Friday, August 29, 2014

Summer's End - Fall's Beginning

Harvest Moon
For many waterfowlers that first brisk Northern breeze that sweeps the pungent fragrance of the lake depths through the valley, means it is time to prepare for resident Canada goose season. While the public basks in the last few days of summer and revels in the glory of Labor Day weekend, goose hunters are preparing for Opening Day. 

Field bags are packed; decoys are set out in out fields, their deceptive motion swaying with the slightest wisp of air. Layout blinds are prepared by picking wheat and clover off the ground and stuffing it into the stubble straps of the nylon blinds, which sit on the dewy ground. It takes more than an hour and a half to properly grass the blinds and crawl into the coffin-shaped boxes.

Dawn of Fall
As the first rays of sunlight melt over the mountains, the sky lights up in salmon and helio, outlined by soothing sage. There is not a cloud in the sky and the sweet smelling northwest wind bodes well for our crew of anxious fowlers. 

We are sharing our traditional cup of coffee and donuts when it happens. Far out on the bay, the echo careens off of the rocky beach. Her-onk! The breakfast flock is awakening.

First call
We return the call with a simple cluck and leave the rest to the imagination. Sometimes the best call is the one that leaves curiosity in the mind of the conversationalist. We wait.

Soon, another muffled, yet intriguing honk comes from the bay. We answer back with a curt hail call. 

That gets the ball rolling! Now we are in an aggressive dialogue about how wonderfully tasty the wheat is this morning. Within minutes we can hear the entire flock begin to debate about when to leave the roost. Juvenile voices say “now!” while the more guttural adult tones profess “patience.” It’s like listening to a family on Christmas morning.
All Set

Twenty minutes pass. We are all silent in the field, when one of our band of brothers calls out “Two from behind! Right over the trees! And Silent!” “Get down!” I counter. Blind doors snap shut and we all disappear in stalks of wheat and sheaths of clover.  

These are the scouts.

We let them circle the spread and do not call or move. They examine us closely, then slide gently back out over the water and land in the center of the bay, clucking to the flock of 300 birds.

The question comes up every year. Should we have shot when they were hanging over the decoys? My answer has always been “no.” Let them take the news to the flock that the field is full of geese and there do not appear to be any predators.

Ten long minutes pass. Our hearts are beating wildly, hoping that we made the right choice. And then it begins.

We hear the wing beats flapping against the water as the family pods begin to peel off of the flock. 

Within moments, the sky is alive with honking, as powerful wing pinions flail at the air. They are arriving in flocks of 10 – 20 birds at a time. 

The first flock to lower altitude swings from right to left across the spread then turns away to the South. 

A single bird back pedals and drops his dark black boots to land in the decoys. “Let ‘em land!” I whisper. When the second flock sees the single bird on the ground, he calls to them.

First Bird
They cup their mighty wings in an arc, the shape of which is emblazoned in waterfowlers’ memories for generations. 

As they glide in to finish their landing, feet outstretched, necks craning, I wish that I could freeze this moment in time and somehow convey to all those who do not hunt what a magnificent spectacle we get to witness.

Some call the Canada goose a nuisance because it fouls their lawns and golf courses. I prefer to think of them as majestic brethren seeking a connection to us.

Smile of Success

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Camp

July. The days are warm and full of activity. Gardens are beginning to show fruit and the black caps are growing juicy on the vine. The days are full of flowers and lying in the hammock between the two old trees. The chickens run happily around the yard chasing butterflies and scratching for worms in the dry dirt. The mountains seem to fade into a shimmering purple haze of heat. Streams are gurgling merrily along. Insects store their energy during the heat of the day and emerge in the cool evening. Rainbow trout rise lazily to the hatch beneath the riffles of the dams, breathing in the life-affirming oxygen. For humans, the heat begins to drive us to the shade of the woods. It’s going to be a long hot summer and the mountains are calling me. My wife, Katie, my sister, Callie from CT, and I pack a picnic lunch and load the truck with bottles of water and snacks. As so many Vermonters do, we are heading for
Nothing Fancy
the respite of camp. The nice thing about camps is that it really doesn’t matter whether your camp is a spacious monument on a stone wall overlooking the lake or if it’s something simple tucked off in the woods away from the maddening crowds. It’s a getaway. It’s a place where the mundane rules of everyday etiquette relax a bit. It’s okay to not make your bed. It’s okay to wake up a little later and eat a hearty breakfast at 10:00. The days are unrushed. Our little camp is humble – heck some people might think it’s a paragon of poverty – but to us and the people we invite, it’s a slice of heaven.

As the truck pitches from side to side going up the old logging road we sing along to the radio and it feels like we are in a time machine going backwards to a simpler period in human life.
The Old Defiant Stove
We pull up to the deck and check the water system, which is extracted from the bubbling brook. It fills an old bathtub with ice cold mountain spring water. Once hooked up, the same wonderful aqueous substance flows directly into the kitchen sink.Two large recliners and a fold down couch surround the old Defiant woodstove with a touch of rust on the surface.

After a cool drink of water, our friends begin to arrive. One by one, big wheeled trucks roll up into the parking area. Coolers of food and beverages are unloaded and bottles are placed in the bathtub where they will remain slightly above freezing.

After everyone unpacks, we collectively decide to hike to the top of Crow Hill for a view of the valley. The ascent is steep and full of loose rocks. Arriving at the top we are literally clinging to small pines to pull ourselves up to the next level. The short pines are thick and the ground is covered in spongy moss, its musky fragrance blending with the aromatic balsam and permeating the air around us. We are sweat soaked and our knees are shaking. Another 100 yards to the rock outcropping.

Sacred Beauty
We follow a deer trail right to the spot. Suddenly, the trees part and we are standing on a large shelf of rock, looking down on the Champlain Valley that seems to wave like a mirage in the heat. Beyond, we can see the lake shimmering in the mid day sun. The Adirondacks seem to reach up into the azure sky, blending in bluish-purple with the distant horizon. As far as the eye can see, there is beauty.

Sacred beauty that cannot be touched by development.  For this, we
can all give thanks. For this is solace for a world gone mad with busyness. As we stand on the precipice, time seems to stand still and we are all united in our mindfulness that this ground is sacred.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Long Live The King!

Now that the ice has receded to the bowels of the lakes and ponds, the sun warms us just a little more each day. Fiddlehead ferns pop up near small gurgling brooks. In the woods, trilliums begin to peek up between the still brown detritus left on the soles of winter’s shoes. Dandelions poke their courageous heads out from under the newly green carpet in the fields. Robins sing their magical melodies, convincing the cold wrapped buds of the maples to open. Majestic pillars of light pour through the canopy of trees turning the woods into a tabernacle of deific proportions. 

The Sacred Wilds
I feel as if I should kneel and pray in this sacred place. A chorus of birdsong blesses me with trills, chirps, peeps and melodic patterns. In the distance one song rings out loudly above the others, one which fires my imagination and instincts of my primordial self; the dawn thunder of the tom turkey still on his roost.

His chest inflated and his waddles fire red, his dewlap dangles over his beak like a ragged flag of glory from fights past. He thrusts forward on his branch and roars at the top of his lungs, shocking the world around him and demanding that they bow and recognize that the King is now awake.
100 yards away I sit at the base of a pine tree, covered in 3-D camouflage. I can smell the forest floor’s musky scent. Pine sap is stuck on my index finger as I check the safety of my shotgun. I shoulder my gun resting the fore end on my knee. I know that soon His Majesty will fly down from his perch and waddle down the path to his strutting zone to begin his daily mating ritual amongst the ladies of his court. My heart beats wildly as I hear him gobbling to his flock. He is walking down the path  toward me. 

A large hen appears and veers off to my left behind a row of
The Waiting Place
forsythias. My heart sinks. “What if he follows her?”

Another hen appears and circles the hummock in front of me, then disappears to my right. She putts curiously, then settles into her contented purring sound, feeding on grubs. I’ve got one bird on my right and one on my left. “This is good” I think to myself. I am surrounded by real hens and all I have to do is convince the King that I am the concubine he has always desired.

I cluck tentatively, then gently purr a sweet satisfied trill, seducing the monarch toward me. He gobbles back vociferously. He is on his way. 

Moments later he appears 70 yards distant, behind a downed pine tree. He struts back and forth displaying his imperial fan for all his subjects to see.

I sit still, the white bead at the end of my barrel on his majestic head, waiting for a closer shot. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears, drumming as if my tympanic membrane is going to shatter. 

He walks around the pine and strolls powerfully toward me. His eyes are burning a hole in my camouflage. I breathe through my nose, slowly, deeply, expanding my diaphragm to center myself.

He is now 25 yards away. I am feeling his breath in unison with my own. His chest expands and mine does the same in perfect time with his. I avert his gaze as he stares at me. He knows I am here and every fiber of my being is intertwined with his. We are one.
After a long prayer of thanks and forgiveness, we walk home together.
Later, at the bridge, as I fish for bullhead, a cold tear of gratitude rolls down my cheek. Spring has arrived.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Mindful Winter Walk

The mind of a true hunter is one of connection. Connection to all the surroundings, even to those unseen by the common senses. To some tribes in Africa, hunters have learned to read the “energy paths” of light similar to auras seen by some people. They follow these bluish-white streams of light to “see” where the animal they are pursuing, have traveled. For the rest of us, we learn to read tracks.

On a bright February day, after a snowstorm, I venture up the southwest side of Pease Mountain, My father-in-law, Brian Hoyt and I start out from his house. We notice the small trails where field mice have burrowed under the snow. We come upon a stand of locusts with their deeply indented bark and sage green moss covering the jagged edges. I ask him if he thinks it is true that moss only grows on the north side of trees. He shrugs and says “That’s what they say, but I think it’s an old wives tale.”

 Further up the hill we meander through some pines, when a partridge explodes from under a pinecone laden tree. The bird takes to the air in a burst of snow, brown wings thundering together, to fly an escape route that not even a jet fighter could navigate. “Partridge!” I shout. (Technically they are called a ruffed grouse, but I like to call them by their colloquial moniker just to tick off the gentry. If you really want to be snobby about it, call them “Bonasa Umbellus” which means “good to roast” or “valued as a game bird.”) Partridge medicine (what this bird represents in Native American ideology) is community, fertility, mobility and invisibility. There is much to learn from Bonasa Umbellus.

As we summit the cliffs we begin to see a story played out in the snow. It takes some time to reveal itself. First we see the tracks of a large cat-like being with its belly dragging on the top of the snow. It is crouching and trying to sneak up to the edge of the cliff. Why? We surmise it’s a fisher cat judging by the claws and conical shaped footprint. Then the tracks disappear off the edge of the cliff. We look over the 10’ drop to the next plateau and see where he enters the snow in a deep hole. Is he under the snow even now? Where did he go? 

We climb down around the boulders and discover, at the edge of this little flat spot, another hole with paw prints and the outline of primary feathers form a large wing. They are scratched in the snow in a perfectly symmetrical pattern as if beating against the surface in an attempt to take flight. It is then we discover blood where the feet of a turkey had been. 

“I’ll bet the rest of the story is below this drop-off” I tell Brian.

We climb down the slippery rocks to the next flat spot, and sure enough, there are the remains of a turkey splayed between two sharp rocks, with only its head eaten off.  Fisher cats are notorious for doing this. The carnage reminds me that nature can be as violent as she is beautiful. The fisher cat will have lived through another harsh winter because he was courageous enough to dive off of a cliff, burrow under the snow and still hit his target, coming up to ambush the bird from underneath the wintry forest floor.

Nature has all the drama of an Academy award winning movie, but when you have discovered it for yourself, and borne witness to the mystery, you are not just a viewer but a participant.

On the walk home, we pass a yellow birch with a chaga mushroom growing out of its side. I cut off a chunk of it and put it in my jacket pocket. Chaga or Inonotus obliquus is revered by native healers for its medicinal qualities. Laboratory studies have indicated possible future potential in cancer therapy, as an antioxidant, in immunotherapy, and as an anti-inflammatory. Whether you choose to believe this or not, it makes a wonderful tea.

Back at the house we have quite a story to share with everyone. We brew the chaga and sit down in front of the woodstove to replay the story of our winter walk. At the core of the story-telling I realize that the root of all happiness is wonder. And there is no place to find such wonder as in the winter woods.