Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Trail


    The trail starts where a stand of softwood trees meets an old field. It’s actually maintained for the snowmobilers and if it wasn’t for them it would probably would have grown in years ago. But maybe the loggers would have saved it. The last few years they’ve been using it as a skid trail during the summer months.
    In 2006 I discovered that two track road during a break in the precipitation of a very wet August day. I needed a place to run the dogs and preferably someplace I could walk without rubbing against drenched foliage. That snowmobile trail fit the ticket. It wanders downhill for about a mile before climbing a little bit up to an abandoned Christmas tree farm.    
    Much to my delight that day, only a hundred feet down the road, ruffed grouse started boiling out of the tree tops, which of course set the dogs into a flurry of activity. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen grouse on that part of the road, but I’ll never forget it.
    Further down the road a large mountain ash used to grow next to a tiny trickle of a brook. Its bright orange fruit often attracted grouse, as did old apple trees lost among the forest growth on the low side of the road. That mountain ash eventually declined and died. Now all trace of it is now gone, but another has sprung up to take its place.

The softwoods along the old road provided shelter for grouse and deer. Pockets of young growth attracted woodcock, grouse, and other game, some to eat it and others to hide in it. Most years bear hunters set up a blind off to the side of the road. I always look for the bright blue barrel of bait, it’s almost a landmark now. The country has all become very familiar, like an old friend.

    And there are so many stories remembered.
    Like the time I couldn’t find my old girl Chara, I knew she was on point somewhere close, but the thick cover hid her. We weren’t far from that old mountain ash I just mentioned, but on the other side of the road where the scattered wild apples are getting crowded out by the softwood trees. I softly said something to let her know I searched for her. She moved just enough so the bell on her collar dinged one lone note.
    I spotted her white hair hid inside the low boughs of a limby fir tree. Stepping around the tree, a grouse rocketed away through the forest.
    Down the road further, on a soaking wet opening day, Chara pointed in a thicket of alders. Up to that point I’d managed to stay out of the really wet stuff, but, looking at her standing there so valiantly, I thought, “Oh what the hell.” 
    Not far from where the road opens up into an abandoned Christmas tree farm there used to be a stand of pasture grown spruce with ancient apple trees mixed between them. Pasture grown spruce have branches all the way down to the ground like giant Christmas trees, much different than forest trees that shed them. Chara went on point next to a tumbled-down busted-up apple tree. On my approach a grouse exploded off to the left, staying low to hide among the branches of those spruce trees. Only after I’d shot did I realize I’d dropped to my knees to shoot, hoping to see the bird among all the low branches. That grouse bounced along the ground like a stone skipped on water.
    Over the years I have shared that trail with a number of friends. In a cluster of softwoods off the west of the road, a grouse flew up into a tree to sit on a branch and mock a young friend of mine. Now this young guy had been hunting hard for three days and had yet to kill a bird, and, to make matters worse, it was the end of the last day of his stay. Having a sporting code of ethics, he refused to shoot a bird sitting on a branch, so we started throwing sticks at it. Eventually, it flew and of course he missed it. After a few minutes of ribbing we walked about a hundred feet and a second grouse repeated the first bird’s performance. Again the bird flew away unscathed. There were lots of laughs and good natured ribbing that night over cocktails.
    There was the time Chara carelessly bumped two grouse that flew away side by side, offering a perfect opportunity for a double. Her behavior so upset me I never fired a shot.
    And the lone woodcock pointed inside an impenetrable thicket of young softwood trees. Of course it flew out the backside where no one could see it.
    During one of my Chara’s last hunts, we took her down that road. With tired legs, she never ventured off the trail, letting the younger dogs hunt the woods. We didn’t hunt very far nor long. On the way back she slowed and stopped, staring at a fir tree beside the road. Stepping past her, two grouse flew out ahead of me. One folded and she carried it proudly all the way back to the truck.
    A few days ago we walked that old road, just to stretch our legs on a cool August day. The memories always come flooding back. This coming October will be the fifteenth consecutive year hunting that snowmobile trail. Even if I never see a bird there will be memories enough to fill my day.

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