feature By: Alan Liere | August, 17
When I was in high school, a man or woman over the age of 60 was a “Prune” – an individual with wrinkles who was obviously in his declining years. They came from a place we teenagers called “Prune City,” a city without humor, vitality or ambition – certainly not sex – a place largely populated by people we also called “Q-tips” and “blue hairs.”
Sadly, no one is exempt from the aging process, but I was not even 60 when I prematurely entered the gates of Prune City. I had crossed the Columbia River near Pasco, Washington, on my way to hunt grouse and black-tailed deer with a nephew who lived near Portland, Oregon. I had not been there in some time, and as I remembered it, one merely crossed the river on a big blue bridge, turned immediately west onto Interstate 84 and then drove all the way to Portland along the river on the Oregon side.
As it turns out, there were several exits onto numerous highways and another bridge before I merged onto I-84. Furthermore, if I headed immediately west as instincts dictated, I would eventually have to make an illegal U-turn to get back on track. My arthritis was acting up when for the second time in a half hour, I limped into the same convenience store for directions. The young woman behind the counter looked at me sympathetically and called me Sir. I could almost hear her thinking, “Alzheimer’s probably. Dementia at least … Poor old dear … Prune City.”
Despite all that, I eventually made it to Portland, and I eventually enjoyed both grouse and deer hunting with my nephew. I didn’t feel like a prune – that feeling would come a full nine years later when I endeavored to hunt chukars with the same nephew in the Yakima River Canyon in central Washington. To put it mildly, the steep, rocky, cheatgrass-slickened hills kicked my butt. I shot one bird, immediately declared it “The Last Chukar” and wrote a story about it. Chukars had been my favorite bird to hunt since the season opened in Washington way back in the 1960s, and I had spent many weekends in their pursuit on the Snake River breaks. But my body couldn’t take the abuse anymore, and it ceased being fun.
In October 2016, I got a call from Mark Midtlyng, a former high school student of mine who had moved to Idaho. We had hunted chukars together many years before when he was going to college at Washington State University in Pullman, a mutual passion for misery drawing us almost weekly to the Snake River canyons.
“You’ve got to get down here with that new Brittany of yours,” Midtlyng said excitedly. “I’ve found the chukar Shangri-La of eastern Oregon.”
“You know I don’t hunt chukars anymore, Midtlyng,” I said. “I get tired just thinking about it.”
“What if I told you the area is relatively flat?” Midtlyng asked.
“I’d say the word ‘relatively’ scares the hell out of me,” I countered. “Send me a photo.”
The picture arrived on my computer almost immediately, and Midtlyng’s assessment of the terrain seemed fairly accurate. Oh, there were still some nasty-looking canyons, but the ridges, though rock-strewn, appeared to be long and rolling, and you didn’t have to climb to get to them. There was a lot of sagebrush and tall grass.
“Sign me up,” I said impulsively. I was excited to try it again, but at age 72, I knew I’d have to do things a little differently. Fortunately, I hadn’t forgotten the things that had made me so miserable three years before in that Yakima canyon.
I dug out the lightest hiking boots in my closet. They were almost tennis shoes, as I would sacrifice ankle support for fewer ounces. Then I bought good wool socks and began putting together a package of essentials to help counteract the way my body would react to three days of hiking in October weather that might get very warm. To ward off muscle cramps, I purchased electrolyte drinks and magnesium pills to take before and after the hunt. I bought a big bunch of bananas for potassium. I would also carry a good amount of water for the dog and me, so I put a hydration pack in my game vest. I bought expensive energy bars for snacks and enough small energy drinks to take one each morning and one each afternoon. In a pocket in my game vest, I added a small bottle of the anti-inflammatory pills and a roll of moleskin in case blisters developed. I would use my light 20-gauge double and a good compass and not weigh myself down as I always had in the past with an overly optimistic number of shotgun shells.
A mental adjustment was also necessary. I confronted the fact I did not need to go fast or keep up with my younger friend, and I did not need to drop into nasty looking canyons just because there were birds chucking away down there. There was nothing wrong with sitting now and then, and there was nothing wimpy about putting on fresh socks halfway through the day. A couple apples would give me something to look forward to when I stopped to rest. My Brittany would eat the cores.
To decrease friction, the morning of the first hunt I slathered my feet with Bag Balm before putting on my socks. I drank a full quart of water and ate a good breakfast. On the two-hour drive to our destination, I nursed a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade, and when we arrived, I took two Aleve and gulped a bottle of 5-hour Energy.
After he gave me specific instructions on how to hunt the rim of the first canyon, Midtlyng and I quickly separated, he with his Chessie Bear, me with my Brittany Lucy. Within a half hour, Lucy went on point; I walked in, flushed the bird and killed two on the rise – the first in the three years since I wrote “The Last Chukar.”
“Thank you, Lord,” I exclaimed when both the birds were in hand. As far as I was concerned, the trip was already a roaring success.
Seven hours later, I still had just the two birds, but I was pleased with myself as I had hoped to get four, maybe five hours out of my old body. There had been other blown chances, and I’d seen a lot of birds, but most of them were in the canyons where I wouldn’t go. Midtlyng had downed the last two birds in a limit of eight on the way back to the truck I had reached a half hour earlier.
“I’m impressed,” he said. “That was a seven-mile day. I hope I can still shoot a few chukars when I’m your age.”
“I’m impressed, too,” I said proudly, sipping another Gatorade. “No blisters and no muscle cramps. The big test, though, will be tonight. That’s when they usually begin.”
On the way home, I moved my legs gingerly, letting my muscles adjust to one position before I moved to another. I could tell there was a charley horse waiting to chomp down on a calf or thigh, but I made it back to Midtlyng’s home in Caldwell, Idaho, without incident and, more important, made it through the night.
At 5:30 the next morning, I repeated my prehunt preparations, surprised at how good I actually felt. Once again, we made the two-hour drive into Oregon, this time to a different area where I hunted seven more hours and killed two chukars. Again, Midtlyng returned to the car with a limit, this time an hour before me. There were advantages, for sure, in being able to drop into the canyons to follow up on covey flushes, but I wasn’t complaining. If two birds was my limit, so be it, and with that mentality, I’d limited two days in a row!
The next day, I killed over my limit – three birds. I also walked another six or seven miles. Once again, I kept blisters and muscle cramps at bay. In three days of hunting I had fired only 11 times at a bird I’d always had difficulty hitting. On the way back to Midtlyng’s home, I leaned back in the passenger seat, sipping another Gatorade. Prune City indeed! I was already thinking about 2017.