The center of my sporting universe—the place where all roads lead, come grouse and woodcock season—is a nondescript former farmhouse tucked into a seldom-visited corner of far northeastern Wisconsin. It stands on the west side of a north-south gravel road that, on a busy day, might see four vehicles an hour. If you didn’t know the house was there you’d likely drive right past; a thick hedge of lilacs and wild plums, several apple trees, and a copse of skyscraping spruces shield it from view, and if you happen to glance down the narrow lane what you’ll see is a patch of mowed grass that funnels back to a derelict-looking Quonset hut.
The house itself isn’t much to look at, either, although it’s been spiffed up recently by the addition of vinyl siding and new windows. A crackerbox with a small screen porch extending off the main entrance, it’s cabin-sized but lacking the curb appeal that the term “cabin” typically connotes. The idea that a family once lived here, milking a few cows and wringing what crops they could from the stony soil, is sobering.
Still, the house has two qualities that made it irresistible to Andy Cook when he was looking for a place that could serve as a hunting camp in that game-rich, people-poor part of the world: good bones and indoor plumbing. Several 40s of land were available, too, so Andy ponied up for the whole shebang. Someone dubbed it “Andy’s Acres,” and the name stuck.
Luxurious it ain’t, but it’s a darn comfortable place to hunt out of. The bathroom and kitchen are up-to-date; the gas grill on the screen porch cranks out steak-searing BTUs; the living room has three working recliners, a springy new sofa, and Dish TV. (Approximately 98% of the baseball I watch in any given year is at Andy’s Acres in the fall.) There are seven beds, eight if you count the sofa, although when you factor in the space taken up by dogs six hunters is really the practical maximum.
During peak occupancy last grouse and woodcock season nine dogs were in camp: two Labs, two goldens, two German shorthairs, and three English setters. That may sound like a lot but it’s considerably short of the record, which if memory serves stands at fourteen. This was an occasion when we had some guest hunters in camp in addition to the core group of Andy, Don Steffin, Erik Forsgren, Terry Barker, and myself. Mike Wickman is another regular although he typically makes it up to Andy’s Acres only for the “Woodcock Weekend” hunt in early October.
Woodcock Weekend is the highlight of the social season at the Acres although whether or not the woodcock flight is “in” can, depending on the weather, be a dicey proposition. Some years the timing is spot-on; others, we have to scrape and scuffle to get shooting. Somehow, though, we always manage to enjoy ourselves.
The décor at Andy’s Acres is hunting camp eclectic: deer antlers (none of them very impressive); sporting and wildlife art from Audubon, A.B. Frost, Lynn Bogue Hunt, Bob Kuhn, Owen Gromme, David Maass, Chet Reneson, Eldridge Hardie, Peter Corbin, and others whose names I can’t recall; photos clipped from old magazines; a couple of vintage outdoor-themed pin-ups; the framed cover of an album by Wisconsin native Dave Dudley, whose trucking anthem “Six Days on the Road” is the unofficial Andy’s Acres theme song. There’s a wooden clock shaped like a crappie and another clock that signals the top of every hour with different gamebird sounds, including a drumming grouse and a peenting woodcock.
Nothing matches, but it all works.
The big old apple tree that stands west of the house is the deer feeder. There are always a couple of does and their fawns who show up periodically, day and night, to clean up the fallen fruit, and because the kitchen and bathroom windows afford a westerly view we spend a lot of time watching the wildlife show. Flocks of turkeys sometimes troop through, and every so often we spy a grouse perched in the apple’s upper branches, sampling the buffet.
Our more typical experience of these apple tree grouse, though, is to return to the Acres after hunting, emerge from our vehicles into the long shadows of
late-afternoon, and sense, in the hollows of our chests, the sonic disturbance of their sudden departures.
“Five-o’clock Charlies,” we call these yardbirds.
The real beauty of Andy’s Acres, of course, is that it stands at the doorstep to literally thousands upon thousands of acres of the finest public-land grouse and woodcock cover anywhere. If location is truly everything, the Acres is the inn at the gates to paradise. We rarely drive more than half-an-hour to hunt; 45 minutes is the absolute max.
Our covers have waxed and waned over the years, as grouse and woodcock covers do. String of Pearls, Monday Morning, and Woodcock Heaven are no more; The Fez, Two Skippers, and the Gun Club are in the ascendancy. Entire generations of dogs have come and gone as well, their names carved into the bark of our souls: April, Emmy, Willie, Babe, Maggie, Ilsa, Popper, Pip, Chase, the hallowed roll goes on.
Some of the names today: Senna, JJ, Molly, Mika, Rumor.
I’ve hunted at Andy’s Acres for thirty seasons now—a gift from Andy Cook that I can never hope to repay—and if there’s one defining image it’s the group of us cleaning birds, the last light splintering through the maples at the edge of the yard, the warmth seeping out of the day. A couple of us sit on the porch steps; a couple others sit on folding director’s chairs set up on the grass. The younger dogs sniff around and make minor nuisances of themselves; the older ones have already moved inside to escape the traffic and find a quiet place to lick their torn and bloodied hides. Borne on the flare of sunset, the music of southbound Canadas feels like a benediction.
We pull feathers and split the skins of breasts, some still warm, others gone cold, stripping the parts we don’t want into five-gallon plastic buckets lined with garbage bags while pausing now-and-then to suck on the beers we keep reliably close to hand. Some of us save our woodcock wings for mailing to the Fish & Wildlife Service, which ages and sexes them to help get a handle on the status of the population. Considering all that the bird gives us, it seems like the least we can do.
We replay the events of the day ad infinitum, the points and flushes and retrieves, the glorious hits and the baffling misses, the woodcock that augered us into the ground trying to track their corkscrew flight and the grouse that we experienced as little more than thunder in the popples. There is needling and laughter, reverie and wonderment, the easy banter of old friends in a place where no one is judging, comparing, or keeping score; a place suffused, in every trembling leaf and frost-etched blade of grass and twitching yip of a dreaming
dog, with a generosity of spirit such as I’ve never known. That is the constant, the quality that sets Andy’s Acres apart.
It’s a kind of magic, really, and no one but Andy himself could have conjured it. He sets a tone of irrepressible good cheer—there’s something of the Santa in him—and his expectations for his guests are straightforward: Pull your weight, contribute what you can, treat the property as if it were your own, and
enjoy yourself. Those who don’t meet the standard aren’t invited back. It’s pretty simple.
To a few of us Andy has extended an additional privilege: permission to use the Acres even when he’s not there. By now we know the drill: turn on the pump and crank up the hot water heater upon arrival, reversing the procedure upon departure; take home your garbage for disposal and your towels and washcloths for laundering; don’t leave any dirty dishes in the sink or food that might spoil in the fridge; make sure the place is as spic-and-span when you lock the door behind you as it was when you opened it.
Again, pretty simple.
Some of the prettiest Northwoods rivers you’ll ever lay eyes on run through the country surrounding Andy’s Acres, rivers of such sublimely entrancing beauty that the state of Wisconsin protected them under a “Wild and Scenic” designation in the mid-1960s—before the Feds even had a Wild and Scenic Rivers program. They all hold trout, too, although at the risk of exposing a dirty little secret they look a lot troutier than they actually are.
Still, I try to get up to the Acres to fly-fish at least once or twice a year, usually in May or early June when the trilliums are in snowy full bloom, the cool
North Country air is subtly perfumed, and the cock grouse are still on their drumming logs. Of course I use these trips as scouting expeditions, too, my credo being that you can never have too many grouse and woodcock covers in your “portfolio.”
Sometimes in midsummer I’ll drive to the Acres for no reason other than to get away, escape the domestic grind (with my wife’s blessing, I hasten to add), and spend time in what is simply one of my favorite places on earth, a place full of happy memories and good feeling. I’ll putz around in the tiny iris bed I planted a few years ago (invariably in need of serious weeding), cook up something for dinner that I could never get away with making at home—a blue cheese bacon burger with caramelized onions and jalapeños, for example—crack open a can of ice-cold Point beer (OK, probably more than one), tune the radio to 91.7 WXPR in Rhinelander (Blues Friday or, if it’s a Saturday, Country Legends), and make a night of it.
Tina will be along, too, and if anything the Acres holds more happy memories for her than it does for me. As much as she enjoys curling up on the couch, though, I suspect she wonders why the hell we’re hanging around the cabin and not going hunting.
She’s spent eleven seasons there and the number of birds she’s pointed in that time has to be close to four figures. This may sound fantastic (even in this era when grotesque exaggeration seems to be the norm) but consider this: One morning a few years ago, in a heartbreakingly gnarly cover we call The Island, she pointed in excess of 30 woodcock for Andy and me in an hour-and-a-half. When you factor performances like that into the equation you can understand how the score adds up.
Also, just as a point of information, it did not require 30-plus woodcock finds for Andy and me to get our limits. As miserably as we shot that morning, it just seemed that way.
Nowhere do I drink more deeply of autumn’s wine than at Andy’s Acres; nowhere is its vintage more intoxicating. To be anywhere else on a crisply perfect fall day—the kind of day that dawns with frost and whose air holds a bite—is to feel the desperation of a drunk who can’t put his lips to a bottle. All I can do is try to hang on, knowing it’ll still be there when I get back, and that nothing will have changed.