On the day of the worst snow storm of the year I was outside Frederick, Md., with Joe Reynolds, 70 miles from home.
The car kept stalling, the forecaster was saying alarming things about "traveler's advisories," people with cars that were running all right were pulling off the road and abandoning them. But Joe kept driving.
Away from home.
After I'd simpered and whined in the passenger seat so long even I was getting tired of it, Joe said, "Come on, man, where's your spirit of adventure? We're going grouse hunting."
The later it gets in the season the harder the hunting gets, which is good because it gives a fellow time to prepare for the worst. Frankly, I get the biggest satisfaction out of these waning days, even though the ratio of game per hunt is terrible.
Why? Well, a fellow from the Izaak Walton League said recently that, in his view, hunting is an exercise in woodsmanship and knowledge of the outdoors. The best hunting experiences are those that test the person's skills--his ability to find his way in a strange woods, to dress properly for extreme conditions, to know how to walk a long way without exhausting himself, to be able to relax in a wild place.
The day I discovered I truly liked hunting was the day I fell asleep on a deer stand and woke up to the chirruping of songbirds in the November mountains, with the sun warm in my face.
Reynolds, with whom I had never hunted before, had a place staked out near Clear Spring, Md., where he'd seen grouse every time he'd hunted. He and I were under the impression that there was something magical about grouse hunting in the snow.
And there was.
First of all, no grouse. No sign of them, but the magic was there.
This is hilly country coursed through with draws where little creeks meander to a bigger stream, which we reckoned must be Clear Spring itself.
The plan was to walk along the creek bottoms through thick tangles of underbrush, perfect habitat for grouse. Joe took one side and I the other. We fought our way through the greenbriers and vines, the blown-down trees and the honeysuckle.
I determined instantly that we were good hunting partners because we moved at the same slow pace (if one guy gets too far ahead he could get himself shot) and we seemed to share the same view about talking. That is, every once in a while you might stop and say something.
This place was a snowy church.
There was no one else in the woods. The snow fell soundlessly, carpeting the swales and hollows and swallowing up whatever small sounds might have been.
The tentative tapping of a woodpecker boomed across the bottom land like a drum.
"Look," said Joe. We had worked our way up a hillside. Below us in the hollow a large whitetail doe erupted from a thicket and danced across the snowy ground to avoid us.
Against the white backdrop we could watch her progress for hundreds of yards until she finally disappeared over a ridge.
Somewhere between the second and third hour we stopped grouse hunting and started following deer tracks. We knew where we were by the lay of the land--this ridge should meet that one; that hollow bears the little creek that flows into the big creek, and if we follow the big creek, we'll get to the high pines, and the car's just off to the right.
So we let a deer lead us around. We found the place where it had come to the creek and drunk from a little riffle where there was no ice. You could hear the water burbling under the snow cover.
We found a place where two trails met, where the deer had walked around a little, finally opting for the low trail.
In a low place there were a lot of tracks where the deer had meandered about. Here were deer pellets.
And over here, a crescent-shaped clearing in the snow; oak leaves, a bed. You put your hand on it. Still warm!