Outdoor Adventures: The end of the season
We leave the house in the gray light of an early November morning. A weekday; a work day. But on this day, first, time in the woods. It is the last day of woodcock season, and the dogs and I will have one more go at them.
We have hunted woodcock from the September opener through the fullness of October, and now, into the spare days of November. On this day the season will end. We hunted in the fullness of September, when leaves were green and lush. The birds would flush unseen behind the screen of greenery. We hunted then not because it was good hunting conditions; we hunted because we could. We hunted in celebration of the end of the long wait for the time to hunt.
We hunted the gaudy woods of October, in the brilliant autumn sun, in woods alive with red and orange and yellow, vivid colors, vibrant and sparkling. We hunted in the heat of the early part of the month, when it was too warm to hunt for very long for fear of the dogs overheating. I’d walk lowlands along small creeks, and where the water backed into silent pools, I’d let the dogs wade in to cool off. Riika does poorly in the heat, and she’d lie in the water, eyes rolled up to watch me, lie there and let the waters cool her. Then, recharged, she’d hunt.
By mid-October, the leaves fell like confetti, as if a celebration of season. Now, November, the trees are bare, save for a few hardy leaves clinging yet to thin branches. Near ground level, the blackberry brambles hold scattered leaf, shades of muted red in the chill November morning.
We have hunted it all, seen the changes from September to November. The woods have gone from a mad world of color to the somber air of the 11th month. If October was New Orleans at Mardi Gras, November is a convent at time of morning prayer; muted and still and painted in shades of gray and drab green and tawny grass and fern.
We have hunted and in that time of hunting, we have seen the world of the Northwoods change. We will hunt on the closing simply because we can, and because we should. We need to properly mark the ending of this season. You cannot do it from a desk.
I tell myself that birds may have drifted in, large, fat flight birds from Canada come to rest and feed and then hurry on south. I tell myself that birds will be in the low land along Riika’s little creek or, if not there, off a ways in the cutover slashing that has now grown to provide cover.
I have no rational basis for thinking this, but all hunters live in some level of self-deceit. Through a hunter’s eye,s it always looks good enough, there is always reason to go forth. If the wind blows from the south, I tell myself the woodcock will hold, not wanting to fly against the wind. If the wind blows north, I think that new birds will move in. East wind, west, I fool myself into finding a reason to go out.
Hunters live in a world of harmless fiction. There is always a seemingly sound reason to round up the dogs, leave the house and find woods to hunt. Birds? We always manufacture them in the same way that next week deer hunters will create their own fictions of bucks on the move to their stand. Are we, hunters, simple optimists? Or simply delusional?
Fifteen minutes into our hunt, I know that there are no birds. In those 15 minutes we have covered a mix of good cover and not seen a single woodcock. If birds were in, we’d have put up one, maybe two. But on this gray morning, nothing. We may still find a bird, but there is no hope of a banner day when newly arrived birds flush wildly and in numbers that can amaze.
Riika is in her glory on this day. She starts the season overweight and out of shape. She simply runs herself into condition over the weeks of the hunt. November is her month, and she runs without pause, the extra weight long since burned off. She fares badly in warm weather; her time comes when the temperatures hover in the 30s, and this is as it is this day. She ranges out ahead, returns to meet my eye, then goes into the thick cover again.
She works hard, and I never fail to look at her in a mix of amazement and affection. This dog that is so sweet and gentle around the house, and hunts as if possessed, driving hard through brush and bramble, ignoring the cuts and abrasions, forcing through the heavy cover, working, hunting, always hunting.
Riika knows no calendar. She does not know that this is the last day of the woodcock season, and that she will not hunt them again this year. She is nine years old, and she cannot hunt forever. She does not know this either.
Her half brother, Thor, is another story. Longer of leg with a good nose, he is built to hunt. And he enjoys hunting. What he lacks is what cannot be bred into a dog, cannot be taught, cannot be coached, does not take hold no matter what: He lacks the passion for the hunt. For Thor, the hunt is a fun time; for Riika, the hunt is the reason to live.
I follow them both in the somber morning when the woods are soft and quiet, as if the world itself is at rest after the burdens of summer and autumn. In November, nature seems to have taken a deep breath, eased itself down and decided the time of hard work and productivity is done and gone, and now it is time to pause to reflect. The woods of November are a restful place; the flat colors of November bring ease to the busy mind.
We hunt three different areas on this day. We do not see a single woodcock. They are gone from these places, as the leaves are gone from the trees and the warmth is gone from the sun and the season is gone. All that we have now are the memories.
We will hunt grouse again if all goes well. And soon deer (the dogs hate deer season, for having to stay inside when I go to hunt.) But on the last day of woodcock season, there is no denying that the prime season of hunting for Riika and Thor and I are behind us. Fall has come and gone, as the woodcock have come and gone. I know this; the dogs cannot begin to.
One last walk along an overgrown road, and we are done. I call the dogs to the truck, case the shotgun, close the door and drive home. The dogs look at me with eyes alight with happiness. On the morning next, they will be ready to go again. But for woodcock, the season is over, and I know this, even if they do not.
The air is heavy, and the sky has weight to it. The next morning it begins to snow. Our season has changed irrevocably, and even the harmless fictions of a hunter can no longer take root in the cold ground.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800.