Grouse season is a fine time of year. In southern Oregon, September nights are cool, even wintry at the higher elevations, but by midmorning summer has temporarily reestablished itself. At dawn, as you're preparing for the hunt, you'll be shivering in a heavy jacket, and the dog, frantic with anticipation, will be all but impossible to control. Then, by 10 or 11 a.m., you likely will have peeled down to a T shirt as you climb the region's steep slopes, hunting the berry patches and springs. When you find water, the dog will drink noisily. The deciduous trees along the creeks are turning. Everything has ripened, and soon all will be gone to winter. It is a good season, but one of melancholy change.
Last September, on a grouse-hunting day with my German shorthaired pointer, I learned that the changes people experience can be more abrupt and less predictable than seasons of the year.
During the drive up the north slope of Grizzly Peak, a covey of mountain quail crossed the gravel road in front of us. Visible only in silhouette in the gray early morning light, at least two dozen birds marched by in single file, quick-legged and erect as little soldiers. The moment I slowed the station wagon to let them pass, Otto saw them. His ears cocked forward, and he whined, then howled, then pawed at the window.
"No, Otto! Bad dog! Stop that noise!"
He stopped pawing, but, quivering with excitement, he whined until the last of the quail had disappeared. Fifteen minutes later and 1,000 feet higher, we parked. I knew that it was too early to find the grouse out feeding, but Otto didn't, so for half an hour I let him hunt at his own furious pace.
By the time we had worked around to the eastern slope of Grizzly, the sun was well into the sky. Otto's initial burst of energy had dissipated, and I had warmed with the morning.
"Close!" I told Otto. "Look around, but stay close now!"
I slowly circled a huge patch of elderberries—six or eight acres of them—that was surrounded by Douglas fir. Then I picked my way through the shrubs, Otto working from 10 to 20 yards ahead. In an hour we had combed the entire patch. Otto's tail wagged constantly, but it never became the blur that would have told me we were near a bird.
Up a slope beyond the fir trees was a spring. If the birds weren't feeding yet. I figured they were getting water. The climb was long and steep, and before we reached the spring I was sweating. I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist.
Water oozed out of the rocky mountainside and spread as it descended through a 100-yard-long triangle of lush green grass that grew knee high in the shade of the trees. At the bottom the triangle was more than 30 yards across. As soon as I started up through it, Otto hit the scent. With his nose twitching, he crept forward in search of the channel of scent that would lead to a bird. My boots sank into the wet, porous earth as I followed him. "Stay close!" I whispered.