James, Chapter III

DSCN1265Less than a week into the trip, Pat pulls up lame. Favoring the left hind.
We are nearer true Mearns country now. In the vicinity, anyway. But on the first evening in the new camp, the dogs out for a piss put up a covey of Gambel quail, maybe fifteen birds. We are both in beer mode though, two into the evening, and we just laugh and watch them fly off. Call the dogs back in. We’ll be after them in the morning. I can see oak up on the rims on the north slope, within reach for a good walker.

In the morning, Jim heads out with Pat, chasing last night’s covey, but it proves as ephemeral as a phone number given without enthusiasm to a stranger on Friday night. And in the process, she comes in limping, her passion for birds slowed to a three-legged hop. I spend the day on the mountain, find one covey of Mearns, drop a male on a long swing, miss another and see no other birds. The pup works great, though, and I am happy. She is not running over birds now. Instead, it feels as if she’s starting to get it down. We stop for water a lot. It’s too hot, really, for good hunting.

We talk for a bit about what to do. The injury is athletic in nature, but there is nothing obvious. We’re miles from a vet and I have a field kit with various meds. We’ll give it some rest, see how it goes. In a way, I wonder if perhaps this is some kind of a sign, a reason for my old pal to stay back at camp, catch up on reading, soak in the desert sun. He has not been feeling well and while we used to hunt side-by-side, this hunt instead means I go my own way and we get together in the evenings. Sometimes he hunts, sometimes he stays back. And that’s okay. Life-long friends adapt to individual changes . . . . It is the being here.

I can see in my old friend the disappointment, though. This is his only dog. I have three. True, two are at an age where they are stop-gap, half-day companions on old legs, but I have reserves nevertheless. Like Matt Hasslebeck coming off the bench for Andy Luck.

We will take the days as they come to us.

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James, Chapter II

Certain aspects of life are bracketed. Bookended. Beginning and end. Sometimes it is not that simple. Sometimes it is. It is the human experience. Things begin. Things end. The day you met her and the day your divorce was final. The moment a new puppy snuggles into your folded arms and the moment you put a spade into soil as you say goodbye to an old friend. The first day of college orientation and graduation day. Like that.

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If this desert is the end, the beginning was all high country. Wild currants growing beneath old growth Doug fir. Ned and Jed–setters of the Llewelyn strain—led us. A landscape of ridges at the top of the world, spines sprinkled with those big firs, sides falling away to grass and forb and berry. Snow on tall and distant peak.

It was September with frost and sunshine in combat. Sunshine winning the battle, frost the war. Chilled in a light jacket, but sweating as we climbed. Jacket coming off soon. Jed, a young dog with fire and drive. Ned, a tottering old man who somehow ended up on my side of the ridge. Hunting for me, or maybe just hunting for his old stubborn self and me just being in the right dumb place. Jim carrying that Browning double. A blue Rockies sky warming and as clear as headwater.

I was young then and full of what Aldo Leopold called “trigger itch.” Impressionable. Pliable. In need, if not want, of a mentor.

wyo. range trail 011Ned pointed and a big old male blue grouse clattered up and I swung on him and folded him and Ned pointed again and that one went up and then down too. The sky blued on and we went on. Stopped for an elk meatloaf sandwich. Olives. A crisp fresh red and yellow apple. Leaned against one of those old trees. Got acquainted as men do when they are new to one another. Treading somewhat carefully. Finding commonalities. He talked of pointing dogs and double guns and somehow, even at that pup stage of my life, I knew where I would be heading.

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James, Chapter I

It is not long. Not long until we settle into the routine of men who have spent a lifetime in the outdoors together. A camp routine.

We have known each other long enough that he knew me when I was a punk kid in my 20s all full of bullshit and bluster. Knew my wife before she became my wife and long before she became my ex-wife. I have known him since he was the age I am at this moment. Known him when he was a bachelor two-times divorced with a couple of good horses and two fine setters. When I hunted with a mutt and a piss-poor side-by-side that I bought with ranch-work money. Before he was an old man with no horses, a sweet wife, a nice cat and one fine setter that usually hunts by herself around the farm. And now we move around each other with the ease of time and the comfort of knowing one another and each others’ quirks. Hearing each others’ stories so many times we’ve lost count. It is almost father-son, except perhaps expectations and approvals are not as clearly defined. But they are there, without denial. He is my mentor in almost all things life.

On our first hunting adventure, he handed me his .35 Whelen and I laid across a carpet of aspen leaves and felled a large buck mule deer with one shot. My own rifle was back at home, left because we were packing out a cow elk I had shot the day before. No need to carry my rifle. But then we rounded the bend and the buck was there, broadside. Elk in panniers on the horses and my own rifle at home. “Take my rifle,” he whispered. “Thumb the safety forward when you’re ready to fire.” Two hundred and twenty one paces out.

That night we ate fresh elk steak, smothered in gravy from the drippings. The next day we packed out the buck on tired horses.

Now we are in quail country. Again. We have been in quail country many times. During the highs and the lows and the mediums. On years when you had to walk four hours or even all day to see one small covey and when you found them, you felt guilty for splitting them up late in the day and for shooting even one. You didn’t hunt up the singles.

This year is a high water mark. I never walk more than a half hour to game. To a point. I never return to camp without at least a handful of quail and a pocketof spent 20s.

We’ve seen the changes to the land, changes less subtle that the ebbs and flows of annual quail populations. There was a time we didn’t worry if we accidentally dipped down into Sonora in the great follow that is a setter leading a man. When the land seemed pristine and wild and raw and never trodden by man-track. When you did not fret about camp when you were not there. That was thirty years ago.

DSCN1365It was the trash, more than anything. Discards of a people on the move. Empty plastic jugs. Fuel cans. Pop cans worded only in Spanish. A shoe. Plastic sheeting. A tattered jacket, stuffing flying everywhere. You half expected to walk up on someone sitting in the shade of an oak as you followed your dog. Your heart beat a little more frantically than it does as a mere aficionado of the hunt and the canine. It felt dangerous. Still does sometimes.

But the fresh trash stopped and dust and dirt coated the old stuff. Maybe it was the economy crapping out or maybe it was something else. The drug trade. The fences. The patrols. Those are questions for other people and for the government. Detritus washed down arroyos, got covered in sand and duff. Plastic sheeting slowly disintegrated and blew to the wind, clung to mesquite thorn. Agave grew up through the leavings. Border patrol everywhere, just sitting in fancy government vehicles at intersections. All. Day. Long. Never waving hello.

We have seen the country change and each other age and we are back here. And we move around each other in the camp trailer and we hunt separately, me for half days, whole days. Jim for an hour or two. Some days. He is not feeling well. Complains of dizziness and weakness. I cook breakfast and dinner and he washes dishes and pours Kentucky over ice. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we read without saying much. It is another hunt in the desert and somehow, for the first time, it feels like our last.

 

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Genesis, Chapter III

Our camp is at the base of one of those short mountain ranges that are so much a part of this part of the desert. Sky islands, they call them, where points of pine and even spruce wring snowfall from a dry Southwestern sky on a December night and a good walker can move through a quarter dozen life zones on a big day.

For the dog man, the islands offer much promise. The deep grass toe of the island—the beaches—whisper to you of scaled, or blue, quail. The catclaw-choked canyon mouths farther up the island’s flanks, speak of Gambel quail. Higher still, up in the oak savannah, that most treasured of quail—the pointing dog’s quail—Mearns, Montezuma, harlequin.

My companion on this month of adventure is a mentor, a best friend, a life-long personal legend. He’s 83 and he carries a good Belgian Browning 20 that he picked up in a Denver pawn shop more than a half century ago. Jim has one dog, a young female setter. I have three, but only the streak called Mabel is functional. The other two are old timers, males whose saddles have a lot of leather worn off the tree. They are along for the ride, and because I didn’t have the heart to leave them in wintery Montana. I pay for my softness with periodic visits to the truck in the middle of the night so they can get out to empty. I lift them down to the ground and when they are done, I lift them back up to the tailgate beneath a star-splattered sky. They groan with the miles. They have given their everything to me. A lifetime of everything and the least I can do is get up in the middle of the night to let an old dog piss.DSCN1264

I did all the driving and do all the driving. Often, Jim stays at camp while I climb out of the trailer, load up my water and Mabel’s, thumb shells into my vest, pack lunch, load the gun, turn on the e-collar.

Sometimes, I come down off the mountain tired, my game bag heavy with a half limit. At night, we cook quail and vegetables in a Dutch oven over mesquite coals, accompany the meal with New Mexico chilies.

In the mornings, I do it all over again. The days are as I want them to be. On some, I get in the truck and drive the two-tracks north along the island’s run, looking for new canyons and new coveys. One evening, I come back to a few fingers of good bourbon and show Jim a license plate from 1954 that I found on a rusted truck bumper out in the middle of nowhere, pinned against the thick tough trunk of a mesquite by a flash flood long dead.

It’s the same year I bought that Browning, says Jim.

 

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Genesis, Chapter II

We climbed, this morning, on a rising bench from camp. The dog and I. We. We is just her and I.

I followed her into the tall grass and the coming sunlight, sometimes seeing her bounce through, then gone again. Pushing past Spanish dagger and catclaw, hoping for desert quail, heading toward a distant patch of oak up the mountain. The ache of two days of hard driving, of nights spent in a cold trailer on the side of a road, of more road, and more ‘truck butt’ and a diet of spitters and Mountain Dew is not even really a memory. Or an ache. It is winter and I am wearing a t-shirt and worrying about the heat on a dog that is used to Montana late pheasants.
Now, with two Mearns in the bag, we are above the bench and several miles from camp. The morning produced no desert quail and no points. Two quail shot off wild flushes, two “training birds.”

We sit for a time, me to slow pulse, her just because I make her. She waits. Doesn’t want to. She leaps to her feet every time I shift. And I make her sit down again.  And finally I rise for good, and we work down off the mountain, trying for new country, new cover.DSCN1268
At the base, down from the oak savannah, we hit the century plants and mesquite of a different life zone, and work past the remnants of an old mine. The shell of a Model A Ford rusts away in a dry climate, intact save being shot full of number eights from what no doubt was a frustrated quail hunter.
I whistle her in again, calling her close as we head toward a water hole where I’m hoping she can cool off. The heat is rising now, full sun and pushing up into the 60s, maybe even the 70s. Coming up.

She has only a moment to lap muddy water when a covey of Gambel quail burst from the other side of the arroyo and fly one hundred or so yards. I mark them down, call the dog in, keep her close, and move in, knowing they probably won’t be there when we get there. Nevertheless.

We drop into the leavings of the most recent flash flood, then scramble out, moving closer to the place the covey went down. Thirty birds, maybe? I talk to her softly now, keeping her close, trying to walk light on soil that is more granite crumble than dirt.

She flanks left, then slams to a stop, tail up. Point. Point! By God.

Three birds burst from the cover.

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Genesis

The first bird up is a harlequin male, whirring a bit behind, left to right and going fast. The gun is up, swinging, leading, barking. The bird is down. Just because. Just because this is what we are after. Not a tweety. Not a meadowlark. Not a kangaroo rat. Quail. Mearns.

She is on it now, picking it up, spitting it out. Setter-style. This is what we are after.
The “making of birds” had been a furious tail wag, but the human translation of canine language saw it little different than mousing or tweety-birding. No offer of pointing. Making birds, yes. But hunting birds? Not even. But the male Mearns is down and dead and I’m squeaking happy noises and she’s grinning and jumping up on my belt and I’m good-girling in an excited voice. Oh, this is what we are after.

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The next bird is the same, frantic wagging, but the bird out wild before she can point. Shooting this one too and she is sprinting and sniffing at it again.
There have been Huns and roosters and grouse and chukar.

These are the first quail.

—TR

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A MOF update

You can tell it’s a good bird year because everyone would rather hunt than write. Still, it’s been unusually quiet around here, so I thought I’d let everyone know that MOF is alive and well and give you status reports from a couple of the writers here.

  • Tom – Bought a new truck, loaded his herd of dogs in the back and threw his computer in the river. When January rolls around he’ll either be back with a ton of new MOF material or we will have to turn MOF into a fundraiser to free Tom and his pack of setters from a Mexican prison.
  • Bruce – I think he’s out hunting recovering from a bike accident, but it must be a super secret spot. I checked all his usual secret spots and didn’t see him, so I hunted them just a tiny bit…
  • Chad  – AWOL. I’ve heard that bird populations in the southwest are exceptional this year and that may have something to do with it. Chad said, “Tell everyone bird hunting sucks in Oklahoma and Kansas.”
  • Greg – Went old school and had another baby. Look for late-season MOF posts with baby in tow. The good news is, his shooting can’t get any worse if he carries a baby instead of a gun.

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One good dog. And then another.

DSCN1234In this life of dogs and birds and the march of boots across the uplands, we are often struck by the unfortunate irony of losing a good dog after only a dozen years. It is unfair, we dog lovers think, that we humans are awarded with such long lives and such a wonderful animal as the canine is cheated with a short one. This past April, I put another good dog into the soil after a baker’s dozen years on this blue marble and I thought to myself, “that was the dog.” One good dog, one good woman, one good horse, one man once said.

Twenty years ago, on a hot June day, I put a good dog into the sand at the base of a chukar cliff in the middle of nowhere and as the sweat ran into my eyes and the tears ran out, I thought to myself, “that was the dog.”

And while it is true there will never be another Hank or another Sage, that old maxim of “one good and that’s all you get” is as false as the twinkle of pyrite in a prospector’s pan. The truth of this comes home to me this season as I try to rein in another amazing soul that has come into my life. She is fire and charge and zip and zing. She is faster than I can remember any of the others before her. She is smarter than them too. Or at least as I remember them. And therein is the secret: memory is a trickster. And another truth: there will be another one; it won’t be the same, but it will be different in some ways, better in some ways, and a gift. A true gift.DSCN1196

From the dog’s perspective, perhaps a dozen years is a cheat. But on this day in deep autumn in the full throat of another season of following the perfume of the uplands, I vow to myself to make her years varied and spectacular. I promise to grind the tires off my pickup and the soles from my boots in pursuit of her ultimate joy. And mine. There will be more moments of spectacular glory and pure puppy chaos and I will walk on, shotgun in hand, thinking about what a fortunate man I am, have been, and will be.

—TR

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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.

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