Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Birdless Bird Hunt

The shortening of days now at the tail end of autumn is something I’ve never been a fan of, but it’s out of my control, so I make the best of it.  Flying home after work, lacing up boots, sliding the 20 gauge into a case and loading the lab seems to be the best way to deal with it.  It’s a half hour drive to my favorite bird hunting spot, which leaves barely 30 or 40 minutes to roam the tall grass prairie to hunt pheasant before the sun sinks.

Birdless?  Well, not entirely true.  Birdless because the safety was never slid off?   That much is correct, like so many hunts-especially in the grouse woods.  Because I missed?  Also frequently true, I’ll never win any wing shooting competitions. Birdless just because Molly and I never had the chance to take a shot or put game in the bag and that was the subjective score.  It still was a bird hunt, a successful one at that.  I’m realizing I frequently write about this same thing over and over-what “success” in a hunt really means and as most of us know, it changes over time.

The “Birdless Bird Hunt” started as the quivering black lab leapt from the back seat, barely waiting for her collar bell and for me to slide 2 shells into the gun.  She seems to sense when we’re almost to the field while driving-her tail thumping speeds up several notches.  The sun is already touching the arched horizon and colors flood the sky.  The birds will have to wait as I pull out a small camera to take home a few images.  Molly isn’t as patient, her nose already pulling her in directions I can’t imagine.  Off we go and I follow the dog wherever scent steers her-I have no agenda to cover the entire field, just to watch her work.

Over the course of the past two seasons, I think I’m starting to read this labs movements; starting to know what she’s sensing and when to be ready… and when to be really ready for a flush. There seems to be a “I think there is a bird here somewhere” search of the grass in front of her and a “I know there is a bird here!” frantic scouring of every inch of ground.  She either slows way down (except her tail) or speeds up to track down a moving bird.  That’s when my thumb slides up to the safety and I scan carefully the terrain she’s probing.  More often than not, the her nose was right and if I trust in it we put a bird in the air.

Flush or not, I’m finding that proudly witnessing a few of those “I-gotta-find-this-bird “ frenzied sessions by Molly is what it’s all about.  As darkness steals the color from the sky, I snap a couple more pictures of tall grass and abandoned sunflowers against a deepening cold blue horizon.  I’m satisfied….cradling the double barrel in the crook of my arm Molly settles in alongside knowing tonight the hunt is over.  Her nose is always working however and pulls her away for a couple detours in the dark.  I slipped the bell off her collar and the gun into its case and settled in for the drive back home, content in knowing that even a birdless hunt can be some of the most enjoyable and appreciated time spent outdoors.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The 30th Twangfest

 2012 marked the 30th anniversary of Twang Fest.  Or thirty-first.  We never know exactly when year one was or we’re just bad at math.  Either way it’s fine, we began this journey while young and are still gathering here in the woods each year to hunt, laugh, sing and just be together.  In the past three decades, so much has changed for all of us, but maybe more importantly, so much has stayed the same-that’s why we’re here.

It’s always hard to explain to outsiders what Twang Fest is, what it means and why we continue each fall.  It’s far more than a bow hunting trip, yet that’s where it all started and that remains at its core.  But if it were only that, I know in my heart we wouldn’t have continued every year for thirty additions.  Life would have moved in and we’d move on  as well.  It’s the hunt and everything else that keeps the calendar marked each November to gather again.

 This journey started while in college-young nimrods in the woods taking a break from classes each Sunday morning for dark drives north from La Crosse to Jackson County.  An entire weekend of camping and hunting would be better it seemed, and Twang Fest was born.  Quickly after the first addition, we moved into the real world-graduation and new careers, families, changes of jobs and in later years sadly, losses to our family.  That was the start and those were the changes and yet we still made time to make it all happen again and again. 

Huddled in a blind the first night I made a note in my journal about all the things that have remained the same.  Twenty years ago the fest began very similarly-my friend Mike and I started a day early and like then, it was raining-didn’t matter, we were so happy to leave the work world behind and start this.  On that date, the rain turned to snow overnight and by the next morning the “Great Halloween Snowstorm” was born.  Even through 20 plus inches of snow, all the Twangfesters arrived at some point and we carried on.  This year, raining oak leaves replaced snow, loosened by the gentle breeze and landing with a thud on the forest floor (amazing how quiet a woods can be). Like twenty years ago, the murmur of the interstate miles away and a distant train horn were background sound only pierced by warning squawks of squirrels.  Yep, being a participant in the hunt, being in the woods and soaking it all in will always remain.

Over the years, “everything else” has included impromptu mid day football games, a mock ridge wedding (coinciding with the first Twangster getting hitched), skits of all sorts (including political debates), documentary footage, scrap paneling bowling, late night hay rides, golf, Friday night steak feeds, campfires and of course music.  I sometimes shake my head in amazement at the talent that dresses in camo each year and provides entertainment at Twangfest.  We are fortunate to have such gifted musicians in our group and it never fails that as soon as the bows are unslung, guitars are out and the music jam begins.  There are almost an equal amount of bow and guitar cases lined up in the camper and each have its place during the weekend.

As in all things that one looks so forward to, it goes by too quickly.  Other obligations pulled one brother away at a time in this 30th year, and by the final hunt Sunday morning, only three made the trip to stands in the dark.  Maybe appropriately, for the last day is a bit melancholy anyway and all too soon everyone has left and all that clings to Twangfest is the dust cloud on the ridgetop dirt road- we’re off heading in all directions back home.

The statement by close friend Norbert maybe summed up some of my feelings as well and kick started how I wanted to write about Twangfest this anniversary year:
“It is a sacred part of my life I don't like to share. …I just want to keep it away from people who don't understand and never will.” 
For those of us who do understand and always have, we will continue until we no longer can lace the boot strings or pull back the bow or strum the guitar…. for everything Twangfest is, most importantly-it remains a sacred part of our lives.