Outdoor Adventures: November hunts, dogs, weather and history
We walked, the dogs and I, on a sunny afternoon under a November sun that holds closer to the horizon now; a weary sun, as if worn down and unable to climb higher.
In the open areas and ridge tops the sun shown bright and in the calm areas, sheltered from the wind, in those areas the sun held warmth and for a moment I’d stand and soak it up. It felt good. The sun had power to it and carried memory of warmer days. In those moments it felt like early fall when the sun was high and the day was bright. But early fall had leaf and color and fern; November trees are bare; thin branches empty. On this day snow, an inch, maybe two, blanketed the ground.
When we crested the ridges and worked down into the lowland where spruce grew tight, then the chill would come down on us and the shadows would grow and it would be dark and cool and even though there was blue sky high above us it was as if the low areas sucked up the light. It was darker in the low areas. There was a sense of menace to the shadow. It felt different there; it felt of winter.
There was snow on the ground even in the thick cover and in the shadowy places it seemed gray and lifeless. In those thickets the green of spruce was turned dark; black it seemed, with only a hint of green.
Every weather forecast was calling for snow the next day but as I walked the sunny places and felt the late fall heat from the lowering sun, when I did this the snow and storm seemed far away. Had I not read the forecasts I’d not have thought it was coming.
We did not see many grouse on that day but the dogs worked hard, Thor ranging out far, Riika closer, two sweeping arcs of fur and life. Two days earlier I’d taken them out and Thor had hunted as he never had before. He’s a casual hunter in many ways. Built good with longer legs than Riika and a distance runner’s looseness to him Thor loves to hunt. But Riika lives to hunt and in that there is a difference.
Riika has always been the crazy wild hunter and I say that as compliment. Thor has been more relaxed about it. But in this week Thor, at 10 plus years old, has been a changed dog. On Wednesday he hunted hard and with a brilliance about it that left me somewhat shocked by it. Who was this dog? Looked like Thor but acted like, well, another dog.
He worked into thick stuff, pushed through snowy brush, put up birds; kept at it. He never faltered, never slowed, and by days end I felt as if I had a new dog.
On this day he does the same, working out in wide but not-too-wide sweeps, running smooth and easily with the efficiency of a dog that can go for distance. Riika is shorter and stockier (Sally defends Riika when I question Rikka’s weight: “She’s built like a linebacker” she’ll say). Riika is older by two years but she hunts hard and never stops. This week the two of them paired up in a way they never have.
We did not kill a bird on that sunny afternoon. We walked for an hour and a half and part of the time I just carried the shotgun on my shoulder and let the dogs run. If they went into the thick stuff with noses up and tails wagging, then I’d bring the shotgun down to ready position. When a dog works hard for you to not be ready when they are on birds is an insult to their hard work.
We walked on this day of sun with the knowledge that it was the time in November when big weather can move in and that if the forecast was right we’d have more snow coming and have it soon.
To walk these days of early November is to walk in the shadow of history. Walk in the shadow of the Armistice Day Blizzard: November 11, 1940. Back then they called it that, Armistice Day in honor of World War One vets. Now it’s Veteran’s Day. Back then the day of the storm dawned warm and pleasant and duck hunters went out in light shirts and light boots. They said the hunting was good; huge flocks of ducks were on the move. Nobody hurried home.
And then the sky turned to cloud and then to storm and then it all went bad. Then the snow came and the wind came and the temperature went from 55 degrees to the teens and when it was over more than 50 duck hunters were dead, frozen, most of them.
That storm cast a shadow that reached over the decades whenever waterfowlers go out in November. The dogs and I walked along the open water of a river; deep gray color, the color of a storm sky in November. Duck hunt weather. The waters ran fast, ran cold.
To walk these days of November is to walk in the shadow of history. To listen to the wind blow is to listen for the winds of November as they whipped across Lake Superior on the day the Edmund Fitzgerald hauled anchor and left port: November 9, 1975. The forecast held for wind; they sailed anyway. Wind? What they found was beyond wind; what they found was a gale and they tell, those who were on shore, they tell of a hurricane force.
The next night, November 10, 7:15 p.m.; the big ship gone. Gone to history and mystery and song. Gone on the hard line of the November storm and you cannot walk on this November day without that in mind.
I remember storms on these days of November, big water inland lakes frothy with whitecaps so that we could not launch the duck boat. I remember two feet of snow two weeks before deer season years ago; we went to Telemark Lodge where they had prepped ski trials and we skied like fools for two days. By deer season it had all melted.
You are mindful of this on a November day in the woods or on the water. Mindful of the long shadow cast by the storms of November.
The dogs and I got to the truck and loaded up. Then we drove home and told Sally we’d not killed any birds but that we’d had a good time and that is what counted.
The next day was Monday and it started to snow and it snowed long and it snowed hard and when it was over with we had over a foot on the ground. The forecast held for more snow, then cold and I said to myself, “This may have some staying power”.
In the evening, after dinner I went to the bookshelf and looked over some titles. A book on the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. A collection of Gordon MacQuarrie with his story on the Armistace Day Blizzard. Other stories of November wind and snow and storm.
I chose one, went to the living room chair and sat down. Riika and Thor were asleep on the floor. Outside the snow lay thick and white. I could hear the wind sigh. I thought for a moment of November and storms and how lucky I was to be inside and safe and warm. Then I picked up the book and began to read.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.