Saturday, August 31, 2013

Spruce Berries

Only two things can produce euphoria such as this: Spruce Grouse and the promise of blueberry pie.

Spruce Grouse are extraordinary creatures in that their very existence compels human beings to drive inordinate distances and donate quarts of blood to thirsty insects for the mere chance to glimpse this dappled boreal chicken. I, for one, am not immune to their spells, nor are my comrades Harold Eyster and Alison Világ. For this reason, we found ourselves wandered down sandy Clark Lake Road, scrutinizing the trees and underbrush for grouse-shaped objects.

 One could call it birding. In reality, rather than walking or birding our way down the road, we slapped and joked and laughed deeper into the bog as the light faded and the mosquitoes crescendoed. Harold and Alison slapped, swore, and danced in an effort to assuage the suckers’ assaults. I attempted to employ Zen, convincing myself that the proboscises that pierced my skin caused me no pain or reason to react. My enlightenment produced only a triple layer of welts on my feet that took nearly a week to fade.

Upon reaching the end of the road without a grouse, or really any birds at all, Spruce Grouse virtuoso Alison had a suggestion. “On the way back, let’s be quiet and see what happens.”

Easier said than done. Anything said when martial law demands silence is automatically funny, so we choked on our laughs as we retraced our steps.

Harold, quite accurately perceiving that the dozens of mosquitoes latched onto my feet were causing me pain, repeatedly came to my aid. “Jeez, Neil,” he said, stomping on the little vampires. “There you go, buddy.”

On one such occasion, I was standing in the middle of the track, stroking my fifty-seven chin hairs and pondering whether the faint sounds I was hearing were the work of a Red Squirrel gnawing a pinecone, an exceptionally large beetle scraping on spruce bark, or a Spruce Grouse munching on needles.

Stomp.I’ve seen you four times,” he whispered.

What?” I hissed in return.

We’ve only seen each other four times,” he explained.

Wait…now, Colorado—“

He cut me off. “No, I’m not counting now. And actually, it’s five.

Inexplicably, we found this hilarious. Ahead of us, Alison turned and hurled visual poison darts to express her displeasure with our poorly stifled snorts. We quickly sobered up and continued to scan the boughs.

We rounded a bend. “Spruce Grouse,” Harold announced nonchalantly. My initial reaction was skepticism; surely he was being facetious. But—no. A male Spruce Grouse scurried in the sandy road a hundred meters ahead. It soon burrowed into the roadside undergrowth. We stealthily approached, and, tracing faint rustling sounds in the blueberry shrubs, found in stripping the sweet sapphires that we ourselves had been feasting on throughout the day.

Excellent. However, that is not the end of the story. Birding, particularly when done with such charismatics as Harold and Alison, is rarely the mere pursuit of birds. This expedition to the Upper Peninsula was a pretext for the excessive consumption of blueberries. It all began innocently enough; an occasional handful stripped as we trekked to the tip of Whitefish Point.

But, to the eternal regret of the blueberries, our plundering took on megalithic proportions when discussed how fun it would be to bake a blueberry pie in the campfire. The pillaging saw no limits as we plucked berry after berry to transform this romantic whim to reality.

Accoutering ourselves with a pie crust, sugar, and tin foil in Paradise, we detoured to make the aforementioned Spruce Grouse search, gorging ourselves on a quart and a half of Bear Claw ice cream on the drive to Clark Lake. After our triumph, we made an incognito pause along a county road to acquire fuel for the fire.

The dashboard of the Stinkpot after the Spruce Grouse campaign. From left to right: bandana, headlamp, binocular strap, DeLorme atlas, empty ice cream carton, pie crust, sugar, Furious George, day pass for Hartwick Pines State Park.

What emerged from the glowing coals half an hour later was, we agreed, the tastiest blueberry pie any of us had every tasted. We felt an odd communion with the Spruce Grouse. Blueberry-eaters, all of us.