No fools, No knaves:

fall in the game-rich Maritimes

"... in the fall I am only, ever, in one place,

and I am there with no fools or knaves"

by CHARLES GAINES

SHUNPIKING SEPTEMBER 1996, No.7

 

Here is a truth that took me a long time to learn: in the fall, as in middle age, time is too short and ripe to waste even a moment of it on anyplace or anyone that does not fill the soul with gladness. Now in my own middle age, I will go to places that do not make me happy, if I have to, in the spring, summer or winter, and I will consort in those seasons, if I have to, with people I don't get on with. (Did I not consort on safari in Africa the winter before last with a big-city couple who plugged Sony Walkmen into their ears and read mystery novels while game-viewing in God's own zoo?) But in the fall I am only, ever, in one place, and I am there with no fools or knaves.

I began coming to the Maritimes in October for sport 14 years ago and I have not missed one October since -- not even the one when I was two months away from having both my hips replaced and had to hunt standing beside the vehicle with my dog in the covers, hoping someone would flush a bird over me. The first year, I drove to New Brunswick with a Brittany spaniel named Tucker, and checked into a motel near Grand Lake. Staying in that motel was a group of six birdhunters from Nova Scotia who had been going in that same week to that same place, and only with each other, for 21 years. That was a clue as to what I was on to, and the only clue I got from them. Pity them as I did with American whiskey, the only answer I got as to the exact whereabouts of woodcock in the area was that they were pretty much where you found them.

On that same trip a 300-pound, 70-year-old bear hunting guide named Arch Reese made another Zen-ish comment about woodcock that I still remember everytime I miss one. "Charlie," he said, watching me scratch not a feather on one of the few birds I found that year, "there's a lot of air around them fellers."

In the following years the woodock and the grouse shooting in New Brunswick has always been the first thing on my plate, but I have made room for other dishes, too, at the great moveable feast that is a sporting fall in the Maritimes: late-season brook trouting in Labrador; snipe and duck hunting on the Trantamar Marsh; bluefin tuna finishing in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island; pheasant hunting in the Annapolis Valley; Atlantic salmon fishing in three provinces; Canada goose shooting in the fields of Prince Edward Island. Some years, I put too many things together on the plate and lost discrete tastes and / or overate. Some years, I brought the wrong guests to the feast, and ultimately I brought too many.

But one learns. The farther you get from your own fall, the more the season reminds you of what is too easy to forget when you are younger -- that the hunter, like the hunted, is made of meat, and that there is too little time before the snow flies not to do things right.

For a week last October, six of us and our dogs hunted covers in New Brunswick that we have found over the years and named and teethed our dogs on, we came into each as glad a soul as you bring into the kitchen of an old friend. After that, I dropped down to the Miramichi River for two days of fishing on that mother of all salmon rivers, and for two nights of reveling with Keith Wilson and Alex and Viki Mills and some of the other stalwarts who give the life on that river its 19th-century axe-handle and woodsmoke feel of merry heartiness and independence. The Bill and Dave and Tom and I moved the feast to Nova Scotia -- were I now reside for half the year, knowing too certainly that I am now meant to too -- for a grouse and a woodcock float trip, a feed of planked salmon, a sea duck hunt in the dawn fog, and more salmon fishing on the Margaree. I am not gloating here; I am simply quoting Shakespeare: "Ripeness is all."

Here some of the best salmon flies, like the Copper Killer and the Chief Needlebaum, are tied in fall's own russets, reds and oranges. Here in fall all the gourds are swollen, all the hazel shells are plump; and as the season instructs you that time and itself are too ripe to waste, it will also teach you what you take with its own calm hand, for there is plenty and you can't put the best of it in a freezer. Ripeness here is as least as much about the curled, crimson maple leaf you watch drift across a salmon lie on the black water of the Cains as it is about the many little bird feet you can stick in the air.

Connoisseurs of ripeness have been finding it here for years, alongside other local treasures such as continuity, pace, loyalty, durability, a cheerful ease with hardship and disinterest bordering on contempt for the speed and noise and gadgetry to the south. In 1908 Alfred Bigelow Paine published a little-known classic of American outdoors writing called The Tent Dwellers, about a month of camping and trout fishing in the north woods of Nova Scotia, whose "far shores," he discovered, "were a place to find one's soul" -- depending, he was quick to add, on what kind of soul one had to find.

So are the Maritimes still a place to find and gladden your soul, particularly in the fall? The following passage, from Paine's book, on what one can expect to find here, should be required reading for anyone you think of bringing with you to the feast:

Finally, it is the preciousness of isolation, the remoteness from men who dig it up and tear down and destroy, who set whistles to tooting and bells to jingling -- who shriek themselves hoarse in the marketplace and make the world ugly and discordant, and life a short and fevered span in which the soul has a chance to become no more than a feeble and crumpled thing. And if that kind of soul pleases you, don't go to the woods. It will only be a place of mosquitoes, and general wetness and discomfort. You won't care for it. You will hate it.
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Novelist and writer Charles Gaines and his wife Patricia moved from the U.S. to Seafields on Saint Georges Bay, about which he wrote the article "A Simple Summer Place" (shunpiking, September, 2000, No. 36) and the memoir, A Man Returns to the Center of His Life (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994). Charles is the author of Leaper: The Wonderful World of Atlantic Salmon Fishing (The Lyons Press, 2001), The Next Valley over: An Angler's Progress (Crown, 2000), several children's books with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and is a contributing editor to FYI and Sports Afield..