The last big trip is done. The take–a pile of roosters hatched and nurtured on Kansas mixed prairie–is aging in cool storage. There’s plucking to be done, but not for a few days, maybe a week. The strength of walking 12, 13, 14 miles in a day has not faded. The dogs have recovered and are twitchy. Old snow, not post-hole stuff, but crusty and hard, covers the ground like a heavily frosted cake that sat out overnight. There might be a covey of huns up on the old Rex place, and in the summer, you saw a ruffed grouse cross the road where you parked the horse trailer for the coulee-to-cabin ride. So you grab the pup because she put it together somewhat on the loess of the heartland and you’d like to build on that. You park at the coulee, shoulder into the vest that is still littered with rooster feathers, and step out into it, the pup bounding over the snow-scabbed land. Sip from the water bladder that carries the last of the delicious water pulled from a deep well strawed into the fading, famed Ogallala and follow her to hope. One more time. Maybe a few more, yet, but this one for sure, if only for an hour or two.
In the mornings, as the sun works its way down the canyon at your back, inching its way over the remains of a giant castle of lava shattered by time, you double-knot your boots. You can smell yesterday’s sagebrush hike on your clothes and measure that they are clean enough, good enough for another day of the same. Take a survey: knees, hips, ankles. Not as sore as you suspicioned and you figure the little bit of IB you took last night did its number. Drank enough water too. You pack. Water for the dog. Folding dog bowl, shells, vet kit, water for you, energy bar, energy chews, camera, phone. Survey the dog. She walks around the camper, does her business. Stiff-legged, then works out of it, wagging, happy, jumping up to your waist. Ready, partner. Never boss. Partner. Yesterday she pointed and retrieved the one and only chukar triple you have shot in two decades of chukar hunting. How can there be a chain of command in such an attainment, even an implied one? She is good to go. You can feel it rising in your chest, the resolve of it. From up the canyon on the warming rock, a wild chortle, the call of the quarry. If all birds are descendants of dinosaurs, this one has a direct line to dilophosaurus, a vengeful little bastard that Hollywood reckoned spit acid into the face of its foes. One last look around the camp. Lock the camper. Hop in the truck, pull the lever into 4×4 and turn up the road that will put you half way to the fray. The other half is all muscle and grit, sweat and sage and a partnership living on wind. Let the battle continue.
Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a baby or a bird dog or a season knows how precious the passage of time can be. Blink and the baby is driving a Ford F250 instead of a plastic toy Ford 8N. Blink and the bird dog is cataracted and arthritic and done. Blink and the season goes from too-hot-to-hunt to frost-bite-your-nuts. Perhaps you should have prayed to the gods of the uplands harder, prayed for a long, gentle autumn with cool days and frosty nights. Prayed. But you blinked and now the deep freeze has descended. An October high of 18 in Colorado’s queen city of the plains on a day that averages 60 in “normal” years. Whatever normal means anymore. The Northern Plains are even worse. Ten below. Fourteen below. Two below in Pocatello. You blinked. Might as well go elk hunting.
This time of year, I find myself cradling my shotgun on lonely wind-swept ridges, watching melodic dance of three hard-charging setters pulled by the Western wind. They spin and lope and run with their heads high, drawn into grassy arroyos, flung up onto high sage benches. They stop suddenly, honoring each other, frozen in moment and time and I ride up, dismount and move in. Never knowing what is before, only enjoying the moment and the dance. This is how I live my life. . . perhaps nothing will be there, but perhaps it will be a flock of Huns, flying hard and fast and my shotgun up and swinging. A bird may fall and the muffled panting of the grandson of my best dog will foretell of a young dog with a bird in his mouth, headed my way. I will take the bird from him in high praise, clean it quickly, and shove it down into my saddle bags, warm in the autumn sun, and warm with affection for animals who move us and think more of us then they do of themselves. That is good living, is it not? It is about the hunt, the dance, the west wind, the open country, the eighty year old saddle I ride, the fast-moving gray mare between my legs, the moment. What is before is yet to be seen and doesn’t really even matter.
Forage (berries, hoppers)
Find a ridge that breaks from sagebrush on its south flank to Doug fir on its north. Deciduous cover such as chokecherry, snowberry, mountain maple preferred. Note temperature and date. Start climbing, letting the dog cover country. Belling is preferred by the more traditional chefs but discrete hawk-call collars set on point-only work quite well and are excellent in reasonable hands. Climb some more. If grouse are encountered, note elevation, time of day, day of month. Praise dog. Mix ingredients again on the next run. Repeat.
By Kyle Smith
Late summer and dreams for the season ahead abound like the apples hanging heavy on their branches in my backyard. A new hunting partner has joined the family, though he’s a decade removed (decade and a half if you ask his mom) from long road trips to high desert locales and the steep terrain of chukar country. Still, my mind wanders to his future and mine, much as I imagine it does for all new fathers.
Priorities have shifted in his wake, come into cleaner focus. Got to make time away from home count now. No more half-assed forays into the unknown. From here on out, things’ll be different. I’ll be more deliberate, more disciplined. Afterall, it’s not about me anymore, but for the hope that the boy takes to dirt under his fingernails and the call of the open road. The hope that he ends up with use for the type of knowledge that can only be gained by mistakes made in pursuit of something wonderful.
What young man wouldn’t be drawn to dogs and guns, fins and feathers? I tell myself there’s no way he’ll be able to resist trips to unnamed places in search of trout and birds and adventure. But if his passions lead him elsewhere, if he takes to theater, or football, or music, I hope the same lessons that have informed my days afield will shape his character. Hard work, humility, and an understanding that we’re not separate from the ground we stand on, that’s it’s part of us and we’re a part of it.
Doubt creeps in often. It’s alarming how interested he becomes when he spies mom or dad checking our shining rectangles or hears the echo of the TV in another room. We’ve accepted that there’s no way to shield him from the digital age, nor should we, but dear God do I hope we can keep it from consuming him. Mostly for selfish reasons, I could really use a solid hunting partner, but also for his own benefit to know the small towns and grand views found while upland hunting or waist deep in trout water that have enriched so many of our lives. To know that his food doesn’t come via the Buy It Now button on Amazon and that nothing worth doing comes easy in this life.
For now, all I can do is hope and pray, and do my damndest to keep the TV off and the iPhone stashed out of sight.
We coyoted out the night before opener. Threw bedrolls down in the sage and drank bedtime whisky. Rolled out well before dawn, elk-hunting style, roused the dogs out of the kennels. Off by the ranch, where the dirt road led through the gate and up the mountain, there was a set of headlights.
Damn. See that?
The day came up and the light with it and birds started chirping and a breeze came off the mountain. The bedrolls were wadded into the bed of the pickup and hands felt for shells in vest pockets, collared the dog, found a whistle.
Another set of headlights turned at the ranch gate on the public access. Jesus, here comes another one.
Well, it is a Saturday and it is opening day.
The first set got closer and we could hear the engine coming up the mountain, deepening with the pull.
We better get moving, said to no one in particular. Just barely light enough to shoot and a third set of headlights turns at the gate and the first rig is next to ours and two pile out, say a reluctant and barely-friendly hello that is met in kind.
We move and the dog goes on point almost immediately and a woken covey of young Huns goes up, barely able to fly. They scatter and we hold our fire. Not sure the next party up the mountain will be so kind to young birds just learning the magic of flight.
The first blue grouse goes into the vest, warm and fragrant with sage, just as the fifth or sixth set of headlights turns off the road, light enough now to see well, but not so light that the computer in the Surburban down there shuts off the headlights. We are well up the mountain now and there are pairs of hunters below us, spreading out, ant-like in the coming day. For a moment we stop and lament that it didn’t used to be like this but then our valley got popular, made top ten lists in New York magazines.
Another blue down and the dog working well. A certain pride in being so far up the mountain now, so far ahead.
Eight rigs other than ours in the parking lot now and the sun not even cresting the mountain yet. It feels like a competition, not a hunt, a race to something, an exercise in chest puffery, a contest to see who can put the best picture up on his feed. We watch them scatter, hear the whistles, the shouts of anger for a dog loosed into opening day.
Opening day is on a Sunday next year, we say in unison. Let’s skip this place next year. I’d rather hunt than be in a foot race.
“In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” –Henry Beston
It has been said—by those who should know—that a man only has one special dog in a lifetime. I wonder about this statement, for I can remember every dog I ever had fondly, an attachment of heart and soul that brings a smile. Sometimes there are tears. Not long ago, I found myself tearing up over the day I put my first gun dog down, a day that has more than eleven years behind it. I remember my first dog—gone twenty years now—and she was not even a gun dog.
But then I think about special times and places, about timing and time. There was a period in my life when I needed a friend and his name was Hank, a hard-charging English setter with the heart of a pure hunter. I had left an unhappy marriage and Hank was there, ready for the wind-whipped granite chukar haunts, ready for the pheasant fields stretching to the western horizon, ready for sage grouse rising above an ocean of sage. He tore it up and lived not long enough. But before he left, he put a litter of setter pups on the ground and then he was gone. But this story is not about Hank. This tale is of Hank’s buddy Coot and her partner, Dave.
Coot was a lively black Lab pup, all teeth and torment, a bundle of high-test energy who squirmed in your grip and growled puppy growls and launched herself into algae-covered ponds at ten weeks of age with the enthusiasm and drive of a finished dog. She came into Dave’s life just a year after Hank came into mine. We were new friends then, Dave and I, but we were kindred spirits, lads raised in the West, fed venison and elk steak, trained from youth to squint at far ridges looking for game.
In the mid-1990s, Wyoming was awash in upland birds. There were Hungarian partridge in places where there had never been Hungarian partridge. Chukars lived on about every crag in the desert. Even the pheasants were doing well, with wild tough roosters thriving on nothing but greasewood and new grass. It was into this landscape that Dave and I loosed Hank and Coot.
I needed the distraction from the logistics and loss of a failed love. That was my excuse for hunting every weekend and most week days. I don’t know what Dave’s was, but he was usually along with me. With time and opportunity, our young dogs tore it up. Hank hunted like a finished veteran of eight years when he was eight months. Coot was the same.
Those years were also duck years and the flyway was thick with big northern greenheads, widgeons and teal. We floated the Big Horn through Thermopolis, drifting past Russian olive, crawling and jump-shooting when we didn’t feel like setting up decoys.
One warm November day, we stood on the bank of the river taking a break from the action. Dave, who always shoots better than I, was done. I had one duck to go before I could claim my limit. The Big Horn rolled by thick and green and cold and then a male widgeon drifted downstream about forty yards out, on the edge of my range. I swung up and pulled the trigger and dropped the widgeon stone-dead far out in the river. In an instant, Coot was out in the current, swimming hard, and bringing the duck back in to hand.
On another trip, a wounded drake mallard took to a muskrat hole across the river. It was during the Ice Jamboree, our annual last-weekend-of-the-season hunt down the Bighorn and it was cold, with panes of ice thick on the river and fingers frozen on canoe paddles. Coot had seen the duck go down, but we didn’t know where it ended up. Working on a blind retrieve, she swam the river, sat at Dave’s command, and then worked right and then left and then finally down into the hole where she came up with the duck. She was like that. I can never remember losing a cripple when I was around Coot. She found them.
North Dakota in that era was also full of birds, particularly pheasants. It was hard to drive down a country road without seeing fifteen or twenty roosters standing roadside picking gravel. That first year, Dave and I joined a group of four other friends and we turned our dogs out into bird heaven. I walked through one field of tall grass and had three roosters off Hank points in about an hour. I met Dave on the other end of the field. He was done too and we waited while our friends came through. At the edge of the field, a rooster went up before the gun and one friend swung and dropped it, but it hit the ground like so many of those damned roosters do—head up and running. We had four dogs with us and all of them were turned loose to find the cripple. We hunted back and forth for what seemed like a long time and then someone asked, “Has anyone seen Coot?”
The little black bitch had run off and Dave was cursing her. She had disappeared over a rise in the prairie and was gone. Time ticked by and then I saw the grass moving, and a flash of black and there was Coot, the pheasant in her mouth, charging hard back to us. She had run perhaps a quarter-mile after that bird.
After that trip, we drove home to Wyoming, saturated in that tired-good feeling of hunters with birds in the cooler and memories in the bank. Hank and Coot were worked—their muzzles raw and red from ten thousand grass cuts, their bodies twitching as they slept the sleep of dogs with birds in their heads. We stopped in Spearfish, South Dakota, at a Subway sandwich shop and each ordered. As an after-thought, we asked if they had any old meat they wanted to give to a couple of tired dogs and the young man behind the counter made each of our dogs a free sandwich sans condiments.
This past spring, I drove through Spearfish. In the backseat slept a tired puppy named Hank’s Echo, whose grandfather had eaten a Subway sandwich in that same town a decade earlier. I found myself thinking about Coot and Hank and those special years and then my cell phone rang.
She was an old dog with cataracts starting to cloak her eyes. Her ears were deadened by many shotgun blasts, but she still had a season or two left in her, maybe an hour in some easy pheasant field. She deserved to die in her sleep in front of a crackling winter woodstove, warm and relaxed and dreaming of hunts behind. Maybe she never even heard the car that hit her. I hope so. I hope it was without pain and that wherever she is now, she has a white lean setter to keep her company and a human friend who can drop a bird.
And so I think about that adage. One special dog in a lifetime? Perhaps. But perhaps too, there is one unique period when you have the time and the wherewithal and the means to hunt a lot with one good gun dog, when the birds are thick before your gun and your hunting companions share common ground and equal ethics. If that is the case, I hope to duplicate that stretch of time again and again and again until my eyes cloud with cataracts and my old bones can no longer carry me into the pheasant fields of autumn. When that happens, I will remember a black dog named Coot and I will smile and cry with that memory.
This essay appeared in Wyoming Wildlife in 2007.
Perhaps you have noticed that even in the very lightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in differing ways. – Black Elk
The way the sap smells. A rising tangy scent among tall trees, buds not out yet, but pushing, pushing. Like bean sprouts in black soil.
The trees rattling bare in spring wind and then, almost overnight, even though you have plotted the course of it for weeks and stared hard, it is there and it surprises you: leaf. New baby leaf, small, the sheen of it a subtle thin blanket like some green lacy organic lingerie. Once, long ago, when I lived in a high mountain valley and we ached for something green in a place where snow cuffed the land hard and fast for months, we made a bet. When, we asked, would the cottonwoods across the street leaf out? Who won the bet is lost in decades, but the date remains: May 17.
June came to this piece of ground where I live and the stream swelled up out of its banks and danced and flowed among the trees, large and small. Saplings bent to the force of it and the soil soaked and soaked until it could not take any more. Down where the stream met the river, more water poured out of the margins, onto fields where center pivots lay idle because God’s irrigation system was in full throat. The river ran between cottonwoods tall and cottonwoods small and pushed brown water full of rich silt onto sapling flats, feeding and watering in one big swell. Then the water dropped streamside and riverside and left mud flats around thin lively stems and sun provided the boost, the power, to young and old trees alike.
Summer now and the cottonwoods fully fledged. Three species on my place, all staking their own part of the ground: black, eastern, narrowleaf. And deep smells now, rich and full. Not the promising subtle-sharp odor of rising sap, but more pervading—the kind of scent one gets when you step into a candle store, a spice shop. A hint, somehow, of cinnamon. Not just from the cottonwoods, though, but chokecherries in their shadow, mint along the ditchbank, grass and flower and soil alive.
I walk with my morning coffee now among the trees, sipping and feeling the height of these giants over me, the deep green shade of their leaf. Cottonwood. I think about the cottonwoods I have known, the places. A shaded glen, an Eden along a desert river where in all directions there was nothing but baking slickrock and sweltering juniper, yet beneath the cottonwoods on a desert river, there was cool greenness and hearty laughter. A thin line of cottonwoods way out in the eastern plains, a line of trees, a line of life. In late summer, no moisture anywhere, but the roots deep in hard sand and cobble-soil and somehow the trees green. Another cottonwood grove in another place, where a vast stand sheltered a flock of wild turkeys and I stalked them with my shotgun and waited. Listened.
No tree has so defined the West as the cottonwood; its fluffy seeds waft in the breeze over nearly every western town, its bark is still nibbled by horses just as it was in the time of Lewis and Clark, its saplings are thrashed by whitetail buck antler and nibbled by mule deer fawn. The scent of dried cottonwood burning in my open-air barbecue pit floats now across a summer landscape and elk steak sizzles over cottonwood coal. Just as it did in the time of Washakie.
Fall will come to this land in a few months, crisping the big trees, tinging them yellow. A new scent will arrive, an odor that somehow reminds me of fresh apples. I’ll walk among the trees with a rifle and wait for a whitetail buck that I’ve watched all summer long. I’ll know his pattern, the shape and curve of his horn. If I’m right and he does what he has been doing, I’ll shoulder my rifle as I lean against the wizened bark of a one hundred-year-old tree and my aim will be solid and sudden. Then the next summer, when the scent of richness hits this piece of western ground, I’ll sizzle venison over cottonwood and think about the cycle of life and the turn of leaf.
This essay originally ran in Wyoming Wildlife.
I catch myself when I tell people he’s fifteen months old because, as time does, he is really seventeen months. As soon as I get used to telling people he’s seventeen months, he’ll be nineteen months.
But these days he’s fun and it’s the things that all parents mark mentally. Words and facial expressions and a sense of humor. Things like that.
So every day after daycare, rain, snow and shine as these May months are, we jump into the month and get out on the ground. Sometimes, he’s in a backpack, sometimes in a stroller. Always, the bird dogs are here. I can’t help, at these times, to reflect on how different the world is for myself, my son and my bird dogs. And how similar. The dogs are still getting out, still getting exercised, still running big, but their humans now shout unintelligible gibberish. Then again, maybe it was always that way for them. Nonsensical words shouted into the sky.