A Bodyguard of Lies

If the locals call them “partridge,” don’t believe a word.

[by Terry Wieland]

Truth, Winston Churchill observed, is so precious “she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Grouse hunters are accustomed not so much to lying as being lied to. Sure, we often change the names and places, but that’s self-defense. Can’t have our favorite haunts overrun. We don’t obfuscate to harm but to protect. That’s a different thing entirely from lying.

As obfuscators of grouse coverts past, we can argue our innocence, but it’s a different thing entirely when we are the obfuscatees, diverted from grouse coverts future. One man’s bodyguard is another man’s gang of thugs.

The country along the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota was new to all of us, although it is famous for its grouse. Highway 61 snakes along the edge of the lake, heading into Canada and connecting all the little tourist towns that cater to anglers in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter, all flanked by the Superior National Forest. Can’t ask for much better than that. There must be grouse everywhere. Hundreds of grouse. Thousands! Still, you don’t find them just anywhere. Local knowledge. That’s the key.

The more someone insists he’s got the answer, the more certain you can be that he doesn’t.”

Our first stop was a combination gas station, restaurant, souvenir shop, and all-around tourist trap where Highway 61 hugs the shore. We pulled in, our first morning, intent on breakfast and engaging one of the locals in conversation. Get the lay of the land, find out about snowmobile trails, that sort of thing.

We were barely through the door when a voice barked, “You can’t bring that in here!”

I looked at Mark. Mark looked at Dinny. Dinny looked at me. We all looked toward the voice.

“You have to take that drink outside!”

Dinny was holding her ever-present early-morning Monster Energy drink, freshly opened in the expectation (accurate, as it turned out) that this quaint little eatery would probably not offer Monsters, and Dinny doesn’t drink much else, morning, noon, or night.

“But we’re going to have breakfast—” she began, only to be cut off by a wave.

“You can’t bring any food in. See the sign there?”

Sure enough, there was a sign, and sure enough, there were no Monsters on the menu or in the cooler, but not wanting to alienate a potentially key source of information, Dinny meekly complied. Mark and I slunk into the dining room, watching for more signs, and took a table by the window, overlooking Lake Superior’s choppy gray expanse. An east wind was tossing the waves up against the rocks, and it looked like rain.

Nothing daunted, Dinny returned, Monster-less but trailing the Jill-ofall-trades waitress-cum-sentry who had hammered us into line.

“This is Marnie,” Dinny said proudly. “She’s a grouse hunter. And she got three just yesterday.”

Marnie eyed us from beneath her iron brow.

“Yes, well,” she said, dealing the menus like aces, “There aren’t many partridges around this year.”

There might not be many, but she obviously knew where some, at least, were hiding out. Mark and I looked at each other. Deferential to a fault, he smiled and agreed: Yes, you have to know where to go. Mark is from the Upper Peninsula and grew up, as I did, pursuing grouse, Ahab-like, and with about the same result. He knows how the game is played.

“What do you think?” he asked. “We’ve never been here before.”

Marnie pondered. Her lips pursed as she weighed the value of her closeheld knowledge against our capacity for tipping.

“Got a map?” she asked. We had. “Well, you go back down the highway about ten miles. There’s a road on the right. It used to be called Old Red Lake Road but they changed it. Forget what it is now. Anyway, you’ll find it. Go up as far as the lake, then head east. There’s trails in there. It’s usually good for partridge.”

Dinny was scribbling furiously as Mark studied the map. We were in. Local knowledge.

Marnie gathered up the menus and marched away.

“I bet her real name is Ilse,” I said.

Ruffed-grouse hunters are different from other wingshooters, for the simple reason that ruffed grouse are different from other game birds.

They live far away, they’re difficult to find when you get there, and even more difficult to shoot when you find them. Ruffed grouse are creatures of wilderness that can be neither domesticated nor raised in pens. Their numbers fluctuate according to some arcane rhythm of nature that no one, not even the most dedicated Latin-speaking biologist, has fully explained.

The mysterious “grouse cycle” that rules the lives of dedicated pursuers of Bonasa umbellus occurs, they say, every seven years. Well, some say it’s not seven, but ten, and others that it’s really five, and I’ve heard as high as 14, and the cycle can be up over here, but down over there, all in the same season. The more someone insists he’s got the answer, the more certain you can be that he doesn’t.

Some years ago, in an attempt to hunt grouse seriously in ideal grouse country, Dinny and Mark and I traveled into Canada to a lodge a hundred miles north of the northernmost tip of Lake Superior. Our lodge operator had been there for decades, knew the territory intimately, and was on our side. He wanted us to get grouse, so we would tell others it was a good place to go. Enlightened self-interest dictated truthfulness. Even with that advantage, however, we didn’t really get into grouse until the third day, and it was only by the fifth that we went out in the morning with any confidence.

On the drive up there, we had traversed this same highway through Minnesota, along the Lake Superior shore. We were on our way to check into the Mangy Moose Motel in Grand Marais (I am not making that up!), zipping along the highway, when a ruffed grouse swooped out of the trees and extinguished itself, in a cloud of feathers, against the side of the car. We all took this to be a sure sign that there were lots of ruffed grouse in Minnesota. We planned to come back and, four years later, there we were.

When it comes to ruffed grouse, much bigger decisions have been based on considerably less evidence than one suicidal bird. I should add that this incident was a factor in turning Leon, the big English setter, into a dedicated and cat-like ruffed-grouse specialist. He was at the car window when the grouse, as he saw it, attacked him. He’s seen lots of pheasants swooping around the roads in South Dakota where we hunt, but never one bent on self-immolation or the destruction of his truck. Broto, the dour Gordon, slept through the whole thing and knew about it only from hearsay. Because he thought Leon was prone to hysteria anyway, he never put much stock in it. His opinion, to the end, was that ruffed-grouse hunting was a waste of time.

Broto is no longer with us, but his place in the back seat has been taken by another English setter, Harry Flashman by name and Flashmanesque by nature. When we hit Minnesota, Harry was barely a year old, already had Leon firmly under control, and was hanging over the front seat, directing operations, as we searched for what used to be called, but apparently no longer was, the old Red Lake road.