Two Golden Eagles follow us all the way down the river, spinning and wheeling above us for miles. They are enormous, even from a distance. I dream about them on our second night, when I'm finally warm, and in my dream I'm close enough to see the feathers at the edges of their wings flicker. They are bigger than a person in the dream--bigger than the hill I'm standing on. They are enormous.
"I didn't even know Golden Eagles lived in Oregon," I tell my Uncle when he identifies them on our first day.
"Oh yeah," he says, watching them soar overhead. "Plenty." We're sitting side-by-side in the front of my dad's boat, the Queen Mary, our shoulders hunched against the cold coming off the water. The river, so familiar to me in the harsh glare of summer sun, is a little foreign now. The colors have changed--water that was once bright, rippling blue is now a dark, turquoise green, the banks that are usually dotted with other boats and the cheerful wave of willow trees are now stripped bare, revealing muted purple branches underneath. It is quiet. The swallows have migrated, the canyon wren fallen silent. We are alone, mostly--with just each other, a few geese, and the golden eagles for company.
My dad rows the raft while my uncle and I keep an eye out for ridge lines that look especially chukar-y. That is why we've come for this mid-winter float: to access the public land you can't get to any other way than the river to hunt chukar. Huns if we can find them, a goose if we get really lucky. Our first day is spectacular, sunny and warm, the night breaking clear and cold to reveal a star-dazzled sky. We stop once, early in the trip, because we see a covey break up the hill and land just a few feet past the bank--one of the benefits of coming by river--and shoot one bird. We stop again for the night along a wide beach that rippled out into deep canyons the farther we walked, hiking up and over draws that were so steep I sometimes pulled myself up by bunchgrass as we climbed them. We see a few coveys, we get a few shots off. Mostly we hear them chuckling at us from the cliff-y side of the canyon, those goddamned red-legged devils.
Our second day out is misty and cool, the sky falling down so close to us it's hard to see the tops of the ridge lines we'd walked the day before. We push off in the boat anyway, heading for a new spot. We find it a few hours down, after my legs are stiff to the bone from the cold and my knuckles have grown tight, at a bench below two swooping ridge lines with promising looking rocks. Along the bottom there's an elk trail so worn in it looks as if someone had been driving through, at the top we can see down so many bends in the river it stops looking like water at all and more like ribbon. As if some great hand reached down and tugged, pulling along a seam that bunched and unravelled in equal measure to create the topography we were standing at the top of. I keep forgetting that we're hunting, so enamored am I with the landscape, I have to remind myself to watch my dog and my feet as we cross the rocky terrain our prey is so fond of. A few more coveys here, more than the day before. We hunt 'til dark, and just as the light's leaving I spot what will become my souvenir of these days on the river: a massive, split veined antler sticking tines down in the hillside. I heft it up and carry it down over my shoulder, feeling like I'd just won the lottery.
When we leave the next morning, it's hard to go. It will likely be my last real hunt for the season, and I'm sorry to say good-bye to the quiet peace of the river as we head back to the city. It's those things, but more too. My uncle, who organized the trip, and who I wouldn't have done it without, says it best I think when we're standing around the fire on the first night. You come for this, he said, as our faces are bathed in firelight. To be near each other. To be near the water. To see the golden eagles. To make memories of adventure, tell stories around the campfire, to know that we're all in something together. And to belong to a place, to live from it and walk it and sleep on it, the way we never quite do in a city. For a few days, we are rich beyond measure, in the currency of river and ridge lines, and I never want to leave.