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.