North Woods Annie Oakley
As Marion roared up the sand driveway in her 1954 Jeep, Claire stepped out from her screen porch, a new Stevens double held tightly in her tiny hand. Claire’s husband Ted had purchased it at the hardware for her 44th birthday. The girls had planned a partridge hunt and a well deserved break from household chores and their husbands. A glorious north woods October sky intensified the emerging forest colors. Claire’s gait was stylish in her fur-trimmed boots. Marion didn’t pay much attention to fashion as she had grown up a tomboy.
“I made turkey sandwiches, a salad and even some raspberry pie,” Claire announced, as she cased her gun and carefully placed it next to her picnic basket in the back of the Jeep. Crisp sunlight found her face and highlighted her youthful skin.
“Thanks. I brought a jug of water and there’s some beef jerky that Vern left in the glove compartment,” Marion joked. “Is that your new shotgun?”
“Yes, I tried it out here at our turkey shoot in September. I actually snuck out of the kitchen for a spell and busted some clay pigeons. Ted says it fits me.”
Marion admired Claire’s domestic skills. In fact, she was trying to learn from her while at the same time sharing some skills of her own — like partridge hunting. The Jeep was sporting a simple canvas top as Marion had removed the doors just for the occasion. The two women whirled out the sand drive and onto the town road that led straight into the Tiger Muskie Capitol of the World – Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. Claire held on as they turned east onto Loon Lake Road and past the sign Ted had built. It read ‘Koehler’s Lounge’ in raised white letters on dark maroon. For Claire, Ted’s sign symbolized the achievement of their mutual goal – running a tavern and motel up North.
“I can’t believe you and your old man built this place yourselves,” Marion raved.
Claire confessed, “Customers come to watch the wildlife through all that glass Ted put in behind the bar. You know, I was against the idea at first. You wouldn’t believe what we paid for those windows!”
“As soon as folks heard that you had an albino deer coming to feed, your lot filled up in a hurry and us locals ended up parking down the road just to get a beer.” Marion complained.
“Oh, I know. We are now an official up North tourist attraction since that white deer found Ted. Can you believe my husband has that doe eating out of his hand? He spent more time this summer cozying up to that albino beauty than to me,” Claire further confided.
“Well, look at it this way Doll, if it makes the old man happy, why not? Besides, that ghost deer is good for business!” Marion stepped on it.
The Jeep flew by Loon Lake and through a deep deciduous forest that stood formidably beside the gravel. They came to a stretch of raspberry bushes that Claire had baked into pies last July. Marion slowed down knowing that partridge loved that spot. An expert driver, Marion even raced snowmobiles in the winter; something Claire would never dream of doing, yet she respected Marion and felt safe with her friend behind the wheel. They then turned sharply down an old logging road, one of many in the area. New growth aspens, now ablaze in bright yellow were everywhere. Marion stopped the Jeep and the girls got out.
“This place looks like heaven,” Marion remarked as they stood loading their guns. Marion shot a twelve-bore Parker with short barrels; a gun that Vern had bartered from a fellow for work on his snowmobile.
“Can you smell that Marion?” Claire inhaled deeply. The scent of fermented aspen leaves hung thick in the stillness.
“Yeah, I would wear this as a perfume if it were bottled. You know, I have been known to rub aspen leaves on my jeans in an attempt to interrupt Vern’s Hamm’s beer.” Marion spoke in a low tone and smiled devilishly. “’Hello Mr. Bear in land on the sky blue waters, ‘ I coax him.”
Claire, somewhat embarrassed by Marion’s innuendo, didn’t know right away how to respond, so she set off into the cover. Twenty paces out, she turned to Marion. “Speaking of pleasant aromas, I’ve got a great new recipe for partridge. I hope we get a few birds today. Maybe you and Vern can come over for Sunday dinner?”
Marion called back, “If I can pull Vern’s head out from under the hood of that ’44 Ford pickup he’s fixing up, it’s a double date.”
As the word “date” leapt out of Marion’s mouth a partridge exploded from a patch of willow sapling and fern in between the girls. Claire was surprised by how quickly she was able to spin the little Stevens up to her shoulder. Simultaneous shots silenced the woods and the boom hung in the air. A resounding thud brought relief to the moment. The flush had been slightly behind them; the bird was rising on thunderous wings at a steep angle and curving around a giant white pine. It seemed no wonder such a tree had been left by loggers to lord over the forest. The woods had been cut and left fairly open, except for one massive White Pine. From Claire’s vantage, her gun spoke just as the bird disappeared behind the towering tree.
“Marion, did you shoot?” Claire inquired.
“Yep, but I missed. Did you see where it landed?”
“Right here” Claire pointed to a pile of branches discarded by loggers. “Look – one handsome drummer boy for my new recipe!” Claire grabbed the bird and held it high. “Are you sure you missed?”
“Yeah, I was behind it as it cut around this giant pine.” Marion pointed up at the tree as she stood in its shadow wondering about the many years of its growth. “Crap Clair, this tree has got to be over a hundred years old.” Claire couldn’t take her eyes off the bird and gently stroked its bared tail feathers.
Marion insisted, “Look at this tree Claire – hold your bird up – there – you’ll never forget this moment. We’ll name this spot Pine Lord!”
Circling around the logging road and back toward the Jeep, Claire marched wide and headed for a blow-down on the edge of the woodcut. The ground felt tender and soft in its last hurrah before drying to a crackle in the grip of autumn. Her footsteps were almost silent, cat-like she thought. Intuition urged her to sneak in slowly.
“Perhaps there is a partridge loafing under this uprooted tree?” she whispered to herself.
Pushing at a limb with her fancy, fur-trimmed boot, Clair hesitated. Sure enough, a pair of partridge rocketed out the backside of the entanglement, low and out of sight, but toward Marion. Two shots rang out. Claire moved over to her friend.
“A double – sometimes I even surprise myself.” Marion was already holding the birds for closer inspection. “They both flew right across in front of me. My first shot was easy, but by the time I got on the second one, I only had a prayer through the trees.” Marion’s enthusiasm was contagious.
“I bird dogged those partridge out for you Marion. Nice shootin’ girl!” Claire pressed her hand on Marion’s arm and walked on.
After a fine lunch, complete with raspberry pie, the girls headed back west and toward the main road. With success in the air, their spirits were elevated. They both inhaled deeply as the wind whistled through the Jeep. The bright October sun spilled thick onto the forest floor, warming the day. Autumn’s first kiss painted the landscape against the evergreens and the remaining deciduous forest still dressed in summer. Without mention of the moment’s beauty, both of the girls exhaled simultaneously, smiles on their faces as the Jeep hurled down the gravel road, stones flying up behind them.
“Stop!” Claire hollered.
Marion slammed on the brakes.
“There.” Claire pointed to a partridge sitting up in a tree thirty yards out on her side. Claire was out of the Jeep loading her shotgun and sighted in by the time Marion looked back over to her.
“Fried breast fingers… in of all things… Ritz cracker crumbs.” Claire whispered while the Stevens remained motionless and on target. “What are you waiting for Grandma?” Marion ribbed.
“For the bird to fly… you know a sporting chance and all.” Claire whispered.
“Come on, we need another bird for that delicious Sunday dinner we’re cooking for the boys… and you know how much Vern eats.” Marion honked the horn and the bird launched off its perch. Almost at the same moment, the little Stevens barked and the bird crashed onto a bed of ferns.
Taking a shortcut back, Marion shifted into low as they came to a line of tag alders where the woods opened its grip into a long marsh.
“We are in between two narrow lakes. The ‘Muskie Pond’ as Ted calls it, is just on the other side of this marsh.” Marion shut off the engine.
The girls headed out along the edge of the marsh. A slight breeze now nipped from the north and across the open. In another month or so they might find themselves here with their husbands and their rifles; the marsh frozen over, looking to put venison in the freezer.
A woodcock twittered up and corkscrewed skyward. Waiting, instinctively until the bird cleared the forest canopy, Claire fired bringing it back down to earth not ten yards from her fancy feet. She knelt down admiring the odd looking bird and called over to Marion.
“From a woman’s perspective, I’d prefer to call this little game bird a timber-doodle.”
“You really waited for that shot” Marion teased. “Got a recipe for woodcock?”
Without missing a beat, Claire winced. “Well, I did read in this English cookbook that you can bake them with the viscera intact.”
“Maybe I’ll skip that dinner,” Marion added.
“All this talk of food – we should probably get back and fix dinner for our husbands?” Clair looked at her watch.
“Hell Claire, if Vern complains, I just tell him the bologna is in the fridge and he can stuff his own face!”
Faint laughter drifted off through the forest as they loaded up and headed back. When the girls rolled up to Koehler’s lounge, the boys piled out of the tavern. Vern had decided to quit work early and have a Hamms with Ted.
“Well, how’d you gals do?” Vern asked sheepishly, knowing darn well that chances were good his wife had bagged something. Claire quickly gathered up the birds and lifted them high for all to see.
Ted stomped his boot, camera in hand and exclaimed, “Damn Woman, you are a regular North Woods Annie Oakley. Let me get a picture of this!” Ted snapped the shutter on his Brownie loaded with film he had just purchased at the bait shop and announced “Beers are on me! Girls, you relax, Vern and I will clean the birds.”
Scott Winston is an outdoor writer and land broker in Colorado and South Dakota. He lives in Broomfield with his wife Leslie, their children Matthew and Marley and their two spaniels, Sunny and Fiona. For some great hunting pics, check out Scott’s website at: www.birdhuntingproperties.org