Lessons

There is much to mourn in this world, and in the even smaller world of those of us who chase wild birds with dogs:

– We mourn the loss of access.
_ The loss of our dogs, none of whom ever live long enough.
– The loss of so many Sage grouse, and the resulting loss of ample seasons.
– The loss of our own youth, our past injuries and aging bodies increasingly undeniable as we climb those first chukar hills of the season.

The list of course goes on, because we rarely ever find anything as good as it “used to be,” or at least as good as we selectively remember it. It can be tempting to think it’s all in a state of continual decline. We don’t shy away from such mourning on this blog, because sometimes those are some of the most intense emotions we feel in this pursuit, and our goal was always to peel away so much of the varnished excess that can epitomize portrayals of this sport, and expose some raw nerves now and then.

However mourning, while necessary, only gets us so far and the saying that “life is for the living” is an undeniable maxim. Sure, I do this because I love spending time walking in country that wild game birds live in, be it the desolate butresses of the chukar, the alpine living rooms of the various species of forest grouse, the sprawling open vistas of sharptail country. Yes, I do this because I love watching my dog vacuum up country with senses I can only dream of, and that I see best demonstrated when the two of us are working in tandem far from other distractions. Of course I love the satisfaction of a delicious meal I’ve obtained myself.

But really, all of those are just garnishes on the ‘meat’ of the thing. The truth is I do all of the above for one deceptively simple reason – to feel alive.

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I believe it was Aristotle, or some other robe and sandals-clad aspirant to our modern Dude, who once said “the unexamined life wasn’t worth living.” Like so many other absolutist statements, this is really only a partial truth, best implemented in moderation. True, no examination at all is probably not a good thing, but neither is too much, lest it devolve into navel-gazing self-indulgence. It must be tempered by doing, or else all the self-examination in the world is worthless. Life doesn’t belong to the philosopher in a comfortable chair, it belongs to those of us who need to get dirty, exhausted, occasionally lost and sometimes even a little bloody. There is no frame of reference without visceral, firsthand experience.

I don’t want to sit around examining my life any more than I want to continue mourning losses I can’t control. Too many of us sadly don’t seem to live enough, to grasp this rare opportunity by the short hairs and wring what we can from it. But unlike just about anything else I can think of, there is no drawback  to over-living – walking away from the matching, over-stuffed luggage of past and future concerns, and utterly inebriating ourselves in the sensory stew of the present.

This more than anything, I’m convinced, is what our dogs have been patiently trying teach us all along.

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Six Months

 

A blue grouse is in trouble.
A blue grouse is in trouble.

In my stronger moments, I tell myself it’s going to be okay. That it has been a good run and she has been loved. That she’s been my bird dog and I’d like to think, somehow, that this life I lead is a kind of version of canine heaven. Especially for gun dogs.

But I have weaker moments. Sometimes, they come in daylight while she lies in her dog bed beside my desk. Sometimes they come in darkness when I lie awake and listen to the sound of her breathing, a sound not unlike the crackling of plastic wrap in a fist.

I’m home this week early, a trip to Oregon’s coastal rivers of steelhead cut short. I don’t mind. I want to be here, not there.

It started a month or so ago, the huffing cough like a throat-tickle that can’t be cleared, and in a thirteen year old dog, I didn’t think much of it. But the kennel where I boarded her when we went on holiday vacation is owned by my veterinarian, and she, being an alert practitioner of the medical arts, asked. Have you noticed a cough?

So we shot a film and drew some blood and tried a dose of antibiotics, thinking, perhaps, that the shadow in her chest was an abscess from an inhaled grass seed, a common affliction of dogs who drink the wind that brushes bird. A month later, the coughing still there—sounding wetter—and another film. This time a gloom in her lungs like boiled smoke from a slash pile that had jumped the dozer line, metastasized and blown up into a wild fire. Even before a layman’s eyes.

There will be no chemotherapy. I will not make her final months any sicker than an old bird dog at thirteen can stand.

Six months. In six months, it will be bird season again. Another September.

There have been other old dogs. But this one has owned my heart more than any other. This is the one that inspired my friends to buy their own pointing dogs. She has been a spectacular finder of wild birds, a retriever whose retrieves are as memorable as the vision of the Comet Hale Bopp (and only slightly less rare), and never-fail backer of other dogs’ points. She has made so many stunning bird finds that they are lost to my memory just like living at the base of the Tetons makes one forget about the staggering scenery on the horizon.

The other old dogs went out of my life without a clock ticking. One day they were old and I could see the dwindle  in them and then they were gone. There was no egg timer to the whole thing. So we have six months until bird season. Maybe longer, maybe shorter. Six months of riding in the pickup cab with me, six months of jerky treats, six months of canned dog food and pretty much any damned thing she wants. Six months when I will try to be here rather than somewhere else.

Six months and one day, perhaps with September painting the grouse woods and grasshoppers rattling along North Willow Creek where I will do the sad work with sharp spade, I will know.

I will know that the countdown to the end of the dog has ended.

—TR

 

Two for the pot.
Two for the pot.

Target Clientele?

Extremely Polite Southern Accent Customer Service Girl: “Hello, welcome to “_______.” How can I help you?”

Me: “Yeah, hi. I’m not sure how I got on your mailing list, but I’d like to be removed, please.”

EPSACSG: “Ok sir, I can do that for you, but can I ask why you’d like to not continue to be informed about our fine offerings?”

Me: “Uh, you’d like to know why I don’t want to receive your catalog?

Well, since you’re asking…to be honest, I don’t think I’m exactly your “target clientele.” You see, I live in the West, and hunt for wild birds on public lands, on foot. I’ve never been to a private $7k/week plantation lodge. In fact, I’m pretty sure that someone in a position of influence would make sure I never even made it to the front door of such an establishment.

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Nor have I ever been transported from one planted bird location to another in a horse-drawn carriage. Do those things have a wet bar?

I’ve also  never faced the peculiar dilemma of which sportcoat I should pack for standing around the fireplace after a day “afield,” while discussing my many and varied accomplishments in both the realm of canned hunting and finance.

Also…Are you still there?”

EPSACSG (practiced politeness eroding quickly):I am, sir.”

Me: Great. Also, I can’t ever imagine myself in a pair of your $200 bright green jackass slacks with the embroidered Labradors and ducks on them. In fact, I would fully expect that these pants come with a clown nose, a ball gag and a pair of handcuffs. Is this true, or are these accessories extra?”

Click.

Me: “Hello? Ma’am? I still have a few more reasons I’d like to share… Hello?”

Direction

Compasses are fascinating things, with much to teach for being an inanimate object. I’m speaking of course, of an analog piece,  little changed for centuries, not the app on your phone.

There can be a number of things that affect the proper reading of a real compass, causing one to lose direction. Unlike your phone, a dead battery isn’t one of them.

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The Tru-Nord pin-on compass. Generally more reliable than I am.

Other things in your pocket may be interfering, pulling the needle from true. Take this as a sign that you may have too many things in your pockets, and that it might be time to simplify. Don’t let other things confuse your compass and cause you to lose direction. True direction is the highest priority.

It seems inevitable that cheap compasses develop bubbles over time. These too will affect the needle. Don’t trust your life, whether it be your ultimate safety or only your current direction, to cheap things. You’ll get exactly what you paid for.

Compasses are only useful when you can see them, and the less accessible they are, the less likely you are to use them. Keep your compass handy and refer to it often.

There is an old adage to the effect of, “if you keep checking your course regularly, it’s much harder to get lost than if you wait until you’re not sure where you are.”

Sage advice.

Let’s Go

First frost in the valley, patches of golden aspen beginning to pop on the hillsides, the occasional mountain maple, as if overnight, lit up like those neon Rolling Stones lips, blowing seductive, semi-obscene kisses your way through the living room window.

This is no tme for staring at a laptop.

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A couple handfuls of purple shells.

A stout, trusty pump gun with an action scarcely changed in a century (thank you, John Moses Browning). A straight stock and a forend of scratched, pedestrian-grade walnut.

The old, simple canvas vest seems right for this, not the fancy, feature-laden modular one. As if it’s a choice.

Briefly wonder what choke is in the gun, but then figure that it really isn’t that important – whatever choke you left in it at the end of last season is probably just fine. There’s a danger in over-thinking this.

Jeans and Red Wings and a wool shirt.

A shorthair beside himself at the emergence of a long gun case from the closet.

Let’s go.

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New Country

Digital topo maps. GPS. Phone apps. Google Earth…

The list goes on. The number of tools at our disposal for scouting new country, without actually going there, has never been greater.  And I plead guilty to using all of them, though it would be dishonest to add “with no regrets.”

It wasn’t that long ago that in order to know what was on the other side of the ridgeline, or what that remote valley held, you had to put boots on the ground, your ass in gear, the necessary gear on your back, and go there.

Now, if I choose to, I can already have a very good idea of what those places contain before I get there. In fact, “getting there” can easily just become an exercise in confirming what a ton information from the comfort of my sofa has already told me. The biggest remaining variable, in these cases, is simply – “will there be birds there?”  Which, thankfully, no technology I currently know of can really tell me. I can only hope there will never be a substitute for the hard-earned answer to this question.

Ridgetop/Hank

I’m no Luddite, and I know that these tools have their useful place. But my fear is that as with so many things, for every convenience we adopt, something is also lost. That the rush and the intense sensory imprints of true, first-time discovery in new country are becoming watered-down in the process, pre-downloaded as we are with so much pre-trip info. That our desire for as much pre-existing knowledge as possible before going anywhere might just be kicking the legs out from under what used to be the joy, and occasional uncomfortability, of exploration. Can we still allow ourselves to be surprised by what’s around the bend?

And so, this season I’m deliberately choosing to ration my technological temptations, and preserve a little more of the mystery of new country. I want to know my location because I’ve been taking it all in, with all of my senses, every step of the way, not because I’m continually staring at a blue dot on a digital map. I want to remember what it is like to discover what might be on the other side of the mountain when I first see it with my own two eyes and not before, led on by virgin curiosity. Or, at least by the more likely scenario – wondering where the fuck my dog went.

I suppose I could get a GPS tracker linked to a harness-mounted GoPro for him and never have to wonder again…

Possibility

Click.
The truck door closes and cold, crisp sage hits the nose.

Zip.
The shotgun slides out of its case, warm and familiar.

Kathunk.
The tailgate drops and an explosion of black and white and various shades of brown erupts, bursting with yelps of excitement and unbridled instinct. For a moment, it all borders on chaos until direction is given. You watch all that energy channeled into a force that shoots across the landscape, bending vegetation in its path like the winds that continually pummel this place.

Crunch.
Boots break thin surface ice is as you leave the road and start heading up the hill. You look up to see the top of the mountain shrouded in falling snow. You aim for it, even as it descends to meet you halfway.

This moment, full of anticipation and possibility, defines it all. Does it really matter what else the day brings? Have you ever felt more in-the-moment alive than now?

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The Reunification of the Clan

I don’t know about you, but I have friends who I rarely spend time with outside of bird season. It has nothing to do with the quality of those friendships; in fact, some of them are the most highly esteemed friends I have. But the intensity of our common love for dogs and big country cause our orbits to overlap around this time, and then the rest of the year life has a way of absorbing us in different directions. We occasionally keep in touch, but rarely do we cross paths until guns come out of the closet and the dogs are more antsy than usual and the sound of a bird busting from cover comes to dominate our thoughts.

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It is that time again, and phone calls are made and e-mails traded and the mutual bonds re-energized as plans are made. But a nagging thought keeps clawing at the back recesses of my hat rack – another year has somehow gone by. It hardly seems real, but I haven’t shot the shit with “___,” I think to myself, since we were walking across that errant CRP field last October, game bags full of sharpies, my dog limping on a raw pad after a long day, a snow storm scudding our direction across the tops of the Big Holes… Jeezus – that was a year ago. A job I couldn’t stand was kicked to the curb where it belonged, new opportunities were created, new friendships, some old ones strained only to be strengthened again, others strained past the point of recovery, too little time spent with family, hopefully a little more perspective on what matters and what’s worth putting energy into… A YEAR.

I do the only thing one can do when such thoughts threaten to steal you from the present – I wipe the late September drip from my cold nose, drop a couple shells in the barrels, and join a friend as we head off toward the horizon, with much to talk about and little that needs to be said.

And then it was winter.

I was out with the dog in shirtsleeves just a few days ago. Now he looks at me with a pathetic mixture of loathing and remorse when I try to coax him into the kennel in the back of the truck. He tries to squeeze into the cab as I throw my gun and vest in, and learns that “denial” ain’t just a river in Egypt.

“Buck up kid, you’ll be lying on a fluffy bed next to the stove again as soon as you find me a couple birds.”

His head cocks at the word, “birds.”

He jumps into the back and curls up in the kennel. He’s not exactly happy about it, but he’s at least realized this temporary suffering has a purpose.

Good thing for all of us to keep in touch with, I guess.

Treed

A friend of mine has a golden that barks “treed” on forest grouse. At first, I found this annoying, the high-pitched yelps of the kind that only goldens can produce and usually only when the owner is cocking an arm to rocket a tennis ball across a lawn in Suburbia, USA. I asked myself, briefly, if it were the bias I have for tennis ball dogs or just bald-ugly jealousy. Briefly.

I was hunting with one of my setters, feeling the kind of sophisticated snootiness that occasionally plagues us setter owners, the kind reserved for pipe-smokers, smoking-jacket donners, double-gun only-ies. From the dark woods to my left came the yelp. Frantic. Ear-drum-stabbing. Frequent. Fucking goldens, I stewed.  At first, I thought she had been caught in a trap or hurt herself somehow and I chided my early thoughts of prejudice. Goldens are friendly, lovely dogs and certainly do not deserve pain.

Then, I heard Tim instruct one of his hunters to get in position. Northwestern Montana grouse are not known for their intellect, particularly spruce grouse which commonly fly up into the nearest tree and await the well-thrown stick before flushing for real. The end of this story goes like this: Tim threw the stick, the grouse launched out of the tree and the hunter had his first spruce grouse and the dog stopped barking because she had her mouth full of feathers.

We walked on, listening to the tinkle of the bell on my setter, sniffing the air like some snobbish cartoon character. Grudging. A few hundred more yards and the annoying golden barking came again and now Tim’s hunter had two grouse. My hunter had none. We were guiding three gentlemen from the South who wanted to experience a grouse triple: blue, spruce and ruffed. I felt a competitive ire which, when it washes over my tortured soul, makes me feel ashamed. Tim’s guys had two grouse. Sure they were spruce grouse that flew stupidly into a tree and waited like feathered statue until a stick preceded a wad of six shot. But still, he had two grouse. I had zero.

Thick woods are not my home cover. I’m a hunter of high crag where sagebrush is the tallest plant. Not a denizen of thick fern, tall larch, staggering cedar. I am of light, not darkness. Except, of course, my thoughts when I’m getting my ass kicked in the hunting game. Competition is something that sneaks into our hunting lore, no matter how we purists think it doesn’t belong there. But there it was. I was losing. Damnit.

Here in the pheasant fields of South Dakota, I had no clue that I was in the presence of a talented “tree” dog.

I was jealous. No way around it. Indeed, very jealous. My setter got some good points and grouse flushed, but they bent around trees, stooping and ducking and diving and in a forest, I had little clue where the went. My hunter had not one chance to even mount gun to shoulder. Sitting incredibly still on a spruce branch, you quickly learn just how invisible a spruce grouse can be. Which is pretty damned cloaked, frankly. As a survival tactic, very effective, actually. Perhaps these birds aren’t so bird-brained, I thought. A blind troll through the timber, grouse gone and not to be found. Unless one has a dog that barks “treed.” I didn’t.

The next day, I pulled my big male, Echo, out of the kennel instead of my veteran female from the day before. I had two hunters on this day and we headed into a cover known for ruffed grouse. I belled the dog and released him. He worked close and I watched and listened for the bell. It stopped. From somewhere off in the dark timber. Then I heard a whir of grouse wing. Followed, strangely, by panicky, high-octave yelping. In fact, an annoying yipping from deep in the woods. I thought, split-secondly, that he might have hurt himself, but there he was, looking up into a tree at a mature ruffed grouse. Holy crap, I have a pointing dog that barks treed! I told myself.

The hunter shot the grouse when I shook him out of his roost, and we pressed on. Then, hark! Another yelp from woodland interior. No fluke this. There’s a grouse in that tree. Two grouse for my hunters. Two in the bag. And ruffed grouse, I told myself, not these sesame-seed brained sprucers. Ruffed! A gentleman’s bird. Yeah, right. Whatever.

I have a dog that barks treed at treed grouse.  A gentleman’s setter? Perhaps not. But we are back on level ground with the tennis ball dog. Let the competition commence.

–TR