Of treasures large and small...

The famous cherry blossoms of springtime are two weeks gone when our plane touches down at Reagan Airport in Washington, DC, over two hours late after high winds tossed asunder any predictability in travel plans to the east coast. We stand 20 minutes in line to get a taxi, the midnight air damp with spring humidity.

We catch glimpses of historic buildings on the taxi ride, bone-white in the darkness of urban night. The taxi stops at a small white house with a red door in a neighborhood that looks more small-town than big city. We pay the driver; carry bags inside where my sister waits. We have come, Sally and I, to visit my sister’s granddaughter, my grandniece, a five-month-old who carries my mother’s name, Nettie, and in that the lineage of my family.

We sleep late, weary travelers that we are. We will meet the child later, on her schedule; a five-month-old being fairly predictable in terms of sleeping (they do that a lot) and eating (they do that regularly as well), not quite like the workday routine of punching a time clock but not that far off either. But first we will walk, bumpkin tourists in the big city.

The capitol building rises high into the late April sky, a massive structure of white stone, stately columns, a rise of stairs that seem endless and a glistening dome topping it all. It is busy on this spring day; families and groups of school children, a small gathering of people who are concerned with happenings in Korea (they seem wary and distrustful of entreaties between North and South); they carry placards and listen to speakers. A lone man in a blue sports coat and tie carries a sign suggesting that the president be impeached.

Nobody pays much heed to either the Koreans or the man with the sign, focusing instead on selfies with the grand building of the capitol as background. The sky is very blue and the alabaster dome stands starkly against the sky; the image is striking.

I feel vaguely detached from it all. Perhaps the magnificence of the capitol building is dimmed by the prevailing cynicism of the modern congress that plies its craft within; current polls show only 20% approve of their machinations.

Or perhaps it’s the grounds. I would expect that the environs of the capitol would extend as a verdant carpet of bright greenery, an unblemished expanse that would bring to mind the emerald richness of a baseball diamond or a classic golf course. Instead it looks unkempt, a mottled mix of grass and weed that brings to mind a casually neglected lawn or the shabby outfield of a small town ball field with a limited budget for landscaping.

We walk away from the capitol along the edge of a reflecting pool where any reflections are dashed on a breezy day that leaves the water in a mild chop; mallard ducklings paddle frantically under the eyes of passing crowds. Electric scooters, the bane of many cities, dart silently like swallows come to ground. I find them somewhat unsettling; they seem too swift and haphazard in their travels; the likelihood of mishap seems high.

We find refuge in a museum. Our pace slows; traces of political discontent fall away; rocketing scooters a memory. We move slowly through the rooms, works of art stunning in their quiet magnificence. I stand, struck to silence before works of master artists, images of power and life, of conflict and beauty; paintings and sculpture and photographs. I find works of familiar artists; feel like I am connected with an old friend. Find work by artists I do not know; newfound treasures. In the presence of art I feel renewed.

Is it odd that I can stand in front of painting and feel a greater sense of wonder than I do in the lawn of the capitol looking at the looming dome? That blocks of color or images both vague and impressionistic bring more to me than the stone buildings outside, noble and magnificent in their own right but not moving me in my heart? In the rooms of the art comes inspiration and wonder both though I suppose one can say the same of time in the woods under the shade of the ancient trees with the scent of duff in the air.

[A side note: Washington offers a stunning array of museums, a lavish smorgasbord of art and history and all that is reflective of the nation. And most of it free for the viewing: Your tax dollars hard at work.]

The afternoon warms. We walk back to my sister’s place, foot weary but renewed. And then we meet Nettie, my mother’s namesake, my grandniece and in that a new strand in the fabric of family history and heritage. She was born in November on a chill day in Wisconsin. I was in my deer stand and the sound of texts dinging on my phone broke the reverie of the hunt. I dug through layers of clothing to the phone, read the text; the baby was born.

Now on the late April afternoon we meet. She is, of course, radiant and perfect in every way! One need not be a parent or grandparent to realize that. I hold her on my lap; my hands seem enormous in comparison. Her tiny hands curl and unfurl like a spring flower. Her eyes look at me; big and blue and trusting. She smiles and babbles and does what infants do and of course it is all amazing to me.

I think to myself: I have seen on this day the stone cold buildings of man; I have felt the heat and the passion of art; and I have held in my hands the spirit of my past and the hope for the future.
Nettie looks at me, blue eyes meet mine; the world settles and narrows to the two of us.

Riika at Seventeen.

“In a year you’ll be old enough to vote and the world will be a better place for it.” I tell that to Riika who regards me with her amber eyes over her gray muzzle. She’s stone deaf, has been for a couple years. She still pays attention, head up, ears cocked back, eyes showing cloud but still sparking with life.

She lies on the seat of the truck feeling the rhythm of the road in her old bones. The day is sunny but there is chill in the air. It is a Sunday afternoon. We are going, her and I, to the woods.

She meets my eyes across the short span of the truck but on this day the span is measured in years. It is her seventeenth birthday. Against all odds. Against all odds of a dog her size and breed living that long. Against the odds of surviving cancer surgery, ACL surgery, multiple tangles with porcupines, of years of running unbounded in wolf country. Seventeen years of a wild heart and a drive to hunt and a loyalty to us that is beyond words. Seventeen years.

Now we drive out of town on a late winter day to the fresh air of pine woods and frozen lake and field, our birthday celebration. She and I; just the two of us. Sally stays home with Thor and Fenway; barking at the door, the two dogs, as I usher Riika out and into the truck. Riika and I go to the woods to walk and to honor her birthday.

I don’t know how she does it. At home she is always slow, often achy, limping on a bad leg, moving slow up the stairs, no longer able to jump from floor to bed (we put a footstool next to the bed and she uses that to go from floor to stool to bed). She is tentative in the backyard, unsteady on the ice of winter. In the house she looks old.

In the woods it all fades away. In the woods and in the field the years fall like leaf off November tree and she moves with energy and vigor as if the air itself is a balm for age, a restorative that makes an old dog shed the years.

She hunted this past fall, against all odds, hunted with enthusiasm and vitality, hunted the mild days of September thru the chill of November to the last day of December when the grouse season closed and we could hunt no more. She hunted with the passion and the drive that has marked her days for seventeen years. We saw few birds, shot none.

I never had a more rewarding season.

Now we pull to the side of the country road and I lift her from the truck. I ease her to the ground, let her get her feet set and then take my hands off. She stands, takes in the air and the scent and then turns to the woods. There is a snow bank too tall for her to climb so I pick her up one more time and lift her to the top the bank, put her to the snow.

The snow has crusted over and it bears our weight. We walk away from the road, across a small opening and then down a steep slope to the lake. She moves ahead of me and I think to myself that if you did not know her age you would never guess it from the way she moves, light on her feet, confident and bold.

We spend an hour on that afternoon, my old girl and me. We walk the edge of lake ice, push into the swamp along the shore, Riika ahead of me, passing through sunlight and shadow, fully engaged in the scent she alone can sense. Silent trees stand as stark witness to our efforts.

In the field she is a different dog and I am at a certain level amazed that she can still do what she does. And on another level I find in her inspiration; it cannot be easy for an old dog on achy legs to move as she does.

She has failed this winter. She has gotten finicky in her diet; one day she wants chicken, the next bacon, the following morning no appetite at all. Her weight slides lower, a gradual attrition of age and the simple reality of a very old dog that is on the long slope down. Where once she had thick muscle across her haunch she now has bone. The firm muscle gone now to a hard line of bone beneath the skin, a jagged ridgeline that marks the outline of her back. To run your hand along her back is an exercise in skeletal design; vertebrae stand proud, muscles receded.

But in the woods she comes to life, in the woods she can run, she can hunt, she can return to what she is; her old eyes bright with life force. Against all odds.

We spend an hour on the snowpack in the high sun of late winter on a day that is not memorable except in our eyes: Riika’s seventeenth birthday and in that a modest celebration is due.

We climb a gradual slope to the road and she begins to lag. I wait for her. She is tiring. She turns to face the west and the afternoon light catches her and she stands in the glow, head lifted to the breeze, looking regal in the golden light. Then we turn and walk the remaining distance to the road and I lift her from the high bank to the roadway.

She turns to look at me and I point to the truck. She walks to the door, l lift her up and on to the seat. She sits, looking out the window then settles and curls up on the seat and looks at me. Birthday girl. Seventeen years old. Against all odds.

Time change...season changes.

I flew to St. Louis on the early flight. Or tried to. There was a “mechanical issue” they told us, the term that haunts modern travel, wording as nebulous as low hanging cloud; impenetrable, mysterious, slightly ominous. We got off the plane, a long, single line of pilgrims delayed on the trip to whatever Promised Land envisioned.

The last off the plan, I passed the two pilots who stood with causal indifference, chatting. I asked what the nature of the problem was and they described hydraulic fluid pooling on the tarmac under the plane. They used the same deferential tones as if telling of an early morning rain shower; nothing special.

With the impression that flying an airplane that had bled copious amounts of hydraulic fluid would not be a good idea and I asked them, “This plane isn’t going anywhere, is it?” They did not dissuade me nor encourage me.
I drove home, had breakfast and four hours later flew to the Twin Cities and made a connecting flight. I landed in St. Louis and took a cab to the motel.

Air travel is as if traveling through time and in the magic of this flight I was transported back in time, back a month, maybe six weeks, to late fall. Some trees in Missouri still held leaf, brown and dried but holding fast to branch. Lawns were muted green or turning dead-grass brown. The roadway was damp from rain, held a metallic November-like sheen to it now in early December. I’d traveled back in time.

I checked into the motel and did not leave the building for the next two days, walking from motel room downstairs to convention center and back, spending the days looking at the wares of near six dozen manufacturers and taking in the sales pitches for winter boots and hunt clothing and accessories that we’d sell next fall and winter. I wondered: Will we have cold weather then? Will we need warm boots and heavy parkas? Of the gear I saw, what will people like?

Unanswerable questions. No answers, only educated guesses.

Two afternoons later I walked into the chill air, took another cab to the airport and flew home. The time machine reversed itself and I went from late fall to early winter; magic! The Twin Cities were white with snow cover. I changed planes and flew into town at midnight to frozen lakes, snow-covered woodlands, crisp night air and a breeze that had a bite to it. The time machine had landed and lurched to a stop. It was December in Wisconsin; winter was at hand.

A day off mid-week, I headed to the basement. I found the clutter of fall seasons lying about as if leaf fallen to the ground. Hunting boots; some unlined, some insulated, hip boots and waders. Hunting jackets and vests, caps and hats, gloves and dog collars. Shades of camouflage clashed with blaze orange hats. Shotgun shells glowed in yellow and green and red, like lights on a Christmas tree.

I packed it all up. I loaded the old plastic storage containers as per their labels marked on each, “Deer hunt,” “Camo.” Smaller boxes: “12 ga steel,” “20 gauge shot,” “Accessories.” Put the big tubs on storage bins along the floor, the smaller ones on narrow shelves. I stood boots in their proper place, hung shotgun cases from rafters, put compasses and dog collar controls and multi-tools in their place.

Blaze parkas and down jackets; camo shirts and duck-hunt parkas were hung on hangers and slid onto clothing rods. I worked for several hours. When I was done the time machine had sputtered and spit and moved and then stopped; fall was over. The season of the hunt was done.

The calendar can say what it will but when hunt gear is put up the season has changed. Period.

I looked at the leftover gear, the mismatched gloves and random shot shells and baseball caps. There were six leather work gloves of indeterminate age, some showing the tawny yellow-brown of clean buckskin, some the worn and dirty dust color of a glove well used. I had the six of them laid out on a shelf like a limit of fish or a display of random found objects. Each one of the six gloves was left handed. The missing mates all rights.

What are the odds of that? How does it come to be that all the gloves that had vanished were for the same hand? I considered it, then put the lefties in a box of their own, labeled it “Left” and put it on the shelf.

With that it was as if a door had closed, the certainty of an autumn now gone. Memories remain; nothing more.

Other storage tubs were pulled out; “XC Clothing,” “Winter Gloves,” “Hats.” I put them on the shelves where I could find them all. Ski jackets, winter coats, insulted pants were hung in front of the hunt clothing. I laid out gloves on the shelf, fronted heavy pac boots and lighter snowshoe boots, arranged ski boots, packed the bicycle helmet, gloves and shoes away.

In short, I made ready for the season now at hand. When I was finished the time had changed. The basement area was no longer a fall gear storage area. It was now holding winter gear and in that change far more than a simple rearranging of gear and clothing. Simple acts can, at times, portend far more than mere housekeeping. In this was an acknowledgement of time change. It was as clean cut as getting on a plane in one place and landing hours later in another. It was, in its own manner, a flight of time, a trip out of one season and into another. It was a finality. It was an ending. It was a beginning.

I walked up the basement stairs, looked outside. It was snowing.

North Dakota duck hunt

Wind moaned in the darkness; predawn North Dakota; sunrise a broken promise. Windows rattled in the old farm house. The big lab whined, restless, his toe nails clicked on wooden floor. Coffee brewed; the only optimism in the air.

“How cold?”
“Wind chill’s eleven.”
“Above or below zero?”
“Below.”
“Oh…”

The lake where we’d hunted ducks the past two days would be frozen. The air temperature was four, maybe five above. The lake had been open last night but showed the flat sheen of water making ice. Surely, it would be locked up.

“More coffee?” We drank coffee; daylight showed in pale shades of gray. We gave it an hour then left the house. It was still very cold and the wind was strong from the north. We drove four miles on rutted and frozen gravel two lane as the wind blew snow across the road.The farm fields rolled off in gentle rises and were lost to the falling snow.

We crested the hill and Ted stopped the truck. The sun had broken through the haze of snow and the lake ahead was sheathed in rising steam; it was very much open. We reached for binoculars. Geese and ducks and swans showed like spirits through the clouds of steam, spectral birds that seemed part of the air or the snow as if dream visions of birds not flesh and feather.

We backed off, moved down the road, parked. We’d hunt pheasants in a low slough where the wind might not be as bad.

We walked the cattails and thick cover next to the frozen wetland; corn stood nearly. A perfect setup for pheasants.

We hunted an hour and never saw a bird.

The day prior we’d walked a mile along a similar area; cattails and marsh to our left; cut corn for 30 yards then standing corn. We’d had birds go up, dozens of flushes; three dozen? Four dozen? We did not count them only saw them; big wild pheasants rising over the marsh.

The big lab worked like a machine, a black fur-clad reaper in the thick of it all driven by pheasant scent. He is a long-legged powerhouse of a labrador, driven to hunt. When we rested him he lay still, his chiseled head showing the stoic nobility of black labs, his face nicked and raw from pushing through the heavy, coarse cover

Ted shot well; I shot abysmally. I missed textbook-easy shots at big roosters, the heavy gun pounding my shoulder as if in rebuke of my efforts. I felt, standing on the frozen ground, that I could easily take a step backward in the evolution of the hunt, go to bow and arrows or spear or just thrown rocks and have no discernible difference in my success.

I thought to myself: For all the years I’ve done this, I’m still not a very good shot and to expect otherwise is to expect nothing less than an act of magic or a miracle on a par with the parting of the seas.

But that was a day past and time was running out. The third day, for me, of a three-day hunt in the center of North Dakota, duck and goose heaven where birds were plentiful and game bags heavy. We gave up on pheasants and drove back to the farmhouse. The truck’s thermometer showed 9 above. The wind seemed to mock us.

We hauled decoys and blinds, shotguns and shells and a canoe and settled in on the lee shore of a small point that jutted into the lake. There was very little natural cover. We used layout blinds, a somewhat diabolical but very effective blind in which the hunter lies flat on their back on what is essentially a reclining lawn chair but low, only a few inches above ground level. The blind has sides and a hinged top and the entire contraption resembles a camouflaged coffin. When birds draw near the hunter lifts up, tosses the top aside and blazes away.

I did not do well with the layout blind. Ted would rise with little apparent effort and shoot with uncanny accuracy. I flailed mightily, fighting to fling the cover aside as if trapped inside a human-sized taco. I rarely got shotgun to shoulder. Once my camouflage hat caught on the side of the blind and forced down over my face effectively rendering me blindfolded.

In the darkness of such state I heard the sound of Ted’s shotgun and when I pulled the hat from my eyes saw a duck fall. “Did you shoot?” he asked. I mumbled something about feeling like a jack-in-the-box and sunk back down.

Ducks moved; mallards and redheads, canvasbacks and bluebills, goldeneyes and buffleheads. We had steady shooting. It never got above 12 degrees. When we quit late in the afternoon the decoys were sheeted in ice.

The day before I arrived the wind had blown a gale from the north and the ducks and geese and swans had flown. “Twenty years of hunting and I’ve never seen so many,” was one report. The wind never stopped and the birds flew every day, high and rapid-winged, flock after flock, tens of thousands for three days.

On the afternoon of my final day their numbers were dwindling. The migration had passed, the ducks and the geese and the swans. Swans are the last to migrate. When they’re gone it’s over.

We loaded the truck on the high hill overlooking the lake. I stood and in the chill air came a wild call, the sound of swans, one more flock. The afternoon sun angled low and caught the pure white of swans against the blue sky and dark cloud. In that moment all was caught as if a photo; the swans and the sky and the land and water. Then the swans were gone and the sky was silent and empty. The hunt was over. We started the truck for home.

Thor: A dog, a hunter, a puzzle...

At times I wonder of Thor, of what he is and what he was and what he left undone. I wonder what moved him, what held him back, what spirit drove him, if drive is a word that can be applied to Thor; he seems, for most of his life, to have lacked even a sliver of drive. I wonder, at times, if it was all too easy for him, the hunt, as if he was a gifted athlete that never seemed to reach their full potential and left questions ahead of answers.

Maybe Riika, in some ways less gifted, runt of the litter, maybe Riika used that as motivation to push harder, to run farther, to hunt better than any other dog. Perhaps Thor was content linger in the shadow of her blaze of drive and passion. Perhaps Thor simply did not have anything to prove.

Who knows? They are both dogs, they don’t have much to say about the matter. It is left to us, to me, to ponder on it all in the nights of waning October when chill comes with sundown as if part and parcel now of the early darkness which falls not as a blanket but as a knife that cuts away all pretense of warmth.

Thor had it all over Riika, he of long legs and easy stride, a distance runner’s build. She, shorter and stocky, she had to work. And work she did since the day she felt dirt and fern beneath her feet and the scent of bird jolted her system like an addict’s rush. He never felt that. She had drive; he never did. She’d work the thickets and the brambles; he’d stay on the roads. She’d come home tangled and matted with sticks and burrs, laced with cuts from the blackberry canes; he’d look ready for the show ring.

But he had a nose and when I turned off the old logging roads into the brush he had no alternative except to follow and when he did he’d find birds. He’d follow the invisible threads of bird scent for grouse, sense woodcock in thick cover where I could not go.

He loved to hunt, no mistake, but she lived to hunt and in that is all you need to know.

We hunted, the two dogs and I, hunted the autumns for a decade. They both contracted Lymes. They both took on porcupines, about half a dozen, maybe more; the results were predicable. They both hunted, she with passion, he with seeming indifference. They ran through woods and marshes, upland and low lands, in open areas and thickets as dense as a bad dream. They ran crazy after rabbits and deer, breathed deep the intoxicating scent of woodcock and grouse.

They grew old. Riika took it the hardest. She would come home tired and achy, limping and in discomfort. We’d dose her with meds. Thor would come home tired. He never limped but his bright eyes showed cloud. I started to take out one at a time while the other rested at home.

In his tenth year he changed. Gone was Thor as an acolyte to Riika. He began to hunt as he never had and his hunter’s heart beat faster and the river of hunter’s blood surged. He was as if a new dog. He was, that autumn, without cause or explanation, a wonderful hunter. Why? I wondered. What metamorphosis he emerged from? What now moved him?

He worked the thick cover, flushed birds with enthusiasm and, dare I say, passion and desire. He was a changed dog at an age when one could only expect the first steps on the long slide down. He hunted that season as he never had hunted before.

On a day in late October we hunted along the Wisconsin River, pushed the thickets dark with shadow and alive with grouse. Eased through aspen and balsam. I killed one bird and then another. Thor flushed a grouse and I dropped it, my third, in briars and fern.

I looked for that bird. I could not find it. I marked the spot and searched at times on hands and knees and I could not find the bird. All the while Thor ignored my entreaties to “come” and wandered off and I cursed him and kept looking for the bird. I never found it. Thor did. Thor found the bird 40 feet from where I’d dropped it and he brought it to me, eyes alight.

We killed a fourth bird and I missed a drop-dead-easy shot that would have given me a five-bird limit. It was the best day we’d had. Ever. The best season.

And never to come again.

The next year he was going deaf. I didn’t know it even though Riika’s hearing had failed a year earlier. It was in the woods that I could tell. I could see him looking for me but the whistle would not turn his head and my shouts did not reach him. More often he’d go away from me. I’d watch, helpless to stop him and see him fade into the dark underbrush. Gone.

I’d stand in the silence and I’d be sick with fear. He’d come back, scared, fearful; I could tell it by watching him. It had all changed. One great season; then only memories.

We still hunt, the two of us. He is fourteen-and-a-half, stone deaf but he loves to hunt. He has the loose, easy stride of a distance runner still. But at times he ranges too far away from me and I stand and I do not see him and I know he feels fear coming on with our separation and I feel the fear and I do not know what to do.

In time he leaves the shadows and the fear and comes to me with eyes happy and my stress fades away. I tell him he’s a good boy. And I mean every word.

The time of silence for a waterfowler.

Black night; steady rain, rapping at the windows like birdshot, rattling on the roof. I stoked the wood stove, sipped a Scotch and read an old book about hunts now long gone. The radio was background noise; football and thus of small consequence.
In the dark of the night I woke to more rain, harsh and unsettling. Embers glowed in the stove. I added another oak bolt, locked the stove door, lay back in the blackness to the sound of storm.

I hunted ducks at daybreak in light drizzle and fog that drew down the world. I saw very few ducks, missed badly on the one shot I had. The wooden decoys floated, gray and unconvincing. They did not inspire confidence. I sat for an hour and a half then pulled the decoys, stored them away and went back to the shack for coffee.

Two nights later the wind blew hard and there were no stars, only the sound of the wind in the trees. I read from another book; the stove beat down the chill in the shack; the temperature outside had dropped nearly 20 degrees. I stood on the step before I closed down for the night and felt the wind and on the wind was an excitement, a promise of change coming in. On the wind was a wildness. I closed the door firmly and went to bed.

In the night the wind blew with muscle and anger as if a spirit was riding in from a land of ancient fable. It was blackness all around save for the red glow from the glass door on the stove.

The next morning the wind blew and I said to myself, “There will be ducks moving on this,” migrants come from northern regions, from Lake Superior, from high lakes farther north. I set the decoys and waited. Dawn came slowly on the wind under thick, fast-moving cloud. I saw one flock of ducks, a few pairs, a few singles. That was all. I did not fire a shot and left wondering how I could be so mistaken; it seemed a day made for duck hunters.

Perhaps it was; perhaps the day was made for hunting. Perhaps, though, it was not a day for shooting.

The color was near peak on this day, a gorgeous world of wonder and glory. Golds and yellows and red, glowing as if the world was made of stained glass windows. All around was beauty and splendor.

I pulled the truck to the side of the road, left it running, loped across the blacktop to an ancient apple tree and reached up; took two. Back in the truck I ate the apples, fresh and chilled and sweet. The heater blew hot and I thought to myself, “This is not a bad day at all.”

On the third night stars blazed bright under the clearing sky, white-hot against blackness and I stood, mouth agape, head tilted back to better look at them. Wondered, when was that last time I saw stars in this week of leaden gray and rain? I took them all in.

The Brewers were playing; the radio was scratchy and the signal came and went and I thought that is the way to follow baseball; a radio with a bad signal and your imagination left to conjure up the images. I listened to the game until I was tired then turned if off; would see in the morning if they won.
Come the dawning the lake was calm, dark as the sky is dark for all water reflects the sky.

There may be no more meditative time in sport than the minutes in a duck blind waiting for the day to start. A calmness comes; a contemplation; a peacefulness far too rare in our lives and far too uncommon in our sport.

I sat on an overturned bucket with my life jacket as a cushion. I leaned back against the spindly spruce tree at the back of the crude blind. I sat as motionless as the lake in front of me, as restful as the far off tree line.

Coyotes yelped over the hill on the far side of the lake, startling, unexpected, as if a fresh breath of cool wind or the fall of rain. Then quiet. Meditative time.
It did not brighten at daybreak, only shifted slightly toward daylight as if thin layers of shroud were peeled back to reveal lighter layers of gray.

Leaves fell; floated on the air; settled on the water. Ripple rings spread.
I saw a handful of ducks that morning. I did not kill any of them. I settled, on that October morning, for the time of mediation a duck hunter knows in the still hour of dawn, when the world seems motionless and the mind finds peace and all else falls away.

New seasons; old dogs.

Riika woke early, restless, wanting to go out. I felt for clothing in the dark room, pulled on a pair of pants, a shirt, more from memory than from intent. I was still near sleep. I walked with her downstairs, across the inky living room and kitchen to the back door. I turned on the outside light and opened the door.

She paused, sniffed the air as if tasting it, then, having approved, stepped off the stoop and into the yard. After a moment I followed.

I walked barefoot across the patio. The air was fresh and pure; there was a faint smudge of pale light to the east but dawn was a time away. I looked to the sky; it was hazy, as layers of gauze; nothing seemed real, there was no definition, just gloomy shades of gray without stars.

The trees were smudged against the dark of sky; black on near-black. The trees were massive in the darkness as if a cliff, a steep pitch of hillside or foothill.

The air felt good. I had the fleeting image of a spring morning but no, not today. It was mid-September and spring was a long time gone or a longer time coming; take your pick.

Riika moved in the darkness at the edge of the yard, a shadow that came to view then faded, as indistinct as the sky above. It was very quiet.

It was the opening morning of grouse season.

Time was that we would hunt the opener, come what may. Time was we’d go without question. We’d go, Riika and I, or Thor and Riika and I. We’d go to the woods; we’d go to the hunt; it was what we did.

But not today. Not this time around.

Time was when Riika was young and she’d hunt wild and free. She hunted crazy when young; more reasoned with age; slowly, achy in the latter years.  She hunted through briar and bramble; belly and face a web of scratches. She hunted after a cancerous tumor; she hunted after ACL surgery; she hunted against all odds and overcame them all. Overcame all save for age.  Age is the ailment from which she cannot recover.  Age is the distance she cannot range. Age the thicket that she cannot bust through.

“We could do a short walk … bust out a grouse or woodcock and I’d miss the shot but I wouldn’t care…as long as Riika had bird scent one more time.”

She came to me out of the darkness, my old hunt partner, 16 ½ years old now. I led her inside and turned off the lights and we went back to sleep for another hour. When we woke again dawn was a pale blossom and the sky showed dim light. But we did not hunt. Not on that day, on the opening, the day of significance that borders on spiritual as all openings do.

I found reasons for the not hunting, rational thoughts on the ledger. It would be too hot and Riika never liked the heat. There were too many leaves and the woods would be heavy with cover; a clear shot would be rare. The grouse numbers are down, the reason still a mystery, as mysterious as a dark sky at daybreak. Reasons all not to hunt.

But in years past I’d have gone out, taken one dog or both, gone out for an hour just to do it, simply to hunt the opener and start the season that has defined so much of who I am and who Riika and Thor are.  Not that long ago we’d have gone to the woods.  It would be our private ceremony, the dogs and me.

Instead, I went to work. In the afternoon the temperature reached to record highs and why not?  It’s been that type of a year from the 90s of late May to the near-90 in September and the novelty of high heat, the oddity of 90 degrees in the Northwoods has long since faded into the drudgery of another too-hot day that breeds ill temper and drains resolve.

Riika never did well in the heat. The only way we could hunt would be to find cover near water, a backwater elbow of a small stream that she could wade into and lie down and let the waters wash over her. She’d lie in the waters and look up at me. Then, cooled, she’d be ready to go.

Thor was better at the heat. But Thor never hunted with the passion that burned hot in Riika and part of what the hunt brought to me was seeing Riika and her unbridled desire to hunt that inspired me beyond any satisfaction that killing birds would do. I did not care, do not care, about a full game bag. Watching Riika work was a full measure of satisfaction.

Now she’s old and for the past three years I’ve left the woods after the season convinced that she’d never hunt again. Then, come fall, come autumn, come Riika’s time, she’d hunt, against all odds. Last year on a December afternoon I killed the last grouse of my season over Riika and I knew that would be her last day to hunt.

Now I don’t know that. Now I think, “I could take her out for a little while.” We could do a short walk on old familiar trails and we could hope to bust out a grouse or woodcock and I’d miss the shot but I wouldn’t care, wouldn’t care at all as long as Riika had bird scent one more time.

I hold the promise of the hunt to come. It will come as will come the frost and the leaf fall and the shortening days. It will ride in on north wind and chill. We will hunt for birds, yes, but more, we will hunt for memories, for moments, for the ceremony of it all; we will hunt for things light as a feather on the September breeze, as fleeting as the drift of a falling leaf, as precious as the look in an old dog’s golden eyes.

Fall magic comes...

There comes, in the waning days of August, a quickening. The pulse of the season lifts. Gone the slumbering days of heat, the slow moving weeks of July and August when time pooled and the drift of days slowed. Now the stream of time flows faster; urgency builds. There is something afoot. The world of the Northwoods is poised as if a deer on the edge of the forest, alert, taunt with a tension, wound tight, a coiled spring. Such is the time when autumn waits on the edge of our season; a tension builds, the spiraled spring coils tighter.

On the hardscrabble blacktop of county road the scent of fresh-cut crop hangs in the air, sweet-sour, dusty; the harvester works the field row by row, the reaper comes to gather. I am on roller skis, the faux cross country ski of aluminum shaft and rubber tires, a meager substitute for snow that will come, the snow and the cold, but on this day summer sun holds rule and late August heat blooms. But different. Something has changed. There is something in the air.

The calendar calls out summer but the air on this day is different. There is a freshness to it, a dryness, a purity as if more fully charged with oxygen, more vital than a week prior. To breathe it deep brings clarity and energy that the sullen heat of summer air cannot deliver.

The sound of my ski poles on tarmac taps out the rhythm of the day, a clickety-clackety staccato that marks my pace in the afternoon light. There is an old maxim in the ski world that states that races are won in the summertime when the devotee logs the long hours in training and that the miles and hours in the summer will serve well come times of snow and races.

I think of that on this afternoon: Races are won in summer. In my case, so too are they lost in that time, when discipline and desire are, for me, as rare as snow in August and as fleeting as the winter wind yet to come. So it goes. There were days when I loved to ski and lived to ski. Now I love to ski but I no longer live to ski.

Time was when I would ski daily; log the long distance and the high intensity. Those days are gone to memory, gone as the summer heat of July and August and the long hours of slow-moving daylight, gone now to the quickening pace of the oncoming season. I plod along on roller skis but am lackadaisical in my effort and indifferent also to any gains. Things change.

Things change. In a matter 45 minutes on roller skis on a late summer afternoon shows that change. The calendar holds more weeks of summer but autumn looms, edging its way into our lives, shouldering out summer like the bully on the schoolyard cuts in line.

Autumn comes as if a magician unveiling the most powerful sleight of hand known, for autumn seems to change the measure of time. Autumn works a strange magic: Days pass faster, hours speed, time hastens. Magic! Magic on every day when the dawning brings coolness and freshness and the air is fuller and more enervated with life. Magic, again. For we know, all of us, that the air is the same and that the minutes to the hour do not change and the hours in the day are predictable. Intellect reminds us; magic disagrees.

Come September, comes magic in the rapid turn of days, in the intoxicating freshness of air, in the chill at dawn and the coolness that reaches with the shadows at dusk; magic on the wings of the migrating birds, in the unspeakable mystery and majesty of monarch butterfly gone to Mexico, of trout in vivid color moving over gravel against the current. See magic in the rose color of apple and plum, ripening on the tree, racing the season.

And the final act of the magic show of autumn: Green leaf turns to red or yellow or orange, turns in magic before our eyes. And then, poof, is gone and bare branch is all that remains.

I think these thoughts on the afternoon on the well-worn blacktop that rises with the folds of land that passes field and forest, houses and lakes I think of the magic to come. The roller skiing is a hollow exercise when all is said and done, a vain attempt to capture the reality of the actual experience but coming up short in the same way that an August day can only hint at the magic to come. One needs to stand on a September afternoon in sun and glory of fall color, stand to breathe in full the air that by logic is a match for the air of July but by dint of magic is vastly different.
On the morning after I roller ski I build a duck blind on a small lake. The air has a feel that was not there a week ago. Wood ducks take flight and sound their odd whistling call and then are gone. Across the lake a single tree shows a splash of red. The quickening of season change rises. The magic begins.

Season changes take flight on the wings of the birds.

“The birds lift eyes to skyscape as if reading ancient scrollwork etched in fine calligraphy across the blue expanse of August sky; blind to us, a billboard to them.” 

BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal

Black-coated grackles fly to the ground. They command the yard, stalking with authority, feathers glowing ebony as if spit-shined; yellow eye stark contrast to black head; beams as if lighted from within. Eight of them. They were not here the day prior. Green grass, black-jacketed grackles. It as is a drift of black leaf has come to earth on a gentle August breeze. They are restless, ill at ease. It is time.

It is the time of season when birds seem unsettled, sorting out their numbers to become flocks, wary of something unseen. The birds know the season is changing, sense in shortening days what we can only surmise from blocks and numbers on the calendar page; season change is in the air, is in the breeze, is in the sun as it sets earlier each day. Change comes now, weighted as the evening sky is weighted with a haziness of uncertainty. Change comes; the birds feel it. The birds announce it.

We have no real clue. We blunder our way through the natural world blind to the subtle shift, oblivious to the fractional movements, unaware of patterns etched in sunsets and sunrises that mark the calendar of birds.

The birds know. We do not. The birds feel it and see it, see the landscape blur as if mirage, then reform and crystallize into the new season. The birds lift eyes to skyscape as if reading ancient scrollwork etched in fine calligraphy across the blue expanse of August sky; blind to us, a billboard to them.

We feed birds. Have a couple feeders in the back yard, watch them over the kitchen table; early morning coffee with birds; dinner and late evening, watching the birds in the yard. The bird feeders draw birds as well as gray squirrels and chipmunks. Rabbits hunch in the grass, picking at leftovers and scraps.

We are not bird watchers as much as watchers of birds. There is a difference in that, a bird watcher or a watcher of birds. We watch the birds in the yard, flashes of color and movement, not for counting or the listing of them but for the moment when they sit still, eyes bright, alert, poised between flight and feed, between grass and air. For that moment, that instant is what remains and is what is important.

We are watchers of birds. We watch red cardinal and blurred-wing hummers, long-tailed brown thrashers and smooth-bodied doves; grosbeaks and finches, all manner and form of backyard birds in the aviary of our yard.

Now, at summer’s end, they are restless in a manner that they have not been until this week. Now there is a skittishness to them beyond the caution of their normal ways. Now there is something happening and we do not know the feeling, cannot feel the sensations, cannot feel the way they feel. Only, in our minds, can we recognize it for what it is: Season change. It comes to us on the wings of birds large and small.

The grosbeaks, rose-breasted, were at the feeder, heavy bills looking vaguely mechanical, crushing seed. They’ll leave soon; the tropics call. They shared the feeder with chickadees, the juvenile birds looking vaguely unkempt and shaggy; they’ll stay, no tropics for them; bitter cold and snow their lot.

The hummingbirds come to the feeder, sip, pull back, move in and sip some more. They will be on their way soon. I watch the ants climb the side of the garage and out over the metal hook that holds the hummingbird feeder then down the light gauge chain to the feeder. The promised land! How they sense that there is sugar water there as they stand with little ant feet in the sand on the ground, how they know that and how they know how to get there, that is mystery to me.

But climb they do and down the sides of the feeder to the faux red flowers that the hummers feed from and there the ants, many of them, driven by gluttony or desire (one can only speculate on little ant brains and how they process things) crawl into the channel to the sugar water, drown and float to the surface of the feeder. It is thick with their black bodies layering the surface of the sweetened water like peppercorns.

I stood watching the other night, inches away from a doomed ant and of a sudden there was a whirring sound and the hummingbird was there, twelve, maybe fifteen inches from my face. I did not move a muscle. The bird fed, pulled back and I could feel the breeze from its wings. It came to the feeder, fed again and then was gone into the greenery of lilac and shrub and I stood in awe of it all.

And soon they leave us, the hummingbirds and the grackles, the grosbeaks and brown thrashers. Soon gone and the yard will be empty of their song and their vitality and their life and all that will remain is the memory of them.

I watch the evening skies now as sun lowers to the west. I am waiting for the August flight of nighthawks. It happens every August about now, flocks of nighthawks on their steady migration southward. On those nights there will be a dozen birds, then a dozen more and a score more than that and they will be swooping and drifting in the gathering dusk, moving south as if on a byway in the clouds that they alone can see, a steady flow of them.

I will stand, head tipped back, eyes to the sky and I will watch the birds and I will wonder of the mystery of migration and their travel into the unknown and unknowable. Then night’s curtain will drop and the birds will be lost to blackness and gone into the night and into their pilgrimage south and summer, when the birds are gone, will be gone with them.

Paddling into the storm.

Sunday afternoon, a day of muggy heat and distant clouds, building and rising, and a chance, hours off, of storm. We turned our backs on work that should be done; it would wait, tasks and “To Do” lists, they can always wait. We loaded canoes, stowed paddles and PFDs, drove the dark blacktop to the landing. Made ready to paddle.

Sally’s canoe is a wisp of a boat, built of a dark lamination and on the water it floats like a raven’s feather. A touch of irony: The near-black canoe is named Trillium; the pure white flower of spring. My canoe, longer and sleek, muted yellow-green tint of Kevlar; named Magic.

We put boats to water, pushed off, paddled against the light current, the breeze at our backs. Paddles rose and fell in an easy rhythm like a metronome marking the song of our paddles, measuring the pulse of the effort.

To our left the land rose steep to a ridge and on the ridge were trees, thick and green; underneath them, dark shadows. High above the ridge clouds lifted up, white and not-white, transition clouds moving to gray, building and towering. Below, in the valley of the river, we could see very little of the cloud; the horizon was closed down by the lift of jagged tree line and most all we could see was overhead. The sun was yielding to the cloud, giving ground in the battle of light against shadow.

Eagle flew overhead, wings strong, flight direct. Mergansers and wood ducks lifted from the shallows, high tempo wing beat in the heavy air weighted by humidity. The trailing breeze rose and dropped, uncertain in purpose. It was a pleasant afternoon to paddle.

We paddled upstream for half an hour, maybe 45 minutes; time was not important on this day. Then we drifted, paddles spanning the rails of the canoes, decided to turn back.

The clouds now owned the sky, layers of gray built up as washes of watercolor paints on paper; a light wash of gray, another, one more and again until the thin layers accumulated to heavy and dark and, all of a sudden, slightly ominous. In the distance a roll of thunder, faint, indistinct. Or was it truck, rolling on the highway, rumbling and groaning, too distant to describe with certainty?

We paddled into the breeze, gentle enough not to be a hindrance.

The sun was now gone to cloud and cloud going to darkness. Now the sound of thunder is coming on, unmistakable. The roll of distant thunder bears a comfort in the warning it gives; far off thunder gives notice of intent, one has time to prepare. The rumble of thunder closing in is a different story altogether; a warning of impending storm.

The metronome of our paddle song lifted, quicker turnover, higher tempo, upbeat rhythm. The canoes lifted and moved as birds on the wind.

We paddled with a sense of purpose now, edging toward urgency. No time to dawdle; there was storm rising, unseen to the west, unseen for us in the valley of the river where the trees angled to the sky and we could not see to the horizon from where the power and the storm gathered and advanced toward us.

Thunder; closer now, a fundamental sound carried in the roll of thunder. There are few sounds in nature more evocative than thunder, there at the dawning of time; there, likely at the end.

Behind us, upriver toward Rhinelander, fist-shaped clouds rose one atop the other. Downriver, to the landing, the sky was a mottled study of gray, dark and not-so-dark gray, layered and jumbled but gray, all gray and darkening and filled with the threat – no, with the promise now of storm.

Thunder again, the percussive backbeat of power and storm, sounding as the sound of rock tumbling and crashing, of avalanche, of landslide, of power and fury.

The landing was just ahead, around the corner. A few minutes more.
There came a stillness. The water went flat. We had 300 yards to paddle.

A lightning bolt hit on the other side of the ridge; a cannon shot of thunder at nearly the same instant: Flash! Bang! Thunder cracked like a vault door slammed shut, the sound of finality. The tree tops were in sudden turmoil of twisting and swaying, wildly tossed like wild swans in a mad rush to take flight, an explosion of wildness and fury, chaos and confusion and through it all the demon’s roar of wind that matched the wild beast of your worst nightmare.

The wind hit us like a collision and the canoes were suddenly out of control as if spinning on ice, pushed toward shore, the paddle near torn from my hands. Then rain, torrents of it, sheets of it, heavy and strong, falling straight down as curtain falls, a steel curtain, gray-white and slashing down.

We were pushed to shore, canoes now flotsam, powerless to the storm. Canoes ran aground. We left them, ran for shelter under an old white pine. The storm raged. It was dark as sundown.

I cannot say how long it lasted, cannot guess at the term of the storm’s anger. But in time it passed, the sky lightened and the sound of the storm was gone. With it, the rain and wind.

I walked to the canoe, to the Magic; paddled the three minutes to the landing. So close.

Suddenly very tired, I leaned on my paddle. To the west, a glimmer of sun. To the east, black of the storm was moving away, a lumbering beast taking leave. Arched across the sky, vivid color against the dark clouds a long arching rainbow.

Of predators and prey...

We never planted the garden. Springtime got away from us, blown to tatters on April snows and a too-fast moving May. The garden was ignored, then forgotten. It lies fallow, overgrown with weed and daisy, raised beds holding neglect and ruin, standing as relics of good intention gone to seed. Weeds of questionable provenance reach for the sun, grow high and thick and mysterious. What plants these? From where were the seeds borne? What will their richness yield?

Into this thicket Sally ventured last week, hacking back some of the growth in a vain attempt at, certainly not order, that is gone to the weeds, but perhaps a measure of control of the wild greenery. Into the green tangle she worked under June skies and a sun of crazy heat.

Something moved. Something small, hidden in bowed-over grasses amid tangle of stem and stalk. She paused, did Sally.

A sound, soft as a raindrop. A shadow that became a form. The form that moved into a ray of light and took shape, definition: Rabbit. A very small, very young rabbit, of large, damp eyes and small ears folded back as if blades of grass. Sally and rabbit stood, eye to eye across the garden gone bad; neither moved.

Then Sally took a slow, purposeful step backward; another, soft footfall on yielding dirt. Another, until she was at the gate. She opened the gate, stepped into the yard and clicked shut the latch.

She told me about it after work and took me to the garden. “It was right about here.” We stood in the shambles of the garden, the garden of high hopes gone bad. “Right over there.” There was nothing.

She moved to one of the raised beds that should be bearing ripening tomatoes but instead lies matted with weed; took a soft step forward. A shrill, high squeal rose to the air and a small rabbit blurred from under her foot and ran. Then a second. A third. Sally, with no intent to harm, had stepped on their nest.

The three rabbits huddled motionless in the weeds, eyes bright, hoping against all odds that in their motionlessness they would become invisible.

We backed out of the garden and peered over the chain link fence. The babies seemed to be as small statues of rabbit.
We left the garden, went to the house, kept the dogs inside. Half an hour later we peeked over the fence. They were gone.

Fenway figured it out. Fenway, the Boston terrier, the Boston terrible, the Boston rocket, Fenway gamed it, found the scent of rabbit and knew what it was. Thor and Riika, born and bred to hunt, my twosome of field and forest missed it. Fenway did not. Where we saw little bunnies cute as the day is long, Fenway saw something else: Prey!
He hunted them, did Fen, hunted with a zeal and an intensity that matched the rising heat of early summer days. We moved to protect the rabbits, made noise when we let the dogs out, the better to alarm the rabbits to flight. We tried.

Fenway’s obsession ran torrid as the June temperatures, spiking red-hot into the danger zone, an obsession no less real and no more appealing than the ugly heat, for name any one obsession that, at its heart, is anything but unattractive.

In a crackling hot afternoon he rushed manic and crazy-wild, coursed the perimeter of garden fence like a perverse inmate at the high wire; Fenway wanted in, not out. He dug at the base of the fence like a badger, his efforts for naught. He ran the wire, whined and barked. I imagined small rabbits cowering in fear in the garden.

He overheated. A Boston terrier cannot regulate heat well and lives vulnerable to the baking heat of open sky and burning sun. He was panting deep and fast and his body burning is as if with fever. Sally and I carried him to the basement sink, held him under cool running water, dampened him down as the chill water carried the heat away and he returned to normal. We put him to the floor. He shook himself off then ran the stairs, stood at the back door and whined to be let out again.
We told him “No,” and he looked at us with big dark eyes as if we have betrayed his very reason for life.

He did not give up. After it cooled he bounced across the yard, springing high for a better sight line, running side-to-side, crisscrossing the yard as if a pinball in the old machines propelled by paddles, a blur of movement; up, down, right side, left side, down the middle. He was enervated by memory of rabbits, driven mad with the scent in the air, that mystery world that we can only imagine, the world of scent in which dogs live and revel in and that can write them a story line that only they can read.

He was driven to wildness and abandon by the intoxicating scent of rabbit and in that intoxication rendered powerless to its draw and allure as all those intoxicated are; a common thread, dog to human.

We’d sometimes see the small rabbits slide from shadow and cover into the yard as shadows might move from darkness to light. We’d rap the windows, put them to flight, do what we could to prevent carnage.
Good intentions can only go so far. On a hot summer evening under glowering cloud with distant thunder sounding a drum beat, a rabbit came into the yard. We missed it. Fenway did not.

Rabbits are rabbits; they do what they can. Dogs are dogs; they do what they will. Blood runs deep with both; instinct carries the day. Prey and predator; they cannot escape lineage, cannot run from bloodline, cannot dodge DNA from which comes intensity, desire and obsession, from which is determined predator and prey, from where comes life and comes death.

Boundary Waters: All trips are good, not all are great.

We paddled north by northeast on Jackfish Bay under clear skies and a rising wind that had tree tops in turmoil. The wind was hard from the west and we held tight to the lee shore where we would find calmer waters. Should we stray too far out the wind would catch us and the canoe would be at its mercy.

We’d put in at Mudro Lake in the middle of the Boundary Waters. It was a busy place. A group from Kansas. A trio of young guys in one canoe. A couple from Missouri, Rob and Mary. They were dating, in the middle of a budding relationship. A true test of a relationship is how well a couple travels together. That and a second challenge: How well does a couple do in a tandem canoe? Rob and Mary rolled the dice, traveling and paddling both.

Under blue skies and a budding wind, we paddled out, portaged to Sandpit Lake with the threesome in their canoe and Rob and Mary. Then we went our separate ways and turned easterly toward Jackfish Bay. We passed two campsites on the southern end of Jackfish; fishermen at both. Then we were on our own. We would not see another person that day.

Jackfish Bay is a lobe of Basswood Lake and Basswood Lake is big water, near 25,000 acres. If the wind was coming from the north or east we’d not have attempted to paddle it. The westerly winds were to our left and we were sheltered by a buffer of trees and hills.

We paddled north, five miles, maybe six. Then a gap in the sheltering lee shore opened and the wind hit us like a fist. The wind caught the canoe, turned it and for a moment there was a gut-shot of panic.

Looking across the half mile gap of lake to the far side, the lake was wild with white-capped waves. Decision time; head into the heavy chop or pull up. Our canoe is named Northwind, a nod to its seaworthiness. The canoe would handle the big water. Could we?

We turned into the wind. The canoe stalled; the waves rolled. Then we started to move, arms and shoulders straining. The canoe responded and we slowly eased away from the land behind into the rage of wind and wave.

It took time but we made the far shore and found shelter of pine and spruce. We caught our breath. Then we turned north and paddled another hour.

We camped above Basswood Falls. I started a fire, coaxed it to life and full flame and controlled fury. The fire burned down and we cooked tenderloin steaks over the coals.

Across the open water was Canada. It was peaceful. We did not see another person that night. When the sound of the wind calmed we could hear the sustained thunder of Basswood Falls.

Next morning we paddled to the portage at Basswood Falls. The portage is a mile long. There is no easy way to walk a mile while carrying a pack and balancing a canoe, no matter how light, on one’s shoulders. I walked a slow mile. Then I put the canoe down, shrugged off the pack and headed back to the head of the portage. There were two more packs and I carried them down. Down and back and down again; three miles.

We met a pair of young guys from Florida, doing a west-to-east route that would end, if all went well, at Lake Superior; 220 miles total, the one said, maybe 230. They were behind schedule and worried about their progress.

We stopped mid afternoon just below the maelstrom of Wheelbarrow Falls and above the short gorge of Lower Basswood Falls. We found wild roses and a single pink lady slipper, delicate pinks at odds with the harsh land.

I had slept poorly the first night, slept worse the second. On the third morning I woke tired after a restless night. We started late and paddled the Horse River to Horse Lake then portaged to Fourtown Lake. It was early afternoon and the wind was angry, a sea of whitecaps ahead.

We considered things; cross the lake into the wind or not? We decided not to and turned south, found a campsite. I was exhausted. I lay in the sun on the grass and fell asleep. I woke chilled, had no appetite and went to bed at dusk. In the dark of night I spiked a fever and woke to a sweat-wet sleeping bag and a daybreak decision: Push on or head in?

We had two more nights on our permit. I was feeling bad but not terrible. But what to gain? What to risk? In the end we paddled out and drove to Ely.

The following day we took the canoe for a short trip to Hegman Lake where a set of pictographs is painted on the rock face on the north end of the lake. There is mystery and power in the pictographs, painted hundreds of years ago. Rusty orange, small but of a majesty far greater than size alone. In our odd age when bombastic posturing seems the norm I find solace in looking at the silent work of an unknown artist that has stood for ages and will for ages yet to come.

We let the canoe ride easy and looked at the pictographs a long time. Then we turned for Ely and the next day for home.

A few days later we had dinner with friends. I explained the odd circumstances of my maladies. “Sounds like when I had Lyme’s,” he said.

Two days later a blood test; next day the result: Positive for Lyme disease.

MAGIC ON THE WATER...

I remain, in one of the constants of my fragmented life, enthralled by the magical and enchanting drift of small craft over deep water, the wonder of a canoe or kayak afloat in the thin water film, seeming to defy all we take as certain. We are creatures of land, crawled out of the muck of eons past, able to swim only with rudimentary strokes and little grace (think otters for comparison). We are tethered to the earth as if with leaden feet unable to take flight (think any common bird). We are so suited for land that we may as well grow roots.

Given our unwieldy bulk and weight we will sink like the proverbial rock should we venture out over deep water, giving up to gravity and impaired buoyancy any attempt to stay afloat save for mighty thrashing about as our puppies did when we put them to water; head up, eyes wide, paws reaching for purpose, finding none, splashing desperately. We were no more made for water than for winged flight.

Enter small craft. Enter to our lives kayaks and canoes. In their fold we defy all that we take as dogma and the craft becomes as a wizard’s flying carpet of ancient lore and legend.

There is primal thrill in pushing a small boat off, away from the firmness of ground, over the sandy shallows, to the place where the water grows dim, then darker, then black beneath the boat. We, the boat and I, are afloat.

The sky above lifts to infinity; unanswerable questions on that rise. The dark water sinks to blackness; endless mystery there. For all we know it goes to center earth. The canoe (for I have spent time in a canoe of late) rides the balance of the two, the dark water mystery and the high sky questions, floats between two worlds like the center of a balance scale; weights equal.

A few weeks ago we paddled with a convivial group on the Rum River, near Princeton, Minn., Princeton being the home of Northstar Canoes that put the outing together. It was my first time this season in a canoe, an act of tardiness that would seem unconscionable except that April had run off the rails in terms of predictability and historical precedent and time normally spent on the water was better served by an amazing run of late season cross country skiing. Given lemons one best make lemonade and skiing filled the glass full in that regard.

We paddled near 20 miles that day which sounds somewhat heroic but must be tempered with the simple fact that the Rum was in flood with late snowmelt and the current surged and carried us along like frisky colts on May’s breezes. We could have covered the twenty in a raft should we have wished, though the mere thought of trading a canoe for a raft seems a sacrilegious exercise even in passing.

It was a good day. High sun brought heat and mild burn. Ducks flushed from the edges of the Rum; woodies and mallards and an occasional merganser. Warblers flashed in jeweled glory; an eagle watched us pass, holding its ground, unconcerned. The current moved silent but strong; canoes rode easy, paddles flashing in the sun.

They say the Rum was so named because early settlers thought the color of the water looked like rum which may say something about their vivid imaginations. Then again I’ve often thought the tannin stained water in this area looks like root beer though no river that I know of carries that for a name.

It felt good to be back in a canoe.

Toward evening we had hamburgers and grilled asparagus and mushrooms skewered and cooked on the grill. After dinner we stopped, Sally and I, on a side street in Princeton for ice cream at the oddly named Saint Lucia’s Ice Cream to top the day.

Two weeks later on a weekday afternoon on a hot spring day I took my own canoe out. It is a Northstar canoe that Sally got me for my birthday last year. It is called, appropriately enough, the Magic for what else is a canoe ‘cept for magic?

I put the canoe to water on the Wisconsin River downstream from town where the river runs wide and slow. I pushed off, over the narrow strand of gold colored sand next to shore. The canoe moved like a breath of wind across the shallows and out, over the dark water. I paddled slow and easy, got comfortable, picked up the pace and held it steady.

I was alone with my canoe and felt as if in the presence of enchantment and wonder. A good canoe floats on the water, not a part of it, not apart from it; floats like a needle in a compass, quivering as if with life, like the tail of a dog on point swinging and seemingly tentative but pointing, invariably, true. Follow the canoe as you follow a compass needle; all will be as it should. Follow it as you would a bird dog on scent; all will be well.

I followed my canoe that afternoon against a gentle current of moving water, over water in varied shades of darkness, from a blue-black to gunmetal charcoal to the color of root beer, under blue sky that showed cloud at the horizon.

Canoes are simple; no moving parts. My Magic is built of Kevlar and yet connects to bark canoes of ancient times in a way my pickup truck does not connect with a Model T. A good canoe is a simple solution to a complex problem, the problem being the complexities and vagaries of lives we lead.

We will never float in space, poised over eternity; we will never lift wings and fly. The best we can be is in a canoe over dark water, as if weightless, untethered, free in a way we can never be on solid ground. In this, magic.

Lady...

Lady was always the first one to wake. I’d walk downstairs in the dawning and turn on the lights in the kitchen. I’d start coffee and I’d hear a gentle meow and turn and Lady would be there, walking soft on little white cat feet, noiseless as a snowflake come to earth. The dogs would be sleeping; Sally still in bed. It was me and Lady in the time before sunrise.

I’d feed her. She’d eat some and then go off to find her way into the day. Later, Riika and Thor and Fenway would wake and come down; Sally as well. But the early morning time was me and Lady.

That was our routine, me and our cat, hot coffee in a dark house, moving slow and easy, waking to the day ahead.

Sally got her from the shelter in Minocqua. How many years back? We don’t know. Nineteen? Twenty? And she was not a newborn when Sally picked her up.

Sally had lost her old dog Jake and her remaining dog, Carley, was distraught. Carley would walk the house, looking for Jake, disturbed and unsettled at a life thrown out of kilter, a pack animal now solo. Sally got Lady to keep Carley company.

They were, dog and cat, as oil and water in the early going. They got over it.

Lady was an orange tabby color; Carley was nearly the same and they’d often lie close together and seem to merge, so similar their color. Cats are solitary animals; dogs, pack animals. Lady grew up as a dog, as part of the pack. She and Carley. Then with Riika, then Thor and then Fenway; her pack, our pack. Four of them the past half dozen years since Fenway joined and made it a quartet.

She was the senior member, sitting above on a table or chair, Sphinx-like, overlooking the others. She took them all in, allowed them into her domain. Lived with them all.

Fenway was the worst. He came to us at six pounds of Boston terrier wildness, too small to push the big dogs around. Thor towered over him, Riika cut him no slack. But in Lady he had a foil; small and dainty and sweet. He tormented her, yapping at her, tagging her with his blunt snout, backing her into a corner and not letting up.

She gave it back to him. Standing up to him, swatting him with her white-booted paws, punching at him like a bantamweight, rat-a-tat-tat, right-left-right-left, a blur of punches. She never gave ground.

They worked it out. She, the oldest of the pack, he the youngest; bookends.

They hunted, all four of them. The dogs hunted in a rush as gust of wind, all fury and force and movement, charging full bore at game in the yard, leaves scattering in their wake as if on November’s storm.

Lady hunted like winter; patient, efficient, cold. She’d lie in wait for chipmunk or bird, statue-like, still as a shadow. She’d wait. When the prey ventured out, cautious, then bolder – only then would she measure the distance, judge her effort and when the time was right, strike fast as a spark arcing a wire.

She had no malice, did Lady. Had no mean side, did not cause us headache or travail. She brought sweetness and calm to our lives, drifting room to room, light on her feet, easy on our laps. She never topped ten pounds, never grew chunky or awkward. Rarely did we call her “cat,” more often “kitten” for she seemed fixed in time as a young kitten, innocent and sweet.

And purring, purring so often it became part of her like a low rumble of a beating heart or the soft rush of pulse through veins.

She would find us in the evening, always lying with her head to our left. She would survey the room when we had people over, look, analyze and then casually but purposefully stroll over to the one person allergic to cats, spring from floor to chair as if gravity were held no bond, and then curl up in their lap and begin to purr. She inevitably turned her back to the person and faced the room as if to better take part in conversation.

She required very little care. We spent enough on vet bills with the dogs to put a child through an Ivy League school. Lady got by on kibble and treats and a pauper’s stipend. She required little else.

And so it went in our house, me and Sally and Lady and Riika, Thor and Fenway. A big pack, the six of us. So it went.

Two weeks ago she stopped purring. She stopped eating. I took her to the vet. She ran blood work; it came back clean. Kidneys fine, system fine, an old cat but good to go.

She seemed normal more than not. She moved well, went outside and prowled the yard with the dogs, came upstairs to our bed. But she did not eat much, she had problems taking food in.

I took her back to the vet. Another exam. A different result.

Cancer.

A tumor under her tongue made eating difficult. A scenario of what would come that nobody needs to hear. We held her close, held our little kitten. She was losing weight, wasting away.
It is not a matter of knowing what to do. That is easy. It is a matter of knowing when. That is gut wrenching.

Spring warmth came late this year. On a sunny day Lady went to the backyard and soaked up the sun, she and the dogs. And she purred again, not long, not loud, but purred nonetheless. It was a good day.

The vet came to the house in the afternoon, bag in hand. We said goodbye to our Lady.

We buried Lady on high ground in a place dappled by the spring sun. We can sit there and look to the west, feel the breeze across the lake, watch the sunset, listen to the sound of wind in the trees, close our eyes; imagine the sound of purring.

Early birds...late winter...

The birds come as a rush of wind, delicate wings aflutter, small bodies in flight. One minute the bush is empty; the next, alive with birds, chattering like a group of friends long apart. Their backs are the color of bark and it looks as if the stems of the bush have come alive. Their bellies are buff colored and on the crown and breast of some a smudge of rose, the color of a spring tulip. The rose colors are faint in the shade, vivid in the sun.

They pause as if to consider the situation at hand, then drop from branch and stem to the feeders. The sack-type feeders take the life and movement of the small birds, take their colors; the color of tree bark and dried weed.

The birds feed ravenously. On the ground a pure white cover of new snow, eighteen inches or more, pushed and given shape and flow by the wind, rising up as if a wave captured in white time. Overhead the sky breaks toward patchy blue. The wind has died after the storm, spent by the effort.

The birds jostle for position on the feeders. They feed with a desperation uncommon on most days, birds driven to eat to survive.

Then the small birds burst into unexpected movement and fury, taking flight as windblown leaves. Two, three, bump the window and the sound is like summer storm bringing hail against the glass panes.

There is a blur of fast-moving shape, too fast to make out then forming and taking definition: A hawk.

The hawk cuts the air like a scythe, an arcing cut, swift and true with a cutting edge that is merciless and honed, the wrath of nature’s god. The hawk banks across the yard in its sweep and lands in the lilac. It perches, tall and upright, a judge on a bench. The birds have scattered; the yard is empty save the hawk. The hawk has missed its strike. It sits, miffed at the turn of events, a batter that has swung and whiffed and now sulks on the pine.

Then the hawk takes wing and is gone.

It is a hard season for the birds. Natural food lies buried; the winter does not end; stored up reserves on the small bodies diminishes each day; survival is not a certainty.

I leave the house and go skiing under warming temperatures and a clearing sky. It is odd to be skiing in mid April and to be doing so on some of the best conditions of the season. Odd or not, I ski; when given snow one must ski in the same manner as when given a lemon one must consider lemonade.

I drive home and pull the truck to the driveway, turn it off, step out, pause. There are feathers on the driveway and feathers on the backyard mud, tufts of down in the puddle of snow melt, all like dandelion seed tossed to the breeze. They are dove feathers. The hawk has struck; the hawk has killed, and the feathers lie, light as air, heavy as doom.

The hawk is nowhere to be seen.The small birds crowd the feeders.

The next morning the birds come after daybreak, again the gust of birds, the flutter of activity, the bark-backed birds on limb and feeder.

Birds drop from branch to ground, folding wings tight to body and giving fall to gravity, spreading wings at the last second and landing on the snow. Feed has fallen from the feeders. The birds pick at it. They are still very hungry.

One bird edges to the side, hops toward fallen seed. It alone of the small birds is fluffed up as if against the chill. The other birds are slim and sleek, the single bird rounded, ball-like. The bird moves tentatively, uncertain of direction. I watch it from the kitchen window, tell Sally, “That one does not look good”.

The bird hops, pauses, seems to eat, hops again. Then sits still in the golden sun of morning sky.

I stand and walk across the kitchen, fill my coffee cup and return, glance out the window.

The bird is dead.

The bird has died in the time I am gone, died in a private act without spectators which is as it should be. It lies on its side on the glistening bier of crystalline snow that catches the morning sun. It will be a warm spring day. It will be a day when optimism returns to the land. It will be a day of revival after the storm of winter that has come in spring. But the bird will not see it.

The next day I find a small bird the color of stone in the corner of the front steps as if blown by the wind into a small drift. The day after, two more.

Do they die from food gone bad? Do they die from the cold? Do they die for simply having worn out after surviving the bitter cold and the long nights and the too-short days? It would be easy, the latter, easy to give up, to simply wear out and give up life to the white shroud of snow come too late and too heavy.

We watch the birds, the flocks that come to the feeders like wind storm comes to the trees and the sky. We watch them as they pulse with life, eyes bright in the light of April sunshine, full of energy and vitality. They come every day, birds of a feather.

But as we watch we remember, remember the swift flight of hawk, remember the slow-coming death of the bird on snow, remember how perilous life can be. We know that winter is the mightiest raptor of all, sweeping like a scimitar, cutting without regard, without mercy, without pause, silent wings and razor talons over fresh fallen snow under April skies in this longest of winters.

April in a winter that will not end.

Not much makes sense any more. ‘Least not with the seasons and with the weather. Not this time around. March came in like a lamb; left like a lion with an attitude, leaving the biggest snowfall of the season in its wake.

Then April took the stage. Those cute little Easter dresses lost some impact given that they had to be paired with knee-high pac boots and Kromers. Easter egg hunts, out-of-doors style, were lost to snowdrifts.

April showers? Not seein’ them so far. Unless you count the snowfalls last week and I don’t think that’s what was what they meant, whoever it was that came up with the “April showers bring May flowers” doggerel. Two below zero this Sunday when the sun peaked its way cautiously over the eastern horizon, as if reluctant to see what the night had wrought; surprised that it didn’t turn tail and drop back into darkness.

We saw robins in the sumac trees two nights prior, feeding on dried red fruit as sunset came down. Two days later and below zero temperatures and no robins to be seen. One has to wonder if they hunkered down and toughed it out or froze to death in the dark of night. I’ve seen woodcock the past week, worm feeders whose long bills probe soft mud for food, seen them in the seepage of small springs and along the open water on the river, looking for those patches of thawed dirt trying to eke out enough to survive. Saw two of them the morning after the below zero temps; survivors.

So what do you do when April locks down with cold and snow and there seems no hope at any turn? When the day dawns to chill and the wind rises from the north? When all cheer and optimism seems lost? You deal with it. That’s all. You deal with it.

You deal with it by accepting that over which you have no power and then, best that I can think of, you go outside and enjoy it. You accept the late, lingering winter because you can do nothing else. Accept it, deal with it, get on with life.

Wednesday I drove the truck as far as I could, parked it, stepped out into untracked snow. Cinched tight the bindings on the snowshoes and set off. I walked old roads that I have not set foot on since grouse season, plodding along on snowshoes under the high sun of an April day. It struck me, the absurdity of it, snowshoeing in deep, new snow under a springtime sky.

I walked to the river valley. Two weeks ago I’d skied on crust snow over hard ice and the river was but an open ski trail to me and I skied with sheer joy. Now the ice was gone and moving water glistened blue and cold. I walked upriver. Two chickadees kept pace, flitting as if weightless from low branch to ground and back. Shelf ice lay in disarray, fractured and broken, heavy slabs of ice tilted to river water.

There were geese on the river, geese and some early ducks. They watched me with suspicion; the geese held, the mergansers took flight. Then sandhill cranes, two of them, in shallow water. They were silver gray sporting a vivid red crown. They watched me. I moved closer, slow stepping.

They gave me some ground then took wing. The sun lit them as if there were chromed. Then gone save for the ancient call that echoed back across the river air.

Next day I skied. Skied on a warming afternoon under cloudless skies, skied where I’d skied for the first time of the season way back in December. I did not ski fast, did not ski pretty, just skied for the simple happiness of being able to ski. The trail conditions were very good, the tracks set deep and firm. It was as if I was in February and spring was coming on.
How odd it has become, this weather, this season that now has neither definition nor normalcy. How strange these days.

But here is what it comes down to: On those days, the snowshoe day and the ski day, on both those days I was struck speechless by the beauty of it all. On those days the sun shone on glistening white snow that covered the woods and open areas and the snow was sculpted by the wind and flowed like water would flow, smooth and easy and without form.

And the pure white snow lay upon the land and the bare trees stood tall in contrast to the snow and it was gorgeous. It was jaw dropping gorgeous. That is all. And that is everything.
On Sunday I watched a live video feed of a bicycle race in Europe. I thought to myself that it would be nice to ride now, ride in the glory and wonder of springtime, push unused leg muscles till they ached, to feel the spring air, to see the spring woods.

Or canoeing; it would be good to get out in the canoe. I have a new one, got it last fall, hardly got it wet back then. The canoe is as light as a dream, as solid as a promise, as full of wonder as a smile. It would be nice to dust that boat off and wet it down and paddle into the new season.

It would be nice if the weather would edge up and the veins of the maple trees would swell with sugar sap and run and flow and become syrup, rich and sweet.

All this would be nice. All would be appropriate. All would be as it should.

For now, a pause. For now a lingering winter that defies the norm and offers fresh snow under springtime skies. For now a time to consider what we have, to deal with it as we can, to wait for change.

For now, a time of testing our spirit.

Chronic Wasting Disease...questions without answers...

The last week of February was heavy with thaw. The sun rose higher in clear skies and brought warmth that was not there 30 days prior. In the house Fenway, the Boston terrier, and Lady, the cat, found the places where the sun shone through south-facing windows.

Slept, the two of them, in the amber of late winter sun, taking in the sun and the heat as if sustenance that would bring renewal as it will with the earth that wakes with the warming that spreads as a benevolent bloom until spring is here.

I drove to the woodlot in the late morning on roads wet with snowmelt. The snow still lay deep and pure along the road.

I parked the truck on the edge of the blacktop, walked to the back, pulled out a pair of snowshoes, tightened the bindings. Then I put the blacktop to my back and walked into the familiar landscape.

Hillside rose ahead of me. I thought: Last time I walked this was deer season. Not much snow then.

I walked slowly. One does not skim the surface of snow on snowshoes, not like the water spiders in summer. Snowshoes sink some; effort moves them forward. I walked patiently, looking at the land, scouting.

There was some deer sign, not much but some. I noted it. Deer, come winter, do not much use this land; not enough food and a bad acorn crop last year didn’t help. Turkey tracks, some deer track, not much else.

The snow was deep and it was an effort to walk. Still, it was a good day to be outside. Though one has to think most days are good days to be outside.

The deer stood out; blocky brown shape against white snow. It was bedded in the sun. Head up, ears cocked, eyes meeting mine. I stopped, stood still.

The deer was nervous. It stood, turned, and moved away. Buck or doe, I couldn’t tell. Most bucks have dropped antlers by now. The deer bounded then slowed and walked, looking back, snow midway to its belly.

I watched it and thought: Do I come back tomorrow and kill it?

Do I come back the next day, March 1, with a legal tag in my pocket and my deer rifle in my hand and kill that deer, or, for that matter, any other? Do I come back to kill a late-winter deer so the deer can be tested for Chronic Wasting Disease?

A wild deer tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) this past rifle season on the north edge of Lincoln County and ever since then I’ve felt a cloud of low hanging dread over my days. Chronic Wasting Disease. It kills every deer that contracts the disease. Every single one. It is indiscriminate; it kills bucks and does, yearlings and adults, kills every blessed one that comes down with it.

A few years ago, in Washburn County, northwest of here, a deer returned a positive result. Since then over 2,000 deer in that area have been tested. None had the disease.

The buck that tested positive in Lincoln County was near the Camp 10 ski area. It was the first wild deer in this area that came up positive. But testing is voluntary and last year in Lincoln County only 37 deer were tested. In Oneida County, 179.

To get an accurate idea of the percentage of deer that are positive for CWD in this area far more tests are needed. To get a sample to start off the DNR offered kill tags to landowners near where the positive deer was killed. They want to kill perhaps 50, maybe 75 to get a baseline. My land is in that zone.

On that sunny day in late February with the promise of winter’s end in the air I looked at that deer with new eyes. I had the next day off. Should I come back, rifle in hand?

I knew I should, knew I should take a deer for testing, knew above all else that we need to know if the disease is established or not, knew that the only way to do that is to take deer, sooner rather than later. Take them and test them and hope for the best. I knew that. I knew I should shoot a deer and take it in for testing.

And knew with equal certainty that in my gut I did not want to do it. Knew I found it distasteful. Knew, as I wrote to a friend, that I’d feel more a hit man than a hunter. Knew that a late winter deer is a survivor and deserves to see springtime.

Knew that at my age I do not care if I shoot another deer; I’ve taken as many as I need. But knew also that the future of the deer herd and the deer hunt for the next generation needs to be secured. CWD would be a blight across the land. I knew we needed facts. And facts come from testing deer.

I thought this out as I snowshoed back to the truck. I thought of it that evening as sun went down. My rifle stood in the corner, ready; my deer hunt gear close by; cartridges gleamed softly, their brass dull in the light.

The moon that night rose, near full. It brought light but not clarity.

Certain questions bear no easy answers. And on nights when questions rage, the darkness seems a shroud and the light of the moon a charade and sleep does not come easy.

Birkie...times 40.

 

 

February 28, 2018

“Maybe it was that in 40 years I’d seen skiers come and go, friends who skied with me, friends that I may see once a year or once every five years, always at the Birkie.”

BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal

The tracks at the American Birkebeiner had been set overnight and in the chill of early morning were pure and well-formed. It was cold, below zero and clear. The sun was low; shadows reached from woodlands across the snow of the unsullied race course. The tracks lined out straight and crisp and well defined, as were dreams of the skiers waiting. Everything was set; all stood still: the tracks and the snow and the skiers, their frosty breath rising to meet the sun.

Then the gun sounded and the first wave of skiers was off in a blur of movement and barely controlled chaos of sound and color.

I was in the first group, not by measure of past excellence but as a tribute to the group of skiers with the most Birkies completed, 40 or so skiers who have finished in the vicinity of 40 Birkies. We are given an all-red bib to commemorate the 35 skiers who, years ago, had skied the first American Birkebeiner.
The faster skiers lined up in groups behind us. They would go off in 10 minutes.

I skied out with the red-bibbed group, found a good track and started the long trek that, if all went well, would end on the snow-covered main street in Hayward, 55 kilometers away.
There were two skiers ahead of me. I let them go. It was early. There were miles to go. It would be a long day.

It was a beautiful day to ski. Fresh snow under a clear sky and rising sun. No wind. No sound save for the clap of ski to snow and the sound of my breathing. I skied on, looking for a rhythm: not too fast, not too slow.

I did not have it. I could not find it, the steady, efficient tempo of the distance skier. My mind wandered, my thoughts were scattered, my technique sloppy and undisciplined. To ski distance is a mental exercise as much as physical. On this day, on this 40th time on the Birkebeiner trail, I simply did not have it.

In an ultimate irony in a race that has 7,000 entrants, I was alone on the trail. I dawdled on my skis, stopped on the top of small hills for no other reason than to look at the landscape. Race mind? Race focus? Neither were there.

A skier passed me. I forced myself from my odd reverie and upped my tempo and skied behind him. I stayed there for more than 10 kilometers, letting him mark the pace. I did not have to think; I just let him lead.

The faster skiers came up on us, a group of seven, a few singles, then more and more, a steady stream, all very fit and fast. I watched them with a mix of detachment and awe. They were very good.

The clear, pure tracks wore down and became choppy and uneven as so often do the dreams and the goals and the best laid plans of skiers who come to the start line of the American Birkebeiner. By mid-race, the tracks on the uphills were soft and uneven and more difficult to ski in.

I kept tempo with the skier ahead of me as the kilometers ticked down. I skied at his pace. I did not focus. I just skied.

It was an odd place for me to be, that state of detachment from the race. It had been that way all week. Maybe it was the thought of doing it for 40 years. Four decades of toeing the line in the largest race in North America, a race of significant importance in my life. Maybe that was it, the enormity of considering that 40 years had passed and the weight of that all came down.

Maybe it was that in 40 years I’d seen skiers come and go, friends who skied with me, friends that I may see once a year or once every five years, always at the Birkie. Friends that have passed now or have slowed to a stop, burdened by infirmities of age and the inevitable breakdown of a body. Friends who I do not see now.

Or perhaps it was the knowledge that this day, the 24th of February, was the date my mother died. I skied the Birkie every year with thoughts of her in my mind. But this year, 40 years into it, on the anniversary of her death, maybe that pushed the race focus from my mind to consideration of things more important than a mere ski outing, for in the grand scheme of life a ski race is of marginal import.
At 29 kilometers to go, I passed the skier who I’d paced off. I was better focused now, better into the moments of racing. I never skied fast that day, but the kilometers passed. There were hills; it is not an easy course. But the time and the miles passed.

I skied onto the lake, less than 3 kilometers to go. The trail across the lake was marked by skiers, a steady ribbon of color and movement. Then off the lake, around a corner and onto a bridge that rose up into the February sky and spanned the roadway.

I skied up the bridge and for a moment I could see the street ahead, covered with snow, lined with spectators. I paused for a brief instant and took it all in: the bridge and the street ahead, the cheering crowd, the blue sky overhead.

There were tracks, clear and well defined and at the end of them, the finish. I leaned on the poles and pushed off, down the back side of the bridge and into the tracks and the tracks led to the finish line. The tracks were clear and seemed to glow as if from within and in that, they were as the dreams of the skiers.
I finished the race, my 40th, and stood still just past the finish line. I felt as if a weight had lifted.

 

A never-ending game of chase

 

We’ve had issues with rabbits, my dogs and I. We’ve had issues for as long as they’ve put four paws to the ground and followed their hunting dog noses on the sweet scent of game. Should my dogs have the ability to talk, (something that would not surprise me at times) they’d object to the word “issues.” I would guess “opportunities” would be their choice.

In truth, I am the one with the issues. I have issues with the dogs chasing rabbits pell mell in the woods, racing across the backyard in pursuit of cottontails, going full bore after every snowshoe hare and generally willing to bring death and destruction on any and all unfortunate rabbits they find.

When Riika and Thor were young and could run like wildfire ahead of a wind, they’d chase snowshoes hares during times of hunting grouse and woodcock. They’d bay a wild and crazed yelp and I’d stand there punching the button on the e-collar and they’d run through the shock it brought, so crazy were they for the hunt. In time they’d return, panting and long-tongued and full of burrs.

They’d lie at my feet, rest up a bit, then rise up to hunt.

They never caught one, for all their efforts.

Thor once found a nest of young cottontails. It was evening and the sun was sliding low across the lake, an omen, perhaps, for the young rabbits. Thor stumbled on them and they bolted every which way. He pounced on them, wild with their scent and their helplessness. We called him off. Fat chance that would happen. He wolfed them down like a fat man at a hot dog eating contest until we pulled him off the carnage in the tall grass.

I have no idea how many he ate. He seemed displeased that we would deprive him of more of the festivities and sulked all the way back to the truck.

On a dark morning in November, before the time I’d fully fenced the backyard, Riika and Thor broke their rope tie-outs and ran crazy through the neighborhood, hot on the trail of a resident rabbit. It was 5:30 a.m., and the neighborhood was dark and quiet. Until then. They yelped and barked and chased through yards and driveways after the phantom rabbit. And I, like a fool, followed in the dark, stumbling over curbs and lawn implements left abandoned in the dark.

All the time their crazy-dog barking rose into the chill air. A light turned on in one house. Another. I could not call for them and lord knows the whistle was useless in the quiet time before sunrise. I stalked like a burglar, half expected flashing lights to appear. Eventually Riika ran past, trailing 15 feet or so of broken rope, and I was able to grab the line and snap her to a stop.
Dogs and rabbits; issues and opportunities.

Our yard has long since been fenced tight to keep the dogs in. But there are gaps, small and seemingly inconsequential, too small to fit a dog. But not too small for a rabbit. So the rabbits still come into the yard. I wish they would not.


Three-thirty in the morning. Twenty below zero. Thor barks to go out; Fenway joins him. I sleep through it. Sally wakes, plods to the door, opens it and the dogs are out like spark of lightning. There is a rabbit in the yard. The rabbit is fast; Fenway faster.

I hear Sally call for help. I stumble up, pull on pants, lurch downstairs to the door. I see the dogs at the fence. Fenway has the rabbit. The rabbit is quite dead. Fenway is carrying it proudly as if a trophy. Sally tells of the death screams of the rabbit that pierced the sub-zero darkness.

I go out in slippers and take the rabbit from Fenway. He leaps at it and I hold the poor dead rabbit high and toss it over the fence to take care of in the morning. I realize that I am very cold.

I get the dogs inside and go back to bed. I do not sleep particularly well.


Now, weeks later, the dogs are restless in sleep as if in a dream world where rabbits run wild and the dogs, all three of them, give chase. In the backyard, in the dark of the January night, shadows shift, take form, become recognizable shape; cottontail. I watch from the kitchen window. The rabbit hops its cautious way into the yard, rises up to taste lilac stem; holds a pose as if for the camera. I am not close enough to see the bright eye, the twitching nose, the coiled tension of prey in a world of stress.

The dogs whine at the door. I turn on the outside light, rap the window, rattle the door, make noise. The rabbit runs and becomes blurred shadow in the dark. Only then do I open the door. Fenway hits the ground at full bore heading for the back fence; Thor and Riika follow, slowed by age. The scent of rabbit is heavy and fresh and all three dogs pick it up. Riika and Thor born and bred to hunt; they know no other way. Fenway, lord knows where a Boston terrier gets the hunt craziness but he has it deep and true.

The dogs course the back fence line, noses full of rabbit scent. But the rabbit, on this night, has found the gap in the fence that is big enough to squeeze through. The dogs follow the scent to the breach in the fence and stand, focused as tight as lasers in the night air.

The air holds scent. Then the breeze comes up and the tantalizing scent of cottontail rabbit rises into the cold air and is gone like a spirit. The dogs come to the door.

In a neighbor’s yard the rabbit rests uneasy. But safe.

For now.

January 4, 2018

Cold comes in as if on riding on the wings of a white owl; silent and pure and beautiful. But beneath the beauty, steel-like talons and piercing bite. Cold comes as if in the long glide of an owl in flight; dark sky, moon’s glow, ghostlike movement, then change sudden.

Dawn brings a rich blue sky but the beauty is deceptive; it’s 20 degrees below zero. Or more.

An hour after sunrise the sky color is a blend of pearl and washed out blue. Smoke rises straight. Trees stand as if shocked into stillness. It is very cold.

The first birds appear as if by magic. One minute the yard is clear; the next, movement. Small birds come as if materializing out of the cold air. Where have they been? They perch on whip-like branches, considering their next move. Then they move to the feeders, the chickadees and finches and doves and cardinals.

“It is sunny and the day is one of wonder and beauty.”

I look at the small birds as if beholding a miracle. The small ones, the chickadees and their like, would fit in the palm of my hand. If I were to hold one such it would seem to bring no more weight than a shadow or a snowflake. Yet they burn bright with energy after the night of the cold and in the time after dawning they come to the feeders. One cannot watch the small birds in the bitter cold without a feeling of wonder.

The birds crowd the feeder. It is still in the minus teens.

By early afternoon it has warmed (though in matters such as this “warmed” is deceptive), it has warmed to near zero. A few degrees above or below zero; it really does not matter.

One does not dress differently nor take added precautions for a measly couple degrees. I dress and gather an armful of skis and poles and leave the house.

A foursome of doves regard me from their perch on the side of the garage then take flight, lifting into the cold air, the sounds of their wings cutting the chill. I feel bad for them flying; it takes energy better hoarded for warmth and safety and I am no threat to them. They, of course, do not know this and rise into the air as they do when my dogs patrol the yard.

A thin wind sweeps the trailhead as I put the skis to snow. I think of the image of the white owl of the cold and the hard talons hidden beneath the beauty. It is sunny and the day is one of wonder and beauty. And of cold; cold that settles as a cloud, cold from which there is not true shelter to be found out-of-doors. Cold as harsh and unforgiving as a predator.

Then I begin to ski.

I ski with the knowledge that I will not fully warm up for at least 10 minutes. It will take that long to generate the heat to sustain me. I know my hands will chill and fingertips will ache and that I will hunker down into the high collar on my jacket. I know also that in time, 10 minutes, 15, I will find comfort. But I know also that if I go too long the heat will begin to fade and I will begin to feel the true cold and that I will, should I be out that long, find risk in the bitter cold.

I ski in that sweet spot between chill of starting out and chill of time too long spent, on this day an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Were it colder, ten below or more, an hour would be the maximum.

There is movement ahead; a deer. The deer crosses the ski trail and edges into the woods. I slow; regard the deer with interest. No horns. Young. Blocky in build, built to take the cold of Wisconsin. Then the deer is gone and I ski on alone.

It is a beautiful day of sun and shadow, of tall trees and a winding ski trail, of shadows of trees cross-hatching the white of snow. It is very quiet. The woods are at peace. I find the rhythm of cross country skiing, the kick and glide metronome of repetition and ultimately of relaxation. I am aware that I am chilled and then, later, aware that I have warmed and the chill is at bay.

I ski for an hour and a half and I am pleased with that, pleased in the sense that I have gotten out when the easy thing would have been to stay inside. When I was younger I would routinely ski at minus 10 or minus 15. Now it comes harder, that effort in the cold.

It is more difficult to find the motivation to leave the house. It is, thus, more satisfying when I do.

When I am done skiing, I load skis and poles and the back of the truck, take my gloves off and walk to the door. There are grouse high in the popple trees feeding on buds, puffed up against the bitter cold. Four of them and the high sun lights them and they seem to glow.

In late afternoon the shadows reach out and the temperature begins to slide. It will be another cold night. The cold has settled across the land and it is not going to leave soon.

It is part of it all, the deep cold, part of life in the north. We know only that the cold will come as if on the wings of a white owl, come and stay and reach us all and we will all deal with it as we will. It will come as the changing year will come, irreversibly and irrevocably.