Do you believe in miracles? –Al Michaels, 1980
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy
–Philip Larkin, from “Coming”
The animals are endlessly regenerated, and yet they are finite. I am more powerful than the animal because I kill and eat it. The animal is more powerful than I because it can elude me and cause me to starve. The animal is my benefactor and friend. The animal is my victim and adversary. The animal is different from me, and yet it is like me, as much like me as its ancestors were in the earliest time of the world.
–from Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships, by Robert Brightman
Hunting can be confusing. Not hunting for two seasons, really, gives you even more time to get even more confused. Yesterday, that confusion shifted planes, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it. Leslie and I have talked a lot about it, and we came to the same conclusion: it was a miracle, and Angus had a lot to do with it.
We’ve been camped at one of our favorite spots in Hells Canyon for three days. It’s where we scattered Angus’s ashes on our last day as Idahoans. It’s warm, it’s too early for the birds to be here; they’re down near water. But we wanted to “hunt” here anyway, just because. The dirt is talcum. There’s nothing green anywhere, and the two creeks in the area are scant trickles with numerous undulating ridges between them. The first day we hunted nearby, and the only sounds to accompany the hike were our boots crunching old arrowleaf balsam root and other dried-to-hell ground cover. The second day we went to another favorite spot from our past, partly out of curiosity to see what it looked like after a massive fire that had torched the area two years ago. While the burn was hard to see, the landscape had changed entirely: instead of the sagebrush and bitterbrush hillsides and flats — perfect habitat for chukar and Huns — the entire drainage was now a vast sea of dense dried western wheatgrass 4- to 5-feet tall and next to impossible to walk through. Scarce of partridge. Still, we were out with the dogs.
The third day, yesterday, we went early because of the heat. Another favorite spot, a ridge we call “The Ridge.” We had low expectations but wanted to do more reminiscing, I guess. Leslie, who’s not fond of grouse hunting, said, “Well at least we should get into some grouse on the north-facing timbered slopes.” We saw one. The dogs, as usual, worked their butts off, but Peat was feeling the heat and had his range thirst-shortened. At one point, when we both realized we’d forgotten to bring any food and it was really heating up, we nearly turned around. We decided to circle one more knob before heading back. As we came near a flat at the apex of the last circle, our Garmins told us Peat was pointing about 150 yards away. I said, “He’s probably lying down in the sage shade.” But then I added, “Never doubt your dog.” As we inched closer to Peat, still unable to see him, he remained on point, while Bloom was still cruising somewhere. As I got to about 30 yards from Peat, still hidden in the sage, Bloom suddenly stopped and pointed. Just then I saw two creatures on the ground in the open near the sage. They were big, and for a moment my brain didn’t know what to do with them. A second later my brain told me they were the first chukar I’d seen in nearly two years. And in that same moment they flew. I traced one of the two birds with my barrel as it ascended and I fired and watched it drop. Then I heard Leslie yell, “I got one!” Waves of chukar kept launching and I just watched. There must have been at least 60 birds. I understood nothing but the ballet of dogs and birds and started to be happy. For me, this is the best moment of hunting and why I like it. Jouissance.
None of those birds should have been there. They shouldn’t have been anywhere near. Leslie fired one shell I had hand-loaded two years ago with steel #6 shot buffered with Angus’s ashes. His soul knew we were here, and he put those birds there for us, even though every member of the super-covey probably thought, “What the hell are we doing here?” And, consistent with Angus’s deadpan humor, he knew we’d need at least 50 birds for a chance at two. Dogs are sanguine like that.