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Common Scents

The season drew to a close today, a Sunday, which isn't too odd except for the fact that I didn't have to duck out of work to go hunting. What is odd is that the ground is still covered with snow, an increasingly rare occurrence in upstate South Carolina. It started coming down on Thursday and by Friday morning we'd gotten a little over nine inches. Boot deep in fluff so incredibly quiet, a phenomenon that weathermen say is due to the cell structure of snowflakes. The muted browns and grays of winter are splashed with a coat of brilliance. I get the opportunity to take my dog hunting in this wonderland maybe once every three or four years, and the most lingering aspect of the day is something that I take all the way home - the smell of a wet bird dog.

Everyone who owns a dog, hunter or not, knows this smell. It may be one of the most difficult scents to describe, less musty than a damp cabin and not as clean as a pool or a lake, but the pungent nature is unmistakable. Blindfold me, drug me, cover my ears and tie me to a chair and I would know the instant a wet dog trotted into the room. And shame on me but I must admit that I love the smell. I can't explain it any more than I can describe the scent itself. File it under 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' I guess. While most people scatter from it, I relax, completely at ease and comfort.

For a few years, Orvis sold a joke cologne called Wet Gun Dog. Although I never sniffed it, I can't help but wonder if they got the smell right. Pardon my skepticism, but dozens of outfits make and sell air fresheners claiming to have the New Car scent and I've yet to find one that makes my car smell like it did when it rolled off the lot. Those I've tried aren't even close, especially after I've ridden around with a wet dog.

Psychologists say that the sense of smell is one of the more powerful memory triggers, often bringing back distinct mental pictures of people and places not seen for years. Perfume or cologne is particularly adept at recalling images of someone from the past. The smell of metal or machine oil may remind someone of a first job on a factory floor. The foul aroma of sargassum decomposing always makes me think of the Florida Keys where I worked for two summers. It's one of those things that never leaves you no matter how long you've been disconnected from the source. Hunters are not immune.

Take just-fired gunpowder, for instance. One of my favorite parts of dove season is getting to smell it again. I seldom shoot targets in the off-season, so most years there is a six-month gap where my shotgun sits idle. The exception is a quick fix during turkey season, and exception is the proper word considering my prowess with a slate call. Opening day in September, however, is an enormous release, almost a homecoming where four of the five senses gather and dance to celebrate the occasion. The smell of sulfur reminds me of firecrackers and model rocket engines back in the day before I'd ever fired a shotgun. I don't play with model rockets any more and tend to watch rather than participate in the firecrackers, so the smell has grown into a new association, one that signals the end of summer and the beginning of the best part of the year.

The return of hunting season brings occasion to reacquaint with one of the all-time classics, one that make every hunter grin and say "oh yeah". I'm talking about Hoppes No. 9. If you've cleaned a gun you know the aroma that is part medicinal, part petroleum, and all business. From six inches away it could be potpourri, but put your nose to the lip of the bottle and it has the bite of a badger. It goes with hunting like a belt with a buckle and if I managed to make it through a season without smelling it I'd feel like I'd missed something.

Of course there are other smells closely associated with hunting. Waxed cotton has an oddly sweet aroma, kind of like a sugary box of crayons. Leather doesn't smell like anything but leather. Certain things smell like leather, not the other way around. The same is true of skunk. And then there is the quail. If I had to choose one word to attach to the scent of a bobwhite, it would be wild. Not reckless or uncontrollable wild, but outdoors and a part of nature wild. They don't have the barnyard smell of some birds or the clean, wind-washed smell of others; they smell like a creature that lives between woods and fields, an amalgam of all that grows in their country. That's one small part of their appeal.

I've never been overly apt at describing tastes and smells, a writer's handicap to be sure. It's similar to describing the different flavors present in a wine. If an aficionado tells me that there are cherries or butter or chocolate present in a wine, I have little trouble tasting them, but left to my own devices, I have to run through a list of flavors, asking myself "Do I taste cherries? Do I taste vanilla? Do I taste peaches?" A time-consuming process to be sure, and not very practical with hunting paraphernalia. Lack of descriptive skills aside, I do know the smell of Hoppes or leather or a wet dog when it tickles my nose. I also know that when my dog loads up after a romp through dew-laden summer grass, I'll be reminded of the last day of the season, and I'll be even more eager for the opener.

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