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.
By Chad Love
Editor at Quail Forever, Itinerant blogger (MOF, Mallard of Discontent)
You try to be Buddhist about these things, tell yourself that everything we think of as solid and implacable and unyieldingly forever will someday be gone, that all the bullshit artifices of man will eventually wither into nothingness, and that nothing, absolutely nothing is permanent; not life, not love, not nations or gods or religions, not the earth or stars, and sure as hell not a dog.
Fourteen years. You tell yourself that’s a pretty damn good run for a chessie. You look at the picture, and wonder why you like it so much. She’s not doing anything, just standing in the freezing water like she always did. She retrieved a helluva lot of ducks from that pond over the years, but that day we didn’t shoot a damn thing, just goofed off and splashed around.
You look at the picture and tell yourself that nothing is permanent. Not the dog, not you, not even that pond. It’s as gone as the dog. The dam failed during a flood a few years after that photo was taken, washed down the creek to the river and to the bigger river and eventually the sea, and a few generations of memories washed down with it.
Now that pond is just a silt-filled, willow-choked marshy bowl where some half-remembered things once happened.
I buried her on a bluff overlooking the spot where that pond once was, the third and final chessie of this impermanent lifetime of mine to be lowered into that hard, ancestral clay, cried over, and then relegated to compartments of memory that inexorably start dimming, just as the hard, bitter flash of loss and pain so keenly felt while digging the hole eventually dulls and retreats in the face of life going on.
Like every dog, she absorbed so many of my weaknesses, my shortcomings, my deficiencies, and processed that into love. That’s what dogs do. They’re alchemist: They take our failings, and turn them into goofy, panting, unconditional love.
Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts. Nothing endures. But some things come pretty damn close.
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.
February would arrive as it always did in Montana. Cold and wet and miserably grey. With the sort of damp despair one feels in a Dickens novel. Two weeks after bird season, I was a Cratchit kid. A coal-smeared orphan. My dog Ruark was a stray mutt in a land with 8 months to opener and not much sun to cheer us up. The last best state my ass.
Biting nails and fighting back twitches I looked for a place to offer a late-night fix. I’d been on the wagon since the end of December. I needed a hidden bottle or secret stash. Going crazy I stopped and stared. “Arizona” “Quail” “Dos Cabezas” The words came to me in a vision born of cold shakes. I had visited the border country many times as a boy, hauling cattle to ranches tucked along the arroyos of Ed Abbey’s desert country.
Back then I’d drive with my father, trailer full of bulls from our herd purchased by ranchers in the cactus country. 22 hours strait driving. No stopping. Once there we’d take a few hours to chase the coveys of exotic quail under the scrub. Montezuma’s, Scalies, Gambles. The stuff of fairy tales for a high plains boy of 10 or 11. And then like all responsible farm kids we’d leave because of the work awaiting at home. Jump back in the Chevy and pull the trailer north. But I had tasted the place and those birds.
I remembered them now. They came back like a vision summoned up by Montezuma himself. I assembled the memories as the desperate plan took shape. I shuffled through the darkness and remembered Arizona season running through mid-February and that I had a work trip in a few days to Phoenix. This was my ticket. I called the old ranching friends. Made small talk and then blurted out “I need to hunt next week, can I do it?”. They heard the shake in my voice and mumbled approval probably afraid to say no, thinking I would take them hostage or hijack their pickup trucks like a desperate Mexican drug mule.
I lied just like all junkies do. Looking back now I see that I had a problem. Or was at least struggling with acceptance. Might have needed help. Should have been put on a couch, or shocked or lobotomized or some goddamned thing. I was hurting those around me. My wife Sara specifically. She was worn threadbare with my fishing season followed by bird season. My seasons were long, revolving and incessant. Did not leave me much time at home. I stared off into the distance and thought about the bird year. A great one with 60 days or more behind the dogs.
I resolved that this was not the time to quit anything or start any damned 12 step bullshit. Certainly not the time to give up another possible bird trip.
Sara would be away on her own short excursion the day I would leave, and I decided to subvert the truth rather than risk the backlash that talk of more bird chasing would bring. I’d tell her that our friends were watching Ruark. That I had to stay a few extra days for business. I had to do it. She was just barely looking at me again now that the Montana season was closed.
Our schedules had us arriving back the same night and we’d meet up at the airport. I gave no thought to how I would explain the obvious nature of the trip. I just cared about another point, a covey rise, some smoke rising from the barrels. Some Scalies, a bunch of Gambels, and maybe a Mearns covey or two. I was breaking into a cold sweat just thinking of it all.
The night before the trip I jammed some clothes in a bag then rushed around the garage, shoving 20-gauge shells in duffles, finding vests and collars. Dusting off the kennel. A frenetic movie scene. I showed up to the airport barely in time. Skidded to a stop unloading three times as much gear as one person needed for a short business trip. Dropping gun cases, fumbling for ID. Ruark twisting his leash around my legs as I mumbled incoherently. Families in line staring at me mouths agape. I flashed a wild-eyed smile back at them as they looked away. Mothers shielding their kids from a junkie on bird meth.
I arrived in Phoenix never having considered if the downtown hotel would allow a birddog to share my room. When they gave the emphatic “no”, I replied “no problem, where are the stairs?”. And I shuffled Ruark up the back way. Dodging staff and looking at questioning guests like I owned the place. I took him to work with me in the city the next couple days. Oblivious, I thought people would love him. And they did, at least the good ones did. Anyone who did not love a birddog did not need my attention anyway.
I slammed through the work in two days, rented a car and drove south. Stopping in Wilcox at a bar I remembered from the trips with my Dad. A low-slung dive blasting Haggard from an old juke box. I asked for the steak and a bartender pulled one from a small fridge. She handed it to me raw on a white paper plate then pointed to a grill in the back. It was up to me to cook it as I drank my beers. My tremors were starting to ease. The place had not changed a bit in 20 years.
The next morning, I knocked on the doors of our rancher friends and was chasing quail 30 minutes later. Within spitting distance of the southern border in magical sacred mountain ranges. 3 days of this big country. The needle was in my arm and I could breathe again. Quail everywhere. Tight points and beautiful birds. I was high as a kite. I could have stayed another month. I could have overdosed time and again.
No doubt I was addicted but I had just enough sense to pull myself together. I loaded Ruark back into the car and headed to the airport when we were both so tired neither of us could walk. His pads were worn raw from the rough country. I had to fold him into the kennel and shove him onto the luggage belt. He and I were on the same drug.
Sara hugged me as I trudged off the midnight flight back in Montana. We had been married less than 6 months. “Did you miss me?” she asked. “Umm, yeh, I barely thought of anything else” I started to mutter. Then Ruark’s kennel and the gun case showed up in the luggage and she looked at me. The look of a wife married to an addict. Thinking of what to do. Whether to toss me to the curb or call the authorities. Fury and sympathy both boiling within her. “You’ve been hunting, again haven’t you?” Tired and hung over from the desert wind I shot back “Nope, I have been getting high on the border and I gotta warn you. You are married to a guy that is hooked on something he can’t stop. I don’t need treatment and this ain’t ever going away.” Thank god she loves Haggard, low-slung dive bars and a guy that finds them on bird benders.
There are bad decisions, and then there are bad decisions in chukar country.
It started with a point and the beeper ringing across the hillside to my right. As I jogged toward her, I realized she was in some nasty country. I finally saw her standing beautifully, tail high, nose to the sky, pointing uphill. She was on a steep slope and it looked odd to see her at that angle, her high tail marking the low winter sun.
There was a steep, narrow scree field between us and I wondered how the hell she crossed it as I stepped into it, the promise of birds on the other side.
The scree started to slide, a river of rock running in slow motion and I surfed it down, taking steps when I could. I hit solid ground downhill from the setter. My heart was racing, and not just from the cardio. I looked up and she was still standing, steady as a rock, beeper still screaming. Up, up, up. “Good girl, good dog!” And then they were airborne. Two shots, pushing the barrels right, missing and then missing again.
I wasn’t even mad. That was a hell of a point and nothing makes you feel alive like this. And then I broke one of my hard-earned rules. Rather than cross the scree field again, I decided to go down a different route in rugged, unfamiliar country to follow the birds down.
We navigated one set of cliffs, a butt slide and a couple of short jumps and we were making progress, but we worked our way into a narrow chute. Then we hit the 15-foot drop.
I thought hard about turning back, but it was a long climb up, plus some scrambling, plus the scree field. I decided to take a look and see if we could do it. There was a narrow ledge about half-way down and a nearly sheer wall going to it. I sat down and tried to get a sense of the feasibility. I stretched my tip toe, decided it was a bad idea and then I was sliding. My first thought was, “Oh shit,” followed quickly by “No turning back now.” I caught the ledge halfway down with my feet, which was good news coupled with bad. The setter looked down at me from above. I couldn’t climb up, and it was a good drop to the bottom.
Standing on a narrow ledge, I took my gun apart and slipped the three pieces into my vest. The setter started a nervous whine, but I had my own problems. I considered that I might injure my stupid self and checked my pocket for a lighter. I already knew there wasn’t a reliable cell signal for 30 miles.
I steeled myself, then turned to face the cliff and slid my left boot down to a cleft that seemed like a solid hold. A couple of minutes later I was at the base, now with Luna 15 feet above me, howling like a pack of coyotes.
I prowled the base, looking for a route for her to come down. I wasn’t excited about the prospect of climbing back to the top, climbing back up the chute, then crossing the scree and covering the miles back to the route I came up. After a while – Luna growing more vocal by the minute – I concluded that I couldn’t get all the way back up, at least not with the gun and with all my bones intact.
I slipped off my vest and whistle and stripped layers. Luna sounded desperate and it was making me a little desperate too. I left everything in a pile at the base and climbed back up to the ledge. It was a hell of a lot easier going up and without the gear.
On the ledge, I didn’t have a better idea, so I just called the setter. She came without hesitation and I wasn’t totally prepared. She stepped onto the slick rock immediately started sliding toward me, her claws scratching but not enough to arrest her. I moved sideways so she didn’t knock me off the ledge and grabbed her collar as she got to chest level. I swung her around and stopped her on the narrow ledge where I was standing. She was steady, so I let go of the collar and give a whoop of triumph.
I climbed down the same route I took before, but about halfway down, Luna decided not to risk being left again and jumped. She landed like a cat, lightly and on her feet. I rushed, slipped and slid, scraping the skin off my forearms and finger tips while trying unsuccessfully to grab the wall. I hit the bottom on my tip toes and felt my body compress vertically before rolling sideways.
Luna was glued to me as we navigated the last 500 vertical feet to the bottom, butt slid through another chute and clambered down one more cliff, this one not so sheer. At the base of the hill, the adrenaline born of success and terror and elation wore off and I was suddenly bone tired.
At the truck, I loaded Luna in her box, give her a good hug and told her what I hope she already knew.
“I won’t leave you behind.”
“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.