Hunting seasons ended January 10 in the North Country. After a frantic and frenetic final week of pursuing pheasants, my neurotic drive to go afield dwindled and a sense of calm descended upon the Clubhouse. Abbey and Sasha are asleep on the couch, and I have begun the mid-winter ritual of packing away hunting clothes, puttering with shotguns and rifles, and preparing hard-used gear for the coming seasons, just nine short months ahead.
The cleaning, sorting and storing could probably be done in a couple hours if I could stay focused, but my puttering extends the chore. I have learned to set aside a full day, maybe a couple days, for post-season chores. I’m always amazed by how much stuff I have accumulated. Did I really use all this gear over the past four months? And how did it all get so disheveled and… dirty? Hunting clothes, boots, guns and ammunition, bows and arrows, binoculars, knives, pliers, trail cameras, and about a hundred items of dog equipment – it all has to be sorted, examined, cleaned, repaired if necessary, and stored in the appropriate bins or cabinets.
The first hour or two of the days is devoted to cleaning guns and the jumble of bow hunting gear, and that is not so much a labor as a stroll through the good memories of the season. I won’t bore you with details, but I took at least one bird with each of the five double guns in the safe. Clear evidence that all five are indispensable. Likewise the three rifles and two bows that accompanied me on deer hunts. Having been raised by a father who admonished, “Take good care of your gun, and it will never let you down,” I am a confessed gun cleaning fanatic. Read Rifle cleaning’s a bore, if you want the sordid details.
When, reeking of Hoppe’s Nitro Powder Solvent No. 9 and RemOil, the guns are stored in the safe, and the compound bows have been wiped down and their wheel cams greased with a quick spray of dry lubricant, I move on to the overflowing box of bird dog gear. The whistles, bell collars, leads, boots, brushes and combs, food and water bowls, and travel kennels do not demand attention for extended storage because I will be training (okay, horsing around with) the dogs on a daily basis throughout the year. But it all needs cleaned. And the skunk bath kit has to be replenished.
Next comes boot care, which could be a whole separate essay. Some would call my need for six different pair of hunting boots a fetish. I regard six as the minimum footwear for hunts that range from the semi-arid sandhills, to swampy aspen forests, matted Conservation Reserve Program fields, brush-choked woodlands, and rolling shortgrass prairie. The same for socks. I need these dozens of pairs of socks. Every material from skin-thin silk to half-inch-thick wool.
I will spare you my views on the attributes of neatsfoot oil, saddle soap, mink oil, ArmorAll, and paste wax in the care of hunting boots because I want to move on to the most interesting moments of my packing-prepping-puttering days: the surprises in the pockets and pouches of hunting clothes. It’s a rare year that a few “So that’s where…!” and “Look at that…!” exclamations are not heard in the Clubhouse.
I never know what will appear as I go through the pile of clothes that includes three vests, two coats, two sets of coveralls (one insulated one uninsulated), chaps, gaiters, brush-front pants, six or seven shirts, a dozen hats… well, you get the idea of all that has to be cleaned and folded and either hung on the rack or packed into one of the plastic storage tubs (one for deer hunting clothes, the other for bird hunting clothes). When I examine the vests and coats, it’s no surprise that turning the pockets and pouches inside-out causes a storm of feathers to go flying, enough to stuff a good-sized pillow. And there are always several empty shotshell hulls in the mix. But frequently something completely unexpected emerges.
A couple years ago the game bag of a seldom worn mesh-backed vest held a startling surprise: the mummified body of a woodcock. Apparently I failed to add it to the row of birds on the game cleaning table at the hunting cabin up north at the end of the final day of ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting in October. The dried and desiccated bird did not have an unpleasant odor (Sasha’s opinion was that it smelled quite nice), and its coat of feathers was smooth and silky. I bagged it, put it in the chest freezer, and it served as a feather-buck retrieving dummy for Abbey over the course of the next summer.
Nothing so unusual appeared this year, but a dozen hunts in Conservation Reserve Program fields planted to native grasses had put a quarter pound of seed in the pockets and crevices of my vests and coats. And concealed among the clumps of feathers and grass and twigs and duff I found a pocket knife I thought lost, a silent dog whistle I meant to experiment with but never did, two minty dog biscuits, a pair of reading glasses, a shiny stone, a compass, and a plastic container that held spare batteries for my hearing aids. All except the reading glasses were in good condition.
Coats, jackets and coveralls worn during the firearm deer seasons seldom produce these kinds of post-season treasures. This January, all I found in those pockets was three empty cartridge cases (one .30-06 and two .44 magnum), a Leatherman pliers tool in a scruffy sheath, and one (unfortunately unfilled) buck permit.
Stacking all these “surprises” on the Clubhouse table has become a tradition for me. At the end of the packing-prepping-puttering chores I sit back, open a beer, light a cigar, and go through the items one at a time. Each is an icon of a hunting trip that graced the season. Each turns a page in the book of memories, and I recall its significance to that day afield.
Except for the shiny stone. I have no idea where that came from or how it got into my vest. Best keep it in my pocket until I remember.
More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays and three novels, all available in Kindle and paperback editions at Jerry Johnson Author Page at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.