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Death of a covert: bittersweet memories of a favorite hunting spot.

IT WAS A love-hate relationship for three decades between me and 150 acres of jumble so unproductive it reverted back to the state, because no one would pay the taxes on it.

It's a swamp in northern Minnesota, only you wouldn't have known it was public land unless you had a plat book from the county courthouse that marks ownership and, in the case of the Wagonwheel, bore the familiar "Tax Forfeited" label. So we hunted it because it was public, open to anyone foolhardy enough to crash through it.

I wouldn't have told you where the Wagonwheel is, other than it's north of Iowa and south of Ontario. That's because there's magic in these mushy acres. The middle of the Wagonwheel is a swamp, penetrated by fingers of slightly higher land. Woodcock come in here like aspiring actors head for Hollywood. And there are ruffed grouse on the fringes where the alders and hemlocks give wav to birch and pine.

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The covert was named, as all magic spots are, for something that identifies it. The fellow across the dirt road had a mailbox mounted on an old wagon wheel, thus the name.

It became tradition to hunt the first afternoon in the Wagonwheel. Get the road kinks out, let the dogs remember what tough hunting is all about. Because the Wagonwheel was tough hunting. It's a tangle of suck holes, alder blowdowns and clinging fern and, depending on the rainfall, over-the-boot wet spots or springy peat moss. An hour there is like a half-day in a more congenial place.

I loved it.

* MEMORIES AFIELD It was a magic spot. I have more memories of this place than any of the other miles I've walked in the north woods. There was the time I stopped for a break and ate an apple with my best friend, Guff, sprawled at my feet.

He was muddy and festooned with dead, stinking ferns, but he couldn't have been happier because he had just pointed a grouse and I'd shot it and the bird was lying limp on an old log beside me. Sunlight slipped through the aspen and spotlighted the bird as I smoothed its feathers with a tenderness that was ironic, considering that I'd just killed it.

Another time, our grandson Nickolas first hunt, moved in behind his dog Muggsy and neatly shot two woodcock, "Bang! Bang!" as they jumped, one after the other. I haven't done that and here was this 14-year-old kid with braces who showed reflexes like Michael Jordan.

He did it with a 28-gauge double barrel I had "loaned" to his mother, who then "loaned" the gun to him. A gun, obviously, that was not meant to be mine. I keep hoping maybe they'll "loan" it back to me.

* BOUNTIFUL GROUSE Spence Turner was my frequent companion in the Wagonwheel. We bulldozed our way through the tangles and got lost. It's tough to do in 150 acres most of the time, but the Wagonwheel is such a maze, getting turned around is the norm.

There are two sets of tall pines that serve as landmarks in the otherwise featureless swamp. One is toward the access road; the other at the opposite side of the swamp. In a wet year, the second set of pines (we call it the Pine Ridge) involves some careful negotiating to reach and, usually, wet feet.

But the rewards were 20 minutes of almost certain action. There was at least one grouse along the swamp side of the ridge, and perhaps as many as a half-dozen woodcock fronting the swamp.

The grouse flushed into the pines and vanished forever--hunting grouse in those looming, dark conifers was like hunting leprechauns at the end of the rainbow. The woodcock flushed over the swamp and unless you shot quickly the retrieve involved a wet entry for you or the dog (if you could get him to look for the bird).

We hunted far more friendly places than the Wagonwheel--in fact, every one of them was more affable. But the Wagonwheel rewarded effort. It was not a place for the Sunday hunter or the dilettante. It was a blue-collar operation, complete with sweat and dirt and muscle strain. Sometimes I wondered if my appreciation for the place wasn't like the guy hitting himself on the head with a hammer because it was gonna feel so good when he stopped.

Several years ago my son-in-law, Ron DeValk, and grandson, Nickolas, went back for a season's final hunt. They had the usual boot camp marathon and returned to the truck tired and muscle sprung. A woman was waiting for them. "We've bought this place," she said. "It's ours now."

So the Wagonwheel, after two decades, is not mine anymore. I doubt that the family who now owns the place will ever hunt it for grouse and woodcock. Chances are they don't even know what those are. Certainly, they never will follow the eager back end of a bird dog over blowdowns and through alder thickets.

The Wagonwheel is now just another flyspeck on the map of northern Minnesota, but not my flyspeck. I should be relieved that I don't have to bust the brush and fight through the bogholes, often wondering just where I am.

But I'm not.
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Title Annotation:News & Views
Author:Vance, Joel
Publication:Gun Dog
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Jul 20, 2012
Words:880
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