Monday, 21 December 2009

Malheur Chukar

Driving out of Oregon this past summer we passed through Bend, to Burns and then down the Malheur River drainage and into Caldwell Idaho. There is a bit of the Central Oregon Highway that follows the Malheur River out onto the plains that is stunningly magnificent.  It makes me think of Hemingway's description of the landscape in The Green Hills of Africa; not because the landscape is the the same, though perhaps there are similarities, but because Hemingway talks about loving a landscape and being connected to it in the same deep way a man can love a woman. Malheur means misfortune or tragedy. Somehow, I am connected to this place.

When I started thinking about and researching chukar hunting in Eastern Oregon I ran across a recommendation for hunting exactly this area. I have to say I was surprised to find that a lot of the land along the Malheur is publicly accessible.  Aside from national forests and in the few places where the state has obtained public fishing access rights there is virtually no public land access to rivers in Wyoming.  River bottoms are too valuable for the public, they are private and tightly held.  Down the Malheur drainage there are many miles of beautiful river with BLM access.

There was snow on the ground and the dense clouds were low enough that we could not see the ridge tops above. The valley floor is about 2800 feet in elevation, the tops of the ridges are another 1500 feet higher with the highest rising to 5200 feet.  Penelope and I dressed for the trek up one of the ridges into the mist. It was around 34°F and there was about four or five inches of snow on the ground in the valley, we wore our hiking boots with gaiters.  I carried the 20 GA Citori and wore  my shooting vest, one pocket loaded with #5 shells and the other with #6 shells.    Penelope carried her walking poles and a pack with some water and rain gear should the heavy clouds really open up.   She loves walking uphill, interest earned from climbing Munroes in Scotland, and so we were off.

I've never hunted chukar before.  Approaching a sea of grass and vast open country it is daunting and it is something of an act of faith to believe you will find the birds you are looking for. There's not much I have faith in, but this I do. After being couped up in the car for a day an a half Erdos was anxious to go and we headed up a long ridge with him in the lead. Of course, he'd never hunted chukar before  but he knew just what were were looking for. When he started to make game about five hundred feet above the river I ran up the ridge trying to keep up with him. 

We were headed up a long ridge when Erdos started getting interested in the slope off the west edge. There was a pull to go higher, but when the dog starts telling you which way to go you really need to listen. Erdos, a Vizsla, is a pointer and when he knows he's found birds, he locks on point. My gaiter strap had come undone and I stopped to rehitch it, watching him maybe 200 yards downhill working hard the way he does when he's on birds. And then I heard one clucking, a warning to the others. Penelope heard it too and so I started down and across the slope as quickly as I could, but Erdos bumped the birds. It happens sometimes. A covey of about eight Chukar lifted up, clucking, and flew down into the deep draw below us.

Chukar fly downhill and run uphill. I carefully watched the birds drop into the draw to try to mark them down so we could hunt them up as singles. No such luck. I hunted up and down the draw in the thick brush there with Erdos in a tizzy, desperate to find the birds he'd jumped. Finally, I hunted up the far slope and once over the top of the ridge just above a small saddle which was 200 feet higher than the draw below Erdos was clearly on birds again and he locked on point. I started to drop down the steep slope and then he moved down the locked up again. Now I started to run downhill (top photo) but then a covey of about thirty birds exploded off the slope about 40 yards below me. Chukar can fly about 45 miles per hour and in the instant it took me to mount the shotgun and fire, I knew it was too late, they were out of range and flew off to the far slope across the next draw at least 800 yards away and probably close to a mile hike.

The sun was down and it was getting dark quickly and we still needed to hike up and over two ridges and back down to the truck. On the walk out, a deep form of tired contentment built. This feeling has happened before, though rarely:  a hike out in the dark through a heavy snow fall after ice climbing on Frankenstein Cliffs with  Phil and Don; a hunt for Mule deer down a long ridge at last light, high over the Platte River and the hike back in the gloaming through lightly falling snow with Gerry; a freezing late November ride  in the back of a pickup at dusk after waiting for hours on back roads hitchhiking to the Gunks from Cortland with Bill Ravitch.  These moments are far too rare, elusive and, as far as I can tell, they can not be constructed, if you are lucky they come to you.

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