Outdoor Adventures: The ritual of bird hunting
Man and dogs in private ceremony
The ritual of bird hunting
By Mitch Mode.
With April, comes baseball. Opening Day; stadium full, blue sky, the fullness of the game. A dignitary (choose between politician, actor, hero, past star of the game; your pick), a dignitary stands on the pitcher’s mound ball in hand, performs awkward windup, launches ball plate-ward. With luck the pitch makes it, does not land short and flutter toward home plate like a wounded bird.
And announcers intone something about, “The ceremonial first pitch.” From that, the game starts and the season starts and you know, on that day, that the season will stretch out for months and better days are ahead but for that moment you have the ceremonial first pitch. From that all things come.
In September comes grouse season; Opening Day, in woods of green under autumn sky. On that morning the season starts and you know it will reach out and that there are better days ahead but on that morning you have a Ceremonial Hunt. And from that all things come.
There is little reason to hunt Opening Day; logic does not carry. Opening of rifle season? Another story. Opening for ducks? A worthy expense of time and energy. But grouse? The season opens with the woods a near impenetrable curtain of greenery; lush and thick and a barrier to views of birds let alone opportunity for a shot. Children, in the old saying, are best seen but not heard; grouse in the early season are heard but rarely seen.
So the opening of grouse season mirrors that of baseball; it starts in ceremony. The first pitch; the first hunt. Harbingers of days ahead and in that, important.
For all that, I did not plan to hunt. Mid September can be too warm; a week ago blazed in heat. Why would this Saturday differ? But it did; forecast called for morning temps in high 30s and that is just about right for man and dog alike.
It would be a short hunt, a ceremonial hunt. The dogs, Riika at thirteen and a half, Thor only 2 years younger, had not run much this summer. Both carry gray on their muzzles, a shroud of age. Add to that the fact that Riika does not like heat. And top that off with the now stonewall-solid fact: Riika is deaf.
She lost a large part of her hearing a year ago. The vet said it’s not uncommon; a steep drop, a plateau, then drop again. So it was with Riika. That, added to her age, added to the sheer reality that she will not hunt forever, all that made it important to hunt with her. She’s an old dog but she has been a brilliant hunter.
Still, the hunt would be largely ceremonial; better days lie ahead.
To hunt with aging dogs is to hunt with both memory of days past and the reality of days to come. In their prime we’d hunt long, ranging hunts, two hours, three hours, longer. In their full they ran hard and tirelessly. We, dogs and I, thought we could hunt forever. Then the years added up, brought weight; the dogs slowed, hunts shortened. And always the question: How much longer will they be able to hunt?
I have said with Riika I will hunt with her as long as she can walk and if she tires after 15 minutes then that is all we will hunt. If the day comes when she cannot do that I will set her in the front seat of the truck, roll down the window so she can take in the scent of autumn, and drive with her.
Now, on a cool September morn, Riika and Thor and I will hunt again in a ceremony we have celebrated for over a dozen years.
I start with coffee. Done properly coffee is ceremony; grind it fresh; measure it out, bring to boil; pour. Coffee done right steadies ones pace as all ceremony does. I drink the coffee, slow and easy. Then I walk to the hallway and lift the dogs’ collars. The collars carry bells and when the bells ring Thor hears them and comes at a run. Riika follows, alerted by Thor’s rush.
I put their collars on, lace up a pair of boots, put a handful of shells (always an even number, part of my ritual; today, eight) in my pants pocket. I ponder over what cap to wear; choose one, hope it’s a lucky one. I tell Sally, “Twenty minutes or so is all we’ll hunt.” I slide shotgun into case, open the door to the yard, lead the dogs to the truck.
We drive blacktop then dirt then pull off and park. A quiet moment; a deep breath; time to take it all in. Then I open the door, the dogs jump down and the hunt begins.
The dogs run out. Riika turns to me and I wave my arm overhead and down as if I was throwing a baseball toward home plate and Riika moves off the road in the direction I’ve pointed.
We walk an old roadway where, when the dogs were young we always saw birds. Now the dogs are old and the woods have grown and we rarely see grouse. But today, against the odds, ten minutes in, a bird flushes. I catch a flicker of wing, a blur of movement; then gone.
The dogs are now fully engaged and I can see both running in the shadow of the thickness, both looking for scent, both hunting, hunting in fullness of their hearts and souls, hunting in the woods of September, hunting again in another season.
I carry the shotgun on my shoulder, walk in fern and the bramble, breathe in the clear air, watch my dogs. They both come back, eyes alive and alight. I meet their eyes, lock in, then send them out again in our private ceremony. As we have done; as we will. For as long as we are able.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit starjournalnow.com