found no grouse, but, about to turn around and head home, I coaxed the dogs into a tiny patch of alders next to a small field. Colby instantly snapped into a point, then Maggie too. I marched into the alders and a woodcock twisted skyward through the branches. When it reached the treetops I fired.
Colby looking good.
      Colby made the retrieve and the dogs tussled harmlessly for a moment over ownership. 
      With wet feet and very happy dogs it was time to go home.