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After I retired from writing and illustrating a daily newspaper column, I was perfectly happy to stay home and paint pictures of wildlife – for a while. It's funny. After two years of intensely laboring at my lifelong ambition to paint, it became work. In following years I painted less, but I learned to discipline myself, and produced better quality artwork.
Living along the Sugar River near Albany, my wife, Theresa, and I spent more time gardening, hunting and fishing. The muskrats beside the river became numerous. They began burrowing into the riverbank and eroding it; trapping the "rats" became a delightful diversion for me.
One December day we had an early freeze and my traps were sealed in shallow water under an inch of clear ice. I went to check the traps and saw a muskrat caught in the set, so I stamped my boot heel down hard to break the ice. Big mistake. By the time I got into the house, my ankle was swollen black and blue.
Theresa had me soak the injured foot in hot water, then she wrapped my ankle snugly. I limped back to the trapline with an axe to retrieve the rest of my hardware.
It was darn painful moving along the icy bank. I had to stop often to rest my aching ankle. While I stood near a crabapple tree, leaning on the axe handle, I spotted a vertical sucker growing from a horizontal branch from a tree on the shore. It sure looked like an upside-down cane to me. I chopped it off with the axe and gave it a try. That cane not only provided relief, it began a new art form for me.
I carved that first cane nearly 12 years ago in the shape of a drake mallard. I liked it so much that crafting hunting canes became an obsession like hunting pheasants and rabbits. A folding saw and hatchet soon became partners to my shotgun on my outings.
Since then, I'll bet I've carved nearly 2,000 canes depicting pheasants, ducks, geese, elk, fish, fox and even snakes. The "canes" are also useful as putters, hockey sticks or clubs.
I've had many interesting encounters as a consequence of this new hobby. One day my friend, retired warden Larry Johnson, brought me some materials for canes.
"Conservation warden Joe Pelican is retiring, and I'd sure like to send him a hand-carved cane," Johnson smiled. "Here's one that could be shaped like a pelican's head. Wouldn't that be appropriate?"
The crooked portion had a thick growth providing a perfect pouch on the lower jaw for a pelican head. Joe shed a tear when he received the gift. In subsequent years, many of my DNR friends who were resource managers and wardens have brought over raw stock they pruned while working outdoors on stake-outs waiting to apprehend poachers.
Another time, Johnson brought by a flat stone with a swir on it. "When I saw this rock, I could see that it was just perfect for a ram," Johnson said. Some time later, he sent us a note. "I can't look at a flat rock or a bent stick without thinking of you."
Friends began to bring over stones from the Atlantic and the Pacific so I could paint fish, ducks and game birds. Conservation warden Jill Schartner brought rocks from Lake Michigan and retired warden Jim Amundson brought rocks from Lake Superior.
State park manager Alex Olson from Monroe searched and searched, but he couldn't find the right kind of cane.
"We have a big crabapple tree," Olson declared, "but I can't see a cane on it. I'm going to cut it down, load it on my truck and cart the whole thing over here so you can point out where the canes are!"
It wasn't necessary. A week later, Olson found six canes in the rough.
Melissa Griffin from La Grange saw our canes and wanted one for herself. "While I was driving from Wales, I saw a truck loaded with branches that had been pruned from an orchard," she said. "I asked the driver if I could have one big branch. He looked at me kind of strangely and helped me load it on my pickup. That's how I got this cane.
She had scraped the bark and cambium layer absolutely clean – it was perfect for a loon.
For me, the reward in painting rocks and making canes is knowing how much our friends appreciate them. Fish Manager Don Bush in Janesville sent us a card: "Thanks for the northern pike cane. It's great. All my friends are envious, especially those who now limp a little!"
George S. Bachay crafts folk art and fine stories from his Albany, Wis. home. Mr. Bachay is currently pursuing a new passion, writing western romances.