The Star-Herald

Great hunter of the North

Fall in The County means frosty mornings and shorter days. Leaves fall. Jack-o’-lanterns appear. Wildlife sense the change, too. Squirrels scurry to store away winter snacks. Geese form V’s in the sky.

In the human realm, blaze orange becomes the color 0f choice.

I have fond memories of bird hunting season. When I was a child, my family would organize vacations around a week in October, often when school was out for harvest. The cozy camp at Portage Lake served as the base of operations. Our territory: the winding woods roads around what used to be the Great Northern and Pinkham mills and the “Reality” Road.  

We’d head into the deep woods on the mill-owned tote roads, eyes peeled, bouncing along on rough gravel. Road opened onto road, leading to paths and clearings ablaze with color. We’d leave vehicles and explore on foot, amid crispy leaves and fallen needles. If we were lucky, there’d be partridge stew that night.

Occasionally wildlife would appear: moose, deer, even bear. I still remember the morning we saw a mother bear and two cubs up the road, the cubs frolicking and tumbling over each other and Mama Bear. We stayed quiet and observed from a safe distance.

I absorbed lifelong lessons: respect wildlife. Never hunt more than you need. I learned how to mark my way on a trail, how to spot the gravelly smoothness where partridge dust, how to tell hemlock from spruce and identify animal tracks.

And there were funny stories, like the time my father left the group to hike up a road; he said he’d be back at that location in 30 minutes. My grandfather was driving. We went back to the spot; no Dad. We circled back; he still wasn’t there. After an hour or so of turning around and around on woods roads, we were worried. We kept going. Finally, we found him lounging calmly on a rock — at the exact spot where we’d left him in the first place.

“I wasn’t lost,” he said with a smug grin. “You were.”

Of course, being out in nature brings certain challenges, particularly when nature … err … calls.

My mother knew this well. And the family never let her forget it.

We’d been out several hours and had stopped at a clearing on an isolated road. The only sound was silence. We hadn’t seen anyone for miles.

“This is a pretty safe spot,” said my uncle helpfully. “We haven’t seen anyone for miles.” He stood as lookout from a distance.

Trusting soul, my mom.

She exited the car; nothing, not a sound from anywhere.

Until the truck suddenly barreled around the corner toward us with a pack of hunters in it. A pack of loud hunters whose laughter pierced the quiet.

“Jimmy, I’m gonna kill you,” sputtered my mother at her brother-in-law.

His laughter was loudest of all.

Years later, my dad and I continue the fall tradition of exploring the North Maine Woods, enjoying the beauty and serenity, hoping to flush a speckled bird with a telltale ruff.

We’ve had some cool adventures. Like the time we came upon a moose graveyard (ewww), or the time a wild turkey ran beside the truck for quite a distance (I called to it and it kept answering). Once we hiked a little-traveled road and found an old wooden boundary sign hidden in the brush for a township designation that, we later discovered, no longer exists.

And there are still funny stories. A couple of years ago we stopped on a little road that was off another road off the main road, one where there were no wheel tracks but ours. That call from nature was insistent.

Dad said brightly, “This should be a safe spot. We haven’t seen anybody for miles.”

Do I really need to explain what happened? Somewhere there’s a group of hunters that were traveling in a pickup that day …

I swore I heard my mother laughing.

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