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Posts Tagged ‘Steens Mountain’

Buddy, in the pawsteps of his forebears

Not counting dozing after Thanksgiving football games, here in the 21st century, we as a society have very few traditions. But after going through some photos from last season, I discovered a tradition in the making, by accident. Twenty years ago I took a photo of my first wire, Bill, with Steens Mountain in the background. On  his first hunt in the area, Yankee had his portrait taken with the same majestic backdrop.

A couple weeks ago, I found this one …  Buddy with the same mile-high fault block looming in the distance.

I’ve been to the top of this hill. Driven twice and walked once. I’ve traversed its slopes from east and west, slept at it’s foot dozens of times, fished its trout streams and lakes. Soaked, gratefully, in hot springs secreted at the mountain’s base. I’ve shared a bottle (actually, several) with cattle rustlers and buckaroos whose grandparents fought back Indian attacks where this mountain meets desert.  And I’ve helped build a hideaway for a friend who introduced me to this place and was taken from us too soon.

It’s a place of memories past, and memories in the making, the one constant being dogs that have shared  it’s magic and mystery. I hope to take several more photos of Buddy and his successors, from this spot, and make more traditions before I’m too crotchety to walk Steens Mountain’s rugged slopes any more.

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Google a satellite photo of the lower 48 at night. Find the darkest spot.

That’s where I am. It’s the northwestern edge of the Great Basin … chukar country. I’m 1,000 feet above a dry lake bed and if you look hard from this lower-right-hand corner of Oregon, you can see both Idaho and Nevada.

Sometimes, you roll from the top into the aspens

Sometimes, you roll from the top into the aspens

The chukars are another 1,000 feet up, steep and loaded with ankle-turning rocks. More rocks than soil. After all, we’re climbing the lava core and debris spewed from ancient volcanoes.

But that’s okay. Because on the climb (when you’re not falling ass-over-teakettle) you learn a lot.

Like the farther you are from town, the better the hunt. And that the surprise is sweeter when you meet an old friend along the road. Or how educational old buckaroos named “Cactus” can be. (I’ll never forget that night.)

You get a lot of thinking done up in the puckerbrush, resolve a lot of problems, answer a lot of burning questions. If you’ve wheezed in the thin air of the high lonesome, you know. Go ahead, take a moment and remember.

The hunt was, well, satisfying. That’s the best word to describe it when a strategy finally works. And how often does that happen? Take another moment and recall.

Tripping, trudging, and tumbling uphill in the morning, we intercepted chukars heading for water. Buddy ground tracked from sage to sage, zigging and zagging with that magnetic attraction you can feel in your bones. Creeping, pointing, creeping again as birds high-stepped up the hill, just out of range.

He never busted birds, cat-dancing deliberately, almost artfully, producing flushes in range of the gun as a versatile dog should. Stumbling over rocks and always off balance, I was grateful for the birds that fell to the gun.

By the end of the morning Buddy was hooking up the hill and cutting off the birds’ escape route, pinning them between us. In a panic they’d do a 180 and waddle straight down to me, flying when – omigosh – there was another predator below! 

You big-game hunters live this stuff, but it’s the first time I finally put it to practice. In the morning, breezes waft downslope from the warm summit to the cooler valley floor. Once the valley warms, the puffs dry your sweaty face on the downhill slide back to the truck. We used this newfound knowledge to advantage.

I mentioned earlier the remoteness of this place. A major magazine recently described it as the farthest lower 48 location from both a Starbucks and a hospital.

I don’t know what’s worse. Buddy and I could both use a little medical attention. And I’ve got coffee in the truck. Chukar hunting is definitely a contact sport.

[Where would YOU wear a new pair of Irish Setter boots? Tell me below, and you could win a pair just like Dave C. of California! And listen to reports from the Awesome Upland Road Trip – see the radio show links on the right.]

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Not being a professional dog trainer, I do my darndest to be a good observer of canine behavior, in the hope it will make me a better dog owner. Buddy helps when he can, making obvious moves (or non-moves) to clue me to the more subtle training techniques I might use.

What's he about to pick up?

What's he about to pick up?

Years ago, Buddy’s mentor Yankee first got me thinking about how we introduce birds in the retrieving training process and how it is often too much, too soon.

At our first NAVHDA Utility test, Yankee followed the track artfully to the dead duck. But it was the biggest, heaviest, limpest mallard ever grown in the Pacific Northwest. More than a mouthful and ungainly to boot. He simply couldn’t pick it up, let alone bring it to me. Didn’t know how, hadn’t had any practice with something this uncooperative.

My hunting buddy Dave’s dog Missy drove the point home. Pouring rain in the Steens Mountains, we were sheltering under a rock overhang when kee-kee-kee, a chukar squirted out from the same overhang. Missy was already a big dog in a small body, but she gamely brought back that chukar by Braille – one wing was covering her eyes so she had to home in on us by voice commands.

These days, Buddy gets plenty of practice with ungainly, limp, heavy, odd-shaped objects in hopes that there are no surprises at the end of a superb track on his Utility test. Some trainers use hammers. Others, Dokken-style “dead birds.” I use both as well as …

If you reload shotgun shells, you’ve got the raw materials in laundered shot bags. Filled with dry beans and tied or taped closed, they present excellent challenges to young dogs as they learn to get their mouths around them. Add “wings” of empty bags, actual feathers and eventually real wings and you’re on your way to a great test or field trial.

– Scott

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