Welcome Back from the Real World

Fresh off seven days in Idaho's Frank Church wilderness hunting mule deer, re-entry after time in the high country feels kinda like my old college drinking days.  We'd spend a night at the bars racking up astronomical tabs, wake up hungover, and head for bloody Marys, beers, and breakfast at the local Denny's. After an hour or two of Dionysian bliss, the hangover would inevitably return, then slowly fade over the course of the day, only to be replaced by an itch to do it all over again. 

More wholesome in my old age, our time in the Church was spent drunk on howling wolves, rutting muleys, coveys of chukar, cougar tracks, eager Westslopes, spooky ruffed grouse, and 2.3 million acres of public land (and maybe just a little whiskey). It's big medicine up there to see such a wild, unmolested landscape free from the harms modern civilization wreaks on fragile ecological webs, to climb steep 1000 foot hillsides to gather shed antlers or see what the next drainage over holds. We all grew intoxicated on a world where the only responsibilities are to have your boots laced up before the sun rises and to let the joy of feeling your own movement crowd out the burn in your quads footstep after footstep after footstep.

The hangover hit when we landed back in Challis. Our phones chimed with 4G and WiFi, and emails, texts, and social media notifications flooded in.  We gorged ourselves with updates on football scores, election madness, hot showers, warm hotel rooms, and catching up with loved ones.  But the inevitable void of returning to civilization soon took hold after time spent in such a pure and powerful place.  Sure, it's wonderful to be back with my fiance, my dog, my bed, and back at a job I love.  But there's something out there that you just can't capture, can't bottle, can't hold onto amidst the racket of everyday life.  

Sometimes I find myself wondering what keeps us hunting, fishing, and foraging.  Why do we spend countless hours and untold dollars on gas, gear, and greasy spoon diners for the off chance we'll end up with a little meat for the freezer and a few good stories to tell around the next campfire?  What makes it all worth the cost, the strain on relationships, the time away from home?  Wouldn't it be easier to buy a few pounds of burger wrapped in plastic and use our vacation days to take up golf or distance running?

Sitting here in front of a glowing computer screen, I can still make out the sensation I felt in the Church, but it's dimmer now.  Foggy, like your reflection in the mirror after you get out of a hot shower.  It's that ephemeral feeling that keeps me coming back to hunting and fishing and pushing further and further out of my comfort zone. It's the chance to see this world isn't as backwards and upside down as it can sometimes appear through the lens of Facebook or the evening news.  It's participating in that world wholeheartedly, with sweat and strain and blood, not just as an observer or an outsider, but as part of the landscape, made of the same dirt and grass and stream.  In a world that feels increasingly loud, distracting, and impersonal, these quiet times in and amongst God's creations illuminate and give purpose to the mundane. That's why I hunt and why I fish.  

I guess now that I've answered my own great existential question, the only one remaining is, when do I get to go back?

Firsts, Part II

With Colorado's pheasant season opening this past Saturday, and Kyle's gentle back and forth with the Mouthful of Feathers lads over "Posers" vs. "Hardasses", I've been thinking quite a bit lately about what got me out in the field for the first time, and what keeps me going out there.  I don't come from a hunting family.  While I grew up in Colorado and spent plenty of time outside both with my family and on my own, my early outdoor exploits were more focused on skiing, rock climbing, and mountain biking.  

My first experience with hunting was after college and in a pretty unlikely place.  I was living in San Francisco and paying the rent by selling wine. The boyfriend of a close friend, Mark, mentioned one night over dinner that he was heading down to his family's central coast ranch to hunt morning dove and hopefully reduce the size of the wild pig population on the land.  We headed down for a long weekend and, after a few rounds of clays and some target shots with the rifles, we headed out for a evening dove hunt. Mark was nice enough to loan me his Benelli Super Black Eagle, while he mostly drank non-alcoholic beer (he just liked it better) and retrieved downed birds with a gusto to match even the finest of bird dogs.  After quickly both limiting out, we went back to the house where I cooked up the dove breasts with the limited seasonings in the rarely used kitchen.

The next morning at the literal asscrack of dawn, Mark shook me awake.  I told him groggily that the doves would still be out there in an hour, but he quickly replied that the doves may be, but the pair of wild pigs in the fields wouldn't be.  I sprang up, threw on my boots, grabbed a gun and quietly ran out into the cold of the morning.  I set up on the ridge of a small hill, my vision still blurry from sleep, and spotted the pair through the scope.  Mark told me to take the shot.  I centered the sight, squeezed the trigger, and saw one of the pigs take off.  I quickly cycled the bolt, clicked the safety on, and jumped up to see if I landed the shot.  It was only then that I noticed Mark wasn't wearing a shirt despite the barely above freezing temperature and had his shotgun on his shoulder.  I asked him what he planed to do with that from about 200 yards away to which he casually replied, "just in case I needed to run a hog down and finish him off."  I looked down and noted that he also decided to forgo putting on shoes.

Several years later, now in law school in Oregon, I found myself being drawn back towards hunting.  To be honest, the writings of Steven Rinella played a significant role in this-- his knack for not romanticizing the hunt and his unwavering respect for the animal, which was manifested in his in-kitchen exploits, instantly resonated with me.  Looking back on it now, I can't say why upland hunting was the pool I ultimately decided to dip my toe into, but 6 years ago I picked up a straggler of a German Shorthair puppy from a ranch in eastern Oregon, and five years ago Walden and I went out for our first hunt together.  

Walden's first and only glamour shot.

Kyle and I chose to hunt at the EE Wilson Wildlife Area for a state managed fee hunt.  Walden had spent that summer in full-time boarding and gun dog training while I was living in Alaska and Kyle and I were eager to get out and chase birds for the first time.  I'll never forget my first pheasant-- even if it was a pen-raised monstrosity.  Kyle had wandered off and Walden and I were working an open field and nearing a dense patch of trees that stretched far to our right.  From within the trees, an absurd number of shots rang out, and when the silence returned a lone rooster came careening out of the trees and landed no more than five yards in front of Walden and I.  Unsure of what to do given the softball he was lobbed, Walden half-assed a point and I went off to flush the bird again.  

That fat, pen-raised rooster was having none of it, but after several gentle nudges with my Xtra Tough boots, it finally flushed.  What happened next was nothing short of shameful.  The bird hadn't made it ten yards when I pulled both triggers on my $250 short-barrel side-by-side and sent feathers flying.  To be frank, I am surprised there was anything left of that bird, but luckily it was only 50% hamburger meat and thankfully it weighed about the same as a toddler to begin with.  

This bird had a bad day...right up until he got turned into really good food.

The shame didn't end there.  Unsure of what to do with the bird, Kyle and I cleaned it as best we could on the hood of my Subaru (sorry, ODFW, I didn't know any better at the time) then headed into Albany where I finished the job in the bathroom of a McDonald's while Kyle undoubtedly ate some chicken nuggets.  The absurdity of the experience only subsided that night when we got back to Eugene and I braised the pheasant and served it over a risotto made with local chanterelle mushrooms.  

 From that point on I was hooked, and each year since then Walden and I have spent as many days in the field together as possible.  It's not easy here in Colorado.  Chasing pheasant requires a long drive to the Eastern plains and cavorting with Bubbas who believe pheasant are best hunted by driving their trucks in the ditches of the county roads and shooting 'em from the bed of the truck (I shit you not, this method seems to be more popular than working the fields with a dog). Yet I still go every single possible weekend.  I sleep in the bed of my truck with the dog at the entry point to my favorite public accessible farm so I can ensure I'm the first one with boots on the ground in the field, I suffer through lunches at Dairy Queen because I know that's where the Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers eat and I can usually get them to tell me where the birds are at, and I drink Miller High Lifes in shitty bars on the off chance that the fella' bellied up at the bar next to me owns that mythical farm where all the roosters go.  I'm not sure if all this makes me a Poser or a Hardass, but quite frankly I don't give a shit.  

Last Saturday I took my little brother out for his first bird hunt.  With the season not yet open we went out to the ranch for some placed birds.  These hunts are really for the dog, but I was also excited to share the experience with my brother.  Fittingly, his first pheasant flushed and he was so quick to the trigger that he sent a cloud of feathers into the sky, the likes of which I haven't seen since my first bird.  That bird was toast, but fortunately we ended up with plenty of others, which I assure you will meet a tastier end than any bird hunted by any other hunter this season.  Well, except those that end up in the freezer of Mr. Hank Shaw-- that guy is a bad ass.

There's a lesson here somewhere...




Constant Companions

While bird hunting the mountain ranges that sandwich the Willamette Valley isn't always productive in a poultry sense, there's a seductive mistress that almost always salvages even the most embarrassing of upland efforts.  Last weekend for instance, an hour east of my lowland home I parked the truck on a promising piece of National Forest, populated with a few rare old growth trees amidst a sea of reprod and Vine Maple.  Fairly lost but with a general understanding of where I was, I geared up and let the dog out of the truck with a loose plan to walk logging roads and open understory in search of Ruffed Grouse.  

Not two minutes from the truck, the dog crept along a patch of Snowberry and leapt into a thicket of young Alders growing along the road.  Certain it was her usual pent-up energy and maybe a squirrel getting the best of her, I kept walking with little thought of birds.  Two steps later and the unmistakable flutter of grouse wings exploded from the understory and I shouldered my shotgun with mouth agape as two birds crossed left to right not ten yards ahead of me.  

As the birds flew off into the forest and my dog rebounded from the brush with a really dad? look on her face, I went to hang my head in shame but was halted by two blisteringly white spots  uphill from where I stood.  I rushed through the Alders and tore after the object of my attention and sure enough two big, beautiful mushrooms were poking through centuries of Doug Fir humus like pimples on a pizza-eating preteen.  

Whether it's Chantrelles and Matsutakes in the Fall, or Morels in the Spring, there's something undeniably magical about mushrooms.  Here today, gone tomorrow. One a delicacy, the other a death sentence. Mushrooms are shrouded in just enough secrecy and nunya* attitude that they make me feel like a little kid anytime I happen upon one.  An almost certain find this time of year, I give thanks to these mystical little morsels everytime I take the dog into the woods.  Whether a saving grace after a horrible shot, or icing on the cake after a limit of birds (something I've yet to experience), mushrooms add a wonderful layer to any day afield.**

*Nunya business

**Special thanks to Conrad Gowell and the Holloway Family for putting up with my constant badgering about whether or not my latest find will, in fact, kill me if I eat it.  And to Tiffany for trusting my judgement and eating what we bring home.  

White Chantrelles found their way into a glorious Hungarian mushroom soup thanks to my partner in crime.

White Chantrelles found their way into a glorious Hungarian mushroom soup thanks to my partner in crime.

First Matsutake find!  These weren't positively ID'd until a few days later, so they wound up in the trash, but that Matsutake scent is now burned into my brain forever.

First Matsutake find!  These weren't positively ID'd until a few days later, so they wound up in the trash, but that Matsutake scent is now burned into my brain forever.