One more river to cross

One more river to cross

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.

I could not resist sitting under a tree at the top of that buff and enjoying the beauty of our maple and oak woodland.

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.

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Shake, rattle, and roll

As a riflery coach I recited the mantra “Sit and you’ll hit!” I forgot an important factor in this shooting equation: “Don’t get old.” (Photo by Patti Johnson)

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.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Camo confustication


When fall arrives and all my mismatched camo clothing is taken out of the closet and laundered, the clothesline looks like the gypsy camp of a poorly organized and badly supplied backwoods militia.

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.

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Autumn rush

Autumn burst into the North Country this week, a rude and unruly visitor that put me in a sullen mood. (Photo taken from my deer stand, on a cold and windy morning, in light rain, under gloomy skies. Bah!)

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?

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Chimney cleaning

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?

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

 

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Freezer space

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?”

“Right.”

“How long has your brother been divorced?”

“About 20 years.”

“And her younger brother still gives you a deer every year?”

“Of course.”

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.”

“Correct.”

“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.”

I did not seek any further explanation.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Beyond words

Regan and Rory (Photo by Charlie Sojka)

Some joys are exquisite beyond description.

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.

Go!

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Squirrel dog

A squirrel hunt with a bird-hunting specialist like Abbey is not a bonding experience.

After a three-day rain Abbey and I went squirrel hunting.

In truth, we went into the dripping, soggy woods to scout for deer trails, scraps, and rubs. Although I slung my .22 rifle over my shoulder I had no intention to shoot a squirrel, but Abbey takes this hunting business more seriously when we have a gun.

Squirrel populations are still at a 35-year low in our woodlands (for more about this, read Squirrel Woods post). Their population decline is probably because the trees have grown from saplings to towering heights, spread their leafy canopies, and shaded out much of the understory that is much better squirrel habitat than a mature hardwood forest.

If Abbey had known that squirrels were our quarry for the day, she would have been much less enthusiastic. Unlike her French spaniel aunt Sasha who loved to hunt both fur and feather, Abbey is more of a bird-hunting specialist. Yes, she likes to dash after the chipmunks in our yard, occasionally catches a rabbit to bring me, and will track a wounded deer if I ask her, but her enthusiasm for hunting these critters is several steps down from her passion for hunting pheasants, grouse, or woodcock. Squirrels? Bah!

We did not sight, much less shoot, a “tree rat” as one member of the Over The Hill Gang calls them, but I’m not a good squirrel hunter these days. I can sit still on a log or stump only about 10 minutes, not long enough for a squirrel to get curious and come out of hiding. Abbey is even worse; three or four minutes is her limit.

She did chase a chipmunk up a tree, but that was close as we came to spotting a squirrel.

But we did get out and enjoy a walk in the woods after three rainy days of confinement in The Clubhouse. We scented but did not see an annoyed fox that must have gone to ground in one of the crevices in a limestone outcropping, and we chased a small whitetail buck out of his mid-morning bedding spot beside a fallen tree. Surprisingly for mid-September, the whitetail deer rut has already begun, as evidenced by two clumps of buckthorn that had been battered and shredded by a young buck feeling his oats. We found a large scrape, too, made by a much larger buck judging by his fresh tracks in the mud, and later visited by a doe or a smaller buck.

The stony bed of the dry run on the east side of the farm was our route home. I hoped that would minimize the clots of beggar’s tick, those tiny green burs from hell that cling to Abbey’s long-haired coat on every woodland walk, but no such luck. An hour’s hike through the brush requires at least a 30-minute clean-up with comb, brush, and scissors. She hates the de-burring but endures it.

Climbing onto the sofa in The Clubhouse, she glared at me for a half hour before she curled up and took a nap. “Are you aware,” she said, “the ruffed grouse season has opened in Minnesota? Grouse. Birds. And we wasted a whole morning hunting squirrels? Where the hell are your priorities?”

A squirrel hunt with a bird dog is not a bonding experience.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Isolation

We need other people’s physical presence, in part because much of the assuring information we exchange is through non-verbal communication, and in part because we need physical contact – a handshake, a slap on the back, a hug.

Weather permitting, we sit outside by a campfire. The familiarity of the hunting camp venue eases my mind and allows me to believe that there are many kindred spirits in these months of anxiety and worry.

Isolation

By nature I am a recluse, someone who seldom seeks the company of other people. I’m not antisocial, not an introvert, and certainly not shy, I just prefer solitude – most of the time.

These nine months of forced isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, have given me reason to doubt my hermit’s attitude about socializing with friends and acquaintances. I enjoy my time alone, but I am unsettled by my separation from others. I struggle to understand this unexpected but unmistakable dichotomy. A curmudgeon like me can contentedly hole up on the farm for days, even weeks. But eight months is an unbearably long time in seclusion.

Reluctant as I am to admit it, we need personal connections – associations and interactions with other people – to remain emotionally and mentally healthy. Denied those relationships for an extended period, we are apt to engage in weird behaviors. Mowing the lawn in the heart of a drought, reorganizing (for the third time) the tools in the workshop, watching too many television programs, carrying on lengthy conversations with our dogs, writing incoherent and rambling blog essays…

We become disoriented and insecure when we are deprived of human contact for weeks and months at a time. For some it may be longer, for others it may be much shorter. It is a neurosis that can eventually erupt in full-blown psychotic episodes. Each day I scan the news and discover that someone, somewhere, has acted out in some irrational and often violent way, behaviors brewed in the pressure cooker of extended seclusion.

Here is my take on this madness-inducing isolation: we need other people to witness our lives, to validate and endorse our lives. We need almost daily reassurance that we are good and capable people doing useful and beneficial things.

A supportive and encouraging telephone call, text message, email, or tweet is simply not enough. We need other people’s physical presence, in part because much of the assuring information we exchange is through non-verbal communication, and in part because we need physical contact – a handshake, a slap on the back, a hug. And all those expressions of empathy and compassion are strictly forbidden (for valid health safety precautions) in this time of potentially deadly pandemic.

By good fortune, the Over The Hill Gang has been meeting once each month, a gathering we call a Coots-Together. Sometimes as few as four, sometimes as many as eight of us Coots are able to gather at one of our homes, each bringing a dish for supper, enjoying a couple of beers, and most of all sharing the camaraderie that keeps us connected and sane. Well, relatively sane.

Weather permitting, we sit outside by a campfire. The familiarity of the hunting camp venue eases my mind, allows me to believe that there are many kindred spirits in these months of anxiety and worry, and serves as a temporary substitute for the handshake, the pat on the back, the hug. Laughter is a powerful antidote to the many calamities of this frightening year, and we share a lot of laughter about the misadventures of our past escapades, hoped-for adventures in the future, and the mad and twisted events we read about and observe going on all around us.

The food is good, too. Probably because most of it is prepared by our equally long-suffering wives.

Then I plunge back into insolation, but with some optimism that it will eventually end and life will resume its usual routines. Until then, writing incoherent and rambling blog essays is a socially acceptable pressure release.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Made by hand

Pointe de flèche – photo from Wikipedia

An enchanting history envelops each thing handmade, an aura that somehow connects us to the person who envisioned and crafted it. A pulse of the artisan’s life and energy is embodied in this handmade piece, and even though the artisan may be long dead and forgotten a ghostly trace of their spirit remains.

I can feel the human connection to this craftsman or craftswoman across the years, sometimes decades and sometimes centuries. To find a flint arrowhead is to soar back into prehistory and sense the intricate workmanship of the person that fashioned and finished it. Some handmade items are more crude, more functional than artistic, the wooden grip attached to a rusty iron hay hook exhumed on our farm for example, but the sense of connection to this hard working farmer, an immigrant from Norway 150 years ago, is no less strong.

I can feel the rough workmanship of the farmer, understand his rush to finish the handle to “good enough” so that he could get back to work haying on a scorching July afternoon. And I can sense the care taken by the Paleoindian articifer as he carefully chipped and flaked this stone arrowhead and lashed it to the shaft that would fly true to its target. I know a small moment of their lives, I can feel them doing these tasks, practicing their skills – whether roughhewn or delicate – as I rub these pieces between my thumb and fingers.

I can hear their voices: “This is my work, this is my life, this is my time on Earth, this is me.” That is what these things made by hand say.

Discoveries of other handmade things on our farm– a leather strap of horse harness, knives made from broken wagon springs, barn door hinge pins hammered from railroad spikes, a chert hand axe, shards of crockery, a child’s shoe, a wagon wheel spoke – set my mind spinning with questions about this tract of North Country land, how it looked during each of the successive eras of transition from woodland to prairie to woodland, and how it supported the lives of clans and families for thousands of years. They tell stories of mysteries that I can speculate about but cannot truly know.

This pen was turned and assembled by Jim Eckblad. It is made from the wood of Winged Burning Bush, an ornamental plant native to Asia; its leaves turn a brilliant red in autumn.

Handmade things are not only from the historical and prehistorical times of this place, they are also graces from the here and now. A newly crafted wooden box, a leather sheath for a folding knife, a drop-point hunting knife and its sheath, a braided leather dog lead, a beautifully turned wooden ballpoint pen, even my crudest tool – a 14-inch wooden rod to measure the longest length of firewood I can cut that will fit into my woodstove – all of these are functional, utilitarian, and graceful. In my eyes, they are graceful because they are practical and functional.

There are so few things made by hand in the era of machine manufacture, this half century of molded and stamped metal and extruded plastic. Are these machine-produced pieces stronger, more durable, efficient, ergonomic, convenient? I am told that they are.

But they are not alive. They do not have an aura or spirit. They do not possess the sense of grace of a thing handmade.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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