In Minnesota’s “First Report of the State Zoologist,” issued in 1892, Philo Hatch said that while ruffed grouse were breeding throughout Minnesota, the bird was most abundant in its northern forests.
In that part of the state, the Slavs, Finns, Croats, Serbs, Italians and Scandinavians who daily climbed down into Mesabi Range mines ground-swatted these birds opportunistically, while market hunters, Hatch wrote, shipped rail cars full of grouse “as fast as about 300 dogs and 700 double-barreled breech-loading shotguns can accomplish their annihilation.”
Knowing little about this history, but feeling an autumn vibe nonetheless, some years ago I pitter-pattered along an overgrown logging trail between Ely and the North Shore. This was the first day of the grouse season, as Saturday will be this year, and Risky, my English setter, careened between the trail’s shoulders, alert in the aspen, spruce and pine for a grouse’s scent.
This was not a glorious autumn day; instead, it was wet and overcast. But I owned free and clear a ’58 Willys pickup parked about a mile back, and also a Model 12 Winchester. Chances were at least reasonable, I figured, that I’d pop a bird or two on the wing. Upbeat, I sauntered ahead.
Few escape autumn’s muse. Albert Camus wrote, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” And, similarly, John Donne: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”
Yet too often nowadays autumn is a mural seen only fleetingly through windshields in which comfortable passersby commit the season’s many splendors, among them flaming maples and sour-red oaks, less to memory than to selfie backgrounds snapped happily into the ether.
Foot-walkers, by contrast, slow-move their way through the season that bridges all too briefly summer’s heat and winter’s snow. Among these are nimrods who tote long guns and heel-up retrievers and pointers. Yawning empty at home, their freezers need filling, and these hunters prefer to lay up a winter’s stock themselves, rather than point to a butcher’s handiwork arranged neatly behind glass.
Quite a few Octobers ago, three friends and I were hunting moose along the edge of the Boundary Waters, tenting on the Isabella River.
The bulls were rutting, and around our campfire the first night and later as we crawled into our sleeping bags, up and down the river the big animals grunted plaintively. Everyone on site was playing for keeps: Vying for cows, the bulls would kill each other if necessary in terrifying brawls, while we, breaking river ice in the predawn dark, paddled from shore, rifles in hand, our birch-bark calls imitating the low bleats of these massive animals, daring them to show themselves, and give us a shot.
September, October and November inspire recollections like these, which often stand in relief to those from more mundane seasons. Inspired as well at this time of year are musings about whether, by blood or spirit, we are connected most closely to those who have come before us — including the Slavs, Finns, Croats, Serbs, Italians and Scandinavians Up North, and the market hunters, too — by our autumnal compulsions.
A few weeks ago, I was in Alaska huddled around a Yukon stove beneath a tarp that only partly warded off a cold daylong rain that would turn to snow. My older son and a couple of his friends and I were hunting caribou, and we had been dropped off one-by-one by a Super Cub pilot who as quickly throttled noisily over the nearby mountains, headed back to Fairbanks, 125 miles distant.
One of the boys had killed a caribou that day, and we had packed its quarters a couple miles to the camp we had pitched along a gin-clear stream whose water we drank unfiltered. Swinging the quarters from a meat pole, we hoped the area’s grizzlies would feast on the caribou’s distant gut pile and leave its primer cuts to us.
Beneath the tarp, then, out of the freezing rain, we sizzled small pieces of caribou atop the Yukon stove whose fire smoldered with too-wet willow and spruce. Finishing the meat rare, we folded it into foil pouches of freeze-dried lasagna and teriyaki chicken. We had hiked 6 mountainous miles that day, glassing for caribou while intermittently tucking for cover from tempestuous winds. Now, decompressing, we settled in as one of the boys recited Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee”: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun/By the men who moil for gold;/The Arctic trails have their secret tales/That would make your blood run cold … ”
Decamping, soon, to our tents, we stashed our wet boots and slept, too tired to worry whether bears would find our meat, or us.
I don’t have the Willys pickup anymore, and long ago I sold the Model 12 Winchester.
But autumn’s cooler days are upon us, and the other morning while leading a horse to pasture, the sun’s low angle got me to thinking about that overgrown logging trail between Ely and the North Shore.
I’ve got a couple of dogs in the kennel, eager to go, and a Browning 20-gauge side-by-side that swings easily in the woods. Chances are reasonable, I figured, if I revisit that trail, I’ll pop a bird or two on the wing.
Upbeat, I sauntered ahead.