My legs hurt. I feel it as I climb out of the sleeping bag: a deep, healthy ache in my thighs and glutes. It's not just the hiking of swamp bottoms and tangled hillsides, climbing over and under deadfalls. It's the crouching.
Because in the conifer thickets, where the snowshoe hares often are, you have to squat down to see beneath the lowest branches. That's how hare hunting goes: a few careful steps, crouch, look hard for a minute or two, and then back up for a few more steps. Bodyweight squats all day. My legs are sore.
And I'm not alone. As I perk coffee and fry eggs I can hear my brother Dan Hazelton and my friend Rod Houdek groaning in the back room as they awaken to the same discovery.
I smile to myself. Good. That's the point of this, after all. Bagging a few snowshoe hares is the stated goal—they are fun to hunt and great on the table—but it's more than that. By mid-February, deer season is almost two months gone, and we need to fight the atrophy of muscle and sinew, the softening of mental toughness. To remember what woods work feels like, what cold, midwinter air tastes like, what blue nightfall in the black spruces looks like.
Hare Hunting Camp.
We are at our hunting camp in Superior National Forest, which is largely empty of people in many areas this time of year.
It's the perfect place to put our snowshoes, so often simply wall-hung as woodsy decor, and our .22-caliber rifles, so often used only to put holes in aluminum cans, to their honest, intended use. Especially the snowshoes: white ash, steam-bent into parabolas of functional elegance, babiche lacing tightly hand-wrapped. A design barely changed in several thousand years.
Much like the hares themselves. They've been here for at least as long. Few other northern Minnesota game animals can claim such a pedigree. The caribou are gone, the moose dwindling, and the white-tailed deer that now thrive are post-logging immigrants. But like the brook trout in southeastern Minnesota, the snowshoe hare hangs on, a near-arctic remnant of the receding ice. For millennia the hare has eaten a boreal browse of greens, twigs, and bark, converting it into lean protein that many predators—including people—have relied on during long northern winters.
We park on the side of the Forest Service road, uncase our rifles, and bind our snowshoes to our feet. As we leave the truck behind we leave behind the last warmth for miles around, aside from body heat. Ours, of course, and that of the thousands of birds and mammals that survive here, metabolizing the forest into heat one calorie at a time. I think to myself that the truck will be cold, too, when we return this afternoon. I hope it starts.
Our hare hunting trips always seem to be on these cold weeks. Not just long-johns cold, but highs-below-zero cold. Within an hour water bottles are crusted with ice. My breath blooms geometric ice crystals on the metal of my rifle. Phone, compass, and GPS, redundant but critical navigation tools, I keep in a warm inside pocket. We take extra care to plan each footstep as we negotiate jumbled deadfalls and erratic boulders. An injury out here, with no cell signal and no traffic on the roads, could be more than an inconvenience.
But we're careful, and the danger-level cold adds adventure. It also lends a crystalline quality to the landscape. The sun is dramatic and low in the trees even at midday, but bright in the dry air. Sounds are crisper. The snow doesn't squeak or crunch. Under a thin glaze of ice crust, it's the consistency of granulated sugar, and our steps send it skittering across itself with an impossibly delicate sound.
We walk a dozen paces apart, our blaze orange just visible through the skeletal brush and thick conifers. We move slowly, yet our breath billows hot with the work. Soon the muscle aches fade, our footsteps become confident, and we settle into the rhythm of the hunt.
Snow and Solitude.
It's an ancient rhythm. Humans have hunted hares here for thousands of years. For modern people, a late-season public land hunt is especially rewarding due to the solitude found in the winter forest. Many cabins are closed for the season, grouse and deer hunting is over, and many of the roads and trailheads are empty. Access is easy: The Superior and Chippewa national forests and many state forests comprise millions of acres of public land, almost all of it good hare country. All that's really needed is a compass, a pair of snowshoes, and a .22 rifle.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in 2016 hunters in Minnesota harvested about 6,000 snowshoe hares. That sounds like a lot, but DNR furbearer research scientist and snowshoe hare expert John Erb tells me that modern hunting has probably never been a significant factor in hare population sizes. There are a lot of hares, and they're well adapted to predation.
"It's a very risky landscape out there," Erb says. "But they've survived for eons as a result of high reproductive capability."
From the moment they're born, hares are hunted hard. Almost everything in the northern woods eats them. The Canada lynx is the most famous hare predator, though it isn't common in Minnesota. Here, coyotes, pine martens, wolves, owls, and hawks, among other predators, all eat hares. Even the small red squirrels take a significant number of baby hares—called leverets—each year. Studies have shown that as much as 95 percent of all hare mortality is due to direct predation.
"They're built to deal with it at the genetic level," says Erb. "They can pass on their genes even if they themselves don't survive very long."
The snowshoe hare is known for its population swings, which roughly follow a 10-year cycle. A peak is followed by a valley five years later.
The DNR tracks the hare cycle through hunter questionnaires, animals observed during ruffed grouse surveys, and winter track surveys. When decades of survey data are combined, population cycles emerge. Erb says that in the last 30 years or so, snowshoe hare cycles have become less pronounced, and the reasons why aren't yet clear.
While hunting, we occasionally stumble across the snowshoe's cousin, the cottontail rabbit. Unlike hares, which give birth to furry, precocious leverets, rabbits make sophisticated nests in which they protect and raise naked, helpless young. They're similar in appearance, though on average hares are larger. But in the late fall, around the time when the first snows stick and the cottontail's brown fur stands out in the forest, the snowshoe hare grows a white coat of perfect snow-camo, giving it its other name, the varying hare. And if we were to move our hunting trip to Minnesota's western prairie regions, we might instead find the white-tailed jackrabbit—actually a hare, not a rabbit, and the largest of the three.
Walking the Line.
Hare and rabbit hunting opportunities abound in Minnesota. But it's rarely easy, and these deep-woods snowshoes might be the hardest to hunt. They're good at holding perfectly still and staying put until nearly stepped on. When you are the same color as snow in a snowy world where everything is out to eat you, movement is death.
This tactic works especially well on we indoor-softened humans, with our senses of smell, sight, and hearing no longer constantly honed for finding prey. We must rely on our knowledge-accumulating, problem-solving mind to anticipate where hares are likely to be, and when.
Hares are most active from dusk until dawn. But savvy hunters know how to find them when they are inactive, hiding in snow hollows and depressions beneath brush or deadfalls.
Today we're walking the line between a black spruce swamp, where the hares can hide beneath the thick needle canopy and in the many hummocks and deadfalls, and an upland hillside, where mature aspen forest has been disturbed by fire, logging, or wind, and where young trees and shrubs are available for browse. Here and there are thickets of young balsam firs, which along with spruce are the hare's favorite cover type. This mixture is what Erb calls "structurally complex" cover.
"They live in the nooks and crannies of the forest," he says.
This edge we're on is a good one, judging by the tracks in the snow. Highways, really, a confused tangle of well-trod hare trails that lead everywhere and nowhere. We know they're in here; we just have to spot them.
Stop, Crouch, Look.
The best way to find a snowshoe hare is still by looking for one. Really looking. Stopping every few steps, crouching beneath branches, and focusing intently on every detail for several minutes. Our eyes want to scan, to watch for movement. But in the hare woods that's a waste of time. From the tips of our own snowshoes to the edge of our field of vision, we examine everything and rule it out as not a hare. We strain to pick out a black eye, a black ear tip, or even a bit of white fur—off white, not quite as blue as the snow. It takes patience and practice.
If you're moving slowly enough, sometimes a hare will get nervous and hop up out of its hiding spot to get a better look at you from a distance.
"Hold up," Rod says softly. Dan and I pause. The small report of Rod's .22 is swallowed by the thick woods and doesn't echo. A minute later he steps into an opening, breath steaming, with a large hare draped in his mittened hand. Tiny drops of bright red blood fall into the snow.
As with all hunting, the actual shot is an anticlimax. Once a hare is spotted, average skill with a rimfire rifle, a shotgun, or even a bow tips it over easily. It's holding still, after all, and in the dense forest the shots are never long.
Rod slides the hare into the pouch on his hunting coat, and we continue on, looping back to the truck as evening approaches.
There is one other way to find a hare in the woods: to kick it up, to walk sufficiently close to its hiding spot that it panics and runs. But this isn't very efficient—there are a lot of hares out here, but most of the square feet of Superior National Forest do not contain one. Besides, not panicking and not running are the hare's best tricks. We surely walk past plenty that never flush.
But once in a while it just happens. Almost back to the road now, after an extra-long crouch, I stand, knees cracking. At my first step a hare takes off from behind the roots of a fallen spruce, only a few feet away. After three long lopes, it stops, only partially hidden in the chewed-bare branches of a fresh aspen blowdown. My .22 comes up.
I take off my mitten and hold the downed hare. In my hand it feels heavy, fluid, and warm, surreal sensations in the subzero boreal forest. Magical almost. I can feel the robust muscles of its hind legs and already know what they will look like, smell like, taste like, braised with carrots and rosemary. The fur is not pure white, but textured with sable and tan and gray. Impossibly soft. I spread the toes of a rear foot. The snowshoe. It spans my entire palm. Our wooden versions are clumsy and contrived in comparison. The fine, grayish fur of this foot will make fine wings on trout flies I'll tie this spring.
A Big Experience.
The hare made a mistake by breaking. If it had held, I never would have seen it. Hares don't often make mistakes, but many have made this same one over the millennia, offering desperate meals to fox, marten, lynx. Or even to some human hunter, maybe, and a cold, hungry family. Perhaps on this same ground. Of course, we have groceries back at camp, but in this moment it's easy to feel a bit of kinship with those other hunters, and with this place.
It's this that brings us back every year. When I later tell friends or coworkers that "we were up north hare hunting," I can't help but feel how inadequate the phrase sounds. The real experience is so big. The great boreal forest in deep winter; the pleasant heat of exertion in brittle-cold forest; the intensity of focus when, after hours of crouching and looking, a hare is suddenly right there; the several meals we'll get from the rich, wild meat, shared with family and friends.
Back at the cabin, the hares are cleaned and portioned. The dark meat is chilled and seasoned, and a Dutch oven is heating on the stove. Outside the stars burn blue in the clear air, now colder yet. Inside the gas lamps burn warmly, and Dan, Rod, and I retell the adventures and follies of the day, laughing and stretching the truth a bit, much like hunters here have likely done for thousands of years.