Finding food in the woods

  • Beauchesne gets out his smooth bore shotgun before hunting. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Avery the English Setter bounds through the browned grass before heading out hunting in Andover on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Mark Beauchesne, a Concord native, has hunted all his life. He looks at it as recreation and as a way to supplement his family's protein intake with meat he knows was raised well. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Mark Beauchesne gets ready to blow on his whistle in order to call Avery the dog, who he said was a "long gone dog" Monday as the English Setter ran in wide circles. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Beauchesne walks through the woods while searching out grouse and American Woodcock in Andover Monday. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Beauchesne holds up a shotshell, which has small pieces of copper coated lead inside. The shells are meant to cover a wider range, useful when targeting flying birds. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Mark Beauchesne's dog, Avery, runs and sniffs out birds Monday. This is Avery's ninth season hunting, Beauchesne said. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Mark Beauchesne, a lifelong hunter from Concord, walks through the woods in Andover on Monday. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Concord hunter Mark Beauchesne and his dog, Avery, pad through a field after upland bird hunting together on Monday. ELODIE REED / Monitor staff

  • Avery the dog walks behind owner Mark Beauchesne after going hunting in Andover Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

  • Beauchesne's smooth bore shotgun lays in the Concord hunter's truck bed after a hunting trip in Andover Monday. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On Monday morning, Concord resident Mark Beauchesne went hunting for his family’s New Year’s Eve dinner.

He loaded up his truck with his smooth bore shotgun and his neon orange vest. His 8-year-old English Setter, Avery, panted excitedly from his crate in the back seat.

And after a quick swing across Sewalls Falls Bridge to pick up a reporter, Beauchesne set off for his “secret spot” in Andover, where he would continue a tradition he first learned as a Concord kid.

“Hunting is something that’s a family thing,” he said. “Grandfather, uncle, dad . . . it’s just what you do.”

As the oldest of four siblings, Beauchesne said he’s the only one who has kept at it. And over the course of his 50 years, he’s seen the New Hampshire population, plus the state’s landscape, change drastically.

A state where just over 800,000 people lived in the 1970s now has more than 1.32 million residents.

“That changed things in terms of where you could have gone (hunting),” Beauchesne said. Where once were forests and swamps, he said, “now there’s houses, there are strip malls.”

New Hampshire is still the second-most forested state in the country behind Maine, so Beauchesne takes on the challenge of finding the best spots for wild game, wherever they may be.

“For me, that’s the appeal – going new places,” he said.

Working that hard to find (and then kill, clean and prepare) your own food is not necessarily appealing to most Granite Staters. Fewer than 59,000 hunting licenses were sold in 2015 compared with 97,000 in 1988, and of those, Beauchesne said, just a few use hunting as a way to fill the freezer and as their sole source of protein.

Beauchesne attributes those patterns to several factors. A rise in population, an influx of grocery stores in the ’70s and ’80s, the decline in small family farms, and New Hampshire’s history as one of the early states – and food systems – in the nation.

“Because we were the first to settle, the first to grow – we were the base of the bread basket for the nation,” he said.

But as time has gone on and access to food is increasingly at supermarkets, he said, “there’s now three generations that didn’t look to picking fiddleheads in the spring and shooting squirrels in the fall.”

Beauchesne added that in the modern Northeast, “folks have lost that connection to that food source.”

He maintains his connection by working for New Hampshire Fish and Game as the advertising and promotions coordinator, by taking weekend hunting trips for wild game (including squirrel or “chicken of the trees”), and sometimes, foraging berries and mushrooms while out on a hunt.

Beauchesne is not among the few that rely only on wild game for protein – his family buys locally sourced pork and beef – but he does look forward to integrating what he hunts into his household.

Each year, for instance, he saves some ruffed grouse in his freezer to make his traditional, New Year’s Eve dish: grouse Marsala.

“It’s a treat,” Beauchesne said.

In the woods

To find some of that grouse, plus some American Woodcock and snowshoe hare, Beauchesne trundled out to Andover on Monday for some upland hunting.

After parking along a dirt road, Beauchesne let out Avery the dog, who went bounding down from the truck and straight into the brush, nose to the ground. Beauchesne said his dog has been out for nine hunting seasons now, beginning at just 10 months old.

“This is our oldest hunting partner,” he said. “They’re our companions, they’re our protectors and they’re there to help us with the harvest.”

Avery, equipped with a bell and a GPS locator on his bright-orange collar, has his job while Beauchesne has his.

“His job,” Beauchesne said, “is to smell ’em out.”

When Avery finds game, he stops, points his nose at it, and stands stock-still until Beauchesne finds his dog’s beeping GPS locator. Beauchesne then raises his gun and, hopefully, shoots the wild animal.

This is what happens in theory. In practice, Beauchesne called Avery a “long-gone dog” Monday as the English Setter raced through the woods, across a field and up a dirt road. He managed to scare five ruffed grouse along the way, all of which beat their drumming wings to escape before Beauchesne got there.

“He’s obviously in a different world today,” he said as Avery raced past, tongue lolling. Dogs, like people, Beauchesne said, have off days, too.

“This is not easy,” he said. “If it was, easy, everybody would do it.”

At one point during the two-hour walk up and down ridges and through trees, brush and water, Beauchesne said he sometimes wondered how old he would make it to if he had to catch all of his food.

“Could I have made it to 50?” he asked.

Maybe not. What seems to make hunting difficult nowadays, he said, is not the physical aspect of it, but people not knowing what to do with a dead animal – or wanting to know what to do.

“What do you do after you shoot the animal?” Beauchesne asked. People, he added, “don’t want any part of the gross part. The icky part is cleaning them out, dealing with the feathers and the guts.”

For his part, Beauchesne likes being involved in the procurement of his own food.

“Knowing I was part of the process from step one to step Z – it just seems like we all should be doing it,” he said. After a game kill, Beauchesne said he always stops and thinks, understanding the animal is not a trophy.

“For me, it’s taking a moment and reflecting on what you did, what this animal is going to do for you,” he said. “There’s no unnatural part to it.”

Part of the food system?

Beauchesne said he sees game meat in a similar way to locally raised farm meat.

“I know where I bought, where I got my pig. I know the land, the farmer,” he said. Out hunting, he added, “I know the land. And Mother Nature is the farmer.”

With a rise in the local food movement and a focus on food systems in New Hampshire and elsewhere, Beauchesne said hunting might have a bigger role to play in the future.

“Managing animals can manage food systems along the way,” he said, whether that means helping farmers keep deer or birds out of their crops, or having hunters donate extra meat to the New Hampshire Food Bank. About 2,100 pounds were given in 2015.

Beauchesne said – perhaps with a note of hope – that younger generations may inject new life into seeking food on forest floors or in the trees.

“What we’re seeing is that, recently, the millennials are the ones who are questioning the most about their food,” he said. “They’re exploring things – my impression is they will explore beyond their comfort zone for alternatives.”

(Reporter’s note: As a millennial on a hunt for the first time, walking in the woods for two hours – and casually passing some moose guts during that time – doesn’t seem so bad for some wild-raised meat).

Beauchesne’s experiences at a “field to table” class are promising, where young or beginning hunters learn how to dress wild game.

“It’s a lot of fun – it’s also a lot of food,” Beauchesne said. They start by dressing squirrels, for instance, take a taste of the chicken-like meat after making “hot legs” on the grill.

“People go crazy for it,” Beauchesne said.