Fool Hen Massacre

Motor vehicles take huge toll on wild creatures every year. When I was eleven years old my mother added to the body count and she did it in such spectacular fashion that the memory is crystal clear, even thirty-nine years in my rearview mirror.

The affair started at the end of a rare hot summer day in Prince George, BC. I’m not sure who originally launched the trial balloon. It could have been my three younger brothers and I, or it could have been my Mother, but someone suggested that going to a lake would be more fun than trying to stay cool in the basement.

“Can we, Mom?” we asked. “Can we?”

The question was directed towards our Mother, since it was the middle of the week and Dad was working.

“We’ll see.”

That was a good sign. An absolute “NO” would have discouraged further badgering and invited threats of bodily harm had we continued.

“Come on, Mom.”

“We’ll see what the weather’s like in the morning. Now quit bothering me or we definitely won’t go.”

I, being the older, wiser brother, knew enough to ask, “So if the weather is good, we’re going for sure?” I had to know if there were any other potential roadblocks.

“Yes,” she said, “If the weather is good, we’ll go.”

Since she hadn’t told me to leave her alone and go outside again, I asked the next logical question, “Can we go to Bear Lake?”

If visiting her sister Elizabeth in Kelowna, as we did for several weeks every summer, that question would have been unnecessary. We spent every hot day in there on the beaches of Okanagan Lake. Mom and Aunt Liz would gossip and reminisce and tan while the four of us swam and played in the sand. It was a different situation in the central interior though. The lakes and rivers surrounding Prince George lacked sandy beaches and were only good for fishing or keeping the beer cool. In fact any body-part submerged in most of those lakes was nothing more than a leech lunch. We loved Bear Lake Provincial Park though. It is a pretty little lake sunk into the sandy soil of a jackpine forest. It had a clean white shore and was small enough to safely paddle around on air-mattresses or tubes. The big problem, I knew, was that Bear Lake was sixty miles north of town. I held my breath as Mother considered whether she could stand being alone in a hot car that long with four hyper-active boys in exchange for some time in the sun. My mother loved the beach but didn’t swim much. She grew up on a homestead in Saskatchewan where the largest body of water within sixty miles was a creek, a marsh, or a dugout, but she could suntan and read for hours. As long as we didn’t swallow too much lake or bother her too often, everyone was happy.

“Maybe,” She sighed a little, “it might be OK.”

That was our signal to leave her alone. There was still some negotiating to be done but I knew that the chances of a positive answer were better than a coin flip. I pushed my brothers away before they could start pestering her with questions like, “Can I bring a friend?” or “Can I bring a slingshot?” or “Can we get a new air-mattress?” We were at a critical point and I didn’t want them to screw it up.

“Come on, guys,” I ordered, “let’s go outside.”

I knew that my brothers weren’t done yet. They weren’t old enough to understand the nuances of the process, but might was right in those days and being the big brother had its advantages. I herded them away and left her alone.

The next morning, I woke to a cloudless sky and the potential of a perfect beach day. Still in my pajamas, I opened my bedroom door and instantly knew that the trip was a go. The unmistakable aroma of my mother’s potato salad hit me before I was out of my room. One of my earliest childhood associations was potato salad means picnic. My Mother would be more likely to show up at a picnic table naked than without her potato salad. It had hardboiled eggs and boiled potatoes and celery and mustard and radishes and enough mayonnaise to plug every major artery, but we loved it and it meant that we were going somewhere.

“Get your brothers up,” Mom said when she saw my smiling face, “and make sure everyone has their swim-trunks and a towel. I don’t want to get up there and find out you boys don’t have everything. Tell them if they don’t have their trunks they don’t go into the lake. I won’t have you kids swimming in your underwear.”

“OK Mom,” I said, “are we going to Bear Lake?”

“I guess so.”

“What about David,” I asked about my youngest brother, “does he have a swim-suit?”

“He’s only four. He can use his underwear.” Mom said after a moment. “Just make sure he has a towel, Ronny.”

I hated to be called Ronny but didn’t think that it was a good time to remind her.

An hour later, the lunch was ready and everything that we needed, and were allowed to take, was loaded into Mom’s dark grey, 1955 Chevy sedan. Road-trips with only one parent were good for me because I had dibs on the passenger-side front seat, guaranteeing a window. Naturally, David was stuck in the middle of the back seat but even Bruce was happy that day because, as number three son, he rarely got a window seat, and in our family that was a coveted position. Chuck was right behind me and today it was his job to keep David from jumping around too much. We didn’t use car seats or seatbelts. Good driving and luck kept us safe in those days. We did get a lesson that day on the effect of a few thousand pounds of speeding car on flesh and blood but as we pulled out of the driveway I was feeling good in the front seat.

We headed north on Highway 97, the Hart Highway as we knew it. I still don’t know who Hart was but he had a real nice road named after him. It is fairly straight and fast and after leaving the northern suburbs behind, the highway crosses miles of forest and hundreds of creeks and rivers before passing through the Rocky Mountains at the Pine Pass and ending in Dawson Creek. Dawson Creek is Mile “0” of the Alaska Highway, so I guess the Americans who rushed to build the “Alcan” Highway at the beginning of WWII didn’t know, or care, who Hart was either. He certainly wasn’t important enough to carry the U.S. Army to their northernmost concern.

Approximately halfway to the lake, just before the highway crosses the Salmon River, there is a long, declining straight stretch flanked by lush, green fields. The farm has a tall white silo near a large white barn and a nice white farmhouse at the far end, near the river. We came over the crest of the hill and started dropping towards the river and the farm-buildings, when I noticed something on the road about a half-mile away.

“What’s that, Mom?” I pointed.

She leaned forward a little and squinted, “I don’t know.”

We were traveling at sixty miles per hour so it didn’t take long for everything for the objects to come into focus. It was a line of birds stretched across both lanes of the highway directly in our path.

“Are they ducks or chickens?” I asked anxiously.

As we bore down on them, Mom pronounced, “It’s a flock of grouse.”

Spruce grouse to be exact, commonly known as “fool hens”, because they were not the brightest birds in the north woods. We had only lived in Prince George for a year but I had heard schoolyard stories of their stupidity. I was told that you couldn’t hunt foolhens with a shotgun. They wouldn’t fly away and 12 gauge birdshot at close range would leave you nothing but feathers and guts. One know-it-all even claimed that his father had driven up beside a fool hen once and killed it with the door of his pickup.

As we got closer, everyone in the car could see the dilemma. The birds were not moving. Five or six of them were simply frozen there between us and Bear Lake. The back-seat riders were now leaning forward and all three heads were resting on the back of the front bench, between Mom and me. When they started screaming for Mom to stop, it hurt my ears.

“Mom, stop.” I yelled over the cacophony.

She didn’t take her foot off the gas. “They’ll get out of the way.” She said confidently.

“I don’t think so, Mom,” I said, my voice rising, ”please stop.”

“They’ll move.” She said with less assurance.

“Mooooom, stoooop.” We screamed in unison, but I knew that it was too late.

I heard her say, “Oooh, nooo!”

I couldn’t watch. I put my head down and felt the impact on the front bumper and heard the bodies bounce off the floorboards of the car as they passed underneath. The four of us looked back to see a cloud of grey-brown feathers blossom behind the Chev. Some pink bits and body parts rolled in our direction with rapidly diminishing velocity. The car never slowed down.

“Stop, Mom.” I pleaded quietly since my brothers were stunned to silence by the carnage.

“Why,” she said, “there’s nothing we can do for them now.”

I knew she was right but it seemed wrong to keep going.

“How many did we hit?” she asked.

“Three or four.” I said.

“Stupid birds.” She said. “Why didn’t they move?”

I tore my gaze away from the scene of the crime and looked at my Mother’s face. She was intently looking forward but I saw her glance in the rear-view mirror. She frowned a little but quickly returned her attention to the road ahead. I just stared at her in disbelief.

“Why didn’t you stop?” I asked.

“What did you want me to do, Ronny? Drive into the ditch? Stop and get run over by a truck coming down the hill behind us?”

“But…” was all I could say.

“That’s what happens if you stand in the middle a highway and don’t move.” She said.

“Yeah, I guess so.” I said.

I looked back one more time before twisting around in my seat as we crossed the Salmon River.

My brothers and I laugh about it now and often teased Mom about the day she murdered the grouse. But even if you’re paying attention you don’t always recognize what the highway of life is bringing your way. The fool hens could see the car coming but didn’t have the sense to get out of the way. Twenty-five years later my Mother didn’t see cancer coming and couldn’t get out of the way. I still miss her.