The tool need not be new, nor heirloom, nor name-brand. It need only be right for the job.
And the job must be a real one. Not an excuse to use the tool.
Legs burning, steam pumping, heart working at a healthy-feeling pace beneath layers of merino wool and fleece. Layers that are constantly revised to avoid sweat or chill. Zippers open or closed, orange hat ear flaps turned up or pulled down.
The ash and rawhide snowshoes bound to my pac boots, finally adjusted just right, float me above hip-height powder and buried head-height deadfalls. My left hand steadies my progress on limb and trunk, while a bolt-action .22 rifle balances easily in my right.
The other hunters are configured similarly. Except maybe their snowshoes are magnesium USGI surplus, or their rifle is a lever-action or autoloader.
Working four abreast, we take swift country-devouring steps, over windthrown aspen and spruce, alder and mountain-maple tangles. In fact we travel easier than if we were wearing upland boots and there was no snow at all.
This snowy trekking is a welcome pleasure, just like the flush in our cheeks in the ten-degree air. Pleasure in needing a tool for its purpose and having it. We are not snowshoeing or shooting or exercising. No groomed trails, shot-up beer cans, or heart-rate monitoring.
We are hunting snowshoe hares in the Superior National Forest, along the brushy edge of a black spruce swamp, in three feet of soft snow, with .22s and snowshoes, and here, now, it could not be done any other way.
Of course the hares themselves are really the ones with the right tools. As the days shorten in the fall they turn snowy-white, and their oversized and heavily-furred rear paws keep them on top of the softest snow. Surely dozens watch us walk by, safely hidden in their tiny deadfall snow-caves. But we find a few.
Later, we’ll break out more just-right tools to turn them into food. A Dutch oven and a day’s braising fills the house with volatile particles of caramelized protein, upcycled by the hare from unpalatable spruce and tamarack buds into dark purple meat. In our skulls these maillard molecules are keys that unlock ancient feelings of home, comfort, and pleasant hunger. In the oven, the tough, lean meat slowly relaxes into a rich, velvety supper, with wild rice and root vegetables.
We save the rear paws, too, cured and dried. The same toe-fur that floats the hare on the soft boreal snow will also float a Hendrickson emerger imitation on the Manistee River this spring. The afternoon Hennie hatches of late April are the first big bug action of the year, and they bring out the first sky-looking big browns of the year. The hare’s foot wing — delicate, curly, waterproof — suspends the curved body of the fly just beneath the surface film, the right key to unlock the trouts’ compulsion to eat. Sometimes.
But those things come later. Future warm evenings in the kitchen and at the tying desk to be enriched by the memory of this cold backcountry afternoon.
At dusk we’re unstrapping our snowshoes and casing our rifles. A cold snow is falling, dusting over today’s tracks, freshening the woods for tomorrow’s hunt.
A great horned owl calls from the dark line of spruces.
“Who’s out late?” we think we hear her ask, imposing words on the familiar cadence of hoots. We don’t answer, but she finishes anyway. “Me, too,” she says.
Her true meaning is ancient and alien and wild. We can’t see her but can imagine her yellow eyes and clenched talons, radar-dish face swiveling, listening for hare heartbeats beneath the snow. Not just the right tools, in her case. Perfect ones.