Sitting here in camp staring at these two peaks in Arapaho National Forest. In the last week the dogs and I have visited both. It seems somewhat surreal, not that there is anything particularly outrageous about either. They aren’t the tallest or most dangerous. But the scale is so incredibly different from this low vantage with lungs no longer on fire.
Though significantly taller, the mountain on the left has a defined trail to the summit. The one on the right, no trail and the final mile offers extremely vertical climbing, often in excess of 35 degrees over deadfall until above the timber line.
Lots of people climb the mountain on the left, likely because it’s more recognizable, a bit more majestic, a known quantity with assurances many have accomplished the feat prior based on the well-worn path to the top. There’s also a good chance that there will be others on the mountain while you climb and very little chance to get lost. Because of the crowds, it’s likely not the best mountain to find birds. But there is a satisfaction to hunting amongst hikers and people less familiar with game birds and the opportunities that National Forests offer. From what I gather conversing with many on our descent, most have never seen an upland hunter, much less talked to one.
On a similar descent on a mountain not far from here, the dogs and I closed the distance on a group of women who eventually let us pass at Rio the setter’s insistence. As I always do when passing others on trails, I broke open the shotgun and placed it over my shoulder. I find this to be the least threatening configuration; keep in mind that many of these folks are not accustomed to firearms whatsoever.
When I got even to these ladies one asked what I was hunting, I slowed my stride, responded “birds” and added a couple quick details about Blue Grouse and Ptarmigan. Obviously this didn’t exactly sit well with another who quipped, “Your gun is huge. Is there anything left when you shoot one”? On that note, I slowed even further, removed a shell from this “huge” 20 gauge and explained the basic makeup of a shotgun shell. I’m not sure I won them over, though I heard them continue to converse as I stretched legs and lead down the trail. I was tired from a long hike and probably dehydrated. I wish I would have spent more time talking about the dogs, shooting birds on the wing, eating everything we shoot, offer to teach them to shoot or give them a tail feather or two – now added to my bird vest for future encounters.
The right hand mountain better represents the way we have primarily approached these last few seasons; solitary, no path, a physical challenge with a level of peril. We have been pushing our boundaries in search of more and more extreme upland tests. I haven’t put much thought behind it; just go bigger, farther, higher. For some time I thought it was just to test myself and the dogs. But something else has been driving this. And it finally hit me.
When things come easy they are rarely valued. Easily accomplished, easily forgotten.
I treasure these birds and these moments with dogs so much that I’ve developed an aversion to the notion of lack of effort. I keep going bigger because I have convinced myself that others will see that exertion and somehow appraise this pursuit, these birds with the value I place on them.
And I’m not sure that is working. I’m not certain it’s even possible. I don’t know if I can go big enough, long enough, beat myself up enough to convince the public of the esteem and worth of upland birds.
Which brings me back to these two mountains.
As much as I like sitting at the top of the solitary mountain on the right, worn out with worn out dogs, that effort may only serve to harden my own views of those who cheapen this upland pursuit. While the majority of people have no frame of reference to even begin to relate.
Talking to all these people on the way down the well-travelled mountain on the left feels like more progress in a 3,000’ descent than three years of struggling uphill alone trying to demonstrate a point that may be impossible to prove.
I round a corner near the end of this trail and come face-to-face with a group of six hikers. When the bird dogs are this tired they make great ambassadors. Their questions make me smile, especially when one of the hikers asks, “Are pheasant in season?” I explain that pheasant wouldn’t normally be an alpine species. He responds, “That’s really weird because there were a bunch of them right along the trail in the next switchback”. I may have laughed a little and then describe the Dusky Grouse whose identity was confirmed. The dogs and I had just hiked 10-miles to high elevation without seeing a single game bird.
I wish these adventurers well and give some encouraging words for the climb to come. The dogs and I cut onto the next switchback as I snap the shotgun closed. Ida’s tail begins to helicopter and I know we are tracking that elusive species, the Alpine Ringneck. But being on the trail of a new theory for upland outreach may be bigger than the coming flushes.
It’s my hunting buddy’s first foray into the realm of the Ruffed Grouse. We’ve hunted a few days now, but this is the first overcast day in an area previously unexplored. It is remote, the far reaches of the king’s territory. What my friend doesn’t know is my cell phone is dead in my pocket. Even if it were live, I have no service. His texts are spinning in digital purgatory as he turns laps at the edge of this hellish bog we elected to enter.
I did hear his shot though. I thought, “that lucky bastard took the right route back to the trucks and knocked down a bird.” I assume all single shots to cut feathers, the second barrel is reserved for us less skilled who prefer burning powder to accuracy.
At the time of the shot I was actually directionally challenged as well. The setter had managed to point a woodcock that offered no shot. But it lit her fire and she had no intention of turning towards the exit now. Ida, the lab pup, thought all this might be the best thing she’s ever done in her young life: distant shots, flushing birds, swamps with knee high mud holes.
For me lost has become more of an equation to solve and respect than something to fear. I’ve obviously not done a great job relaying lessons I’ve learned over the years to my disoriented friend. Even though all my technology has failed me, which technology has a nasty habit of doing, and I’ve spun a half-dozen loops around this marsh, I recall the map I looked at just prior to departure. The two-track we entered on runs a fairly straight north-south direction. We walked west into this mess. All I need to do is point toward the east and I will hit that road if I can stay on a heading.
Eventually I convince the dogs there are better places to hunt and we make it back to the truck. We all regroup and have a laugh about how far south that initial plan quickly went. About an hour later after the phone has recharged and we’ve returned to the comforting blanket of cell service, I get those texts.
Many versions of upland hunting cross prairies, mountains and high deserts where landmarks can be identified or departure points are never far beyond a line of sight. But Ruffed Grouse will lead you into the darkness, impenetrable thickets that make navigating straight lines virtually impossible. Picking distinct landmarks becomes challenging when they are swallowed by the forest mere paces behind. On overcast days when the sun can offer no assistance, the grouse woods can quickly become a labyrinth.
It’s taken a number of years to get accustomed to trekking previously unexplored areas. I’ve been lost. Lots. I’ve come to look at the word with less permanence than I once did. It’s not easy to find an area where if you walk far enough that you won’t eventually stumble upon something recognizable, man-made, another human. The trick is to do it before running out of energy, water and good sense.
Coverts are talked about as specific places, ones you can actually walk to, find, maybe even find your way out. It’s a word that always sounds too small to me. I can’t think of a single area where I can walk directly and know there will be a grouse. The fact these areas even exist is absolutely foreign to how I hunt the woods. Maybe that’s simply because I’ve not wandered far enough to find my own coverts or spent enough time in the greasy spoon to befriend enough Old-timers. Maybe I don’t even know what a real covert is; I just kick into a few birds exploring areas outside their clandestine drumming grounds.
These Old-timers (that’s anyone older than you) often talk of cherished coverts; the areas they know to hold birds year-over-year for generations. The loss of coverts to development or land purchase I imagine lamented over coffee in local diners by gentlemen now too hobbled to have visited the covert in years. But it’s still lost, a few years earlier than when it would have been taken to the grave. I wonder if the Old-timers discovered these areas initially or if it was handed down as some priceless inheritance.
I am convinced that a covert can only have one true owner. If a forest feels as though it’s been previously explored then it doesn’t feel right for finding a new grouse nirvana. That’s how the search for coverts often leads us deeper and farther from beaten paths, and closer to being lost.
After a morning of turning circles in a young forest too big to be circled, I drove down to the local rocky beach to sit and soak in salty air and allow the dogs to recover from hours of stump jumping. A minivan pulled into the adjacent space and I looked over to the gaze of a rather hefty Griffon in the back seat, tongue out. I spend some time trying to translate any meaning in her stare, hoping she might share some secret of the local birds that will solve the current riddle. Eventually I notice her human counterparts, an older couple in the front seats with windows down enjoying the same salt air.
Bird dog people are my people. These folks don’t have the outward appearance of hunters, but they do have a dog along for the ride that looks game. Bird dog people who don’t hunt with their dogs is another riddle I am always interested in tackling, so I strike up a conversation with this elderly couple. Charlie and his wife seem surprised of my knowledge of their pointing breed. We talk of the unseasonably warm weather and the prevalence of Leaf Peepers before getting around to my business in the area. It turns out that Charlie does hunt with this wirehair. He interrogates me enough to realize I am rarely a good shot and root often for the birds. He decides that he’d like to show me some of his hunting spots if I’m interested.
The next morning is set to bring cooler weather and I can think of nothing better than following an Old-timer to some of his partridge haunts. I jot down Charlie’s number and ask when he’d like to embark. “Why don’t you call me in the morning and we’ll meet at the coffee shop. We can have a coffee and talk things over.” Invites like this are rare and seem particularly fragile. So I gingerly ask Charlie what time he’ll be up and around because I’m just as likely to call at 4 a.m. if given an opportunity to hunt a new place. “Sometimes I’m up at five, then other days I don’t get up until after seven.” We agree that if I call around 7:30 that should work and we’ll meet for coffee, then head out to find some birds. I thank them, smile and wave as they pull away from the beach.
The next morning I’m up early to get the dogs fed, vehicle reorganized, waters filled and then head to the specified coffee shop. I pull into the parking lot at 7:25 and give Charlie a call. It goes straight to voicemail.
“Morning Charlie, just wanted to let you know I’m at the coffee shop, looking forward to chasing birds. I’ll wait here for your call or see you when you arrive.”
I waited for three hours.
I speculate the remainder of the day how the invite went sideways as I follow the dogs through cascades of leaves. I could have dialed Charlie again. But his coverts are his to will and whatever reason changed his mind is something I can only respect. Maybe he just overslept. And maybe these coverts are one day closer to being lost.
Quick tips on how to avoid the abyss:
When jumping into a new area, regardless of terrain, I like to mark the time of departure. I have a general idea of the path I want to take though it can be affected by the dogs’ will. I normally think of this path roughly as a triangle which helps prevent hunting the same ground twice. I pay attention to how much time I spend on each leg of the triangle. The second leg, no matter the length, running what I believe to be parallel to the starting point. Then I know when I make the turn back towards the truck on the final leg that I should spend close to the same time as the first leg of the triangle to put me near the departure point. Often I get my angles by the position of the sun — being in the northern hemisphere, the sun is always in the southern sky somewhere between southeast and southwest depending on the time of day. If overcast I can often use a prevailing wind direction or I can get a quick heading from a compass.
Your smartphone’s GPS chip should work even when you don’t have cell signal. A little known fact is you can still drop a pin and mark you location in the standard mapping programs even when the map won’t download to your phone. What good is this when you can’t see the map? You are still able to determine your location and approximate distance in relation to that dropped pin even without a cell signal. The blank grid of death actually isn’t as useless as it may seem, so marking a waypoint prior to departure is always sound strategy.
Even better, onX Hunt has done a great job upgrading their App in recent years. You now have the ability to download maps for off-grid use — 5, 10 and 150 mile sections — no cell service required. Depending on what layers you have active onX Hunt can show you public lands, designated hunting lands, state lands, even the names of individual private land owners. It’s an invaluable resource for gaining hunting permission or regaining your position. If you’re in an area where cell signal is sparse, put your phone in airplane mode so the onX App doesn’t struggle with minimal signal trying to download the real-time map. Airplane mode is also a great way to reserve phone battery instead of your phone constantly working to attain signal.
And when I’m in serious backcountry when the threat of injury or mishap is real, I carry my SPOT GEN3. This allows me to send messages via satellite to friends and family relaying my location. And in the event that I’m unable to extract myself and the dogs, I can activate the emergency beacon, hunker down and wait for reinforcements to arrive.
Don’t’ be afraid of unknown places. Just practice your orienteering and be prepared. And though technology is great, always have a backup. A fun way to test your progress when hunting with friends in remote places, everyone pick the direction they believe to be the trucks, then pull up your GPS, phones or mapping program and see who’s closest to correct. The loser buys breakfast.
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.