Outdoor Adventure: Reflections on opening day of hunting season
Grouse season came at the dawning; a morning like the one before, like ones to come, but special for what we make of it. The dogs went to the door as they do every morning, checked the backyard. The eastern sky was brightening, the air cool; a September morning, nothing else.
But this morning was different; this one special; this, The Opening. And with that, unique, for every year may have a season that extends for weeks or months but every season has but one Opening Day. As we mark our lives with days of celebration, of birthdays and anniversaries and Holidays tagged in red on the calendar, as we mark out lives thusly we single out other days for celebration and for us, the dogs and I, Opening Day shines like a polished medallion.
Or it does for me; for the dogs it is simply one more dawn in a life that knows no seasons, in a life in which every day seems special.
Then they see me pull on hunt boots, case the shotgun, reach for the game vest: Then they know, do the dogs, then they know that this day among all others is special. I walk to the cupboard that holds their collars and they watch, heads cocked, eyes locked to mine. The door to the cupboard is tight and when I open it Thor rushes to me and leaps high, eyes on the collar that hangs from the hook on the door. Riika is more patient but no less intent.
I collar the dogs, drape the whistle lanyard around my neck, open the door to the new day and to the new season.
The Opening is clear and chill; light frost touches the ferns in low places; steam rises off backwoods ponds like spirits. It is a day of brilliance and vitality; the mix of clear, dry air; of chill under blue sky; of a splash, ever so slight, of fall color.
Riika and Thor and I hunt, not with expectation of success for the woods are still thick with leaf and both dogs are limited now by age and lack of fitness; but we hunt because the season is open and it is a beautiful September morning. That is motive enough.
I kick up dust as we walk a gravel road; the dogs run wild ahead of me, heady with the freedom of no fences and open air and woods. The sun bears potential for warmth as the season now at hand holds possibility of birds and time spent afield.
We leave the road and step into the greenery of woods and our world changes to a shadowy mix of green and darl, of blue above and green below; of muffled sound. The dogs are gone, off in the thickness and I see them only at times as they run through an open area.
Five minutes into it and Riika breaks into the exited high-pitched yelping bark that signals she is on game and I stop, shotgun poised, all my attention focused on the thick brush off the path as if I will be able to part the leaf and fern and see through. I hear the bird rise, hear the sound of its wings and the sound of bird hitting branch and through it all the sound of Riika’s barking.
I never see the bird. The sound fades. The woods are quiet again. I relax. I call Riika and Thor and when they come up to me I tell them that we’ve had a good start to it all and that an early bird is a good sign. And I believe it. But we never put up another bird in the time we hunt.
Riika has trouble getting into the truck and she turns to me with tired eyes and I lift her up and in. We’ve only been out an hour but I drive home regardless and when I’ve been at work for an hour Sally calls to say the Riika is so achy she can barely climb the stairs to lie on the floor while Sally works.
When I was younger I could run farther and faster and harder and it would not bother me just as my dogs could do the same; run hard and fast without consequence. I know that I no longer can and in that I am different from the dogs that do not know this. They run as they have and when they do, it all comes down, all the years, comes down on them like a heavy weight or as shadows come on a sunny day. Their years measure as ache and pain.
I rest the dogs until mid-week and then go out again on a mild day made heavy with humidity. We go later in the morning the better to let the haze lift and more light come to ground. Still, it is a day thick with gloom, and colors fade and bleed one into another and nothing is distinct or well-defined.
We hunt the same area as we had on Opening Day but on this day no grouse rise unseen in the greenery. It is drizzling but only lightly and I decide to hunt longer.
We turn onto a rutted, muddy excuse of a road. I drive cautiously, the truck slipping and sliding on the slick muck, the deepest ruts filled with brown water and I drive into those ruts with the faith that they hide no sharp-edged rocks or other hazards.
We hunt an area that we have hunted before, in other seasons, a place that looks as if should hold birds but never much does. I go back to it as a matter of misplaced faith that things will have changed for the better. What is it they say of insanity, Doing the same thing but expecting different results? I plead guilty. It still looks good to me, the patch of cutover woods now growing back in a mix of popple and birch and fern and who-knows-what.
I had lunch on Monday with a friend, a forestry scientist whose reputation extends not just to the corners of Wisconsin where he lives but to the corners of this nation and beyond, for he is well regarded in Europe as well. He mentioned, in the off hand manner he has, that Wisconsin has about 30 species of trees and 200 types of undergrowth and in knowing this I do not feel bad for not knowing the names of it all. I just know that grouse like cutover areas that come back thick as the hair on my dogs’ backs and that 5 or 6 or 10 years after the cut grouse will be there.
This area is in that frame of years and it looks good to me even though I rarely see birds.
The dogs move ahead and off to the side and I can only see them as dark movement in the thick brush, their fur matted and charcoal gray, wet from the drizzle. The young trees are very thick and I can see only brief, dark move of dogs or the sudden shake of tree or fern as dog hits it and in this I sometimes can follow their path.
A grouse flushes; then another, and a third and then a fourth and both dogs bark with urgency and I stand, shotgun partway to my shoulder, stand as a statue and look for the shot. It never comes. I never see the birds, not a single one. I never see feather or wing blur nor do I see leaf turn as the bird passes. After a moment or two it is silent again and the dogs run back to me and I tell them they did good. They meet my eyes; they are alive as only they are when they hunt.
Ten minutes later it begins to rain, hard and straight down and we quit and go home. I’m soaked through; the dogs muddy and matted and tired. At home I hang the wet gear, feed the dogs, and they lie on their beds, heads stretched out. But still they watch me, every move I make, as if I might once again put on the boots and reach for their collars and call them to the hunt. Time brings ache to the muscles and weight to the body but the hot fire of desire still burns bright.
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