The apple tree is like an all-night diner. Every morning I see evidence of the previous night’s customers: there are piles of scat beneath the tree and, near the tree top, another cluster of sun-ripened apples has disappeared. Judging from the evidence, the customers are likely a sow bear with a cub. So far they’ve been courteous and haven’t damaged the tree.
Last Sunday, I picked a few apples to get my fair share. I don’t begrudge the bear or deer or grouse or blue jays who hang out at the apple tree diner, but I like to have enough fresh apples to get through hunting season. I used to pick them with my father, although he did more talking than picking. Now when picking apples I think about him.
Fresh apples are a staple of my October diet, as well as garden crops. I picked over a bushel of green tomatoes prior to the first hard frost and spread them out on newspaper to ripen. The Yukon gold potatoes and Ailsa Craig onions are picked and cured. The spaghetti squash and red cabbage are harvested, too.
My father was an avid vegetable gardener. Every year he grew a garden large enough to provide vegetables for most of the year. I generally grow just enough to have fresh produce in summer and fall, but gardening gives me great satisfaction. This summer, I tried my hand at growing flowers, restoring a perennial bed once lovingly tended. A friend spent a Saturday helping me pull up the quack grass and mint that had overtaken it in recent years and gave me some perennials from her garden. I laid down a landscape mat to stifle weeds and covered it with cedar mulch. The flower bed looks good, but lacks the riotous chaos of color that once bloomed there.
Over the summer, the puppy learned to stay out of the gardens. The electrified wire surrounding the vegetable patch may have helped. He’s growing, too. No longer is he a clumsy pup. Nearly full-sized, he is gaining strength and agility. The pup’s mentor is an old dog who knew my father. The three of us take long walks in the grouse woods. It would not be fall without them.
We’ve been hunting in familiar places; many that I haven’t visited for a while. In the forest, the only constant is change. It’s surprising how a couple years of growth can make a trail disappear beneath the alder brush or make it difficult to recognize familiar landmarks. But it is fun to roam through these places and think about past times: October hunts with dogs I knew and spring sojourns for moose antlers with the same dogs. But these are hardly strolls down memory lane. I hunt because no other activity keeps me so fully engaged in the moment. I need that feeling of being alive.
Our rambles for grouse are truly over the meadow and through the woods. Generally, we’ll go for a couple of miles or more. We may start out on a logging road, leave it to cross a beaver dam, follow a creek drainage, claw through hazel brush, trudge across a grassy meadow, skirt the edge of a clear cut, wander through deep woods, pick up a hiking trail and eventually return to the truck. Along the way, we may even flush a grouse or two.
We get plenty of exercise. I’ve discovered a tuckered-out puppy is far less likely to be a hellion when he goes home. Sometimes the old dog is stiff and slow to rise, but he always rallies for the next jaunt into the woods. He still hunts with enthusiasm, as well as the polish old hunting dogs acquire. I always make sure he takes well-deserved breaks during the course of the day.
Walking is good for me, too, making a noticeable difference on the bathroom scale. Even better is to feel the ground beneath my feet. When you spend a lot of time in the woods, you become quick-footed and sure in step. That sureness, once a given, had begun to slip away. Now it has returned.
Last Sunday evening, I headed out with the dogs for a final, weekend hunt. With no destination in mind, I decided on a whim to head for Rebel’s grave. He was our first dog. When he was struck by a truck on Highway 61 in 1993, we chose to bury him in a favorite hunting ground. It was time to introduce the puppy to Rebel.
The logging road leading to Rebel’s grave is now nearly invisible, overgrown with alders and conifers. The bears and moose maintain a pathway. The dogs rushed ahead as I walked, thinking about the first time I hunted here with Rebel and found a grouse wonderland. The forest was different, younger back then. I thought, too, about carrying his corpse down the path on a summer evening, while Vikki, sobbing, followed us with a shovel.
I wasn’t sure if I could still find the grave, but I happened upon the aspen where I’d carved his name. The tree died years ago and is now just a rotting, six-foot stump that says “REBEL.” At its foot is the large hole where a bear dug up the grave, a fitting end for a dog that chased many bruins. I paused for a moment and then continued on.
The forest has grown past its prime for grouse. I’m not sure anyone other than me could still follow the old road. We walked through the cover, once my most consistent grouse spot, without flushing a bird. I’ve hunted this place with five dogs, first Rebel, then, in order, Casey, Abby, Tanner and now Rainy. The first three are gone. And Vikki, who helped me bury Rebel here, well, she’s gone, too. A year ago. Last weekend.
Since then, I’ve walked on unfamiliar paths through some dark forests. Sometimes, there was no path at all. Sometimes, my friends pointed the way. Sometimes, the old dog just pushed his head against me and wagged his tail. I’ve walked a long way in the past year, but the path, though unfamiliar, has become easier to follow. And now there is light coming through the trees.