Friday, September 24, 2010

Grouse hunting in North Dakota: The immaculate point, the guilty dog and...

Hunting is a leap of faith in so many ways - a leap of faith that you can find your quarry, a leap of faith that you can get your quarry, a leap of faith that you can cook it in such a way that honors the life you took.

And as it turns out, one leap begets another. What else could compel a woman to fly 1,700 miles alone to spend three days hunting grouse with two men she knows only through the Internet? Read more...
I remember the first time I hunted alone with a man I'd never met before. I'd gotten drawn for a state-run women's pheasant hunt here in NorCal, but Boyfriend was off on Santa Rosa Island hunting elk and mule deer, so I was on my own. I went to the wildlife area hoping I'd find another woman who'd have a dog. Pheasant hunting without a dog is pretty lame.

When I got to the hunter check station, this guy was standing there.

"Do you have a dog?" he asked.

"Nope."

"I've got two dogs. I can hunt with you if you like."

"We can do that?"

It was a women's hunt, but it turned out men could hunt that day, provided they were with a woman who'd gotten drawn for the hunt. This guy knew that. He had faith that someone like me would come along. I had faith a dog would magically be made available to me. We didn't get anything in the bag that day, but we got along just fine.

When I told my mom about it later, she was flabbergasted that I'd go out with an armed stranger. Of course, the obvious answer to that is, "Mom, I had a gun too." But the real answer is that this is hunting, and I don't think I've ever met a hunter I couldn't relate to in some way - we are all privy to the secrets of a way of life that was once ubiquitous and now appears - to outsiders, anyway - to be an anachronism.

That was the card I held in my back pocket when I traveled to Finley, North Dakota, last weekend to hunt grouse. These guys could be total douchebags in ordinary life, but in the field we'd be fine. We were all hunters.

And in truth, I wasn't at all worried because not only were they fellow hunters; they were fellow bloggers, and between our blogs and email, I'd already engaged in the kinds of conversations with them that gave me faith they were kindred spirits.

"They" were Galen Geer of the Thinking Hunter and Chas Clifton of the Southern Rockies Nature Blog. And for three days, we hunted together, ate together, drank together and formed a jumble of crystalline memories, little ornaments that will hang in my mind forever.

Galen's German wirehair Cookie on the first (and only) immaculate point of the weekend. We were on a sunny hillside where there would almost certainly be grouse. Cookie had been acting really birdie, and then her body locked up in a flawless point. It was beautiful. Hope transformed to certainty as I moved in closer, waiting for the heart attack-inducing flush, waiting to get my first grouse ever, waiting for the chance to show that I'm becoming a good shot in this, my fourth year of hunting.

Well, the first bird flushed and flew low over Cookie (don't shoot the dog!). Another bird flushed between me and Galen (don't shoot your host in the face!). Finally one flew where I could make a clear shot. I pulled the trigger, saw a few feathers fly off its ass, then watched a bit mournfully as three birds sailed into the distance.

No worries, we eventually made it to their landing spot, and after I missed one of them, Chas stoned one, and Galen and/or I knocked down the other. Galen swears it was my shot. It was my first day hunting grouse, my first day hunting out of California, and I had my first bird in the bag.


Sheer awe. The prairie is a pretty awesome sight, but even more foreign to me was the way we were hunting: Drive around, look for good spots, hunt. If the crop has been harvested and the land hasn't been posted, you can hunt there. Pretty mind-blowing for a California girl, where hunting private land is either rare luck or a privilege you pay through the nose for.

At one point we were cruising a dirt road for good grouse spots when about a dozen doves lifted from a field of cut wheat just a few yards from the road. Galen hit the brakes. We watched as the birds flew to a line of trees. Chas and I quickly determined we'd walk on either side of the treeline, and before long I had two doves in the bag.

Pure spontaneity - what a gift.

Fisher.


I have many, many memories of Chas's Chessie, Fisher, but the one I love the most is the one I didn't see.

After bagging the doves on that treeline, we moved on. At one point, we all got out of the car and left the dogs inside. Galen was the first back to the car, and later he described what he found: Fisher had gotten into the front seat, and when Galen asked the dog what he was doing there, Fisher turned to Galen, his jaws went slack, and the dove just tumbled out of his mouth.

Damn, that is the photo I want to see in some of these highfalutin magazines about the glories of upland hunting. Screw all that nobility crap - let's talk about real life.

And so to Fisher, I'd like to dedicate this song. (And if you listen to it, I dare you to guess where I used to sing this...)


Galen and his wacky gun. Yes, you heard me, Galen: wacky.

Galen shoots a muzzle-loading shotgun. Waiting for him to reload was excellent empathy training for me. This is exactly how men must feel when they're waiting for their women to get out of the bathroom! Powder, wad, shot, caps, shampoo, condition, blow dry, curl, spray.

Meanwhile, he was giving me and Chas crap about all the shots we were missing. Whatever!

(OK, seriously, Galen, you knew I was going to have to raz you about that, if for no other reason than to mask my feelings of inferiority for shooting a black synthetic-stock autoloader while I'm out in the field with a couple lifelong sportsmen shooting their venerable and ever-so-picturesque double guns.)

Rosie. Galen has an enormous posse of dogs: Cookie, a rescue Bassett and two Jack Russell terriers, also known in some circles as terriorists. Rosie was one of the latter, a fearsome little bitch who was so upset that I was in Galen's office at one point that she sat in his chair, clamped onto its arms and tore them up savagely.

Yes, you gigantic two-legged piece of shit, I can do this to you, too!

That was a Kodak moment, but there I was without my camera.

The next night, when we had transitioned from hunting to dinner to drinks, I watched Rosie fussing and suddenly knew it was all a facade, and I told her so.

Galen encouraged me to give her a little nibble of the Tostitos left over from our taco dinner (did I mention that Galen's wife M is an awesome cook? Good lord!)

Rosie took the offering, and kept taking them all night, and before long she had stopped biting the toes of my boots and started looking at me with that gentility that is borne of a full stomach. The next morning, she was hanging out in my lap.

Total dog conquest! We were buddies now, and it turned out it would be Rosie, among all the dogs, that I was saddest to leave on Monday afternoon.

* * *

When I finally did leave, it was with two grouse (Chas gave me his from that first day), two doves only slightly worse for Fisher's mauling, and a bunch of stuff I bought at Scheel's in Fargo.

One way of looking at it would be that it was a pretty slim bag for more than 3,000 miles of travel and the exorbitant $125 Delta charged me for checking the ice chest, it being my third bag on the trip home.

The other way of looking at it was that I left with some really fun memories, the deep imprints of a new way of hunting for me, and quite possibly some new friends for life. Not just Rosie - Chas and Galen, too.

Now the only question is when can I get them to California?

Boyfriend can cook them the wild-game dinner of their dreams, we can take them duck hunting in a place where they can bag rice-fed fatties without freezing to death, and ... Hey, Phillip, I think we need to take these men hog hunting!

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

14 comments:

Tovar said...

Thanks for the laughs, Holly. Sounds like you had quite an adventure!

Walter Bruning said...

Holly

I envy you! I miss the grouse, ruffed and sharptails, the most. Next you have to talk a couple of good old boy Minnesotans into inviting you back there for hand-to-gun contests with ruffed grouse in their native jungles. Now that is something. But, still, nothing like the wide open prairie grasslands. I really enjoyed this piece and if it helps, I have gone just as far and gotten less, but that's not what it's about, as you know. Walter

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Maybe it's because I blog, too, but I think the best part of this story is that you went all the way to North Dakota to shoot grouse with two guys you knew only virtually. Who knew the Internet would be facilitating those kinds of connections?

Marian Love Phillips said...

I enjoyed reading about your new adventure of grouse hunting in ND and meeting two fellow cyberspace guys...I know the feeling...when my husband and I drove to the Christmas Place in MS Delta for the first time we bonded right there on the spot (Rex's Deer Camp Blog). That was in May 2007 and we are still the best of friends and hunt there. The memories will never fade away and I'm so happy that you got this opportunity to go. By the way, I love your "New" look! Hugs, Marian :)

outfitterlife said...

Holly,
What a great story to read this morning! It is amazing the connection that hunters have. I never realized how many hunters are out there or how generous many of them are. Thanks to the blogs and networking sites, I have met and made many new friends that I never would have had the opportunity to know otherwise. Thank you for sharing your story with us!
Mia

Phillip said...

Great tale, Holly!

The whole idea of meeting up with "strangers" you've only known virtually has always been kind of weird to people. But you're right, I think... hunters (and to some extent, fishermen) share a kind of bond that transcends that and creates some trust. The outdoors is a BIG common ground.

I've met Galen and enjoyed a long conversation with him at SHOT a couple years back. Haven't really met or talked with Chas in person or online, but I take your word. They'd be welcome to come out and try to scare some pigs with us any old time.

Chas S. Clifton said...

It was a good trip, Holly. Glad you could make it.

I think Fisher should get his own blog. How about "horriddog.blogspot.com"?

Casey said...

Awesome post! You'll have to try getting to NoDak during the waterfowl season some year. The flights are amazing. But you may end up freezing your a** off some mornings.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I think all of us hunters share a bond - whether we have met before or not. It actually happened to me in the McDonald's drive thru today, believe it or not.

It sounds like a great time, and congrats on the two birds.

kmurray said...

What a great tale of adventure and fun had by one and all.

As for the song, I'm not even going to venture a guess but rest assured that I will be subscribing to the comments so that I can hopefully find out the answer. I'm just dyin' to know! lol!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Tovar, it was great fun, and a pleasure to hunt with people from the blog community. The bond we have is not an electronic illusion.

Walter, I would've loved to come home with a possession limit, but I really don't care that I didn't. We were hunting wild birds, and coming home with anything was a blessing. Even if I'd come home with nothing, I came home with new friendships, which is priceless.

Tamar, it's the most amazing thing. I've now hunted with probably a dozen people I've met through the blog, with no regrets. In fact, I count many of them among my best friends, people love to I spend time with even when the guns are all locked up.

Marian, if I could just get out there for a decent amount of time, I'd love to join you and Rex there and see what all this whitetail fuss is about! And thanks re the makeover. After hearing Hank say 10 million times how he hates light type on black background, I finally decided to change it up. Don't know if you can tell, but most of the colors are from the header photo.

Mia, thanks! There was even more to tell, but every once in a while I try to write a story that's not excruciatingly long.

Phillip: Let's do it!

Chas: I would love to read what Fisher has to say about his life, though I think he'd argue for "heyIamjustahappydog.blogspot.com." Though I'd have to counsel him against such a long URL.

Casey: When we were planning this trip, we talked about ducks, but I expressed concern about the freezing-my-butt-off part. I'm a soft California girl. I think duck season started today where Galen is, but I'd already committed to this women's hunting camp here in NorCal, so last weekend was my big opportunity.

Simply: McDonalds drive-thru? Do tell!

Kari: It may take a long time for the answer to come out, because I'm pretty sure none of the people who know the answer (besides Hank) read this blog. But first clue: It was in Richmond, Virginia.

Richard Mellott said...

Holly,
sounds like a lot of fun, and you got to meet cyberkin, which is something that is a lot less risky than it sounds. Like you said, you've corresponded, and read their blogs for a while, so you really know who they are, and the hunt just confirmed it.
I met my wife that way, back in '99, when it was quite avante garde, and somewhat riskier. She was in the Philippines, and I was in Bakersfield...I ended up traveling over there after 4 months of corresponding, exchanging pictures, music, poetry, and phone calls. Went diving at a resort, and hit it off. The outdoors seems to be the great equalizer, and a great place to meet and get to know your fellow human beans.
One day we'll go duck hunting, I'm sure. Or hog hunting. I'm going up to Lake Sonoma in November...wanna go?

Johnmet said...

Hi Holly,
That was the best story I have read yet n your blog, really funny and a great adventure close to my home sate of MN.
Good luck with the ducks,
JHM

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks, Johnmet! It was just real life. To a certain extent, interesting things happen to me because I like an interesting life. But honestly, much of it is in how you look at what happens around you. I'm pretty sure there's not a hunter out there who couldn't relate to this post.

And ah, ducks. I'm vibrating with excitement. I heard it was a lackluster opening in your region - I hope things look up for you before they chill down :-)