The pursuit of inner peace and gray-phase ruffed grouse in Eastern Washington
By: Brad Trumbo
Late September in Washington’s Blue Mountains is magical. Golden wheat stubble infiltrates somber evergreen timber, like waves breaking on the beach. On the western slope, dryland rises high enough to squeeze rain from the heavens sufficient to sustain pines and firs. Bony desert canyons snake among mountaintop woodlands. This convergence of ecotones creates matchless and unpredictable ruffed grouse covers.
My setters, Finn and Yuba, hung their heads from the backseat windows as we climbed a forgotten two-track. It’d been a long year, and we were excited to cut loose on our first evening of the grouse season.
Finn’s a lightly ticked and lightly feathered orange belton with a steadfast gait and approach to birds of all species. Yuba’s quite the opposite – a high-strung tricolor that could pass for a blue belton, save for the caramel ticking on her muzzle and feet. The two comprise my original pair, with Finn coming into her 11th season and Yuba her 9th. The three of us share supernatural synchrony in the field.
Parking at a turnout where the ridge narrowed, I prepared the girls with their collars and vests.
“Ready?” I whispered to the girls as they quivered in anticipation.
“Find ’em!” I again whispered, tripping the “launch” switch. The girls leaped ahead and vanished behind a thicket of snowberry.
A fire-scorched ponderosa stood in the distance atop a basalt band that runs the length of the ridgetop. “The Rim” cover, I call it. The band separates the mountaintop from crevasses that drop precipitously toward a distant creek. The draws are choked with snowbrush more than 10 feet high and as thick as blackberry. The top side of The Rim presents an edge cover woven with snowberry, Pacific ninebark, ocean spray and Woods’ rose, all boasting deep burgundy in their early fall stage of senescence. Clusters of jade snowbrush protrude from within the shorter shrubs. Various native grasses and forbs occupy the open ground. Carpet-like patches of arrowleaf buckwheat hoist spent yellow flowers.
The girls and I’d hunted the grouse opener here since Finn’s first season. The ponderosa ahead was surrounded by golden bunchgrasses, which held the vivid memory of my first encounter with a gray-phase ruffed grouse. Its intricate pattern and stunning pewter coloration led to a 10-year quest before those warm feathers finally graced my palm. Wingbeats echoed in the back of my mind as we approached, but no grouse waited beneath the tree this day.
The birds on The Rim are crafty. They jump early, far ahead of the dogs, and sail down across the basalt bluff, deep into the snowbrush draws before disappearing, like they have a touch of chukar in their blood. The challenge of these birds is addictive, but there’s something uniquely magical about the views and terrain on The Rim.
The girls were reaching out along the basalt band as my mind began to wander. In the prior 12 months, my upland hunting partner, Marvin, and my dad (Pop) were both claimed by cancer. I was living nearly 3,000 miles from my hometown friends and family. I hadn’t seen Pop healthy in seven years, even though he’d had a few good years in remission.
Each fall, I reminisce about hunts with friends back home at Lam’s Cabin. Marvin was my only friend in Washington whose passion for upland hunting resembled mine. Apart from my setters, hunting had become solitary, and I’d yet to acknowledge the grief from my recent loss. As the 2022 grouse opener appeared, I found myself wholly unprepared and with little motivation.
Seeking inspiration in literature, I found authors in some of my favorite magazines telling stories of grouse camp. Their anticipation of the hunt driven significantly by the place, and the same can be said of countless others with traditional cabins and covers.
My anticipation of deer season in Appalachia presented a similar scenario. The rendezvous with friends at the cabin and enjoyment of our time together and the setting were the main rewards of the hunt. It was our tradition, something I was missing, and following the loss of Marvin and Pop, I needed an experience more meaningful than the hunt itself.
Opening the grouse season on The Rim was a tradition I failed to recognize. The uniqueness of the terrain, the dramatic views and the vibrant autumn palette provided an obvious sense of place. My camper could serve as the “cabin.” The moments of piecing these thoughts together led to the epiphany of my own grouse camp, which restored my motivation for the upland season.
Yuba cruised by, grabbing my attention. I called her in while sending a string of beeps to Finn’s collar. The girls had been running for a while, and a break was in order. Finn emerged from the timber across the meadow ahead and trotted through the carpet of buckwheat to join Yuba and me. They lapped at the water poured into their green collapsible bowl, then enjoyed a good roll in the dirt and dry grasses, pieces of which would surely find their way into the camper bed.
As the sun settled on the treetops, I called the girls to the basalt edge for our customary photo of the three of us with the arid canyon backdrop — a tradition that I’d started the last season we’d moved birds on The Rim.
Back at camp, I fed the girls and popped the top on a deep-bodied imperial stout with the consistency of used motor oil from an old diesel farm tractor. That first sip was smooth, rich like maple syrup and instantly relaxing. The night air settled in, cool and dense, falling upon a cacophony of insects warming up their sound machines as if welcoming the Milky Way and a billion stars.
Camp offered a spectacular canyon edge view, a flat spot for the camper in the shade of a row of pines and good access to various covers. I gazed into the darkness, keeping an eye out for shooting stars and pondering the events that led me there, while the setters snoring on the camper bed competed with the buzz of the insects. Everything about camp, the grouse covers and time afield with Finn and Yuba was setting my mind at ease. It seemed absurd that this was our first grouse camp.
The last slug of stout slid down smoothly. I could almost feel the vibrating hum of the crickets in the bottle. A persuasive read from George Bird Evans, hemmed in by the setters, was in order. The feel was similar to “The Night Before Christmas,” but anticipating “The King” rather than Santa.
Morning in camp was a blessing. Given our high latitude, sun rays peeked low on the horizon for a time. The first pink glow began to show on the black distant ridgeline, and it rose in thickness like a baking strawberry cake. The mixing aromas of coffee and propane were heavenly. I stood on the edge of the ridge, greeting the day, and remembering that coffee tastes best when enjoyed in the wilderness.
Mountain bluebirds flashed their indigo backs as they flitted among the pines below. In the stillness, I could hear the tumbling of a stream some 2,500 feet down. “We’ll be working that creek bottom within an hour,” I thought.
Our last hunt down that creek resulted in five solid flushes, three of which should’ve come to the vest over my younger dog, Zeta, but my sluggish reflexes left us with a goose egg. This particular morning ended the same, but not for lack of effort. We climbed high, then dropped low. We ran draws thick with snowberry and young firs. We hunted the grassy creek bottom timber, pushed through relatively old-growth firs, then an old burn. Not a single grouse moved.
The day warmed to 70 degrees, and the girls and I sought comfort at camp in the shade of the pines. They slept off their morning run while I succumbed to the unencumbered solitude, remembering Marvin and Pop. Through tears, I spoke into the wind, apologizing to Pop for not being there when he passed. I’d done us both a disservice in that regard and missed many good times that can never be had again.
I spoke to Marvin about bird hunting, as if pretending he was there would make it so. Our last grouse hunt together was in the same canyon the girls and I had hunted earlier that morning. Marvin’s thick, cinereal beard had vanished as a result of chemotherapy. We ran my rescue setter, Kea, with his Deutscher Wachtelhund, Felix, through light snow, both oblivious to the notion of never hunting grouse together again. I snapped a photo of Marvin and Felix on a ridge spine overlooking the canyon. Another beautiful morning with no grouse, but the experience was enough for all of us.
The temperature remained high through the evening hours, so the girls and I stayed in camp. I grilled brats and resumed my seat on the canyon edge. Yuba pointed grasshoppers while I soaked up the scenery as the vanishing sun lit a river of clouds ablaze.
The familiarity of the covers, time with my best setters, the tranquility of our little slice of public land heaven and my focused ownership of emotions were freeing. I felt as though a yoke had been dropped from my shoulders. With easy breath, I reached for my pen and chronicle, and let the creative juices flow as the Big Dipper slowly brightened above the tree line.
Our last morning dawned as serene as the day before. We’d hunt out of camp, which left unhurried time to bask in the sunrise and savor camp coffee. Upon draining a second cup, I led the girls into a draw that split the difference between a selected harvest and dense timber, where the variety of covers and food sources was second to none. The selected harvest area was speckled with pines and an understory of grasses. Large patches of Woods’ rose drooped with hips that were plump like cherries. Bleach-white berries hung from the delicate snowberry branches. Elderberry appeared occasionally, thick with black berry clusters. Springs dotted the draw bottoms with lush grass edges.
Red squirrels scurried and chattered as we moved into mature timber to pick up an old logging road. A couple of miles out, the road had grown over, and Yuba finally struck an animated point beneath a young fir. I circled right while Finn circled left to honor Yuba, which forced a gray-phase ruff airborne.
The grouse veered right as I swung through, and to my surprise, it tumbled from a puff of feathers. The girls raced to secure their bird, which I inspected with awe. Its storm-cloud-gray cape with streaks of vanilla, and feathers edged in dark chocolate and caramel with a coal-black neck ruff formed the spectacle of ruffed grouse.
The girls lay panting while I studied the bird, and I realized I’d found the meaning, peace and rebirth of tradition that I sought from grouse camp. Ruffed grouse hunting with setters is a tradition as old as the eight-hour workday. Participating in the hunt continues the American grouse-hunting legacy for all who came before. A grouse in hand merely iced the cake – the culmination of the hunt and the forging of timeless memories.
With the grouse placed carefully in my vest, the girls and I turned for camp. Only 364 days before our return.