Gravel Chickens & Bigfoot

By Edgar Castillo

We’d walked over a mile on the old overgrown logging trail. Brian, a seasoned grouse guide, had invited the four of us and we obliged with an 11-hour drive from the central states to experience ruffed grouse hunting in the great Northwoods of Minnesota. 

Several flushes, a few fleeting sightings, and some hail Marys of lead through dense cover had produced a lone ruff and scores of obliterated branches. We followed Brian on a walking trail that led to a couple of road spurs so we could break up into two groups.  But the sound of an approaching ATV forced us off the trail. The machine’s driver, an older gentleman, stopped. A shotgun case was strapped across the front.

“Grouse hunting?”

“Yeah,” we answered. 

“Seen any Bigfoot or Bigfoot signs?” 

“Yeah, we saw one.” Unbeknownst to him, I was referring to the road signs scattered about the area.

“You did?!”

I looked around and the smirks on everyone’s faces clearly confirmed this guy was an X-Files weirdo. In a distinctive sing-songy Minnesota accent the man informed us of the footprints that were found close to our location recently, as well as the foul odor commonly associated with Bigfoot, and how “They’ll twist and bend tall skinny trees.”

We were amused at his folkloric tales and pressed him for information on spruce grouse. We were met with a sarcastic response.

“Wherever you look, that’s where you will find them. Sort of like Bigfoot.”

He was obviously annoyed with our lack of acceptance of the existence of North America’s Wildman. You know the legend: A large bipedal, hairy giant who leaves oversized footprints as his calling card as he roams throughout the country, never leaving verifiable evidence of his existence.

We politely said goodbye and began hunting again. But after a while we stopped to figure out our location, and that’s when I noticed over a dozen 20-foot-tall-trees, about the thickness of baseball bats, all bent or broken at the precisely same level. 

“That’s weird,” I murmured. 

We finished hunting and returned to the group, never mentioning the trees. By day’s end, Brian managed to put us on 21 birds, with five ruffs, or gravel chickens, shot. (The locals refer to grouse as “gravel chickens” for their tendency to come out on trails or roads with gravel to pick grit.)

The next day we went out again in the same area, trying for a repeat. But just as we got started, a peculiar odor hit us. I stopped, took a deep breath and looked around.  

 “Smells like wet dog,” I said.  “Definitely not a skunk.” 

The smell lingered heavy but eventually passed. 

Then, suddenly, we heard a strange noise coming from the dark woods ahead.  “Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.”

“Do you hear that?” I asked my hunting buddy Doug.

“Yes. but what is it?”

We listened intently for several minutes. 

“Sounds like knocking on wood,” I said.

“That’s man-made for sure,” he said. 

I agreed with Doug.

We were in the middle of nowhere, within a mile of the Canadian border. We asked ourselves who or what would be smacking a stick on a tree. And why? 

We decided to walk a bit further before turning around. 

“Doug, look … gravel,” I said.

He veered to the left and was met with a grouse as it exploded from the grass along the trail, a straight-away shot. The double-barrel found its mark and the bird fell dead. His first ruffed grouse!  Two more birds flushed nearby unscathed. 

But just as we decided to call it a day and turned around to head back to the truck, I again detected a musty smell. I peered into the trees, straining my eyes for something. But yet I saw nothing. 

The mood was joyful as we walked to the truck, but nonetheless I couldn’t forget the strange encounters we had over the last two days–from the quirky man on the ATV, to the unusually bent trees the day before, and the creepy sounds today.  

It was strong winds, I told myself. I also tried to rationalize that the scent must’ve been from a skunk, but then again, I know what Pepe Le Pew smells like. The knocking of wood was probably someone cutting down a tree in the middle of the forest, far from civilization so they wouldn’t be caught violating forestry laws along the road. Who knows. 

But what I did know was this: Grouse gravitate toward gravel, we’d had a hell of a hunt, and we may have been in the presence of Bigfoot in the Great Northwoods. 

About that time, a branch broke nearby, so I turned my head abruptly, hoping to catch sight of something. Probably just a gravel chicken flushing, I told myself.  Probably a gravel chicken.