Outdoor Adventures: Comfortably mediocre
The old bird hunting haunts have been thin this year, the familiar roads and thickets quiet to the sound of wing beat of grouse and woodcock. The dogs and I have worked them, pushed through the thick cover, skirted the edges of marsh and creek bottom, walked overgrown logging roads under the brilliant leaf cover of autumn color. We have pitifully little to show for it all.
So, the new plan, to move to new turf, to new forest and tag alder thickets, places I’ve wanted to check out for a few years, but never got to. “That would be the ticket,” I decide, new cover, a new look, birds aplenty, a bountiful contrast to the tried and true that this season was tried but tired.
I would like to do it with both dogs, but no. A week ago, Riika cut her foot and limped across the yard to me. Antibiotics, again. Then infection. More doctoring. And the vet’s casual advice: Rest her for a week or so; no hunting. So for Riika, the ultimate ignominy; unable to hunt in the season that she lives for.
On a late October morning, I pull on hunting pants, case the shotgun, lace up my boots. Riika watches every move. They say, those who know, that dogs can pick up on body language in a manner that humans cannot come close to matching. Thor stands behind Riika, expectant. Sally calls Riika, tells her she’s a good girl and that she can go for a walk. But Riika knows the gambit, and turns to look at me with eyes a mile deep in sadness. Then Sally and Riika leave via the front door, and I call Thor and go out the back door to the truck.
We point the truck in a direction opposite of the norm, and drive out of town to new country.
It looks the same, the new turf. Grouse country has a familiarity to it no matter where you hunt. We find a likely place, then park. The morning has a chill to it. I pull a battered leather glove on my left hand, the hand that holds the forearm of the shotgun, the hand that I use to push brush aside in the thickets where the going is harsh.
Thor runs ahead, tail wagging, a happy dog. He does not hunt as well as Riika, but he enjoys it nonetheless. He has a good nose, stands taller than Riika, moves well. He simply lacks the drive that pushes her. Thor is a happy hunter; Riika is a hunter of passion and hot-blooded desire. On this day, he moves well enough, coursing off to the side into the thicker cover where birds might cower. He comes to the whistle, checks in with me, moves on.
Five minutes in, a grouse flushes, and I take a hasty shot that I know as soon as I pull the trigger, will miss. I say to myself, “You’d think I’d be better at this.” I’ve hunted for decades now, and I miss too often. Ducks, I do OK on ducks. But grouse and woodcock bring out any and all bad habits of a mediocre wing shot, which is what I am.
It used to bother me, and I’d vow to shoot boxes of clay birds for practice during the off-season. But I found that I do not like to shoot clay birds; it bores me. I don’t do it, and at this late stage in my hunting career, it is unlikely that I will change. I go forward into every season with the knowledge that I am not a very good shot, and it no longer bothers me much.
There are things in my life that I’ve done well. The accomplishment of the task at hand takes on a certainty when you do it well. There is a predictability of success. I can do whatever it is, do it well enough and think afterward, “That was nice. I like doing that.” But sometimes something is missing in that scenario. Sometimes when the result is more certain than not, the excitement of success is muted.
When I hunt birds, and take a shot at a moving grouse or a woodcock lifting into a gray sky, there is nothing that I take for granted. And if I make the shot, if I kill the bird cleanly, I think that the satisfaction is greater. It’s difficult to get excited if you can predict your success; it is something else entirely when the bird falls unexpectedly. That is when the reward seems the sweeter.
Thor and I hunt together. We walk territory that is not familiar to us. Each turn in the trail brings a new vista. The land rises in gentle hills, drops away to lowland, where the dark green of spruce highlight the fragile yellow of tamarack. The landscape is somber, the woodland colors tan and brown and understated green. There are those who find this time of year depressing in its sepia color scheme, in the shortening days and chill at daybreak. There are those who find it dreary and unwelcoming.
I find the colors restful, as if the world has slowed and taken a break. Gone are the fireworks of fall color, gone the high blue sky of October warmth, gone the hope of heat. Now the world is a quiet place, the colors a palette of ochre and umber and green. The sky is gray today, with a faint hint of sun behind it. There is a feel of November on this late October day, and I wonder idly that we have not seen snow yet, and it seems that we should have by now.
Thor and I move into a lowland area of tight tag alders. He moves to the side, and a woodcock flushes, but I am so tangled in the whip-thin tags that I might as well be wearing a straight jacket, and the bird flies off. A dozen steps later, a second woodcock lifts, and I raise the gun and kill him as he reaches the peak of his flight. He falls into the mottled brown of the woods floor, and I lift him and hold him in hand. I beam with the sense of accomplishment!
Thor has totally missed this one, but comes to my call. I hold the bird out and he snaps at it as if hungry. I put the bird in the game pocket and tell him, “Two birds, Thor, we’re into them now!” But they are the last birds we see this day.
We do not know that then, and we continue to hunt. We could both be better at all this, that much I know. We are what we are. If you can’t be comfortable in your own skin, you’ve got problems that all the clay birds in the world won’t fix. Thor does what he can; I do the same.
We move together, Thor and I, through the threadbare woods of October, on a day of soft color and a breeze that promises chill, the mediocre hunter with his dog, doing the best we can.
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