I took my Christmas walk early this year.
Taking advantage of an unusually mild December day, I went for a walk on an aspen-covered mountain draw, the site of many searches for ruffed grouse for the better part of 30 years.
After a long career when climbing the career ladder involved relocations and trying to figure out hunting and fishing in yet another place, it seems a bit strange to be able to recall three decades of hunts in one grouse covert.
Of the five Labrador retrievers that have been part of our lives, four of them have been my best friend and hunting partner on these walks across these Continental Divide aspen patches.
These hills are full of memories—memories of dogs, grouse, deer, moose, and the always-changing colors of the forest as we travel through the seasons, from late summer to autumn in the peak of colors, late autumn, when the colors are mostly faded to shades of gray and brown, and to occasional hunts in knee-deep snow.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve, these walks are a reminder of memories, or the spirits of autumns past.
It seemed strange, in early December, to not have snow on the ground. Over the years, there have been snowstorms in the early season, as early as mid-September, so that patches of snow here and there are the norm. On this day, however the ground is bare, though as Kiri, our current Labrador retriever, and I start our walk, the leaf litter on the forest floor is wet and frozen from a rainstorm of a few days earlier, with some snowflakes dotting the frozen leaves.
Our hunts follow a pattern. We start by working our way up the mountainside, sometimes following an old logging road going up and around the hillside. I recall a previous Lab, Flicka, who pointed grouse hiding on the hillside just below the edge of the road and running far down the hill to retrieve a grouse that I managed to hit with a blast from my shotgun.
This time, we take our time and patiently walk up the steep hillside, as I begin to wonder if we’ll find any grouse on this walk.
We stop is at the edge of an aspen thicket high up the mountainside for an early afternoon lunch break. Depending on the weather and temperatures, I find a spot that’s in the shade or in the sun or sheltered from cold winds. There’s a good view from this vantage point. In the distance is the sound of migrating snow geese.
Our lunch over, we start working our way down a draw where we’ve often put up grouse over the years.
Farther down the hillside, where the draw starts to flatten out, I note some willow clumps where, one year, several juvenile grouse flushed, going from one willow clump to the next, fooling me every time.
Near the bottom of the draw, I recall flushing a grouse several times, and finally dropping it on the third chance, and the bittersweet memory of that being the last grouse that Flicka retrieved.
A spring near the bottom of the draw nourishes a patch of watercress. I’ve picked many a watercress salad over the years. Several times I’ve been startled by the flush of a grouse from the tree where I’d leaned my shotgun while harvesting watercress.
There’s a brushy spot nearby where Kiri, in her puppy season, seemed more intrigued by some deer droppings than in looking for birds. I got exasperated and yelled at her to “Leave it!” only to see a grouse flush less than a foot from where Kiri was, as I stood, open-mouthed in surprise, as the grouse disappeared off into the trees.
Our walk, this day, ends without seeing any grouse at all, though a watercress salad is a reliable souvenir of our walk.
I left the forest for another season, trusting that snow will be falling to help my ruffed grouse survive winter nights, cozy under a foot of powdery snow, out of sight of predators. I’ll return in the autumn to again revisit the ghosts of autumns past.
Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.