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smokepole
11-24-2008, 05:21 PM
Rabbit hunting in the untamed wilderness of the Northeast Kingdom

By Matt Crawford
My friend Wyatt is making his first autumnal pilgrimage from Kentucky. He came to Vermont to hunt birds, but before he got to tempt fate and scratch down a grouse, I took him rabbit hunting in the Northeast Kingdom.
In the rain. The pouring, pant-soaking, bone-drenching, leaf-dropping rain. The kind of rain, given a few degrees, that turns into a wet, slushy snow.
The woods are thick. So thick that at one point I tell Wyatt there's no way out, and if we're lucky we might just die in this seemingly endless spruce forest.
"We could," he drawls, "but they'd find our bodies standing up. There are too many trees -- we can't even fall over in here."

Wyatt and I and two hardcore hare hunters named Dean and Lanny awoke before the break of day and drove two hours from the Champlain Valley to get to the NEK where the hares are thick, the moose are plentiful and human beings show up only when they need to lay you on a stretcher and put you on a rescue helicopter and fly your carcass to Dartmouth.
Dean and Lanny's beagles have struck up a couple of hares. The first one, Wyatt shot as it bounded across a fading skidder trail. The second bunny led us and the dogs into a bog, which, with the rain, is like a wet sponge. Walking across it is like trying to sprint across a pool cover.
We can hear the dogs giving chase across the bog, so close sometimes we can almost touch them, but we can never really see them. The bunny runs in increasingly smaller circles, and at one point, I spy the rabbit as it hops across a small clearing, but I can't get the shot off.
"I just saw the rabbit!" I yell at one point. My voice rising above the din of the barks and the raindrops on the trees.

Dean's voice comes over the handheld radio.
"Hey, Matt," Dean says. "You know the best time to shoot a rabbit?"

"No," I answer, seeking wisdom or insight.

"When you can see it," he replies
I can hear Wyatt's high, cackling laugh bouncing through the trees, drifting around the wet cedars, bouncing off the deadfall. And I can hear the beagles barking. Over and over, chasing the rabbit through places where only rabbits and small beagles can go, their vocalizations an invitation to wade deeper into the bog, to become one with the spruce trees and blowdowns.
It's a different place -- this hare lair. Different from the grouse tangles and deer woods I usually hunt in the Champlain Valley. Far, far removed from the places Wyatt hunts in Kentucky -- where big whitetail bucks, a few coveys of quail and plenty of long-bearded turkeys are found. But that difference is why we're here. The chance to experience something different is the reason we woke before dawn, the reason we're wading in the bog, soaking in the rain, making jokes about maybe never getting out of this place.
It's not every day that you get to a place so untamed, so wild that you really could die and remain undiscovered for months or years. It's not often that you get into a place where there are hares, moose, a few birds and not much else. There aren't many places where you go and hear only the raindrops and the barking dogs. When a helicopter flies over us, it seems like an unwelcome intrusion, as if we should be immune from any superfluous outside interference. As if the only thing we should hear is the rain and the bark of the beagles.
In the end, Wyatt's hare is the only rabbit we bring home. But aside from a few ounces of meat, he tells me how he takes with him the few hours of memories that are accessible only for those who are ready to get outside and free themselves from the burdens of what takes most of our time. He insists I oblige him with a visit to Kentucky soon. He promises that if I drop dead, I'll not be left standing up.
Matt Crawford is the former outdoor editor of the Burlington Free Press. His column appears every other week. Contact him at matt
outdoors@comcast.net.