column By: Anthony J. Conte | November, 19
The rain was mixing with sleet and snow, and the forecast was for more this late December; I needed to drive north via the Taconic Parkway through the Hudson Valley to Shushan, New York. The following day I had a 10 a.m. appointment at Nina’s Jewelry in Manchester, Vermont, about 20 miles farther. The pearls I had ordered for my wife Helen had finally arrived, two days before she and I would be celebrating our 48th wedding anniversary.
I had camouflaged the reason for a trip to our house on the Battenkill River in such awful weather with a lame excuse about a contract for our forestland stewardship program that had to be signed before the end of the year.
“I’ll also take my shotgun along,” I told Helen.
“I thought you were going up to sign a contract?”
“You never know. Might get a chance at a grouse.”
Helen smiled. “Don’t forget we have a Christmas party invitation for tomorrow evening.”
“I’ll be back in plenty of time.”
The weatherman was right on the money: The freezing rain had turned to snow in the Hudson Valley and then back to sleet as I approached Shushan about 9 p.m.
I awoke around seven the following morning to the sound of wind-driven rain pelting my bedroom window. Misery outside, but Thunder needed a walk. L.L.Bean rubber moccasins seemed adequate, and rain gear was definitely the ticket, along with my Browning. Just in case.
As we sloshed towards the river, I barked to Thunder, “Do your thing quickly, buddy. This rain is cold … and stay close.”
As we approached the river, Thunder plunged into the alders. “River is really high,” I observed to no one in particular. And as water found its way over the top and filtered through my socks, I added, “These moccasins were a mistake. Not nearly high enough.”
Suddenly, a grouse exploded from the cover to my right and across the narrow path. I instinctively swung, pulled ahead of the streaking grouse and slapped the trigger. The bird disappeared but left a stream of soft belly feathers floating in the damp air.
“Fetch!” I hollered instinctively. “Dead bird … Fetch!”
Thunder plunged into a foot-deep puddle of water that flooded the swampy area along the river bank, and after a few minutes of thrashing around, returned, looking like a drowned rat with a mouth full of grouse feathers and a quizzical look. No grouse.
“Fetch!” I commanded again. “Dead bird … Fetch!”
He worked the area beautifully, searching for the scent of the downed grouse without success.
“Damn! Just what I need in this slop, a running cripple.”
We worked the area along the river for an hour, to the open fields upstream and from the river up to the road, without any sign of the grouse.
I was soaked, water filled my moccasins, and it was really getting nasty now. Wind-driven sleet was pelting me, and I had that Manchester appointment at 10 o’clock.
“Let’s head back, Thunder. Got to shower and get some breakfast. Boy, you look skinny when you’re soaked.”
The wind was really picking up as we reached the path that led to the house. I shook my head in disgust and visually searched the area where the grouse had disappeared as I walked past. A few soft grouse body feathers still skipped across the water.
Suddenly, something caught my attention in the center of the puddle. A gray object swayed back and forth rhythmically, like a metronome in the wind-driven ripples.
“Looks like a wing feather,” I mused. “What the heck, I’m wet anyway, might as well check it out.”
There is nothing quite like the feeling of cold, muddy ooze curling over your moccasins, as a mixture of rain, snow and sleet slide down your neck. I reached down. It was a wing feather, and attached to it was my grouse!
I cleaned the bird in the Battenkill, dipped a very dirty and unappreciative Brittany in the river and washed the slop from my cold feet and moccasins.
After a quick shower, it was off to Manchester! Nina did not let me down.
Two hours later, I was heading south on the Taconic, my gun cleaned, Thunder dried off and fed, a string of pearls in my pocket and a grouse in the cooler.
Helen loved the pearls, and we celebrated our 48th anniversary by uncorking a bottle of Chardonnay and enjoying a dinner of new potatoes and wild rice stuffing, side dishes for our Anniversary Grouse!