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On The Trail

On The Trail: Lucifer’s loop

I’m coming down the homestretch toward my annual December vacation, scurrying to tie up loose ends and button down fall chores on the home front before Thanksgiving while joyously following the dogs daily through alders, cattails and thorny clumps that’ll put a careless man flat on his face before he knows what hit him. Only the cautious escape unscathed ... most of the time.

I can be thankful indeed that six of the annual seven cords of hardwood I burn in my soapstone stove are under cover in the bloated woodshed— the majority of it high-BTU black locust — and that most of the yard work’s behind me, the cellar sealed tight against howling winter winds. Hopefully, once Turkey Day passes, I’ll be able to just sit back for a restful month, reading a writing and continuing to study the prehistory of Franklin County, focused, as always, on the center of it all, the falls called Peskeomskut and the hill overlooking it from the west, called Canada Hill by some and identified by the archaeological firm hired to explore it in 1996 as a continual multi-village and ceremonial site for more than 10,000 years. Yes, one must dig deep to find a copy of that buried 1996 draft, but it’s out there and represents a radically different story from the “official word” of the Penrick pro-growth gang. But, really, I’m getting a little ahead of myself here; more reading and probing required. I’m getting there, have key sources lined up. There’ll be time after vacation to delve in. It could get radioactive.

But, first, the subject that’s overwhelmed my thoughts the past week is a bizarre occurrence that unfolded before my own eyes last Thursday afternoon along the southwestern border of a dense Hadley swamp I frequent during pheasant season. There, for the second straight season, I encountered a most unfortunate and troubling development that just doesn’t sit right with me. Everyone with whom I have shared this sorry tale has implored me to inform the authorities. So, yes, I will report it in my own way, right here in this the space, where I have often aired grievances for more than 30 years.

With renewed interest sparked by a recent trip to Portland, Maine, for an annual archaeological conference, I had spent last Thursday morning reading an old book about French explorer Samuel Champlain, whose astute observations and detailed maps of the New World, and especially our Northeast, are still quite important to scholars trying to understand North America prior to the great European epidemics that wiped out much of the indigenous population before the Mayflower. I knew I was going to hunt later that day, but because it would be solo, I was in no hurry to fulfill my commitment to the dogs, who get only six weeks to perform the chore they were bred to master: that is pursuing, flushing and retrieving game birds for wing-shooters. I had already decided upon the Hadley site, a vast wetland I hadn’t hunted for about a week, thus figured it could be productive with a little leg work.

Finally, about noontime, I was ready to mobilize. I bookmarked the new chapter I had reached, laid the faded, red-cloth hardcover atop a stack of magazines under the lamp on an adjacent candlestand, and rose to put on my hunting garb, it warm and supple, draped over chairs next to the woodstove, the morning application of silicon dry on my boots, my knee brace pungent when near.

With my gun case and vest packed in the truck, I backed it around the barn’s southwest corner and Lily and Chubby were standing eager at the kennel door, wagging their tails enthusiastically. When I hopped out to drop the tailgate and open the porta-kennel doors, impatient Lily started barking like only a scolding menopausal lady can (the poor gal, I had to spay her after a final difficult litter). I swear the dogs recognize my Tin-Cloth bibs, because when I’m wearing them, Lily barks louder and Chubby wags harder, like they’re both saying,“Come on, Dude, what are you waitin’ for?”

First, though, I went into the cook shed, dropped a scoopful of high-protein nuggets into both of the dogs’ cast-iron skillets, placed the pans on each side of an old, centered millstone set flush in the concrete floor, walked to the kennel and opened the door. The dogs know the drill. They sprinted to their food, Chubby taking the pan on the left, Lilly the one on the right, and inhaled the food before racing to the truck and leaping into their port-kennels for a ride. It never takes any coaxing when they know we’re going hunting.

In a half-hour or less, I arrived at the familiar covert only to discover someone else hunting there, rare indeed at this particular spot. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ve been meaning to hunt the other side, anyway. Today’s as good a day as any.”

Complicating matters a bit was the memory still fresh in my mind of my last unforgettable trip through that swamp on the final day of the 2012 season. Hunting that day with old softball buddy Cooker from Northampton, Chubby mysteriously disappeared, didn’t come when called and, when I went looking for him, his whines identified his location and told me he was in distress. When I found him, he was acting peculiar, as though he was restrained and unable to escape. Upon closer inspection, I found him snared in a leg-hold trap chained to a small nearby tree. When the dog wouldn’t let me open the trap, Cooker assisted, holding the dog and petting him as I released the tension with my hands. Free at last, young Chub-Chub was off and running like he had upon exiting the truck, showing no apparent injuries.

I knew the trap was illegal but didn’t want to press the issue and figured I’d just let it go, although the image of that dog trapped around the front left paw irritated me for weeks, maybe months, and I was still thinking about it last week. Let’s just say I had formed a new kind of “respect” for the site and leave it at that. Yet who would have ever guessed it could, and indeed was about to, get worse?

Yes, last Thursday, bulling my way through the absolute worst tangles of a particularly tangly season on a cool, sunny day, I realized I had lost track of Lily after struggling to get past a small deadfall buried deep in head-high swamp grass laced with dagger-like briars that already had me bleeding from the right cheek. Finally, after stomping down hard on the dead, dry trunk with my right boot and breaking it clean through, I reached down and pulled it enough to the side to get through without tripping. Then I immediately noticed Chubby all jacked up and willed myself forward through dense brush anticipating a quick flush along a gnarly fencerow that has been productive over the years. The dog kept quartering back to the same spot, tail wagging furiously, bounding and snorting, what we who have learned to read gun dogs call “indicating.”

Anyway, focused on Chubby, I again lost track of Lily for a few minutes, then wondered where she was because I hadn’t seen or heard her thrashing through the brush for a while. I whistled and waited, whistled and waited, and waited some more. No Lily. I reached for my Tri-Tronics remote-control and buzzed her collar with a sound that almost always brings her back promptly. Still, no Lily. Then I heard her barking. Not frantic, panicked barking, but a tone that got my attention nonetheless. Let’s just say barking isn’t part of Lily’s normal hunting repertoire, unless maybe she’s treed a flush. Plus, I knew the sound was coming from the area where Chubby had been trapped on the final day of the season last year.

Sure enough, when I arrived within sight of my 9-year-old, liver-and-white spaniel, there she sat in an unusual manner licking at her belly. I knew something was amiss. When I looped around though a tight opening and squatted down to her side, I could see she was caught in a wire-cable body snare fastened to the same small tree that the leg-hold trap had been attached. When I tried to investigate the loop lassoed tightly around her waist, just behind her hips, Lily would have none of it, biting softly at my hands and forearms to keep me at bay. When I tried but was unable to detach the cable from the tree, I knew I had problems and must seek help. Only some kind of wire cutters would set her free, and I wanted to get such a tool quickly, fearing she may struggle and injure herself trying to follow me.

I unloaded my double-barrelled shotgun, broke open the breech, put it over my left shoulder and walked with Chubby to a residential neighborhood a couple of hundred yards to the east. There, I walked though a backyard garden, around a garage and noticed through the living-room window a lady reading in a La-Z-Boy recliner. I knocked timidly on the window and she saw me, rose sheepishly and came to the porch door, where I apologized for the intrusion and explained my predicament. My dog was trapped in a body-snare and I need something that would cut through metal cable. Concerned, the woman called to her husband (luckily a hunter). When he appeared, we walked to the tool shed and the three of us walked to the scene with a pair of tin snips. Because the couple owned a French Brittany Spaniel gun dog themselves and were concerned for its safety, they wanted to see exactly what they were dealing with in their own backyard. Can you blame them?

When we got to Lily, she was standing on all fours, not looking particularly distressed. But her disposition quickly changed when we reached her. Then she was nervous and wouldn’t let us near the tight wire loop around her waist. It was a good thing I had help, because I could not have freed that dog alone. I had to hold her down by the collar with my left hand and extend my right arm back to the cable to pull up as much slack as I could with my forefinger, clearing enough space for the man to squeeze the bottom blade of the snips underneath. It was not easy an easy task — the woman holding and soothing Chubby as his mother at times wailed like we were tearing out her liver — but after 15 or 20 minutes, she was cut loose. Lily stood and didn’t hesitate to bound through the dense grass like she had before getting snagged. Undaunted and unharmed, she was ready to resume the hunt. Not me. I was ready to call it a day.

When I got home, I immediately called a friend who years ago trapped for supplemental income. I had to tell him what had happened, figuring he’d have a little insight. When I praised whoever it was that set that trap for being clever, he chuckled to correct me. “It’s not like he made the thing up by himself,” he informed me. “You can buy those things all made up, cheap, by the dozen. Google it if you don’t believe me.”

I think in the future I’ll avoid that spot that’s been so good to me over the years. Talk about weird. Can you imagine running into such a thing? And who knows what other dangers are lurking at this peaceful spot recommended by a former Connecticut Valley Wildlife District game manager and fellow Frontier alum?

My guess is that a man of his ilk would react to such an incident different than me, turning it over to law enforcement.

Traps like that are illegal, and cruel. What if it had wrapped around Lily’s neck and killed her? Well, that would have enraged me.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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