feature By: Brian Netzel, story and photos | November, 17
The longer you hunt a place, the fewer steps there are between memories.
Long after the greens of mid-September erupted into the golds, reds and oranges of October, long after those same bright colors melded into a muddled brown and the first sheets of ice found their way into puddles along the two-track trails, it is the twilight, both literally and figuratively, of another Minnesota grouse season. Today’s colors are whites – snow, birch bark, clouds of breath hanging in the windless air, icicles on eyelashes – and blues – sky, tree shadows cast on snowy hills and fingernails at the end of the day when thin shooting gloves just aren’t enough. For now I am alone with the promise of my friend Dan joining me later for one last foray down trails that we have walked side by side since mid-September.
Gone now the crescendo of holiday bustle – sights, smells, tastes – and gone, too, the sounds of carols and children’s laughter. Today, only the hiss of pelleted snow scattering in front of my steps and the squeak of the well-worn soles of my boots pierce the eerie near-stillness of this new year. Then, as I work slowly up a long hill and into the sun, the occasional squawk of a hairy woodpecker or call of a chickadee before the abrupt and always unexpected thunder of wings. Misjudging the location of the sound, I watch with gun at my side as the grouse locks wings and drifts safely over the peak of the nearby cedar grove. The swamp that the cedars stand sentry to, though covered in snow, is likely not frozen entirely. This grouse will go on his merry way, doing his grouse things for another year. Perhaps our paths will cross again next fall.
As I feel the familiar trails underfoot, I realize this has been a particularly special season – Dan’s first hunting upland game. A convert to powder and shot after decades of canoeing and fishing, he allowed me to see bird hunting through the eyes of a novice once again.
The two-track crosses the place where Dan shot his first woodcock. The icy air clarifies the memory of that moment in early October when the bird’s penny whistling broke the silence, and the woodcock twittered upward. Our guns rose simultaneously. I hesitated, but Dan didn’t. The woodcock came down with a light thump into the thigh- deep grass. We celebrated together. It was not only his first woodcock but also his first bird on the wing.
Upon inspection, Dan remarked: “What a goofy-looking thing.”
It had been years since I had pondered their long beaks and upturned eyes. I helped Dan slip the bird into the pocket of his new hunting vest, for the fresh fabric had yet to be loosed by the weight of game.
The next depression in the trail is where Dan tested the triggers on his new double 20-gauge. They had been misfiring, pins denting but not igniting primers. The first barrel worked beautifully, as did the second. While Dan broke the gun to remove spent shells, a grouse rocketed skyward mere yards away from where we stood. I laughed at our bad luck. Dan gritted his teeth and with tightly shut eyes, turned his head to the sky, his disappointment palpable, if not audible, over the one that got away.
Memories arise at every turn along the trail. Grouse here, snowshoe hare there. The aspen stand where a wily old grouse taught us humility, not once or twice but three times in the same afternoon. His final flush found me ducking under the same downed tree beneath which he was hidden. After bumping my head and both Dan and I emptying our guns, the grouse turned for dark timber without a feather out of place. Despite the fresh bruises on our egos, Dan looked amused.
“Got your goat, eh?” he asked.
The dense raspberry patch that produced three grouse this season appears at the top of the next hill. On our first day out, a sun washed October afternoon, heavy with fruit the canes held grouse. The same held true on the eve of the November firearms deer season as a driving sleet slowly transformed itself into snow.
Next, the field where Dan missed a woodcock with both barrels and I took a long shot and dead centered the bird. Our victory banter quickly became our cursing out the raspberry thorns slashing our arms as we reached several times for clumps of dead leaves we had mistaken for the fallen bird. Dan’s eyes won this second hunt, and the timberdoodle made its way to the sagging pocket of my hunting vest.
Now on this whitewashed day, the rhythm of memories, footsteps and clouds of breath are intermittently disrupted by rustling leaves or by a grouse track cut and followed to where wings touched snow and marked departure. At trail’s end, the tailing cloud of a jet overhead evaporates in frigid air.
My cell phone buzzes. Dan is on his way to mark the end of our season as we started it. I retrace the trail and arrive as Dan snaps his gun into working order. He laughs at the ice hanging from my beard and eyebrows. It’s colder than we had anticipated, and daylight is limited. But as the sun continues its low arc to the horizon, we embark together, casting our own blue shadows on the snow.
Where my boot prints indicate I had taken the one fork in the trail, we take the other. We work field edges and find an ice-crusted swamp that holds promise for next year’s duck season. Mental notes made, we stomp through spruce and cedar groves and through ferns that were stubborn enough to withstand the snow’s weight. We find an old moss-covered deer stand constructed from cedar poles that has seen years since anyone was brave enough to sit in it. We enter the Norway pines where Dan first witnessed a bird felled mid-flight. His words were few, but the moment’s impact was obvious that fine September day.
Alas, no grouse show themselves on this day, and given the now plummeting temperatures, flushes are expected from snowdrifts rather than from treetops or aspen stands. In an open field, a discarded shell box serves as an easy target to quell our yearning for the smell of burnt powder. So we loft it into the air a few times. Cardboard fragments soon dust the snow. After collecting and stowing our empty shells and the box, we start back down the trail, shotguns on shoulders and eyes looking toward warm vehicles.
We arrive and case the guns. Next, steaming coffee from a thermos returns feeling to frozen lips and noses. As the sun casts its final illuminations from behind the horizon, we stand in the utter silence of winter and relish the wonderful year spent in the woods. Just then, wings thunder from behind us, and the last grouse of the season flares from a nearby spruce. He sails directly overhead and turns with tail band in full view before becoming part of the dusk.
“Dammit,” says Dan.