On a dreary December day of no particular note, I load the dogs in the truck, ease the shotgun between the seats where the dogs will not crush it and drive south of town. We will hunt this day, one more time.
It is a somber day that edges to gloom. The sky is smudged across the great dome that arches between the horizons; haze wreaths distant tree tops as if they are topped with spun sugar of county fair. The air is damp; there is a storm forecast but will it come here to the north or veer south? On this day it does not matter, matters only that we are past the turning point in December and still awaiting decent snow cover. Christmas waits; white or not?
The road is hard-packed and slippery. I drive slowly while the dogs whine in anticipation. Every hunt for them is a celebration, every hunt a holiday, every time out a gift, every hunt Christmas. In this, we have a lot to learn from them. We make slow progress, it seems, to get to the point of a dog where every day is special and there is no need to mark it in red on a calendar.
If it is not the last time out this bird season, it is nearly so. One never knows. In a typical December I’d be skiing by now, but all bets are off these days. There is no typical anymore, it seems, and all that we have accepted as normal in the weather is no longer bedrock. I remember as a kid snowless Decembers, but they seemed the exception to the rule. No more. Now the only rule seems to be that there are no rules. I find this thought unsettling and push it from my mind and watch the dogs as if that will help me deal with it.
I park, open the door, and the dogs burst from the truck and run pell-mell for the brush while I, slower with more to attend to, make things ready and then follow them. I am not expecting much, but am willing to be surprised by good fortune should it arrive on the stubby wings of grouse. Or perhaps a snowshoe hare; I have come across an appealing recipe for hasenpfeffer and most of the ingredients seem easy to acquire, save for the hare. It would make for a nice winter meal, the hasenpfeffer, prepared as it is with dumplings. But first we would need the hare.
The dogs move off in a rush of energy but seem indifferent to the hunting of birds. They move on the road and rarely venture off into the thickets and heavy cover where one would hope a grouse, or perhaps a snowshoe hare, would lurk. The dogs move as if weary; unusual for them and I wonder if they have lost the trim of October gained so nobly with hard effort. Then again, I am not moving with much snap as well, so perhaps we are, the three of us, good companions on this day, sharing as we do the same sedate pace.
There is ice in the ruts of the old road, frozen hard. Bubbles show below; the top is slick and smooth as glass. I stomp hard on one and break the ice like thick panes of glass; there is muddy water below, but the dogs will have none of it; Riika eats snow instead.
We walk on old logging roads now as familiar as old friends. We have walked them in the heat of September; have worked our way down them under the riot of gaudy October leaf; have seen them bare and gray in November. Now, in the final month of the year, they are restful under a meager cover of snow, the snow thin and threadbare as if an old blanket. The snow is crusty and crumbles underfoot; the sound of the footfall on snow is the only sound on this afternoon, save for the distant whine of a chainsaw. That, too, fades as we walk until we can no longer hear even that.
It is dead calm. The thin spindle of second growth popple stands still as a photograph. There is no breeze that we can feel; the dogs lift noses to air sterile with frost and snow. The rich scent of autumn is gone as if it flew off with the migrants to another land.
In the departing of autumn, the land seems fatigued. It lies in repose, does the land, and it rises and falls in hill and hummock, shaggy-backed ridges topped with spires of pine. Trees once leafed in full now stand still and bare and skeletal. You see the tree as it is, stripped to the core, shorn of all façade that leaf brings; trees are now like the gangly skeleton model of ages-old biology class. It is winter in spite of the lack of snow, the time of honesty, for in winter all is exposed and nothing remains hidden in landscape or tree.
We started this in mid-September and now, a week before Christmas, are near the final stanza. We may, on this day, be there, at the end of our hunt season. The season continues on the dry pages of the regulations and on the black-and-white ledger of the calendar but for us, the dogs and I, the time to hunt is simply near the end. We hunt the autumn, hunt hard and often and with abundant enthusiasm but now, as winter closes down, we are near done with it, not because we have lost the love of the hunt but because, over day and week and month, we have lost the drive to hunt. We have filled our days with the hunt and the hunt has in turn filled us with the rewards that it brings.
We hunt an out-and-back route; out for half an hour, then back. We see, in the hour, a single chickadee burning bright as an ember on this day; gray and white, capped in black, muted colors but vivid by the vitality of the bird. For off of its energy, it should be colored bright as wood duck or cardinal. Instead, it is soft hued and humble, yet forever cheerful.
We do not see a grouse; we do not see a snowshoe hare. If we were living off the land, we would be a hungry trio, the three hunters in the chill of December under the ashen sky walking spare woods that seem to hold no life. There will no roast grouse this December day; no hasenpfeffer with dumplings on this eve.
We drive home on harsh roads of frozen dirt and then hard blacktop. The underside of the dogs’ chest holds flecks of ice. Riika shivers and I turn up the heat; Thor seems oblivious to the chill and watches the land as the truck passes in the darkening of an early dusk. On this gray December day darkness will come down as would a soft fog and bring an end to the day when sun never shone and in the evening darkness the dogs and I will rest and reflect on a day and on a season.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander; call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.