He was barely a dot below me, a tiny smudge of movement on the ridge across from us, so small and hidden that it took all my concentration to pick Ryan out. His dogs were like fleas from there, running so frenetically and steadily, covering so much ground, they almost appeared to be jumping from place to place. There they were, sniffing ahead on the trail, then suddenly they’d be hip-deep in sagebrush, then another blink and they were causing through a rocky patch on the ridge. They’d just busted a covey of chukar, we watched them fly for the river below us, scattering as they went. I swear I watched them all the way down but still wasn’t quite sure where they landed, my eyes still green to this kind of bird watching. But my dad thought he saw, and the dogs knew, and so that was where Ryan was going. We were standing watching, waiting for my Uncle to crest the ridge above us after checking out a different spot from where we came up. And that was when we saw the eagle.
On the drive over we’d seen a tree full of them, one big white bald eagle sitting close to the river, surrounded by a flock of immature scrubby brown ones. But this one was different, making big lazy loops between the river and our group. He would end up following us for awhile, maybe once going so far as to steal one of the chukars we’d shot before the dogs could get there. I think I will always remember how it looked, seeing another predator up there. To know that we were competing with that big bird for food, we were both out there trying to survive. I don’t know if I have words to tell you how much it was all connected right then: the eagle, the chukar, the people, the dogs, the river, the sky.
It was only an hour or two in that we saw the eagle, and we had lots of daylight left. We’d come to Baker so that I could test my mettle against the tough country Hells Canyon had to offer and my uncle’s best friend, Ryan, knew the land better than almost anyone. The John Day River canyon wasn’t exactly easy walking, but these were big ridges. Steep and long grades, stretching up to meet the sky. It wasn’t for the faint of heart. This was the big time. But we’d had fun so far that day, scrambling our way up the long incline, and though there weren’t as many birds as we had expected, we were still glad to be out there. How could you not be? The air was crackling with cold, the sky was a patchwork quilt of robin’s egg blue and the soft down of clouds, the river glittered below us like so much glass. Every few minutes I had to stop and catch my breath at the way rippling canyons of the Idaho side across from us, looking for all the world like gingerbread cake with a dusting of powdered sugar on top. It was glorious. The big time, that day, felt almost easy.
Later that night, while we were playing pool at a bar, my uncle said that it was the hardest thing to describe to non-hunters: how much you love the animals you kill, how much you love the pursuit. He’s right, it is. But I will keep trying. I will keep trying to tell you exactly how reverent it was to stand outside on that kind of ridgeline and hear those chukars chuckling and how magnificent it is to watch your dog retrieve a bird and how content you feel sitting back in the warmth of a truck cab and how when you close your eyes at night all you see is an eagle circling. How good it all is. That’s what I’ll try to tell you.