Adventure makes me feel alive.
I know this in my heart because when I am hiking, paddling, fishing or hunting in a place where I can feel relatively like a pioneer, I am happiest.
When I don’t know what lies around the next corner or river bend, when that GPS or topographic map is essential and my mind is focused on an instinctual task, I am at peace.
At these times Old Mr. Death is pushed away to furthest corners of my mind, my 42-year-old legs surge with strength and my heart feels like it could burst with joy.
This fall I undertook such an inspiring adventure when our first year group ventured nearly 1,000 miles northward to Ross Lake Camps, Maine in search of ruffed grouse said to be near historically high levels.
This was a Woods & Waters Adventures trip that started with seven hunters signed up but had only three make it. Family illness and work duties chipped away at our party until it was just my father and my good friend in the Country Chevrolet Silverado Crew Cab heading ever north on a clear, mid-October day.
My three-year-old Brittany spaniel, Kate, who alternated between gazing out the window and pawing at the person that rode in the back seat with her, joined us. This long-legged birder came from Doug Deats’ Mill Creek Farm Kennels and this would be her greatest test yet.
A fishing client had given me a personal description of the grouse hunting trip he’d taken last year in northwestern Maine and convinced me to askew a South Dakota pheasant trip for his wingshooting adventure.
I did many hours of research on the region using all resources available. Ross Lake Camps was about it as far as hosts, and I booked us into a cabin. On the owner’s advice I purchased a DeLorme Maine Gazeteer map book to help us navigate. This turned out to be an extremely critical and helpful resource. Lowrance was kind enough to send their new handheld Endura GPS model and we relied on it heavily.
It took us about 20 hours of driving to reach our destination, with the last two on gravel/dirt logging roads. At about 85 miles from the camp, we passed by Mount Katahdin, the highest point in Maine and roughly where the Applachian Trail begins. It was snowing on the top of the 5,230’ peak.
We also paralleled the famous Penobscot River for some time before entered the North Maine Woods timber holding (about the size of Delaware) at the Telos Road Checkpoint. Here we paid our $30 for three days of hunting and pressed on as the sun began to drop.
Right before we made the lodge (on schedule with no wrong turns around 4 pm) we saw our first grouse. It was on the road getting grit, seemingly oblivious to the full-sized pickup truck bearing down on it. It flushed at 10 yards and we were amazed. This could be good, really good.
As we pulled into Ross Lake Camps, we were greeted by one of the owners, Andrea Lavoie. She determined which cabin we were in and congratulated us on finding the place. Pleasantries out of the way, we promptly unpacked and headed out, anxious for some recon and to stretch our legs.
We had very little light left, so we made a loop in the truck that would give us an overview of the immediate area, work out the Lowrance GPS in a real situation and see how accurate the Gazeteer was. Turns out both were great and we made it back to the lodge right after dark.
Before that, though, we walked down a secondary logging road and Kate pointed our first grouse. It was holding in a brush pile along the left side of the road and she locked up on it. Jeff was sent in to flush it, however, the bird just kept walking along the forest floor.
Finally it flushed across the road and I swung and fired the Daly 20 ga. over and under. The bird kept going into the woods on the other side of the road and Kate followed. When I arrived she was looking up a tree.
I followed her gaze and spotted what appeared to be a big bird with an out-stretched neck on a branch out 30’ up. It looked more like our green herons than a grouse. Turns out it was that same grouse and I missed it again as it flew deeper into the woods and disappeared.
I know we learned our lesson on that first bird. These grouse are not like the few grouse that remain in our region. Remote Maine grouse do not fear humans or dogs. You need to understand this because while wingshooting is possible, Mainers don’t think twice of “rolling” them while still on the ground. Now with the dog, you do get flushes, but the birds often flush up into nearby trees and you are then faced with shooting them off a branch.
That all being said, we had a steep learning curve to overcome the next three days. Luckily we had brought the right equipment and it turns out, a Crackerjack dog.
On the drive back to the lodge, to our surprise, we saw three moose in the moonlight. Dinner was a hearty spaghetti and meat sauce cooked by our Andrea and her husband, Don. We lingered after dinner to get to know them and learn of some loop recommendations they marked on our map, then it was back to the cabin. We tried to watch Gladiator but fell asleep quickly.
We were up at 6 am and eating breakfast with Andrea. Again another hearty meal was provided as were paper bags with lunch before we set of in the Chevy.
Even if you don’t like hunting, this northwestern Maine country is beautiful. Spruce, cedars, birch, moose, bear, mink, martin, lynx and no briars make the surroundings memorable. We saw very few other hunters and only minimal logging activity. I think we saw more moose that humans.
This day began sunny and in the 40s. On the road out we saw our first grouse. With last night’s lesson fresh in our minds, Jeffrey jumped of the truck and dispatched our first bird. He walked up on it and shot it with a 20 ga. Beretta as it flushed. Kate was all too happy to find it and pose for the victory shot.
The rest of the day we hunted using a fairly productive tactic. One of us would drive as the other road in the back of the truck while the other would walk “point” as Kate would work the old logging roads. Good cover was present in the form of seeding grasses and clover and the birds would come out of the thick spruce forests to feed and get grit. We would often see the birds and the dog would point those we missed just off the road. When they would flush up into the trees she would stand under them and look up at the birds!
We managed two limits of birds doing this before it began to rain. While brief rain does not ruin a grouse hunt, heavy rain can. Thankfully the heaviest rain came and went quickly near sunset. We saw more birds as we drove the flooding road back to Ross Lake Camps.
Today featured 10 hours of hard hunting. We relentlessly covered ground trying to better understand what to expect over the next two days.
We learned that the birds like to flush into trees and will hold there motionlessly even when you are right under them. We learned there was a lot of hard walking involved if you wanted to hunt Virginia-style with the dog (not much different than a National Forest grouse hunt but with a lot more flushes). I learned you really have to want to hunt to get those birds. And we learned that grilled chicken tastes great after a hot shower.
We fell asleep watching Kayak Kevin Whitley’s Kayak Fishing The Chesapeake Bay. Kate slept on my father’s bed but didn’t keep him from snoring. Thank goodness for earplugs.
Breakfast today was at 7 am and I think that might have been too late. We had brief sun early, then it clouded over and snow flurries fell until sunset. Yesterday’s low 50’s gave way to low 40’s and a biting 20 mph wind that made you cold whenever the walking sweat started to evaporate on you.
We headed out toward the St. Johns River, near the Canadian border in search of some more remote hunting areas and possibly some late season woodcock. Most had flighted by now, but there was a possibility some more came in with last night’s front.
At our first stop I spied a grouse walking in a dark and mature spruce forest along the road. The crew just couldn’t get out of the truck fast enough and that bird flushed deep into an inaccessible swamp. We walked two miles of golden tamarask-lined logging road but saw no birds.
With little to show for the effort, we gave up on this section and headed back to where we had found birds yesterday. It was windy on this more exposed, higher elevation area. I didn’t really know what this did to grouse, but we would eventually find out.
Kate did flush a nice woodcock, four times, and I dropped it with a nice crossing shot. Kate found it and I marveled at the dozens of shades of brown, white and black on each wing.
With no grouse flushes, I told my Dad and Jeff, no more road hunting. We were going to have to get into the woods.
This is easier said than done for all but the fittest hunters. I do not recommend it for anyone with knee problems, weight issues or general unwillingness to step into knee-deep water holes, branch hop or stumble through spruce stands so dense even a supermodel couldn’t get through sideways.
Despite our troubles (Dad turned back and Jeff stayed on the outskirts) and the wind that made hearing the birds tricky, I did flush several grouse and knocked down one. Kate was not as effective in the dense stuff, however she found this bird within seconds for me. It was a big male with a 12” fan, the trophy mark according to Don.
That was all until around 4 pm when we were driving back to the camp a little dejected and Dad said, “Look at those!”
I missed them but he and Jeff saw a flock of birds along the edge of the woods and a cutover along the road. Jeff and I jumped out of the truck with Kate and made haste to the birds’ last know whereabouts.
Kate flushed one and it flew beautifully from left to right in front of me. It would have been the perfect shot if I hadn’t had the safety still on. I still have a still shot of that bird in my brain as it flew into the nearby mixed hardwoods.
It didn’t matter because Kate found three of them in the trees and we took them all down.
We only had four grouse and woodcock today, but we learned much. We learned how utterly exhausted a dog can be after working hard cover for 10 hours. I had to lift Kate onto my father’s bed and brought her food bowl, too. We learned road hunting for grouse doesn’t work when it’s windy. We learned to never give up because in the North Maine Woods you never know when you will come across birds.
Tonight Don grilled us pork tenderloin. I had a slice of homemade blueberry pie. We were all too tired to watch anything back in our cabin. Lights out and snoring commenced by 9 pm.
This was our last day to hunt and I faced it eagerly and with plenty of energy. I will say my companions were eager, but a bit tired.
After breakfast we again ventured northwest to the St. John’s River region to hunt some of the more remote, secondary logging roads. If all went according to plans, by the afternoon we would come full circle and make a 25-mile loop back to Ross Lake.
I would say I hunted harder today than the others. I knew more and knew that this could be my last day ever hunting grouse in Maine, so I went all out. The air temperature reached 41 and the wind was relentlessly gusting to 30 mph so we knew the road hunting would be non-productive.
We did some hunting in an area called “The Badlands”. We were in a T of roads that branched off the main steam and ran parallel. Dad took the left option, Jeffery took the first right and Kate and I went to the end of the “T” and turned right. Our goal was to bushwack back up to Jeff and rendezvous back at the truck.
I would use the Lowrance Endura to navigate through a dense swamp, cedar and spruce forests. We each had two-way radios on the same channel, too.
It was very wet on Kate and I’s drive and after countless moose tracks and some poor grouse cover (low bushes), we turned into the woods and began our uphill trek back to Jeff.
This was a challenge with visibility no more than a foot at times due to dense cedars. We also had to cross a beaver swamp before heading into stands of 15-year old spuce that alternated with open raspberry thickets.
Near Jeff’s road we flushed a flock of grouse and I totally muffed all the wingshots. I was wearing sunglasses – great in the sun but terrible in the dark, spruce stands where the birds flushed. I should have taken a limit, but zero’d instead. When I linked up with Jeff, he told me he had flushed and missed a woodcock. Dad had seen nothing.
We ate lunch and then drove further along the big loop to another secondary road for more walking in the roaring wind and no birds. Jeff did find a magnificent moose shed and that made the one drive worth it.
As we were driving back to the main road, two grouse flushed over a beaver pond that had flooded our path. I jumped out and took Kate and Jeff. You had to be careful not to fall into the water. I had mentally marked the tree where one of the birds lit and worked my way to it cautiously hoping to flush companions.
I found two birds in that tree and took one as it flew off. The other paused long enough before flying that I was not ready could not get a bead on it.
The shadows were getting long by the time we tried one more road with Kate. Jeff took the random cell phone service opportunity to call home. Dad, me and Kate headed out as the sun set in spectacular red and orange through the trees.
A very tired Katie did find us one more bird, in a brushpile along the road, but I missed both shots and watched it fly deep into the woods.
Dad and I walked slowly back to the truck wishing we had more time. Isn’t that what all men wish eventually?
Our hunt was over and we were now veteran Maine grouse hunters, right? Well, not really, but we hunted a frenzied 31 hours learning much along the way. I think I can return next season and put limits in the bag each day given a little help from Mother Nature, some luck and Katie’s help. You are welcome to join me if you think you can take it.
Tonight we ate steak and potatoes and then got to packing. Sleep took me hard as I wrote in my daily log. I remember dreaming of that last bird flying farther and farther into an endless forest.
Our departure day began with breakfast at 6 am. We were southbound on a different route out than in by 7 am. Ironically, we saw enough grouse on this brilliantly sunny Sunday morning to have shot three limits! The wind had abated and the birds were out of the thick stuff, once again working the roads. Katahdin was now half covered with snow.
It took 20 hours but we made it back to Virginia by 2:30. This was an amazing trip I can recommend to those of you hardy enough to make the drive, compile the gear and do the hunt. Our accommodations were spartan but clean and enjoyable to come back to each night. Andrea and Don were personable hosts that did their best to help us succeed and keep us well fed.
If you’d like to join us for the W2 Hunt in October of 2011, please contact me for information and pre-hunt interview. You can visit www.rosslakecamps.com for more information and to book your own trip.
Things You Should Know
Do not go on this trip without the DeLorme Gazeteer and a GPS like the Lorance Endura that you know how to operate. Do bring plenty of extra batteries and do not leave them in the cabin. Think twice about bringing a semi-automatic gun. Doubles are more reliable. Do not use more than a 20-gauge shotgun. Bring in extra fuel. We nearly used all of the 15 gallons we brought for the ride out. Bring drinks for your days of hunting. Bring a headlamp and flashlight for walking at night to the bathhouse or outhouses. Bring a sleeping bag and sheet for your bunk. Bring a towel, washcloth and body wash for showering. There is electricity in the cabins ONLY in the evenings when the generator runs. Otherwise light and heat is provided via propane burners and wood stoves. Four wheel drive vehicles only are recommended. Bring two pairs of waterproof boots and two sets of outerwear in case it rains. Consider your overall fitness level and health before venturing on this trip where emergency medical care is two hours away and cell phone service nearly non-existent. Bring a camera because you will want to preserve the memories of the things you see here.