I barely saw it coming. Out of the corner of my eye, a flapping brown blur, too fast to identify. Then bang! I hurry to the bathroom window and peer outside. A ruffed grouse, wings splayed, slowly dies below.
Ruffed grouse are common here in northern Minnesota. It’s in the underbrush, where I usually spot them. Grey-brown, chicken-sized blobs blending seamlessly with twig-ticked snow. They are an ordinary and unassuming reflection of the Midwestern spirit with armor-plated feet. Each winter, grouse toes sprout tiny yellow, comb-like extensions –– little evolutionary snowshoes –– that keep the bird aloft in even the deepest snow. Like magic, they disappear in spring. These birds, like the snowshoe hare and furry lynx, are made for Minnesota.
Our small red board-and-batten cottage is nestled in rolling farms fields and flanked with white pine, spruce, poplar and birch. The nearest town is Wrenshall, population 399. We bought our house 25 years ago. It was a wreck and a secluded gem complete with big red barn. I plainly recall my brother’s dismay when we revealed our new purchase. A construction contractor, he bluntly suggested we recall our earnest money. We did no such thing.
Everything needed work. The stairs were flimsy and the windows weak, but we relished the idea of making this home our own. “I’m going to die here,” I said to my husband. “Face down in the garden.”
Twenty-five years ago, we battled some of the fiercest winters imaginable. I would park on the highway and snowshoe the half-mile down our unplowed, impassable dead-end road and up the steep driveway to the house. Blinding blizzards and minus 40 degree temperatures would keep us wooled-up and bedded down sometimes for days. Grouse would tunnel deep in the snow, breathing warm air through feathered nostrils. We relied, without fail, on March’s basketball tournament blizzard to sock us in completely. But slowly, increasingly, things have changed. Tournament 2016 brought maple sap, greening lawns and snowshoes sitting sadly idle.