We were at the base of the valley before sunrise. The dark gates of the mountain loomed ahead and, even though they often summoned me, this morning they were silent. The birds were secreted away in new snow and vacant gray rocks. Their transition colors made them invisible; the mountain made them invulnerable. I was still half-asleep, hungry, and thinking about what it would take to get to the lake.
Winchester ran ahead of us and with the wind. He had to trumpet the morning before hunting. He had to burn off the smells of the house and dust of the yard. Part of me wanted to hunt the way he did – to live so completely as to leave no thought or fear of the outcome. At least I knew enough to follow his path. Knew enough not to call him back and point him toward the creek that led to the lake. The birds were likely in the rocks near water. They often were. Those were the birds I hunted – the birds from times before. Had I gotten tired of it?
My thoughts were fixed on our destination and how the snow predicted we wouldn’t be able to climb the steep wall to the lake. We hadn’t brought cleats or anticipated a heavy snowfall this early in the year. We watched Winchester work the hill above us and then stop and turn in our direction. To continue straight up, on wet, loose slate rock didn’t make practical sense, and I knew it. But just ahead of us, a pair of whitetail ptarmigan flushed low. Winchester watched from his perch in the distance as I mounted my gun and followed their white wings to their landing further up the valley wall.
Winchester ran to my side to work close in front of me as we climbed to where the birds had landed, 700 vertical feet above us. He went on point just as the pair lifted their heads 30 yards away. They weren’t going to hold for the flush, and as my left leg went out from under me, they flew. We followed them another 400 feet higher and neared the rock face at the top of the valley before flushing them for a third time in much the same way. We went in wrong, I thought as we made our descent. There was no saving it.
“Let’s see where he goes,” my partner said.
It didn’t matter if my thoughts for the day were spent at first sight of snow and then again after a near leg-breaking climb and fall. I followed and contented myself to count steps and glance up at Winchester as he highlined above us and then dropped into the valley. He could quiet his bell on a run as smooth as a fish darting through water or a bird setting its wings, and I wondered if he did it on purpose. Everything he did was an athletic performance and art at the same time. We stopped on a jagged hill of rock that allowed us to see the entire wrap of the valley. A thousand yards below us on a knob, Winchester stopped. He wasn’t on point, just stopped again.
The wind was wrong for him to scent the birds high above him. He knew they were there, though. He could hear them and so could I. There was a sound that was first like ravens on a kill. Then, it sounded like geese or even crane. It was none of these because I hadn’t heard this sound before. I followed it and then saw the movement of wings. The birds were lifting and setting on the snowy rise. Maybe 20 or more whitetail ptarmigan in the group.
We picked our way down into the creek and back up to the rise where the birds had been. Winchester knew they’d left before we stood in their tracks. He looked toward the rocks across another ravine. If we had wings, it would have been a short flight. On legs, it would be another half hour. Follow the dog, I thought. Don’t try to do his work for him and be damned. Just because I went in wrong, didn’t mean he did.
When we reached Winchester’s point, he was locked solid. The covey was spread out in an array of transition colors from specks of gray to half-gray and white. They perched on rocks and lay in snow, filling the rocky bottom of the gorge. My partner and I both went in to flush birds on either side of Winchester. We each took two birds and my partner took two more on a second flush. One of my birds was winged and rolled down the side of the valley. The wind had picked up and my ears stung as I cursed and slid on the rocks to catch it and stop its fall.
My bird rested near a rock, raised its head in a slow arc and shuddered. I dropped down next to it in the snow. I was out of breath. It was too cold now for a break, but the pace of the few moments before us had overwhelmed me. “We need to get back down into the valley and out of this wind,” my partner said. I didn’t move, and I knew it was as wrong to sit there as it was to chase the first birds of the morning. I knew it didn’t make practical sense. But I would be damned if I would move until I caught myself.
All morning, I had been fighting the onset of winter. My thoughts were louder than anything in the valley until I’d heard the birds. And I’d sit for a minute with the two birds I’d taken for as long as it took for me to forget and remember why I was there. Going in wrong wasn’t the end of things. It was still possible to surrender myself to it. And I did.