The author looks into the myths, legends, and rituals of hunting stories in the North Country.
We have a preconceived notion that bird dog folk, like fishermen, tend to tell the best stories of the “ones that got away” and other undocumented events happening in the field. It’s my experience that New England partridge hunters are among the best storytellers — riddles with cultural adaptations, local lure, and many other yarns that tend to turn your eyebrow up.
There is such a place in the deep North Country of New Hampshire. Maybe expert would be an overstatement for me, but for more than 20 years of my life I’ve mingled in the mythical cabin of Wardens Worry and consider myself a conveyor of such tales. And I should elaborate — I consider storytelling to be a noble and vital trade.
The stories here are as tall as the mountains and a game of telephone (on CB radios) combined with copious drinking and socializing. Time seems to morph stories into legends. This is part of the allure of camp culture, a dying lifestyle hopefully not yet forgotten and in dire need of celebration.
Each time my truck tires transition from pavement to dirt the stories begin to flood my mind. Wild Bill, as he was known, would tell me of the time a Canadian logger was invited to the city of Berlin to compete in a lumberjack competition. With the sound of burning lanterns filling the cabin and deafening silence of the surrounding wilderness, the story would suck me into a time warp. After seeing the staging camps from the late 1800s overtaken in the forest, you can imagine the process that this past world entailed. Rivers littered with reminders of areas designed to flood the waters in order to float logs to that looming city in the south.
As Wild Bill’s story recounted, after the invitation was received, this logger was given the honor of being driven in the newly invented automobile! The story when told by Bill is told in a deliberate and slow manner that gives even more credence to the punch line. As the legend goes, he refused the invitation to ride on in what he deemed a dangerous contraption, instead responding that “he would ride a log down the Androscoggin river instead.” A safer proposition, to be sure.
That story always was my favorite. And the last time I spoke to Bill — he chose to spend his final days battling cancer deep in the wilderness inside the Wardens Worry without electricity but surrounded with his favorite lifestyle — he did what he does best: he gave me the local update. I received notice on where my father was along with Uncle Dennis as they pursued whitetail deer. Shooting a deer up there in the vastness of forest and with the sparse population is a whole ‘nother tall tale and legend in itself.
He gave insight to what the “boys camp” had going on along with others, the last moose sighting, and of course — as he knew what had called me back — where he’d been seeing ruffed grouse. Wild Bill was as seasoned a partridge hunter as there has ever been. With his .410 Thompson Contender and ATV he was the king of putting birds in the camp pot. I may go so far as to say he may have shot more partridge than anyone I know. Along the wall was a chalkboard with tally marks that logged every grouse, deer, bear, and moose sighted for the season. The dust from those chalk marks soaked into the old wooden floor below only to keep Bill’s story going that much longer.
There was another time I ventured back to those covers to film my uncle hunting. I would call him a seasoned “partridge” hunter. But as he would rant about not wanting to let a dog’s bell ruin the beautiful silence of the woods, I could never recall a single moment in my life where I saw him shoot a bird on the ground. He would always let them get up, and as far as I can recall, I do not remember him missing with that old Winchester double.
As we stood on the side of the mountain he pointed to a large mushroom on a tree. “I was once hunting in the pouring rain and I came along and saw a grouse standing under a big mushroom like that to stay out of the rain. I just kept going, figured I would shoot a different grouse and leave him alone.” Funny enough as I write this, I know the words are recorded verbatim in the Project Upland film, Partridge Country. But in due tradition I dare not get the words exactly right as I would not be adhering to the rules of letting a legend evolve.
Now I have my own stories, credible, as they come from Wardens Worry. There was the time I brought a friend from the upper Midwest on a wild goose chase on the “deepest” cover I knew with the “mother lode” of birds to be had in the pouring rain. Some hours of hiking and soaked to our underwear, turned out the mountain got logged . . .
But I recovered! Brought him over to where my infamous tale “The Battle of Squeeze Hole Brook” had occurred. For those not up to date on these tales it took place some years before I had a bird dog. I showed up unannounced with my Stoger side-by-side in the peak of deer season. Wild Bill, as always, gave me the local intel, and after a spent box of shells and limit of grouse in my bag the local camps were reporting over the CB that people had been moving loads of deer in the cover I was in. Bill, keeping the tales alive, did not correct anyone. But my uncle was quick to point out it sounded more like a battle than a grouse hunt with all the shots . . . No details have been disclosed on why and how that day went down. Legends grow bigger sometime without words.
And on the day I used this cover to recover from my poor judgement with my Minnesotan friend, and as story be told, we hit the mother lode. He shot his first New Hampshire grouse; Grim, my wirehaired pointing griffon, made a retrieve in the finest sense, and as we piled back in the truck in wet clothes another legend sprouted to be sent back West.
As my time and travel has increasingly pulled me away from the camp of Wardens Worry it’s made my time there that much more important. And this past season I was eager to share this storied backdrop with the Northeast Regional Director of the Ruffed Grouse Society, Joe Levesque, and the two folk he was mentoring in the film, Live for October.
Joe has a camp a town away, and as local is defined by essentially everything north of the White Mountains, he is seasoned on the traditions of camp culture in the Wardens Worry mix. We hunted together the day before our two guests arrived. As memory and legend serves me, Joe and I were conservative in our efforts to bag birds. Nevertheless, we just about shot a limit, each.
Grim’s legend as told by his official stay at the Wardens Worry involved multiple staunch points but none more legendary than when I shot two birds over him as 15 plus birds took flight. So many that I was able to break my CZ sharp-tail open, reload, and shoot the second. Joe never shot, but confirmed it. Legend sealed. Joking aside, it was one memorable day and there were a lot of birds on that point. How many exactly? I may never know, but what I wouldn’t give for video footage for a more accurate account. We ended the day on top of a mountain watching a slow drift of snowflakes, one to three inches the weatherman said.
The next morning I woke at camp to stoke the fire and looked outside to see that one to three inches had become 13 plus with the month of October still upon us. I met Zach Hein of CZ USA and Alex Costa of ANR Design as they chainsawed their way into camp with Joe, and we chainsawed our way out. “Welcome to the North Country,” I said as we greeted at a downed tree. Five miles of that mess, well four and a half to be exact, but not much of it was clear.
Grim’s work in snow went south at the way of heel hugging as most solid griffons will do in such conditions. Joe’s setters ran big and chewed up their pads. Alex and Zach gifted an opportunity to hunt woodcock in the snow which I would like to say is more unusual than it is, but it is not. It also goes with note to Jerry of Pineridge Grouse Camp in Minnesota (credited with coining the term “grouse camp”) that I did in fact see a woodcock land and stand on tree branch that day. Grim saw it too; bird dogs don’t tell lies. And as Joe assured me as they walked up one of Grim’s points, there was a spruce grouse . . .
Zach, a seasoned bird hunter from Kansas, in a moment of chaos managed to shoot his first ruffed grouse and it was on the wing. Joe made a solid retrieve over the river as Grim politely passed, owing to his fear of water.
That night at Wardens Worry we ate camp nuggets of grouse and woodcock and spoke of the stories of the uplands. I would say some of the words above are stretches of the truth — but as time, space, and my memories of that place mingle it seems hard to distinguish from good storytelling. Strangely, as this place does, I will say the more outrageous accounts tend to be the most factual as I have no doubt many of Wild Bill’s stories were. But I cannot help but laugh with a light heart and recall them in a way that they are properly humble and large tales in accordance with camp tradition.
In these legends, I can say with the surest of sense that at exactly 11:03 in the film Live for October, Wild Bill makes a cameo in the photo in the background as Joe lights a lantern. It never dawned on me until I started hatching this legend out in words hoping to preserve his memory. He was already at it, a local historian, legend in his own right, accomplished partridge hunter, and master storyteller. In the back of that photo he had written a note for his kids and grandchildren to find after he passed. Not many can keep telling stories after they’ve gone. And like old myths of the Greek classics, legends of the North Country continue, and in the truest sense, Bill’s memory is still carried on.
Last modified: October 7, 2019