The good book tells us that everything wonderful, worthy, and good - all of it - was created in a series of celestial days, comprising together a cosmic week. If that is so, then this is the story of the sunset of a first celestial day of friendship and adventure, of a first season of wild bird hunting and the creation of a new wild bird hunter and a new wild bird dog in the company of two-legged and four-legged friends and mentors.
And the sunset of this first day in the creation story of these particular things began like this: earlier this past season, we’d all achieved some firsts. For one of us, Chip, it was a first Virginia-harvested American Woodcock or Timberdoodle, for another, Justin, a very first Timberdoodle, and for me, a very first wild bird harvest, also an American Woodcock, followed by days of more success of the same. As we set out at the end of what is arguably the most important wild-bird season in the Eastern United States, Chip and Justin had with another friend, Cort, and his dog, already bagged their season’s first King of the Gamebirds, Bonasa Umbellus, the Ruffed Grouse. And while we’d trained on preserve quail and chukar, and had started to expose Lincoln to the scent and stoke interest in the Timberdoodle, Lincoln and I had yet to achieve our first sustained point of a Ruffed, though we had flushed a few, and so our hopes were modest - but no less passionate - to make some progress on this final attempt of the season.
The day came and we all made our way to our weekend accommodations in West Virginia and a hearty eggs and pancakes breakfast and lots of coffee at a perfect local joint, but when we arrived together at the general location of the secret covert we found ... a parking lot and locked gate in front of the main access road that would have allowed us to avoid what would become a 5 mile hike through 1600 vertical feet of elevation change to reach that place where our seasoned veteran, Chip, knew we might find our birds. If it wasn’t such a gorgeous mountain landscape, the hike up might have felt like a death march, and the bird dogs meandered alongside us half-heartedly through lower elevation woods devoid of delicious Ruffed Grouse scent. But up we climbed, through the distinct ecosystems that characterize the different levels of mountain elevation, one foot in front of the other, until we reached the peak and got our first reward for sweaty-red faces and burning lungs: a million dollar view, every step of it earned. We made our way across the high plateau, navigating a frozen, rocky stream ... and then, just as it seemed we’d only experience the all too common bane of the ruffed grouse hunter’s existence, a mere armed walk in the woods, it happened ... that first distinctive helicopter flutter breaking the deep silence of high mountain cedars. The King was letting us know that we’d indeed entered his dominion this day, but to see the ghost we’d have to work just a little harder and further prove our worthiness.
The dogs picked up the pace, faint bird scent now wafting into their exquisitely sensitive nostrils. Thus began our golden hour, all in about the same gradual decline of elevation near the peak and high plateau, of scenting and sightings and the explosions of air under powerful beating wings. I first realized that even my relatively short amount of time of a single year with Lincoln in the field had helped me begin to read his mind as I noticed his quickening pace and knew something was up as he darted by himself into a thick bramble of Mountain Laurel. “No way he’s just doing that – I know my dog – he wouldn’t plunge up into that on his own unless he’s on bird scent.” We all stopped our march forward and listened to the woods and the pitter patter over leaves and twigs of a bird dog up above us where we couldn’t see and surely couldn’t go ourselves. Sure enough, the helicopter-esque rapid fire wing beats exploded and we caught sight of it, flummoxed a bit by its own chosen thick cover, beating its way into the sky. We couldn’t see Lincoln or know if he pointed the bird, but we unloaded anyway, all three of us, only shredding Mountain Laurel and missing the King on his beating flight out of town and further up the mountain.
A couple of more times this happened with Chip’s dogs, every ten minutes or so, and then came Chip’s word that his Kona was on point, somewhere just below us, also in thick cover. Justin and I jumped butts and feet first into the cover, sliding down the hill, adrenaline surging now through us. We knew well this fully dialed-in dog and if he was on point, it surely meant he had a ruffed pinned up good. I almost tipped butt over head into the tangle. We looked everywhere for Kona, but couldn’t see him. A trip or two more, juggling my side by side, and I looked over and to the left of me and there that beautiful boy was: locked up now for almost two minutes behind a tree, balanced like a statue on a steep patch of hill, staring straight ahead. He had pinned the object of his gaze between himself and us up on the road. I could hear Lincoln huffing down the hill behind me and could not for the life of me remember the word, “whoa,” so on fire my brain was from the prospect of getting my first good shot at a pointed Ruffed. I think I ended up calling Lincoln to me instead of stopping him to honor Kona’s point, or maybe I lunged and stumbled myself again trying to keep my eyes on the patch of hill in front of Kona, I’m really not sure. Either way, the grouse exploded and shots rang out, missing again the winged forest ninja as it made a bee-line for the valley below us. Of any regrets I might have had that day, not rewarding Kona’s perfect and long-sustained point with a mouth full of grouse feathers was the only one I couldn’t shake.
My own highlight came minutes later as Justin yelled out that Lincoln was on point. I looked up the hill, about 75 yards from the road, in a thick mess of moss-covered rocks under a mix of cedar, spindly hardwood, and mountain laurel cover and sure enough, there he was, my boy on point. I count it as a small miracle I could see his point and what unfolded. One of Chip’s pups was hot on his tail and before any of us could react, Lincoln broke point and lunged in and off the Ruffed rocketed into the sky. Just the bird and my boy, working out the rules of this game, the King letting my young bird dog know just how little pressure this majestic denizen of the mountain forest would tolerate. No shots were fired, nothing at all from me to confuse the the royal lesson he’d just been given. Perfect. The shadows had by this time just started to creep long, the sun sinking above the highest peak brooding over us, and another couple of grouse flushed up for our motley canine and human pack. Shots rang out, but the day just wouldn’t surrender a bird to hand or bag.
On our long, steep, dusky walk down the road we had intended to drive earlier in the day, I suddenly realized this was the best grouse day I’d had in over a week’s worth of days attempting the same this season. I also immediately felt surprise that instead of feeling disappointed, I was actually thrilled. I’d do it all again, knowing the outcome, because my boy getting exposure to a Ruffed Grouse and pointing it was really more than I could reasonably hope for in this our first season, in the sunset of our first celestial day of the creation of a wild bird hunter and a wild bird dog. Maybe - just maybe - he’d twitch and jerk, his mind racing behind closed eyes in the off-season, dreaming of this encounter, remembering that to break point means losing the chance to get those delicious feathers and warm body in his mouth, means missing the chance to prance and proudly bring his spoils back to me. And as much as I struggle with impatience, and want almost desperately to see the sort of progress that I somehow hope might be an indication that I’m worthy of a dog as wonderful as Lincoln and a pursuit as old-school, rich in tradition, and precious and precariously situated as an old castle ruin set on a punishing foreign coast as upland hunting with bird dogs is at its very best, I realize I’d feel cheated to experience a string of successes any more quickly than we are. It would be like chugging the world’s finest whiskey and waking up with a hangover: a veritable crime against nature. So much better to sip it, unfolding its delicate flavors one by one on lips and tongue and savor the moments in a singular slow parade of divine moments, separated always by reflection and an appreciation befitting the refined elegance of their subjects.
As we recline now in the early evening of the off-season, in those liminal moments before training starts again in earnest, I can, with my bird dog snoozing beside me, look back over our first celestial day and the friendships forged, our tutelage under experienced mentorship firmly established, and enough incredible memories to sustain us until the dawn that comes again with changing leaves and crisp breezes and a brand new season, a second celestial day. Chip is fond of saying that “wild-bird hunting is often just a walk in the woods with dogs and friends.” I’m here to attest to the fact that it so often is. But the wonder of it all is that mere walk actually feels like the real point of our long day’s journey into each night and that walk is what really nourishes us even as the dessert and whiskey of sometimes (even rarely!) harvesting birds frames the sustenance of the nighttime meal that is the bonds of human friendship and sublime canine companionship and adventure into the wild heart of mother nature herself. So it has always been and may it always be.