Our dogs live for places and moments like this. Whether or not game is harvested or even seen is of little importance. What's important is the time
and experiences we share with them. Pictured here is the author with Buddy.
The bells of autumn
A grouse hunt awakens the senses and revives memories of a beloved dog.
It was just the kind of day I had been waiting for. The temperature hovered in the low 40s with a light northwest wind gently rattling the golden leaves of the quaking aspens in my yard. Overnight a cold front had moved through, bringing with it some light rain and noticeably colder temperatures. In its wake this day were clear blue skies which foretold of steadily falling temperatures, and by morning, the season's first frost. The birds, insects, plants and animals all sensed the change and were busily preparing themselves for what was coming. So was I.
As I spent a good part of the day readying my yard and garden for the approaching winter season, my mind was busy planning an evening grouse hunt. I had actually begun planning this hunt back in March, but I had been waiting for the first real day of autumn, though the calendar claimed that was three weeks earlier. I didn't want to waste this hunt on a warm afternoon with the woods still green and buzzing with mosquitoes. The setting had to be just right.
Though grouse season runs from the middle of September to the end of January, this October is what I had longed, sometimes impatiently, an entire year for. I knew a place.
After crossing a small fallow field as I walked through a shaded stand of balsam firs and scattered large white pine, I rousted a barred owl from its roost. Leaving the darkness of the conifers I stepped into the dappled light of the hardwoods, the sunlight revealing brilliant orange sugar maples and the crimson of red maples. I wish I had the words, but maybe it is enough to just say it was beautiful. It has always been a lament of mine why this beauty has to be so short–lived. I guess it is the relatively brief life of autumn in which so much activity must be crammed into a few short weeks that makes us treasure every moment of it.
My destination was close now so my mind started to focus earnestly on the hunt at hand. Looking up a small rise my eyes came to rest on a large red oak spreading its gnarled branches skyward. The oak stood guard above a steep ridge which descended into a mixed forest of balsams, quaking aspen and red maples. Beneath the trees was a layer of thick brush, hazelnut and blackberry mostly, the berry leaves a brilliant red in the October sunlight. It was the kind of place that neither a grouse, nor I, could resist.
Reaching the oak, I took a seat at the base, leaning back against its mighty trunk, and surveyed the landscape below. This was a great spot for a wanderer to rest the legs and let the eyes do the wandering. Having done just that so many times, I felt so much richer than any Wall Street banker will ever know. My eyes having finished their trek across the landscape, now closed so that I could begin my hunt.
With the kaleidoscope of fall colors no longer blinding me, I began to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, the light breeze on my face as it made the oak leaves sing. The dank, earthy smell of the soil and leaf litter, which would be growing thicker soon as leaves continued to fall and plants were laid low by impending frosts, filled my nostrils. Above this bombardment of the senses rose a sound that cocked my ear.
There! At first it was hard to decipher as it was thin and wispy, as if distant. It was becoming clearer now, closer. It was the unmistakable tinkling of a bell, a sound I loved, a sound I would never forget. In my mind's eye I saw the dog, a chiseled springer spaniel, working out from a thick patch of balsams, his rear end wiggling wildly as he decoded a litany of scents known only to him, looking for that one that made his life worthwhile. As he neared a blow down, I noticed his wiggling intensify and on cue, a bird flushed, and soon after, a second. The first was an easy straight away shot and the bird crumpled and fell into a casket of bracken ferns. The second bird veered sharply to the right, and as it sailed behind a screen of balsam boughs, the shot did not feel true.
After retrieving the first bird to my hand, my guide went looking for the second bird but to no avail. Over the years I have grown to trust his ability and his wisdom on such things without question, so I have no doubt that my shot missed. In that same time he has grown accepting of my propensity to fail to put a bird in his mouth, but if he held a grudge against me for that, he did not show it.
We sallied onward, jumping grouse here and there. A single flushing wildly from a fortress beneath a huge oak limb, which had broken off during an ice storm, was brought down with a shot the dog would call lucky, though I would argue required some level of skill. I know he is perplexed how I can pull off shots like this from time to time but miss easy flushes as often as not.
Though in many ways he is much smarter than I, little did he know the real reason behind this inconsistency in my shooting prowess was done for his benefit. I was more than happy to leave the woods with one or two birds in the game pouch. His excellence at flushing birds required me to miss many that I had no intention of killing, but knew that the shot would make his heart race with excitement. This shame I brought upon myself as a poor wing shot I did for the noblest of reasons — love and friendship. There were times as we sat and took a break from the hunt that I looked into his eyes and sensed he appreciated that.
Approaching a thicket of hazel and blackberry, the dog became birdy. He rushed headlong into the tangled mess, leaving me to fight through it as best I could. Suddenly I noticed the sound of the bell beginning to fade, becoming more distant.
"Buddy!" I yelled. No response. "Buddy!"
My eyes opened at the second call. I realized that I was again back in this mean world in which time did not stand still but ticked insidiously forward. My hunt was over, but what a hunt it had been. I let my eyes wander again and I marked a huge oak on the side of the ridge, the victim of a violent wind that pulled its roots from the ground. From under that blow down one December day Buddy had flushed seven grouse one right after the other. I knocked down two of the first three. The last four I let go and called a truce for that season. I would never forget the excitement Buddy felt that day.
The sun sinking in the western sky signaled that I begrudgingly rise to my feet to begin the journey back home. I hated to leave as this was such a special place, a restful place. It was here under the big red oak that I left him in March to keep watch over the thickets below. I am sure it is a common lament of all who share their hunts with a dog as to why the time has to be so short. It is the relatively brief life of a dog in which so much to do must be fit into the 10 or 15 years they are given that makes us try to treasure and remember every moment.
As I walked back through the darkening woods, the excitement of the hunt began to fade, and a more somber mood crept into my being. Pushing through the thick balsams and into the field, I heard it.
There! That distant tinkling just as before. Up above the long grass I saw the head of a springer bouncing up and down as it ran to greet me. For a moment I wanted to believe it was Buddy, but instead I was greeted by his younger brother Buck whom my wife had let out the back door. As he excitedly jumped around me, I knew it was not fair to Buck that I felt a tinge of disappointment, but at that moment I did.
Still, the cloudless orange horizon hinted that tomorrow would be another day perfect for grouse hunting. There were other places where Buck and I could go to continue making our own memories. And like Buddy, he seemed to accept the fact that he was doomed to do the dirty work for a lousy wing shot.
Ron Weber writes from Weyerhaeuser, Wis.