Back of Beyond Farm is a small, family run operation in Rist Canyon, Colorado. We work closely with natural rhythms to create wellness teas from indigenous and naturalized plants. 2013 marks our 4th year of supporting our community through tasty teas. In the year ahead, we hope to continue our work of not only producing healthful teas, but also exploring the edges of what it means to farm and be a part of a place.
Oh, the first shots were awful. Big, bright, cackling roosters coming off point or flush from the old Lab or young Shorthair. Misses, not shooting.....it looked like a long day.
At 5:30am, the neighbors (Shane and Keston) picked us up and we started the day with a drive north, to Cheyenne and then just beyond towards Torrington. A beautiful morning unfolded, and with it the great conversation that comes on car rides with dogs and boys and the looming hunt.
We knew this may very well be Libby's last trip north to hunt. The end of many good seasons. The 12 year old Lab was struggling through shoulder pain, but still showed enough puppy with the puppy to give it one more chance. Bess, the year old German Shorthair that the Downing's got last summer had just returned from a trip to North Dakota to hunt and proved she'd learned a lot. Our first walk produced a stellar point from the young dog (boys shot and missed) and then a flush from the old dog (boys were to surprised to shoot). Ah, moments when you wish it were your hunt.
A few more birds flushed - some missed shots (I think I am remembering this right), and then, finally. The old dog wouldn't quit hunting as we tried to decide what to do. Her swirling tail telling us a flush was imminent. Kabe moved into position and then the flush and then the shot and then the tumble of bird heading back to Earth. Ecstasy. Elation. Relief. The rest of the day would be bonus for the perfect moment of old dog and new hunter. Mile-wide smile. At least two of them.
The walk, back towards the car, was full of excitement. Keston downed a bird. Others flushed wild. At the end of the block of grass we were walking Bess went on point, again. This time betraying the bird. Makabe shot and two roosters were in the game bag. Christmas dinner was secured.
The day got hot, the old dog proved wily in flushing birds the young dog missed. They both hunted their hearts out. We chased flushed birds, the boys got hot. There was an incident with dog and feces. And finally, one last walk.
We headed towards a short block of trees that had held birds in the past. The luck of the hunt had Kabe walking to the southern edge of the trees, Keston went north. Bess, betraying owner, hunted our side, pointed then ran after the running bird, pinned it and flushed the bird back towards us. One more shot (it seemed to take forever for Kabe to pull the trigger - my mind yelling "Shoot!") One more rooster. A limit.
The drive home was swell as well. The boys tired, but not sleeping. A gas stop and junk food feast. And then, at home, the celebration of sisters and mother. The floating of feathers, the encouragement of the little Lab, Juniper, smelling her first pheasant. Three beautiful birds and the swelling pride, confidence and respect of a growing hunter in his first season.
...and shoot, and shoot, and shoot. In late September, Kabe and I went looking for a big fat Mallard Drake to pluck and roast for one of our Holiday gatherings (have you seen the price of an organic raised duck in the market??? Sheeese!). Colorado, like many states, offers a chance for youth hunters to hunt a few days before the regular season opens. It's an effort to attract folks to the sport of hunting and get them the chance to have a high opportunity for success. And hunter numbers are important whether you hunt, believe in hunting, or just like wildlife.
The way our wildlife management is set-up in the US is that hunters, almost solely, pay for managing wildlife. Your tax dollars don't. Plane and simple: hikers, climbers, bikers, bird watchers, campers, and trail runners don't fund wildlife - state wildlife agencies that manage species like Elk and Grouse also manage species like Herons and Preeble's Jumping Mice. Through a special tax on hunting equipment and the license fees hunters pay to help all sorts of species. So keeping hunting, across generations, is paramount to keeping a funding stream for the science and enforcement and habitat enhancements needed to support wildlife.
Back to the story.
Leaving the house at 5am, when you know you have hockey practice later in the day, is a little daunting for a 10 year old (he negotiated away from a 4:30am leave time). We set-up on a marsh in the middle of a State Wildlife Area (bought with hunter's dollars) and within a few moments the first ducks of the morning had ripped the air above our heads and landed just outside of range.
It was a good morning. Makabe learned that to hunt is to shoot and to shoot and to shoot and that going hunting and seeing game and getting shots does not mean that you'll be coming home with much to share. 18 shots later and dozens of views of twisting ducks, we were duckless, but wiser. The gift of these youth hunts is that the adult can't hunt. We coach. And in that experience I felt more akin to my Dad. I found myself using similar lines, "Are you aiming or just shooting holes in the clouds?", laughing, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder as we talked. For Kabe, it was fun and disappointing all at the same time. His Mom calls these feelings, "Double-dip Emotions". Mostly, in my experience, I find that it's what it feels like to hunt.
Morning Doves don't make a large meal, but they make up for it in numbers and the chance to teach wingshooting with the trickiest of aerial acrobats. One of the first bird seasons of the Fall, Colorado has a decent number of doves. In recent years Collared-Doves and White-Winged Doves have also moved into the state - one from Eurasia and the other from the Southwest. It's the new global world we live in, where species hitch rides from continent to continent and warming temps allow northern expansion of original range.
Kabe and I headed out on a September Sunday morning. There were doves flying when we closed the car door, so he headed to where he last saw a small flock land and I went round about to where I figured birds would fly. We were both right.
For 20 minutes doves where everywhere and when it all settled we each had a bird in hand. Enough for him to enjoy a celebratory dinner of his first harvest.
It was clear, from this first success, that he was growing as a hunter - not only from the success of the harvest, but maybe more so for his gratitude for the life of the dove and thanksgiving for the wild protein that would become part of him.
First seasons come in fits and starts - successes, learning, set-backs. The beginner's mind has so much to learn and experience. It's easy to forget that. And it's even easier to remember on a warming September morning walking back to the car with your son and a couple of wild birds in hand.
This past weekend was just about right, as far as harvest time goes. Pumpkins to Jack-o-Lanterns, last of the beets - beautiful and tasty, elk strips in the smoker becoming jerky. Some warm the spirit, others the belly. Harvest time - such a bitter sweet time as we watch the transitions happen from green to gold to gone.
Blue (Dusky) Grouse season opens September 1st in Colorado. It's become, somewhat, of a tradition to head into the high mountain valleys to chase these native grouse somewhere on or around Labor Day. This was to be Makabe's first hunt of the year. And 5 month old Juniper, our Yellow Lab pup, was coming along - not so much to hunt as to burn off enough energy to buy us a reprieve from tending her craziness the rest of the weekend.
Blue Grouse aren't known as challenging birds to hunt. Not overly scared of humans, they have been given the name "Fool's Hen" for their willingness to sit tight or hop into a tree and just stare at you. You can legally hunt them with slingshots and many have been killed with sticks and stones to add to the night's dinner. The hardest part is finding them in any numbers. We had one glorious year that keeps us coming back, but other than that, they are few and far between.
The strategy this time of year is to hunt along streams and seeps, places with green forbs for them to eat, berries to pick, and water to drink and keep cool by.
First hunt: we saw some grouse. But not one shot was taken. The highlight being the boys (we often hunt with our neighbors up the canyon) swimming in Sheep Creek to cool off and Juniper trying to take in all the new scents and sights (we trailed a cow and calf moose for some time). The other highlight, not shared by the boys, was the sampling of 9 different berries by the Dads. At least once I saw eyes roll as I yelled, "Shane, over here, gooseberries!". Not many, but variety and intensity of flavor.
Hunting is so much more than harvesting that species you set out intent upon finding. Some days you replace pheasant with flowers, or ducks with roadside apples, or elk with their droppings for fertilizer. The Good Earth is always ready to give. Sometimes it's just we're not open to receiving. It will take the boys time to realize that: they're fixated on "becoming hunters" and that requires the "kill". What I'll do is model what it's like once you have become a hunter - how it can shift - how it can become even more wonderful to be afield with so many more chances to put something in the "the bag".