Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Other Kind of Hunting

November 20th, 2011-Town of Mosinee
This is not a book review or a recollection of an opening weekend of deer hunting, those are left for more focused writers than I.  No, these are thoughts taken from notes scribbled with cold hands on a tattered notebook while spending lots of quality time in a tree.  There were two firsts for me this opening gun season weekend.  I’ve hunted whitetails for the past 40 years in Wisconsin, both gun and archery,  but this year, not a single deer ventured into my little corner of Marathon County.  I’m not a hunter who gets wanderlust after a few hours of solitude-I try my best to stick it out, all day, everyday during the gun season.  My backpack is stuffed with all the essentials-a thermos, a sandwich or two, extra shells, reading glasses (now days) and a good book.

The other first I had was starting and finishing a book in two days….two “sittings.”   Sure, I’ve had some that I could barely put down- Norman Macleans’s “A River Runs Through It” comes to mind, but rarely in my daily life do I take the time to sit still for so many hours and dive into a book cover to cover not wanting the last page to arrive.  Am I a bad hunter because I peer down from my stand to scan a few sentences?  In my mind, no, it's part of the hunt, an escape, and the senses are still alert.  This year, having long hours of quiet and a blanket of snow for easy viewing, made drifting off into a book pretty easy.  Any creature within a hundred yards of my tree would have a difficult time passing by unnoticed (at least in my mind).

“A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac- The Other Kind Of Hunting” is the book that made it’s way into my day pack after sitting idle on a shelf a year after I picked it up from a book store.  It’s penned by Wausau writer Mark Parman, and with full disclosure here, he is a friend of mine whom I’ve spent time with over the years on skinny skis, mountain bikes and at our family deer camp along with a few grouse and woodcock hunts years ago.   I follow Marks writing in Silent Sports Magazine, where he is one of the editors of cycling and  cross country skiing articles and occasionally venturing out on other subjects, usually slipping in a hunting reference or two.  Mark is the consummate bird dog hunter and specifically, a grouse hunter.  That is the “Other Kind of Hunting.”

As with all opening day deer hunts, the first several hours are intense-every twig snapped is checked out, every red squirrel sounds like the next big buck sneaking thru the brush and there is no time for reading.  All focus is on…..everything.  As the morning lengthens and the woods slowly wake up, I find myself relaxing somewhat, realizing this year the typical flurry of the hunt, those first couple hours, has passed me by.  As the first day passed into the second of the weekend, I would see and hear exactly zero deer.  As mentioned-a first for me.  Unlike some in the woods this weekend, I wouldn’t blame wolves, bears, the DNR or ….cougars, for it’s called hunting, not shooting and it is that way sometimes.  Mark mentions not pulling the trigger or killing game as often now as when he was a young hunter, and I can understand that.  This year, Mother Nature didn’t give me a choice.

So finally after several cups of coffee, and the forest quieting down, I felt I could settle in and begin my read. Inside the dust cover, a quote by Aldo Leopold set the tone for the pages that would follow-  “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed-grouse hunting.”  Any criticisms of the essays contained in the book could only be made by non hunters….non-gun dog hunters.  For us (and I include myself as a lover of hunting dogs and all things birdy) Mark strikes a cord with his tales, stories where the details and names may be different, but we can insert ourselves deeply into them which take us right into the tag alders and popple with Gunnar and Ox or our own dogs.  I had a difficult time just getting past the first sentences Mark had written.  My thoughts were- “Thanks a lot Parman!” for in the preface, he describes Gunnar and Ox, his hunting companions I had a chance to hunt over years earlier, who sadly had died before the completion of the manuscript.  In his essay- “In Praise of Old Dogs” the words on the page before me blurred from wet eyes reading the final description.  I knew full well why- Ruger, my beloved Golden Retriever, has been gone for less than a year and thoughts of so many grouse hunts with him quickly returned…and how much I missed him.  I more than understood the words Mark had written there.

It was interesting reading a book with names and locations you know well, for some of the grouse woods Mark describes are ones I’ve hunted in the past.  Places like the swamp he describes in an opening essay, are a scant quarter mile from where I sat reading this opening day.  As the stories pulled me in, my mind went from the grouse haunts described in his words back to the sleet striking noisily on the curled red oak leaves outside my stand.  Look, listen, scan…then eyes back to the pages of the next story I couldn’t wait to read.  Back to an October flush in the Nine Mile Swamp (as we always called it growing up) or New Wood, then onto a full chapter on “sauntering” or the tales empty shell hulls or a winter track in snow can tell.  I could relate well to these. 

Leaves shuffle below me and my attention is snapped back to this November in the deer woods.  A red squirrel as usual.  From time to time, it became noticeably darker, as the weather tried to change from rain and sleet to snow. With that, bringing a change of sound which I need not look up to know what was happening outside the book.  Light rain strikes the leaves softly, not yet a pelting sound, then suddenly sleet takes over and the sound is more metallic and hearing any animal approaching would be difficult.  The pellets gave way to the softness of snow landing on the oak, and all sound is muffled.  Snow has the effect to mute all sounds now-distant gun reports or a nearby foot fall on the forest floor.  On this day, the sound changed in waves as the precipitation moves between frozen and liquid.
 It became increasingly hard to bring myself back from the stories of Gunnar and Ox and the author to the deer hunt.  A Hairy Woodpecker flits by and rakes the bark of the nearby black cherry tree-my eyes lift for a quick scan of each shooting lane, and back down...all clear.  I was lost in this book.  Parman describes “Getting Lost-Staying Lost” in one essay, which is a bit different than the state I was in while reading, but one I understood well.  Hunting a new unfamiliar area is a little present to oneself because it is full of so much discovery.  We only get that chance once.  I remember a quote from my learning years in the woods, perhaps from Daniel Boone or some other woodsman-“I’ve never been Lost, but I have been a bit bewildered at times.”  I believe, like Mark, that being lost in a hunt isn’t always such a bad thing.  I usually pride myself at being good at a sense of direction, of scanning a map and formulating a plan for the hunt (or hike, ski or mountain bike adventure).  Of course, as Parman describes, a bird dog changes all that, the hunter following where the dog leads and any logical plan for the hunt can quickly change, but that is the nature of hunting.  A good thing once again.

“A Grouse Hunters Almanac” roughly follows a Wisconsin grouse season, from early warm leafy days, through the prime 6 weeks Parman talks about in October and early November.  There is the interruption of the deer gun hunt and associated herd reduction seasons, which start to signal the end of his beloved bird hunting.  The book finishes with the last days of the year, still open for grouse, but more for a chance to get back into the woods with shotgun in hand and dog alongside.  Not only does Mark follow this yearly cycle but also the seasons of the hunter and dog’s lives, which become so intertwined.  In “Gunnar’s Last Hunt” and “Counting in Dogs” I struggled to turn the pages and my reading pace slowed for I knew how these stories would end.  A short distance from where I sat, I remember a last hunt, the final day cruising my dads land for “partridge” with Max, my first dog.  A good wing shooter I am not, so on that cold December day, when Max hit a scent cone, pushed headlong into black berry brush and popped a grouse into the air, I amazed myself at connecting on the bird.  He dove in and brought the bird back to hand, wings still flapping his face and I couldn’t praise him enough, knowing he had been sick with cancer during that fall.   Like Parman and his Gunnar, at the time I didn’t realize this would be our last hunt together, but in reflecting on it later, that one flush, that one shot and one last retrieve is the way all old dogs should spend their last days afield.  Since that day, two other dogs would hunt with me, Dewey, a black lab and Ruger, a mellow golden retriever like Max before him.  Not pointers like Marks preferred hunting dog, but still, a hunting companion who can make all the difference in the world while clawing thru brush on a bird hunt and ones who are sorely missed because of the memories they made.

 Those dogs never quite lived up to Max in the woods, but like Parman, the arrival of a new dog helped ease the pain of losing a faithful four legged partner.  A year or so ago, Molly arrived, not a pup, but a four year old and just like all the promise Fergus brought to the Parman home for future trips to the wood, so Molly for me.  So far, she has done well, but it’ll never erase the pang of old dogs lost.  In  “Counting in Dogs” I found his final essay to be the perfect words to conclude the almanac.  More stories will be written of future hunts, but for this book, this chapter brought me back to reflect on life, my relationship to the outdoors, time spent there with my dogs and how all too quickly we all find ourselves past the prime days of October.  “That day, with Ox hobbling beside me, my life, measured in dogs, looked terribly short.”  With those final words, I realized as well, that if Molly is blessed with a long lab life, like Mark, I may only have one more dog to share my fall hunts with.  And maybe that thought, more than any other from this book, is what hung over me on this November day as I slowly, very slowly closed the cover...not wanting the story to be over.

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