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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Hunters Gather for October Grouse at ‘Checkpoint Charlie’

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Tom Heberlein has long trimmed two faint trails through the back end of his Northwoods 40 to ease access to the Chequamegon National Forest’s deer, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hares and even beavers.

In turn, when visitors step from those public forests onto Heberlein’s turf, they don’t find a “No Trespassing” sign at the border. They do, however, find a stark sign with block letters reading: “YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR.” The same message repeats below in Russian, French and German.

History buffs and old folks might recognize that sign, especially if they were around for much of the Cold War, which ran from March 1947 to December 1991. The U.S. Army posted such signs in Berlin, Germany, at “Checkpoint Charlie,” and those selling facsimiles online today claim it’s the world’s most famous sign.

After all, Checkpoint Charlie was the best known and most-used crossing point in the Berlin Wall after its 1961 construction. President John F. Kennedy even climbed a platform there in June 1963 to stare from West Berlin into East Berlin to reinforce his point that no free society fences in its own citizens.

Heberlein nailed up his Checkpoint Charlie signs over 20 years ago. I know this to be true because I’ve hunted from Heberlein’s shack since 2001, and recall the signs puzzling me when first returning to his property through an alder tangle.

His signs have weathered little the past two decades. When visiting Heberlein’s “Old Tamarack Lodge” in central Ashland County last week, I smiled to see his Checkpoint Charlie signs still holding firm in long-dead trees.

A far different kind of sign, however, was lacking in the “American Sector” itself. I didn’t find any fresh signs of white-tailed deer in those surrounding public forests; something I’ve never had happen before. Yep. Not one deer track, buck rub or whitetail pellet in three days of scouting my favorite haunts and kill sites. But I did bump a ruffed grouse and heard another one drumming.

The absence of deer sign was disappointing, but not shocking. This past winter, Ashland County registered a brutal “102” on the state’s winter severity index. That ranks as a “very severe” winter on the WSI; and the worst since the record-breaking, deer-killing winter 10 years ago.

I doubt it’s coincidence, but I haven’t seen a deer while hunting Old T since that deadly 2013 winter, but it’s not all about deep snow and below-zero temperatures. Deer habitat in that section of the Chequamegon is poor. It’s mostly old-growth maple, silver birch, black cherry, balsam fir and black ash trees. Collectively, the habitat is so lacking in thermal cover and browse that even wolves don’t hunt deer there; only stubborn old men who refuse to quit.

Heberlein, however, draws occasional deer to his 40 acres by logging its red pines, regenerating its aspens, whacking its brush, and protecting its acorn-bearing red oaks. His efforts also attract a few grouse and wild turkeys; though we’ve neither seen, heard nor killed a gobbler there. Whenever someone fiddles with a trail-camera, they’ll occasionally document deer, bears, friends, strangers and similar weasels passing by.

Therefore, our group felt relief when Rich Stedman and his dog, Hobbes, found two genuine buck scrapes near Heberlein’s two-person tree stand. We embraced this fresh sign, given that deer season opens Nov. 18, and Old T will again dispatch a crew armed with pet rifles and eternal hope. As Aldo Leopold once wrote: “Every ground is a hunting ground, whether it lies between you and the curbstone, or in those illimitable woods where rolls the Oregon. The final test of the hunter is whether he is keen to go hunting in a vacant lot.”

For our mid-October meet-up, though, our crew of five men and three dogs focused on resident grouse and migrating woodcock. In deference to the property’s taxpayer and overlord, the visiting hunters gave Heberlein first crack at the house flock. For the most part, they drove or walked elsewhere to hunt grouse and timberdoodles among lowland tag alders and dense stands of early-stage aspen.

Two crew members — Peter Kleinman of Fort Collins, Colorado, and his pointer, Pancho —accumulated three woodcock and two grouse in four days of hunting the public forest. They saw and heard far more. Kleinman summarized their hunts this way: “A ton of birds but some pretty bad shooting. On one afternoon hunt we flushed 20 grouse and 11 woodcock.”

Another team — Keith Warnke of Madison and Artemis, his young Munsterlander pointer — returned home with only memories and most of Artemis’ tail. The memories, however, should prove enduring. When one grouse flushed, Warnke swung and fired his shotgun, unleashing a swarm of No. 7 steel pellets. Instead of dropping the bird, however, the pellets shattered the top of a young aspen, severing its top section like a ship’s mast shredded by cannon fire.

During the same walk-about, Warnke heard his beloved dog yip and cry out while working nearby brush. Warnke noticed blood on Artemis’ tail tip when she reported in, but she instantly resumed hunting; insisting it was just a scratch.

But that night, long after the tail stopped bleeding, Warnke noticed something else: Artemis’ tail tip was missing 2 inches of meat and hide. “I’ll have some explaining to do when we get home, but I really don’t know what happened to her,” Warnke said. “It’s anyone’s guess.”

Stedman and Hobbes, meanwhile, ended their four-day, three-woodcock hunt with a suicidal grouse. After Heberlein came up empty on Old T’s house grouse, Stedman set off for the American Sector to hunt birds and scout for deer season. But less than one minute and 50 yards later, he saw a grouse standing in Heberlein’s main trail.

Hobbes spotted the bird, too, as it thundered into flight while Stedman shouldered his side-by-side shotgun. Even in the moment, Stedman couldn’t believe his luck.

“It took off like a jumbo jet rolling down a long runway straight away from me,” Stedman said. “Its liftoff was more gradual than sudden. I doubt it got higher than 30 feet into the air. It was an easy shot. Thank god I hit it. If I hadn’t, I would’ve had to make up a story to tell Heberlein.”

And me? I spent more time with a chainsaw than gun, trimming Heberlein’s trails so visitors can clearly see they’ve reached Checkpoint Charlie. Whether they go back or pass through, they’re hunting special lands.

Visitors who step onto Tom Heberlein’s property in Ashland County might spot a “Checkpoint Charlie” sign when crossing his longtime border with the Chequamegon National Forest. — Patrick Durkin photos

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