Spike camp was two miles from base — as the raven flies not really that far in this expansive National Forest. But as flatlanders taking on the thin air of elevated places, two miles is a decent gap to begin separating yourself from those less prepared to depart known trails and the easy-breathing comfort of motorized vehicles.
Over the weekend we witness a queue of young men carrying massive packs converging on trailheads that lead endlessly upward. I scan the parking areas for license plates to determine the elevations of origin for these haughty explorers. When prompted they proudly proclaim gear totaling half their body weights. I wish them luck. I note the hiking boots fresh from a box combined with giant rucks and have little worry of seeing these boys on the mountain. I’ve been up these trails with packs weighing a fraction of their payloads. Preparation barely gets you up some of these hills. Bravado earns blisters.
This first hunt of the season has been more proving ground than mission. Two eras have converged upon our upland pursuit: the start of a new, gun dog puppy and assessing the remaining days afield for an aging, canine warrior. For the past eight years Wyatt, the old Lab, has been a constant hunting force. The amount we’ve leaned on him to dictate the direction and outcomes of our days afield has been easy to overlook because he’s just this steady, affable sidekick. An 80’s ballad has been bouncing around in my head – Don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Funny what hypoxia, sleep deprivation and low blood sugar can do to a brain.
After multiple days hiking peaks and two nights under stars away from basecamp, we return with gear crammed in packs and worn dogs on our heals. The heat has been uncanny for this season at this elevation. And the mountains have offered more mystery than answers this trip. A quick walk to the once bustling trailhead reveals the predicted retreat of the inexperienced and overloaded. We’re alone again.
We feast on random provisions left behind in the coolers at our basecamp while reorganizing bedding for the evening. A couple hot cups of coffee wash everything down and begin to put the edge back on. A quick camp shower — wet wipes transferring grime from one crack to the next — followed by a clean set of drawers and even the rankest backcountry hunter can begin to feel halfway human again. With that humanity comes an idea: we should take the puppy out solo while the big dogs are spent. So we watch the old boys curl up and crash on sleeping bags as we deviously sip coffee, then slip out the tent flap with the pup and shotguns to head back uphill.
The mountain let us believe we are away scot-free just long enough. Then dark clouds roll in towing a frigid downpour; they organized quickly against us for these peaks demand honesty from all. This is the first hint of anything cold we’ve had besides remnants fished from the bottom corners of the coolers, so it’s less deterrent than motivation. A clap of thunder greets us as we round a bend in the trail at the edge of a small clearing. A lone Dusky finds this opportune time to flush wild while we’re off guard and makes a clean escape. The fusion of birds, shots, rain and thunder have the lab puppy fully charged, wide-eyed and running wild.
For most of the week the grouse have been scattered and unsporting, flushing at distance from trees upon approach or simply allowing us to pass under without a peep. But this storm has driven birds back to the safety and shelter beneath the trees which opens an opportunity. We descend into the dark edges of the forest where we answer blazes of lightning with muzzle flashes. Hunting in thunderstorms while holding walnut-clad lightning rods seems a bit reckless, at least until the next flush. And maybe we’re a bit bird drunk from the sudden abundance of game in a week that’s offered little chase. But the thunder finally rumbles loud enough to sober us to the peril and we wrangle the puppy from pursuit and head back down the hill.
Many measure the success of a hunt by how full the cooler is at the conclusion. But we’re playing the long game here. Birds on ice are a poor metric for why we are here.
When asked how this first hunt of the season has gone I think some are taken aback by the response, “I didn’t kill the dog, so pretty good.” I guess I don’t feel like explaining beyond that. I don’t want to detail the decline of my longtime hunting buddy to strangers; they should have been paying attention these last eight years when only the smartest of birds was safe from his drive. But this old Lab still wants to dig deep and hunt through compounding ailments. After taking on this challenge I have an idea just how far he can push the rest of the season.
I also have a puppy that is officially bird crazy. No lightning, thunder, rain, hail of gunfire or darkness will dissuade her from chasing birds in the future. No altitude, howling winds or exhaustion will prevent her from looking for the next flush. She is game for wherever we go and at some point this season she’ll pick up a bird and return it to hand, only mildly plucked, and I will sing her praises in an 80’s rock ballad falsetto that will wake the dead.
And I have friends foolish enough to join me in the storms of wild places in search of their own answers. I hope we all find some this season.