The dog was awake before my alarm was. He’s not a hunting dog, but he knew when I laid boots, and shells, and a gun case out the evening before that I was planning an early morning excursion.
He followed me to the bathroom in the pre-dawn, and his tail thumped hard against my thigh as I brushed my teeth. For a brief moment I considered taking him with me, but he’s a big dumb rescue dog that likes to zoom and bound headlong through the woods. He would have fun, but every bird for a hundred-yard radius would be busted and even if one flushed in range, the big white frame of the Husky-Shepherd-coyote-whatever mutt that he is would almost certainly be between the barrel and the target.
So, I patted his side and softly sighed as I told him “Not today, pal.” As dogs are, he was unoffended and trotted back to the bed, hopping up and making himself comfortable on my side of the mattress with a stretch and a groan.
I dressed in the dark, feeling somber and tired and not as enthused about the prospect of chasing ruffed grouse in the county crown lands as I had been when my head hit the pillow the night prior. In the kitchen I grabbed a granola bar and threw back a glass of milk while a purring tomcat circled my calves and tried to get me to feed him. I nudged him aside with my foot and he trotted to the door and took to rubbing his face on the corner of the gun case. I bent down and with one hand picked up the case, while I used the other to scoop up the cat. I set the cat on the edge of the couch, and I swung the door open to set the gun case on the porch, followed by my boots and my ammo box. Indiana Jones-style I grab my blaze orange hat just as I have the door swinging shut.
It was cool and breezy that Thanksgiving Monday. It had been raining for the last hour or two, but by the time I put my boots on and surveyed the coming morning from my porch, it was barely a sprinkle. I was bulldozed by the silence; in the very early morning of a long weekend in October, no other people were up driving the suburban streets of my neighbourhood.
I pulled out and in minutes was headed down a county road towards a tract of Simcoe County Forest that I’d been hunting for more than a decade. The radio was jarring babble so I switched it off as quickly as I’d put it on. I headed down the road in pensive silence, never encountering another vehicle.
Things were not great. Now I know that as an employed, well-fed, generally healthy, middle-class white dude in Canada my worst day is a lot of other people’s dream day, but that also doesn’t preclude things from sometimes getting shitty. A high-pressure project at my 9 to 5 with an imminent and pressing deadline. Two kids, that frankly are simultaneously wonderful and absolutely maddening, were going through a maddening phase full of pre-teen drama, stressing my wife and I and taking up a large piece of our relationship. Fall chores around the home needed doing before winter hit, and a further litany of self-inflicted commitments that loomed large all combined to put me in a bad spot mentally.
Irritable. Apathetic. Terse. Weighed down. Tired.
I took the time on the drive to try to organize my thoughts and reconcile all of the puzzle pieces, but that made it worse, so I just thought about the woods as I drove westward. The late-setting full moon glowed like platinum ahead of me as it snuck in and out of the wispy clouds. It disappeared behind the trees for good as I turned onto the gravel road that led to the forest that I intended to wander that morning.
I pulled off to the soft shoulder and popped the trunk, fishing a double handful of .20 gauge shells out of an old cardboard box that was sitting open on the front passenger seat. I grabbed way more than I needed really, but there’s no optimism like that in the mind of an upland bird hunter before they start walking, so I stuffed my pockets and zipped them up. Walking around to the back of the vehicle, I reached into the trunk and unclasped the hard gun case that had seen close to thirty-years of hunting trips, before softly slipping the trigger lock off the one gun I covet more than any other.
A smooth, sleek, light, intuitively-pointable Ruger Red Label Over/Under. It is dad’s gun and I find myself borrowing it every fall in that period after the opening of grouse season. I shot my first wild game (a single snowshoe hare ahead of a beagle) with it in the winter of 1994, and I have been fairly adroit with it chasing ruffed grouse for the last five or ten years…when I can get my hands on it.
I flipped the lever on the top and the gun fell open invitingly. Dropping two rounds in I flipped it closed with a snug ‘thunk’, checked the safety, and started down the bush road. A blue jay scolded me as soon as I was past the gate at the roadside, and somewhere deeper in the bush a squirrel chattered and barked an alarm at my blaze orange and faded denim frame in response. A thought that I might kill that squirrel crossed my mind, and I filed it for future consideration.
Right then my thoughts were only of plump ruffies, intruded upon now and then by a wave of all of life’s problems.
The woods were splendiferous in their colour, and although many trees clung to leaves that were still green, birches and elms and oaks in their various hues of yellow and orange were mixed in and here and there the woods were spiced in flashes by blood-red flames of fall maple leaves. Nature abhors a straight line and everywhere she was trying to rub out the tidy, arrow-like rows of pine trees planted by the county, and she was having some success with ferns, and saplings, and thorn bushes obscuring the understory. The pines, for their part, had been shedding needles for years and years, making the trails pillowy soft and hushed under my bootheels. Still early in the autumn, many of the trees still held many or almost all of their leaves and their limbs reached for one another over the trail to make a cathedral ceiling painted in a kaleidoscope interference of fall foliage. For a while I think I was just walking in a trance and staring at leaves, not really looking for grouse, just listening for their peeping calls or for the abrupt whirring of wings.
Solo hunting ruffed grouse without a dog is not for everyone. It is long on walking and short on action. It can be chokingly thick in some areas I frequent, and just as often as not the clever little buggers will hunker down until I walk slowly by before thundering off with a startling thrum of clumsy, short wings headed back the way I came. My strategy has always been the same when doing this on my own: walk the trails until one flushes, shoot it if I can, or mark it’s flight path and stalk slowly up on the bird, hoping to get a crack at it on a second (or sometimes third) flush. I do this with that lovely Red Label when I can, holding myself to wingshooting as often as possible. When that particular gun is not availed to me, I will resort to a .22LR, which takes wingshooting completely off the table, but does pose its own unique challenges in stalking up on the deceptively cagey little birds.
I was forty minutes into my morning when the sun finally broke through the clouds and began to warm the day. About this time, I found a wide, open clearing to one side of the trail, and I stepped into it almost unconsciously. In all directions all there was to see were the orderly rows of pines and their shed needles blanketing the forest floor. Here and there a low stump served to memorialize a tree taken down, and I found one appropriately wide enough to serve as a seat. I leaned the gun against a tree a few feet away and just sat there. For how long, who knows. Couple of minutes at least.
Some chickadees flitted around, and far off a crow rattled a staccato series of calls. The breeze lifted and fell. Another blue jay screeched and flew by, and I just looked at the forest and listened. For some reason, I looked at the gun’s blued steel coldly stark and the rich brown wood gleaming in the morning sun, and I was struck by melancholy thoughts.
Someday dad won’t be around anymore, and all that will be left will be memories.
Memories and guns.
Then another thought.
Someday I won’t be around anymore, and all that will be left will be memories.
Different memories and different guns.
What kind of stories will those be?
You see, not every hunting story we churn out is a feel-good tale.
Then as quick as those thoughts came, before I could neither dismiss nor dwell on them, I was startled back to the task at hand. Not by feathers, but by fur. A big black squirrel (I like to think it was the same one I had heard at the roadside earlier that day) was headed my way, bounding from tree to tree and he was making some racket. Hot on his tail was another big black squirrel, chirping and barking to raise hell. It became quickly apparent that they were going to run through the treetops in front of me, flush broadside.
As though by magic I found the gun in my hands, and my eyes set on an opening that I was sure they would have to jump through. I began to swing the gun up, and as it always has it shouldered like a dream, like it was made to measure. As the first squirrel made the leap between two limbs, I painted the stretched length of his shiny sable body from tail to nose, right to left with the shiny bead on the top barrel. As I saw daylight between barrel and snout I did it.
“Bang.” I went softly in my head.
His nemesis didn’t flinch at my movement and kept chasing recklessly forward. As he sprang through the air, I did the same to him. They rambled onward down the line of trees, skittering and knocking down acorns and tree bark until they faded from earshot and I smirked, pleased at my virtual double and sure I would have bagged the brace of them had the mood struck me.
You see, squirrels weren’t on the menu that morning, and as it turns out ruffed grouse weren’t either. I found some things that made my morning better, like the side-by-each tracks of a doe and fawn pawing acorns out of the pine needles or the redneck-ingenious mineral lick bolted to a tree inside an old wooden wall sconce. I eventually came out to the gravel road, opened the action and slung the gun in an inverted “V” over my shoulder, walking slowly back to my car, barely interested in firing a shot really. A truck rolled down the road towards me, gravel crunching and popping from under the tires, and a smiling elderly man slowed and rolled his window down.
“Any luck?!” He shouted in the way that old folks do when I believe they are hard of hearing.
“Not today.” I shouted back, over the hum of his engine and with a head shake in case he’d missed it.
“That’s ‘cause yer on the road! Got to get into the bush if you wanna kill somethin’” He shouted and laughed hard at his joke, and I couldn’t help but laugh back realizing I had a broad, involuntary smile on.
“Think I’m about done anyways,” I yelled “that’s me up there.” and I nodded to my car.
He shouted “Thought so…well better luck next time then” and started to roll his truck forward while powering up the window, giving me the universal head nob that means a respectful, rural goodbye. I gave him a little wave and touched the brim of my cap before walking down the roadside back to my ride.
But I did feel better. Lighter. Not quite so downtrodden. The outlook wasn’t as gloomy anymore.
Maybe because I had been hunting and even though my morning was over, I had seen nature doing what nature does everyday; regardless of whether I even pulled the trigger, the outdoors have always been therapeutic for my family and I, after all. Maybe on account of the human connection I had just had with that old fella, maybe because of his broad, infectious laugh. Maybe for the way he was just driving around the forest and country roads early on a fall morning like I remember my grandfather doing with me when I was small.
There were still the problems of the real world to deal with, and as I write this I’m speeding through the night air towards Edmonton, about to tackle that big project milestone. But in that morning, just after I stood under a blue sky to put that gorgeous gun away and drop all the shotgun shells back in their box in orderly rows, as I drove home to an ever-growing list of things to do and to manage two boys who make life a joy and a headache, I stopped to get my wife a coffee, with the intent that we could just sit and connect with each other before it all got busy again and I flew across the nation and another line got added to our to-do-list.
And when I pulled into the driveway, it all felt just a little less heavy. But that’s the outdoors for you.