This camp is for the birds

ELY -- Dawn steals silently over the little creek and the tents pitched along its shore. In the half-light, someone has already kindled a fire. It crackles quietly, promising to ward off the new day's dampness.

Evening in camp
Evenings at Bird Camp north of Ely are for kicking back after a day of grouse and woodcock hunting. Al Schroeter (left) of Ely and Rick Simmons (right) of Tower listen as David Kure of Britt and David Loy of Minneapolis play harmonica and guitar under the stars. (Cook /

ELY -- Dawn steals silently over the little creek and the tents pitched along its shore. In the half-light, someone has already kindled a fire. It crackles quietly, promising to ward off the new day's dampness.

It's morning in Bird Camp.

Each October for more than a decade now, a half-dozen old friends have gathered among the popples and jackpines north of Ely to hunt grouse and woodcock, tell a few stories and live the simple life.

Most of the hunters are from Ely or nearby, though some come from the deep South -- Minneapolis. The bonds among them go back many years and run to walleyes and lake trout and sled dogs and rock bands.

And, in early October, birds.


They gather at this clearing in the woods and string their tents along the bog that borders the creek. In ones or twos, every morning and every afternoon, they hunt. Some of them walk trails, hoping to happen upon a ruffed grouse out for a walk. Some of them paw and thread their way through the alders in the soft bottom ground, hoping to spiral up a woodcock or two.

But now it is morning, and no sense of urgency prevails in Bird Camp. Ryan Koivisto of Ely is first up, and we have him to thank for the fire. Slowly, the others emerge from their tents. Ely's Al Schroeter, Kelly Murphy and Chip Hanson appear, along with David Loy of Minneapolis. Rick Simmons of Tower pops out of his 1968 travel trailer, the only concession to creature comfort in this camp.

Coffee is poured. Seats are taken near the fire. Seven dogs lark about, looking for remnants of last night's supper, sniffing feathers where the previous day's birds were cleaned. Clothing runs to canvas and flannel and wool. The conversation runs to which covers will be hunted that day.

Felix, Schroeter's 5-month-old French Brittany spaniel, wears a bell that jingles wherever he goes in camp.

"So I can keep track of him," Schroeter says.

Felix is a black and white Brittany. He's a busy boy with boundless energy. He enjoys spending quality time with his older girlfriends, Simmons' 11-month-old golden retriever, Lena, and Miss B, Koivisto's 4-year-old Griffon.

Someone makes a second pot of coffee, and empty cups are offered up for filling. Loy stands by the fire in a stocking cap playing soft riffs on a guitar. Before long, Simmons, a part-time gun trader, pulls out some handsome old double-barrels and passes them around for inspection.

Bird Camp is a four- or five-day affair, but the hunters come and go as their schedules allow. Around the evening campfire, visitors from town or nearby shacks are apt to drop in for a visit. Hanson has ridden his motorcycle up just to spend a night and check in. Through his spotting scope the night before, we all watch the moons of Jupiter hovering around the bright planet in the east.



Schroeter and Loy, old band buddies, rumble out of camp in Loy's vintage Toyota Land Cruiser for a nearby bottom-ground they know. They hunt first behind Felix and Schroeter's 11-year-old Brittany, Memphis. The pointing dogs are perfect for woodcock because they work closely and because woodcock hold so well for pointers.

A few local woodcock are around, but the hunting will get better any time now when north winds push birds down from Canada.

"The migration isn't on yet," Schroeter says.

Still, the Brittanies find occasional scent. Schroeter can read the dogs even before they lock into a point as they slow their pace to sift through scent.

"There's a happy nose," he says, watching Memphis get birdy.

Some of the woodcock flush wild -- that is, ahead of the dogs -- and Schroeter drops one with a single shot from his 1920s-vintage Fox double-barrel 16-gauge. Felix is in the vicinity but hasn't yet refined the art of retrieving, so Schroeter spends a minute letting Felix smell and inspect the bird after he picks it up.

Elsewhere within a few miles, Koivisto and Murphy and Simmons hunt singly. Murphy, without a dog, sees seven grouse and shoots four. Koivisto, hunting with Miss B, sees two, gets a shot at one and misses it. Simmons, hunting with golden retrievers Lena and Mika, also sees two grouse and misses his only shot.


The leaves are nearly all down now, allowing hunters to see flushing birds a bit longer, but that does not guarantee success.

"Now you can miss 'em twice," Schroeter jokes.

Hunters are everywhere in the woods. Slow-moving pickups with telltale splashes of blaze orange inside indicate the preferred method of getting grouse -- road-hunting. Other vehicles are nosed into old tote roads. Hunters meet truck-to-truck on the road, nodding or waving in the spirit of the season. There's a lot of bird country up here in the northern reaches of Superior National Forest. There's room for everyone.

Later in the morning, Schroeter and Loy flush a grouse wild, and it flies to a small tree in a dense popple woods.

"I can see it," Loy says.

Some hunters will shoot grouse out of trees, but Loy and Schroeter prefer to shoot theirs on the wing. Loy shouts at the grouse and kicks a nearby popple trying to make the bird flush. Finally, it does. His old Fox double-barrel misses it once. The bird flies toward Schroeter, and he misses a difficult shot at it. The bird flies off unharmed.

"There's gotta be an easier way to shoot grouse," he says.



Schroeter and Loy manage a couple of grouse and a couple of woodcock for the day. In a 2½-hour walk before dusk, Murphy and I pick up four birds, and Koivisto brings in two grouse.

At camp, dusk settles quickly and the too-warm day becomes a lovely cool evening. We clean birds, build a fire, light a lantern. Headlamps go on, illuminating camp chores.

Is anything better than slipping into dry clothes after a day afield, sitting before a fire with a good dog at your side and sipping something pleasant?

"I've got some black cod I'll fry up for hors d'oeuvres," Murphy says.

"I'll heat up some chili," Loy offers.

Everyone contributes something. Caesar salads. Chili. Wild rice. Polish sausage. Garlic bread.

The dogs roam and wrestle. The day's hunts are shared. Woodcock are re-flushed and re-retrieved. Grouse are re-shot, especially the twisting, difficult birds. The misses are celebrated as well.

David Kure, a friend from Wuori Township near Britt, pays a visit with his grandson and two teen-age friends. We settle in by the fire, idly petting the dogs. The cool air feels good. The warm fire feels good.


Loy brings out his guitar. Kure accompanies him on harmonica. They jam over the snapping of spruce on the fire and the conversation that weaves around it.

"I wonder how many bird camps have live entertainment," Murphy says.

The heavens are clear again tonight, the Milky Way riding like a veil across the sky, reminding us of our place in the galaxy. Someone throws another log on the fire, and for just a moment sparks twist high into the night, mingling with the moons of Jupiter.

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