Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Category: no sympathy

magic

Every now and then, there is a day when things go right because you let them. When, for whatever reason, you get out of your own way. You don’t take into account anything that doesn’t matter. You don’t set expectations within the context of time, money, or energy available. You don’t let the hooks flying at you in the form of annoyances or anxieties come anywhere near flesh. They bounce off you like the steel of your resolve toward the pure experience you want, and you get. Because every now and then, you haven’t skipped any steps or put in too many. Every now and then, it happens on the same day to you as to the dog, and everyone eats breakfast and is heading to the mountains like we’re never going back home.

Today was like that. Cogswell in the back seat and only good songs on the radio. Every light in town was green or else we didn’t notice that the world was conspiring against us like on a Monday morning when they are red, red, red. And you jerk to a stop again with the angst of an animal caged wearing slacks and a blouse, as my friend reminds me no one says slacks and blouse anymore. “Actually,” she said, “No one has said blouse since before you were born.” I’m sticking with it, because if I have to wear anything resembling a blouse, defined in my mind as an article of clothing so fragile it only makes sense to wear in temperature controlled buildings and also great for tearing off and waving like a flag out the window of a car leaving the last light in town with the radio blasting Free Bird, it’s not just a shirt.

We were free of drag – the total sum of the things in life that keep you buttoned down. We had our shotguns and our snowshoes. The temperature was still below freezing at that early hour. In a hundred more miles on the road, the sun would be hitting the north-facing slopes, and the light would hint off snow like diamonds. We’d be in heaven, and we wouldn’t care about if it was exactly the right temperature or not.

It could all go wrong, without saying. We could find another party at our spot. The snow could be too soft or too hard for Cogswell’s paws. The birds could have moved down or up or over. Sometimes it’s fun to have a conversation about what-if-but-then. Other times, you know your day is about waking up to the sun coming through the slats in the blinds before 8:00 a.m. for the first time in all of winter and how good the cold feels. You take off your blouse on the beach and love the smell of napalm.

That’s it. Today was the first time I would use steel shot for upland birds instead of lead. It was the right thing to do, and it felt right. The conversations leading up to it for so long were filed away in my head with so many other files: never apologize for being a hunter, hunters are conservationists, public lands are grand. It isn’t that those aren’t all part of the important talk at the outdoor community church. It’s just I want out of there sometimes. I want out of wearing the shirt.

Perhaps one of the only things my mother said to me that stuck was just after I came home from the first day of kindergarten upset. I had dressed up for school in a red dress and red shoes with matching hair ties. No one had prepared me for the fact that children did not dress like collector item dolls. The other kids made fun. I came home and threw my matching red purse on the sofa. “And no one has a purse either!” I sobbed.

“Honey,” my mom said. I could barely hear her as I racked my brain for how to get my hands on a regular pair of slacks and a blouse. But she finally got my attention, and said, “If somebody doesn’t like you, there’s something wrong with them. Because there’s nothing wrong with you.”

Sometimes, that advice doesn’t work because there is something wrong with me. But other times, it’s gold. There’s nothing wrong with me when I go about life in a way that is loving, skillful, and reverent. When I get out of the truck with the intent to go up a mountain in deep snow with an adoring dog I adore to find birds I love and shoot them because every day, every second on this fire planet there is living and dying whether I do it right or wrong or not. It can happen in the dark, in ignorance, or by inevitable accident. Or it can happen in the way in which two hunters follow a dapper chap of a dog into the mountain light. He points a bird, and the bird decides whether or not to flush in such a manner as to be taken.

There is blood and magic in these memories. They will flash before my eyes when it is my turn to flush and find salvation or not. I want these days – the ones that start right and go right more than the days that go by. Whatever we can say about them to ourselves or others or for ourselves for living the way we do doesn’t matter as much as taking every step we know we need to take to meet the needs of the day and not – as much as we can help it – give a shirt about the rest of it.

 

 

 

steadfast

We had driven for two hours even though we knew we were driving into the unknown. Between Christmas and New Years, two feet of snow had fallen in the pass. Winter storms had loaded an already unstable snowpack, and the avalanche advisory kept us out of the mountains. Maybe it was hope in the face of weather predictions that made us see a chance or maybe we knew better and just had to see it ourselves. We figured we could hunt the low meadows for willow ptarmigan under a clear sky as long as the wind didn’t come up and the temperature stayed low. The unexpected rain turned to snow with low visibility. Winchester slept in the backseat as I wondered if it truly was impossible to hunt or if we just hadn’t considered enough alternatives.

The mountain pass was dark with heavy snow. To see it lit by headlights gave it the same desolate appearance as the blue light from electronics I’d wanted to escape. Neither of us said anything about it, but our silence suggested we both knew the plan was going backwards on us. We pulled over to evaluate the snow, which I imagined as a new euphemism for urination. The wind blew and the wet snow sank five inches to a light crust. “What weather report said the sky was going to be clear?” I asked. But I knew the weather report didn’t matter. I didn’t know how else to acknowledge the situation. We weren’t going hunting, and Winchester wasn’t going to understand it in terms of a weather report.

When we turned the truck around and headed back Winchester fell asleep again. He was not as concerned as we were about the change in direction. Although he enjoyed stretching his legs and needed time in the field, he had the steadfastness of a dog. It was something I needed to learn from him. Things are not always what they seem. We had thought we were getting closer to what we wanted by driving for what turned out to be four hours in a snow storm. When we pulled into the driveway at home, disappointed and wasted, it was not because we’d spent a long day in the field. It was because we did not have a dog’s Zen understanding of things as they really are.

And what is real? If I had to ask Winchester, he would not have a view clouded by assumptions. He would not think we were foolish for setting out or wise for turning back. He wouldn’t fill his mind with how things seemed because he had only to notice how things are. He knew what mattered. We can’t change the weather. I didn’t mind going as far as I could – whether it was to look out the window or make the drive to the mountain or ocean – and see for myself the impossibility of certain paths if only to be certain we couldn’t take them. In the same way, I would watch a loved one walk away for as long as I had the view.

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind -Robert Johnson, Love in Vain

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind
-Robert Johnson, Love in Vain

Because, when you love something – a person, a passion, or a dog (or those things combined in the chance to hunt together), you cannot sit at home and look at a computer screen. If the weather is bad and you’ve sat near a fire for long enough and you’ve read enough books, eventually you have to get up and see what’s preventing you. You have to stand on the beach or at the base of a mountain. In those moments, it’s possible to feel that you’re in a futile chase. There’s nothing to be done about the weather except sing its blues. And, to the extent you feel the longing and the pain, you know the feelings not in vain.

off the grid

The aluminum hull of the boat slammed the swells that marked the entrance to the gulf across which there was no shore in sight for as far as 6,000 miles. The next exposed curvature of the earth was across a storm swept arm of the Pacific Ocean where the world’s largest tsunami had once consumed Lituya Bay. We were soon to be in the middle of nowhere with no one to save us. The captain had said this was why he could never stand to be in jail. Ten foot waves hit the deck, and we agreed. To fish the way we wanted, we had to head toward the most dangerous expanse of water, where hundred foot rock pinnacles cover the ocean floor, where giant ling cod feast on the violent currents stirring up their prey, where the outer limits threaten to destroy us or set us free.

The idea of living off the grid has never appealed to me in those exact words. The grid, if it’s the power grid or the matrix of our consumer-driven lives, is not the problem. If we are looking to be self-sustainable, it is not our dependence on public utilities that is troubling or un-troubling. Why would getting away from the grid, the numbers, and the crazy world matter if it still existed? Living off the grid requires a grid. But, there was and is something better than just off the grid. It’s right on the edge of it and exists in a person if not a place.

Living off the Grid may be the same ethos that informed the American Dream. The same character attracted to a better quality of life, freedom, and happiness might as well find it by becoming debt free and building a tiny house in the woods capable of surviving a disaster scenario. The techno-primitive nature of an off-the-grid life can only appeal to us now that we have solar panels and batteries. But the spirit behind it was always there. In me, it’s wanting to feel the sea salt in my face or the mountain wind telling me that, this is it, you either ride this wave of water or snow or light or mud or you don’t. When you don’t make the cut, you head back for shelter.

 When did living off the land or sea become living off the grid?


When did living off the land or sea become living off the grid?

If the grid were jail, we’d all want out. When we got out, we wouldn’t go to office buildings that look like jails and follow rules that might as well be painted on the walls of the visiting area. We want to go outside. We want to feel alive. My first year duck hunting, I had this moment where I wanted to go back to the car. I’d gotten too wet, too cold, and a piece of metal had worked its way into the bottom of my foot. To get to it, I’d have to disrobe full-body neoprene in a rainstorm. My hunting partner had no sympathy, and it was his lack of sympathy that got me thinking about why I was there. And why I had to stay out.

I wasn’t just hunting ducks because it was an intellectually responsible form of getting meat or because it was pure joy to call them in and take them on the wing. The earthy smell and cold driven rain did something for me. It seemed like the worse the weather was, the more excited we were to go. Better chances at ducks, better time doing it. If something requires ultimate effort, I want to do it. I want to spend every breath, not save the ones I need to go over the last hill for getting home. It’s not for a return on investment, but it might work out that way. Even if I don’t get food in the way of game, hunting makes food taste better at the end of the day. It makes a sleep and a shower better. It’s living life the way I want to.

The outdoors is the only place for me to get things right. The list of obstacles is a bucket list. If it’s going to be cold, let it be damn cold. If it’s going to be far, let it be as far as I’ve ever gone. If it’s going to be exhausting, let me fight to stay awake for it. If there’s one way to become free from the stuff in our heads, it’s to face a life where there’s no room for a mediocre thought. There’s no room for what doesn’t matter. There’s only this moment in front of you and it’s yours to make. It’s off the grid not because my body is connected to a power utility but exactly because what lives in me is not and never was powered by utilities. And, if the lights ever go out, I know I’ll make it not just because of my dreams but because of my character.

 

wayward

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?

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“The flowers do fade, and wanton fields/ to wayward winter reckoning yields” ˜Sir Walter Raleigh

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.

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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.

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the edge

cc-remote-writingAdventurers inspire me. They are the fearless few of us who do not shrink at change, at risk, at loss or gain, at limitations, at third party perspective, at any of the things that truly do not matter. Instead of emotionalizing a static world, they vitalize the real world with their daring. They are never victims. While the world vaults them as heroes just as it attempts to wrap its arms around them never wanting to let them go and crying over goodbyes, the adventurer always must go, always grow, and lean into the light.

The spirit of adventure is one of the most attractive, healthy, thriving spirits out there. It is often unapologetic, not because it doesn’t care, but because it lives so close to the survival instinct. It cannot explain, promise, or otherwise foster co-dependency. Hesitation means death, stopping to explain or wrongly consider is a waste of its time. The adventurer is meant for heavenward flights and plummets by the grace of gods within us all. Let them go.

I remember a friend who always stopped when entering a store. Right inside the doorway, he would stop. Much like a deer transfixed in a road way by lights, new information came to my friend at overwhelming and dangerous speed. I ran into his back at least twenty times. “What are you doing?” I would say. We were on the anti-adventure of shopping and still it dealt too much adventure for this friend. I got to where I would map out the store in advance of the visit: “When we go in, head to the right…”

Although my adventures do not amount to heroism, world records, or even great feats, the spirit of adventure courses through me to a degree that I make decisions as fast and wrong or right as possible just to keep on top of what feels like a wave. When I walk into a building, I never stop. I’ve been known to push through a crowd. I’ve been known to walk out of meetings and classrooms. I’ve been known to chunk away relationships, jobs, and ways of life just to feel the raw edge of new beginnings again.

Most of all, I love other adventurers. I love, especially women, who never say “I can’t.” They become young mothers and find a way to make it work. They have a dream and they do everything to make it real. When obstacles are presented, they find paths to a solution. Or better, their way of thinking is constantly addressing obstacles before they arise and developing contingencies and alternate routes before they ever need them. They inspire others with their conviction, and they have conviction in spirit if not by way of explanation.

In my mind, these rare few are always living on the edge. They are recognizable instantly by a certain clarity in their eyes, a weathered complexion, a distracted purpose if any where other than the mountains, air, or sea. This edge that they live on and I hope to always live on is also a gap. It is the space beyond. It is the sun that a blade of grass reaches toward. It is the next bend or hill a hunter must travel. Or else it is the endless night and ache and torture of a life spent in the office.

When I had the recent opportunity to write a regular column for Women’s Outdoor News (the WON), there were several ideas for what we could call it. We thought about what I would write and the appeal of Alaska to readers. I thought of Alaska titles with a bit of dislike. What I wanted to write about was living on the edge. I wanted to write about why adventure matters. Why it matters in small ways and big ways. How it matters. Where it matters.

My new column “The Edge,” sponsored by EvoOutdoors, explores the expanding perspectives on hunting and the outdoors offered by a growing community of women hunters. I hope you read it between adventures.