I shimmy the brown metal gun safe away from the wall, it’s covered in bumper stickers not unlike a lunchbox or a water bottle. This safe is one of the last items of personal adult importance still residing in my childhood bedroom in Southern Maine. Several of my old sporting magazines slide lazily off of their stack and onto the tan carpet where moments before the safe had stood. I bend down to pick them up, admiring warmly the worn pages that had for so many years been the holding place of my dreams. As I finish restacking the magazines I notice a red and gold faux-leather binder with tufts of tattered construction paper leaking out of it. It is neatly tucked behind a bookshelf, hidden out-of-sight and out-of-mind by the safe for God only knows how many years. I work it free from its hiding place and feel a rush of nostalgia and excitement not unlike the sensation finding money in a parka you haven’t worn since spring. I open it up to reveal what can best be described as the vision board of a 12-year-old.
I didn’t know at the time what a vision board really was, and yet I had undoubtedly created one. A makeshift scrapbook, it was a collection of photographs and articles, drawings and quotes of all the things that adolescent me wanted in life. The book was filled with images that defined my interests at the time, and strangely enough I find that at 23 most of the content is engaging and applicable to my life. Old cartoons from the New Yorker that made me laugh, pictures of comfort food, action shots of baseball players and cowboys, but most importantly bird dogs and men afield. On the first page were several images worth noting; the first revealed a buffalo plaid wool jacket with a Maine guide patch on the sleeve. Atop the jacket rested a Moose River felt hat with a ruffed grouse feather protruding proudly from the band. Adjacent to this image is one of a young man and a setter silhouetted against a setting sun. Over the man’s shoulder is draped a shotgun, and in his right hand he holds a brace of grouse fans, spread wide. Beneath these images is yet another clipping, a quote written in small flowing maroon font that reads, “I hear grouse wings”.
When I pasted these clandestine images into the book so many moons ago I hardly even knew what a ruffed grouse was, in fact I don’t think I’d ever even seen one. I’d spent hours poring over these magazines looking for just the right pictures to add to my “Things That Make Me Happy” book, and as I look over them now the memory of discovering Ruffed Grouse now came flooding back into my psyche. During the early days of my infatuation with the uplands and bird dogs, most magazines I had were filled to bursting with pictures of autoloader shotguns, dakota ringnecks, and field trial dogs. While these images certainly did their part in wetting my appetite for the sport, I knew deep down that these didn’t truly resonate with who I figured myself to be. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but these ideas about bird hunting imprinted upon me in the same way as do some forms of tourism and fast food; they have their place but are products for the masses. I was hungry for something esoteric, something that was authentic and special that I could call mine. Then there it was, as if pulled from my subconscious and slapped onto glossy magazine paper: a ruffed grouse hunter. I remember reading the corresponding article and feeling as if I had found a home. Would that I could read again the words of that long forgotten op-ed. The article explained that grouse hunting was not just a harvest, nor was it merely sport, grouse hunting was a craft and in turn its participants were craftsman of the highest order.
In my youth I fed my fandom of the sport at every opportunity, spectating eagerly from the sidelines as men the likes of Jim Kjelgaard wrote of dashing red setters, and Chuck Fergus flushed his way through the Pennsylvania mountains. It would still be years though before I stepped into a gnarled grouse covert to take my lumps. For now my education in the grouse woods was theoretical, but like a kid who stares at a baseball card and dreams of the playing under the lights of the show I was sold, hook, line and sinker.
A content moan jars me from my trance of nostalgia. I look over my shoulder to see Charlie, my one-year-old English Setter lying on my bed and peering at me with a look of curious disinterest that I’ve become so accustomed to seeing from him. As I turn to glance at him an old photograph given to me by my grandmother slips from the back of the binder. It’s a picture of my great grandfather’s first english setter, a white pup named Spot with a black patch over one eye. The resemblance to my own setter is striking.
It was about the time I started compiling this scrapbook that my grandmother mentioned having some things I might be interested in adding to it. She went into her bedroom and returned with a ziplock bag containing yellowed antique photo’s of my great grandfather’s sporting adventures, and dogs. There were pictures of the hunting camp he’d build with his friends in Michigan, several snapshots of deer and bear strapped to bumpers of over-sized station wagons, pictures of lean athletic beagles in neat kennels, and lastly my great-grandfather’s bird dogs. I sat for hours on her couch and listened to her stories about her father’s dogs. She described them so vividly that I could almost smell the rich aroma of the cedar chips he’d used for their bedding. My great grandfather, Fred McCain had owned many hunting dogs throughout his life, and all were meat providers, but my grandmother lit up when she told about the setters. She told me that “those were the only dogs Grandfather ever let in the house.” There was a warm, far-off look in her eye as she talked about how they would brush the beautiful feathers of her two favorite dogs, sibling Irish setters named Cherry and Terri. Times were hard for them, but hunting and dogs were one of the small but significant sources of leisure and beauty her father allowed himself. These faded photographs and my grandmother’s stories are family ties to the sport I have grown to love. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with emotion looking at my setter with his own black eye patch sleeping there in my childhood bed. A smile racks my lips as I ponder over all the countless hours I had spent lying there, trying to dream into reality this beautiful dog, the grouse-wands housed in the safe, and the man who would one day them. I wanted nothing more than to carry on the legacy of the man in the magazines and do honor to my grandmother’s stories. I hope that if my great-grandfather could see me now, with Charlie loyally by my side, he thinks I have come out all right.
Not very often in life does a person become so fortunate as to see their childhood dreams come to fruition. Many spend their whole lives putting their passions on the shelf and compromising, but here I am actually living my dream. And, not only am I living my dream, but I have been granted the opportunity to impact the community that has done so much for me, as well as the chance to revive a legacy. I don’t know if I will ever fully understand why I’ve been blessed with such opportunities, but I am humbled and grateful every waking moment to be where I am.
This narrative is a single drop in a metaphorical bucket filled to the brim with grouse hunting lore and culture, but nonetheless it is a compelling one, swirling and blending as part of that storied whole. It is one of growth and self actualization, a story of traditions inherited and new expression of meaning. It is more than just my story; this is our story as grouse hunters, as conservationists, and as “old souls” in a new age. This story is one of hope for the future, one in which we learn together what it means to truly be a grouse hunter, and why that idea, that reality, is as important now as it has ever been.