ROSEAU COUNTY, Minn. – A banner year it wasn’t – nor was it expected to be – but the hunting was good enough to put a few birds in the bag during the annual mid-October “Grouse Camp” gathering in northwest Minnesota.

As always, the walks in the woods were a highlight, and Mother Nature delivered just enough sun to keep the bite in the air at tolerable levels.

Ruffed grouse were plentiful enough to provide the main ingredient for a double batch of Grouse and Wild Rice Casserole, a Saturday night staple throughout the event’s 20-plus-year history.

The “Shame Chicken” – chicken breasts purchased just in case we couldn’t scratch out enough ruffed grouse to fill the casserole pans – stayed in the freezer where it belonged.

This year’s participants ranged in age from 10 to 63, and while the three organizers – the “Board of Governors,” we call ourselves – were the first to arrive, there were seven people in camp for the two nights that Grouse Camp was at full capacity.

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Just getting the event organized and off the ground safely was an accomplishment during the Covid-19 pandemic; it definitely wasn’t business as usual.

As with any hunting camp, at least some of what happens in camp stays in camp, but here are some snapshots from a memorable gathering in a very unmemorable year.

No test. No go.

Hunting camps across the North Country are grappling with the issue of keeping everyone safe during a pandemic.

For this particular Grouse Camp, everyone was required to get tested in the days leading up to the trip and then avoid crowds to the greatest extent possible.

The decision wasn’t popular with everyone, but the choice was simple:

No test. No go.

Testing isn’t foolproof, of course, because a negative result only represents a point in time. But it’s better than nothing, we decided, especially when combined with other safety precautions put in place.

Besides, the availability of community testing made the requirement relatively easy to follow.

The crew also was more spread out this year, with only two people in the bunkhouse and a trailer house in the yard. A borrowed 13x27-foot outfitter tent heated by a wood stove housed two more people, and the seventh member of the crew set up a tent that he attached to the back of his Subaru wagon.

A borrowed outfitter tent heated with a wood stove helped spread out the crew gathered for this year's annual Grouse Camp excursion in northwest Minnesota. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
A borrowed outfitter tent heated with a wood stove helped spread out the crew gathered for this year's annual Grouse Camp excursion in northwest Minnesota. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Meals, which included everything from the aforementioned Grouse and Wild Rice Casserole to Stuffed Pasta Shells, Moose Meatloaf and Tikka Masala Curry (with “Shame Chicken”), were served buffet style on the deck of the trailer house and eaten outside by the fire.

Morning coffee and other beverages also were enjoyed outside by the fire, which basically burned for six straight days.

The weather was chilly, but fortunately dry when everyone was in camp, so spending time outside wasn’t a problem. Had the forecast called for extensive rain or snow – which has happened some years – we’d have pulled the plug and hoped for a better outcome next year.

He had his chances

The youngest of the crew had his heart set on shooting his first ruffed grouse this year.

Any ruffed grouse is cause for celebration at Grouse Camp, but the first ruffed grouse is an especially big deal.

At 10 years old, the boy already has caught more fish than some anglers catch in a lifetime, but time in a boat and time in the woods are two different things.

Three times, there were opportunities to shoot that elusive first ruffed grouse on the ground. The borrowed single-shot .410 he used has produced at least one first grouse – and plenty of others since – in its storied history.

Three times, the grouse flew off unharmed.

Still, the young hunter handled the disappointment like a champ.

“If anyone said they’ve never missed a grouse, they’re probably lying,” he said one day back at camp.

He definitely got that right.

B film movie night

Grouse Camp is in the boonies, but it’s not beyond the range of cellphone service, which is good enough to provide a decent 4G signal in the yard.

In recent years, nights at Grouse Camp have been spent by the fire watching NHL hockey on a 10x20-foot portable screen mounted to the side of a pole shed near the fire pit patio. A cellphone hotspot provides a wireless Internet connection to a Roku Stick, which in turn streams through a projector to the pole shed screen. A pop-up ice fishing house protects the electronics from the elements, and a Bluetooth soundbar provides as many decibels as needed.

It’s quite a setup.

This year’s Covid-delayed NHL season ended just a few weeks ago, and a new season won’t begin until January or February at the earliest. That required a change in fire pit programming.

Instead of “Hockey Night in Canada,” this year’s nighttime viewing included such offbeat fare as “Suburban Sasquatch,” a cheesy B movie about a bigfoot monster run amok in a suburban Pennsylvania park and filmed on a budget of $12,000, according to the Internet Movie Database website imdb.com.

NHL hockey watched on a big screen mounted to the wall of a pole shed is a Grouse Camp mainstay during a typical year. But since this isn't a typical year and the NHL isn't scheduled to resume until January at the earliest, a B-movie called "Suburban Sasquatch" filled the bill and had people laughing around the campfire one night in camp. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
NHL hockey watched on a big screen mounted to the wall of a pole shed is a Grouse Camp mainstay during a typical year. But since this isn't a typical year and the NHL isn't scheduled to resume until January at the earliest, a B-movie called "Suburban Sasquatch" filled the bill and had people laughing around the campfire one night in camp. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Every attempt at horror resulted in howls of laughter from those of us gathered around the fire pit. The “sasquatch” was obviously wearing a gorilla suit of the variety that wouldn’t be out of place at a Halloween party.

If “Suburban Sasquatch” isn’t the worst movie ever made, it has to be high on the list.

Here’s hoping NHL hockey returns to the pole shed screen next year.

Fitting finale

There’s a palpable letdown when the first hunter in Grouse Camp heads home.

By day’s end last Sunday, three members of the crew would be gone, the stories and memories of another grouse camp under their belts.

The rest of us made the best of our time in camp, splitting wood, hanging out by the fire or even taking an afternoon siesta.

Grouse Camp can take a lot out of a person, after all.

Later that afternoon under a gray sky, I decided to take a short hunt to enjoy the woods and see what I could see.

The forest was pleasantly silent as I slowly walked down trails I’ve hunted for more than four decades.

If only for an hour or so, I was back in high school again.

So many birds. So many memories.

There would be no birds on this gray afternoon, and the truck seat felt especially comfortable as I cranked up the heater and headed down the trail back to camp.

It definitely wasn’t that way back in high school.

I hadn’t gone far when I saw a ruffed grouse standing along the edge of the road, as ruffed grouse often will do late in the day.

I stopped the truck maybe 30 feet away and watched the grouse, which was seemingly oblivious to my presence. This went on for a couple of minutes or more as the grouse went about its business, doing whatever grouse do when they’re standing along the edge of the road.

I thought I was going to have to get out of the truck and shoo the grouse away so I could pass, but the bird finally flew up and landed at the edge of the woods just a few feet off the road.

A few yards farther, and I saw another ruffed grouse along the road, this one jumpier than the first.

As much as I’d rather have seen the birds on the trail when I was hunting and not along the road when I was driving, the encounters brightened a gray October afternoon.

It was a fitting finale to Grouse Camp 2020, a gathering that once had seemed all but impossible during this awful pandemic year.

Somehow, we pulled it off – as safely as we could.

Walking through a cedar swamp on a crisp fall afternoon is like stepping into another world, if only temporarily. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Walking through a cedar swamp on a crisp fall afternoon is like stepping into another world, if only temporarily. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)