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Bob Henke column: Dodging moose in the puckerbrush
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Bob Henke column: Dodging moose in the puckerbrush

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I had occasion to look through some old diaries, trying to find the dates of the earliest bee swarms I had encountered. In the process, I came up with another blast from the past.

MANY moons ago, I was retained by a national organization to write some training manuals. These had to do with outdoors and firearms topics, which was no big stretch, but the good part was they were created during “retreats” to various secluded locations.

This involved a team of writers and technical people, dropped off in environs ranging from isolated camps to Remington Farms. We were expected to get up early, work intensely for 12 hours, then stop and do something to shake out the cobwebs for a couple hours. These somethings ranged from pontoon boat jousting to goose hunting, depending on where we were. We then ate a huge meal, went to bed, and repeated for five to seven days until we had a product ready for printing.

A couple of these, as luck would have it, included only males. These, therefore, included the obligatory messing with each other. One of the most memorable, took place at an isolated camp in the Maine Northwoods. There were 11 of us in a cabin designed to hold four, meaning seven of us slept on the floor in sleeping bags.

There was great debate over who got the only bed behind a closed door, debate quickly quashed by the highest-ranking member of the state Game Warden force. This pulling rank could not go unanswered. The first morning, he emerged carrying a No. 10 can. Seems he woke at least once every night at the urgings of his bladder and did not want to try to tiptoe in pitch black through various comatose hulks strewn at random across the floor in order to get to the outhouse. It took a couple days before the idea struck one of us. That night, the can was under his bed in the normal location. However, the bottom had been removed. The bellowing and dancing as he tried to adjust his aim in the Stygian darkness was priceless.

I traveled with Jim Norine from the NRA and, when we finished the book two days ahead of schedule, Jim wanted to spend a day fly fishing one of the wilderness streams nearby. The senior game warden said he knew just the place. We went miles in his 4-WD truck, finally turning to smash straight into a thicket, stopping right on the bank of a river. We were to fish along for a mile or so. When we saw some orange flagging on the bushes, the truck would be waiting.

It was great. We each took a side and had caught a couple fish when Jim began to scream and came charging across, filling his waders and nearly floating his hat. The cause was an irate mother moose, with the hair up on her back. We could retreat no further than the stream bank because of the thick brush, but this worked. She charged to the center of the stream, gave us the evil eye, and went back into the brush where we could see a small calf.

I thought that was pretty darned funny, until 50 yards later, another one burst out of the brush on my side, driving us to the other side. This process continued for the entire almost two-mile trek.

When we came to the flagging and clambered out to the truck, our “friend” wondered if we had enjoyed our “little hike through the puckerbrush.” Seems he had dumped us out in a major moose calving area.

I gave little thought to the term “puckerbrush” until a reader asked just what species of bush that might be and why it had that name? I had given little consideration to the matter, but my old diary contained some entries that shed a bit of light.

I am not really sure where the “pucker” derived. Perhaps a reaction to the thought of having to enter the thicket? For that is what puckerbrush is — an impenetrable tangle of small shrubs. One “urban dictionary” adds that it is often full of “stickers and snakes, not a place anyone would want to go.”

In our area, while there are occasionally stickers and possibly snakes, in general the thickets are marvelous habitat for things like cottontail rabbits, but also provide nesting habitat for an amazing array of birds, including some of the more rare warblers and other passerines.

My driveway is a perfect example of a puckerbrush thicket. I control it only as much as needed to get a vehicle through. My “management” involves only cutting out invasive species like buckthorn. Most common puckerbrush patches contain native species, which, although they can grow aggressively, are not detrimental invasives. The ones we see most extensively are some of the dogwoods and viburnums.

The biggest component is often gray dogwood. This woody shrub can get as much as 10 feet tall, but most of it is eye-level. The bark is dull gray but, after a profusion of greenish flowers that the bees work extensively, it forms bright white berries borne on vivid red stems. These are eaten by birds, but have varying levels of toxicity for mammals. They were considered a fatal poison for canines.

Every bit as thick, another dogwood is quite pretty for the entire year. The younger branches of red dogwood, also called red osier dogwood, display that bright color summer and winter. The common name red osier is derived from a French word used to describe long shoots used for basket making and wicker. Young stems are useful for basket weaving and less flexible, older stems are prized for basket rims. The stems were also used as skewers and frames for racks to dry berries and salmon, and imparted a nice flavor to the food. In my early life, I found strong, Y-shaped crotches also made terrific slingshots.

Deer, rabbits, snowshoe hare, and all sorts of small rodents eat the young stems as a source of winter nutrition. Deer trails through the puckerbrush often meander, seemingly without pattern, until you notice they are traveling from red dogwood to red dogwood, with the trail kept open by their incessant “pruning.”

There is one other dogwood in my puckerbrush. The growth is similar to the others, but the berries are dark blue instead of white. These fruits are avidly sought by birds with over 40 species documented using them. The berries have a particularly high fat content, very valuable for building up for the winter or for a long migration south.

I noted a lot of red dogwood at the beginning of our hike along the trout stream in Maine. Later, I was far too busy trying to survive multiple moose encounters. However, the bottomless can prank was so worth it…

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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