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On the Eve

Bird Hunting Colorado

I’ve been accused in the past of trying to make every bird hunt a “religious experience.” I laughed it off when first cast. But the truth is, that jab has stuck with me.

I’m unsure why.

But in the interest of being utilitarian and simple: I set up camp at the base of some mountains I intend to hunt tomorrow. I’ve had a few camper-temp drinks while I seer a thick-cut ribeye just long enough to be warmed through. The extra fat most would say adds flavor. The bird dogs will need to confirm this because I shared it with them. I felt like I needed to add something healthy to the meal so I forced myself to eat a half-can of lima beans. Those are healthy, right? And now I’ve poured another glass of wine while testing the new Camp Chef stove’s proficiency with peanut butter cookies. I think I can use the energy boost tomorrow.

Rain has moved in. There’s a voice in the recesses of my noggin that suggests I formulate a different plan for tomorrow’s hunt given the conditions. But the Shiraz and cookies overrule the recesses and I am left little concern.

The setter, Rio, is curled in the corner of a sleeping bag. She’s out, well aware that the dark hours are no concern for a bird dog. But Ida, the lab, just embarking on her second season refuses to allow more than a foot of space between us. Every move beyond the tap of this keyboard prompts inquisitive looks. Either she is jazzed to hunt or she’s hoping the steak scraps are not exhausted.

Many upland hunters await opening day ready to hit it hard at the crack of dawn. The long layoff of summer months builds a tension only satisfied by explosive coveys over fresh dogs and burnt powder. But the past few seasons it seems like the dogs and I have eased into the opening weeks, a metered approach. Those who know me well would likely raise eyebrows at that description since reserved isn’t often a term placed in the the same sentence. But, it has worked out better for us. It allows the dogs to get their legs under them. Allow this hunter to get his legs under him and prepare for a long, slow burn.

I no longer look forward to the season. Looking forward seems an affirmation of not living in the moment. I want to be a full-time bird hunter. How exactly to define that in the framework of seasons is still a riddle. I while away the off-months thinking of new places to hunt and new tactics to try. I work on shooting and fitness while averting eyes from calendars. I ignore the countdown posts of others, and silently detest photos and posts of previous seasons. It’s too much longing and want, not enough action. There’s a hopelessness to that mentality that I can no longer stomach.

Maybe I am making this upland pursuit more than it needs to be. Maybe I have become so consumed that I am no longer able to be simply objective. It’s just shooting birds, right?

But I can’t help searching for religion while following the dogs in the solitude of wild places. I want everyone to see that divinity and feel the perfect moments we share in the field. Otherwise, it IS just shooting birds.

Bird Dog in Colorado


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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.