On the way over, every lull in the conversation between my Uncle, Michael and myself is an opportunity for a turkey hunting pearl to be dropped. This is good--as an amateur bird hunter, I need all the help I can get, especially as I've never gone after the dinosaur bird themselves. He says things like, "You can't move at all, you have to stay perfectly still, and "they can't see any skin, they hate seeing skin. Nothing stands out like a pale fleshy human!" I'm making mental notes like you wouldn't believe. Getting out of the city takes some time, but we're rewarded with a spectacular drive through the Gorge—I get lulled into a borderline sleepy reverie as I try and memorize everything by the dusky glow of the golden hour and the familiarity of the rock, and the voices, around me. Until the white wolf comes up. My Uncle says my Dad claims he saw it—about 500 yards out maybe, with two brown pups. The white wolf was first spotted by my Uncle David about a year ago, who said he saw it moving low through the trees on the north side of the ranch. There's some speculation about what it could actually be. An albino coyote is a popular guess, or maybe just a real light colored one. We're not sure. Uncle Jason calls Uncle Ollie to consult. There are wolves out there he reports back, and he told me awhile ago—or he told my Dad and he told me—that the wolves are coming. They spotted one on Mt. Hood not too long ago. It's possible. It may be because Uncle Ollie has a particularly Chief-like presence, an aura of wisdom and the gravity of age, but everyone bows down to his opinions. He says the wolves are coming—so there must be one, or at least it seems that way. In Biggs we stop for gas and supplies. The supplies are Coors and a Mike's "Harder" Margarita—this is for me. Uncle Jay tells me he always brings my dad something really bad whenever he's on the way over, giving the examples of a beer called Tilt and something called Black Ice, but this time it's my turn. The canned margarita from the gas station poses some significant problems for me—the least of which is how a margarita, typically made with tequila, could be canned, stored and sold at a gas station—but I take the sugary burn in a stride. Or at least I do for about a third of it. Can you blame me? Really though. Can you blame me.
When we pull into the ranch it's pretty dark but I know what I should be seeing, so the ranch feeling—the feeling of getting to this place of contentment—is there. And when we get to the cabin, my Dad is there, as much a fixture of the place as one of the hills, or a particularly sturdy tree. He starts telling us about his day, which starts with him getting up late because he went out with the locals last night, and then the story about the day becomes the story about going out with the locals. I gather, based on his retelling, that people who live in places where it is difficult for other people to get to them, are interesting people indeed. The white wolf comes up again and we hear firsthand my dad's story—that it was far, but unmistakably white, that it moved weird, almost bird-y. He saw it and then went wolf-hunting. How it could live for over a year in this area is a valid question—there's only room for one main predator in any ecosystem, and the human animal is a formidable one given the right tools. Ranchers in particular don't take very kindly to other animals threatening their livelihoods—given the opportunity there are plenty who'd take a shot at the white wolf. Just ask the cougars.
It's a mystery though, this animal, whatever it is. We go to bed speculating, but with an early morning I don't think of it long—now the only thing on my mind is the turkey we'll be hunting tomorrow, if, of course, the wolf doesn't get them first.
Morning comes, my Uncle—the loudest morning person of all time—goes through the kitchen and starts making coffee. The room upstairs where I'm sleeping is actually a loft, so every time one of the dog shifts, or my Uncle takes a step, it's as if it's happening three feet away from me. I accept my fate and lay in bed, visualizing what will happen. I don't know if nervous is a good word--there are too many variables to be nervous, I think, hunting. It's not as if, despite what your local and I'm sure rabid conservationist will tell you, hunting is a firing line. Maybe in some cases, but certainly not the way we do it. If you actually see a bird you feel so lucky that there's no time to be nervous. What I am visualizing though is stillness--trying to quiet my mind enough to focus, go rock-like. I'm also trying to work out the logistics of how, if a turkey is called in (My Uncle's on the Tom Coffin and he's feeling confident) I move from rock-like stillness to shooting position. Can't visualize it--will have to wing it. No pun intended. I get dressed in head-to-toe camo, including a face mask that takes me awhile to figure out, and then we leave.
Uncle Jay has already heard them gobbling, a bad sign--tough when you can't beat your prey up. There's some discussion as to where to go start calling--we head up the big buck saddle and turn right, finding a high spot, still a little hidden, up to the left. We sit. I put the Verona (my girl) next to me, and hope my reflexes will be quick. Turkey calls, for any interested parties, are kind of weird. They're basically a stick you scratch, hard, against a little circle of slate to produce a high-pitched cluck-cluck squawk that grows in intensity depending on how long you make your scratch. You can get a surprising variety of noises out of them, but it still surprised me. The other kind of calls are box calls, and these I thought were a novelty item at first, are a cedar box with a rotating lid that you open and scrape against the side of the box. This makes a chirping noise, kind of. My Uncle and Michael, who really aren't hunting--it's all me, today--start on the calls, Michael first. Almost instantly he gets starts with a call and response with what sounds like 50 toms across the highway. The gobbling, a sound of all tongues, is faint--because they're roosting in a tree, I'm told. What we have to do is woo them with the sound of the females, a practice my dad doesn't support and I'm not sure I'll always be a fan of. But our task today is to get them off the ranch they're on and over to us, so call we do.
Michael keeps up the call with them while I practice stillness. A bunny rabbit--this is a bunny rabbit--comes to practice model behavior in front of me, darting out and then freezing when our unanticipated smell hits the air. She hardly quivers, staying still for almost a minute, tiny nose a black smudge on an otherwise grey visage, the biggest eyes you've ever seen, proportionally at least, as my Uncle points out. Tiny smears of pink are the ears, small and tucked back, listening for anything. She gets a lot of turkey noises. With a whip the bunny is gone. Eventually the turkey move out of the tree, which we can tell because the gobbling gets louder. It's a really funny noise, I have to say. As far as animal noises go, it's pretty amusing. We watch them start to appear, dark spots against the tan of the opposing hillside. My Uncle has binoculars out and tracks where they're moving--mostly away from us, despite Michael's valiant efforts scratching the slate. It appears they have some real ladies with them, and aren't interested in potential greener pastures.
This development means we can all settle in a little easier and watch Thanksgiving get away from us. They'll move over in the afternoon, we decide, although no one moves really, we just keep watching the sun rise--feel the air warm up, the hills and trees come alive around us. We keep watching the turkeys, Michael calls, my Dad gets up and goes to the bathroom. Uncle Jay's on the binocs still. A white spot appears on the hill--I think for a second it's a plastic bag. What is that? my Uncle says, and Michael says, sarcastically--there's your white wolf, Jay. It's still for a minute again while the binoculars focus, and then the exclamation--that big bastard is an all white turkey! It's an albino turkey! You gotta be kidding me!
Just then Dad comes back over the hill--Nate you're not going to believe this, my Uncle says, and passes the binoculars. You thought a turkey was a wolf.
I see it for myself--the biggest tom I've ever seen (not saying much, but still), easily bigger than the others, and pure white, a beacon amid the ruffled brown of the other birds. It all starts coming out while we watch them--my Uncle saying, you know I did think it was a collie coming down the hill at first, my Dad justifying--I did say it was moving kind of birdy, I'm blind as a bat! David saw it too! and Michael laughing. We all agree--no one could have seen that coming. Who would think of an albino turkey--you couldn't make that kind of thing up. Eventually the toms start leaving, running down the road faster when my Uncle starts to call, and so we go back too, to eat and call Uncle David and Uncle Ollie. Swear to God, an albino turkey.
It doesn't matter to me that I didn't kill a turkey, albino or otherwise--there will be plenty of hunts, and lots of birds. I'm going home instead with a white wolf story to rival any other, and that's enough for me.