Why should I welcome you, Gandalf Stormcrow?
– A bewitched Théoden, King of the Mark of Rohan, in response to the arrival of the wizard Gandalf, from The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), British writer of fantasy fiction
The Pastor and I have been constant friends, and occasional hunting companions, for more than 45 years. A Lutheran pastor and counselor, he has over the course of those decades taught me the value of the many graces that helped make my life more rewarding and joyful: humility, patience, determination, steadfastness, cooperation, empathy, compassion, and quietude, just to name a few. He has also taught me the importance of including pac boots and a parka in my gear when I prepare for a hunting trip with him.
The Pastor, you see, is a Stormcrow. Where he hunts, unpredicted snowstorms gather.
Not light-and-fluffy snow showers that waft over us like the floating gaggles of sandhill cranes, croaking as they migrate south across autumn landscapes lightly dusted with the early snowfalls that hint of the soft, innocent beauty of far-off winter. No. The storms that follow The Pastor are a depths-of-winter pack of ravenous, vicious wolves, white-clotted wet fur steaming with the heat of menace and violent death that roils and erupts from beneath the clinging layer of sleet on their coats, slush turning to red-tinted water as it streams down their muzzles and across bloody fangs, evil golden eyes glaring from behind blinders of ice.
That kind of snowstorm.
The Pastor is a gentle man. Perhaps these blizzards that loom behind him are his dark alter ego. Why then do I never see these hunting trip calamities on the horizon when I set out to meet him for a few days afield in Nebraska? After so many catastrophes my mind should scream warnings: “Trust not the National Weather Service!” “Those satellite images of mild and stable weather patterns over the Great Plains are bait in a cruel trap!”
The now-familiar pattern of stormy cataclysms began, if I remember correctly, on a Christmas week pheasant hunt in 1970. The drive to northeast Nebraska from Ohio, where The Pastor was earning his divinity degree at Trinity Seminary and I was contemplating my employment prospects with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science, was remarkable for the 30 mile-per-hour winds, gusting to 45, that tried to blow us off highways covered with a sheen of icy water. The first flakes of snow were falling amid torrents of rainwater that the wind was actually forcing through the gasket around the windshield of his old Ford Fairlane so that I had to continually mop the inside of the glass to provide minimal visibility as we zoomed along the interstate, passing swaying semi-trailer trucks that looked like icebergs.
The hunt itself, a day after the storm had blown through, was challenging but certainly not a major disaster. The snow was less than knee-deep, for the most part, and we were young and strong and tough. We were daring and foolhardy. I was naïve and stupid. We shot several pheasants, which made the suffering seem worthwhile. And this snowstorm that had unexpectedly fallen upon our hunt was surely an anomaly, a once-in-a-lifetime misfortune that we had faced and conquered, never to beset us again.
So I thought.
Let me tell you about our most recent three hunts.
Some years ago we met in the Sandhills for a week of sharptail grouse hunting. We set up camp, drove out into the dunes in shirtsleeve weather, put down the dogs, and shot a daily limit of birds in two or three hours. That night under partly cloudy skies we sat by a campfire drinking beer, smoking cigars, and talking about the strange and unexpected paths that life had led us along. When we zipped up the tent flap and the sleeping bags, we noticed the wind had picked up a bit and was feeling moist.
Breakfast was scrambled eggs and sausage served from an iron skillet atop a Coleman stove, shoveled into blue-lipped mouths deep in the recesses of hooded sweatshirts. The ability to eat eggs with a hunting knife from an enameled metal plate with hands jammed into mittens is the mark of a veteran hunter. The snow was coming down a bit more heavily, but the forecast was sunny skies by mid-morning so we tossed the dishes into a plastic wash tub, climbed into the pickup with dogs and shotguns, and set out into the wild. An hour later, I could not discern the roadway from the roadside ditches, a blizzard was blasting snow and sleet vertically across the open plains, and a search for weather information on the radio produced only buzzing sounds interrupted by frequent bursts of static.
We made it back to the campground by the grace of God to discover that our campsite was flattened, scattered, and covered with three inches of snow. We chased down and spread out one frayed tarp and piled everything onto it: sleeping bags, chop box, kitchen tub, cooler, dog box, duffle bags, dissembled cots and tent, – everything. We rolled it all into a ball that we somehow stuffed into the box of my pickup, forced closed the truck’s tailgate and hatch of the topper, latched and locked all doors and drove away south, slipping and sliding in four-wheel-drive along grease-mud campground trails. The clean-up took days of work, and I’m still not sure we escaped with all our gear.
The Pastor seemed to take solace in the fact that we had a good chicken fried steak dinner (with mashed potatoes and cream gravy) at a roadside restaurant in the tiny town of Mullen. This was as good as bird hunting, he posited. I began to suspect that the snowstorms that wrecked our every hunt were not coincidental. Could it be, I wondered as I wrung out my hat, that when he tires of hunting he conjures a squall, a tempest?
I was, therefore, more prepared for adverse weather the last two hunts with The Pastor. This past year, in mid-November, we planned a deer hunt on private ranch lands on the eastern edge of the Sandhills (see Nebraska blizzard gifts). The forecast was for light snow and a day of moderate to high winds, followed by sunny skies for three of four days. Second night, at 1 a.m., I watched the yard light of the bunkhouse disappear in a zero-visibility blizzard that dropped a 12-inch-deep band of snow across a narrow swath of the plains just south of the Dakota border. Only where we were deer hunting, nowhere else. Unlike past years, I did not rage against the winter gods for ruining the hunt. The supernatural forces at work here may be demons I do not want to taunt or anger.
A month ago, in early October, we returned to the fated campground by the McKelvie National Grassland in the Sandhills for three days of grouse hunting. In keeping with my bucket list of things to do before the grim reaper knocks, I opted for a campout hunt, and The National Weather Service had promised a day of light rain, followed by three days of warm sunshine. The first night in camp we saw a storm front appear over the hills to the west, blotting out the stars, its rolling thunder strangely accompanied by little lightning and no scent of impending rain. I emerged from the tent at 2 a.m. (camping or not, old guys have to make a pee run in the middle of the night) to find an inch of snow on the ground and much more cascading down from low skies.
We ate a breakfast of plastic-wrapped snack cakes and coffee at the Merritt Reservoir Trading Post. We drove through the McKelvie and the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Scouting for birds, we called it. We ate lunch at the Peppermill Restaurant in Valentine, drank beer, and watched college football highlight clips on television. Outside it snowed and snowed and snowed. Three inches, four inches, five inches.
The next day dawned sunny and warming. In search of sharptails and prairie chickens we walked more than 10 miles through crunchy snow cover. We saw at least 75 grouse, some of them as close as a hundred yards. For some reason, maybe disoriented by snow in late summer, about a half dozen held tight enough for us to shoot at them. I think we killed four. The one I knocked down flushed to my right and behind me. When Abbey dug it out of the snow I examined it closely. It was a grouse, not a stormcrow, but I wanted to be sure.
In a few weeks, The Pastor and I and his daughter Heather are meeting again in northeast Nebraska for a deer hunt. The long term forecast calls for clear and sunny weather, cool nights and warm days, no chance of precipitation. So in addition to the pac boots and parka, I’m taking snowshoes and maybe an emergency snow shelter. Might be wise to put snow tires on my pickup, too.
Because I know what’s going to happen. A little bird told me. A big bird, actually. A stormcrow.
More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on Amazon.com Jerry Johnson Author Page