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In the COVID-crowded North Woods, still some grouse to be had

Along a two-rut trail, leaf watching and grouse hunting merge on a splendid autumn afternoon.

Three grouse breasts and packages of Boy Scout potatoes cook on a wood fire at a Superior National Forst campground last weekend. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

OFF THE GUNFLINT TRAIL — There seemed to be an ATV or an SUV around every bend of every gravel logging road up here, even on the two-rut trails.

It has been 25 years since I had explored this country seriously for grouse and, unable to pursue my usual autumn passion for ducks in Canada this year, it wasn’t a bad thing to come back for a visit.

It was also high time this dog had a grouse in his mouth. At age 4 he’s retrieved a couple hundred ducks, many geese and more than a few pheasants. But never a grouse. That needed to be rectified.

Still, at the risk of sounding like my father, it was never like this in the old days. In what 25 years ago seemed like remote areas a guy could explore uninterrupted, last weekend there were people everywhere. We literally secured the last available campsite in the Superior National Forest, a week ahead, and every campsite we saw was occupied, some with multiple vehicles, RVs and tents.

The North Shore state park campgrounds were full, too. Motels and rental cabins hoisted NO VACANCY signs. Grand Marais was literally bursting with tourists: The line at World's Best Donuts wrapped halfway down the city block, and I’m not exaggerating. The blacktop highways were bumper-to-bumper at times. All of this two weeks after Labor Day and the supposed end of the busiest tourist season.


It seems the COVID-crazy summer of outdoors has extended well into autumn, that everyone is escaping the home-bound pandemic lockdown by trying to get outdoors in some way — fishing or hunting, leaf-looking, camping, ATVing, biking or hiking. That’s OK, of course, but it’s a changed experience. And I’ve learned we need to change our expectations of what being outdoors means. Maybe we should have called it shared solitude.

When we drove past the parking area for the Eagle Mountain trailhead, I thought at first we had come upon some sort of event or accident. There were 40 or so vehicles near the trailhead, some parked 100 yards away — apparently all people hiking up Minnesota’s tallest peak, all to “get away from it all.”


At first I thought it was just me, that a 25-year absence had rendered me forgetful. Was it this crowded in the past? But then I read it in the conservation officer reports on Monday, that things are different now. The weekend woods were crammed across the Northland. CO Tom Wahlstrom, who patrols the Grand Marais area where we were exploring, said it was a very busy opening weekend for grouse hunting.

“Every road was crowded with ATVs and vehicles,’’ Wahlstrom wrote in his weekly report. But “the hunters who got out of their vehicles, found a quiet trail and walked, found good hunting success.”

A hunter prepares to hike up a two-rut trail in the Superior National Forest on opening day of small game hunting season last week, hoping his dog finds a ruffed grouse along the way. (Photo courtesy Ann Myers)

At one point we parked the truck and walked up one of those perfect two-rut trails with a strip of clover in the middle, a mix of aspen and pine along the sides and just enough gravel to fill a grouse’s craw. While bushwhacking into thick woods may be a grand idea once the leaves fall, it’s pretty much a waste of time at this point of the grouse season, so I stick to places where I can see and shoot if something flushes.


It wasn’t long before the brown Lab got birdy and put a grouse up off to one side of the trail. I even managed to hit it with a shot from a youth model 20-gauge, single-shot, borrowed from my daughter. I’m a pretty big person and my wife said it looked like I was carrying a toy gun.

But it worked. The dog had his first grouse flush and retrieve.

We walked maybe another quarter-mile when an SUV came into view, on its way out of the dead end trail. A man and what looked to be his young son, wearing orange hats, had chosen to drive the trail where we were walking. In the past this would have been a point of exasperation for me. But in a COVID-changed world, I waved and kept walking. We hadn’t walked another 200 yards when the dog got birdy again, bolted into the woods and put up another bird. The guys in the vehicle probably never saw it.

I’m sure I hit some leaves and branches with that shot from the toy gun. But several minutes of dog and human searching didn’t find a downed bird. So we kept going on our family hike, me and the dog, my wife and daughter a few steps behind. Fall colors or grouse hunting, either way it was a good afternoon. Even better when there were both.

There would be two more grouse in the dog’s mouth on this opening day of grouse season, a day that had transformed from rainy and cold in the morning to sunny and splendid by afternoon. The toy gun and I went three for five at the plate. A few aspen were turning gold and the maple understory along the trails were already bright crimson. It seemed even the grouse had come out to enjoy the improved afternoon, just like us.

Blue with one of three grouse he retrieved on opening day of Minnesota's grouse hunting season. ( John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)

It was a changed experience, to be sure. But not a bad one.


And when there were grouse breasts roasting caveman-style over an open fire later that evening, and Boy Scout potatoes with onions and carrots sizzling next to them, it was clearly a day well spent that was ending well, too.

In the COVID-crowded outdoors these days, you take what you can get. And after a 25-year absence, it was good to be back in my old grouse woods. Even if I had to share my two-rut trails with others.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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