Time to Gather and Go

August 01, 2015

Escape is why I look forward to crossing the Mackinac Bridge, as I have done every October for more than four decades…

As I write this over the July 4th holiday weekend, more than ever I await bird-hunting season. Two weeks ago the Portland tornado destroyed the historic church I attend, and we are still cleaning up the mess. Watching the evening news, I sense the world is less safe than ever. Maybe you, too, worry about disturbing events you can’t control.

If so, you will understand what I mean when I say my normal summer “itch” feels more like an “ache.”

So, it’s high time to pack our truck and go bird hunting. Time to bury the smartphone in the glove box, cancel text-messaging and do what we live for—follow our dog into the grouse woods, pheasant sloughs and quail fencerows across America. After all, we have done this before. I remember a cross-continent journey for native quail species many years ago that helped nurse me back to stability after a divorce that had tipped me upside down.

Tom Huggler with Ragan and Butterscotch on one of the many U.P. bird hunts he has taken over the past four decades. Author photos

Another trip to the Maritime Provinces to hunt woodcock and grouse massaged away the anguish I felt at being dumped by a magazine after a long and loyal writing stint that spanned several editors.

The writer Havilah Babcock had it right—our health is better in November.

That’s why I can’t wait to see my pals and their fleet of dogs in Bird Camp once again. For some 30 years now, we dozen friends have gathered in the Upper Peninsula for a few special days in October. True, we’ve migrated indoors from what used to be a pure camping experience in Spartan digs with no power or running water. I can blame our current need for electricity on the ubiquitous CPAP machine.

Full disclosure: Yes, a few of us watch Monday Night Football on satellite TV, and you’ll likely hear the annoying droid of someone’s cellphone going off. But you’ll also relive the day’s highlights of someone’s setter making her first point, of a camp member coming oh-so-close to nailing a double on woodcock. To be sure–you’ll eat too much of those fat-soaked meals our health-conscious wives don’t need to know about. Someone will bring out the cribbage board, and you’ll get caught up in the game whether you play or watch.

It’s all escape. It’s all good.

Escape is why I look forward to crossing the Mackinac Bridge, as I have done every October for more than four decades. In the early years, before the Edmund Fitzgerald disaster, we turned east to hunt birds and camp on Drummond Island. Now we turn west to better bird covers. Regardless of destination, while creeping over the five-mile-long bridge two hundred feet above a wrinkling Lake Michigan, I feel as though I am running away from something. And if the wind is blowing, the feeling only increases.

At times, though, I confess to being unsure if I am running away or heading toward. What I do know—at this moment in my mind—is that I would appreciate a little bird weight in the game bag. After hunting hard all morning, I’d like to take a rest break under one of those giant Norway pines, shoulder blades against the hefty trunk, and feel rooted to earth once more. If I remembered to pack an apple, I hope it’s a Cortland because no apple quenches thirst better.

When rested, I want to see my tireless setter, Ragan, soundlessly drift through the naked aspens like white smoke. This is the season I hope to witness his flawless retrieve, the result of much professional training. I want to see the pride in Ragan’s warm brown eyes as he brings a grouse to hand, for the first time ever.

Once more I want to feel the joy of slipping on dry woolen socks after peeling off the sodden pair I unceremoniously baptized where the cedar stream was too wide. That place was where the bird flushed again and I finally shot it. Down there in the green gloom, I will know the pungent smell of decay, not unlike the whiff from opening the door to a cobwebbed cellar, a familiar odor that insists—to my nose anyway—of a just-right Rhone Valley red.

In the evening, ice tinkling from a major pour in hand, I hope to sit before a fire that talks to me while I talk to my dog and comb away the burs and pickers, proof indeed that he has done his job and done it well. In gratitude, he may lick the back of my blood-dried hand, scratched raw from the blackberry canes, more proof that today I not only lived but hunted, too.

Armed with Scotch tape, I will piece together the puzzle that once was an intact county guide, a map so heavily notated with dates and flush counts and the names of hunting pals and their dogs that it is unreadable to anyone who was not there with me. How does one part with one’s soil, with one’s history? You can’t and so we have to keep going back.

With luck, the map will take me back to the forked cherry, the one with four branches all pointing skyward like black spires, the same tree whose common pocket yields a gallon of water for my thirsty dog to find again this year.

Maybe we will see the jeweled brook trout making spawning beds in the gravel of that headwaters trickle. And, if there is a good wind this afternoon, we must see if that pasture maple, surely in full-blown color by now, will perform her annual strip tease.

On the long drive home, we will fill a small cooler with store-bought pasties for the family to enjoy. Speaking of family, we will stop by that U.P. restaurant, the little hole-in-the-wall joint that serves the thin Swedish pancakes. We will seek a table overseen by the young raven-haired lady. Last fall she was hugely pregnant, and we have long wondered if she had a boy or girl. With the truck gassed up and pointed south and Ragan seeking feathers while he sleeps on the passenger seat, we will tune in the Lions game to see if they have repented their sorry ways this year. If that doesn’t return us to the world’s realities, then recrossing the Big Mac Bridge will.

Given the uncertain times in which we live, I live for bird hunting. I know I am not alone.