“The road to Neah Bay is serpentine, a thin twist of wet double-yellow-lined gray. It flirts for twenty miles with the edge of cliffs that seem to stand at the mercy of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and its wide swath of soon-to-be Pacific Ocean. Mapmakers mark it as scenic when it would be better marked IMAX: waterfalls and cliffs and mud slides on the left; white-capped blue water on the right.” — Robert Sullivan, A Whale Hunt
There is only one way in and out of Neah Bay and I know the road like the back of my hand now and take every opportunity in between hairpin turns to look out to the water for gray whales, big waves, and cargo ships carrying colorful stacks of containers. Back home in Idaho when I’d drive the winding road into the canyon to go chukar hunting I knew every hairpin turn, too.
Our first major purchase besides our house just outside Neah Bay was a big portable generator because the locals told us that in the winter the power goes off a lot and sometimes for three days. We were also told to have supplies like food and water in your car in case you get stuck behind a landslide, and even to carry a chainsaw in case a big tree falls over the road. It rains 144 inches a year here, and life on the Peninsula is dictated by the tide charts and storms which come often. One second it’s pouring rain and then it’ll be sunny. We were also told it doesn’t start raining a lot until November but it rained 20 inches in October and an inch a day so far in November. After 40 years of living in Idaho where it rained 12 inches a year it’s been hard to get used to the wet climate.
This past summer in-between home improvement projects and the many trips to Home Depot and shopping two hours away we took the dogs out exploring and we’ve found some logging roads so the dogs can run off-leash. These roads start at sea level and head up into the coastal mountains forking, intertwining, with dead ends and roads you can see on maps but they don’t exist anymore or have gotten so overgrown you can’t find them. In this part of the Olympic Peninsula where tall Sitka spruce, red alders, and Douglas Firs grow thick, they have provided a nice canopy to get out of the rain; but sometimes the precip smothers me, so I’ll seek out the huge clearcuts in the forest where I find solace and familiarity like the wide open spaces back home in Idaho.
Bloom is almost 7 months old now. He’s turned into a beautiful dog with long legs and a show dog gait that when he runs reminds us of his great uncle Angus. He moved here with us when he was 8-weeks old and has only known the rain forest and the smell of ruffed grouse and the chukar wing that he chased around the backyard before pointing.
We’ve been out looking for birds but grouse hunting in the rain forest can be a tricky proposition we have found out. Besides being steep and wet, it’s so thick of sword ferns, brambles, and tangled deadfall that when the dogs do occasionally find a grouse, trying to get close enough and into shooting range before they fly is next to impossible. I thought many times about just shooting my shotgun into the air to see what kind of reaction Bloom would show.
We all carry a relationship to land and to the place that we call home, or in my case the place that I used to call home and that is or was part of my identity. It was what molded me. The pull back to the place where I felt connection through nature and place was too strong to resist, and like a salmon heading upstream from the Pacific and back to the place it was born, I felt like I had no choice but to go. I said goodbye to Bob as he headed off to school one day and loaded up the dogs in the pickup and headed East and to a place where I knew Peat would find birds for Bloom.
After eight hours of driving the landscape around The Dalles, Oregon changed from emerald green to brown, dry, and parched. A few hours after that when I finally got down into the canyon and to familiar places that had green shoots of bunchgrass growing back, cattle were now covering the hills and grazing it and eating all the grasses down to the nub that would — if they’d live — provide cover for the birds. I was sick to my stomach because of the overgrazing.
My excitement and happiness being back to familiar surroundings was taken over by my anxiety and fear of going hunting alone with no cell service and I worried about everything that could go possibly wrong in taking a puppy hunting chukar for the first time. Things that went through my mind were, what if Bloom gets lost, gets torn up by barbed wire, bitten by a rattlesnake or falls off a cliff or his pads get ripped up from the rough rocks. My worst fear was what is he’d be gun shy or he he’d be a jerk and blow through every one of Peat’s points.
It was mid-afternoon when we finally arrived to the place where we parked and I put the collars on the dogs and took my shotgun out of its case and headed out. It felt great to be out of the pickup after the long drive. Within ten minutes Peat found some birds and when I got up to him he was in his classic Peat point which is almost comical but beautiful at the same time. Bloom caught up to us and seemed oblivious of what Peat was doing. I wanted to yell at him, “Look at Peat, back him!” Bloom instead was intensely smelling the ground and running around, and then he ran right through the covey of Huns that were hunkered down near some sagebrush. I lost my cool and in my frustration didn’t get a shot off and instead watched the birds fly away. I watched Bloom watching the birds and it was almost like he realized that we weren’t out for just a hike but we were actually hunting. It dawned on me that Bloom only knows rain forest scents and had never smelled Huns before, in addition to all the other smells of the High Desert. On the next couple of coveys of chukar and that initial group of Huns that Peat would eventually relocate, Bloom honored him. I was so relieved. Bob assured me before I left that Bloom is going to be good. He was, and nothing bad happened.
After the hunt, I found a dispersed camping spot and I watched the sunset over the Wallowas. I could see in the distance the mountains and ridges that I’ve covered on foot, hundreds of miles over the past ten years with Bob, Angus, and Peat and know like the back of my hand just like the serpentine road back home in Neah Bay.