Snow Drift Grouse
By J. Oswald
Hunting Ruffed Grouse in late December is, at its finest, a bit like navigating a minefield. The difference between a real minefield and a late winter stand of popple in Wisconsin is that the bird hunter on tippy-toes is supposed to set one off. Despite my awareness of this possibility, one of these feathered bombs shook me to the core on a cold gray morning; belt-deep in snow in the Chequamegon National Forest.
Two of my brothers-in-law were good enough to humor me with a morning tramp in search of birds. Cabin fever set in early that year, and we left for the Chequamegon before dawn. I clearly remember one of them asking the evening before, “I wonder how deep the snow is in the woods?” The question seemed harmless enough posed over brandy & sevens, and the faint light of morning reassured us with glimpses of some benign scenes through the truck windows.
Twenty minutes later, we discovered the real story when we nearly lost the youngest of my wife’s beloved siblings to the ditch. The poor kid’s shriek turned me from my tangle of gear and shells at the tailgate just in time to see the ditch swallow him to the armpits. A weird day for grouse indeed… sure to cement my claim to the “No-Brother-Good-in-Law-from-Illinois” title.
Once the lad was recovered, we pushed through a tag alder bog rimmed by popple on one side and a raised stand of conifers on the other. The way was punishing, and my mind alternated between thoughts of snowshoes and breakfast specials at the local diner. I paused after the first hundred yards to check on my partners. Both peered back with exhausted, sweaty glances that seemed to imply they were also dreaming of snowshoes and flapjacks.
I smiled back, put on my hat and took a look around. The stand of conifers loomed in the distance, a winter land oasis in an icy desert of tangled brush and deep snow. In this moment of clarity, finding grouse suddenly seemed equal parts absurd and daunting as the complete silence of the surroundings enveloped me. Everything about this place, the merciless snow depth, the total stillness, the numbing cold… it all made me shiver in a new way. How could anything make it out here?
Reassured by a pair of recent deer tracks discovered in the pines, we rested another moment. The relative shelter of the conifer stand from winter winds and deep snow apparently drew interest from more than wayward bird hunters. I began to follow these tracks back towards the road, having all but thrown in the towel on our ill-fated grouse adventure. Struggling through the snow with every bit of energy from body, mind and spirit devoted to placing one boot in front of the other, the sensation of dynamite exploding to my left instantly overtook me. In the nanosecond it took my mind to recoil, the telltale burst of subsonic wing beats softly trailed off while unwelcome snow crystals settled into the void between neck and collar.
In all my days afield, I have never experienced anything as violently foreign and intense as the escape of that wild, snow-roosted bird.
The evidence was left just as an old magazine article suggested; a small fist-sized blast hole flanked by an angelic pair of wing-prints left in the drift-powder upon detonation. I’ve never regretted leaving the camera behind more than in that moment, on a cold, lonely morning in the North Woods.