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  • June 28th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


                It was a love-hate relationship for three decades between me and 150 acres of jumble so unproductive that no one would pay the taxes on it so it reverted to state ownership. 


                It’s a swamp in northern Minnesota, only you wouldn’t have known that it was public land unless you had a plat book from the county courthouse which marks ownership and, in the case of the Wagonwheel bore the familiar “Tax Forfeited” label.  So we hunted it because it was public land, 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 those mushy acres.  The middle of the Wagonwheel is a swamp, penetrated by fingers of slightly higher land.  Woodcock come in here as if it were Hollywood to an aspiring actor.  And there are ruffed grouse on the fringes where the alders and hemlocks give way to birch and pine.


                The covert was named, as all magic spots are, for something that identifies it (My favorite covert name always will be Wanda’s Wetspot). The fellow across the dirt road into the Wagonwheel had a mailbox mounted on an old wagonwheel, thus the name.  Years ago the wagonwheel vanished from the mailbox, but the Wagonwheel remained, as reliable, year after year, as it always was.


              The house across the road from the Wagonwheel and owned by the owner of the wagonwheel mailbox remained a work in progress for all the years that we hunted the Wagonwheel. It was a ramshackle building of uncertain origin—perhaps it had been a livestock shelter before it purported to be a house. From what we could see it consisted mostly of tarpaper slapped on whatever was beneath. From year to year there didn’t seem to be any improvement except perhaps the application of more tarpaper.


                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.


                It was a magic spot.  I have more memories of this one covert than of any of many 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 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 and I smoothed its feathers with a tenderness that was ironic, considering that I’d just killed it. There is, in my cluttered memory, no single time more filled with bliss and grace than that moment shared with a long gone and sadly missed hunting companion.


                Another time our grandson Nickolas, on his 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.  And he did it with a 28-gauge double barrel that 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. 


                A memory considerably less exhilarating was when Guff and I jumped a huge doe as we neared the county blacktop.  The deer took two bounds to reach the road and I heard a screech of brakes, a thump, and then the inspired cursing of a couple of guys who, though I couldn’t see them, sounded big and mean and mad.


                “Come on, Guff!” I hissed and we slunk back into the heart of the Wagonwheel where we could hide.  Presently the truck, possibly dented, restarted and faded into the distance. 


                Spence Turner was my frequent companion in the Wagonwheel.  We bulldozed our way through the tangles and got lost.  It’s tough to get lost in 150 acres most of the time, but the Wagonwheel is such a maze that being 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. 


              There were times that I feared we might have to call out search and rescue teams to find errant members of our hunting party, adrift in the Wagonwheel, but we usually could locate them by the sound of heartfelt, top of the voice obscenity.


                But the rewards of challenging the Wagonwheel were an hour 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 the 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). 


                Once Spence took his, setter Mike to the Wagonwheel for the first time. Mike, a rangy, big headed setter, was, to put it charitably, as dumb as a bucket of rocks. You could pitch him a treat and, unlike most bird dogs who snap it out of the air like a major league second baseman fielding a pop fly, Mike would let the treat hit him on the head and bounce off to the floor, and then after a time lapse perhaps of canine contemplation, would open his mouth—better late than never.


            Mike ambled through the fringes of the Wagonwheel, as usual befuddled, and then a minor miracle occurred. A woodcock sprang over the watery interior of the place, Spence shot, and the bird tumbled dead some 20 feet into deep water. The choices for retrieval were few. Swim for it in what amounted to ice water, leave it unretrieved (something no ethical hunter ever does), or encourage poor mentally challenged Mike to go after the bird. Mike had seen the bird fall, looked at Spence as if for instructions, and then without command lunged into the frigid water, swam with powerful strokes to the fallen bird, grasped it in a gentle mouth, returned to shore and dropped it in Spence’s waiting hand.


             That night as we luxuriated in the depth of sleep, we were jolted awake by what at first seemed like an earthquake, an unusual if not unique phenomenon for northern Minnesota. Spence’s bed was heaving and lurching as if in the grip of some unseen science fiction monster, threatening to hurl Spence to the floor. After we got it sorted out, it turned out Mike had crawled underneath the bed and, perhaps in the grip of a bad dream, had come awake and lurched to his feet, thrashing in panic. Perhaps he was dreaming of the ultimate woodcock retrieve. It was somewhat of a relief to have the old Mike back.


                We hunted far more congenial places than the Wagonwheel—in fact every one of them was more congenial.  But the Wagonwheel rewarded hunter 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 felt so good when he stopped.


                Several years ago my son-in-law, Ron DeValk, and grandson Nickolas went back for a season 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, was not mine anymore.  I doubt that the family who now owns the place ever will hunt it for grouse and woodcock.  Chances are they don’t even know what unseen treasures live within its forbidding interior.  The Wagonwheel now is just another flyspeck on the huge 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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