While the rest of Minnesota walked the grass for pheasants last
weekend, I roamed the woods. Though I dearly love chasing roosters,
my decision to miss what was ballyhooed as the best opener in 40
years was carefully considered. Ultimately, it made more sense to
stay home. I hunt pheasants on public land and don’t like company.
Opening day isn’t for me.
Up on the Canadian border, most of the leaves came down when a
cold front blew away the persistent rains. This a great time to go
a-walking, because the travel is as easy as it ever is and you can
see through the trees. Although I’ve been rambling for grouse since
the season opened in mid-September, my hikes mostly followed
overgrown logging roads. Now you can leave the trail.
You really don’t need more than a few hundred acres of pathless
forest to get “back in the woods.” By virtue of Cook
County’s abundance of public land, my destination was a larger
tract where I might look for deer come November. While deer sign in
the northwoods magically appears everywhere in late October, once
the leaves are down a careful observer may learn a thing or two.
Besides, it is always good to get reacquainted with the
In the era of GPS, when any high-tech Natty Bumpo can roam the
forest without fear of becoming lost, you’d think more people would
leave the trail. Such is not the case. The brush and the blowdowns,
as well as the way you can feel when you are alone in the woods,
confine most folks to the trails.
My path had other obstacles, including a beaver pond and a
rain-swollen creek. I suspect there are many hunters who have never
made their way across a beaver dam just to see what was on the
other side. They are lesser for it. In this case, I didn’t need to
cross the dam – a sturdy new structure about four feet high – and
was able to rock-hop across the creek just downstream. From a deer
hunter’s perspective, already it was looking like a tough drag.
But I had a dog and a shotgun. After seemingly endless rains, it
was just good to be out in the woods on a sunny day. I put the sun
on my right should and started walking. In my pocket was a compass,
for the off chance that I’d need it.
The dog flushed a pair of grouse near the crest of the first
ridge above the creek. I got one, but missed the other when it
flushed a second time from a tree. We followed its flight path down
the back side of the ridge into some balsams, but were unable to
find it. Still, it was good to have some weight in the game
We kept on our way. In the woods, you follow the path of least
resistance, skirting around thickets, deadfalls, wet swamps, and
other things that get in your way, while holding true to your
original course. This is easy enough on a sunny day, but can be
challenging when the sky is overcast. A couple of weeks ago, I
unwittingly walked a circle in a dense aspen thicket. When I
stepped out into the familiar opening where I’d started 20 minutes
previously, I didn’t recognize it.
The circle routine was annoying and a little embarrassing (don’t
tell anyone), but once I got my bearings it was easy to get where I
wanted to go. Such is almost always the case, but lots of folks
think that getting mixed up in the woods is the same as getting
lost. Actually, it’s pretty hard to get lost in the forests of
northern Minnesota, because the country has so many old logging
roads. Areas with extensive swamps are exceptions.
At any rate, getting lost wasn’t on my mind, even though I
wasn’t intimately familiar with the lay of the land. Within a mile
or so, I knew we’d reached a little-used trail. So I wandered
through dark stands of mature balsam that were interspersed with
sunny aspen woods. Deer sign was difficult to discern – not
surprising for this time of year. I found a fresh scrape, the first
of the season, and saw where a buck had rubbed his antlers to rid
them of velvet.
We put up a second grouse at the base of a ridge. I took it on
the second flush when it launched from a tree, feeling smug about a
successful snap shot as it rocketed across a gap in the conifers.
The dog found the fallen bird amidst a tangle of fallen limbs and I
felt good about that, too. He’s becoming quite the grouser.
We kept going, climbing higher along a finger ridge. There were
good views of the woods sloping below and some well-used game
trails, so it looked like a good spot to sneak through in November.
We’d been walking for a while and I wasn’t sure just how far we
were from the starting point at the beaver dam. Was it a half-mile
away or more?
Distance is deceiving in the woods. Rarely can you see more than
50 or 60 yards. Because of the short sight lines, your immediate
view is always changing. This can lead you to think that you have
walked farther than you actually have. It is best to measure the
distance of a walk in the woods with time. If you walk a half hour
in one direction, you’ll have to walk a half hour in the opposite
direction to get back where you started.
And so I really didn’t know how far we’d gone when we reached
the old trail. Turning toward the sun, we walked for five or 10
minutes on the trail and then turned back. Now the sun was on my
The walk back was more of the same. I found some rubs and
another scrape. The going was easy, because I followed a grassy
glade along the south edge of a rocky ridge for a few hundred
yards. I shot a third bird and missed another that we flushed
twice. Soon enough we were back at the creek. From here on there
was a skid trail to follow, but I still had 45 minutes of slogging
to get back to the truck.
Climbing a steep slope, I finally stopped to sit on a fallen
birch log and catch my wind. It was a well-earned rest, but only
served to remind me that I’d left granola bars and a jug of water
in the truck. The dog paused a little higher up the slope and
looked back at me. He was ready for a break, too.
I suppose we could have lingered there and savored the sunshine,
but I got up and started walking again. We’d had a good scouting
trip. Now it was time to go home and spend the afternoon doing yard
work. In the weeks ahead there are a planned pheasant hunting trip
and then deer season. Now was the time to finish my fall