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    The Great Canadian Grouse Experiment

    One of the cool byproducts of living in Michigan is the proximity of Canada.

    Growing up not far from Detroit, we listened to Foster Hewitt calling the play-by-play of Maple Leaf or Canadiens games as we watched “Hockey Night in Canada,” broadcast on CKLW, Channel 9 out of Windsor, Ontario. It came in as clearly as any of the Detroit TV stations.

    Niagara Falls was but a relatively brief, four-hour drive away. We couldn’t even reach Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in that amount of time.

    After spending the night in White River, Ontario, Tom Huggler and his English setter Ragan get set to continue the journey north.
    After spending the night in White River, Ontario, Tom Huggler and his English setter Ragan get set to continue the journey north.

    Windsor is so accessible that before we got married, Maureen and I drove to a store there a few times on Saturdays for her to pick up some of the formal dinnerware and crystal she wanted.

    And then there was that one Sunday almost 20 years ago. My now-late father-in-law Chuckie and I were able to attend Mass; eat breakfast; head for the casino in Windsor; watch helplessly while my truck developed serious mechanical problems as I drove it through the tunnel from Detroit; immediately make a U-turn; stop to pick up some Bushmill’s Special Reserve, which, at the time, was available only at duty-free stores around the world; drive back through the tunnel and up I-75 to get to the garage where I’d leave my truck; and have Maureen pick us up.

    Then she grounded us. Both her husband and her 81-year-old father. Grounded. All before 11 a.m.

    Suffice it to say, the adventure at the core of this report begins with the notion that heading to Canada for any number of reasons is second nature for people from Michigan. If the reason is to help your young bird dogs develop, the only question to answer before packing up and leaving is When?

    As far as the Great Canadian Grouse Experiment (GCGE) goes, it begins with the familiar adage, “You train a bird dog by getting it into birds.”

    Also, seemingly forever, bird hunters in the upper Midwest have heard about how grouse hunting in Ontario is ridiculously easy. One drives the roads looking for birds dusting themselves, gets out and blasts away. Then there are the stories about these birds being so unafraid of humans that at worst when they flush they’ll alight into low branches of nearby trees. That’s when the shooters break out the .22s.

    Klotz Lake Camp sits right across Highway 11 from the lake itself. Annie, a Kangal Anatolian shepherd, stands guard as the perimeter dog, making sure no bears, wolves, lynx, or cougars try to check in.
    Klotz Lake Camp sits right across Highway 11 from the lake itself. Annie, a Kangal Anatolian shepherd, stands guard as the perimeter dog, making sure no bears, wolves, lynx, or cougars try to check in.

    To be fair about things, though, one should realize that the locals are, as Toni Moroz put it, “hunting for food not for sport.” And forget about hopping out of your truck to shoot birds. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry forbids “possession of a loaded firearm within eight metres of the travelled portion of a road … AND no discharge of a firearm from or across a right of way for public vehicular traffic at any time.”

    But one look at the impenetrable bush that the forest roads traverse reveals a topography that is for the most part impossible to hunt in the traditional “charge through the cover” way.

    That table setting got me to thinking, and it didn’t take fellow Michigander, writer Tom Huggler, long to join in on the GCGE. We both had young pointing dogs that could only benefit from more contacts with birds.

    The hypothesis: Loads of nearly tame grouse will provide a perfect training situation for young dogs.

    Only one way to test that theory: tires on the road!

     Our first stop was the Algoma Kinniwabi Travel Association, in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. The folks there were most helpful in pointing us in the right direction for finding grouse in what is known as “Algoma Country.” And for the most part, that direction was north. They advised us to contact Toni and her husband Mike Moroz, owners of Klotz Lake Camp in northern Ontario along route 11, the northern swipe of the Trans-Canada Highway.

    The “bush” in this part of Canada is so thick that both hunters and dogs cannot easily stray beyond the trails.
    The “bush” in this part of Canada is so thick that both hunters and dogs cannot easily stray beyond the trails.

    According to the online maps, the drive from my current home in southwest Michigan to the camp is about 650 miles and takes about 10 and a half hours. There was no reason to make the drive in one shot, so we spent the night in White River. Happily, the White River Motel was a quiet, clean and convenient stopping point. And here’s a tip: Hunters traveling with dogs will want to ask for Room 303. It’s an end unit beside a small field, a perfect spot for staking out and airing the dogs.

    While he graciously set us up in Room 303, the innkeeper there pegged us as foreigners right away.

    “Where did you come into Canada today?” he asked.

    “Soo, Canada,” I replied.

    “You mean, ‘The Soo,’” he politely corrected me.

    I was confused. There are two towns named Sault Ste. Marie. One is in Michigan. The other is across St. Marys River in Canada. We’ve always called them, respectively, The Soo and Soo, Canada.

    “No, you’ve got it flipped,” he told me. It’s The Soo and Soo, Michigan.

    Apparently, dollar coins with loons engraved on them and gas sold by the litre instead of the gallon were not the only differences we encountered once we crossed in from Soo, Michigan.

    A hunter’s best friend: a clean and dry pair of socks to change into for the afternoon’s hunt.
    A hunter’s best friend: a clean and dry pair of socks to change into for the afternoon’s hunt.

    White River is known as the birthplace of “Winnie-the-Pooh,” and a statue of the Disney version of Pooh Bear sitting in a tree greets visitors as they drive in from the east. Once we got settled into the motel, we went back to the park where we learned the real Winnie was an orphaned cub, allegedly named for the hometown of Lt. Harry Colebourn, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Colebourn had bought the orphaned cub from a trapper – a common occurrence at the time. He then smuggled her into England as the mascot of his cavalry regiment. Just before he shipped to France during World War I, he gave her to the London Zoo, where she became a favorite attraction. She was so socialized that people would knock on her door, and she’d come out. Two of her frequent visitors were A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin Milne. The boy started calling her “Pooh,” and soon after, the father started writing stories about her, changing her to a “him” in the process.

    Visiting the park plus grabbing a quick meal at the restaurant across the highway was how we spent our night in White River, Ontario.

    Hitting the trails before the arrival of moose hunters in October sometimes means dealing with the thirst-robbing heat of late September.
    Hitting the trails before the arrival of moose hunters in October sometimes means dealing with the thirst-robbing heat of late September.

    The next morning it was on to Klotz to get going on our research! We actually stopped at a couple places along the way to try to bird hunt, but the areas were so thick and unfriendly, we didn’t want to risk putting the dogs on the ground in there. Good thinking, too, for as we were discussing whether to try hunting one spot, a black bear came bounding out of the bush and across the road.

    Toni and Mike Moroz offered us a home base for our operations during our stay in Ontario. They said the grouse were plentiful, easy to find and even easier to shoot. Mike just couldn’t understand why anyone would want to work dogs on these birds and pretty much considered employing their services to be superfluous. One pair of hunters from New York state showed up one year with their dogs, he said. They found there was no need for the dogs, and they have been coming back every year since then without them. On the other hand, a pair of hunters from Ohio has returned for several years with their dogs.

    The first cabins at Klotz Lake Camp were built in 1954, and Mike’s parents bought the place in 1956 and added more. The cabins are warm, comfortable and dry, but they are Spartan-like. Think of a classic wilderness fishing camp, which this is.

    Much of this part of Algoma Country is Crown land, open to the public, but it must be shared with its natural denizens, such as this black bear photographed from inside the vehicle.
    Much of this part of Algoma Country is Crown land, open to the public, but it must be shared with its natural denizens, such as this black bear photographed from inside the vehicle.

    All the cabins are housekeeping units, so that means guests must bring in their own food. The nearest town with a grocery store is Longlac, about 25 miles to the west or Hearst, about a 100-mile drive to the east. But there is a need to be mindful. Sunday closures are common throughout Ontario. Toni suggests that people driving in from either Thunder Bay (220 miles away) or the Soo (320 miles) procure their groceries in the big towns just to be safe.

    Another point to mention: Although the Trans-Canada Highway runs literally past the front yard of Klotz Lake Camp, it might best be considered as little more than a road that links outposts. Gas stations don’t magically appear every two or three miles.

    Hunter Tom Carney displays a double on grouse he collected with the help of his Irish red and white setter Abbey.
    Hunter Tom Carney displays a double on grouse he collected with the help of his Irish red and white setter Abbey.

    The location of Klotz Lake Camp and its distance from things like grocery stores and gas stations are two things that suggest a stay there is nearly a “wilderness” experience. Electric lights and propane-fueled stoves and furnaces in the cabins soften the blow a bit. One more detail should help to keep the notion of wilderness front and center: Several cats and a Weimaraner named “Gibson” populate the camp. But the sergeant-at-arms is Annie, a Kangal Anatolian shepherd.

    Annie is the sweetest dog ever, but she lives outside as a “perimeter” dog. Her job is to protect the camp from bears, wolves, lynx and cougars. In fact, as darkness fell on the third night of our visit, I was walking my dog Abbey before bed. In one motion she stiffened then spun in the direction of the rear of the property. Almost simultaneously, Annie barked from her doghouse near the front of the camp and bolted back towards us. Upon hearing this the next day, Mike determined a bear had probably been nosing around close to camp.

    Finally, wilderness really is the name of the game once one leaves camp and sets out for the hunt. The entire area is comprised of Crown (public) land, so there is plenty of room to roam and to hunt. In this case, though, the roaming and the hunting must be the same thing. Tons of roads and trails crisscross the area, and finding birds is basically a matter of being in the right place at the right time. We drove along one road by 8:30 a.m., as we had been advised by a group of moose hunters, and saw nothing. Mike told us later in camp he went by the same spot closer to noon, and there were a bunch of sharptails there. So finding birds isn’t always as easy as the stories make it sound.

    This spruce grouse sat patiently for its portrait before flushing away when the hunters least expected it.
    This spruce grouse sat patiently for its portrait before flushing away when the hunters least expected it.

    Several times we parked the truck and walked the smaller trails. That’s when Mike’s words reverberated in our collective memory, “This isn’t the forest. It’s not the woods. It’s the bush!”

    The bush was simply too thick for hunters to move more than 15 or 20 feet from the trails. Huggler found birds each time he took to the trails. But we put in a lot of legwork under hot, hot circumstances for the few birds we found that way. So for the most part, we drove and drove. And we saw plenty of grouse, both in the ruffed and spruce varieties. We didn’t see any sharptails, but this is definitely one place where hunters can find all three species.

    As the day wears on, Tom Huggler and Ragan return from exploring what lay beyond the first couple of curves in the side road.
    As the day wears on, Tom Huggler and Ragan return from exploring what lay beyond the first couple of curves in the side road.

    As for the GCGE, the birds performed as expected, for the most part, unafraid of humans. If we walked up on them by ourselves, they would just mosey along into the brush and disappear. Once, as we ourselves moseyed along a trail, three or four spruce grouse just slipped away, jumped into the first trees they came to, landed on branches head high to us and just looked at us. I threw so many handfuls of gravel at them I ran out of stones, but they still wouldn’t flush. As I stepped in front of Huggler to grab a fallen branch to toss their way, the birds flushed and made their escape.

    The short tailfeathers of these grouse indicate they were young of the year; the groups of them were likely broods that hadn’t yet dispersed.
    The short tailfeathers of these grouse indicate they were young of the year; the groups of them were likely broods that hadn’t yet dispersed.

    When the birds noticed the dogs, though, their wildness clicked in. On the drive up, Huggler had predicted that the birds would quickly adapt to the presence of four-legged predators, and he was right. They didn’t wait around. They flushed and flew fast and hard – disappearing into the bush that immediately became dense and thick.

    As the afternoon light lengthens the shadows, the hunt comes to an end.
    As the afternoon light lengthens the shadows, the hunt comes to an end.

    The results of our experiment:

    We visited around the middle of September, close to the opening of the season. Temperatures were beastly hot, which made us think the “ton of birds” we expected might have been hanging around deeper into the bush in the shade. The bush is so thick and restrictive that the dogs could only run ahead of and then circle behind us as we walked the trails. No casting the pups into the woods to see what lay “just beyond.” We did find some birds, though, and we were able to collect a few when their flight paths kept them in the open for a split second. Often, however, their chosen flight paths did not keep them in the open. They did not cooperate, as we had hoped, with our attempts to enlist their assistance in giving our dogs more practice at sniffing them out and pointing them as they just sat there. There was no “just sitting there.”

    Our hypothesis remains unproven.

    Annie discovers where Huggler stores his cleaned birds, knowledge she will put to use during the night when everyone is sleeping and she goes looking for a snack.
    Annie discovers where Huggler stores his cleaned birds, knowledge she will put to use during the night when everyone is sleeping and she goes looking for a snack.


    If You Go

    For travel information on locations to visit in central Ontario:

    The Algoma Kinniwabi Travel Association, 800-263-2546, www.algomacountry.com, info@algomacountry.com.

    White River Motel, P.O. Box 608, White River, Ontario, POM 3GO; 800-822-5887; www.whiterivermotel.com.

    Klotz Lake Camp, Highway 11 North, Klotz Lake, Box 879, Longlac, Ontario, P0T 2A0; 807-872-0202; www.klotzlakecamp.com; info@klotzlakecamp.com.

    Be careful if you use an online source for maps. It might want to send you far off the main highway to a location in Caramat. The place you want is right on Highway 11 across from and near the west end of Klotz Lake.

    Cabins at Klotz run from CA$280 to $350 per person/week. Prices are determined by the water situation in the cabin, from a jug of water (traditional cabins) to full bathroom (modern).

    For maps of the hunting area: Geoma Custom Mapping, Northern Adventure Map Series, “East Greenstone,” www.geoma.ca.

    Hunting License Info

    To hunt grouse in Ontario, nonresidents need to purchase a hunting/fishing Outdoors Card (2017 cost: CA$9.68) and an annual small game license ($120.93). Nonresident hunters must purchase their Ontario Outdoors Card in person, and they must provide a previous hunting license from another state or province. We purchased ours at the visitor welcome center at Sault Ste. Marie, Canada.

    To bring firearms into Canada, one must file a declaration form available from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or other places online. Google Canada CAFC 909 or contact the RCMP (800-731-4000, cfp-pcaf@rcmp-grc.gc.ca). At the time of our visit, the charge was $25 to bring in up to three firearms.

    The season on grouse in the Wildlife Management Units closest to Klotz Lake Camp (19 and 21B) runs from Sept. 14. to Dec. 15. Toni Moroz suggests bird hunters plan to visit prior to the firearm season on moose, which opens in early October. Those hunters, she says, will be out using the same side trails as bird hunters might want to walk.

    For more information about hunting in Ontario: www.mnr.gov.on.ca/en.

    Wolfe Publishing Group