IN THE CHIPPEWA NATIONAL FOREST — They have pitched an old army tent and rekindled old friendships at this time in October for the past 22 years, here in a thick maple forest painted bright yellow by autumn.
The guise is that they are here to hunt partridge, so they call it Camp Grouse. But it could just as well be called Camp Fire. Or Camp Food. Or Camp Friendship. Or camp BS.
Or maybe Camp Septuagenarian.
These five guys first met over a half-century ago, all students at the University of Minnesota’s fish and game school in St. Paul. They have remained friends through long careers in natural resources management, as they raised families and as they moved across the state:
Mike Larson, 71, is the youngster in the group. He’s the retired Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager from Baudette.
Don Pierce, 72, is the retired Grand Rapids area DNR wildlife manager, now of Lawrence Township up Bovee way.
Greg Payne has retired back in his hometown of Clarkfield in southern Minnesota, the only non DNR guy in the group. He spent a career with the U.S. Geological Survey in the Twin Cities.
Dennis Anderson, 76, of Cohasset, is the retired Grand Rapids area DNR fisheries manager.
Bill Berg is the senior citizen of the group at 79, now of Knife River who spent much of his career in DNR wildlife jobs in Grand Rapids.
“Bill was an upperclassman when we got to the U, but he kind of took us under his wing," said Pierce, who started the Camp Grouse tradition in 1998 when all of the guys were still hard into their conservation careers.
“That’s the way we deer hunt in my family, and we thought it would be fun to camp out for grouse, too. And we’re still doing it," Pierce noted.
Food and friendship
There is a sameness and familiarity to everything about the camp, and the guys seem to anticipate each other's moves and needs. The News Tribune first wrote about this camp in 1999, and there’s still the same army tent pitched among the same big maple trees just off the same logging road. And the same guys. And some of the same favorite camp food. And the same slow pace of camp life.
"We get up at 6:30 and then don't go anywhere until 10," Berg noted.
Still, some things have changed. There is a spine problem in camp. And two sets of new knees. One case of sciatica. A minor heart issue. Dogs have come and gone with new ones taking their place, although some guys are giving up on training another dog this late in their hunting careers.
“We’re not much of a killing camp any more," Pierce said. “Some of the guys still go out to hunt. But the main thing is sitting around the campfire now. And eating. Just being together is good for us."
New this year was a Honda generator that powered bright lights, an electric deep fryer and a drip coffee pot, although Anderson still made cowboy coffee on the Coleman stove, too.
Payne’s Pheasant Fettucini was a hit, as were Pierce’s pork chops with sauerkraut and hash browns. Pierce also made Dutch oven apple cobbler for dessert. Larson’s walleye and fried potatoes made for a big breakfast one day; Bill Berg filled us full with his wild rice and whole oats pancakes “with whatever else I feel like throwing in there,’’ Berg said, including granola.
Pierce was adamant in making sure visiting guests brought a camp chair to sit in, both for eating and fire watching. Bringing a shotgun was optional.
“Over the years, the hunting part has gone down while the sitting and talking part has increased," Pierce said.
There were a few empty beer bottles on sawhorse tables, along with boxes of wine and some plastic glasses.
“You have to make some concessions out in the woods," Pierce said, feigning apologies for the lack of fine crystal stemware in camp.
The annual trip is planned for the first full week in October, coinciding both with near peak fall color and, hopefully, a few less leaves on trees. This year the boys lucked into perhaps autumn’s only great stretch of weather — three straight days of sunshine with high temperatures in the upper 60s and not a drop of rain, albeit it a bit windy for grouse hunting.
A better morning hunting
Tuesday was tough hunting for Anderson and a visiting scribe. Hunting behind Woodie, Anderson’s close-working, 5-year-old golden retriever, we flushed only three grouse in over five hours of walking in what seemed to be prime habitat. We never got a shot off.
Anderson blamed it on a general decline in grouse numbers in recent years, a subject that comes up often among the group’s campfire sessions.
“I think the grouse population has been stuck at about one-quarter full," he said.
But we also had to deal with winds gusting to 25 mph. Wind seems to make grouse extra spooky and makes it hard for the dog to get good scent.
“I can count on one hand the times I’ve had good grouse hunting in big wind like this," said Anderson, perhaps the most avid grouse hunter in the Camp Grouse group.
Anderson uses a soft mouth whistle to keep Woodie close — within about 100 feet. If the dog doesn't respond, the boss will use the electronic “hearing aide,” a mild zap from a shock collar “that really seems to improve his hearing,’’ Anderson said with a grin.
Instead of the far-roaming style of pointing dogs often used for grouse hunting, Woodie stays mostly on the trail, nose on the ground, sniffing for scent. If he gets into some grouse smell, he’ll then track it down for the flush.
“I like him to work the trail mostly. That’s where I’m hunting, and if he’s 30 yards into the woods, you aren’t going to see anything anyway," Anderson said.
Even if we had seen more grouse, any shots would have been tough. The young aspen trees we were hunting among still held more than half their leaves, making it hard to see far into the woods. The ground vegetation was even thicker, still green.
That should change in the coming days after heavy rain and wind, Anderson noted.
“The best hunting is still to come," he said, pausing to take in the sites and smells of the fall woods. “I could take 10 months of October."
On Wednesday, we had a much better morning, with a little less wind and a lot more grouse. In about three hours of hunting, we flushed and saw eight grouse, had shots at two, and Anderson even managed to bag one with his Franchi 20-gauge over-under. Woodie seemed extra happy to finally get a bird in his mouth. The grouse came in the last five minutes of the hunt.
“What did Yogi Berra say? It’s ain't over till it’s over," Anderson said.
Breaking camp early
Camp Grouse is usually a five-day affair. The boys arrive on Monday, make camp and immediately set chairs around a campfire. The hunting usually starts on Tuesday. On Friday, they break camp and head home.
The campsite is on Chippewa National Forest land. Most of their hunting is within a mile of camp on a patchwork of Forest Service, state and county-managed forests — the kind of big public-access blocks of hunting woods Northlanders are lucky to have.
This year, however, camp members made a unanimous decision to break camp early, on Wednesday afternoon, under warnings of a big rainstorm moving in. There was also talk of snow coming.
With camp two miles into the woods, no one wanted to navigate the already muddy logging road after several more inches of rain or snow.
“We’re at the age where packing up everything in the rain just doesn't sound fun any more," Anderson said.
“We’ll all be back next year," Berg said, half-promising, half-hoping out loud. “We’re not going to miss this if we can help it."
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Are grouse in trouble?
Get a few fish and wildfowl biologists around a campfire, especially avid grouse hunters, and you're going to get some ideas on what's wrong with grouse in the north woods. Population surveys, hunter numbers and hunter harvests have been generally going down in recent decades., occasionally interspersed with average years but with peak years now well below past decades.
Bill Berg, retired DNR wildlife biologist, boiled it down to three major issues: Habitat changes, disease and parasites, and global warming.
Among the Camp Grouse group, there's a sense that logging practices have changed the makeup of the forest. Grouse numbers, which fall and rise on a roughly 10-year cycle, peaked highest in the 1970s, well after peak logging of the early 20th century. After modern logging practices increased in the 1980s and '90s, there's been less diversity in the forest, "less interspersion'' of multiple types and ages of trees — more monocultures of single-age aspen or pine. (Berg thinks some subtle changes are impacting grouse numbers, like leaving more standing trees scattered across logging sites, "hawk perches,'' Berg called them, which may be increasing hawk predation on grouse.)
Berg also worries that our warming climate is spurring problems with parasites and diseases like West Nile virus, which is now being monitored to see if it is impacting overall grouse populations.
"Whatever is happening, the peaks aren't peaking like they used,'' retired DNR fisheries biologist Dennis Anderson said of annual grouse population estimates. "I guess we were born at the right time to see all those grouse in those days. I don't think anyone will ever see it like that again."
Camp cooking 101: Dutch oven apple cobbler
From time to time, I get to experience some tasty cooking while on outdoors assignments, including Don Pierce’s no-peek apple cobbler made in a cast-iron Dutch oven with coals from a campfire at Camp Grouse last week.
Ingredients: 2 cans apple pie filling, 2 cups water, ½ cup of butter, 1 box spice cake mix.
Directions: Cover inside of the Dutch oven with aluminum foil. Generously butter or oil the aluminum foil. This helps with clean up and keeps the cobbler from sticking to the Dutch oven.
Evenly spread the 2 cans of fruit into the bottom of the Dutch oven. Pour the cake mix over the fruit layer. Cut the butter up into small pieces and distribute evenly on top of the cake mix layer. Pour the water over everything. DO NOT STIR. Place the lid on the Dutch Oven. Put hot coals under the Dutch oven and more coals on top of the lid. Bake for 1 hour (you may need to refresh the coals) but do NOT check it. The lid must stay closed. Remove from the heat and let cool a bit before serving.
(Here are other Cobbler combinations to try: Cherry pie filling with chocolate cake mix; Raspberry or peach pie filling with white or yellow cake mix; Blueberry pie filling with lemon cake mix.)
— John Myers