In December, to celebrate the end of the year, I like to walk through the pines in the snow. The light shines through the boughs in columns of white gold and tinsel snowflakes slough off of the branches and sparkle in the sunlight. I wear my favorite old flannel shirt with the frayed collar under my canvas coat with the game pouch. Walking through the winter woods, I listen to the styrofoam-like crunching of my boots on the carpet of white. A gentle North wind carries the scent of the lake as it begins to grow dormant on its surface. When I am in this sacred place, isolated from the world, it feels as if I were trudging through the boreal forest a thousand miles to the North.
I duck under a tangle of vines with bright red berries, and as I bend toward the ground, I see the forked tracks of Bonasa Umbellus, the King of the Northern Woods. I slow my pace and begin scouring the immediate neighborhood for a hidden enclave where he might be hiding. I pause to let him know that I am seeking him. The moment is wrought with tension. I shoulder my old shotgun and rest my finger on the safety. As I position my weight on my left foot, it happens.
A burst of russet wings fills the air. “Whhhhrrrrrrrr” and the ruffed grouse explodes from behind a deadfall, tearing down a hallway of pines, swaying from right to left, like an expert fighter pilot escaping enemy fire. I have no time to aim or calculate lead. I instinctively pull through his line of departure and my gun barks a sharp percussive tone.
The ruffed grouse plummets to the ground and comes to rest on a sprawling juniper bush. I breathe a sigh of gratitude and reverence for this beautiful animal.
I approach him with respect and hold him in my gloved hands. I stroke his bronzed head and fan his tail to admire his magnificent body. I think to myself “Someday my time will come and I hope that someone will admire my life as I do his.” His power and grace are nothing short of miraculous. He is a gift to us all. He will nurture the spirits of my guests on New Years’ Eve and be given the highest praise as we thank the Great Spirit for his offering.
Bonasa Umbellus, better known as the ruffed grouse, is a medium –sized bird that has a hunting heritage bound to the hardiest of souls, willing to traipse through the thickest tangles and densest pines. Males and females weigh approximately 1- 1 ½ lbs and the tails of both are a banded brown and black with a white bar. Females can be differentiated from males by identifying a single white “dot” on the rump feathers of the female and multiple white “dots” on the male.
Locally, we refer to the bird as a “partridge.” We know it is not an actual partridge, but it’s fun to “ruffle the feathers” of those “proper” folks.