I once ran a marathon in almost the same time it took me to walk up a hill in search of small gamebirds known as chukars.
Chukars are mythical little creatures, undoubtedly the inspiration for wingsuit flying and possibly the Phoenix.
Originally brought to Oregon from India in the 1950s, they live on hillsides with slopes that seem to defy mathematics, they can run up hill faster than any hunter can go, and they dart away suddenly, as if carried away by the very hands of the gods.
I’ve perspired before. It’s a skill I’m rather gifted at, in fact. I rained down on those parched eastern Oregon slopes, and all the water from the turbulent Deschutes River a thousand feet below me couldn’t quench my thirst.
My colleague David has been telling me about chukar hunting since I started working at ODFW more than a year ago.
These hunts are often billed as a hard walk spoiled by the obsession for little grey game bird, and David is fond of saying, “If you’re going to walk up hills like these, you might as well have a shotgun in your hands.”
And, of course, a good dog by your side, because jumping a covey of chukar on your own is technically possible but not necessarily common.
We had Remy, the wonder dog.
A black lab with a playful and persistent personality, she hunted the entire day, smelling the air and the ground to find the scent of these mythological little game birds pursued on the south-facing slopes of hills that feel like Mount Olympus itself.
As we neared the summit and my calves burned with all the flames of hell, I briefly looked out over the breaks, where the flatland begins to drip slowly and then more urgently into the Deschutes River canyon below, and I felt that heady rush of accomplishment and purpose.
The fog seemed to climb just ahead of us, and I sat down like a wet rat not on the top of a mountain but back on flat land.
I put my head on the earth and closed my eyes as my thundering heartbeat receded ever so slowly.
When I was reasonably sure my stomach had enough blood directed to it, I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and revived from the brink of I don’t exactly no what, but it was certainly close to some limit I haven’t crossed before.
Hunting chukar is a guessing game in such big country. The birds can be anywhere, even if they prefer structure like rocky outcroppings, ledges or sage brush on the mountain side.
It seemed we pushed a covey up the hill as we ascended, and with the wind at our backs, we held no element of surprise, just the diminishing value of hillside left before they ran out of room to run.
After lunch we walked over to an edge and proceeded to walk down hill with the wind in our faces watching Remy’s tail, which gets “birdy” when she’s on their scent.
She got really birdy all of a sudden, and we got quiet, approaching as carefully as we could on such a slope where everything is an opitcal illusion.
I watched heaven and earth collide magnificently in the geology before me while struggling to pay attention to Remy’s tail all while trying to avoid falling down for fear of never stopping.
And suddenly there they were, the drums of their wing beats become musical notes as they gain brief altitude before they simply use gravity and follow the contours of the earth away from us and our guns.
I had the shot being on the left hand side and away from the dog, but my response time was slow and my shot fell well below the top-most bird and too late to catch the lower, faster birds.
After a brief look from Remy that suggested I work on my shooting skills, we walked down the spine to the north, watching Remy catch the air with her nose searching for another covey, another opportunity.
As we zigzagged our way down, we flushed another two coveys with no opportunity to shoot. These birds have every advantage, only ever falling to the element of surprise and the most agile and patient hunters.
And yet we pursue them, because they provide a good reason to take a hard walk in places we might not otherwise go.
And because they draw you back with the challenge of being hard to pursue.
For now, our consolation prizes are not few. Afternoon sunlight and vistas many people do not see, cold beer and fresh socks and good conversation on the way home.