Killing Softly

Sharp-nosed dogs, stealthy birds, and the sweet secret of dawn: A neophyte gets a taste of the hunt

Al Schroeter and I are bumping down the Echo Trail out of Ely in his battered pickup, catching the day's first gold as we top the hills, falling into gray shadow on the swampy bottoms. My hands gingerly cradle a scalding tin cup of coffee. I've sworn off caffeine, but I'm sipping this thick stuff because I'm cold, and because I've already stepped so far out of the comfortable shell of opinion and habit known as "me" that all rules are off. I'm wearing a blaze-orange acrylic stocking cap. I'm going hunting. Al chants bird lore as he coaxes the lumbering Ford around the road's sinking curves: up and down, into the light and out. My kick-started brain spins. I feel lost. Good, I decide. I think that's why I'm here.

A week before, on the phone, Al's guffaws bounced over the wires between Ely and Minneapolis. He's a rangy, beetle-browed giant, with a voice to match. "Sure, I'll take you hunting," he enthused. "But, Terri, why?" Al has known me as a dedicated non-meat-eater for the decade-plus since his shaggy punk-rock band slept on my floor in San Francisco. I've known him as a loony outdoorsman since I heard that he--three days into a Lake Calhoun ice-fishing marathon--resolutely ignored a fed-up girlfriend screaming from shore. (She grew hoarse, the story goes, before he gave in.) Al moved north a few years ago, with a vegetarian wife who mostly doesn't mind sharing him with two bird dogs and the woods.

For a moment, I couldn't think how to answer him. Because I don't get it, I finally said. Because I've never understood what hunting means to the hunter, and maybe it's time I should.

The October sun is brightening the high yellow aspen leaves when we park in a rutted clearing in the Superior National Forest. In the quick calm, we hear the dogs--Maybelle and her daughter Dixie--whining and scratching back in their kennels. Al has described the Brittanys' excitement before a hunt, but I'm still startled: Somewhere on the half-hour drive, the short-haired, rust-and-white dogs developed the shakes.

Bred originally in France, Brittanys are pointer dogs to the bone, Al informs me. Freezing up, midstride, at a whiff of bird is instinct for them. Holding that point--while the hunter finds the dog, and the bird tries to wait him out, and the bird finally flies, and the hunter takes a shot--is where training matters. Dixie's puppy exuberance is more apt to frighten a bird into flight (or to "flush" it, in hunting lingo). Maybelle will stick to a point all night, Al claims, only half joking.

Before Al lets Maybelle out, he slides his shotgun out of its Naugahyde casing and shows me the short barrel--chosen for its easy handling amid dense forest growth. Lead shot is used for grouse and woodcock, the smallest bird hunted in the U.S.; duck hunters have been required to shoot larger steel balls ever since ducks were discovered dying of lead poisoning from swallowing spent pellets. Al passes me the unloaded gun, a semiautomatic, which allows for a second shot. I bobble it, my hand slipping with the pump. "Eek!" I exhale and almost throw it back at him.

Al buckles a bell collar on Maybelle. "Hunt 'em up!" he says sternly. She races off into the brush and we saunter after her, Dixie weeping hopelessly behind us. For a short bit, we walk trail as a huffing Maybelle streaks through the scrub. So this is hunting, I think: The dog does everything. Then we're over our heads in saplings, and it's all I can do to keep upright. My confounded eyes offer up screwy snapshots: branches at two inches; mossy log underfoot; Al's gun to the left and ahead; branches at zero inches; Maybelle running; my gloved hand bending back branches; a rise ahead; branches. It's as if we're hiking through a moving kaleidoscope, which might feel divertingly trippy, except that one of us is packing.

Tutored with stories of stealthy Hiawathas, I'd envisioned the hunt as a hushed, contemplative endeavor. Instead we're crashing through crunchy leaves and brittle saplings, big-booted and (in my case) stumbling, Maybelle off to the side a-ringing her bell like Chuck Berry's riding her back. And Al's talking: directing the dog, directing me, and simply jawing, because he does that. "Yeah, you don't tell people about your favorite covers--the locals'd use 'em like walleye holes. MayBELLE! Come! We're gonna head round this way....See this leaf? That's woodcock splash. It looks fresh...." Surrounding all our noise I hear the forest, which on this windless, sharp morning sounds like merciless patience.

Then the bell stops. Al stops me. Silence. "She's locked up." Al locates the dog, which isn't simple (some people use electronic beeper collars). And there she is, poised in midstride, head angling off to her right. "That bird's just staying put," notes Al, "sure it's invisible." We step closer behind Maybelle, quiet. "There it is, about four feet off her nose." I look, and I see brown leaves. The moment extends liquidly around us, filling our lungs.

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