When I think about bird hunting, I always think of the broad, rocky ridge lines endemic to the landscape east of the Valley. I think about my ankles aching from sidehilling, I think of the way the wind bites with icy teeth, I think about the way the sun glints turquoise off the river down below if we catch it just right. I think the word steep.
But really, that's only chukar hunting. While it's true that chukar hunting is the kind of hunting I started on, and what really resonates in my bones, it's not the kind of hunting we do for at least the first two months of the season. Starting in mid-September, hunters are allowed on two pieces of public land just outside the city--one an island, surrounded by water, the other an old base that's been returned to the dominion of Mother Nature, and is now grown over and wild with vegetation. They're both magnificent places, in many ways, and it's only the fault of my memory and imagination that I tend leave them out of my bird hunting definition.
Mornings at either of these places start early, while night still clings to everything and sleep sits close to the mind. I like to watch the city wake up, watch the day go watercolor as the black becomes gray, the gray becomes pink, the pink becomes blue. We shoot at first light, about a half hour before dawn. I track our progress towards the solstice by these mornings out, watching first light inch later and later as the days shorten and night begins to last ever longer. It's a funny feeling, waiting for the gray to lighten to just the right shade before we head off into the field. It's apprehension and excitement, adrenaline in the veins chasing away the last bits of tiredness.
I like to start on the southern side of the island, across the little foot bridge Cedar used to be scared of. I like those fields the best--they're patchworked with corn squares and millet--because they're not so high that they drag my feet down and get tangled around the Verona. Hunting the valley is flat, but it's still not easy, not really. The wet is inescapable, even when it's not raining. It is hard to describe how saturated our land can become, how deeply wet everything gets in the winter. It sinks into your bones if you let it, if you stay out too long. Dry cold hurts the outside--chaps your face and hurts your hands, burns the tip of your nose--but wet cold is insidious, slipping in between your layers so you can't shake the feeling anywhere.
This year I hunted with my Dad, my Uncle, my brother, a few family friends. I hunted by myself, too. I always hunt with Cedar. We had good mornings, where the dogs find birds right away and stiffen into hard points, where we all shoot straight and true, and where we all get out before the rain hits. We also had mornings where we didn't see anything, or where the weather was awful, or where we couldn't hit the broad side of a barn even when we were trying. I've been spending a lot of time lately with new people, my classmates--I keep explaining that there's a reason it's called hunting and not just straight slaughter. Some days, everything works exactly right. Some days, they just don't.
But everyday, no matter what, tends to be worth it. Of course there are times when I spend the last hour counting down the minutes until we can get back to the truck. There are times when I'm wet and cold, and we haven't seen anything for hours, and my dog keeps running away from me. But then I'll see a particularly beautiful slant of light through the trees, or I'll hear the water of the Columbia laughing on the breeze, or a flock of Sandhill Cranes will take off and screech overhead. I'll remember that it's always a choice, to be there, and one I'm glad to make.
There's never been a day, in any kind of bird hunting--be it in the dry ridge lines over the John Day or in the wet, dense tangle of the Willamette Valley--that I've regretted. I'm able to be a part of the circle. I choose a pursuit that feeds my body and my soul.