Mention the words “Up North” and it conjures up different images for different people. For some it is the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan or any of the other Great Lakes, for others it is the snow of winter and the accompanying snow skiing or riding snowmobiles. For the fisherman it is the lakes and rivers searching for trout, walleye, northern pike, muskies, or Lake Perch. For the football fans it is the Green Bay Packers or the Minnesota Vikings. The waters of Lake Superior produce record size smallmouth bass. And mention the Upper Peninsula (UP) and thoughts turn to wilderness, wolves, and bears.
The past five years it has been a trip that brings me to the vast woods in search of the elusive ruffed grouse. My trips have not been especially fruitful with regards to harvested game birds but it is hard to imagine any place with more habitat for grouse and woodcock than the stretch of woods of the upland forest.
My home grounds of Kentucky have never been the grouse hotspot that the Lake States provide but for most of my years the number of bird encounters were enough for my dogs and myself. This has not been the case for the last few seasons and thus my trips to the North Country ensued.
For my Michigan trips folks involved in the Ruffed Grouse Society have proved extremely helpful. In my first trip their local RGS President Bruce Barlow helped me in finding wet areas in an extremely dry year and has pointed me in different directions each year. Hopefully some of my explorations have helped him as well. Regional Director Dave Johnson helped in my efforts to explore the Upper Peninsula but unfortunately this was the year of bad weather and a grouse population drop. This year Regional Biologist Heather Shaw was instrumental in directing me to areas to explore. These explorations have exposed me to some beautiful country.
Timber is a big business in the North Country. Vast tracts of land are harvested for wood that mostly is transformed into pulp. It is amazing to see the enormous blocks of forest that haven’t been harvested and equally amazing to see how fast they rejuvenate.
Successional forest land growth is essential to many kinds of wildlife. A big majority of the forests are state or county owned and the hurdles that are faced to get forest cuts on national land are not the problem for these forests.
Much of the area we hunted in northern Michigan is similar to eastern Kentucky. The land is much, much flatter but huge acres of forest stretch for miles and miles. Logging is not quite as heavy as it used to be and as you travel through small towns you see the same dwindling populations and empty buildings as we see here in Kentucky. But Michigan tourism is embraced in a big way and it is a sight to see the number of cars heading north each weekend to small cottages and retreats.
The highlight of the hunt this year had to be the fall colors that were on display. From the gold of aspens to the scarlet red of maples it was a breathtaking sight. Following the dogs along what they call “two track sand roads” made you feel like you were in a cathedral of color. As the golden yellow leaves of aspen floated down it gave the appearance of a shower of gold nuggets.
So much of hunting and fishing is just being out there where there is so much to see. And though the sights may be simple they are priceless if one only takes the time to enjoy them. It is easy to see why Michigan is a top apple state as it seems as if most every yard passed had a tree loaded with shiny red or yellow apples. The deer knew a good thing and crowded around these trees as well.
One sight I would like to see more of in Kentucky are Hawthorn trees or what we call them here as “wild crab-apples”. When I am up north and find patches of these trees it seems as if grouse are always around.
There is one thing up north that I encountered that I wished I had not and that was a porcupine. This was my first contact and my young dog Rayna came out of the mess with about twenty quills. It was hard to imagine how sharp these things were but we were able to remove them without too much difficulty. So not having porcupines is a plus for Kentucky. But we do have briars that can tear you to shreds. And the hills we climb seem steeper every year but I still love my home grounds and the grouse we pursue as well.
I just hope that the hunters up north don’t mind intruders like me too much. It has never been my intention to put as many birds in the bag as possible. The thrill comes from the point, flush, and roar of wings. An occasional bird in the bag is a plus but it is the experience that makes it all worthwhile.
So this week I write about simple things which are something to appreciate in a world that seems to have forgotten the essence of life. Sometimes it is just best to let the world stand still and let you be still with it. Up North is a place where this kind of “quiet magic” exists.
As we ended our last hunt sitting on the tailgate of the pickup truck while consuming a gourmet meal of crackers and beanie weenies, with a gold glow all around, it produced a contentment that right then and right there the world was at peace with itself. And I was at peace with it.