Points North: Beyond the beaten path, grouse await

Ruffed grouse
Ruffed grouse

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Abby wanted to go hunting. Although it is difficult for the old dog to even climb into the cab of my small pickup, much less go for more than a short walk, she still enjoys spending an afternoon in the grouse woods. She doesn’t seem to mind that she must stay in the truck while the young dog and I walk in the woods. Like many old hunters, she just likes being there.

It was the weekend, so the forest roads were bustling with bird hunters, leaf-lookers, moose hunters and cabin-goers driving everything from foreign sedans to pickups pulling big trailers to all-terrain vehicles. Despite all the traffic, hardly anyone was actually in the woods. These days, very few people venture more than 100 yards from a parked vehicle. My dog and I are among the few.

I turned off the gravel onto an old logging road paved with knee-high grass. I drove in a short distance and parked in an opening where there was room to turn around, positioning the truck so Abby would be shaded in the cab. The dogs and I got out and strolled to a nearby beaver pond, where Abby waded deep enough to get her belly wet. Then we walked back to the truck. Abby was willing to continue walking, but I knew her tired old body wouldn’t take her very far. I coaxed her back into the truck, knowing she would soon be asleep. Then Tanner, my yellow Lab, and I went a-hunting.

The beaver pond is part of a series of dams that floods the logging road and blocks motorized travel. The road, last used by loggers perhaps 20 years ago, continues on. I crossed the creek on beaver dam and picked it up on the other side. Although I hadn’t walked here since Abby was a pup, the old clearcuts were now undoubtedly prime grouse habitat—a mix of 20-something aspen and balsam fir.

In the absence of motorized traffic, thick alder brush had grown up in the roadbed. Only a well-used game trail kept it passable. Most of the trails I walk for grouse are this way. In Cook County, it is pretty easy to find old logging trails that are not overrun with ATV traffic, as they are elsewhere in the state. I suspect this is because there are too few whitetails to attract deer hunters, too many of whom rely on ATVs to get to their hunting grounds. No one else really has any incentive to venture off the beaten path. I pretty much have trails like this one to myself. Rarely do I encounter even a human boot track, much less another hunter, when I’m rambling around for grouse. I like it that way.

The dog bounded out ahead, disappearing in the jungle-like growth and dense foliage. In thick cover, I more often hear grouse flush than see them. Often, they’ll flutter into a nearby tree, occasionally flushing again and offering a shot when I approach. We didn’t go far before the dog put up a bird. It may have landed in a tree, but I couldn’t find it. A while later, the same thing happened with a second bird.

We’d been walking for a while when I glanced at my watch. The time was 5 p.m. I decided to walk until 5:30 and then turn around, leaving plenty of time to get back to the truck before dusk. I wasn’t concerned about getting lost. The trail went due west, so my exit strategy was simply a matter of following the compass due east. In these days of using satellites to know your exact position, relying on a compass may seem old school. Guess I’m not ready to trade woodcraft for technology.

While the game trail was easy to follow, the road was less easy to discern. Aside from small openings, likely the remains of old log landings, there were few landmarks other than a small cobble-bottomed drainage crossing the trail. In places, young white pine, paper birch and white cedar were growing in the roadway—tree species that often sprout where the earth was once worked by bulldozers. I was encouraged to see some evidence of winter moose browsing, though there were precious few fresh moose tracks in the muddy areas.

We walked until 5:29, when the game trail petered out about 100 yards beyond the end of the road. Most folks would have turned around and retraced their steps. I decided to make a small loop instead. Twenty minutes later, after traversing more than a quarter mile of brush and deadfalls, I stepped out on the game trail. It takes a long time to go a short distance in heavy cover.

The rest of the walk seemed to pass more quickly, as it inevitably does on the return trip. The dog flushed another grouse. Following it, he was surprised to put up one bird and then another. I was even more surprised to shoot both of them. The dog happily made two retrieves.

Soon enough, it seemed, we were back at the beaver dam. The dog splashed around in the water and took a much-needed drink. Just after we crossed the dam, I heard the lonely song of a white-throated sparrow, very likely for the last time this year. I felt a little melancholy, knowing another winter must pass before the sparrow with the beautiful song returns. But winter isn’t here yet. Several more weeks of grouse hunting are ahead.

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