Monday, January 14, 2008

Blood Sport

I've been hunting now for several years. It was something that I took up as an adult, since I never really had a chance as a kid.

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I was a member of the Boy Scouts and this experience was a defining period in my life. I learned to set goals and accomplish them, I was taught how to camp, how to limit my impact on the environment, and I developed an appreciation for the great outdoors.

As an adult, it is hard to find time to get back outside. Work, kid's activities and other distractions of our all too busy life provide plenty of excuses for putting off time to get back to the great outdoors. So when the opportunity to go hunting came up several years ago, I thought maybe this would be a way of getting back to one of the things I used to love. Well, it sure was, but at the time I had no idea how complex an experience this would be.

Hunting, in many ways, can be pretty boring. Goose hunting, for example, requires us to get out early in the morning, set up the decoys, get in the pit and then wait. Sometimes the birds show up, and many times they don't. While I can assure you that I have plenty else to do besides sitting in a hole in the ground on a 23 degree morning in January, there is great knowledge to be learned through this experience regardless of whether I get a shot off or not.

Sitting, there with my companions, scanning the skies for birds and mostly remaining fairly quiet, I've learned quite a bit about this world we live in. Although somewhat color blind, I've seen the many phases of a winter sun rise. Its not at all like a warm weather sun rise as the first eery glow, followed by a spectrum colors that looks more cold than warm begins to take over the sky.

I've learned the birds wake up in a certain order; the ducks are the early risers it turns out. Often arriving over the blind before the sun is even up. The smaller song birds appear next and then, finally, the geese. those lazy bastards, are the last to arrive. Sometimes a full hour later than the other birds.

To successully hunt, it is important to understand how the birds behave. I'd say "how they think" but I'm not sure there is a whole lot of thinking going on there. At any rate, by this time in the season, the geese generally are pretty cautious - a side effect of being shot at for the preceding two months. They'll show up in the sky, see the decoys in the field and perhaps fly by. One guy will do the calling, and I'll man the flag to create the impression of motion on the field, and if we're lucky the flock might turn and come in for a second look.

By this time, I'll put the flag away, but the caller will continue to work the sound. If all looks cool to the geese, they'll line up into the wind and begin a slow, gliding decent into the field. One of the first things that you learn as a hunter, is how limited a shotgun's range really is, and no matter how often I've been out in the field, it always seems like an eternity until the geese get close enough for us to open fire.

Critical to this timing is knowing when the geese start to "cup". This is one of the most beautiful sights in all of goose hunting. As you can see in the picture above, right before the point of no return the geese begin to cup their wings to reduce their speed and lose their remaining altitude. It is at this moment, that we open fire.

This, for me, is the great oxymoronic aspect of hunting. On one hand we must become a full participant in the natural world that has otherwise been removed from our daily lives. We have to understand it, appreciate it and most importantly use it to our benefit. It is impossible to achieve this state with out being deeply aware of its great beauty. On the other hand, we're there to blow a part of it into oblivion.

I tell you all this, because I had an experience this weekend, that illustrates exactly what I am talking about. During a lull in our hunting, a pair of geese found their way over our field. I waived the flag, my buddy hit the caller and before long the two geese were cupping twenty feet away from us. We slid open the top of the blind, and opened fire. Unfortunately, we only hit one of the geese and its companion got away from us.

But then something weird happened. As the hit goose was in its death throws on the ground, the other goose returned to the field, honking crazily. It stayed just out of range, but it circled around, before it flew off to the west. In the pit, we looked at each other and decided that they must have been companions. Kind of a drag.

Then the weird thing happened.

The bird came back. We were preoccupied with some flocks we had spotted on the horizon so we really weren't paying attention until suddenly it just flew in and landed among the decoys. I remarked that we were lucky it wasn't armed because it clearly got the jump on us!

The whole thing was kind of pathetic. The surviving partner just walked among our decoys honking like it was trying to get a response. We did everything to try to get it to fly away. We yelled, tossed a couple stray corn cobs in its direction. It simply would not leave.

Well, it obviously wasn't going to stay in that cold field forever, and the longer it stayed, the more certain I became of my role in nature. Finally, I guess he decided to move on.

As he took off and began to gain flight, I shot him dead.

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