A Bodyguard of Lies

THE FIRST STOP AFTER BREAKFAST was the local wildlife office to pick up our licenses. It was the usual well-kept Minnesota government building, with a trimmed lawn and well-behaved trees, set off the highway in a secluded grove.

We parked between the freshly painted white lines and followed the arrows into the offi ce. The wall was covered with beautifully mounted birds—owls, hawks, eagles, and ducks, variously perching, swooping, and diving. As the lady behind the counter glanced up, I looked them over and said to Dinny, “These are all the different kinds of grouse in Minnesota.”

That was a mistake. The lady in her starched brown uniform jerked her head up with an anguished “No! Those aren’t grouse! You can’t hunt those!”

Mark leapt in, soothingly assuring her that I had been joking and knew perfectly well what a grouse looks like. Thinking it would be the clinching argument, he added, “He’s from Canada,” as if this would put me on speaking terms with ruffed grouse. Instead, it added to her mistrust. A Canadian, it was well known, would shoot a bald eagle without a second thought.

“I got out and carefully stalked down the edge, hoping to flush them before they quietly disappeared into the thick brush on either side, but one by one they evaporated into the trees.”

At this point Dinny turned on her charm—Monster-fueled, alas, and a little frantic for that time of the morning—and so it did not help with the stolid, brownclad officer charged with ensuring that none of Minnesota’s rules and regulations were breached by these come-from-afars, who were obviously smoking something on the restricted list.

We brought it on ourselves, the lecture that followed, accompanied by brochures on game-bird identification, and counted ourselves lucky we weren’t forced to take a test. Finally, the lady consented to issue our permits, all the while glancing at me with obvious distrust. Whether I would actually shoot an eagle she wasn’t sure, but she did know that I’d cracked a joke in a government office, and that did not bode well.

As we walked back to the car, with Harry and Leon panting out the window and searching the branches above for grouse, we swore a solemn oath neither to crack a joke nor to ask for advice in the State of Minnesota. We were on our own.

Whether we finally found what had, in the past, been the old Red Lake road, we were never really sure. It seemed to be in the right place, and more or less followed the lines on our squiggly map, and so we proceeded deep into the Superior National Forest. It was too late in the morning for ruffed grouse, who like to scratch and dust along the shoulders of gravel roads, early in the morning and late afternoon, but with Leon and Harry both panting loudly out the windows, and watching intently for bird life, we all did the same.

Leon was, by this time, an all-in grouse dog. Four years earlier, he had found his métier, and knew that once again he was expected to employ it. Harry, of course, being barely a year old, and whose bird experience to date was limited to training on planted chukars and pheasants on a Colorado ranch, had only an inkling of what was up. We couldn’t be sure how much Leon had explained to him in the privacy of the back seat, but he had obviously told him something. Maybe it was about the propensity of ruffed grouse to fling themselves, unprovoked, against passing cars. Whatever it was, Harry was stoked and ready for action.

It should be added, at this point, that our real purpose in coming here was not to lay in next winter’s supply of ruffed grouse, but to introduce Harry Flashman to them, and get him his first wild bird.

It should also be added, while we’re on the subject of cycles, that Mark, Dinny, and I all go through periods when we can’t hit a barn door, punctuated by shorter periods when we shoot pretty well, and even rare and ephemeral interludes when we seemingly can’t miss. At the time of these events, I was in the first, Dinny in the last.

When you’re hunting pheasants in South Dakota, and there are plenty of birds about, you can usually work your way out of a shooting slump because there’s a lot of action. You have little time to brood about your shooting and thereby aggravate the problem. Not so with ruffed grouse, where one missed chance can haunt you, not just for a day or even a week but sometimes into the following season.

Hunting ruffed grouse may be the single most gentlemanly of field sports, conducted as it is in the autumn north woods, with the air crisp, the leaves turning, and– with luck – the scent of smoke from paper shotshells.

None of this was any kind of factor at this point, however, because it was almost noon and we had yet to see a feather. We traversed the gravel road, turned off onto a narrower one, and began to see offshoot trails almost immediately. These were groomed bridle paths, some for snowmobiles, others for cross-country skiers. They were carefully marked, and already being prepared for the coming snow. A few had their entrances blocked by boulders, like tank barriers along Swiss roads near the German border; others had locked swinggates, like checkpoints in cold-war Berlin.

At every intersection we found ladders of signs pointing this way and that, explaining what was allowed over here, and what was prohibited over there.

Here was the essential difference between what I was accustomed to in Ontario, roaming Crown land unimpeded, free to get lost, starve to death, and be eaten by wolves; between what Mark had grown up with in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where anarchy is a virtue; and what all three of us had experienced in Ontario, a hundred miles north of Superior and a million lightyears from the firmly regulated public lands of Minnesota. Where, to us, hunting ruffed grouse was the definition of freedom, here it was one more “public consumptive resource utilization” to be regulated until the pips squeaked.

The one saving grace of that day was that, while there were no grouse, there were no other hunters, either. We were free to brood without interruption. Finally, having reached the end of one road where mechanized vehicles were allowed, we retraced our steps to Highway 61, and our rented house overlooking the great lake. Lake Superior, at least, wasn’t a disappointment. It never is.

THE NEXT DAY WAS SUNNY, finally, and we explored a few side roads before deciding that if we couldn’t find any grouse, we could at least eat well. We’d seen an inviting little bakery attached to a small but elegant hotel just off the highway, and the thought of rare roast beef with real horseradish on bread still warm from the oven was too much to resist.

We knew we’d found our place when Dinny, determined to test the waters of hospitality in the way she knew best, walked in, Monster in hand, and was greeted by smiles. There were tables outside in the sun, overlooking the big lake. A petite blonde named Elizabeth, with Michele Pfeiffer cheekbones and the look of a girl who knew how to both ski and shoot, brought our lunch on a big tray.

“Oh, everyone hunts grouse around here,” she said. (She did not call them “partridge.” A good sign.)

“The best place I know of is straight up that road, past the white church. You know, the one about two miles north?”

We knew, indeed, having driven past it several times already.

“You go about twenty miles, and there’s a turnoff. That road goes another ten miles, and there are all kinds of trails off it. It’s almost always good.”

After a lovely lunch, and armed with local knowledge carrying the ring of truth, we cruised leisurely through the afternoon. On the map we found a looping trail, and dropped off Dinny and Harry at one end while Mark and Leon and I continued to where it rejoined the road. We planned a pincer movement, like the Schlieffen Plan.

What happened now I know only from hearsay, but we were no more than a hundred yards in when we heard a shot. A few minutes later, Dinny appeared with a grouse in her hand and happy Harry close beside her.

“You wouldn’t believe it!” she said. “We heard at least three grouse cackling to each other. It was really thick.”

All the leaves were still on the trees at this point, which not only hampered the shooting but also attracted what local people call “leaf-peepers.” Parked cars lined the road in places, and the woods were full of tripods, cameras, and city folk admiring the foliage. At least they didn’t venture far from the roads.

Anyway, Dinny continued, “Harry went off the trail, crept up on them—I could just make him out through the leaves, he was like a cat—and flushed the grouse. Two of them went into the woods, but one came back over the trail. I just swung on it and it dropped, and Harry pounced on it and brought it back.”

“Oh, Harry,” she said, “I’m so proud of you.”

Just like that, mission accomplished. Unfortunately, that pretty much wraps up the story of our grouse hunting— the successful part, at any rate. Honesty compels me to say that we did see more grouse, a little later that afternoon. There were four of them, dusting and pecking in the road ahead, near sundown.

I got out and carefully stalked down the edge, hoping to flush them before they quietly disappeared into the thick brush on either side, but one by one they evaporated into the trees. Dinny was now out of the truck with Harry and Leon, and the dogs circled into the bush and flushed one back out and across the road.

Like Dinny, I swung. Unlike Dinny, I missed. Harry regarded me with some – thing like pity, and that was it. And yes, it is now months later. And yes, I’m still brooding about it.

Hunting ruffed grouse is singularly unforgiving, sometimes unforgettable, but ultimately an inescapable way to live.

Wieland’s hoping to be able to hit one more ruffed grouse before he shuffles off this mortal coil. Meanwhile, that miss still haunts him.