column By: Burton Spiller | March, 21
In looking over almost forty years of grouse hunting, I find that I have been singularly blessed. Born of hunting stock, reared on wild moose milk and educated in the school of woodcraft, I learned early in life that in my case money was but a medium of exchange for freedom to roam the out-of-doors, and until the present world melee broke out I have never let work interfere too seriously with my hunting and fishing.
To chose from a thousand days afield one more memorable than all the others seems like another of those impossible tasks, for as I pause a moment in retrospect, glorious day upon glorious day comes trooping back to thrill me anew, yet always when I turn my train of thought backward to review the fullness of my years I invariably think first of one particular time.
Exactly twenty years have elapsed since the tale appears on this printed page, yet I can still remember the crisp tang of the autumn air, the complaining murmur of the stony vexed brook, and the thunderous tumult of rising grouse as plainly as though it were but yesterday that it happened. It must be that this is my best remembered day.
Grouse have been plentiful for several years, but they were just beginning to drop off on their periodic decline. There were still enough left for fair shooting, but I remember that we crossed off several of the best covers from our list when we deemed we had reduced their number to that which would only safely assure another year’s crop. It was disturbing to know that they were growing scarce, for while we had no desire to kill more than we then were, we longed for the easy conscience that comes with knowing that the seasonal take is but a small part of an abundant surplus. Then a native told us about the mountain valley.
There is a pleasurable thrill in looking upon a new hunting country for the first time, but now it was intensified, for I instinctively knew that in this remote mountain valley lay covers that were practically virgin. Straight northward it ran, rising from the narrow entrance in which we stood, in a series of level steppes, and widening until it touched the base of the mountain wall that curved like a giant horseshoe before us. Barberries and thornplums were everywhere. The alder runs, through which myriad rivulets trickled to merge with the brawling brook, were fringed with thrifty pine, while in the background the steep mountainside was cloaked with a million gnarled black birches. Here was seasonal food for a thousand grouse and adequate winter protection for them. We surveyed it for a moment or two, the dog whining to be off, then we loaded our guns and went in.
That first corner will be one of the last things I shall ever forget. There were alders and iron bushes in it and a few scattered maples – and a snow-white setter stretching out and out in a glorious, intensified point. I went in behind him and a woodcock went vaulting upward on its last flight. My shoulder had scarcely absorbed the recoil when a reverberating roar beat upon my eardrums as a flock of startled grouse burst into the air before me. I remember how I dumped one back to earth with the left barrel, then broke the gun, flipped out the right empty case, slid a fresh one in its place and caught the last bird just as it was clearing the top of a maple forty yards away.
Gene, good old deadshot Gene, was still learning how to hunt grouse in those days, and I remember now the look on his face as the dog brought in the birds one after the other. There was no envy in his eyes (there never was in the old days and there never is any need for it now) but there was a puzzled wonderment in them and a hint of awe and admiration.
We stowed the birds away and sent the dog ahead to pick up the singles, which to my mind is the sportiest of all upland shooting. Less than a hundred yards away he pointed again, and there in a corner of that little two-acre patch we flushed a second flock of birds.
The brook, we found, wound in and out across the valley floor, and always along its banks we found grouse. They went up in singles, in twos and threes and dozens until the dog, a sturdy old campaigner, became bewildered in the confusion of scent that assailed him from all sides.
At the upper end of the valley, where the almost unscalable sweep of the mountains crowded in upon it, we found the grand-daddy of all grouse flocks. Undoubtedly some had been driven before us into the last narrow alder run, but they must have found another goodly covey there when they arrived, for they went fanning out before the dog in small units to seek sanctuary among the birches on the steep mountainside. I had worked well ahead of the dog along the edge of the run, and a dozen birds passed me within easy gunshot. What easy targets they appeared to be as I swung on them one after another, and how much willpower it took to refrain from shooting, but I let them go unharmed upon their way.
There, in the highest point of the valley, we turned and looked back over the entrancing land. I knew then as I know now that I had experienced something which only a few fortunate are privileged to see. I had been transported back a hundred years and had seen, for a day at least, grouse shooting such as our ancestors must have known.
The aftermath of the story is not so pleasant. Loggers came the following year and stripped off all the pine and much of the hardwood. They robbed my valley of its beauty and they robbed it of its grouse, for winter cover is as necessary to them as is their daily food. Although the beauty of the place is gone, I go back there once each year hoping that I may find birds again in something like their old numbers. That I have always been disappointed does not deter me. Already the young pines stand head high, and the birches are large enough to provide ample winter feed. The years have been lean of late, but ruffed grouse will surely come back. They always have, and when they do I shall meet them again – I hope – in my own private little corner of paradise.