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  • Writer's pictureAllen Crater

Wandering Wilderness

Updated: May 31

Two men wearing orange while bird hunting

Seger's Against the Wind choruses in the background while lazy wipers slap back and forth and tires hum over damp blacktop.

The years rolled slowly past

And I found myself alone

Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends

I found myself further and further from my home, and I

Guess I lost my way

There were oh-so-many roads

I was living to run and running to live

Never worried about paying or even how much I owed

Moving eight miles a minute for months at a time

Breaking all of the rules that would bend

I began to find myself searching

Searching for shelter again and again

Against the wind

We were runnin' against the wind

We were young and strong, we were runnin' against the wind

Time-tested lyrics punctuate the mood in the truck. I'm with my buddy, Jason, rolling up I-75 towards Michigan's Upper Peninsula to chase woodcock and ruffed grouse on Drummond Island, a local recreational treasure and the second largest freshwater island in the states, covering 83,000 acres, and boasting over 140 miles of rugged shoreline, 133 square miles of forested landscape, and thirty-four inland lakes.

Well those drifter's days are past me now

I've got so much more to think about

Deadlines and commitments

What to leave in, what to leave out

Against the wind

I'm still runnin' against the wind

I'm older now but still runnin' against the wind

Brushing up close to the half century mark, we're both older now, but, like Seger, still running, at least sometimes, against the wind.

Mackinac Bridge lit up at night

Image by Eric Shaeffer

It's been a tough summer for Jay, spending most days at his parent's house with his younger brother, Phillip, who has some severe disabilities, while Mom waited bedside with Dad in the hospital. Hopeful for a transplant and, frankly, running out of time. 110 days in and counting. But Dad finally has his new lungs and goes home next Tuesday. Everyone can breathe a little easier.

Jason never complained even though as a teacher summers are his only real respite. His chance to recharge, to gain back some of the sanity lost – most often in the river with a bamboo rod in hand, or behind the wheel of the red Tacoma blazing backroads and forgotten dirt lanes.

Though he was grateful for the time with his brother, the stress of Dad’s situation was getting to him. Like an old hunting shirt, he looked worn thin, threadbare, and a bit unraveled. I could see it in the lines of his face, and the tiredness in his eyes. I could hear it in the low timber of his normally commanding voice.

I've been wearing a mantle of heaviness too. A slower year with the business, coupled with a stressful real estate transaction, the requisite responsibilities of middle-aging, and not nearly enough nature therapy has left me worn to a nub.

Red Tacoma driving down a dirt road among colored trees

Image by Eric Shaeffer

We can count only a meager handful of outings together this season. Less fishing, less bird chasing, less pointless backroad joy riding, heated debates, and fireside bullshitting. Only the sporadic texts to check in on Dad or a quick phone call here and there to inquire about families and work. But the five-hour drive gives us a chance to set that right. In person, instead of blunted sentences typed on tiny, cursed electronic screens.

Nym, Jason's six-year-old Braque Francais, curls up in the back, feigning sleep. But there's a nervous excitement that's not easily tamped down when the gun cases get loaded, and she's not fooling anyone. I've taken to calling her "Brown Dog" after Harrison's beloved down-on-his-luck U.P. Native who goes on a road trip from Michigan to Montana in search of answers and a chance at redemption. It seems fitting.

Brown hunting dog looking up

Image by Eric Shaeffer

The truth is we all need an escape – Jason, me, and even Brown Dog. A getaway. A walkabout. Some miles underfoot and fresh air in the face. And this trip, more than the hunt, is about that. No agenda, no schedule, no alarm clock. Just open spaces and time to wander. The double guns we carry are thin excuses; a way to dignify the outing. Give it purpose. Make it something more than just two aging friends walking around in the woods. But a tramp through young poplar groves, bumpy drives down unknown backroads, and the boundless joy of watching sporting dogs work, that's what we're really after.

It's 10:30 when we roll into Island View Resort in Cedarville, on the U.P. mainland and, like Motel 6, they've left the light on for us. Our buddy Eric and his English Setter, Cricket (soon to be dubbed White Dog), show up just a bit behind. After some quick catching up, we lay plans for the following day. Eric will be up early to hunt with another group in the area; Jason and I intend to take a more leisurely approach, sleeping in, catching up with friends in town, and then a quick hunt on the mainland before heading off to Drummond for the rest of the already abbreviated outing.

Fishing boat in a marina at sunrise

The eastern sky begins to glow pink, then orange, and then yellow over the lake and through the blinds in my pine-paneled room. Jason and I busy ourselves with re-packing the truck. Brown Dog watches eagerly from the wrong side of the worn screen door. We load up and point the headlights toward Les Cheneaux Coffee – a small-batch roasting company that traces its start to a garage and a dream. Jason's friends Jen and David finally had enough of the claustrophobia of the city and took a leap of faith, moving their young family to Cedarville seven years ago to chase a simpler life closer to nature and further from people.

A bell over the door announces our arrival – the rich aroma of brewed coffee blends perfectly with lively chatter and the smell of something fresh baked. Regulars crowd the small space, including the local "table of wisdom," occupied by a group of older gentlemen holding court. They look the part: outdoorsy, well-read, and world-wise. Lifetimes of stories tucked behind twinkling eyes, knowing smiles, and easy laughs. Gray hairs hidden beneath weather-worn Kromers and one bright beret.

Dave doesn't notice us at first, then recognition hits and he scrambles over, grabbing Jason in a bear hug and offering me a hearty handshake. Jay, Dave, and Jen bring each other up to speed on recent happenings while I get to work on black coffee and warm pastries, doing my best to gather intel from the table of wisdom without getting busted. I pick up a few morsels here and there. Fishing reports – the perch are in. Weather – it's the first day without rain in the last four. And even birds – the numbers are down but they can be found if you know where to look.

Brown spotted hunting dog looking out the door of truck

Image by Eric Shaeffer

Back in the truck Brown Dog watches impatiently from the driver's seat. Judging by her glare, it's clear she'd have left us behind hours ago if she'd only had the means. But we're finally in the hunt – rolling to a cover Jason marked while visiting last year– and the anticipation is as thick as pea soup in November. Brown Dog is vibrating and my heart bangs against my ribs. A happy-as-hell grin creases Jason’s face for the first time in a while.

We've barely parked and gotten out of the doors when Nym flushes the day's first bird, a woodcock, right off the two-track. We call her back, quickly gear up, and begin working the covers. Young popple groves, thick cedar edges, tangles of tag alder, oak stands, and berry brambles. In all we flush six birds, but never even shoulder the guns. It doesn't dampen a bit of excitement for any of us.

The car ferry crossing to Drummond Island

Image by Eric Shaeffer

Loaded back up we make the short drive to the Village of DeTour, where we'll catch the next car ferry to the island. The boats run the one-mile, ten-minute trip hourly and we board along with several other trucks, RVs, and trailers loaded with farm equipment, side-by-sides, and fishing boats.

Drummond Island is located on the old French trader’s northwest canoe route, from Montreal via the Ottawa and French Rivers to Georgian Bay, then through the North Channel. Early couriers, missionaries, traders, and Indian paddlers skirted the shores of Manitoulin, Cockburn, and Drummond Islands en route to the fur trade and mission posts of the Great Lakes. Drummond is known as part of the Grand Manitoulin, which is scientifically known as the Manitoulin archipelago.

The natives knew it as Potagannipy and the British called it High Island because of the high limestone cliffs. It received its current name from Sir Gordon Drummond, who was the commander of the lake district during British occupation after the War of 1812. The island was the last British outpost on American soil following the Treaty of Ghent, finally returned to American hands in 1828. Drummond Island is the only island in the Manitoulin chain that is part of the United States.

Image by Eric Shaeffer

We disembark and make the winding drive to Papin's Resort, tucked along the timbered shoreline of Scott's Bay on the Northwest side, our home away from home for the next couple days. Inside we find Eric watching baseball. He has a couple of timberdoodles and a beautiful grey-phase to show for his earlier efforts. We admire his photos, unpack, grab a few snacks, and relax before heading out for the evening hunt.

Picture of a woodcock

Image by Eric Shaeffer

We're all new to the island, so tonight we hit an obvious location, a GEMs (Grouse Enhanced Management) site just across the way from our place. It's a 2,800-acre, habitat-rich location that includes nine and half miles of cut walking trails. GEMs blocks are notorious for heavy hunting, but we roll the dice when we find only one other vehicle in the parking area. Avoiding the obvious trails we push through thick cover for over five miles without a single point, flush, or shot fired, before emerging only mildly scratched up on the far end of the unit, two road miles from the truck. We walk back in good spirits and scout a promising and less-obvious location for tomorrow's hunt, before the last of the purple light fades from the sky.

It's getting late so we forgo cooking for something easier. The neon lights outside the Northwood Bar and Restaurant summon like a beacon, and we settle into a table near the back, away from the crooning duet on the small wooden stage. The place harbors an entertaining mix of locals, anglers, hunters, trail riders, and tell-tale tourists here for the fall foliage. I snap a group photo for the four couples in their matching red and black plaid hats and shirts before ordering the whitefish special, a local favorite.

Man smoking in the dark outside a bar

Image by Eric Shaeffer

We settle up and head back to the cabin to catch some sleep before tomorrow's outing. the dogs finally slowing down enough to curl up with their respective owners before the lights go out and the snoring begins.

Once again, faint morning light from the bedside window serves as a wake-up call and I'm up fixing bacon, eggs, and coffee for the group. My stirring wakes the dogs, and the smell of coffee drags their owners from their tangled cocoons. As we dress for the day and begin sorting gear, the Pavlovian response is predictable – whining and pacing until we can get both White Dog and Brown Dog securely loaded in the truck.

a red truck parked among brightly colored trees in fall

We take a slightly longer route to the spot that was scouted the evening before, chasing a doe and fawn off the road on the way in. Light paints the tops of the brightly colored trees as we head into the cover. It's not long before the first flush, a woodcock that surprises us all, including the dogs. Three shots ring out, but none find their mark.

Old wooden sign in the woods

Pushing further, a weathered sign announces we've entered the Wandering Wilderness. We work it thoroughly, emerging sweat stained behind dogs whose dripping pink tongues hang sideways from their smiling faces. A quick tailgate break for water, coffee, and pipes is needed before moving on.

Nym has a cut on her leg, so she's banished to the truck, or at least that's how she sees it, and White Dog takes the lead. Eric works her into the light breeze through the thick growth wedging the middle, Jason follows the right edge, and I'm flanking the left as we carefully creep forward. We cover it thoroughly without moving a thing. Near the end a berry bush in a fallow field sags with fall bounty. I'm momentarily struck by the beauty before an explosion of sound sends me into paralysis and two wise old drummers bust straight away and out of sight before the thought of raising my gun even crosses my now-blank mind. I can only laugh and applaud the birds for their heroic escape, against the wind no less, before concocting an explanation for my compatriots. It's a fitting end to the hunt.

Daylight is fast fading from the sky as tires hum along blacktop. I sneak a glance at Brown Dog sleeping soundly in the backseat and catch Jason grinning while "Free Bird" choruses from the radio.

I watch the colored trees blur past, struggling to stifle a smile of my own.

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