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    Tailfeathers

    Byproducts of a Certain Vintage

    “It’s a long time between Octobers.”

    Tom Huggler sure got it right in that opening sentence to the “Ruffed Grouse” chapter of his book, Grouse of North America.

    So, so right.

    It’s especially long when you’ve made it into August, sitting and sweltering at the cabin trying to think of anything except the long time until October and the oppressive heat.

    The afternoon’s rain did nothing to cool things off; mostly it just slapped the ground and immediately evaporated. The kayak paddle and seat winced when I splashed water on them. Veterans of the assaults by summer’s plunkers, the largemouth bass remain in the shade, tight-lipped and disinterested.

    For a few minutes, I entertained the idea of calling the Schwan’s man for a home delivery. Upon his arrival, I’d march out and plunge as much of me from my head down that I could fit in his truck’s freezer. There, I’d take my time pretending to be making selections. Once cooled enough, I’d choose some ice cream sandwiches or something, pay him and send him on his way.

    What??

    Stupid Schwan’s people. You have to order at least 24 hours in advance.

    It is, indeed, a long time between Octobers, and mostly I spend that time not bird hunting but working on something related to it. Now and then, though, like a fresh breeze we won’t be feeling today, sometimes work activities ferment into full-bodied memories.

    Take the SHOT Show in Las Vegas. My main assignment there is to walk the floor and look for items that probably appeal to bird hunters and to arrange to review them in the magazine.

    Well, last winter, once Katie McKalip, communications director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA), and I finalized plans for her group to contribute to the magazine, she asked if I had plans for Wednesday night.

    “No. Why?”

    “Want to come to a campfire?”

    “Sure,” I said, imagining some electronic fireplace in a meeting room on the Strip somewhere.

    Wrong!

    Wednesday evening, BHA and Filson piled 100 of us into two buses and drove us about 30 miles south of Las Vegas onto some BLM property. We were so far from the city that all was shrouded in darkness – until we rolled up to the … campfire? It was so gigantic that we folks from back East would call it a bonfire.

    Forty cords of wood, the organizers said, they had on hand for the blaze. It was so hot we, dressed in our layers of nylon, cotton and fleece, approached it no closer than about 10 feet, lest it ignite us.

    My chief recollection from that night, in the wilderness lit only by the campfire, a full moon and the reflections of people’s faces, is the pain I inflicted on the lady from France who works for Filson. For at least a half hour I thought I was impressing her with my fluency in her native tongue.

    (I have since been assured that I should always, always remember what the lady at the store counter in Quebec City said in 1985 when I regaled her, too, with my mastery of the language: “Please! Please! You are hurting my ears!”)

    I was also able to catch a few photos of the campfire on my cell phone. One of my favorites is of two women sitting there and using 8-foot-long twigs so they could roast marshmallows at a safe distance.

    Now, I told you that story so I can tell you this one.

    In early spring of this year, Eukanuba pet foods hosted a group at its Pet Health and Nutrition Clinic, about an hour’s drive from Dayton, Ohio. While a few journalists attended, the vast majority of participants consisted of dog trainers.

    Our dinner table held nine people. Two groups of three engaged in trainer talk. Stuff like, “Well, I like to run …” or “You gotta take the pups and …” or “The way I handle that problem is …”

    But my head can only corral just so many of those iterations before they break away and stampede over other important knowledge, like the last vestiges of French vocabulary still clunking around in there.

    Thankfully and unexpectedly, two trainers sitting near me – a woman from Minnesota and a man from Kansas – dipped their toes into other topics. Somehow the talk turned to campfires.

     I showed them the photo of the marshmallowers and pointed out their long roasting sticks.

    “Yeah!” said the Kansan. “You get too close, you singe the hair off your knuckles.”

    “Ha!” I remembered, eying the back of one hand. “You, too?”

    “A couple of times.”

    “Wha? How could you allow yourself to do that more than once?”

    “Alcohol might have been involved.”

    “Copious amounts?”

    “Probably.”

    And again, “Ha-ha!”

    It’s a long time between episodes of single-instance camaraderie.

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