On the steep ascent the winds were blowing hard and the dogs were having a hard time pinpointing the birds and singles were busting wild from the grasses and the minute you blinked one would take off like a missile.
Halfway up the ridge, I stopped on top of a rocky outcropping to wait for Bob who was below me. That day my legs felt great and for once I was pushing the pace up the mountain and getting to the dogs on point before him. He made it up to me and we stood there a huge gust of wind almost blew me off my feet. He said, “I’m not standing next to you anymore,” as he looked over the edge of the rocks and down a steep drop off.
We continued climbing higher up the ridge. Peat located a covey of chukar above me, and he held the point religiously but just before I could get close enough, the birds –impatient — busted and flew downhill. All that elevation gain for nothing. I grumbled to myself about it. We continued up for a little longer before bailing out completely because of the very high winds at this point on the ridge. I’d remembered my very experienced bird hunting friend Sam telling me once that “The birds are at ground level and out of the wind; they’ll be there.” They were there but I wasn’t ready for them or couldn’t get to them. On the way down, Angus went on point in a rocky draw just above me. I waved my arm and got Bob’s attention and pointed in the direction of Angus because he couldn’t see him. A covey of chukar busted and flew downhill overhead in between us and we both shot at the exact same time and a single chukar fell to the earth. I thought it was my shot that hit it, and Bob thought he hit it. This was the first time this had happened to us. It didn’t really matter to me whose bird it was, it was a shared experience and I don’t keep track of my shooting average anyway.
We stopped on the downhill to take a break after a long steep descent from the ridge top. I was tired and needed to eat something. I sat down on the ground with my shotgun planted firmly between my knees pointing up at the sky and pulled out a piece of cheese and some crackers, sharing some of it with Peat. It had been a hard hunt, an exhausting one, and a frustrating one. I sat there and watched a herd of elk in the distance grazing.
After resting for a few minutes, Bob and I continued traversing across a steep slope where I found a narrow game trail and started following it. Stepping off the trail to walk around a rock on the trail my boot slipped on a patch of slick mud and before I knew what was happening I was tumbling down the mountain with my shotgun flying out of my hand and into the air. Everything happened so fast. Bob below me witnessed the whole thing and while I sat there on the ground stunned he yelled, “Are you okay?” Feeling my limbs, nothing was hurt. I felt lucky. I looked around for my shotgun and found it uphill laying on the ground with the barrel pointed right at me. The safety was still on, but this was the first time chukar hunting that I felt like something really bad might have happened.
Over the course of the season, our rule is not to hunt the same place twice, and increasingly as we’ve gotten older we find ourselves hiking more miles and gaining more elevation, and finding very remote places each time out but I’ve also managed to end up in some very questionable nooks and crannies with loose rocks and boulders. I have done my share of crawling on my hands and knees or on my butt to negotiate them. I wonder how long I can keep this up.
Why do we love doing a sport that could be potentially dangerous? Jack Kerouac wrote, “Pain or love or danger makes you real again.” I don’t know about this.
Lately, my mind keeps wandering back to the chukar hills and sitting on the hillside with Peat by my side on that cold and very windy December day watching those elk. It was a moment when my only complaint or worry about anything was that my ears were cold, the birds were busting wild, and I wasn’t sure what I’d make for dinner that night. These were innocent times.
It wasn’t until this past chukar season or lately that I’ve worried about my health or my mortality, but these last few days have been surreal around here. Our school has closed for who knows how long, sports canceled, jobs lost, life interrupted. As of today, we don’t have any cases of COVID-19 in our county but if things go as they have it’ll be inevitable. I’m anxious not knowing what the future might bring for the world, our country, our town, our school, our neighbors, or for us.
I appreciate you reading this post. You’re probably sick of reading about the virus and might be hoping this post would be an escape from it, but it has affected each and every one of us in different ways. I do know one thing for sure: the birds will still be there in the chukar hills this fall when things hopefully get back to some sense of normality.
Until then, I hope you and your family stay safe out there.