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    Still Smokin'?

    On a chukar hunt 35 years ago, my wife issued a challenge: She could last longer without nicotine than I.

    Turns out my stubbornness was equal to hers, and the cigarette we shared while sitting on the rimrock high above the Snake River in Idaho was the last one we ever had. The rest of the pack was buried ceremoniously under a pile of basalt, and though there have been times I wanted to climb back up there to resurrect it, I remain a nonsmoker.

    My friend Steve has not been similarly challenged to quit smoking despite his own passion for chukar hunting in high places where even clean, young lungs are tested by the altitude and the rigors of staying upright on talus and cheat grass-covered inclines.

    Not long ago, he arranged a bucket-list bird hunting trip for the two of us in Idaho’s Hells Canyon. He hired an outfitter with a jet boat who would drop us off on a long sand bar near where the Salmon River poured into the Snake. We would pitch a tent and hunt for two full days before being picked up and returned to civilization.  It would be glorious.

    Until …

    On the appointed afternoon, the departing boat was still in sight when Steve realized he had left his carton of cigarettes under one of the seats. With only three smokes left in his pack, he immediately began to agonize, and despite his efforts at rationing, the last one was gone by early evening, and the “glorious” bucket-list trip was bringing him mild nausea and depression. Sympathetic because of my own long-ago battle with the nicotine devil, I tried to get my friend involved in the moment — the magic of the deep canyon, the roaring river full of steelhead and bass and the siren call of what sounded like thousands of chukars bouncing off surrounding cliffs. But Steve was having none of it. “It’s no damn fun without a smoke,” he said.

    He sat up alone by the campfire that night, having eaten just a few bites of the fresh-from-the-river smallmouth bass fillets I had fried up. When I donned my hunting vest the next morning, I thought he would show some enthusiasm, and to his credit, he tried. Only a few hundred yards into our climb, however, he turned back, his confused and obviously disappointed Lab looking back as my Brittany and I clambered upward toward the chukar music.

    When I returned to camp several hours later with a near limit of chukars, Steve was sitting by the smoldering fire trying to roll a cigarette using some kind of dried weed he had crushed and sprinkled on a sheet of toilet paper. He was having trouble making it stay together, though, and when he finally concocted something that looked somewhat smokable, he ignited part of his beard trying to light it. With little conversation, I fixed lunch while Steve wandered off searching, I guessed, for a better source of “tobacco,” so after eating, I grabbed a fly rod and headed down the Snake.

    Back at camp in the early evening, Steve was once again sitting by the campfire. This time, he had cut a 2-inch round from a willow branch, hollowed out a basin, cut a hole in the side, rolled up a “stem” using part of a magazine cover wrapped in duct tape and inserted it in the hole leading to the bole — rustic but somewhat pipe-like in appearance.

    “Whatcha usin’ for tobacco this time?” I asked.

    “Tobacco weed!” Steve enthused. “There’s some growing near that big rock by the river.”

    I had heard that Native Americans had used tobacco weed in ceremonial pipes, but I didn’t know if this reddish-brown plant was it, and I doubted there was any nicotine involved. I didn’t say anything to Steve, though, and I watched hopefully as he stuffed his pipe and lit it.

    Considering the limitations, it was actually a very functional pipe, but when Steve took that first hard drag, his cheeks puffed out so far they covered his squinting eyes. The coughing began immediately — hard, raspy, gagging expulsions that threatened to bring up the lining of his lungs. With tears welling up, he dropped the whole smoking mess into the sand and sat there coughing and shaking his head like a dog with a head full of skunk. “Wrong stuff?” I asked sympathetically.  Eyes closed, Steve just nodded violently up and down.

    I thought that perhaps the pipe incident would end Steve’s quest for nicotine, but on the second full day, I returned from another successful chukar hunt to find him in the river, thrashing about in an accumulation of driftwood caught in an eddy near shore. He had found an old weathered kayak paddle and said if he could find the kayak, he would paddle it back down the river.

    “Just hang on, buddy,” I encouraged. “We’ll be out of here in the morning.”

    True to his word, the outfitter showed up right on time, and Steve found his carton of cigarettes; he chain-smoked all the way back to the launch. Shortly after I got home, I went to see a friend, Raleigh, a former smoker who quit bird hunting four years ago because the tubes from his oxygen tank messed up his swing. I made a mental note to introduce him to Steve.

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