Each hunting season arrives with the first breaths of fall. My parents come every year for the opening day of bird season, bringing an English Setter who travels with the extravagance of a prince on safari. Arriving from about a hundred yards above sea level and hunting just under 10,000 feet in elevation, their journey from the Appalachian hills of southern Ohio to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado is a constant climb. Under a bathing yellow light filtered through golden aspen leaves, we hunt our dogs. The promise of points, the assurance of heavy boots and the possibility each footstep contains push us to endure for hidden within the boundaries of White River National Forest are numerous opportunities for a wingshooter and hound to chase wild birds on public land.
We hunt Dusky Grouse, my father and I, in the high country behind pointing dogs, animals with wit and grace. Blues as they are often called are found in air so thin your shot pattern whistles and the flush of grouse wings beats against your chest. My Dad’s recent autumns afield have been behind English Setters, poking holes in tree branches and shooting at woodcock. A slow evolution from southern Ohio coon hunter into a well-traveled upland hunter, he seems to have enjoyed the transition. I remember my father’s ink-black hair from my youth, his dark beard catching chowder like ceiling paint dripped on a velvet Elvis. The same bright eyes sparkle with light beneath a salted gray now. The same grayed coat of his English Setter, Max. He sports the colors well with the poignant reverence of a seasoned college professor. And, as I reflect upon our time in the field I begin to see the thin pinstripe brushstrokes of white now streaking through my facial hair with an increasing regularity.
On National Forest land with alpine creeks choked into pools by beaver and willows, we hunt snipe. Most scoff when we divulge our targeted quarry as the more recognized “fictional” bird of childhood pranks. Snipe migrate south from northern climes, and we prove to be the first guns to test their speed as the birds hold tight for points from my Brittany, Lola. The telltale “scaipe” in their voice comes as a welcomed call when received behind a pointing dog. Liberal limits of Wilson’s Snipe allow numerous shots afield for the acrobatic little birds with our 20 gauge shotguns--a shooter’s delight. Banking back and forth with hummingbird speed on the initial flush, these handfuls of feathers quickly create space between hunter and fleeing bird--all the while shouting their call.
The Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse provides a welcomed option for our game bag. The grassy, rolling hills contrast sharply with the Blue Grouse habitats at lung-searing elevations. Special permits allow access during weekends and holidays, giving us the impression of solitude in a normally congested area. In Colorado, acquiring a mixed bag of wild, Colorado birds while hunting exclusively on public lands remains a task not easily achieved but honestly attainable.
Opening day births traditions--both new and old--from hunts past. As a vital component to our first day afield, we drive into Minturn for a mid-day breakfast. The diner shows its age--with bits of vintage memorabilia all around. The plywood Marilyn Monroe and James Dean out front greet customers with their empty, cutout faces. We order from memory--a menu merely passes the time. Huevos rancheros with jalapenos is always my decision--despite repeated mental debate. Boos Burrito lands upon my father’s plate, a local favorite at the Turntable. His extra plate of hash-browns seem unnecessary but are always gone when he finishes.
We laugh and talk, reminisce on hunts past and how the dogs performed today. The toy train will circle the ceiling or it might not be running--it really doesn’t matter--we know it is there. The waitresses are icons of the little, mountain town. Known by all, they could run for mayor and win on facial recognition alone. As constants in this ever-changing world, their slow shuffle speed brings comfort to our souls, knowing some things remain the same. The mountains, the wild birds and our affection for pointing breeds are constant too, but the brief glimpse of light our lives illuminate upon this earth is the changing factor we cannot control. And I know that one day I will sit here alone.
Amidst the rocky reaches of Colorado’s high country, deeply entrenched in public lands our pointers strive for scent following their instinctive drive for upland birds. And we immerse ourselves in the moment. I bask in the company of the one who opened the passageway to the outdoors for me. We both live for the day that arrived with the sun and will regret nothing tomorrow, for today on Opening Day we have chosen to truly live. And, tomorrow I’m going shopping with Mom.