There are tamarack needles on my dogs’ backs now, golden slivers that glow against the dark, damp dog fur as if the dogs are growing new colors in the autumn; rich, deep gold and yellow. The dogs run hard in the thick tangle of woodland under growth and trees; they brush against tamarack and the needles fall to them and are on their backs when they come to my call.
It tells you all you need to know, does the sight of yellow needle on dog back; tamarack changes color late in the season and when it goes to yellow and gold you know the time is passing.
On this day, we have hunted under a gray sky in woods still wet with rain.
Puddles stand deep where a week ago there were none; lowlands hold water, roadways are slick and the air heavy. The sun will not break cloud on this day; all is gray as if a pewter dome was tipped over the world. Horizon is blurred and shadows deeper. In shadow lies mystery and the unknown and there is a dreamlike feel to the day.
And against it, all the flash of tamaracks’ yellow and the fall of golden needle to dogs’ backs. The dogs wear the gold leaf as if jewelry.
The weekend prior, I had driven to Minneapolis. I left on damp roads under cloud but drove out of it; dark cloud filled the rearview mirror; then gone to blue. I drove on Hwy 8, the long road that skirts the north country and its small, hardscrabble towns and long stretches of woods. There is a sense of isolation and desolation to Hwy 8 West.
They say Hwy 29 is the faster option, offering up better road and higher speed limits but on that day speed has no real appeal; I took the scenery. That and the simple fact that it seems as though those who drive the faster route seem no more satisfied with the trip than those who take the slower line. People who need to drive it fast seem never to catch up with whatever it is that they are chasing. I decided I’d drive the slower pace, deal with the slow-moving trucks and farm machinery as I needed to. But the scenery, that was the draw as much as the slower pace.
On that day, the hills and woods were a palette of color; yellow and reds, orange and russet, gold and green. On the higher rises you could see the mile ahead alive with color; in the tightness of trees next to the road you were surrounded by color, immersed in color as if you’d dove into it. Mile after mile of color; I never for a moment second-guessed the call to go north and drive it slowly.
By the time I merged with the big road, Hwy 94, I was relaxed as only a slow fall ride can relax one. Most of the fall color was behind me by then; the only change ahead would be the color of football jerseys, from the green trimmed with gold of Packers to the gaudy, unnatural purple of the Vikings.
On return the following day I left the land of purple behind and drove back into the color and wonder of a Wisconsin autumn. It cooled in the afternoon and the low sun near dusk lit up the red leaf of blackberry and the yellow of birch; they seemed afire in the late light. Then to darkness and shadow as the day faded to night.
By midweek the sun was gone to cloud and rain; the warm weather to cool and damp and it seemed as if something had gone and would not return. I put on an extra layer that day; the first time this season the chill had been a factor. Up until then days had been mild, mostly sunny. Now it felt cold.
We hunted, the dogs and I, because we had not been out for nearly a week and we needed it, the hunt, yes, but more we needed the simple act of being in the woods under whatever sky we were delivered on that day to whatever birds we could find. We had hunted last month in late summer warmth; we will hunt the next in early winter cold. On this day we hunted a day of transition one to the other as if walking down a street and turning the corner to a new horizon.
The wind was blowing from north and west and we hunted woodcock in the hopes that a flight had ridden that wind in overnight. It had not, at least not where we walked on that day. We flushed birds, a handful of woodcock, a couple of grouse, but I never had a clear shot.
Thor moved ahead and I lost him in the thickness then heard him yelp and a woodcock flew from where Thor was and landed, most improbably, 20 feet from where I stood. I watched the bird on the ground; unless he moved, he blended in so well I think I’d have missed him had I not known where to look. He walked, chubby little body moving surprisingly well in the fallen leaves and I stepped to my right; one step, two, and raised the gun as the bird flew. But the bird dodged hard left, put a balsam tree between us, and I never got the gun to my shoulder let alone offered up a shot. I was not the poorer for that; one sees woodcock on the ground rarely, far less than on the wing.
We hunted on that gray day under the lingering leaf of birch and popple, through the groves of small trees, thin and leggy as dancers but moving to rhythm of season and breeze, the only music the sound of wind on high branch. Fern offered up a study in bronze and brown; umber and copper and tints of gold all mixed in its leaf. Gone now the green of fern; bent now as if aged men under the weight of short days and cool nights, bent under the gray of this day.
No season carries the finality of autumn. Winter may linger or it may fade early; one never knows until after the fact. Spring merges from late winter on one end to summer on the other and there is no clear demarcation. Summer can hold into fall, late warmth can come with heat unexpected; then fade; then come again as if unwilling to give it all up.
Autumn is different. Autumn ends when the last leaf falls and when the leaf falls it cannot rise again. When leaves lie aground fall is over and the trees will stand skeletal against the sky. Warm weather may come; snow may delay; but autumn, once gone, is gone as a curtain that closes a play. Color will blaze one week, turn to ember the next; ash after. And autumn will be past.
On this day it felt close, did the end of autumn. On this day one could feel it coming, see it in the bare trees, catch it in the flash of golden tamarack. The calendar has nothing to do with it; it is something you feel in your gut.
On the cool, gray afternoon I load the dogs to the truck. We have not killed a bird but we have hunted; that is enough. Riika sits on the passenger seat, head high, eyes bright; a tamarack needle golden on her forehead.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.