Let me explain how this works. It’s not at all complicated. Sometimes when you least expect it, there is a new beginning, a new hope for the future.
Late in life, I have discovered, comes a glow of dawn, a rising of the sun, a burst of daylight illuminating a dark landscape. Fittingly this end to the long night of a horrific year, this break of the day newborn, is a newborn: our youngest granddaughter named Aurora, the Latin word for dawn and the goddess of dawn in Roman mythology.
Although there is no hint of an ethereal mythos in her strident and demanding yowl; she insists on our recognition of her place in the world, and I for one am willing to grant her that renown.
Because she is a tiny miracle, a goddess’s gift that has brought me renewal, healing, restoration, a glimmer of remembrance of my youth. Along with diapers to change and midnight feedings.
I was able to meet her, in person, for the first time this week. We call her Rory. Which is an apt and appropriate nickname because she roars. A lot. With my hearing aids shut off, that is not an issue. And, to me anyway, Aurora’s cry is a song of celebration of this new dawn in my life.
Frantically working 12 to 16 hours every day for a month to harvest corn in the hilly North Country, it was bound to happen: a corn spill on our dead-end road.
We sympathized with the truck driver. Our road is steep, narrow, curving, and more than a little rough, and the driveway entrance to our neighbor’s farm is cocked at a twisting uphill angle that no semi-trailer truck could manage. Even with a straight truck, the driver has to turn downhill out of that driveway, creep down to the end of our road, maneuver his truck around in a 50-foot cul-de-sac at the base of our driveway and go roaring back up the road in first gear with engine straining to haul a full load of corn.
Somewhere in the course of his eighth or ninth trip through this challenging circuit, the truck’s grain chute came open on the downhill run, and corn came streaming out. A lot of corn. Maybe a hundred bushels of corn.
On our morning drive to town, we were startled to discover at the bottom of our driveway the curved beginning of The Yellow Brick Road from L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” I mean, we are rather small people by today’s standards, but we never consider ourselves to be Munchkins.
Getting out of the car to inspect, we learned that this glistening yellow road was not gold, alas, but a four-foot-wide, three-inch-deep strip of corn kernels. Two days later it was clear that the spill was not salvageable by the harvester since it was hopelessly intermingled with the crushed rock and sand of the roadway. The hundred bushel corn spill has become feed for deer, squirrels, raccoons, pheasants, song birds, and other wildlife. From my point of view this is not a bad thing, although I am sorry for the harvester’s financial loss.
Someone’s loss becomes someone else’s gain.
The next evening I was sitting atop one of my deer hunting tree stands on a hillside that overlooks the county road far below. As daylight faded, I could see the shadowy forms of four or five deer emerging from the woods and strolling along the road, enjoying the buffet that this windfall of a corn spill provided.
My first thought was that the few acorns that had fallen to the ground in our oak and maple woods would be ignored by these deer for several weeks while they enjoyed the bounty of the corn spill, the feast on the road. My second thought was more unworthy: would it constitute “baiting” (a violation of the North Country’s deer hunting regulations) if someone (me, for example) were to build a ground blind in a roadside ditch and take advantage of the inadvertent corn spill to attract deer to within shooting range? And would this be a violation of the regulations that prohibit road hunting?
I did not spend much time pondering this devious plan to circumvent hunting laws and ethic, mostly because lurking in a ground blind in a road ditch did not square itself with my concept of hunting. Shameful. Ridiculous. And worst of all, I wouldn’t be able to brag about taking a deer that way.
But the tree stand on the south edge of our farm is probably worthless for the remainder of the bow season, although it is directly over a frequently traveled wildlife trail. All the deer are camped on the opposite side of the coulee, and they are making the short commute to the all-you-can eat corn bar on the county road.
My loss, their gain.
Guess I will abandon this stand on the south edge of our farm and move to the woods on the west side. Maybe the deer over there have not heard about the corn spill.
The four-point buck was standing right below Heather’s ladder stand at the edge of the woods. About 11 feet away, as evidenced by the trail camera photo. A clueless yearling fork horn, just loafing along. Couldn’t possibly miss this shot. Unless the scope on the muzzle-loader rifle was inexplicably set on nine-power magnification.
And the magnification ring on Heather’s scope was unfortunately turned up to nine power. All she could see was a patch of deer hide. Was that patch of hair right behind the shoulder where she wanted the bullet to strike? Was the patch a part of his neck? His paunch? His rump?
Impossible to tell. She lowered the rifle to adjust the power setting, and in a flash the buck was gone. “My heart was pounding so loudly it probably scared him away,” she said.
Yes, I know all about that.
Heather is my surrogate niece, the daughter of friends whom we have known almost 50 years, and she is passionate about deer hunting. For me, hunting and shooting a deer is exciting and rewarding, but there comes a time in life when it is far more exciting and rewarding to help a younger hunter take a deer. I’m learning the trade of “hunting coach.”
That is how Heather came to be perched atop a ladder stand in the pre-dawn of a chilly North Country morning. I did my best to set her over a well-used deer trail, but I failed to provide an important piece of advice in my coaching duties. Hunting deer from a tree stand in a deciduous woodland with brushy understory, a scope should be set on the lowest possible magnification. A long shot in this section of woods would be 50 yards. A close shot would be… well, about 11 feet. Heather was well aware of that, but I did not tell her, “Check your scope.”
She had missed her chance to take a deer, maybe her only chance this season, and she was inconsolable. Her only opportunity to shoot a buck in the past four years, and the #$%^ scope was set on nine power. “How could that even happen?” she asked in frustration.
“Gremlins,” I assured her. “The same gremlins that put a box of 28 gauge shotshells in my ammo box when I drove 40 miles to hunt pheasants with a 20 gauge gun. You have to double check every single thing because of the damned gremlins.”
“Like checking to make sure the scope is on three-power, not nine-power?”
We were walking back to the house for second breakfast “I should have started hunting a long time ago, years ago,” she said. “Then I would know what I’m doing.”
“You’re doing just fine.”
“I’m not doing just fine. I had the scope set on nine!”
I halted. “I’ve been hunting for more than 60 years, and I have acquired this bit of wisdom: Making good hunting decisions is based on experience, and almost all experience is based on bad decisions.”
“Now, let me give you an ‘experience’ tip. Keep both eyes open when you shoot with a scope. When you raise the rifle to your shoulder,” I demonstrated, “if the stock fits you correctly your eye will automatically align with the scope, and you will see a ‘ghost image’ through the scope. Squinch your left eye, but don’t completely shut it. That will help with your depth perception and with staying on a moving target like a deer. No guarantee, but keeping both eyes open, you might have been able to shoot that deer even with your scope on nine-power.”
“How did you learn that?”
“I learned it by closing my left eye and waving the rifle around like a conductor’s baton while I tried to spot a deer in an over-powered scope. One of those bad experiences from 30 or 40 years ago.”
So, the four-point nine-power buck escaped his fate Monday morning. And late Monday afternoon I shot the “One More River” buck and ruined Heather’s evening hunt. (See One more river to cross)
But Tuesday morning she was back atop the same ladder stand on the edge of the woods, and I was nodding off in a ground blind on the opposite side of the hayfield. Her shot jerked me awake, and I saw the plume of gray-white smoke rising from behind the prickly ash thicket that concealed her tree. I waited several minutes until I saw the flash of color that meant she was reversing her stocking cap from its camo to its orange side.
Heather was giddy. “A bigger buck!” she said.
We walked into the woods. The deer had dropped in his tracks, she said, kicked a few times, and it was over. A perfectly aimed 30-yard shot through branches and brush.
“Guessing you had the scope turned down to three-power,” I said.
A seven-pointer. I pulled the buck around so that his head was uphill. “I’ll field dress him” I said.
“Nope. You’re going to show me how to do it.”
I was a little hesitant, but it turned out to be a good experience. No mistakes, no bad decisions.
Heather’s a very fast learner in this hunting business.
There were no more options. My only choice was to slide the deer over the sheer 10-foot bank of the Trout River, let it drop onto the narrow strip of gravel at the river’s edge, hope it was not swept away by the current, scramble down the mud bank myself, and decide how I would drag this 150-pound buck across to the far side.
The drag had already been a wearisome labor. Hubris always invites nemesis. Although I had promised my beautiful blonde wife Patti that I would no longer hunt deer on the steep, wooded, limestone bluff on the west side of our farm, by the third day of the muzzle-loading rifle season in the North Country I could not resist sitting under a tree at the top of that bluff and enjoying the beauty of our maple and oak woodland. With little expectation of shooting a deer, I lingered for a half hour on an overcast day and watched the sky change shape and form above the colorful foliage.
That’s when I caught some furtive movement on the perimeter of my vision, turned to my left, saw a heavy-antlered whitetail buck climb out of a draw below me, and stride onto the old logging road that ran along a terrace. Centering him in the scope (it was an easy 50-yard shot) I remember telling myself, “Do not shoot this deer, do NOT shoot this deer, DO NOT shoot this deer!” He paused amid a leaf-covered, golden-floored gap under the maples, and looked up at me.
A rush of adrenaline, a surge of predatory instinct, a whisper in my brain that insisted there would be few more moments such as this in my hunter’s lifetime: I pulled the trigger.
Among the many sensual pleasures of muzzle-loader hunting are the thunder-like boom of the rifle and the plume of acrid-smelling smoke that obscures the target for 10 or 15 seconds. The smoke also causes problems. Through that cloud I saw the white-and-gray mass of the buck flip over the edge of the terrace onto another steep slope of the bluff. No sound of a crashing body, and no thrashing about, but that means little since I was not wearing hearing aids, and I am almost stone deaf. All was still, all was silent. The buck was certainly dead. Probably.
I reloaded the rifle, losing only one primer in the process. (I also dropped my gloves and neglected to pick them up, but I found them beside the tree the next day so I do not consider those “lost.”) Heart pounding and feeling lightheaded, as I always do when I shoot a deer, I sat down to recover from the after-shot shakes. I waited the prescribed 20 minutes while the buck lay stunned by the bullet strike and expired. Well, I waited 15 minutes. Okay, at least 11 minutes. Then I had to find him.
Stumbling down, down, down to the edge of the cliff over which he had disappeared, I could see that I would need my cable-and-pulley come-along to hoist his carcass back up the bluff, 10 grueling yards at a time. Then I took one more step and knew with a sinking feeling that there would be no uphill drag because the buck staggered to his feet and ran pall-mall straight downhill as best he could through brush and across land-sliding slabs of limestone. Damn! Why didn’t I wait another 10 minutes?
Cautiously, I followed his line of flight. An obvious blood trail told me the buck would not go far, and he did not. About 200 yards down the face of the bluff I found where he had somersaulted and died, antlers wedged between two small elm trees. As always, this was my moment of conflicting emotions: joy and regret.
Excited, almost euphoric, to have taken this deer, I also mourned the death of this beautiful animal. I knelt beside it, touched its shoulder, and silently asked forgiveness. I assured its spirit that its body would nourish me and my family, that the hunt is an essential, sacred part of me, and that no malice or cruelty was intended. But I can never fully persuade myself of the harsh reality that every living thing must kill to live. My only compensation is that I could not be the person I am if I did not hunt, and that my passion to hunt is honorable and ethical because, as the Spanish philosopher and hunter Jose Ortega y Gasset once wrote, “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” There is some primordial thing living within me, and I have come to accept that dragon.
Straightening out the deer’s body and legs so that he lay on his side, I looked up at the height of the bluff above and knew that dragging it to our hayfield on top was absolutely impossible. The only course was to go down the bluff to my neighbor’s farm and hope that I could somehow get to the deer with my pickup truck. I found a wildlife trail that cut diagonally across the bluff, walked a couple hundred yards ahead to scout its passage, returned to the deer, and started the drag from hell.
Five years. It has been five years since I ventured into the Trout River Valley at the base of the bluff on the west edge of our farm. Things change in five years. Things can change drastically in five years. The height of flood-ripped river banks, for example.
Four of the past five years, record-setting rains have soaked the North Country. The cornfields and hayfields in the Trout River Valley have been severely flooded three of those years, and the river itself has altered its course, cutting new channels, backwaters, oxbows, marshes, and ponds. Since the day I walked through it five years hence, nothing in this riparian landscape was the same. Nothing.
After a quarter-mile downhill drag (which included the buck’s antlers hooking my pant leg on a steep and slippery section of the trail and having him drag me for about 10 yards), I was wobbly-legged, hot, sweated through, scratched by wild raspberry vines and gooseberry clumps, and covered with the seeds of beggar’s tick weed. Bone-weary. Spent. Old-man tired.
Say what you want about the curse of cell phones, I was happy to be able to call Patti and ask her to get permission to drive the pickup through our neighbor’s hayfield with the goal of loading up this deer. Although it had been dead for over an hour, the buck had mysteriously grown from about 150pounds to more than 300 pounds, or so it seemed to me. But it was almost over, and I thought my suffering was nearly at an end. I was wrong.
The river gods had joyfully slashed mud banks 10-12 feet high along the bottom of our bluff as their gift to us in the reshaping of the valley. No complaints: sometimes the gods giveth, and sometimes the gods taketh away. But what they had taken away was a complete surprise. I considered the options. Dragging the deer back up the bluff, or farther along the bank of the river upstream or down, was impossible. My choices were:
1) abandon this deer and have it become a coyote feast;
2) drop the deer over the sheer 10-foot bank onto a narrow strip of gravel at river’s edge and hope it was not swept away by the current.
There was no question I would choose option No. 2. I slid the deer over the bank and quickly slid down after it. I snared it before it slipped into the current. Then the challenge was getting it across to the far side. One more river to cross.
I walked up and down the river’s edge to find the slowest flowing water that did not have a muck bottom but a fairly stable gravel one. I pulled the deer through shallow water to an island in the steam, waded across the main channel and then back to assure myself that I would not lose my footing, and pulled the buck along on the most exciting part of the drag.
Did you know that deer float? Having zero experience with deer drags across rivers, ponds, lakes or other bodies of water, I thought this deer would sink like a rock and probably pull me down with it. Happily, this buck floated like a cork, and I briefly entertained the idea of climbing aboard and boating merrily downstream to the next bridge that had an accessible canoe landing. Fortunately, I scotched that plan.
The opposite bank of the river was low, little more than a gravel shelf, and I was able to pull the deer out of the current with minimal effort. Having nothing better to do until the pickup arrived, I field dressed the buck. Nice to have a river nearby to wash the blood from my arms and hands. I sat down on the gravel bar. I was bushed.
Fast-forward through the easiest part of this adventure. Patti and our surrogate niece Heather arrived with the pickup, having driven through two fordable stretches of the river. Because this section of the Trout River has multiple channels after the flood years, channels that twist and writhe and turn like a snake with a broken back, I still needed to drag the buck across a secondary channel, which was shallow and gravel-bottomed. Note: deer do not float as well after they are field dressed, but on the other hand they wash out quite nicely when they are half submerged.
Once across, Heather helped me drag it through about a hundred yards of tall weeds and marsh grass, often using the 1-2-3 PULL system. Although she is considerably smaller than I, she proved to be considerably stronger. Especially when it came to loading the buck onto the pickup.
On the five-mile drive home – getting back across a North Country river may require a long drive to a bridge – Heather tactfully said that my deer adventure had messed up her evening hunt from her favorite tree stand, so she was going out before dawn the next morning, “But you don’t have to go if you want to sleep in,” she said, looking at me like I was the last place finisher in a senior citizen triathlon.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m going to drink two beers this evening, and I’m going hunting with you in the morning, and you’re going to kill a deer, and I’m going to drag it.” I assure you this bombast was all macho posturing.
But she did go. And I did. And she did kill a deer. And I did drag it. About 20 yards. On the flat. From the edge of the woods into a hayfield. Where we could drive right up beside it with the pickup. Because she shot a seven-point buck and it dropped dead in its tracks.
Which, let me tell you, is a much, much, much better way to harvest venison.
Neuromuscular control, a gift from the Red Gods that I once believed would endure through my lifetime, has frayed and unraveled and proved to be a perishable grace. Once steady and sturdy I now shake, rattle, and roll worse than the spindle that wobbles and clatters in the worn-out bearings of my old chain saw.
How could I not see this coming? An inevitable malady of the aging process, the “old man shakes” are part and parcel with the corresponding curses of diminishing muscle strength, stiffening of flexible tendons, thinning of skin, increasing brittleness of bones, dimming of vision, and silencing of hearing. Forget baldness and wrinkles; these things are the true and limiting annoyances for the hunting fraternity.
As a riflery coach I always recited to neophytes the mantra “Sit and you’ll hit!” until they accept it as a tenet of the creed. Put your butt on the ground, loop the rifle’s sling around your upper arm, raise your knees, lean slightly forward, brace your arms against your legs, and you will hit what you’re aiming at. I forgot an important factor in this shooting equation: “Don’t get old.”
Although I follow all the rules of the rifleman’s dogma, the target now bounces and bobs in the telescopic sight, refusing to let the crosshairs lock on tight behind the deer’s shoulder, the squirrel’s head, or the paper target’s red dot. Sometimes, when I am tried after long hours in the field or breathless after a run into shooting position, the scope’s bobble is so bad I cannot in good conscience pull the trigger.
There was a day when I considered myself a pretty fair rifle shooter, and any deer within 200 yards was in mortal danger. That day is long past. A deer has to blunder within 100 yards (75 in the low light of early morning or late evening) for me to have confidence that I can make a humane one-shot kill.
My declining shooting skills are less apparent with a shotgun, of course, mostly because I have the blessing of a pointing dog that holds birds until I am ready for a close, careful, and measured shot. Also, I only take shots that I am sure I can hit. A half-hour’s hunt for a crippled-but-running bird has become shameful to me, and it isn’t often I will try to take a bird that is a passing shot or one that is one the fringe of my range.
But with a rifle a hunter seldom has a chance to choose his shots so carefully, and the tremors and shakes are glaringly apparent. Even taking a shot from a sitting position, steady as possible with a tight-and-solid hold on target, is difficult for me these days. Thinking about taking a standing, offhand shot? Forget it.
Hence, for the first time in my life, a device known as shooting sticks has caught my attention. Strictly speaking, this is not true. About 10 years ago I drove to the edge of the South Dakota Badlands to shoot prairie dogs, and I used a bipod attached to the front sling swivel stud of my varmint rifle’s stock. This aid to accuracy was incredible. Shooting from a prone position, supported by the bipod, with a 16-power scope, I shot prairie dogs that were more than 350 yards distant. Let me assure you I did not hit these miniscule critters consistently, but I occasionally connected.
Being a “wily, crafty veteran of the hunt,” I could clearly see how some type of bipod would steady my hold on my rifle and make me a 200-yard shooter again. Well, at least a dependable 100-yard shooter. Unlikely to lie in prone position with a short bipod for two or more hours as I await a deer to emerge from the woodlands, my intent was to buy shooting sticks that would allow me to shoot from a seated position, preferably seated on a camp stool, or at least a padded cushion.
I did some online research, viewed images of different types of shooting sticks, and thought, “Well, hell, I can build those myself from scrap lumber.” A few cedar planks were left over from a home improvement project, and I got to work cutting them into 1 ½-inch wide, 42-inch long sticks connected by a nut-and-bolt at a pivot point about 5 inches from the top.
Voila! A functional set of shooting sticks. Pleased and smug, I quickly made a set for each of my three ground blinds. Hmmm. Dang! Each set proved to be too short to brace a rifle for a shot from the windows of the blinds. Fortunately, I had a lot of cedar, so I made three more sets, 48 inches in length.
As long as I do not venture outside the ground blinds, I’m prepared for the rifle season for deer in the North Country. I have not yet come up with a device that will allow me to shoot with confidence from a ladder stand up in a tree, but I’m working on it. I don’t rifle hunt from a ladder stand very often anyway, I rationalize.
I’m hoping this shooting sticks device will extend my rifle hunts for deer a few more years. If my heart doesn’t give out first. Or the COVID-19 pandemic does not write finis to my days afield. Wily, crafty veteran hunter that I am.
Once upon a time, and in a place far away from the North Country, I owned a full set of matching camouflage hunting clothes: shirt, pants, jacket, hat, gloves… the whole nine yards. This entire wardrobe was on sale, if ordered by mail, from a once thriving but now long-defunct outdoor equipment company by the name of Herter’s, based in Waseca, Minnesota, with distribution centers and showrooms in several other cities, including Mitchell, South Dakota. From the Mitchell store, I acquired my one and only “coordinated” set of camo clothing.
These days, no two pieces of my camo outerwear remotely match in pattern, colors, weave, or material. And I’m okay with that. Fashion is not my thing.
But way back then, almost 50 years, ago, I was completely taken. That first matching set of camo was listed at end-of-season bargain prices in an outdoor gear catalog published by Herter’s. I suspect Herter’s still turned a tidy profit on this set of half-priced camo clothing because it was West German army military surplus, lightly used (the catalog product description promised) and meeting full military specifications. Herter’s was known for its frequent claims that its gear met military specifications, even when there were no military specifications. Cast-off army clothes imported from West Germany made the mil-specs claim even more dubious, but in that more trusting age we expected advertisers to exaggerate facts but not to lie outright. We’re smarter now.
But $24 for a complete matching camo outfit? How could I go wrong?
The camo gear arrived in the mail, bearing only slight resemblance to the wool-blend clothes pictured in the Herter’s catalog. Its weave and curiously dyed pattern of brown and green blotches, zig-zag stripes of tan and gray, and swirls of off-white may have been just the ticket for clandestine army maneuvers in the Black Forest of Germany in the dead of winter, but the catalog’s guarantee that this camo would make a hunter virtually invisible in a North American woodland was questionable. I wore the stuff while bow hunting and duck hunting for three or four seasons, but the avoidance behavior of deer (and antelope, raccoons, coyotes, ducks, geese, and virtually every other species of bird) made it clear that I was not invisible to wildlife but was in fact glaringly obvious to any animal with basic visual acuity.
This was before conservationists and scientists became engrossed in the study of a deer’s ability to visually perceive outlines, forms, colors, patterns, and movement. The result of the data compiled by this research over the course of many years is that we now have multiple choices in camo clothing specifically designed to confuse and distort the ocular cognizance of deer: Mossy Oak (which is produced in several subvariants such as Bottomland, Shadow Grass, Break-Up, Elements Terra, Mountain Country, and others), Realtree (which is made in designs that include Hardwooods, Seclusion3D, Edge, Waterfowler, Xtra, Staghorn, and other patterns), plus a half-dozen lesser known name brands that run the gamut of every known outdoor landscape.
The German army camo, however, was counterproductive in any landscape. It was also stiff, scratchy, and noisy. As it wore out I replaced it piece by piece. Pants torn? Throw them out and buy a pair with camo pattern better suited to the scrub thicket gullies of northeast Nebraska. Jacket frayed at the cuffs and out at the elbows? Toss it in the trash and buy a parka that matched the cattail marshes along the backwaters of the Missouri River. Shirt faded and pockets gaping? Get rid of it and buy one that more closely resembled the ragweed stands around stock ponds.
No two items were of a matching camo pattern, of course, but since I was much more a rifle hunter than a bow hunter in those days, orange coats and caps took precedence over camo. Any bargain basement piece of camo would serve. When my father ended his deer hunting days I inherited a few items – pants, shirts, jackets, and formless hats – that were labeled Jungle Camo, probably military surplus from the Vietnam War. When fall weather arrived and all this mismatched stuff was taken out of the closet and laundered, the clothesline looked like the gypsy camp of a poorly organized and badly supplied backwoods militia.
But there was an upside to my ragtag camo outfits. By trial and error, I learned that deer did not care if my camo garb was mismatched, faded, discolored, stained, or patched. As long as my human shape, form and outline were jumbled and confusticated in deer vision, it makes little difference what camo pattern accomplishes the jumbling and confusticating.
My jacket of Realtree Hardwoods pattern works well. So do pants and gloves of Mossy Oak. A knit balaclava cap in Breakup camo has done yeoman’s service for many years, and an insulated Seclusion3D pullover, frequently patched and mended, has never failed me. All of these pieces of camo clothing, in any mix-and-(non)match combination will do a good job of concealment if I sit still an do not fidget too much. But then, a scruffy faded-green sweatshirt that I tossed into a bucket of walnut husk “dye” has also proved to be adequate camo in the first week of the bow season. You pays yer money and yer takes yer choice.
Scent? That is a different matter. I refuse to be convinced that carefully coordinated camo clothing makes a bit of difference when bow hunting, but I am a believer in scent-killer sprays, laundry detergents, and deodorants. More times than I care to admit I have been “busted” by a stray gust of wind that carried my scent to an otherwise unsuspecting deer that has been approaching my tree stand.
Of course, there is a possibility that I just smell really, really bad, but I’m not about to admit that. Or stop smoking cigars. Tobacco stains, by the way, add a nice touch to any piece of camo outerwear.
Some years autumn makes a gentle, slow, and easy entrance into the North Country. Not this year.
Autumn 2020 crashed through the door howling and angry on the final day of September, and through the first three days of October it has not been a pleasant guest. Temperatures dropped to 30 degrees at night, mornings dawned on a series of gray days with wild and ragged overcast skies, northwest winds blew steadily at 20 miles per hours with gusts up to 30, and a mist and spatter of rain fell each time I ventured outside.
The wind has stripped most of the leaves from the trees – all of the walnut and poplar – and the overnight frosts have curled the rest and crisped the buds and blooms of the late summer surge of clover in our hayfield. The garden is done for as well, but we expected that since mid-September and we have harvested the last of the tomatoes, peppers, squash, and potatoes. (Green tomato relish and salsa are one of the few benefits of autumn’s onset.)
I was hoping for a few late-September days of hard frost and then a week or two of Indian summer when temperatures climbed back into the 50s and cerulean blue skies formed a dome over a landscape of fall woodland colors, the sweet scent of decaying leaves and browning grasses filing the air, carried on soft breezes. But Nature, that Goddess with a twisted sense of humor, painted the sky with streaks of gray and black, tore down the colorful gauzy curtains, and sprayed us with ice water. For her, the epitome of a good practical joke; for me, a nasty prank that has put me in a vulgar mood.
This foul weather has made me all the more sullen because the first day of the bow hunting season for deer was October 1. I should be exhilarated, not morose, sitting in a ground blind or perched on a tree stand over a much-traveled deer trail, the cool and fragrant autumn air lifting me with a nicotine-like rush into a realm just below heaven. Instead, I am shivering in the gloom of the doorway to the underworld every morning, not yet acclimated to this early arrival of late-fall weather.
Damn. Just – DAMN!
But sunny skies and highs in the 50s are forecast for next week. Maybe that will grant me a good long month of autumn weather and pull me up from the doldrums. I’ll have a late morning cup of coffee on the deck, look out over the North Country, and realize that I am the richest man in the world.
It would really help if I would take a good deer with the bow, too. Are you listening, Goddess of Nature?
The wire brush sticking out of my pocket is for cleaning the &^%# chimney cap, the worst part of the chimney cleaning chore. (Photo by Patti Johnson)
Cleaning the woodstove’s chimney is an annual chore. A dirty, grimy, sooty chore. Often fraught with excitement because there is a danger, however remote, that I might tumble off our steep roof and injure or kill myself.
Most years the chimney does not require much cleaning, since it has a stainless steel liner and is a “straight shot” up from our woodstove, providing little rough surface and a quick ascent for smoke-borne creosote, that vile stuff, that clings to a chimney’s inner surface and builds up on the flu. Also, I stoke a roaring fire about once each winter month, usually when my beautiful blonde wife is in town, that burns away any creosote accumulation. Not an actual chimney fire, nothing that risky, but a roaring blaze that makes the stovepipe glow.
For the most part, chimney cleaning is a messy but trouble free task. The problem is the chimney cap. Creosote build-up in the cap is greater than the entire rest of the chimney’s 22-foot length, and that build-up can plug the cap and fill the house with smoke. We have had it happen. A smoky kitchen does not promote domestic tranquility.
In our experience, the chimney inevitably becomes blocked on a windy day in January when temperatures have dropped to single digits and snow and ice have created an Olympic bobsled run on the roof. Did I mention that our roof is quite steep? A 45-degree slope that would result in an estimated speed of 35-40 miles per hour before a hapless chimney cleaner would catapult over the edge and fall the final 20 feet to the ground. An emergency cleaning of the chimney in January should be avoided at all costs.
Hence the annual cleaning in September. On a warm and windless day. Preferrably at that time of early fall when the wasps are no longer nesting in said chimney cap.
So up to the rooftop I go, resembling Santa Claus in workman’s garb. A wire chimney brush is attached to a flexible fiberglass rod, conveniently segmented in four-foot sections, and I run the brush down and up the length of the chimney half a dozen times. The brushing removes about a hatful of creosote, so little that we could clean the chimney only once every three or four years without worry.
But I cannot brush it out until the cap is removed, and therein lies the difficulty. I’ve thought about doing away with the cap altogether, but rain and snow would leak in, and an occasional songbird would blunder down our chimney and into the stove. The cap is necessary, but it was always the most difficult part of chimney cleaning. And the most dangerous.
Years ago we used a chimney cap that was coarse-threaded and attached to the chimney top with a clockwise twist like the breach of an artillery piece. This was a handy and sturdy enough fitting, and it never blew off in high winds. The downside was that its threads would become sealed tight with creosote, so tight that removal was nearly impossible. Epoxy-glued tight. Spot-welded tight.
Straddling the roof peak, off balance and straining to untwist the cap, dizzily looking downward at a 30-foot fall, is a special kind of terror. Usually, I would take a rubber mallet in my chimney cleaner’s tool kit and pound the damned thing loose, a technique that bent and battered the cap and likely would have damaged the chimney itself over time. Finally, the cap would budge, and with a lunging, violent jerk it would break free its locked-thread seal – and leave me teetering and wildly counter-balancing like a lumberjack in a log-rolling competition.
By good fortune, the day came when I lost my grip on that noisome chimney cap and flung it into space during this dance macabre. It bounced twice on the roof, hit the limestone border of the flower plantings below, and was twisted and smashed beyond repair. The replacement cap I bought at the local hardware store was a bit over-sized and had to be attached with duct tape, the metal kind that has a peal-and-stick facing and is its own sort of misery to work with. This cap has worked well the last six or seven years, can be removed by cutting away the tape, and seems to have much less creosote accumulation. Win-win-win.
This year’s cleaning was a 20-minute task, less than it took to re-black the woodstove. After 36 years of chimney cleaning, I’m much more skilled. Or maybe just less obsessive.
We are now good to go for the winter ahead: four cords of seasoned firewood cut, split, and stacked, a box of kindling split, and chimney and stove cleaned and ready. I was eager to build our first fire of the season (a man needs to test his work), but yesterday afternoon a heat wave settled in, and it was 81 degrees.
Okay, I can wait. Maybe a week. Temps are supposed to drop down into the 40s in the next few days. That’s cool enough for a fire, right?
My long time friend, we will call her “Kelly” (to safeguard her identity from family and friends), a former student of mine and a great murder mystery writer (to make her identity obvious to family and friends), called me last week so that we could harangue each other about the slow progress on our respective novel manuscripts. After alternately berating and encouraging one another, we shared some casual catching-up conversation about life, family, work, and late-summer day-to-day tasks.
“So, what are you doing today?” I asked.”
“Rearranging stuff in my chest freezer,” said Kelly
“You put up a lot of produce from your garden this summer?”
“About the same as last year. But I have to make room for a deer in the next couple weeks.”
Now I know for a fact that my friend does not hunt deer. Nor does her husband. Curious.
“You have to make room for a deer?” I asked.
“Yeah. My brother’s ex-wife, her younger brother is getting ready to start the bow season. He gives me a deer every year.”
I needed clarification. “Who gives you a deer?”
“My brother’s ex-wife’s younger brother.”
“His ex-wife? As in divorced wife?”
“How long has your brother been divorced?”
“About 20 years.”
“And her younger brother still gives you a deer every year?”
It was at this point in the conversation that I felt I had become trapped in an Abbot and Costello “Whos’ on First” comedy routine. Cautiously, I played my role as straight man.
“Okay, now let me try get this straight. You brother divorced this woman 20 years ago.”
“But they are still on good terms?”
“Oh god, no! She thinks he’s the scum of the earth.”
“But you get along with her okay?”
“No, she’s a total bitch.”
The logic of this conversation began to spin out of control. I paused to take a breath and organize my out-of-focus picture.
“Let’s take a step back so that I can understand this arrangement,” I said.
“What’s to understand?”
“Unravel this for me. This is what I hear you saying: your brother hates his ex-wife, she hates him, you think she’s a total bitch, but her younger brother gives you a deer every year.”
“You got it. What’s the confusion?” asked Kelly.
“It just seems odd that your families are at war, but he continues to give you a deer.”
“No mystery. He and I get along fine.”
“How can that be?”
“Probably because he thinks his sister is a pain in the ass, and I think my brother is a jerk. Plus, he bow hunts on our family’s farm.”
“Finally, this is beginning to make sense to me,” I said.
“You always were a little slow on the uptake, especially about family matters,” said Kelly.
“But I eventually get it,” I said, “I’ve got it figured out. Why he gives you a deer every year.”
“This year there’s going to be a major problem, though,” said Kelly.
“New dynamic in the family feud?” I ventured.
“Boned,” she said. “The meat processor is working six days a week, and he says that any deer I bring in will have to be boned. I’ve never boned a deer.”
“Your brother’s ex-wife’s younger brother won’t bone it for you?”
“That would be pushing it,” said Kelly as if it should be self-evident. “Really pushing it.”
Our daughter gave birth to a baby girl, Aurora Louise Johnson-Sojka, on September 13. Mother and baby are both doing well. The latest (and probably last) of our six grandchildren, Rory weighed 8 pounds, 5 ounces at birth. I’m thinking: potential to hit with power from both sides of the plate.
In the troubled times of 2020, this is an uplifting and positive and inspiring moment. A miracle of wonder and happiness.
Unfortunately, by the time Rory will be playing softball I will be too old to teach her my secret hitting skills and techniques. Too old to demonstrate them, anyway, without an immediate visit to the chiropractor. Still, I can offer sage advice: if the pitcher fools you with a breaking pitch, do not swing unless you have two strikes; start your swing with a slight “hitch” back onto the heel of your power foot and then rotate forward onto the ball of your foot as you make contact; start your swing on every pitch and then halt if the pitch is out of the strike zone…
Those sorts of things. I can already see her rolling her eyes in annoyance with grandpa’s coaching.
In exchange, she will have to teach her grandfather the various computer technologies that he is annoyed to learn.
There are dozens of other life skills she’ll need to acquire from grandpa: how to cut your own hair with a pet clipper, how to spit correctly (very useful in softball), how to smoke a cigar and blow a smoke ring, how to blow your nose without a handkerchief, how and when to use the appropriate swear words, how to do self-surgery and stitches on minor injuries. So many others. (See blog post Christmas gifts for my grandchildren.)
But these are minor joys in the course of the grandparenting life. More important will be vacation travels, summer visits to the farm (also spring, autumn, and winter), theater and music performances in school, picnics and campouts, Christmases, Thanksgivings, birthdays, graduations… Expectations of exciting and wonderful times. Not sure I will live long enough to see her begin her medical school residency or earn her Ph.D. in political science, but we’ll see.
Let the adventure begin. I’m ready. I think I’m ready. I hope I’m ready.