I spent the day yesterday in the Chequamegon National Forest outside of Park Falls, WI, which bills itself as the Ruffed Grouse Capitol of the World. I was there to hunt grouse, of course, along with my dog, Finn. Sorry to say that I did not take any pictures, because the fall woods were beautiful, with vibrant colors all around. Next weekend will provide an opportunity to a return trip, and I will post some pictures.
Park Falls was full of hunters, as the grouse, archery deer and bear hunting seasons are in full swing. Every where we went, there were pick-up trucks full of bear dogs, waiting to be let out on the track of fresh bear scent. You could hear dogs baying in the woods. Although I have no desire to hunt a bear, there is something beautiful about the sound of baying hounds in the woods hot on the scent of a bear, unless of course, you are the bear. My later experience with a bear hunter will be described below.
Price County, where Park Falls is located, is open to ATV use. The entire county is laced with ATV trails, which I am not particularly fond of. There is a raging debate about the importance of opening the trails to ATVs because of the supposed economic boon that they provide to a depressed economy in the Northwoods. Personally, I would prefer if the woods were restricted to silent sports, but I fully appreciate that these are national forest lands and they belong to all of us, including people who have a different idea from mine about how they should be used.
I arrived in Park Falls a little after 10:00 in the morning and met up with a friend. We drove to a hunter walking trail and took a long walk with the dog to see if we could find some grouse, but unfortunately, they were not cooperating. We got back into the car and were driving out of a popple slashing on a two-track dirt road when I suddenly saw what looked like a grouse sitting by the side of the road in front of us about 60 yards away. I asked my friend if he saw it and he said it was a bush. We disagreed and as we got to about thirty yards, my friend suddenly agreed it was a grouse. I stopped the car and my friend got out, uncased his shotgun and dropped in a shell.
Now, there are those who will argue that ground swatting a grouse is not sporting. Those are the same folks who have never been totally humiliated by trying to shoot a grouse on the ground only to have it disappear behind a tree just as they are pulling the trigger. They are also not fond of eating grouse because at the end of the day, they quite often have an empty game bag. My friend was about to prove all of those observations true.
We hadn't moved, so the shot was about thirty yards, which is not long for a shotgun. While my friend was uncasing his gun and dropping in the shell, the grouse had sat motionless by the side of the road, still looking very much like a bush. As my friend raised his gun to shoot, the grouse began to move. To put even more pressure on him, just as the grouse began to move, I yelled, "Hey, you better shoot".
Well, he shot, and the shot from the shell created a beautiful pattern all around the grouse and the grouse took off and promptly flew away. My friend was left standing red-faced, sputtering about how he couldn't believe he missed the shot. He also knew he would take a ribbing from his two young sons when we went back to his house later. Such is grouse hunting. My grandfather used to say the national average was a box of 25 shotgun shells per grouse.
Later, we did see some wild turkeys and since I have a Fall wild turkey tag, I tried to sneak up on the turkeys, which were feeding by the side of the road. While sneaking up on the turkeys, I flushed two grouse, both of which presented an easy shot, but I didn't shoot because I didn't want to spook the turkeys. By the time I got to where I had last seen the turkeys, they were gone. Strike two and and still an empty bag.
Later in the day, we took another long walk with the dog. I am reminded of a friend from Atlanta who came up North to hunt grouse one year. He was used to hunting quail in the grassy savannahs of the South. After two days of grouse hunting, having fired many shots with no hits, he said, "****, getting one of these grouse is a real trophy".
Well, we eventually flushed two grouse. The first one took off as we were distracted by talking to each other, and by the time we heard him get up, he was long gone. The same bird flushed again later, but all we heard was wings.
Eventually the dog got birdy in front of us. He began to work in tight circles and his tail was vibrating like a windshield wiper on high. There was a row of thick balsams on the one side of the road. Grouse like to sit under balsams because they are protected from owls and hawks which try to swoop in from above. The balsams also allow the grouse to run out on the opposite side from a hunter and to use the balsams as a screen to conceal them from the hunter. This grouse had that play down pat because we heard him flusk but didn't see him till he crossed the road in front of us fifty yards out, and then we only got a glimpse of him as he disappeared into the thick foliage. Strike three.
We got back to the car and drove back to my friend's house. After dinner at his house, he invited me to stay for the night. I politely declined his offer and told him I would be spending the night in the woods sleeping in my hammock. He hadn't heard of hammock camping, so I took a moment to explain it to him. He was half intrigued and half looking at me like I was nuts to turn down a night in a warm bed in his house in favor of a night swinging between two trees in a nylon banana skin. He had never spent the night sleeping in a hammock, so he didn't know what he was missing.
I left his house at about 10:30 pm. My plan was to drive back to the forest, find a suitable spot with two good trees and set up my hammock for the night. Even though the Chequamegon is full of several million trees, my quest proved far more difficult than you can imagine.
I drove into the forest on a gravel road and turned off onto a two track in the dark. Both sides of the road were lined with wrist thick popple, too small to hold a hammock. I kept driving, but to no avail because the trees didn't get bigger. This same scene repeated itself several more times as I drove on. I began to feel really stupid about not being able to find two good trees in a forest full of trees.
Several trail heads that I turned onto were gated to keep out vehicles. Of course, most of these trail heads had larger trees, but in each case, I would have been stuck hanging next to the main gravel road, which I wanted to avoid. I knew it would be teeming with vehicles full of hunters well before first light, and I wanted a quiet spot to spend the night.
Finally, I found an un-gated trailhead with large trees on both sides. By now, I had been driving for over an hour. Suddenly, there they were in front of me--two perfect trees in a quiet spot, or so I thought, to suspend my hammock.
I got out and kept the headlights on, facing the trees. I quickly set up my Eureka Chrysalis and hooked up my down underquilt. The temperature was mild, low 50s, and this would be my first test of the underquilt. The air was heavy with moisture and it was threatening to start sprinkling at any minute. I had a tarp in the car just in case it started to rain hard. As I was setting up the hammock, a troop of ATVs roared by on the main road. It was 11:30 pm, and I was hoping the scene would not repeat itself all night.
I finally rolled into the hammock. The woods were still, save for the sound of a lone owl hooting his "who-cooks-for-you" call in the darkness. I fell fast asleep.
I awoke in the pre-dawn darkess to the sound of the first pick-up truck going down the main road. I heard him coming from a long distance away, the gravel crunching under his tires getting louder as he got near. As he passed, I saw his headlights through the trees and the thin nylon skin of my hammock. I fell back asleep, only to be awoken a short time later by the sound of another approaching truck.
Suddenly, I head the truck turn off onto the two track I was parked on. The headlights momentarily sprayed through the skin of the hammock, and then tracked up the road in front of the truck. I was hoping the truck would drive by my parked car and off into the darkness, but that was not to be.
Instead, I suddenly found myself lying in my hammock with the bright lights of the pick-up illuminating me. My first thougt was great, this is a forest ranger and now I am going to get chewed out for hanging in my hammock in the middle of the woods. Even though camping is legal anywhere in the national forest, I wasn't sure what the ranger's reaction might be.
The next thing I heard was a dog barking. Even though my dog was sleeping in the car, which was now parked between me and the truck, I didn't recognize the dog's bark as Finn's. It was a much lower bark, like a bear dog. It didn't sound like the dog was being let out of the truck, which I was thankful for, because the last thing I wanted at that moment was some unknown dog's nose poking itself into my hammock.
I heard the sound of banging buckets and the truck's tailgate slammed. My next thought was, it's a bear hunter who is about to dump bait on a bear stand. In Wisconsin bear hunting is both legal with hounds and by sitting on baited stands waiting for a bear to show up.
I saw a flashlight and heard the sound of approaching boot-steps. If you have never experienced it, I have to tell you that it is a totally helpless feeling to be totally encased in a hammock and to hear the sounds of an approaching stranger in the darkness. I felt like a giant pinata hanging in space.
My shotgun was in the truck, and even though I felt reasonably safe, it is still unnerving to hear someone you can't see approaching in the darkness. I was also wondering what this bear hunter was thinking when he saw my Chrysalis hanging there in his headlights with its bright orange straps cinched around two trees. I was hoping that this person didn't have a gun that they would then use to make Swiss Cheese out of me and my hammock.
The flashlight and the footsteps passed by. I heard the leaves crunching in the distance, and then I heard the bait bucket banging as the hunter emptied its contents. Then I heard the boot-steps coming back and they passed by the hammock again. The truck door opened, slammed shut, and the truck fired up and drove off in the darkness. In a moment, the woods were quiet and I drifted off into a half sleep.
As I was sleeping, my mind drifted to BEARS! I started to think that I was hanging between two trees, 2 feet off the ground, probably less than 25 yards from a baited bear stand. The definition of a hammock as a bear taco went through my mind.
I am sure that it was a dream, no, make that nightmare, but suddenly I felt like two hands, or paws, were pushing down on me right in the middle of my hammock. I woke up and yelled, "Get off of me". The weight was instantaneously gone.
I sat there for a minute wondering if I had just had a nightmare, or if something had really been pushing down on me. I didn't hear a sound after I shouted, so I happily thought it was nightmare. By now further sleep was out of the question, and it was getting lighter outside by the minute. I decided to get up.
I got up and put on my boots. The image of my two boots sitting under the hammock must have looked strange to the bear hunter. As I stepped back away from the hammock, for the first time in the light I noticed the well-worn trail going directly under the middle of my hammock. In the darkess of the night before, I had unwittingly strung my hammock right over the bear hunter's trail to his bait station. I half laughed out loud at what his thoughts must have been when he saw my hammock hanging there right in the middle of his trail.
I took down the hammock and packed up the quilts. After loading everything up in the car, I left and headed back to my friend's house. It had been a strange night and another adventure in hammock camping.