After a week of spirited and exhausting grouse hunting in the million-acre Hiawatha National Forest, Mike and I took a glass-bottomed boat for a shipwreck tour in Lake Superior’s clear waters near Munising. We didn’t see the infamous iron ore ship Edmund Fitzgerald, which sunk in more than 300 feet of water in the middle of the lake. However, through the tour boat’s glass hull we saw The Bermuda, a wooden canal schooner, fully intact. Sunk in only thirty feet of water in the 1860s, the details of the well-preserved ship were clearly visible. After the boat ride we celebrated our last day in the U.P. picnicking on the shore with smoked whitefish and Yooper beer, while our hunting dog raced the waves up and down the long, sandy beach.
The shortest way home from is through Canada. We exited the United States through Sault Ste Marie, a town that straddles both sides of the border and locks that connect Lake Superior with Lake Huron. From there to Ottawa lies vast expanses of deciduous, coniferous and then scrub forests punctuated by pristine blue lakes. This road trip gives a lot of time and space for your mind to wander and daydream.
I found myself replaying our grouse hunts. Our six-year-old Hungarian Pointer named Reggie found grouse in the deepest, impenetrable scrub Aspen forests, holding his point until we could find him in the thicket. When he thought we were taking too long he’d shake his head just enough to tinkle his collar bells giving us a hint of his location. When the grouse flushed, they flew erratically and low in the dense foliage. Most often we didn’t have a shot but when we did, we missed!
As we drove through Blind River, Ontario I recalled one bird that I should have hit. It was a classic hard left-angle, trapshooting shot. Sure, there were saplings between me and the grouse, but if you just follow through with the shot you have a decent chance of hitting it. Thinking about the miss, I flashed to the advice of an old trapshooting colleague, David George. He was a longtime friend of my late husband, Dick Baldwin. Every February in the late 90s and early aughts, Dick and I would head to Florida to “compete” in the Southeast Grand Trapshooting Tournament. Mostly, it was a great way to escape for a week Connecticut winters and eat fresh seafood.
David George and his wife Peggy lived during the winter on the trapshooting and golf course resort grounds. They were a spry, engaging couple in their 80s and David always insisted that Dick and I come for lunch every day of the competition. We were happy to accept their invitation as their home was a welcome break from the hot tournament grounds. Peggy put out a light, but luscious spread. David had a passion for German beers and cuisine. Since I hail from Milwaukee, we had a lot of lively banter about German culture.
In addition, he had always insisted that I indulge in a small pour of his latest find of dark Bavarian beers.
"You’ll shoot better. It relaxes you without slowing your reflexes. Though the effect is mostly in your head since the alcohol you’re consuming is miniscule.” His bright, intensely blue eyes would laugh with delight.
David’s advice couldn’t be ignored. He was a competitive AAA-class shooter who had been inducted in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 2001, as well as a consummate bird hunter. He and Dick would recall legendary fall hunts at his Adirondack-style cabin on a 500-acre parcel of land in northeast Pennsylvania with perhaps a half dozen other hunters. The three or four days included evenings filled with poker-playing, Scotch, cigars, elaborate game dinners and practical jokes; e.g., deer head mounts nestled under bed covers while the occupant slept. He was well-read with sharp insights in politics and culture.
I couldn’t turn down either Dave’s charms or offer of beer. And, my scores actually edged up in the afternoon, though the liverwurst and Black Forest rye he’d scored at a German deli might have contributed to my shooting brilliance.
This tradition of lunching with the Georges went on for years, even when David became terminally ill.
“Maybe we should just stop over for a brief visit. And not every day,” Dick said to David on the telephone. “You probably need your rest.”
“Nonsense,” he croaked. “You tell Sally I’ll have her beer. Peggy can pick it up.”
The first day we saw Dave, we were shocked by his sunken cheeks, weight loss, and skin pallor. He was stretched on the couch, his tall and lanky frame bundled in a crocheted blanket. His stack of books on the end table had been replaced with an assortment of meds. Still, when he saw us those blue eyes—watery and bloodshot—sparkled like the gulf waters of Tarpon Bay.
We traded small talk. He wanted to know about our flight to Tampa. Did we have tickets to the Yankees game at their winter training facility in St. Pete? We inquired if he’d been shooting trap lately. No. Dined at the German restaurant? No. Planned to go back up north to home in New York for the summer? Probably not.
My heart clinched. How could this happen to the robust man who so loved life and a year ago seemed like he was in the prime of life, despite being in his late 80s?
As he insisted, we came by every day that week for lunch. Each time we shortened our visit as Dave became increasingly fatigued and Peggy gave us a side glance: a signal of concern. As always, he wanted a complete report of our scores, trapshooters’ gossip, and what we planned to do for dinner.
I dreaded Friday, the last day in Florida and probably the last time we’d ever see him. As we stored our guns in the clubhouse lockers and strolled past the golf course to the Georges’ house, I resolved to remain upbeat. Throughout the week David had never complained, never talked about his health, and always had a quick retort or joke at hand. He maintained a stoic, upbeat attitude common in men of his generation.
Peggy ushered us into the living room. David was lightly dozing, breathing with a light wheeze.
We sat down and chatted with Peggy for a minute when David opened both eyes. “You’re here! Peg. Why didn’t you wake me up?” He looked annoyed.
Dick deflected and asked, “Dave, how are you feeling?”
“I feel…” David paused, took a deep breath, and a slow smile crept across his face. Those piercing eyes danced. Dick and I held our breath waiting to hear how Dave felt. “I feel like a band member on the deck of the Titanic!”
And then David exploded in laughter that sent him in a coughing fit followed by more laughter, all of us joining in.
When I saw a green milage sign that said Ottawa-430 kilometers, my mind snapped back to the present. I thought about the wonderful smoked whitefish and small brewery beers we’d consumed in the U.P. I thought about the missed grouse shots and that maybe David George’s advice would’ve been to drink a half of beer for breakfast before heading afield. Next time I go grouse hunting I’ll remember to have a little Spaten Optimator with my oatmeal.