There seems no bottom to the depths of cold. It’s one of the few solace for hunting in frigid condition: could be colder, windier, at least it’s not…more miserable.
I’m assured by medical science that freezing does have a lower limit in terms of the human body. Paradoxical undressing: the point at which humans experiencing lethal hypothermia begin stripping off clothes due to a sensation of burning up, when in fact they are freezing. Seems it’s the mind’s one final, futile attempt to avoid a bitter end.
When you grow up hunting in the Midwest, cold burrows deep into your predacious psyche. The first cool breeze of fall conjures thoughts of wandering afield. And when it’s too warm shouldering shotguns just feels unnatural. But on this day there are doubts of the wisdom of leaving the truck. Mustering the courage to crack the door begins the extraction of feeling from fingertips one frosty needle at a time. It’s quiet, six inches of fresh powder blew in under darkness and hushed the landscape.
The body objects to these conditions and begins firing distress signals to the brain to dissuade progress that will further the frigid encounter. Everything contracts: balled-up shoulders, rigid muscles producing choppy steps, leather chap lips pursed to impede the flow of cold air. It takes a couple long hits of the freeze to clear the mind, erase doubts, fire neurons to memories cached in the soul’s cellar of past frigid hunts.
The dogs have been hunting hard for a number of days now and have the same reaction. Coaxed off the bumper they churn tight circles close to the truck until witnessing shotguns emerge from cases. Tails untuck and begin rotating in a cadence that pairs with lengthening strides.
Our group drops-in the south facing, snow-covered shelter belt to an expanse of blanketed cover. All evidence that this area has ever been explored is hidden. Easy walks with dogs, short sleeves and aimless meandering of the early season is replaced by new gravity. No longer can you spend an entire day in this, or idle under a tree to take a nap.
Winter is the great equalizer testing mettle, knowledge, strength — all others leading up to this season were practice sessions. The struggle for survival is pronounced this time of year. Exposure to frigid conditions wakes you to vulnerability. Bodily objections to cold so engrained must be manifestation of protest to the permanent chill.
We point into the breeze and move silently across this bottom, the language of longtime hunting buddies and dogs who know what lies before us. This is an opportunity to seize a moment and be free of all others. Every sharp inhale finds worry, wandering, irrelevant thoughts and carves them to frosty exhale that settles to the boot prints being filled and forgotten to the wind just yards behind.
After constant pursuit for months, the birds’ senses are finely tuned. The first rooster feels the roil of energy headed his direction and has no interest in close proximity. He jumps wild and cackles, the crack of shells is muted along with any effect. But our intent is announced to this valley, there will be no surprise or happy accidents.
The labor of keeping pace with dogs impervious to drifts and fully engaged in the effort overrules the weather. We shed layers of clothing in our own acts of paradoxical undressing. Hopefully the ensuing lethality will fall to these late season birds.
Outlast. Outsmart. Outrun. This is why we are here, to feel this life, to be a part of struggle to exist.