Trail Time – Grouse
I believe the snow is here to stay for a while on the Gunflint Trail. It’s not very much snow but it both covered the ground and relieved the suspense about when it was coming. It was kind of weird to have it be so cold and have no snow. It reminded me of the land of Narnia from the book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. During the reign of the White Witch there was winter with no Christmas in Narnia. Cold with no snow seemed almost as dreary here on the Trail.
Our earlier snowfall had disappeared by Thanksgiving. There were a couple of much-welcome sunny days before our national Turkey feast and Lars and I were able to help some friends and neighbors put up a new yurt. It was a very interesting and satisfying process seeing this ancient building technique. Nearby we have other neighbors building a very sophisticated and high-tech new home. It’s so cool to live in place where you can find both in the same neighborhood: the ancient and the new. Weaving between them are our other neighbors: the animals and birds of the Trail.
“Our place is lousy with foxes,” I was told by one of our most revered Gunflint Wise Women. And foxes aren’t the only animal that had a good summer. this year. I saw a pine marten dashing across the trail and up a tree and a vole zipped across the road looking like a wind-up toy. An all-white snowshoe hare leapt over the dark ground, frantic for safety, but finding none on the dark snowless road. I thought: “too soon, little hare,” but three days later the snow came.
It was a good year for grouse, too, apparently. They can be found up and down the Gunflint Trail in new growth and deciduous stands and they are a choice meal for many predators, including humans. We regularly see grouse on the paths, on the road shoulder or displaying right in the middle of the road. You can hear them clucking quietly in the woods and see them sitting rather absurdly in birch trees. At my friend Renee’s, we saw three grouse perched in a birch tree, silhouetted against an evening sky, pecking at the seeds at the ends of slender branches. One flapped up into the air and then flew straight at my head. I wondered later, was that a game of grouse instead of chicken? Though I did see it coming my way, I didn’t flinch, half-hoping it would fly into my head. What was I thinking? Was I tired of my thoughts that day? Did I think a grouse-skull collision would change my thoughts/make a good story/give me yet another scar/be thrilling? Yes, I believe that in a quiet way I am a thrill-seeker. I just wanted to see how close it would get before it veered off. As it turned out, it was pretty close. No new scar after all. And a little thrill. Some of my quiet thrills come from encounters with that which is wild.
I love the grouse. I get insensibly irritated whenever I hear someone say a grouse is stupid. Do the humans not know that a grouse can do what they can’t? Survive outside all winter, eating buds, twigs, catkins and ferns. Diving into a drift of deep snow and letting a snow cave be built around you. Imagine, roosting in the snow, your cave a quiet dimly-lit space where you can patiently digest a few twigs and then silently deposit a tidy pile of pellets. And think your grousy thoughts.
Years ago, on Lars and my first date, we were winter camping in the Boundary Waters with 10 other people or so and a dog sled team. We had nightly snowshoe walks on the lake, sometimes with aurora arcing above us and shooting pillars of light into the sky. On a walk one night the snow was whipping around us, wiping out both the starry sky and our footprints. I walked steadily on, using ski poles for balance against the gusting wind. Down went the pole, and BOOM! up flew a grouse. It was spectacular in a heart-stopping kind of way.
And the thing about grouses in the spring: the drumming. The drumming that the grouse makes by beating his wings against the air. Oh the drumming that makes our hearts beat faster in a summer kind of rhythm: time to mate, time to nurture, time to fly and live!
On a Trail Time walk with fifth graders from Sawtooth Elementary School one May, we were talking birds in general and grouse in specific. The students were 10 or 11 years old and some were already hunters; they knew where the grouses’ favorite drumming logs were and where they nested. I told them that though I have tried for years to sneak up on one successfully, I had never seen a ruffed grouse drumming. When I said that, they whipped their heads around and stared at me like I’d said I’d never seen a car. I didn’t tell them that I had once witnessed a spruce grouse drumming. That would have spoiled the moment. Like these kids, I had been a child of the woods. We know the value of a grouse, even beyond dinner. We know we can learn a lot from a grouse, like we can from all the animals and birds of our boreal forest. They are our teachers and miraculous pinpoints of wonder. It sometimes can feel like all the beauty of nature resides in one sparrow, if you look at that sparrow as a gift, with gratitude toward the giver.
As local poet and friend Ritalee Walters wrote in her “Grouse Poem”
From the grouse I learned
death is always close
and it’s silly to pretend you can hide from it
even for a little while
From the grouse I learned
it’s never silly to trust and love
tires and guns will crush you eventually
Keep your soft gaze untroubled
listening to your own music
Getting to a low branch
is still flying.
— Marcia Roepke