Edible Bozeman

Essay: Up in the Mountains

Somewhere up there, far above me, Suki is locked up on a bird. She’s beautiful: An English pointer doing the stuff she’s been bred to do is a corrective for a weary soul. But a hitch in my enthusiasm is the small matter of distance. Blue grouse are always up there—not over there or down there, always up. So I continue my climb, lungs and legs burning, and within a couple hundred yards I finally get a glimpse of her. Sure enough, she’s locked up a dozen yards from the base of an ancient Douglas fir, in a meadow of knee-high grass and snowberries that falls precipitously away from beneath her feet. She’s stuck a bird, I can just feel it.

It isn’t like I have to do this. I’ve hunted upland game across half the country for most of the last fifty years, and every species I’ve hunted, with the exception of chukar partridge, is easier to hunt than blue grouse. I love being in the mountains—I have since I moved west when I was fifteen— and from the age of twelve, when I got my first pointer, I’ve loved watching good bird dogs work. I love the fact that the sheer effort required to hunt blue grouse eliminates 95 percent of the bird hunters who might otherwise be my competition. But the mountains are what keep me coming back.

If, perchance, I should drop dead from a heart attack on my next hunt, I will meet my maker in a place that suits us both. Then there’s the matter of taste. As anyone who has ever dined on blue grouse will tell you, there’s not much that’s better. Ruffed grouse might be a touch more delectable, quail a smidgeon more delicate. But no one I’ve served sautéed blue grouse to has ever complained, including The Girlfriend, a recent transplant from the high-cuisine environs of New York City. Th ey’re simply delicious.

Still, you gotta kill one before you can eat it. When I get close enough to really see her, Suki’s eyes are bulging. She’s focused on the bird, which must be hidden no more than 20 feet in front of her, and although I’ve tried a thousand times and failed, I can’t help trying to spot it. Locating a grouse on the ground accomplishes one thing with near certainty: a guaranteed miss after it flushes. So, when the bird launches itself from beneath my feet, as I knew it would because I’ve been doing this forever and I’m older than dirt, I miss with both barrels. A better man would shrug it off as a small part of a larger game. Instead, fuming, I watch the bird fly away. I could have hit the damn thing with a rock.

Then I look around. I’m in the mountains. I pull the smoking empties from the breech, reload, and begin climbing again, following Suki ever farther up. Always, always up.

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