There was a time of Wranglers and Chuck Taylors, even among mesquite thorns and Gambel quail. Cotton long underwear. T-shirts. But you were dumber and younger. Bullet proof and able to work your way through tequila shots on birthdays.
Along came common sense, somehow you survived. Found comfort in small things, good things.
Orvis Pro LT gear came along recently. The kind of lightweight and yet durable stuff that makes you think, Where you been all my life? First time out, the day cooked to the near nineties in the sharptail fields. Next time out, another warm day up on a blue grouse ridge far above timberline. Designed for those hot days, breathable, flexible. Then a deep cold in early October and with long underwear beneath, still a damned fine piece of equipment. Pants and shirt both.
It’s the little things, the good things. Orvis Pro LT. Remember it.
In the newspaper industry back before journalists were pecking on computers, the insertion of -30- at the bottom of every story was common practice. It meant the end.
Thirty is also the number of years, almost to the day, that we’ve hunted together. Thirty years. How can it be? We greet this realization with incredulity sprinkled with gratitude. Peppered with memory. All of this swirls as I drop the old boy off at the top of the ridge on the high road, a celebration hunt of sorts for mentor and protege, for 30 years of hunting and the outdoors together.
Blue grouse live in the slide rock and currants of the northwest slope of this ridge we’ve hunted together for years. Doug fir twisted by hard living shoulder the sky. It is not an easy walk, but it is doable and simple.
“Work down the ridge and I’ll meet you at the truck by the cattle-guard.”
It is a move we’ve repeated many times, and an easy plan for 50-something legs. Not for 80-something cane-assisted legs.
This thought comes to me only hours later, hours after there is no sign of him, hours where mild concern has roiled up into near-panic, like some evil brew atop a witch’s stove.
It is a hunt that for me would be less than an hour, dropping down the ridge, following Mabel and Edna, moving quickly on birdy dogs, swinging on big rooster blues peeling down between the big fir trees. Down, down. Gravity as friend, not foe. Quick, easy. Rendezvous. Move on the next spot.
I have an image of him in my mind, the last glimpse. An old man and a bird dog hobbling down a logging road, cane in one hand, Superposed 20 in the other. When he doesn’t show up at the truck after an hour, then two, then three, it becomes the image that haunts me. Concern becomes oxygen to embers and a flame leaps in the brain, inventing thoughts Did I have a premonition? Is this the last time I’ll ever see him? Is this the last sight picture of him?
When you go into the woods with men of middle age, you don’t think about such things. But octogenarians, enough rawhide ones, make one take stock of things like medical certifications and emergency kits.
The first hour, I climb the ridge, expecting to run into him half way down. Too many years of shooting pistols and rifles and shotguns has left him deaf. “I can’t hear thunder,” he tells people as he leans in, cupping. So I do not yell for him because I have to climb the ridge. Twice, then three times. Need my breath. Three hours goes to four, and concern darkens to thick anxiousness. There is just no way that he came down this mountain without me seeing him, or at least his all-white dog.
I drive back to where I left him, then ease the diesel down the road, hoping that maybe he will hear the truck despite his auditory challenges. I stop at places in the two-track where the dust lies an inch thick like talc and look for tracks. None. Drive back down. Climb the ridge again. Six hours. It is September, but it is high country and it is cool and there were rumors of a storm moving in. As always, he is out there with no water, no matches, no food. No need to carry supplies on such a short trip—the epic oft-repeated words of the hypothermed and exhausted. All he had to do was climb off the ridge and meet me at the truck, but everything is seen through my eyes, not his.
At seven hours, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do when I find his body, about the poetry of an old man dying on his last hunt. It is not an easy feeling, not a romantic visage for my addled soul. I don’t want this to be the way we say good bye because we didn’t say good bye. Goodbye is for the living, I guess because he might want to go this way, up on a ridge with a good gun and a good bird dog. Maybe a blue grouse in the pouch. But it sure isn’t how I want it. Is this the end? Surely, this can’t be the end? This isn’t -30-.
I start thinking about how I’m going to get a cell signal to get some help up here, how many hours I have to drive in the wrong direction to get that signal, leaving him on the mountain. Start to think logistics about something that may not have a good ending.
I waft the concern away from these flames for a minute, then decide to hop in the truck again. Leaving water and a cooler full of beer and food where the truck was. Drive up the ridge again, thinking about first aid training, about what I’m going to tell his son, wondering if there is such a thing as sudden-onset dementia.
And there, at long last, he is, walking down a random off-shot road, cane in hand, tired, sore, with his dog and his gun, coming toward me. Thirty will click toward 31 after all. Not the end.
There is, in the hunter’s heart, a conflict that builds as the season descends. It is a conflict fed by many things: the state of canine, the state of the freezer, the need to expand the “rolodex” of place, and even the very date and timing of the hunt itself. Go where you have gone before and know there will be birds, or go where you’ve never gone but think there should be birds?
Each of these elements of conflict is driven by its own nuance as well. The state of canine, for instance, can be the age of the dog (old and last hunt or new and first hunt), how tightly wound the veteran who hasn’t been hunted in months is, and, sometimes, sadly, the health of said best friend. You’d like to put the new pup on her first birds, or if you’ve got an old timer, put him on his last birds. Or maybe you just want to find a new place to go because the old tried-and-true got discovered.
Idaho’s grouse season opened on August 30 and Greg and I had penciled a trip on the books months before. Pencil because with busy lives, sometimes the eraser comes out. We each did our best to erase and reschedule, but we each, separately, resisted the other’s attempts to bail. We actually pulled it off.
We’d seen “grousey” looking country on the Idaho/Montana line exactly midway between our two homes and talked often about that ground. Never been there, either of us. Knew some folks who lived in the area, but felt uncomfortable just cold-calling and asking to be put into their home cover. Kind of like calling up and saying, “Hey, mind if I take your wife out for dinner?”
So we used our decades of mountain grouse experience, a few good maps and a summer scouting trip and just went. Didn’t see shit. Well, actually did. Walked all morning long, didn’t see a bird. Saw some bird poop and had a false point and discovered enough to go back. We semi-sated our canine needs by each running pups whose age is measured in months, not years, then pivoted to the veterans. Got the dogs out is about all you can say about that. Saw some pretty country, a new place.
Saturday on Labor Day weekend, Montana’s grouse season opened up. Worst possible opening day ever. Jason and I coyoted out Friday night at the for-sure-always-see-birds place. It has been discovered. By the time we were half way up the mountain in barely-shooting-light, the parking lot had five other vehicles and two more were bouncing in on the two-track. I already had a Hun in the game vest, and we were well ahead of them, so it didn’t really matter, but it was still a bummer to know that someone else had discovered a place we’d been hunting for years. Probably bummed them out too to see someone up the mountain while they were still pulling on their boots and maybe it was a place they had been hunting for years and just as much “theirs” as “ours.” Was running the veteran this time because it had been a long summer for her and for me without a whole lot of fun and the freezer was empty of both grouse and Huns. We filled it a bit and came down the mountain with that heavy, humbling, good weight in the back of the bird vest.
On Wednesday, my friend Tom Hanson, who is one of the crack employees for the great upland program at Orvis, and I got together for another hunt. Tom had never killed a western grouse, so getting one or two for him was my top priority. Problem is, he’s a busy guy. Just like everyone else. He had to be in Great Falls early that evening and Great Falls is a long way from my home ground and unknown territory. So I called another buddy, one that I knew I could impose upon, and asked for a general direction. He gave me one, like all good buddies would, and off Tom and I went, hunting in the cool of the morning with the Rocky Mountain Front over our shoulders. If nothing else, it was one hell of a pretty place to chase after good bird dogs. Which can be a problem if you’re looking at the scenery on the horizon instead of the canine scenery within gun range. Tom managed to kill his first-ever sharptail grouse off of one of Mabel’s points when we weren’t gaping at the skyline and then later in the morning, his first-ever blue grouse. On the same half-day. I didn’t kill a thing, but it hardly mattered. I had never seen that particular combo done before. It was pretty special.
So that’s how it has started. Completely blind on the first day, old reliable on the second day and semi-blind on the third day. Varying levels of success. But new country discovered. Let 2018 begin, at long last.
If you ask my vet, my kids or my wife, they will tell you I have three bird dogs. That’s three eating, shitting machines ready to chase birds, bark at the neighborhood deer and rack up vet bills at a moment’s notice.
Unfortunately this isn’t Sesame Street and the counting isn’t quite as straightforward as I wish it was. There is a different number of bird dogs that I have as the forest grouse opener approaches in six days.
That number is zero. Zero bird dogs.
I have an old dog – 13. Deaf. Mostly blind. Gives no shits about anything. Retired.
I have a young dog – 5 months. Energy like the sun itself. Obedient as a house cat. More likely to point bumble bees than birds.
I have a dog in her prime – 7. Steady. Trustworthy. Laid up from surgery. Probably not hunting next week.
The vet removed a benign cyst from her shoulder a couple of weeks back. We’ve cut it out before, only to have it return. She’ll be fine and probably ready in a couple of weeks, but the wound is healing slowly.
Come Thursday, maybe I’ll give the veteran a spin. The pup will blow off some steam. If she heals quickly, I might even give my starter a short run. But I won’t have three dogs.
It reinforces something Tom told me last fall; the line between one bird dog and no bird dog is thin.
In this piece of country, the mid-section of summer comes on July 15. Mark it down on the calendar. X it out. On July 14, the grass that has not fallen to sickle mower to make hay for beefsteak is green and tall. On July 15, the unstoppable tanning of that grass begins.
There is a tendency, particularly among those whose outdoors experience is a water park or a golf course, to lament the downward slope of summer into autumn. Shrinking are the long days of summer light, the barbecues, the evening cigars against mosquito whine, the gin and tonics on the back porch, the cycles of mayfly on clear water.
Good things, all. Viewed from the lens of February’s monochrome, great things. Wonderful, highly anticipated things. Who, in the throes of high country March does not dream, at least a little bit, of a June cutthroat trout brought to hand briefly? Captured and photographed only by synapse and gray matter. Unhooked. Released. Memory captured for the next long winter’s lament.
But now it is August and upon us is the dwindle. Mourn this?
Grieve the end of summer when one finds the thermometer at 40 on a cool dawn morning? Chill enough for a sweater, enough that morning coffee is not only a kick to the heart but a welcome heat to the palms. Bemoan the babble of young coyote pups from up on the sagebrush bench, stretching their lungs and legs in celebration of a late summer bounty that includes everything from chokecherry on the stem to barnyard chicken? One morning, up on that same bench, flush a covey of young Huns, eight or nine in all, little buggers that can barely fly yet somehow avoid coyote belly. Then flush another covey of the same size and vigor. Yes, summer is now fading and the tan on the land is coming on strong, covering the body from horizon to horizon.
One morning, the trail camera you put out on the cottonwood down by the trail from the neighbor’s willow thicket reveals a buck in full velvet, a massive buck that you’ve heard whispers of in prior seasons. Last December at the Town Haul Cafe, “Boy, I saw a huge buck cross the road down by your place yesterday morning. That sucker slipped through the season.” Now there he is on camera. In a few months, perhaps hanging in the shop ready for the knife work and freezer.
One early August day you drive the old Ford home from the post office and the corner of the eye catches movement in the borrow ditch. Pheasants. You pump the brakes, because that’s the only way to stop a 1970 F250, and there they are, three young roosters with just enough color on them to tell you their gender. Remind yourself to swing into the neighbor’s place and ask about October opener.
There are raspberries on the stem down by the northeast headgate. Lots of them now—if you can beat the birds and the coyote pups and the farmhands who come to change the water—to them.
You know that one morning, maybe soon, you’ll wake up and there will be a heavy frost on the ground. If you’re lucky, you will have listened to the weatherman and pulled all the tomatoes to vine-ripen in the barn, or at least have covered them with blue tarps every night.
Half of the shed is full of lodgepole cordwood, split, stacked. Five cords. Need ten. Just to be safe. Two woodburners will do that. The propane lady stopped by the other day. Remarked on how little propane was used last year. “Sure like your dogs,” she said, as Mabel jumped up on her for a scratch, despite the scolding and embarrassment over a four year old setter that suddenly forgets her manners. “She knows a dog lover, it’s awright,” she said.
August now and the hoppers are out there in the tall stuff that is left standing and that is now in full color. Hoppers for young pheasants and Huns and sharptail grouse.
This is no ending. This is no long slide to a dismal black winter. This is a beginning. There are four bird dogs on this place and now, as August gets rolling like an old Ford building momentum down the country road to the post office, there seems to be just a bit more zip in their zing. Sure, they still loll about in hot weather, but the mornings are cool now and there is a feel to everything that says hello. That says welcome. That says it is nearly on, let the games begin. Release us into this landscape of sky and tall grass. Release us to those young birds before gun and canine olfaction. Long walks are ahead. Perhaps on the loop back to the truck, soon, there will be the extra weight of the bounty of the land and there will be a sated, happy heart beating its old beat in the chest.
There will be no keen for a summer gone in this house.
British Columbia – I was bear hunting in British Columbia with Primitive Outfitters.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the grouse cubs flutter up into the trees. An angry sow grouse came charging out of the bush flapping her wings and hissing with rage.
Keeping my wits about me I dropped to the ground to show I wasn’t a threat. She circled me until the grouse cubs had enough time to get away and then she retreated back into the bush without a trace. It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to grab the can of Grouse Spray I had with me.
Mike Thompson is a hunter, angler, professional artist and a MOF kindred spirit. You can follow him on Instagram, @upland_ish.
As a young man I once stood on a mountain ridge so beautiful that I now find it impossible to describe. It was summer and a bird dog was at my side when I first discovered the place that would change my life. It came to be part of my very being. Like a military boot camp it broke me and then built me back up. Wild, remote, harsh, and unspoiled by the hand of man. Owned equally by all citizens of the country. Many of my best days on the planet have been spent there.
Soon after I adopted this place as my spirit home it came into the sights of energy companies. Just another place for them to profit from one fossil fuel or another. And of course those big companies had guys in very nice suits to infiltrate the highest halls of government. And between those fellas with the Italian ties and the former energy bigwigs in the executive branch they cooked up schemes to roll dozers and derricks into my sacred spot. I came to find out that my story was one of many. The only things that changed in the other tales were the actors who played my role and the location of the wild land. The rest of the script was the same. The sequels are playing out in the sagebrush steppe and the canyon country still today.
I became a fighter, and student of the fine print. A purveyor of press conferences and pithy quotes in national newspapers. A lobbyist. A student of Ed Abbey. A political animal. I sharpened my existence and my tongue. I assessed what mattered pressed my shoulders into saving it. Of course politics were involved. I figured out how to engage in battles and win wars. I committed never to shy from either.
Those were the days that wiped the crust of naiveté from my eyes. From that time on, politics and policies have never left my consideration because their impacts never exit my days. I’ve known people who say politics don’t matter or that they are overplayed or that people like me care too much. I don’t buy a bit of that dribble. I say your politics is a window to your soul. What you care about and how much you care about it can be seen through your political window like an old gas lamp on a pitch black night.
I care about wild places and losing myself within them. That’s probably why I love bird hunting so much. My panes are wide open but you don’t have stick your head in to figure me out. My politics and life are one in the same and nowhere is this more evident than during bird season. In other words if you wanted to do a political profile on me, just follow me around for a couple days in October.
On an average day you’ll find me hitting the road early in the morning before anyone else is up. And if I don’t ditch the tail you’ll follow me to a remote chunk of public land. I’ll drop the dogs and we’ll be gone for hours, maybe all day. I rack up ten miles or more and dogs will do thirty. I like big tracts of wide open country. Unspoiled. The less human intrusion the better. I feel alive in the vastness. I am an explorer on my own land. I like going where others won’t. I imagine people in far off farm houses looking at me through binocs muttering at my stupidity before they go back to watching the news and drinking coffee. I imagine some of them voting for people who want to sell these places and the anger at this drives me up the incline.
You might note that I stop to examine grasses or flowers. I watch deer and elk. I hope to see a badger or a northern harrier falcon. When I am not admiring the place I am laser focused on my dogs and the terrain. We hunt wild birds first and always and they require tenacity. My dogs have never even smelled a bird from a pen. I hope to keep it that way. I tell myself that if I depend on wild places I am more likely to fight for them.
I might stand and watch as a sharptail rises from a point. I pass on the shot and just watch him flap a time or two then hear him cluck as he starts to glide. I watch him in earnest as he gets up to speed. A marvel of aerodynamics. I’ll stand there until he is only a dot in the distance and then gone from my sight but still in flight. I think how far he flew on this one small journey and how much grassy country he requires to exist. Its fall, nearly election day, and I’ll dream of that sharptail voting his self-interests in the booth. I think I know which ovals he would blacken. If you could document my thoughts you’d note that I am thinking of gathering up the sharpies into a great caucus so that we might vote together en masse.
If I see a BLM, USFS or game warden truck I will stop and chat with them. Sometimes for an hour or more. I always thank them for the work they are doing and note that I understand they have a tough and largely thankless job. I want them to know I appreciate what they do. I know this place and opportunity did not happen by accident nor will it continue to exist if we are apathetic.
Somedays you might find me hunting in the CRP. If you were in my head, you’d see memories of my father planting thousands upon thousands of acres of native grass in Kansas during the heyday of CRP. A disciple of Aldo Leopold on a 4230 John deer and a 12 foot grass drill trying to restore his corner of the Great Plains. And you’d see the resulting pheasants I chased, seemingly everywhere as if mosquitoes in Alaska. Even a mediocre dog could find a limit in short order. A kid with a Model 42 Winchester could fill a vest in a couple hours. I was that kid. You might note that I count the acres that are being removed from this federal program now. I glaze over, staring at a newly tilled field as I remember where a covey once lived. You might hear me gritting my teeth.
I like to stop by a local bar when the bird day is done. I figure those big national corporatized chains have figured out how to make plenty of profit without me providing too much aid. I want to eat and drink where the locals are. I like authenticity and dirt under fingernails. I want to know how things are going for these folks and what beer they drink. And if the waitress grew up on a big ranch up north that just happens to have a bunch of birds, all the better. “What’s your dad’s name again and you think I could call him?” I might ask. When she hollers her dad’s name in an affirmative tone, I’ll respond, “That’s awesome, I appreciate it, and Yeh, I’ll have another beer” And then I’ll mutter under my breath with a slight grin, “I sure hope he don’t care that I am a redneck hippie.” As I take my first drink from the beer I’ll wonder if maybe he will vote with the sharptail caucus too.
If I could peer into the twists of double helixes deep inside the cells of my dogs I am confident there would be no Monsanto signature. No corporate trademarks. No sign of the tiniest of tweezers selecting one protein and replacing it with another. And if Teddy, Ruark or Aldo could probe me on a cellular level I am equally confident that there is no Monsanto chicanery to be found within the twists of my mitochondria. Yet here I am GMO and proud, and there are my dogs, modified to act in ways that would make a modern geneticist smile.
Fifteen thousand years ago before big ag was even a glimmer in banker’s eye, a few of our ancestors and few of our dog’s ancestors started toying with each other’s genes. Some brave wolf sauntered up to some open-minded hunter. Then few smart hunters began using wolves to help on the hunt. That’s where it started and before long the slow guys in the tribe had labs and the smart ones had pointing dogs. This all happened over generations but was no less effective than a scientist engineering corn DNA to resist the active ingredient in Roundup.
Bird hunters often marvel at the magical connection we have to our dogs. Some even claim divine intervention. I admit to being struck dumb as a stone at what I believe to be nearly unexplainable moments of beauty. Once on a windswept Montana ridge my first great birddog crept then locked then trailed and locked again over and over as he tried to hold a running covey of huns. He was two and I was trying to control him. To whoa and break him and teach him all he needed to know. As he locked on to one more point, he held but the birds had broken again, and he looked over his shoulder as if to ask for permission. I waved and muttered and he started a half mile loop which culminated in him cutting into the wind and locking the huns between us at about 500 yards. I ran up and dropped a couple birds. As he scurried to pounce on a wounded bird I remember standing there almost in tears at the wonder I had just witnessed. If the water in my Nalgene bottle had turned to wine I would not have been more amazed. I now know that it was not permission he was asking. Rather it was him telling me he was in on the same secret. We were both products of the same science. We were literally bred to do this.
I sometimes like to think us bird hunters have a corner on the canine connection. But the hunter’s genes are spread throughout our population just like those from the first few domesticated wolves. Granted it can be hard to identify in flushing dogs and semi auto shooters but it’s not hard to see glimmers of our shared genetics if we just observe.
Grandmothers proudly bend rules to allow Bichon Frises to ride on airplanes with them for made up mental health reasons. In those cases, the dogs clearly demonstrate their relative mastery of the gene modification process. Most kids, or at least those with any hope in life, are automatically drawn to a puppy. I’d bet a case of shotgun shells that they all have roots in the same hunter gather tribes that spawned Teddy, me and other bird hunters with their dogs.
Genetic science clearly demonstrates that distinguishing traits and behaviors can be bred into a population in just a few generations especially in small populations. Oh yes, both dog and human have long been GMOing ourselves the old-fashioned way. In small tribes and with trial and error. We picked the ones that held points and retrieved with a soft mouth. And the birddogs were modifying us too. Selecting out those who would feed them let them lounge on couches with us.
In bird dog circles I sometimes hear the chatter about god and magic and unexplained phenomena. But a wider perspective tells me that what I feel with my dogs is not magic or divine. It is even more powerful. Its bred into us. Our species have been honing this relationship for millennia and it is locked in our genetic instruction sheets. Maybe that’s why my excitement about a big runner with a staunch point on a sharpie comes as natural as my next breath. For me, both the breath and the excitement are of equal importance. Guess I am just gonna have to be OK with being a GMO.
When I was a boy, we would occasionally make a family trip up to Greeley, Colorado, to visit a couple of my dad’s aunts, sweet old crones in their late 80s who had lived together their entire lives. They were two of something like 15 offspring. They had big litters back then, unpaid labor for the farm no doubt.
Mabel and Edna somehow managed to live their whole lives in the same house all the way to the very end. Neither one killed the other, which is saying something when you live eight decades in the same house.
They drove cool old cars, Edna a 1954 Chevrolet Belair two door, aqua-green and white. It was like riding around in a roomy suitcase. We ended up with that car and I took it on fishing trips to the South Platte when I was just learning to drive. It drove like a suitcase too.
Greeley at that time was still a farm town, a place where my grandfather had a pool hall in 1922, then a farm, where he once accidentally cut a hen pheasant in half while hand-scything hay. The hen was on a nest and the eggs joined a nest of chicken eggs in the coop where they later hatched. The hen pheasant was salvaged and went into the pot. Grandpa shot a single shot hammer 12 of some off-breed brand, but he obviously was equally deadly with the scythe.
I remember little else about Mabel and Edna other than they were kindly old gals and they lived together in relative harmony. And their names stuck with me. Mabel first, then Edna. Here’s hoping their spotted namesakes get along as well as those old ladies did and here’s hoping they last well into their dog-year eighties. The setter Mabel is actually aunt to the setter Edna and now there is a brace to follow into the western skies.
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.