Category Archives: In the woods

OLD MAN RIVER, Installment 4, Thesis

Another from the thesis. I spend a total of two months in the Delta doing research for a book about the Delta Blues. One day I had a chance to paddle on the river in a dugout canoe, hand made by John Ruskey. There’s only a handful of natural wonders in this great country that can grab you by your soul and fill you full of a profound new perspective. The Mississippi is one.

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Yesterday on the river, the Old Man spoke in roiling current & half buried bleach-white branches. Heading upstream, hugging the shoreline to avoid thousand-yard barges & the Coast Guard tug snagging stranded buoys, we paddled past lifetimes of conversation gouged out of the rip-rapped banks, past forty, fifty foot trees beached thirty foot above water-line, like broken toothpicks discarded after a dinner of catfish, fried okra, black-eyed peas & sweet tea.

When you’re on the Mississippi you’re on river time.
I kept waiting for something to happen.

We made a fire among driftwood on a sandbar & boiled water for coffee while the river slipped past silent as the smoke from the black walnut we were burning. I crossed the tracks of beaver that had gnawed down brush-branches & dragged them to the water, a raccoon’s small hand-prints following the waterline for dead fish, the ghosts of coyotes wrestling around higher up the bank—tails swishing sand, paws, bellies, backs & snouts imprinted. The river is down 18 foot from normal for this time of year & we’re all taking advantage.

When spring sends its run-off from the Continental Divide & Ohio River valley, from Canada & the northern plains, our tracks here will be washed away—disappearing in that immense breath.

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Filed under Blues from the Delta and the road, In the water, In the woods, My thesis was about fishing

THE BOWHUNTING BOOK

One of the best things about being a creative at an advertising agency is that I’m fortunate enough to call some amazingly talented people my friends….artists, designers, writers, musicians, photographers. Another bonus is being asked to collaborate with some of these talented people on a project that’s outside the confines of work…especially when the project is about bowhunting.

I had been on some shoots for Grant Taylor, a photographer, friend and kindred outdoors spirit. He’s slogged his way into a muddy January field, climbed 25 feet up a tree and hunkered down in a snowy hedgerow to get shots like these (and the masthead image on this blog):



So when he asked if I’d be willing to write poetry for a bowhunting photography promo book that he was planning, I was all-in. An added bonus: I got to work with another close friend and tremendous designer, Rachel Spence.

Aside from it being a beautiful collection and representation of Grant’s outdoor photography and Rachel’s design, the finished product turned out to be, for me, a pretty significant reflection on my passion for this sport and the outdoors, as well as my relationship with my dad. It’s not often that I get emotional about anything I write, but at one point while writing the piece for the image of the the generational picture, I actually got choked up – realizing just how fortunate I’ve been to have the time in the field that I do with my dad. It’s a big deal, and something I look forward to enjoying with my kids.

At any rate I wanted to share the book with all you kindred outdoor spirits…enjoy.

And with that, I give you SEASONS.

(Just click the link. It’s attached as a PDF)

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Filed under In the woods, Making a living

MAIN STREET AND A WILD TURKEY

I turned right out of the driveway onto Main Street, as I do every weekday morning–the kids clamoring from the back seat for for me to pump up the iPod and give them something to get their day started. Music to them is about 3 cups of hi-test for me. God love ’em.

A quarter-mile down, as I pulled into the turning lane for a left onto Gibson Street, a big, black object flew across Main Street from my right, just low enough for me to catch a glimpse through the windshield. That’s one hell of a big blackbird was the first thing that popped into my head, followed within a fraction of a second by the realization that it wasn’t actually a blackbird. At that same moment, my 6 year-old son’s voice from the back seat: Holy crap! A TURKEY!

My wife told me the other day that Cam had confided in her that his vision, when it comes to certain animals in their natural habitat, is sharper than mine. His words: I see geese and ducks better than dad. And sometimes deer too. I know exactly where his estimation comes from.

We live in the Finger Lakes region in Upstate NY. Wildlife in our neck of the woods is enjoying a resurgence. Geese, duck, whitetail, pheasant, rabbit, red-tail hawk, coyote, beaver, heron, fox, squirrel. Bear are even starting to find the area hospitable. It’s a bitter-sweet resurgence though. I’m very excited that pheasant are back and that other game animals have healthy populations. But available hunting land is drying up, as are numbers of hunters in the field. Both are troubling from the standpoint of conservation. I saw a hell of a lot more deer dead on the side of the road this year, which, ironically, is also a hell of a lot more than I saw in the woods this year.

So, given the uptick in animal numbers, every car ride that involves a route even remotely close to the outskirts of our fair city includes wildlife-spotting, just like they did when I was a kid.

Deer
, I announce.
Looks like 4, no 5, no 7, reports Cam. No bucks though, dad?
Nope, looked like doe.

I hear geese, I state. Where are they at?
Got ’em, points Cam. Followed by a few make-shift honks into his closed hand, like he’s holding a call.

Recently, he’s taken to leading the spotting charge though. And he’s good. On a recent drive to my wife’s parent’s house, we were heading down our usual country road route when Cam says:

Geese.
Where? I ask, glancing both ways and up through the windshield.
Up ahead, over there.
Where?
He rolled down the window and pointed into the wind. It took me a few more seconds to figure the trajectory of his finger, but sure as shootin’…he had a string of 7 or 10 birds pegged just above the treeline about a mile away.

Good eye, bud. You got ’em.
His smile in my rear view mirror couldn’t have been any bigger.

But that turkey caught us all by surprise…as only the jarring juxtaposition of Main Street and a wild turkey can. And while I’d call it a draw on who actually saw it first, I’m sure the next time he mentions his ability to spot game, as compared to dad’s…his list will include that gobbler. Which is exactly how it should be.

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey, In the woods

SNOOZING GOOSE

I should start out by saying that my dad and I have not had good luck when it comes to hunting geese together. We’ve largely been relegated to the January bonus season since most good hunting fields aren’t cut by the early (September) season and we’re usually in our treestands after whitetail during the regular (November) season. Needless to say, by the time we’re clear of our other outdoor past-times to get out in January, the birds have been shot at in enough through the fall that the only way they’re going to come into our field is if we we’re in town having breakfast. But I suppose that luck doesn’t have to be defined by whether you actually knock down birds, as as much as it does having an entire morning to talk, enjoy coffee from a thermos and some nice pipe tobacco and discuss the estimated time of departure for the flock of over 200 geese that overnight on a lake not a quarter-mile to the west. As I get older, I’ve come to value the latter definition of luck as much, if not more than the first. Well, this season my dad and I were determined to get out when the birds were still dumb and plentiful. I had an additional good-luck charm that I was bringing out too: one of my boys.

My middle child, Cam (I call him Hammy) turned 6 this past summer. He’d been talking about goose and deer hunting for the last two years and at 6 was already a more accomplished fisherman than I was at 13. One example: Father’s Day 2008, not yet 5 years old, he sat for 4 hours in a canoe casting for bass. That little sucker caught 5. I mean legitimately…casting a crankbait on his own, hooking up on his own, lifting the fish into the boat on his own. These weren’t dinks either. 12″ – 15″ the lot. I unhooked them, but hell, at that point he’d done all the work and I was ready to buy him his own Ranger boat. So, having turned 6 and having concluded that I could probably learn a thing or two by including him in the field this season, I suited him up for a morning amongst decoys.

I woke him up at 4:30 a.m Thanksgiving morning. His first comment: I didn’t know there was a time on the clock this early. Brilliant. He was into his long-johns and camo faster than scat. While he enjoyed a breakfast bar and some juice, I checked weather.com for the morning’s forecast. Cold. Clear. Wind barely above 5mph out of the SW. Not good for getting the birds off the water, but good for a comfortable first-time-out for Hammy. Dad arrived, all smiles for our new pint-size bird-dog. We loaded our gear in the truck and hit the road.

I’m always surprised and proud at how well Cam operates in situations where I think he might struggle a bit. Last winter he wanted to join the pee-wee wrestling program (another thing dad did that he wanted to do). I thought he’d have a tough time actually mixing it up with the other boys, but I planned on helping coach, so we gave it a try. He’s back at it again this year and loves it. This morning was another one of those times. Goose hunting requires that you set up your spread at least an hour before daylight. There’s no light an hour before daylight. None (read my post – ELEMENTS – to see how well I’ve handled the dark during hunting season growing up). So we gave Hammy a head-lamp. He started carrying decoys into the field like he’d done it his entire life. Game on.

By 6:30 we were set up. Dad and I had our layout blinds concealed as well as we could in a cut soy field. Hammy’s cover was a magnum goose shell- which fit him much better than it fit me when I used it the year prior. At sun-up, we were a few whispy clouds shy of a blue-bird sky. By 7:30 we had a couple sets of birds check us out and keep flapping. Cam did well. He sat as still as he could and enjoyed his breakfast bars and juice boxes. At 9:30, the faint sound of snoring drifted out from under the plastic shell of the giant goose.

The snoozing goose

Sensing no impending rush of birds anxious to light in our field, dad and I decided to start packing up. No wind. Blue sky and bright sun. A snoozing goose. No sense pushing our luck.

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey, In the woods

ELEMENTS

4:45 a.m. last Saturday.

I rolled out of bed to turn off the alarm and got dressed in the dark. Long underwear, jeans, sweatshirt, heavy socks. With a half-brewed pot of coffee nearby, grumbling its way to being fully-brewed, I sat at the kitchen counter and rubbed my face and eyes with my hands listening to the wind outside. Rain in the forecast. Gusts from 16 to 25 mph out of the southwest. It was going to be a bitch sitting in the tree-stand this morning. I did one last inventory of my gear, filled my thermos and shut the lights off.

I’ve only become comfortable in the last few years walking in to my stand in the dark. I used to focus so much on every footstep, every shadow, every sound that I’d find myself frozen at times…caught in a stare, worrying about spooking an animal that really wasn’t there. Now I find it almost meditative. Beginning my walk in complete darkness, welcoming the awareness of the field beneath my boots, the smell of fall on the wind, the way my eyes adjust and knit together the silhouettes of trees against the skyline. My sense of direction operates unconsciously, and I find my stand most times without having disturbed the natural order that slumbers around me. The weather the way it is this morning though, I could’ve been dropped off at my tree by a helicopter and gone un-noticed. By 6:15 a.m. shooting light was still a good half-hour/forty minutes away. The rain began to pick-up.

Using my jacket to block the wind, I lit my pipe, then poured some coffee into the cap of my thermos. By 7:00, weak daylight filled-in the bramble thickets, sumac, black walnut and waist-high grass that cover the three acres in front of me. The pop of each rain-drop was loud with my hood up. My tree swayed with each gust. I decided to get down and find a worthwhile ground-blind.

It’s interesting. I enjoy long, foul-weather days, as long as I’m out in it to hunt or fish.  There’s clout and respect that come with being able to rise above the elements and normal measure of patience and take a nice buck or land a hard-fought fish. Earning the right to tell that story takes a level of due diligence that fair-weather sportsmen simply can’t claim. By the same token, I could see no deer or catch no fish and still have a worthwhile story for having spent so many hours in crappy weather, voluntarily.

I took my time moving to a tangle of a couple old downed trees. Comfortable with visibility and cover, the wind proved frustrating though and I figured my morning’s story would fall into the category of having seen nothing, but yea, I was out in that crappy weather. I looked up and froze.

A raccoon had just crawled out of a thick tangle of underbrush not five paces from where I stood. A fair estimate would put him at 40 pounds, and my first thought was are raccoon in season? I decided to just watch him as he stood still, nose up, testing the wind for smells that would suggest he do an about-face. He began rambling slowly over the wheat grass toward me. Right toward me. I did an inventory of how many layers I had on my legs…heavy socks, long underwear, jeans, camouflaged hunting pants, boots. I’d definitely be able to dispatch him before he got through all that. I held still.

He walked up to my feet. I looked straight down at him. He sniffed at both of my boots, turned and rambled back into the underbrush he had crawled out of. No hurry. No fear. I was just another odd smelling downed tree in the universe of his daily trek to wherever. I gave the deer another thirty minutes to show themselves, but my heart was full enough with such a cool encounter that I didn’t care if I didn’t see anything else all morning, or if the weather was crappy.

I had a great story.

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