In a year of uncertainty, hunting provides tradition
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
A week after it fell, the October snow remains and in the deep ruts on the old logging road the muddy water pooled there has frozen. There is a bite to the air that calls to mind late November. The season passing has come early this year. The cycle has hastened ahead of schedule. It is early for the change but it is what we have this year when any semblance of normalcy is tossed to the winds. In a year when all seems topsy turvy, why expect the weather to run on track?
The gaudy riot of October color is memory; fallen leaf litters the ground, brown and fading where the snow does not cover. A few weeks ago the trees were crowned in gold. Now they stand bare. The small, shallow lakes on the drive to the woods are skimmed with ice. There is a restlessness at the uncertainty. What one takes for the norm is shown to be smoke and mirrors and all has changed.
“I hunt in the company of the ghosts of the old dogs, hunt in the presence of memories of other hunts and other hunters.”
I walk the harsh ground with Bella. She is near five months old, long-legged and thin of body, curious about the world. Big enough to get into trouble; too young to recognize it. Old enough to walk the woods; inexperienced enough not know exactly why.
I carry a shotgun and around my neck a whistle on a lanyard and, on another loop, the control to an e-collar. At the lowest setting the collar sounds a tone and vibration; next up a light shock. Higher, more. We walk a ragged road of mud and rut and rock, familiar to me; I hunted this with the old dogs, Riika and Thor.
I hunt in the company of the ghosts of the old dogs, hunt in the presence of memories of other hunts and other hunters. I hunt this season for the rock-solid familiarity of something I have done all my life and which at its heart remains unchanged in a world when all has changed as we move adrift into a new normal.
I had hoped for a crystalline day of bright sun and clear air when detail stands sharp and everything seems well defined. Instead, a hazy drawing down of horizon under lowering cloud. When I look into the woods the shadows blur and the mottled snow and dirt lack clarity. It is a dreary day, sulky and moody.
Bella moves out ahead of me and I stop and reach for the whistle, let her go and then give three sharp whistles. She stops. I whistle again and she comes back at a run, long ears flapping like wings. She sits next to me. I give her a treat and tell her she is a good dog and then we go again.
The two track follows the contours of the landscape, rises and falls and turns on itself. On the sides are mixed woods and brown ferns and the occasional leaves of blackberry thicket. Good grouse cover.
The crusted snow crumbles under foot. It looks to have strength but that is an illusion, it is not what it appears to be. It is too granular to hold fresh track. We cross aged sign; deer track, snowshoe hare, another hunter who passed this way days ago.
The only grouse we’ll see goes up on my left and I raise the shotgun, track the bird in flight and pull the trigger. I miss. There are certain shots that when missed do not bring remorse; they are makeable but not with a very high percentage. I don’t feel bad for missing those. Others should have a bird on the ground and after those I berate myself to no end. This was one of those.
At the sound of the shot Bella stops short and turns to me, inquisitive but not fearful. I call her and she comes to me and I give her the spent shell to sniff and take in the evocative scent of just-fired powder and flash.
I am certain I did not hit the bird but we push into the brush and look regardless. There is nothing.
Bella and I walk in a ragged circle, out on the threadbare road to a Y, veer to the north and then cut back off trail into the woods. In the woods the world draws in on us. Thin trees stand in ranks as if at attention. Their spindly silhouettes reach to a sky of pewter gray. The trees are the color of bone. There are patches of balsam bearing needles of somber green.
Bella’s coat of ashen gray patched with chocolate brown matches the mottled forest. When she stands still she blends in. I think to myself I should get her a brighter color collar or a blaze vest. Then she moves and I can watch her, long legged like a colt, nose taking in the world and if my world is in tone of grays and muted color her world of scent must be as a kaleidoscope.
We move slowly, deliberately. We do not see grouse and any woodcock must surely have flown out in the wake of the snow and hardened ground.
Bella stand in the grayness of popple trunks and her color matches the color of the trees and her long legs match their profile. For a moment she reminds of an old Bev Doolittle painting where living, breathing animal or hunter merges with stolid trees and one cannot see where the one begins and the other ends.
She looks at me, then moves out to the edge of my vision. She hesitates for moment. Will she come or go? I raise the whistle. She turns to me, running in the deep cover, bounding like a spirit of Halloween over the downed trees.
After an hour she tires. She gets into the truck, curls up on the front seat, falls asleep. We drive home on an October day that seems like November and wonder what will come next.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.