“The lunar landscapes above and below the conifer forests that necklace western mountains, the “chukar hotels” (rock outcroppings used by birds), and the overwhelming panorama that negates any notion of supremacy man might harbor is witnessed only by a small percentage of hunters. Climbing defines hunting in the West. There was elation when, after a hard ascent into the clouds, I killed a bird.” – Guy de la Valdene, The Fragrance of Grass
Movement defines us, and it enables us to do certain activities like walking, climbing, and chukar hunting.
Last month, I drove my Dad to the Veteran’s Hospital in Boise for his one-year follow-up after he had colon cancer surgery a year ago. In between his CT scan in the morning and visit with his surgeon in the afternoon, we spent a lot of time in waiting rooms. If you’ve never been to the Boise VA before it’s a bustling place of activity and people everywhere. I observed the flow of military veterans, visitors, and staff going up and down the hallways. Some of the veterans, young and old, were being pushed around in wheelchairs, unable to walk. The ability to stand up to walk and then put one foot in front of the other is something that most people take for granted; I know that I do.
Last weekend, I went out chukar hunting with Bob and our nephew Finn. After a long climb to the top of the pine covered mountain, we split up. Bob went with Peat down one ridge, and I went with Finn and Angus in another direction. Not far from the top on a very steep descent, I slipped on some loose ground and rocks, and in my desperation and awkwardness not to fall on the ground, my left leg muscle in the front of my thigh felt like it was torn in half. The pain was excruciating and walking was difficult. I was more pissed than anything when I realized my day of hunting was over and our vehicle was 2,000 feet down a steep rocky ridge. I waved and signaled at Finn hunting below me to wait. Slowly I made my way to him pretending that nothing happened. I told him to go on and hunt with Angus and I’d make my way back and for him not to wait for me. I come from a background of years of bicycle racing where crashing hard, getting up, dusting yourself off, and keeping going was nothing new to me. You learn to have a high pain tolerance and it’s a price you pay when you want to do activities where you might get hurt.
Chukar hunting on steep talus slopes and sidehills could be dangerous, depending on where you hunt. I’ve fallen a few times and it’s usually not a big deal but this was the first time in ten years of hiking around in chukar country that I felt hurt. Chukar terrain in the West on public lands is almost always in some very remote locations and places where not a lot of other people hike or hunt. In fact, we usually try and find places with little pressure and away from everyone. It’s also not the best place to get injured, and if you couldn’t make it out on your own it might require either getting medical evacuated on a helicopter or crawling on your butt for three miles like Bob did a few years ago when he busted his ankle chukar hunting by himself with no cell phone coverage to call for help. It was actually Bob’s accident that day in 2011 that prompted me to start going hunting with him regularly in case he got hurt again. The other motivation for going with him was that I’d get to see Angus working and get some good off-season cross training.
My dad, 80 years old, walks slower now than he used to, partly because he never exercised a day in his life. My parents both came from a long line of non-exercisers and it just wasn’t in the cards for them. Growing up they both smoked cigarettes and I was a second-hand smoker from the day I was born until I was 18 years old. When I moved away from home a week after graduating from high school, it was only then that I realized how badly my clothes smelled of cigarette smoke. I hated my parents’ unhealthy lifestyle and decided that I didn’t want to be like them.
It took my dad and me a long time to make our way through the hallways in the VA hospital. I’m a fast walker, so I found myself getting impatient. I asked my dad if he wanted me to push him in a wheelchair, but — independent and living alone after my mom passed away 8 years ago — he refused the wheelchair because he wanted to walk. We ended up stopping many times walking down the hall, but he didn’t want the wheelchair, I think, because he was proudly wearing his 11th Airborne Division cap. Other veterans heading our direction recognized his army division on his cap and they would stop and chat and reminisce for a few minutes. My dad shared stories with total strangers about being stationed in Germany, stories that I’d never heard before. He never talked about his past when we were growing up. In fact, he didn’t talk much about anything. We continued out of the building and down the sidewalk. His cancer was gone, according to the results of his CT, and his surgeon told him he didn’t need to return to the VA for another year. My dad told me he was proud that he is now a cancer survivor, one of the few times he’s ever expressed his personal feelings to me.
Last season, my Garmin GPS watch recorded 153 total miles of hiking with 47,275 feet of elevation gain. Some days felt effortless; other days, I felt sluggish and out of shape. On the off days, I’d play games with myself to make it go faster and to take my mind off of the climb. I would take fifty steps before allowing myself to stop and catch my breath. Then I would repeat it again. Angus or Peat would be gliding across the golden grasses and through the sage effortlessly before stopping to point a covey of chukar above me. I’d crank up my pace a notch even though I knew that the dogs would hold the birds. If the adrenaline rush is there, you go with it whether you want to or not. You forget about the pain, and places in your body you didn’t know existed hurt and somehow you’re able to muster up super-human strength when a dog’s on point. I’m not trying to brag about my chukar hunting athletic prowess or say I’m a badass; I’m not. My nephew Porter is a mountaineering guide on Mt. Rainer in Washington State, taking clients to the top of the mountain day after day. He’s badass. If he ever goes chukar hunting with us again, which he did a couple years ago, Bob and I will probably just stay at the bottom with binoculars and watch him chukar hunt with our dogs.
Chukar hunters, like mountaineers, must come either from backgrounds of competitive athletes or the criminally insane. I come from the former and have learned that movement is medicine and it keeps me sane. I hope to be doing this until I’m 80 years old, like our neighbor Sam.
After resting my leg for a week we went out in the boat on Brownlee Reservoir yesterday to get to a place that looked good for hunting. From the boat to the top of the peak, we both climbed up 2 miles and but my legs felt like jello. Bob and I both got into a lot of birds and it was the most action I’ve seen so far this year. Angus out-hunted Peat and found and pointed all the coveys of chukar we saw. I even had a small victory today for myself: I had more elevation gain than Bob. On the way home in the pickup, I told Bob that today was hard and wondered how long we’ll be able to keep it up. Movement is medicine.