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Two Mountains Offer Different Views

Colorado Mountains

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.

Lab with Grouse

Bird Hunter Near Peak

Resting Lab

Blue Grouse


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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.