It’s easy to imagine that an alarm clock ringing at 4:45 in the morning makes just about the worst noise you’ve ever heard. By the time I was awake for 30 seconds it was easy to conclude that was the second-worst sound I’d heard all day. An incessant drumming on the tin roof told me what was waiting for us and, based on the time of year, the rain was bound to be bitter cold – it was the rain that was easily the harsher of the two symphonies.
I like to think I’m romantic. I can appreciate the idea of a ‘long romantic walk in the rain.’ I also know that what was falling out of the sky was anything but sweet sentiment – it was simply an avalanche of liquid cold.
Each of us grasped our coffee in the dark of the early morning. We knew we’d be heading for the woods before the sun climbed over the horizon and, despite the excitement of the hunt, there was a general disappointment with the weather. Getting cold was only part of the proposal – rain brings more challenges than creature comfort when you’re in the woods:
- When the ground is wet, leaves don’t make a lot of sound. The lack of sound presents two problems:
- We can’t hear animals; leaves are quieter when wet and rain makes a unbeleivable amount of noise when there`s nothing else interfering with it. It`s really astonishing just how loud the rain is if you give it a chance to tell you.
- They can’t hear the woods. And when they can’t hear well, they tend not to move – this makes hunting very difficult and leaves us hoping that the doggers (the guys who walk) practically step on our targets as very little else will get them moving.
- There`s not a lot of wind. This is also problematic. Ideally we want the animals to smell the doggers and run away from them and towards us – that doesn`t happen with little wind.
- The rain fills the woods with smells – I can`t detect the difference but many animals can and find it uncertain. This uncertainty usually has them hunkering down in the thick, dirty hardwoods and swamps. It makes for difficult walking and difficulty in finding them.
- There is so much water that tracking is getting tough – new tracks look old within hours as they are quickly absorbed into the landscape.
- Being cold makes it very difficult to stay still. Movement = warmth (as well as severely limiting your chance of seeing anything).
I mounted the ATV ( a four-wheeled All Terrain Vehicle) with my Dad and Dog by 6:15AM. It was still dark as we drove the 6 kilometers over old logging roads to get to where I’d be sitting for the first part of the morning. I walked about 10 minutes into the woods after dumping the bike and watched Dad and Dog fade into the forest. They’d be hanging out for about an hour before walking through to the other men in hopes of chasing something to them. I’m sitting behind them in case anything squeezes around them and doubles back.
You’d be surprised how cold you can get driving 6 miles in the rain when sitting on the back of an ATV. It’s just as shocking how hot that a 10-minute walk in full gear can make you – and that’s the problem. Any amount of sweat simply equals moisture and that moisture quickly chills you off when you finally sit still. My first watch is almost 3 hours of solitude – 180 minutes of trying not to move a single muscle while the cold slowly creeps into your clothes. The occasional breath of wind shakes any remaining leaves in the forest and invariably turns on a tap of ice water which dive earthward and invariably find a way to sneak into the tiny space between the collar of your jacket and the skin of your neck.
The first watch was much like that. It’s amazing how the rain can make so much noise in one moment and, in the space of a heartbeat, suddenly seem silent and disappear into the background as white noise. There was the occasional radio call but not another sound or sight for 3 hours.
I don’t know a lot of people who have sat on a log of 3 hours. It’s a very different experience than I get to undertake most of the rest of the year. There’s no email, no noise and no competition for your attention. Just you and the woods. Some guys are able to stay focused and be in the moment; I’ve not learned how to do that yet. My mind wanders to and fro and I do find myself occasionally fighting for consciousness (it’s a MAJOR no-no to lose that battle) and it takes me a while to settle in. It gets easier as the week progresses.
The guys walked for about 90 minutes and then the run was considered complete. 3 of us went back to pick the doggers up and move to a new position while the rest of the line remained in place and the hunt continued with the doggers coming from a different angle. My Father (Paul) started more than a kilometer from where I sat when I heard the radio call.
“Darryl, have you seen the dog?”
“Keep your eyes out – he was with me but has taken off.”
My heart filled with simultaneous pride and fear. I dropped the guys off and knew than Darryl was about 750 meters from my Father. There was a lot of land between them and this was Schaeffer’s first time ever leaving my Father or I. Our old dog (an awesome redbone-bluetick hound dog named Bud) would disappear all the time; it’s just what he did. He’d come back or we’d get a phone call when he got too far from camp (once he was found almost 20 kilometers away and another night he crawled into a police car and ‘demanded’ they take him home). But that hasn’t been Schaefers’ style.
I was excited because I could see him feeling more comfortable – and I know he knows more about these woods than I ever will. But he’s my pup and it’s how I felt. I sat in he cold rain alternating between trying to stay perfectly calm and just trying to ignore the situation – there really wasn’t much I could do. The next radio call came in 10 minutes later:
“He’s with me, happy as can be.”
I would later find out that he was rather enamored with the idea of a gummy bear that Darryl had given him earlier in the day.
There were some far-away shots around 10:30 in the morning and then nothing but cold and rain. Despite the weather I was having fun – weather like this offer its challenge as well as reminds me of just how important I clearly feel this task is. I’m not here for sport – I’m here, in part, to try to feed my family with something I wholly believe in with all of my heart. It’s not something we talk a lot about but I know I’m not the only one here who feels the same; we’re all madly dedicated to how this forms part of our diet.
We mercifully headed back to camp for lunch. While we’d intended to have a bush lunch we opted for eating in the cabin to get back some warmth. Bush lunches are always a homemade soup poured into a sourdough bowl:
The walking was tough on the doggers. One of the guys was really sore and my Father had fallen on his walk. I jumped in for the run for the afternoon. This meant wearing lighter (and initially drier) clothes but that keeping warm was also a bit easier as I’d be walking about 5 kilometers (with 1.5 of them being through very difficult terrain). The second part of the walk would present a challenge to stay cool as much as it challenged me to stay warm. Staying dry was out of the question.
Some of my walk was through the middle of swamps. It’s tricky walking as your feet are never on flat ground and you have to question each step before you make it. It’s as physically challenging as it is mentally. Crossing a swamp is a nasty (yet somehow fun) challenge that’s magnified by the rain. There’s water everywhere you step – above, below and everywhere in between. All of it seems to be on a quest to find any bit of warmth it can find…
As I came through one swamp I realized I was stuck. There was a creek which framed the outside of the bog- I’d have to find a place to cross if I wanted to be on dry ground. The creek was 4-6 feet across everywhere I looked (Schaeffer just walked through it and looked at me like I was crazy when I didn’t.
I found a place that looked ‘just jumpable.’ Jumping in shorts in the warm summer sun is one thing – when you’re in multiple layers of outdoor clothes and starting perched on a slippery log, the distance you can cover is considerably different. I found a place that was between 3-4 feet and looked doable. I took a deep breath and launched myself, stretching one leg as far as I could, hoping it would hit the shore. My initial relief of hitting the other side faded in milliseconds as my foot kept going – sinking almost to my knee in a murky mess.
My forward momentum was all about commitment and I continued to propel forward, leaving my foot behind. I’ve done this before and one of two things happen. Option #1 is that your sunken leg doesn’t move because it’s in a vacuum of mud or worse (i.e. a pile of roots) and you’re likely to break a bone or a joint. Option #2 is less painful but not much fun – the ground agrees to give you your foot back after you’ve passed it and are spinning towards it. Thankfully I had door #2 – Einsteins theory put me face first into the earth, my entire body smacked the earth in a single moment (like a champion belly flopper in a pool) before I could scramble to my feet.
A fall like this means a complete reset. You check your gear, your gun and your body. Check to ensure nothing is broken or missing and you pick up whatever you dropped – which generally includes small bits of ego.
And, yes, I was having fun. And appreciating food and my connection with it. It’s moments like this that explain, in part, the ritual celebration when an animal is harvested. It takes a village of us and every ounce of effort we have to work together to provide for ourselves.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to happen on that run either. We returned to campy by 5:00PM empty-handed.
My day wasn’t over yet though – I put on my coat from morning (now ‘sort of’ dry) and went to a tree stand to sit by myself. I made a few moose calls and waited…
I waited for almost 2 hours before a martin ran across the field in front of me. I got to watch the little dude play for a few minutes before he disappeared back into the forest.
The irony that Dana was back in Toronto getting ready to go to meet Hank Shaw (one of my hunting heroes) at an event hosted by another friend (the lovely Ivy Knight) while I sat in a tree stand didn’t escape me. As much as I wanted to meet Hank, I was glad to be exactly where I was – rain and all.
To see all of the posts in this series, click here (a new post will be published every day through Sunday, November 6, 2011).