Last Saturday morning I got up, checked the weather, checked my hunting calendar and remembered that it was the second last weekend of the 2013 grouse season in New Brunswick – likely the last without a major snowfall. Outside it was a beautiful, brittle November day. The thermometer read -9°C, there was little-to-no wind, and the forecast called for sun all day — perfect grouse hunting conditions. I knew there would be a thick frost; we’d had 100mm of rain on Wednesday. My girlfriend, Maggie and I had planned to go hiking however – with a little convincing – I was able to persuade her into combining the two activities. Who wouldn’t want a nice grouse for supper?
We hit the road around 9:30am – heading for some public land about 20 minutes south of Fredericton. I was looking for a nice softwood (coniferous) forest, preferably with some pine. This late in the year – in the absence of herbaceous vegetation – grouse introduce pine needles and/or buds into their diet. This dietary change impacts the taste of the meat – it’s supposed to become gamier – but this doesn’t bother me.
After arriving at the hunting grounds and topping off our clothing layers with some hunter’s orange, we set out on foot down an old ATV trail. I was carrying my faithful Remington 870 Wingmaster, and Maggie was unarmed – which was probably for the best. Our objectives were to hike up a hardwood ridge into my deer stand – a story for another day – and check my game camera. After which we planned to head back down to find some softwood and maybe some running water. Thankfully, back in September, a friend and I had forged a nice little trail that provided direct access – up a major slope – to my blind. So up we went.
I tried to be a gentleman. I tried to break every branch at face level in order to protect Maggie from being whipped in the face. But I realized I couldn’t get them all. I think Maggie was starting to question my decision to turn this into a hunting expedition. “I thought you said this was a trail,” she uttered while feeling her face for scratches.
Things were inexplicably quiet, the magic hour — 10:00am — had come and gone and we hadn’t seen or heard a thing. We were content with not seeing anything; it really was a beautiful day to be in the woods — the chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers were out in full force. I think it was a hike more akin to what Maggie had in mind. We approached a frozen beaver pond chatting away – not paying attention to the trail ahead – when a grouse fluttered up and across the trail and landed in a thicket of tall, dense balsam fir.
I attempted to make chase, but the wall of fir stems was nearly impenetrable. Eventually I found an opening and slid in amongst the slender trees. I quietly stalked in the direction I thought the bird would have gone hoping for a second glance. Sure enough I caught up to the bird as it was walking through a thicket about 15 yards away. I pressed myself up against a tree and waited for a clear shot. Unfortunately, the bird grew wise to my presence when I accidentally broke a branch. I could see that it was about to take off so I stepped out and took aim. I took a shot through the thicket as it flushed, but it wasn’t meant to be. The bird sailed away across the beaver pond, earning its freedom. I returned to the trail empty handed.
Maggie was ready to head back – we’d already walked several kilometers – but I convinced her that we needed to investigate what was around the next corner first. Several corners later – in a red pine stand – we heard the familiar sound of rapid shuffling on the forest floor. I wheeled to the left and sure enough a ruffed grouse was running through the understory. I quickly raised my Remington 870 Wingmaster, aimed about eight inches in front of the bird, and pulled the trigger. With the sound of the wings flapping against the ground, I looked over at Maggie, and knew it was time to go. After a couple staged photos.
As I cleaned the bird back at the trailhead, I thought it might be interesting to open up the crop and look for a little evidence of the dietary change. Sure enough the crop was full of pine needles and unidentifiable buds – my guess was birch. I reflected upon the season that was. It was a memorable year, with some near misses and – of course – some complete misses.
My third trip to the area came on the long weekend in October while most folks were at home enjoying their turkey dinner. Hard to believe it had been two months since my first site visit. On this trip, I brought along my axe, rope and tarps in order to establish camp for the beginning of the season and, the arrival of my father the following week. Hard to believe that my first Newfoundland Moose hunt was really about to begin!
My strategy was to use my tarps to build a lean-to that could house me for up to a week. After arriving at the site, I selected two, appropriately spaced, strong looking trees for use as the shelter’s vertical supports. I quickly scanned the canopy directly above for potential widow makers, and decided that this was the spot. I moved onto the task of acquiring the main horizontal support beam and three angled supports. The angled supports were for a little extra support – snow was not out of the question. For the beam I brought down a dead, but strong birch tree with my axe and lashed it tightly with paracord to the vertical supports. I gathered the three angled supports, lashed them to the beam, and secured the tarp – it almost looked habitable. For the floor, I gathered boughs of balsam fir and placed them upside down for maximum support and comfort. Finally, I covered the boughs with a smaller tarp to provide extra insulation and keep me off of the cold October ground.
With the shelter complete, I began collecting wood. The area was full of dead, standing birch trees ideal for firewood. Standing deadwood is always preferred; by standing it remains dry, as opposed to downed logs, which absorb moisture from the forest floor. I was felling and bucking these trees into four-foot sections and stacking them under a second tarp. I planned to cut these pieces in half with a saw at a later date.
After piling a respectable amount of wood, I decided a few more logs would be sufficient. On what was to become my final tree, I made two upward strokes and noticed movement in the tree’s top. I’d seen enough workplace health and safety videos to know that it only takes a small branch at 30-40ft to do some serious damage. Not wanting to be struck in the head with a widow-maker, I focused on the treetop while performing my first downward stroke. That momentary lapse in concentration was all it took; my stroke glanced off of the tree almost as suddenly I felt it strike my left leg. I dropped the axe to the ground, pulled up my pant leg and to my horror realized I could see my shinbone and the supporting tendon. If in the best of situations, this was a horrific injury my situation was devastating. I was one kilometer from my truck through thick woods and over rough terrain. Fortunately for me, my fiancée decided to come along for the trip. Unfortunately for her – so she soon found out – she doesn’t deal well with the sight of blood or grotesque injuries.
The moments following the axe injury were – as you can imagine – hectic and rushed. While staring at a gaping hole in my leg, I attempted to recall my first-aid training. I ripped apart a t-shirt I found in my bag and wrapped it around the cut to hold the wound together and apply pressure to slow the bleeding. Danielle gathered up our supplies and started rushing towards the truck while I started hobbling behind her. Up until this point I had been running on pure adrenaline, but as I stumbled over the rough terrain the pain began to hit. I spent the first 200 meters swinging the axe at anything that looked like it had walking stick potential, ultimately finding a strong length of birch. Over the next 400 meters my adrenaline levels evaporated and my pain receptors sharply reminded me of my stupidity. I had a moment of uncontrollable breathing when I began to wonder if I was going to make it to the road. After a few gulps of water I fought my way up the final hill to the road level.
With the truck in view, Danielle started running despite my attempts to tell her that if she didn’t slow down she was going to hurt herself. As I crept over the final few yards, I heard a splash and a faint cry. I looked up the road to see Danielle face down in a puddle trying to pick herself up without me noticing. Under less strenuous conditions I would probably give her an earful for having not listened to my warnings. However, these were tumultuous times. When she pulled the truck up I saw she was covered in mud and so was the inside of my truck! I attempted an “I told you so” but it was disregarded as she reminded me that I was not in a position to be arguing. Apparently there were more pressing matters, like the 1.5 hours drive to the hospital. I had one thing I needed to do first, take a picture of my leg for the blog!
After an uncomfortable drive – for the length of which Danielle drove like a bat out of hell — we made it the hospital. After several heavy gauge stitches and a few x-rays, the doctor informed me I was one lucky man. I had barely caused any damage to anything but the skin and flesh – my beautiful knee. I got away with a slightly nicked the tendon – the one that supports the foot – and a slight depression in my tibia. However, nothing was damaged to the point that time wouldn’t heal it. Only one thing was certain, I needed to heal fast, moose season opened in a week! Injury or not, I was going hunting!