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To the Edge with Friends and Dogs

Public Land Ptarmigan

We all have limits.

But that edge is never static. It’s a river that rages perilously close or meanders docile and aimless in the distance. Most people are perfectly comfortable keeping a healthy distance—there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there is something about that torrent that is captivating and revealing.

What we see when we reach those limits, what we do, and how we react can’t be predicted until there.

Very few of us actually know where those are. They are much harder to get to than one might think. Our brains tend to go into safe mode in order to stay a step ahead of catastrophe. That voice in your head does a great job of can’t, don’t, shouldn’t.

I’ve been watching our pack of bird dogs run. They have no voices in their head. They run the edge without hesitation, occasionally splashing through the shallows of limitation. They are free of any thoughts of how far or how much.

There was a point in this last trip where everyone found the shore.

Whether that was a puppy on her first hunt half frozen at high elevation on a march to find open water; or hunters creeping across talus slopes appearing impassable in pursuit of ghost birds; or legs and lungs extended to exhaustion where adrenaline is the only fuel remaining for the next step.

I convinced friends that we should kickoff the upland season hunting White-tailed Ptarmigan in the backcountry of Colorado. These winged demons have a nasty habit of residing at the highest points available. In the Centennial State that generally puts them at elevations above 12,000’ where oxygen levels are 30% lower.

After our fill on the mountain, we moved camp into Wyoming and Montana in pursuit of prairie grouse and partridge. We averaged close to seven miles per day over the duration of 10 days, often carrying packs in excess of 30 pounds. The bird dogs would have doubled or tripled that distance depending on age and experience meaning 200 miles for the longest-legged.

On a particularly warm day the second week after hiking a few hours, I noticed that Wyatt, my black lab, was laboring for deep breaths. I reined him in to cool off but his breathing continued shallow and wheezy. We were three-quarters of a mile from the truck. I handed off my shotgun and carried him out.

He had no inclination to stop hunting and didn’t like being carried. He actually struggled to get free at the sound of one of my hunting partners shooting in the distance.

A trip to an observant vet in a remote Montana town revealed a grape-size mass far back on Wyatt’s tongue. It had likely been covering a portion of his trachea when hunting. Think about that for a second: Past middle-aged, running a marathon with a grape lodged in your throat blocking a portion of your airway—then think about wanting to continue.

I don’t know how to be free of the barriers, where the edges are, or how to silence the voice in my head. I only know I want be more like Wyatt. The satisfaction he gets from fulfilling his calling has him run that edge with reckless abandon. He’ll give it all up to hunt just another step, another field. How it has come to mean so much to him escapes me.

But maybe he knows.

The stretch for the edge keeps that river of doubt bending away from us. And if we can do that while chasing birds then so many possibilities open elsewhere.

I want others to see that. I want them to take a step past their comfort zone. Then take one more past that.

Embrace the Hunting Curve

New Mexico Sunset

I kicked off this season hunting the entire month of September without ever pulling the trigger—for birds, not for big game, not for a once-in-a-lifetime tag draw. I never even came close. True, the Himalayan Snowcock might be the most challenging hunt in the country. This was my second attempt at those demons and I was just stoked to actually get a photo. Most people never have the opportunity to even lay eyes on one.

The dogs and I finished this season on public land in New Mexico. We’ve never chased desert quail before. We’ve never hunted this far south. I hadn’t heard a whole lot about bird forecasts or others hunting in the area this year. But there’s a big National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of the state that is just a short 23 hour drive away, and it calls to us.

Visions of huge coveys of all three desert quail species duel with the knowledge I’ve gained from hunting elsewhere; late season wild birds are demanding. The later you go into winter the more educated upland birds become. These are the survivors of inclement weather, predator, disease, encroachment and every curveball their environment can muster.

But end-of-season wild bird hunters are the survivors, too. Hunters looking for an easy stroll and guaranteed gunning have retreated to preserves or have long ago retired their shotguns until next season.

For me, what is left is the essence of bird hunting that few get to see. The battle of wits between the smartest, strongest birds and Ultimate Uplanders with bird dogs not wanting this dance to end.

This New Mexico desert does not disappoint. It’s brutal and beautiful. It’s unfamiliar and unkind. Unseasonably high temps, gritty terrain and cactus of every sort that chew up pursuers. Quail offer fleeting glances and scent then scatter across the sand and evaporate leaving nothing but shallow footprints and spent, stumped dogs.

And I wouldn’t change a thing. We’ll be back to build on the lessons of this trip, to confront the unknown. The heft of the game bag remains a distant aim when the humbling by wild places offers such reward.

Hunting in the Shadow of Roosevelt

Elkhorn Ranch North Dakota

When I hunt in North Dakota, my thoughts often drift to Teddy Roosevelt’s days at Elkhorn Ranch — He named his Dakota home for a pair of locked elk skulls he found at the site. Today, centrally located within the million acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Elkhorn is a great place to visit while upland hunting within this expanse. Sharptail still congregate on the bluffs and Ring-necked Pheasant and Hungarian Partridge have invaded the territory.

You’re confronted with a landscape of stark contrast. Fractured buttes and rolling bluestem, cottonwood culverts and the hellish infrastructure of fossil fuel harvesting which I imagine has Teddy’s grave in Oyster Bay sufficiently churned .

In the winter of 1884 after suffering the loss of both his wife and his mother within the span of 24 hours, Roosevelt retreated to the torn beauty of the Badlands for solace. The solitude, and toil of a new cattle business and pursuit of plains game provided the healing or at least sufficient distraction from depths of darkness.

Even the name badlands casts doubt on the therapeutic essence of this territory. Until you step into it. Unique views stretch to the horizon at the top of each new hill drawing you further into the folds, farther away from anything recognizable. The one benefit to the oil wells, they are unsightly beacons that can lead you back to “civilization”. At times I think I prefer the prospect of being lost. And when the setter and lab steer into the cuts where grouse gather out of the wind to dine on juniper berry, the possibility of becoming a permanent fixture of this forgotten landscape is at hand.

For most Americans lost is no longer a part of the lexicon. We’re digitally connected, plugged-in to one another and the safety and warmth of a glowing screen. And I can see the benefits. But a shrinking world needs the counter-balance of Badlands, of vast spaces unspoiled by humans. Fear of your surroundings, the inconsequence of your being, the brilliance of unyielding harsh landscapes offer perspective. Roosevelt knew the value of this much like I do. Rambling over stratified buttes and fractured limestone for hours, aware that the distances covered on foot are nothing but burnt legs and bootprints to be erased in the first strong wind. Watching late season birds flush wild at the hint we’ve chosen their direction and disappear on the horizon or so deeply into ravines the prospect they can be rousted or the energy to undertake it are in doubt.

Prairie fowl were so thick in this area at the end of the 19th century that Roosevelt could walk out his front door and shoot the heads off a few “chickens” roosting in the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri River with his lever action Winchester Model 1876 — a roast bird breakfast. Though Teddy was a notorious bad shot, peruse his auto-biographies and you get the sense that what he lacked in accuracy he made up for in frequency.

Despite gunning, game hogging and an awkward spectacled appearance that prompted many in the Dakota territories to label him a “dude”,  Roosevelt still rose to iconic status as a conservationist. His determination and ethic created the National Park system in this country and his role in crafting the North American Conservation Model is well documented. He was the first politician to raise wildlife to a national stage. It’s a legacy for all Americans that extends well beyond just sportsmen. Annually, hundreds of millions of visitors frequent the National Parks, National Forests, Wildlife Refuges and public lands that Roosevelt instigated. For all his other accomplishments, Rough Riders to the Square Deal among them, there’s little doubt that the legacy of wildlife and wild places has touched the most people.

Roosevelt, a lifelong adventurer, likely left few canyons untouched within the boundaries of the Grassland south to the town of Medora. While our pack of dogs disappears in the sage and brambles of the flats around Elkhorn, It’s seems safe to assume few areas within these million acres remained hidden from Teddy, either herding cattle or pursuing plains game. Those are certainly big footsteps. As we’re faced with the prospects of rising costs of continuing the North American Conservation Model and the pressures of human encroachment and consumption, truly wild places and wildlife seem more and more finite.

The ability to wander, chase birds and get lost with friends and rowdy running dogs in the same expanse that TR did 120 years ago is pretty amazing. Thankfully not all things have disappeared in the name of progress.

Shooting one of Roosevelt’s birds gives me a glimmer of hope that a legacy that was so hard fought may still survive the hair-brained, misguided ideas of lesser men. I believe I’ll side with the likes of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Roosevelt holding wildlife and wild places in the public trust, until someone more enlightened appears — doubtful that happens in my lifetime.

Upland with Friends

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It’s easy for me to get caught up in this solo pursuit. The rhythm of walking to the horizon with shotgun in hand appeals to my obsessive nature. Shut out the world and follow the dogs. Simple. Quiet. Rewarding.

But decades ago I came to be a bird hunter because of friends sharing their experience afield. I can’t say that upland hunting saved me, rather that it saves everyone around me from the monster I would become without it.

A trip to Big Sky Country reunited me with the group that helped seed Ultimate Upland. There’s a comfort in hunting with cherished friends. But the six year gap between hunts has also been unsettling.

Frequent exposure allows changes to creep up, go unnoticed. But these six years apart the contrast is stark. Time has caught my bird hunting mentors. Reflexes have been dulled. Endurance worn. It has slowed them. And they aren’t accepting these changes gracefully.

If it’s happening to my upland heroes, then it must be happening to me. I wonder if I’m on the rise or fading. Are my best days of bird hunting still ahead?

But then there are moments: a friend’s first Sharptail over my dog, an old gunzel dropping a double, campfire stories that provoke moronic laughter.

The hell with mortality.

Let’s just hunt so often we never notice the creep consuming us as we disappear over the horizon.


SHOP THE STORY

Whitetailed Demons

Something is wrong with me.

Any other sane bird hunter would have packed up and moved to the interior where the bird numbers and density are greater. But I’m entrenched in the Kenai and I can’t get away from it.

I’ve shot a Whitetailed Ptarmigan already. I’ve seen where they live. I know their confounding habits. I know that if I want to bring another one to hand on the peninsula it will require I burn legs and dogs on hikes as high as I can go without rope to assist.

I came to Alaska with grand ideas of multi-species game bags. Designs of days afield where I could just break open the shotgun and stroll back to the truck while letting birds fly free because enough powder had been burnt.

Those plans are long gone. Replaced with obsession and insecurity.

Though I want this to be about the upland birds and what it takes to hunt them, it’s become apparent it’s as much about me.

Whitetail Ptarmigan play dirty. It’s definitely part of what makes them so maddening. It feels like the hike to get to them, to fractured rock in the cavernous back rooms of a mountain should be enough of a challenge. But if you find these pale ghosts, that’s when the fun really starts.

The dogs and I had hiked to an amazing lake, one of so many with the clearest of water that takes on a turquoise glow when it congregates after falling from the snowpack above. It seems all these bowls hide similar jewels from those unwilling to make the ascent. The scene opens before us at the final few steps after climbing through the saddle. The lake appears and the peaks surrender a token of their scale. But arriving here as a bird hunter, it’s tough to be fully taken with the view. There’s always somewhere higher, a distraction.

Alaska Mountain Lake

And these Whitetail live at the farthest reaches, not one step below, at least not this time of year, not here.

Why can’t I just go inland where the birds abound? I guess I don’t want to be lucky. Anyone can be lucky. My first ptarmigan could have been a fluke, and I need to know it wasn’t. I’d rather hike my legs off than be left feeling I can’t make it happen. Insane.

The rest by this lake and the view grows stale because I can see the next ridge line. I know that if there are birds on this mountain, they are up there. Or they are on the precipice above that one. Or the next. It doesn’t really matter at this point. I’m going and the dogs stretch their legs in agreement. They feed the madness, but at least they are just bird crazy.

We hike onward. Upward. Agonizing exertion. And it feels good.

The route to the next ridge narrows to a goat path snaking between a sharp wall and a 100′ drop. I reign in the dogs. It’s just one of the many places on these peaks where the possibility for mishap creeps from back of mind into reality. It conjures the rarest of thoughts… please, don’t let there be birds here.

As if on command, Rio the setter freezes at the bend above Wyatt the lab and I. Her head is craned into the breeze, tail high.

They are here.

A plan. I need a plan to get out of this with everyone in one piece.

But the birds read my thoughts and flush wild. This covey of 10 have no interest in a plan. Rio bales off the cliff in pursuit, and Wyatt runs to join. He shoots me a wild-eyed glance to make sure I’m game then dives over the edge. He’s misread the terror on my face. And there’s nothing left but action.

The dogs have made the leap successfully, a controlled fall down one face, and now a climb of the opposite to rejoin birds above. I scramble to close on them wishing I had the benefit of their four legs in this terrain.

We weave in and out of boulders. Points. Running birds. Flushes perilously close to dogs. Long, ill-advised shots. Repeat. It’s hunting through a labyrinth of rock on a 40 degree slope.  The ptarmigan fly just far enough to draw us deeper into their lost world by dangling shreds of hope. Never over the horizon, just over the next set of granite daggers.

I boulder to some higher ground to escape the grind. With the altitude comes an angle. A single bird holds a fraction too long, flies just a few inches too high, doesn’t keep the flusher between us. At the snap of the trigger it falls. Wyatt runs to retrieve and it’s the contrast of angelic wing against dark jowls that I will see in my sleep for days to come.

We start the hike back to the mundane, flat ground. And the demons recede into the crevices of the mountain and are quiet. For now.

Whitetail Ptarmigan and Llewellin Setter

Granite Daggers

Point on the Point

Black Lab and White Bird


SHOPT THE STORY

The Alaska Standoff

Alaska and I are at odds. I’m here to take her birds. She’s not giving them up easily. I’m to earn them one vertical foot at a time until she has determined that sufficient  toll has been collected.

She’s happy to show amazing places, jaw-dropping beauty, an abundance of nature viewing unrivaled anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. But she knows I’m here for her upland game. Though I can be transfixed by her figure, by the expanse, the birds are always in the back of my mind. And she knows this.

She keeps them just out of reach. Always around the next bend or over the next ridge. They are there. I’ve seen them, even had a fleeting shot. She keeps them 1,000 feet above me, taunts me with risk. Bring your tired legs, bring your tired dogs, push yourself too far and she’ll keep you here on her peaks. You can become a permanent fixture, another notch, a story of epic failure to ward off other suitors.

I’ve heard other places we’ve hunted, but never this clearly. I talk to her. I curse her. Then I apologize. Her beauty should be enough. For so many others it is. But the damn birds are here.

I’ve seen the tales of grouse so plentiful and stupefied that a rock and a moderate throwing arm will fill a skillet. I’ve talked to locals who have snow machined by chance into flocks hundreds thick in areas where 50 bird limits are possible. But they are Alaskan and she knows this.

So it is a standoff. I will keep talking to her. She will continue flashing eye candy. I will keep hiking uphill with shotgun and hounds, and she will decide if I’m worthy. It’s out of my hands. I can’t stop wanting her birds.

On the Road Again

Driving endless hours. It’s the not-so-glamourous part of this upland hunting pursuit. Thankfully the days afield tend to erase the days of pavement.

The two longest drives of the year are always the first and last of the season. The anticipation of getting underway and the dread of completion make the toughest slogs.

The 4,200 mile trek at the opening of this season seems irrational, even self loathing. Six 14-hour days behind the wheel. But the call of Alaska, the massive open country, the species never before retrieved to hand, thoughts of tired legs and even more tired bird dogs all promise to overwrite the memory of brutal travel.

At least the new Mobile Command Unit should make things a bit easier. If you happen to see this rig pass you on the highway, give a wide berth. Chances are it is on autopilot as thoughts of upcoming mountain hikes help deaden the endless frost heaves.

And this trip we have cohorts, like minded Ultimate Uplanders seeking perfect moments. Somehow we’ve managed to convince a few locals that we’re better company than bear bait. So I’ll be on my best behavior though I’m not sure the dogs have received that memo.

There are big plans in the works, feats to tackle, stories and photos to come.

Just gotta get this pesky last 700 miles out of the way first.

3000 Miles for One Bird

Kansas Sunset

The sun is dipping into the horizon and the thermometer reads 19° when the dogs and I return to the truck after hunting the final day of upland season in Kansas. A quick check of the fitness band reveals I’ve hiked over 12 miles in eight inches of new snowfall. The dogs never stopped hunting the entire day which guarantees they have each run a marathon in arctic conditions. The two hens we flushed early in the day  confirmed for the dogs that somewhere in this polar landscape other birds exist, and that’s all they needed.

Now that I’m out of the wind the burning sensation signals the thawing of my fingertips and face. There’s not a single bird in my game vest. It’s one of the most satisfying days afield I’ve ever had.

I am always a bit torn for late season bird hunting. On the one shoulder sits the tiny conservationist saying “these birds have made it this far through winter, they’ve earned a pass.”  On the other shoulder sits the killer. He lobbies for cutting feathers. And the dogs, now bored from lack of action, side with the killer. It’s useless to fight those odds. So hunt it is.

Most upland seasons across the country have begun rotating out. It doesn’t help that bird numbers were at historic lows across broad swathes of land due to the widespread drought. The northern latitude hunting shut down weeks ago and states still available for upland are in the path of a Snowmageddon.

Yesterday while we were on the 18-hour road trip to get to these familiar hunting grounds, the birds would have felt the low pressure system moving in, crammed their crops full of whatever forage they could find and joined forces for warmth and survival. Somewhere the pheasant are all bunched up in an impenetrable maze of cattails at the bottom of the deepest ravine in Kansas. Despite how hard we searched, we’re unable to locate the treasure trove.

But chasing forecasts, be they bird or weather, always proves futile. We are hunters and that’s what we intend to do. No forecast of bad bird numbers or inclement weather will change that. We take the conditions given and head afield because this love of pursuit holds back the madness that builds from the days when we aren’t trailing dogs.

The next stop will be Oklahoma where upland seasons continue for another couple weeks. There’s nothing left to do now but wait for the snowplows to catch up. It takes a full day for the road to Oklahoma to be cleared enough for safe travel. It gives the dogs a chance to recoup from a massive day running.

I’ve heard via upland friends that the Oklahoma quail population has made a slight comeback this year. Chasing Blue Racers has been a dream I’ve wanted to challenge the dogs against. This late in the year the Scaled Quail should live up to the reputation of little running bastards. And the tiny conservationist on the shoulder realizes this won’t be shooting birds in a barrel and allows my conscience rest.

Crossing into the Sooner State the weather warnings are already popping off. Winter has no intention of releasing its grip. As we arrive in at the area we intend to hunt, the flurries have already begun. And they don’t stop for three days. The only warming in the forecast is to begin on the day we’re scheduled to leave. Once again, there’s no choice; we hunt.

The truck cuts a lonely set of tracks in the fresh snow confirming I’m the only person crazy enough to challenge this weather. I don’t ever recall hunting in temperatures quite this frigid. The thermometer reads five degrees when we head into winds gusting to 15 MPH. Normally hunting into the wind would be preferred strategy to get on birds, but in these conditions it’s needles to the face that can only be tolerated in short doses. We’ve got a five day ticket to track down quail on public land in Oklahoma, but I have a sneaky suspicion that much like the late season pheasant of Kansas, these birds have gone to deep cover.

Rising from the snow are the plum thickets, scrub oak, sage brush and occasional juniper. At times the thickets so entangled they force us to circumvent instead of push through. On a normal hunt this would be great quail cover. But with snows at this depth I have little hope of finding birds. I know exactly where they’ve gone, because it’s where I would have gone if I were stuck outside in an overnight blizzard. The junipers offer the best cover and insulation from the biting winds. Coveys will have balled up for warmth under the thickest juniper and have no intent to leave until a thaw.

These won’t be long days of hunting — the bitter cold just saps energy too quickly. I carry hot water for the dogs but five minutes into the field and it’s a solid block. There’s a constant balancing act between walking too fast, sweating and freezing or trudging so slowly that lack of heat generated doesn’t stave off hypothermia. I keep a close eye on the dogs who act unphased by the frigid temps, but extended exposure could harm them as well. Within a couple hours my appendages are frozen to the point motor skills get clunky which could make shooting an interesting endeavor.

At the end of one of these frigid hikes I see Rio the setter lock down on a fence line of Juniper.  It brings an immediate flash of warmth and a quickening of heartbeat and stride. She’s unsure, I can see it in her face as she repositions to get a better angle. But the lab Wyatt has the experience that comes with age and has already run to the end of the fence and worked downwind to the backside where he pries Bobwhite from the snow. Two of the five birds in this group fly to my side of the fence. My thumb never touches the safety and I don’t even raise the gun. Shooting into a five bird covey this late in the year is bad form. Quail play a numbers game for survival; individual birds stand very little chance against the elements or predators. I watch as they sail to the nearest thick cover.

Wyatt wants to run down the singles but I call both dogs in for some praise and point them toward the vehicle. It’s 2 PM which is our self-imposed cutoff time for quail hunting. Birds need time to regroup before sunset. I hear the recall whistles on the short trek out and it carves a smile on my frozen face. There will be other birds, other opportunities and I prefer to remember this hunt for the covey I let fly than one I doomed.

The final day of our trip arrives accompanied with sun and rising temperatures. We make our way to the field for one last walk before starting the trip back across country.

There’s a marked change from the past three days of brutal cold. We begin to see songbirds back in flight. Rabbit tracks and other small game prints now accompany the lonely trails the dogs and I have been etching. Even quail have begun to work from beneath the junipers as their tracks confirm my suspicions.

We work to a large juniper surrounded by a dense plum brake and my instincts say birds are here. The howling winds we’ve grown accustomed to have been replaced by a piercing quiet. Wyatt begins to rummage at the margins of the thicket. As he pushes to the edge of the juniper the woosh of wings fill the void. More than 30 birds take flight and I lock on to the white throat patch of a male climbing my direction. I feel no pressure, no rush. The shot feels natural. Effortless. The Bob folds and disappears in the powder.

I give the dogs some extra time to soak in the scent of this final bird of the year. We’ve got a long drive ahead. And a longer off-season.

Last Bird of the Year

Kicking Off the 2013 Upland Season in Montana

When you are about to drive 1500 miles to hunt birds, the last thing you want to do is forget something. Rural Montana isn’t the easiest place to find gear that you left behind.

Because it’s the first hunt of the year, I try and pack over the course of a couple weeks. Sounds crazy, even to me, but it is a proven strategy. I’ll start making a pile in an unused room, garage or sometimes the dining room table. As the departure date draws nearer the pile grows in size. You never want to forget the big items: gun, shells, dogs. But it’s the little things that gnaw at you once you’re on the road: dog bowls, training collars, power cords, hunting boots, upland vest. Things you aren’t going to find in a General Store or gas station can be problematic when you’re in the middle of nowhere.

That pile of gear serves as a visual reminder of the upcoming trip and every now and then I’ll walk by it and a lightbulb will go off to add an item not yet included.

The bulk of Montana has managed to stay clear of the drought which has ravaged much of the west this summer. The other reason we decided to start the hunt in Montana this season is Sage Grouse. After years of studies the US Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to make a ruling on whether to add Sage Grouse to the endangered species list. If that happens, the ramifications for millions of acres of federal lands considered Sage Grouse habitat could be interesting to watch.

There is no doubt that Sage Grouse numbers have been on the decline. The debate currently revolves around why the populations have dropped. Many believe it is a symptom of habitat fragmentation. Being a bird hunter, not a biologist, I don’t have the answers. I can only hope that somebody smarter than myself can come up with a solution to stabilize these birds.

I’m in Montana to find Sage Grouse on what could be the final opportunity to chase this majestic bird and hopefully bring one to hand.

Rio, the Llewellin setter, is now in her terrible twos. The hope is that she skips right past terrible and picks up where she left off last season. And our ol’ faithful black lab hunting buddy Wyatt will be plodding along this trip too. Watching a pointer and a flusher working together has become one of my true joys of fall.

Here’s some clips from the start of the hunt. Check us out on Facebook or join the Lodge to see more photos and videos from afield.