The flaming maples were losing their battle as the pile of crimson leaves beneath them told their story, one that had played out this time of year for centuries. Their show had been splendorous one. The lead role of this play had now been turned over to the drama filled Aspens. The morning breeze created a quaking sea of gold as far as the eye could see.
My senses were filled with the smell of a decadent mixture of decaying vegetation and fermenting berries. A smell that evoked distant memories of October hunts and four legged partners. I smiled as my mind drifted off. I have been so blessed to have shared my time with some amazing dogs, I thought to myself.
My young Springer spaniel bounded effortlessly through the brush in front of me, searching the air for familiar scents. The autumn forest is alive with scents like no other time of year. I can only imagine what it smells like through the nose of a dog.
Suddenly Jake’s mannerisms changed. A sense of excitement appeared in his tail and his searching narrowed to a clump of grass near the balsam ridge. The young ruffed grouse had been betrayed by its own scent, one that Jake knew well. Jake jumped skyward as the bird flushed with an eruption of air beneath its wings. As young birds tend to do, its instinct was to fly upward away from the dog. I gently squeezed the trigger. Jake returned excitedly to my side to share his prize and relish the attention he was about to receive.
A perfectly camouflaged masterpiece, each feather carefully created for protection. Not just from the owls, foxes, and coyotes, but from the biting cold of winter as well. Its tail feathers make an elegant fan, perfect for spring drumming on the falls aspen logs and the dance that will impress potential mates.
The grouse numbers are near the bottom of their cycle, so I decide that one will satisfy my hunger. I decided to wander back towards the lake to retrieve my small pan, can of beans, and butter from my canoe. As we worked our way along the edge of the small bog, crossed the creek and headed towards the ridge leading to the lake. Two more flushes as we reached the tree line, but I had already decided that one was on enough on this clear, crisp October morning. We followed the deer trail which paralleled the ridge. I had to admit that I was daydreaming as I walked, trying to bottle this day to be reopened in February on a cold winter morning when the wind is blowing out of the northwest and am sitting in front of the fireplace.
My daydream came to an abrupt end as Jake wandered near an old Aspen that had blown down. The huge buck was tucked tight against the large tree that blown down during last summer’s storm. Not twenty yards from the trail we were following, near the top of the ridge, a perfect place to enjoy the autumn sun, without fear of an approaching pack of hungry wolves. I’m sure he was watching us approach him, feeling confident in his hiding place and ability to escape over the ridge. But as we approached, Jake caught his scent and turned his attention to the fallen aspen. My day dream was interrupted by a loud familiar snort, and a flash of white as the buck broke cover, his huge antlers reflecting the sun. His broad shoulders and massive chest meant that this was no ordinary deer. Many long winters had hardened him. His graying muzzle told his age. As quickly as he appeared, he vanished into the near-by bog, another treasure for those long, cold winter days. I smiled and rubbed Jake’s head as he nuzzled up against me.
I spend the next few minutes gathering a few small branches and a curl of birch bark to be placed neatly between two flat pieces of granite for a stove. The air was filled with the smell of melting butter and the warmth of the sun returned me to my day dreams as the grouse cooked slowly over the fire, taking on a smoky flavor. It all felt surreal as the sound of whistling wings interrupted my day dreams this time, a pair of buffleheads who would soon join others on their journey south, flew just over our heads.
Jake watched intently as I took my first bite of the sweet white meat and closed my eyes to savor its juices. When I opened them, he was staring directly at me…..No words necessary. The next bite was for him. We shared the small bird, the warmth of the sunshine and the sound of the waves against the shoreline, getting lost in the flames of the small fire.
In a moment, I was transformed to a small lake in early June. My children and I had paddled all day long to reach the far end of the narrow lake, stopping at the small reef near our camp site to catch a few golden walleyes for dinner. With the tent set up on a small, flat spot between two huge white pines that had been spared during the timber harvests of the past, it was the perfect place to enjoy the sunset. My son stood on the shore, casting as my daughter helped me prepare the shore lunch potatoes, beans and fried walleyes over the camp fire. The smell of white cedar permeated the camp site. For a moment, my children were little again and we were exploring the boundary waters canoe area together.
My daydream ended abruptly as Jake shook the lake water from his coat, pay back I suspect for not sharing the last bite of grouse with him. The sun dipped below the tree line and it suddenly didn’t seem so warm. A light breeze whisked its way down the lake. It was a near perfect day. Jake lay close to the fire, the light flickering against his coat, his eyes closed. I pondered what was going through his mind…….what do dogs dream of?
A month later, I sat quietly in my deer stand as I had for many years on the first weekend of November, one last chance to enjoy the woods before the winds of winter began to blow. My stand of choice wasn’t always the most productive stand, a spot chose for its simplistic beauty and memories of past hunts. Sitting off a black spruce point, in a bog filled with sphagnum moss and willow brush, it had grown in a lot since I was young. A deer could pass me completely out of sight these days. The early morning light was a pale pink and a few shots rang in the distance. An inch of fresh snow had fallen overnight, just enough to cover the tops of the hummocks of sphagnum. A covey of sharp tail grouse cackled back and forth as they searched for the cranberries, now covered in snow. A large group of snow buntings swept in and landed in a near-by birth tree to be joined by a few curious chickadees. A crisp November morning is the deer stand is a treasure worth savoring.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of movement in the brush. Moving slowly, the doe nibbled on browse as she moved. She came to the end of the brushy point and paused momentarily. I have always enjoyed hunting in the bog. The deer don’t seem quite as wary, even in wolf country. The young doe moved slowly from the brush on a trail worn deep on the sphagnum moss over many seasons. She paused briefly and casually looked over her shoulder, giving away her traveling companion who remained hidden in the brush, most likely her fawn who had gotten distracted. The doe continued along the trail which would lead her within fifteen yards of my stand. My heart rate picked up despite many years of hunting. She worked her way cautiously towards me, pausing occasionally to look over her shoulder and flip her tail as a sign of reassurance. My eyes searched the brush for any sign of movement……Nothing. As she passed my stand, I heard him. A long guttural grunt from somewhere in the tangled mass of willow. Again she turned and glanced, followed by the reassuring tail flip. Another grunt, this one longer, sounding similar to that of a cow. My heart started to race as my eyes strained. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, he stood just inside the brush, the sun shimmering off of his freshly polished antlers…..his gray muzzle and broad chest now in clear sight.
My mind escaped to the warm October afternoon, the clear blue sky and shimmering aspens. I could smell the camp fire and the butter in the pan. I could taste the sweet meat of the grouse and feel Jake rubbing against my shoulder for attention.