Grouse Under Pressure 

Hunting season can be an excuse for an autumn mountain expedition

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Autumn seemed to come and go quickly this year. Or, maybe I was just more occupied than normal. Before I could really appreciate it, the leaves changed colors—yellow aspen, rust-red gamble oak, royal-purple Oregon grape, sunset-orange mountain maple—and fell. The hills took on their winter gray.

My own energy seemed to fade with the colors. Now, I feel like hibernating, or drinking tea and reading a long book. My entire neighborhood seems equally affected. The streets at night are quiet like a Sunday in Utah.

All this slowing feels good after a long, hot, energetic summer of summiting mountains, running trails, playing soccer and baseball and ultimate Frisbee. I'm looking forward to pulling out my cross-country and downhill skis, saying hello to my snowshoes and my winter boots. But until the snow flies, I think I'll keep going for slow thoughtful romps through the mountains. The dogs love it and, since we are in the heart of grouse-hunting season, so does my partner.

Last Sunday, we loaded up the dogs and our orange vests and set out for Wolf Creek Pass, on the south slope of the Uintas. It's a destination that doesn't make it onto many people's maps—the kind of place you drive by on the way to somewhere else, the kind of place that surprises you when you discover it actually has a name.

Just beyond the dreamy rural towns of Francis and Woodland, the pass begins to rise away from the south fork of the Provo River, climbing into a steep canyon of giant aspen and beetle-ravaged conifer, dotted with majestic brushes of ancient Douglas Fir. At an oversize parking lot at the western base of the pass—a place called Nobletts—we pulled off the road.

I've hiked here a number of times over the years, always in the autumn. Two well-defined trails, frequented in the summer by locals on horseback, lead off from the parking lot. I never take the trails very far. This patch of Uintas is perfect for exploring by foot off-trail in a style of destination-less hiking that makes nature seem much more intimate.

During the handful of early afternoons I've spent wandering, I've climbed to ridges, dipped into dells and covered miles of forest. It's the kind of hiking I associate with upland game season—which, for most birds like grouse, quail, pheasant and partridge, falls mainly between the beginning of September and the end of December. But if you're thinking of going, always review the DNR wildlife guidebook for each animal's exact seasons, possession limit, open areas and license requirements.

Our previous two explorations this season had produced beautiful views, but no grouse. The second outing ended terrifyingly in the middle of a lightning storm with bolts slamming into the hillside so close to us that we could see the halo of electric light bubble around the struck trees.

Though the day of our latest adventure was overcast, it didn't look like lightning was on the menu. We struck out from the car, straight across a damp meadow and into a thin stand of naked aspen. The scent of rotting leaves and leftover rain was as thick as elk musk. Our cattle dog mutts ran loops through the sage, more interested in chasing squirrels than birds.

Up the mountain we climbed. At around 8,000 feet, we entered a patch of mixed aspen and conifer, and spotted our first three grouse—ruffed grouse, one of the most diminutive of the species, weighing less than 2 pounds. The ruffed grouse is easily identified by a tuft of brown feathers that sweep to a point on the top of his small brown head.

The birds took wing in a flash, gliding down slope and out of sight. We wouldn't spend too much time stalking them, we decided. With feathers colored to blend perfectly with the autumn shadows, our chances of finding them were slim. And besides, we were happy just being in the mountains.

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