Grouse Hunting, Wood Gathering and Horse Manure

It was the fall of 1987!  It was the fall of the first year of having my Real Estate Broker’s license and the first fall of being a sole proprietor.  It was the first fall in 7 that I wasn’t a local bartender.  I would take all the risks of being a small business owner.  I would be naïve enough to think I would not need to supplement my livelihood and income with a second and maybe third occupation like I had the previous 7 years.  After all, I had become the first Broker to found a real estate business in Grand Marais and a better than subliminal excitement emanated into a topic of conversation at the coffee shops and around town for the new found business (North Coast Real Estate).  Maybe not so much for the disillusion of success for our small town’s economic growth as for the assurance a younger family with 4 children (a fifth nearly in gestation eventually combining to make up nearly 5% of Grand Marais High’s student body) would remain in town to keep our school’s down spiraling student body a little more stable. It was also the first fall I entered the wood cutting business with Jerry Purple.

Oh, there was a real estate agent or two in town.  In fact, a brokerage had moved its office to Grand Marais within two months after I had obtained a sales associate license: a Broker with business wiseness.  She understood not to relocate until assuring her children had been raised and a husband’s handsome monthly pension would supplement her income, so to support life when sales weren’t abundant (typically between December 1 and June 1 perennially).

During that first year I realized it didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand if one needed to make a living selling real estate in Grand Marais, one couldn’t.  And if one didn’t need to sell real estate to make a living in Michigan’s most scenic village, one easily could.

Most certainly, I wasn’t a rocket scientist.  But, I had been the local social worker at both town pubs for several years that offered sagacious advice to regular customers.  I should have known there was far more cash flow in tips and a weekly paycheck, while telling wives over the phone, “he just told me he wasn’t here” and other social welfare messages.

Moreover, when it took me three months to pay for the Scaife farm’s $100 chicken coop which a small counterculture group helped metamorphose into a 13x13 real estate office nearly over night on Grand Marais’ Main Street, that in itself should have been hint enough to revert back to cash in hand for the simple daily necessities (groceries, gas, rent, utilities and clothes for the kids).

However, the office was in place, and so what if the township supervisor had received more calls than the zoning administrator, who helped move the coop in the heart of Grand Marais’ business district at twilight the evening before the day that one could define as “the day Grand Marais’ zoning ordinance went into effect.”

It was a day ignored by most a week later, as we all sheepishly turned our heads when renowned captain John LeClair defied the ordinance and wheeled a mobile home onto Grand Marais’ Coast Guard Point.

The Scaifes weren’t concerned about a default though my final payment exceeded 60 days beyond my payoff period.

With the help of Grand Marais’ local constable, zoning administrator, logger (come as you are Jack Johnson), two part time carpenters, an electrician, we had resided, dry walled, painted and shingled the coop (increasing depreciated property values overnight).  So if upon repossessing via default, the completely renovated structure, the now elite coop could even afford electricity for the Scaifes’ chickens if they were to repossess it.  For temporary electric service, and without having to connect to Alger Delta Electric, Karl Wilson, Grand Marais’ hardware store owner at that time allowed me to service my one piece of office equipment, an electric typewriter!

Several years later, when looking back, I realized it was that summer I proved ignorance to be my greatest strength.  It was that summer that we began unwittingly challenging survival of near economically viable summers and mercilessly long winter after long harsh winter.  There just were two winter sales, and myself, Enrico (meaning head of the household), ludicrously would attempt to feed seven hungry mouths solely on commissions.  Not!

Commissions, mind you, from opulent $4,500 to $6,000 sales of 40 acres parcels (amazing to have captured over 75 listings in 5 short months, to eventually take a loss on over 50% of them – would have loved to have sold mosquito free swamp land in the winter) and commissions from exclusive $9,000-$20,000 home sales, with just a handful of elite $35,000-$50,000 homes.  The finer homes typically would sit on the market 2 to 3 years and would eventually sell for less than their assessed values.

September was now gone and October was a slap in the face, a wakeup call.  Now with my fewer bountiful commissions, I would either pay the phone bill, my lease to Karl, advertising expenses to the Grand Marais Pilot, etc.,  phone bill (all long distance calls), and postage to stay in business, or we’d eat.

I would pay the expenses.

Selling firewood with Jerry would now substitute for bartending as was my second job when working days for three years, as a real estate sales-associate.  Pay from firewood would now substitute as tips.  It would provide the daily necessities including food, clothing and, yes, heat!

Each day included a brown bag lunch, usually meatless, a gas can and a chain saw worth more than my electric typewriter, still my sole piece of office equipment.  Jerry brought with him the same overhead.  To our surprise, the local assessor didn’t tax our small business equipment (personal property-the most unconstitutional of taxes) as they later would my typewriter.

Accompanying our necessities were two 20-gauge shotguns.  That fall, grouse (pats to some) were on an up cycle and 1987 was a few years before intelligent governmental bodies elected to reintroduce the predatory Pine Marten to our perennially healthy hunting grounds.

We began selling firewood for $17.50 a face cord, cut, split and delivered.  Considering, we made $8.75 each per face cord before expenses. versus the number of grouse we were shooting for every road we walked down, rode down, sat on the hood of our truck down, we figured if we sold the considerably more tasty grouse by the pound for just the same price as bologna (they’re worth a whole lot more) at the local store, we’d be making more per hour than the sale of firewood.  In mid-winter, when cooking the grouse in a stir-fry, we considered the grouse our bonus of a bigger than normal tip form a customer.

One evening, Meredith Newberg, retired school teacher, living on Grand Marais’ West Bay called and asked if I would haul a load of horse manure for her.  She offered $40 for the load.  Her offer was only $3.25 less than I had received from a brokerage I had previously worked for when being offered only a referral commission upon selling a property with a 3% commission rate.  I told my third grade English teacher her offer was more than fair, especially when recalling building a chimney with Mike Ballard at the Curtis Service Station just a year or two before.  After two entire days’ labor and 290 miles round trip, our consideration was a rake, shovel, six pack of Goebels, and $15 each plus gasoline.  Yes, if everything went well, this would be a real windfall.

I called Jerry and told him about the $40 deal.  he was already cleaning his 20 gauge.  We contacted the Prieskorn farm just south of Germfask and they told us that we could take all the manure we wanted.  We were ecstatic to only have to load a truck bed of manure and earn as much s three face cord, cut, split, delivered and stacked.  Most likely a half hour to load, another half hour to unload, basically for the same pay made common sense especially when considering the hunting between Grand Marais and Germfask.

Our plan was to head to Preiskorn’s on Wednesday morning, two days later.  Mary covered the office when we were filling wood orders, and that Tuesday we completed the 20 cord order for my mother, Bessie, at the Superior Hotel.

It seemed a good evening for grouse, so after the delivery, Jerry went home and I wanted to hunt my dinner. My gun’s safety had been stripped earlier that afternoon so Pam Ballard let me use her .410.  Mary then dropped me off early evening ¾ of the way to the airport. I walked the woods home and didn’t see a thing until just before dusk.

Walking through the field behinds the James Farm there sat six grouse in a U.P. pear tree.  Enjoying the waning day’s final warmth, I became more excited than when receiving Meredith’s phone call.  Stumbling quickly, not like the artful Ojibwa, I noticed three grouse on the ground, under the same tree, fanning and drumming and tap dancing.  Reason enough my distraction didn’t distract them.

The grouse sat in the tree like Brodie Block’s duck decoys in Grand Marais’s East Bay the first weekend of the first year I had my first hunting license.  Our Conservation and Natural Science teacher put me on a pedestal before our class the Monday morning following that first weekend.  As unlicensed Butch Barney pointed from a bluff, I treacherously eked my way in the fateful direction of buffleheads, mergansers, mallards and the familiar “wood duck” to then find myself, unknowingly in my first duck blind.  Shooting three times, Butch and I became more understanding the second and third round as to why the ducks remained floating rather than flying.

In class, Brodie congratulated me for my marksmanship as he held up a decoy harboring 102 shot, but offered up a D for Decoy for duck identification.

With the pride of a hunter/huntress, I shot four grouse that evening.  So excited to have food, I kneeled above my prey and thanked God in the same fashion as the Ojibwa had done in the past and as Ted Nugent does today.  My pouch was filled and a rusty nail found in my pocket pried out a final shell lodged in Pam’s gun.

The next morning, Jerry was ready at the break of dawn!  He climbed into my truck “Ollie” named after the previous owner, Irv, who daily had tested its Ford toughness.

The trucks numerous dents hid no evidence.  Twice it had been on the bottom of East Bay not far from where I had shot Brodie’s decoy.  Attempting to maintain the trucks reputation for toughness, I drove it into Lake Superior once, a swamp (thanks Stan Kusmerick for saving Trevor and me an 8 mile walk) on another occasion, and performed other deviant behavior stunts characteristic of the truck’s reputation.  Using it for loading firewood or horse manure would offer it no reprieve, especially where Jerry and I had been the past few weeks.

I had to compliment myself for understanding the value of vintage.  I purchased the truck from Irv’s widow for the same price I had paid Scaifes for my real estate office, $100, and rather than overhaul Olli, I only had to purchase a muffler for it.

Our first detour was six miles south of town at Camp Heacok, just across from the notorious deer slayers camp, Camp Crab Orchard. The lessee of the property didn’t have his sign “Dumb Farmer” tacked to the large tree where his drive and M-77 meet, a sign that he was back in Dundee.  Sure enough, just before completing the mile drive into Glen’s camp there sat two grouse. Jerry had a bird’s eye view and shot both of them.  Then it was off to Germfask.

Arriving in Seney, and understanding etiquette, we decided not to purchase a jumbo of Blatz at Cleeve’s Seney Party Store.  We weren’t seriously bird hunting yet, weren’t cutting firewood and it was still more than three hours before noon.

Less than a mile from Germfask, we saw a State Police Officer’s vehicle heading north.  Ollie couldn’t travel the maximum speed limit so I wasn’t concerned until looking in my rear view mirror after the officer passed.  Sure enough, he had made a U-turn and within seconds his red flashing lights came on. I down shifted and coasted to a stop, not wanting him to notice the Yooper pickup had no brake lights.

I immediately asked the officer in a congenial manner why we were being stopped, aware of our 50 mph speed.

He said, “I stopped you because you have no side view mirrors.”

I said, “Oh, I thought you stopped us because I have no headlights.”

The officer walked to the front of the pickup, walked back and said, “You surely don’t have headlights.  What happened to them?”

“Well, last fall, when cutting firewood with an Irishman friend, John P. O’Brien, the son of the father and Judge who wrote many of Michigan’s motor vehicle traffic codes, I had to push his one ton pickup loaded with nearly three face cord of wood from the Rhody Creek Truck Trail to Grand Marais during a downpour, about 12 miles down mud two tracks.  When we got to town, my fenders were a little more dented and bent than they previously had been and my headlights were crushed.  I haven’t been able to afford to purchase any since and I cut wood during daylight hours anyway.  I had a choice between lights and a muffler so I went with a muffler before replacing the lights.”

Confiding this to him, he near laughingly replied, “It is unusual for a Yooper wood getting truck to have an acceptable muffler like yours!  It certainly accentuates your vehicle.  Would you try each turn signal for me and your brakes?” he asked while walking to the back of Ollie.

“The brakes are good,” I said leaning my head out the window, “the lights just don’t work.  As you can see, neither do the blinkers.  But I use my arm for a signal whenever I’m turning.”

“Okay, I need to see your license, registration and proof of insurance.” he said in a Keystone Cop type fashion. “End of M-77 North, Grand Marais” he read from my license.  “Why are you two nearly to Germask if you’re cutting firewood?”

“Well, officer, you probably won’t believe this, but we’re on our way to the Preiskom Farm to get a load of horse manure for our retired school teacher.  She is paying us $40.”

“Enough for new headlights and a new driver’s license.  Your license expired last week on your birthday.”

That was the first of the several infractions I wasn’t aware of.

He walked to the back of the truck again, then to the passenger side and was talking past Jerry, “and your plates and proof of insurance have expired.”

I said, “I have a friend in the insurance business, but even he couldn’t figure a way to reinsure me until I can afford to rewire Ollie and get new headlights.  I wasn’t aware that my license expired and can renew that with money in exchange for the horse manure.  but the Secretary of State wouldn’t issue a tag until I can prove I have insurance.  Pretty much a ‘Catch-22’”

By then we had the officer laughing, and ready to let us continue on our mission for Meredith’s horse manure, providing we would go directly back to Grand Marais and before getting firewood again, to get new head lights, plates, blinkers, brake lights, at least one side view mirror, insurance, and to immediately renew my license (with my take of the $40).

I was thinking the worse thing he could have done was send me back to Vietnam when he saw our gun cases and asked if we had been bird hunting.

Jerry fessed up, “Yes, officer, I got two on the way here.  They’re in the bed of the truck.”

“Can I see your guns?” he asked.

“No problem officer!  These guns surely aren’t AK 47s.” I responded.

He chuckled while we were unzipping the cases.

It’s been said, every human has their breaking point.  We had yet to face the several long winters of near bankruptcy/starvation status.  So we had yet to experience the precipice.

The officer’s fall wasn’t the obvious seven plus counts he was willing to overlook.  It was when he saw a shell lodged in the chamber of Pam’s gun as I was pulling it form the case, a shell from just an hour earlier when not double-checking to see if all cartridges had ejected.

Before I could say Jack Robinson, the officer had his gun two inches from Jerry’s right temple.  This became as serious as the one trip I had made to Sugar Island with Stan Bontrager, when a pick-up he was purchasing broke down before leaving the island.

Upon returning a borrowed pair of jumper cables to a store owner who was closed, and with nowhere to leave them, we slid $20 dollars under his door, kept the cables and sat waiting for the ferry.  A van screeched to a halt next to our vehicle and two guys jumped from the front, one the owner of the store screaming profanities at us. the the side sliding door opened, by a third interested party with a loaded sawed off shotgun directed at us (haven’t been to Sugar Island since).

The officer had us both outside, now facing the truck with hands on it.  He checked Jerry first and then me.  Reaching in my right jacket pocket, he found the bent rusty nail I had used to disengage the shell the night before.

“Officer,” I said with an absence of humor, “last night I borrowed this .410, and thought it was a lucky gun because I shot four birds with it.  When I ejected the remaining shells, the last one wouldn’t eject so I used that very nail you found in my jacket to pry it out.”

Showing him by dislodging the shell, he became composed, regained his senses, but not his sense of humor.

The officer escorted me back to his car. “I will have to write you up for the loaded gun, meaning you’ll have to pick it up at the Newberry State Police Post.  And I’ll let you off on your other infractions providing you keep the promises of getting your Yooper wood getting truck improved.”

“Shit,” I said as I climbed back into Ollie, understanding I would be losing $120 before expenses on the load of horse manure we still needed to get, meaning the fine would be $140.

As I explained the fine to Jerry, he replied, “Well, Rick, I do have to thank you!”

“Thank me for what?’ I distraughtly asked realizing I would be taking yet another loss.

“I have to thank you for creating one helluva diversion!  After all, the officer never once thought to ask me for the hunting license I still don’t have!”