In defense of Alexander Supertramp

I remember the august summer light shining through the western Kansas dust. Its angle illuminating gangly sunflowers and clutches of pheasants along the dirt roads where I grew up.  That light still triggers a combination of hunting season anticipation and lazy almost-fall memories.  August was the in-between-season for a young ranch kid and so my mind was left to wander.

I’d drift off to considering stories I had read and weigh the supposed attributes of great sportsmen. Perhaps someday I could be counted in those ranks.  I’d find myself lying on patches of native buffalo grass, hands cupped behind my head staring up at the passing clouds in one of my contemplative moods.  I’d merge my intrigue about famous sportsmen and my favorite curiosity.  The great explorers and undiscovered hunting grounds of past centuries had long captivated me and dreaming of them had become almost an obsession.

My favorite musings revolved around imagining I was alive in 1800. I’d continually pose the question; “who in their right mind, would not have sprinted to find Merriweather Lewis, or Captain Clark and beg to join up with the greatest expedition of all time?” Maybe I could have been their hunter.  Well, ok – Just me and George Druillard.  I’d lay in the hot summer wind and dream of wading across the Marias, or seeing the great Sioux villages, or the vast bison herds, or hearing the dancing sharptail grouse in the vast and unmapped wilderness of the Dakotas and Montana.

I was 10 or 11, and a few minutes of daydreaming would inevitably spur me to meander back home, grab a 22 rifle and strike out on a hike into the grasslands, over a new hill, or to a new prairie dog town. If I could not join the corps of discovery, I’d discover on my own.  Eventually my exploration obsession filled my bird seasons, and my fishing adventures.

It followed me to college, where I smuggled a Brittany spaniel named Mitch into my dorm for weeks at a time. We’d cut class together and I’d run out of town away from campus to a new quail spot.  Some days I’d knock doors until I found out how to get permission on a river bottom or patch of native grass.  When that would not work I’d hop a fence and explore.  Sometimes with permission, sometimes with willful ignorance as to ownership.  Mostly no one seemed to care.  Occasionally a famer would drive up and lightly interrogate me then take pity and grant permission.  I learned early on that exploration, pushing limits and willful ignorance usually produced better results than societal stigmas indicated.

Listening to my inner Merriweather once led me to a still unbeaten collegiate record of 31 straight days of quail hunting. If it was a weekday I’d attend a crucial class, cut the others and run with Mitch to a spot I knew. Find a few coveys and stop short of my limit.  I’d then force myself to try a new one.  Just look around, walk, take chances, follow my dog.

And so was born my respect for Alexander Supertramp who I first read about just before I graduated. Supertramp was his preferred moniker but he was also known by his given name of Chris McCandless. He made national headlines when he wandered from Arizona to Alaska, struck out into the wilderness and died of starvation in an old Fairbanks school bus.  Even today, he is a punchline in Alaska.  An example for the establishment Alaskans of a fool, a naïve tree hugging greenhorn who would have done well to adhere to the accumulated knowledge of others, read a map or check in with authorities at reasonable intervals.

That’s not how I saw him. I immediately respected his purposeful disdain of maps or guides.  He preferred to explore on his terms, not on the backs of others.  I came to see his desire to set his own course as emblematic of my own approach to bird hunting.

I moved to Montana in 1995 and there I further devoured the story of McCandless after John Krakauer penned his fantastic book about Chris. I began to incorporate Chris’s purposeful ignorance into my adventures in the broad landscape once visited by Lewis and Clark.  Year after year I explored Montana.  Much of it without aid of map or guide book of any sort.  I spent entire bird seasons allowing myself one day to hunt a spot I knew, then forcing myself to explore one I did not.

Sometimes I tried to obtain permission, sometimes it was impossible. Often, I would toil for entire weeks on what I now know is public land. It was my golden age.  Like “the time before the fences” as the old cowboys would say.  An attractive sharptail spot might be dozens of miles from a house and there was no GPS device to give me real-time ownership data.  I would be faced with the choice to follow a bird dog onto new ridges of promise or do nothing.  Following my dogs always seemed like the most sensible option.

Just like McCandless, I wanted the thrill of exploration and discovery and I wanted it on my terms. I never once regretted chasing a dog into a new haunt.  That’s not to say all explorations went perfectly.  Once while I was a mile or two from any road, I heard a rumble and turned to see a grain truck hurtling towards me at high speed.  Having been raised on a ranch, I knew that this was not a hopeful sign.

The big Peterbuilt stopped in a fog of dust, my dogs ran to my side and the guy in the driver’s seat started questioning. But it was all over in a few minutes, he gladly gave me permission and was just trilled to know I wasn’t some drunk high school kid out cutting fences or raising hell.  He drove off and a soon my lead dog Ruark locked on a big covey of huns.  My other dogs honored and I shot a double.

I’d bet he told the fellas in the coffee shop about the crazy guy in the middle of a pasture with a pack of dogs. They’d tip their caps back and listen as he poked fun at a fool who would walk for miles just to see a dog find a bird or two.  I’d imagine them getting a subdued farmer harrumph at my expense.  I just wish I could have been hunting out of an old Fairbanks school bus to make the story even better.

Now well into my forties with dogs of different names, I have only slightly altered my Supertramp ways. I now do everything possible to ensure I never set foot on private property without permission, but I do not shy from exploring new places.  Most are on public land and in places where people do not believe birds exist.  Just another way I can add value to an experience I want to be wild – devoid of previous explorers.  With arms crossed in satisfaction I think to myself about why I find these places and these birds.  It’s just because I took the chance and someone else did not.  I’d like to think Captain Clark or McCandless would nod in approval.

I’ve had to accept that I am not going to be one of those brave souls who join up with the Corps to explore the American west. Yes, that part of my dream is gone.  But I’ve not yet accepted that Alexander Supertramp was a naïve fool.  I prefer to believe that he and I are brothers of a sort.  Exploring our own personal Louisiana purchase.  I’d like to think that he once laid on native grass, looked up at clouds in an angled august light. He imagined untrampled country and wanted to touch it.

We are not that different I tell myself. There is a beauty in the way we live.  Forcing ourselves into unknown territory, experiencing discovery on our own terms. Embracing risk.  Mr. Alexander Supertramp did not want hints from others to be the spoiler for his own movie.  And I don’t think he cared what others thought about his unscripted ways.  I think to myself that I too am just fine not knowing all there is to know.  I even take a little pride in being the punchline for the old guys in the coffee shops.

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Welcoming in a new scribbler

I first met Ryan Busse on a river. A fitting place, really, because it seems as if we both spend a lot of time in rivers or in the woods or out on the big empty. More likely to meet there than in a mall or something. His favorite all-time fly is the Turk’s Tarantula, which is the kind of thing you learn about a guy when you spend a day together on a river. We run in similar circles, breathe some of the same good mountain air, share an ethic and parallel paths in the outdoors and the desire to get our kids out in it as much as possible. He lives closer to Canada than I do and I live closer to Mexico. We both live in Montana. He runs Brittanys, I run setters. One of us has bad judgment. Or maybe both. Or neither. He names his Brits after crusty old outdoor authors who drank gin, I name my setters after maiden aunts who liked, well, gin. And well gin. I do know this: He loves wild places, watching good bird dogs do their thing, wild fish and wild birds. Like us here at MOF, he’s low on pretention and high on irreverence and, sometimes, reverence. So I asked him to start writing for us and sharing some tales of his own for MOF because all of us who love that should have a place to land, even if just for a moment and just metaphorically or vicariously. We’ll enjoy his stories from time to time here on MOF. Be on alert for a post from Ryan soon.

How did I get here?

MOF has a loyal fanbase (thanks to all 11 of you) but we also have plenty of one-time visitors, many of who were captured here (By accident) and here (Wrong URL.)

Unfortunately for us, it’s getting harder to see what search terms people used to find MOF. Google is encrypting searches, so we can’t see what search phrase brought the vast majority of people here. I get why Google wants to encrypt search terms, privacy and all that, but it does make my annual delve into the WordPress stats to see who landed at MOF much less interesting.
What follows are actual search terms and phrases that brought people to MOF in 2017 via the magic of search algorithms.
“Tent near forest” – If you are asking for advice on where to put you tent, then yes, you should put your tent near the forest. If you are asking about a specific tent near the forest that seems permanent… Don’t go in there. There is nothing but banjos and misery in that tent.
“Chukar scat” – They will do that, and quick too.
“Hazards from feathers” – Try searching the phrase “hypochondriac” or maybe “paranoia.”
“Upland dirtbag” – Really? There are like a million upland hunting blogs, and the folks searching for “upland dirtbag” come to us.
“Skint back” – Obscure hillbilly lingo? You probably found exactly what you were looking for here.
“Gallon liquor brown jug with bird dog” – I do not recommend this. Even if you have a hard-drinking dog like a Labrador, at most they are going to drink half-a-gallon. That leaves you with the other half and that is a sure-fire way to get alcohol poisoning.
“Giffy butte” – People seem to be really confused by this one, so let me break it down for you. Giffy Butte is not a real place. Seriously. Think about it. Stop trying to find it. They are laughing at you, and so are we.
“Clamato life” – Best family board game ever invented. Don’t even think of trying to steal it, we already filed a patent.
“Crack labs” – Do you mean narcotics search dogs like the cops have? Or do you mean labs on crack? Because we don’t want any part of either.
“When a crocodile cannot consume its victim at once it drags the carcass into the burrow” – David Attenborough and Siri seem to be getting along just fine.
“My pointing dog needs to slow down” – Would you say he’s “skint back”?
“Dogs that look like horses” – They’re called Shetland ponies, they won’t point and most of them won’t retrieve. I believe they are welcome at Motel 6 though. 
“Stinking brown stuff” – That’s called shit. Don’t pick it up. 
“In wayne county mo. can you just throw your trash in the ditch by your house just because its your property isn’t that nasty” – This is more of a statement, but yes, we agree.
“Long-beaked land birds” – I don’t know what this means but I’m seriously considering changing “Mouthful of Feathers” to “Long-beaked land birds.” It just rolls off the tongue.
Even if you found us by accident, we hope you stay a while.

Point!

These back-end March days are so refreshing after a hard winter, that there is little thought of how damned far away September lies. March is here and so are the red-wings, sandhills, meadowlarks and the sweet multi-noted song of some bird that remains hidden along the stream. A stream now free of ice and it is this freedom that catches the heart and carries it away into thoughts of more spring and summer coming. Fall, our glorious gift, seems a long way off.

The dog, however, has other ideas. She is on point, tail-high, frozen solid, not moving. Just beneath a little pothole pond that sits on the hillside above the cottonwood bottom. A pothole of pondweed and frogs, but also the occasional mallard. I walk toward her, and she turns that eye toward me. Where is your frickin’ gun? I got ’em!

A triple gets up, two greenhead drakes and a hen, and she’s after them, breaking point at the flush because that’s how I want her to be, galloping, laughing and then they are gone and she is back, tongue out, happy as hell.

Sage doing her magic with Ike on Wyoming blue grouse.

The point is an amazing thing. Good retrieves are too, but I’ve seen border collies and dingos that were endless stick chasers, tireless to the point of great annoyance. I’ve stood by in awe as a buddy’s lab made back-to-back blinds on rooster pheasants I had pass-shot and dropped out of sight, but one dead rooster on top of the other one. Busting across the river, sitting to look at the boss, the command “Over!” and the dog finding the bird and busting across the river again. Delivered to hand. Pretty amazing.

But for my money, the point is otherworldly. An animal whose natural instinct is to run like the hounds of hell are chasing it, then just stopping and tapping into its inner feline, if there is such a thing, and freezing solid. Maybe taking one cat-step forward, but solid. Unmoving. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Outdoing anything any mountain lion would do on a mule deer stalk.

Another walk on another March day and the dog disappears while a cigar is smoked on the bench that I like to call The Contemplation Station. Looking out across the brown land slowly, very slowly, turning green. All the way south to the Madison Range and east to the Bridgers, then back west to Hollowtop and the Tobacco Roots. A cool spring breeze and nothing but the sound of birds and a pickup truck hauling hay out on the Pony Road. Good place for a smoke. Then: where the hell is the dog.

Shout her name five or six times. Probably eating horse crap or gnawing the bones of last year’s elk hauled up on the bench for the coyotes. That damned dog.

A rooster pheasant blows out from the cover, as silent as a big bird can be even when it’s scared shitless, rising up over the cottonwoods and flying all the way east to the neighbor’s place. I had the shot. Towering, then topping out and flying like a big-ass bright-as-hell woodcock on a straight line for freedom. And here’s the dog. Laughing and wondering why there was no shot. She had been on point for an entire cigar only twenty yard off in the bramble while I was contemplating on the station.

I had a couple of setters that were champion mouse pointers in the offseason. Cocking a head, then finally giving up and pouncing and digging. A few caught and eaten, two solid gulps of squeaking fur.

The dogs I’ve had have all been outstanding at their craft. The point itself. Sharing the point? Not so much. Some sucked out loud at backing. The current one does too and it’s embarrassing because there is nothing more frustrating than a dog bursting in on another dog’s point. Stealing the point, or worse yet blowing out the bird or busting the pointer off its game. Explains why I hunt alone so much.

Sage was the best backer I’ve ever been around. She’d back salt licks. And big white chunks of quartz five hundred miles from the nearest glacier. She’d back cardboard boxes caught in briar patches and she’d back her hunting companions. Always. She had her fair share of her own points too in a too-short life of a baker’s dozen years.

Every time I see a point, it takes my breath away. The solid instinct of the thing. The special gift that is given to the hunter, who can walk, or run in. How amazing it is to be able to hunt behind a creature whose sole drive in the field is running, finding, stopping and letting you have all the fun. The flush is coming. And when it does, you know they’ve had fun too. That smile says it all.

Contemplate the point.

 

Good torts

We didn’t go south this past winter.
By all accounts, we didn’t miss anything. By quail accounts, or counts, that is. Bird numbers were down.
But quail are not the only driver for a trip south. True, it is fun to hunt when numbers are up, but I’ve always felt it a kind of penance for good years to hunt hard in bad years too. The quail deserve the effort, down or up.
We did miss a lot, though. We missed just watching the dogs float through those magical grasslands. Missed leaning a shotgun and a tired back up against the bark of a granddaddy oak tree, sipping water and listening to nothing but a panting dog and a scrub jay off somewhere.
Missed just the old-time country feel of some of the places, a feel that makes one think of Gene Autry or at least Lefty Frizzell. Old Arizona and Old New Mexico. Missed thinking about hunting in the same footsteps of my college days, missed thinking about my old college dog JD. Missed the college memories of cases of cold Coors and Coues deer and the best college buddies anyone could ever have.
Missed the food too. No good Mexican food north of the 38th, where the Chili Relleno Tour begins. Missed the Hatch chili stop, although the previous year’s frozen batch is holding out, thanks to spending a couple Benjamins in a classic store in Hatch where English is a second language and chilis are a work of culinary art, roasted and peeled and frozen. Bring a whole damn empty cooler for that stuff.
But mostly missed good tortillas. Good tortillas. Not the flour and chemical paste shit they sell in the grocery stores back home. Good torts made with lard. Good for you and your heart.
Deep in Montana winter and whining like a sad pup for agave and mesquite country, I remembered the magic of the internet. Got online, found an authentic tort maker in Tucson. Ordered seven dozen right out the gate.
I think I’m going to survive until next year. Such are modern times for a lucky bastard.

Timing

Many years ago, just months after an upland season that a flat-brimmer would describe with the cliche “epic,” my buddy died.
He was the pal who got me through a divorce and like any relationship developed when nerves and emotions are on a trigger-edge, the bond was incredibly tight. It was a time in my life when the need to be outside was fueled by what was going on in the attorneys’ offices, but also by a fire in me that wanted to feed the talent in him. The field was an escape, but also the food that sated our appetite for more. Always more. And his was a rare talent. He was my sidekick and my soul-mate. He was an orange belton English setter who saw it all, did it all and still occupies a rare, narrow peak in the mountain of dogs that I’ve had the honor of calling partner. His name was Hank.
The premature death of Hank was met by a staggering amount of grief, but it was tempered by a young pup named Ike, a tri-color who was literally in the shadow of a giant. Like whatever poor stiff stepped into John Elway’s or Peyton Manning’s shoes after they moved on. And he was just a puppy.
I lost a whole season that year, following a six-month old pup through an ocean of grass and corn stubble. There was one memorable hunt with my brother in the CRP outside of Ogallala, but whatever else happened that year is lost in the mists of time. Ike turned out to be a pretty good bird dog but he was Brian Griese to John Elway and he threw a lot of interceptions that first year. At the end of that season, I told myself that I’d never again be caught off-guard, that I’d have one coming or even two coming while another was in the throes of prime living. That vow has caused me to have as many as four setters at once and it is not something I regret. Having a ranch makes it easier, true, but there was a time when I lived in town—in defiance of ordinance—with a herd of bird dogs.

We have three setters now and a ranch dog. We also have a baby boy who gave us the best Christmas gift ever. There’s two litters on the ground as I write this, one filled with Mabel’s nieces, the other filled with Mabel’s half-sisters. And Mabel occupies the boulder right next to the summit cairn that Hank stands on. She may even nudge him off of it this coming season. Two litters on the ground and the timing sucks. But when is the timing ever just right? Just a perfect nexus of time and heart and desire all rolled into one package? If life tells us one thing it is that waiting for the perfect timing is like waiting to get to heaven to have a good time. One may never get there.

Seeds

At some point in the heart of a 12 or 24 hour drive, the coffee just won’t cut it anymore. It’ll be somewhere east of Elk Mountain. The adreneline that kept you sharp over the top will fade once you’re rolling downhill and the snow clears and the road turns dry and black again. It might be south of Page, when the moon goes dark and all the stars come out and there is nothing but the Milky Way and the dashed yellow center line and darkness.
You’ll reach for the seeds. The bag is half empty, not because you needed them earlier, just because they are delicious. But now, in the belly of the night with your bird-hunting buddy catnapping and the promise of birds at dawn, you shove a handful of spicy sunflower seeds in your mouth and put on a podcast.
There is something magical about seeds, particularly when coupled with coffee, that will help you navigate a long drive.
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But these are things you already know. You also know that we rarely endorse things that are not beer, dogs or Mexican restaraunts. In fact, we even created a category for durable goods, that up to this point has only been used once. “These products are things we’ve used in the field, in real time, in real cases, for years. Not just a weekend. In the field, for years. This is the shit that works. That we like. That we’ve had for a long time.”
With all that in mind, I’ll lay it on the line.
There are three kinds of sunflowers seeds in current production that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
3. Spitz, chili lime: These are sweet, but not overly so, with just enough spice to keep it interesting, but not so much that your lips are non-functional after only a couple of pounds.
2. David’s, cracked pepper: These do not start out hot, but near the bottom of a pound bag, you’ll have to stop for chapstick if you didn’t plan ahead. These are the go to seed for late-night driving.
1. Lays, original, extra long: These seeds are like Dr. Pepper, Schlitz beer, nacho flavored Doritos, and the Beatles. They are timeless. I prefer the small bags for easy consumption.

On blogging

Blogging is a strange thing. I made a career of shooting photos and writing, first as a reporter and editor and later in the more technical and mundane aspects of the written word. But a blog, particularly one about something so obscure as bird dogs and shotguns and galliformes, strikes even me as strange some days.
Occasionally, word will get out to non-bird hunting acquaintances that I co-write a blog. “Oh,” they say. “You write a blog… about bird hunting? Currently?” Almost always, there is a long pause, followed by an unspoken, “How quaint.”
I can see it in their smirk and even I know how ridiculous it is to write a blog about birds and dogs and guns and rambling.
These are things that can’t be explained to non-initiates.
A dog, using it’s nose and brain and our shared relationship to work such magic as bird-to-hand cannot be described with something so simple as the written word. A bird, capable of flight, who chooses to walk until it is absolutely required that it fly, cannot be explained to someone reading text in the artificial glow of a computer screen. But here we are.
In addition, the subject matter is obscure. Only 6 percent of the U.S. population hunts. Less than half of those hunt small game, and that includes rabbits and squirrels. If you  sift out the rodent killers, then separate out the folks who like dogs, double guns, beer in cans and long walks in the desert; you have the MOF audience. By my math, that’s around 11 people. Statistically, writing a blog about upland hunting is like writing a blog about blogging. In 2017.
Strange as it may seem, not only do people read MOF, some of them take it seriously. Sometimes people even go so far as to be offended by something they have read on MOF. (see; Giffy Butte, Posers, Mexican Beer, Waste Loss and Legs, Target Clientele, On Monuments and Fish … actually, just see all of it.)
So, if you’re perusing MOF and read something that gets your hackles up, feel free to drop us an angry line. Or, just imagine that you’re reading a blog about blogging, and that people don’t really do that anymore.
If you are one of the kindred spirits who send us emails and exchanges ideas and passes the word on conservation issues, thank you. Thank you for the inside jokes and invitations to hunt birds that stretch across vast swaths of the country, based on little more than an appreciation for a few lines of prose or the look of a dog on point.
If you are here, and not by accident, thanks for reading.

GM