Chukar Crucible in Nature’s Deep Freeze – 5 Day Solo Trip on Salmon River

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About to turn age 65 early February, what to do?  Looking around at friends whom have checked out early, why not celebrate my still going strong by doing a solo winter float to chase chukars down the Lower Salmon River?  My dogs would kiss me for such access to Nirvana.

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Thoreau’s line: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” kept running through my mind  and made me realized there is still much music to be played.  Stagnation is all about becoming a dullard and I’m just not ready for a life without song yet, and probably never will be.

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But why Salmon River?

With several solo winter trips notched  in my gunslinger psyche  on Oregon’s Grande Ronde River and one through Hell’s Canyon, shortly after the “Green Room” at Granite Rapids was named (I was on that naming trip, too),  I simply never got around to doing such a float down my backyard river.   So it seemed only appropriate I was now old enough to let my more adventuresome side out of the box again.  With only one way to keep the primordial adrenalin glands working properly, and  as any biologist worth their salt can tell you, that old Darwinian axiom about “use it or lose it,” always applies.

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And, why solo? Well, finding other crazy enough hunters that want to hike their guts out climbing steep ugly slopes for  furious flying birds with far less meat than an elk, is hard enough, let alone braving winter extremes to execute such self-inflicted punishment.

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Besides, it isn’t that I don’t like people, but as a guide, most of my time is always spent adjusting everything to satisfy other people’s interests.  Sometimes it’s nice just worrying about my own wishes.  Traveling solo assures total self-gratification and the river’s lonely sound of solitude.   No competition for campsites, fishing holes, or hunting grounds, is another rarity of welcome freedom.

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Once intellectually committed, not to an insane asylum, but to the trip, then what? Planning is ground zero,  especially when traveling alone in remote country with no satellite phone under severity of error that is like standing at the brink of a black hole.    So, topping the list for a round-trip ticket into  the cold chukar crucible this time of year is choice of boat.  As an outfitter, I have many, and hard boats are my favorite and long time specialty. Unfortunately, the degree of risk for potential flips or romancing rocks goes up dramatically in a dory or driftboat. Righting an over turned craft of any kind by oneself in icy water is thin to thinner with dogs climbing your back and  hypothermia  squeezing  insidiously at your soul.  I’m doing this trip for comfort, not survival.

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Flip potential and nemesis number one in my mind is a rapid called Bodacious Bounce. In only very low flows does a menacing back curling wave appear, like hungry jaws in the unavoidable middle of this substantial drop.  A hairline cheat run exists to the left side that requires precise oaring and timing, but one missed stroke here is like landing on the loaded cylinder in a game of River Russian Roulette. Only the bullet here is a big bad swim and no trail to hike out. Having two dogs along that jump away from waves when they should be high-siding, also doesn’t help.

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Then there is Snowhole Rapid.  It isn’t an easy place to have a clean run in a dory at low water, either.  Many steep pour-over holes barely covering the rocks require extra-precise maneuvering with tiny leeway for error.  Though I’ve threaded the needle cleanly several times in warmer weather, it is still a duress filled run with tight-wire stress and enough draining tension to empty a lake. Who needs more of that?

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To sleep better at night, my decision boiled down to bringing my larger 19’ Aire baggage raft.  I liked the idea of being high, dry, and having less likelihood of a flip.  My dogs could bounce around shadow boxing with the waves all they wanted without throwing my trim off, too.

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Paying close attention to weather is another key ingredient to successful winter trips.   Timing is of the essence to have a relatively problem free adventure. Thinking back on my previous winter runs on the GR, in my early 20’s, I remember the ice bridge crossings, jagged edges of ice rosettes, and unusual conditions when arctic cold turns the river into a consistency that felt more like being trapped in the middle of snow-cone ice that is moving at a caterpillar’s pace.  It was a race against time before the river could morph into solid ice and secure my stay for much longer than planned. Eating fish and moss all winter is not very appealing.

Soloing the Snake through Hells Canyon in my mid 30’s, was an epic story itself. Where rocks were a problem on the GR, mammoth sized rapids was the feared devil in Hell’s.  Also, the phrase, “when Hell freezes over” takes on much more significance when trying to get a hard boat down the deepest canyon in North America when it is not “hotter than Hell.”

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What could the Salmon Canyon have in store?

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With  more than a dozen ice bridges between Riggins and Wind River as I prepared for my journey,  I had to be sure none existed  at the lower end.  However, with 425 miles of free-flowing river, the Salmon slices through enough distance that geology transmutes the canyon into several different geomorphological sections. Each is affected differently by influence of elevation, aspect, and weather.

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From North Fork to Riggins the river flows due west, but when it reaches Riggins, turns immediately north until the last 5 miles, where it changes west again to collide with the Snake.  The lower end does not ice up as often and melts off earlier when it does.    Learning that there were no ice bridges in the lower gorge, in addition to a favorable long-range weather report, was my green light to go.

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Boat of choice finalized, having other essential gear for the most extreme conditions and a sudden emergency is also crucial.  The difference between comfort and keeping the grim reaper at bay is made by astute attention to detail and advanced prep for potential uncertainties. Traveling solo also adds greater danger with far less wiggle room for being dumb when situations go south.  My northern experiences boating solo and doing commercial trips in Alaska, also taught me to be on guard at all times to the nuances of nature, because often that is where weird things like to hide out.

Ever heard of a jökulhlaup? This is an Icelandic term for outburst floods caused by glacial lakes being breached and sending a disjointed tsunami down the river course that is fed by these mega ice plugs.  Camping on higher ground is essential when floating some places in the far wilds of the Last Frontier.

It is always the small things that seem at first to be quite innocuous, that often have a sleeping demon just below the surface.  It is surprising how much a simple episode can escalate into a tidal wave of tragic wipeout. One missed oar stroke, poor entry, or catching a wave wrong; breaking a leg on a high  ridgeline; falling down in a patch of prickly pear cactus; burning a hand cooking dinner;  falling off a frosty raft and getting wet in water intended for coffee;  and so on.  Karmonic vigilantism lies in wait for the disrespectful and unaware, so fine tuned weariness is always required.

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With game on, under cerulean sky and a low slung sun, my two Weims and I were off and running in my big red raft. The dogs love it as they can remain dry and have a high platform to ogle at all the surrounding chukar landscape.  It is a bird dogs dream boat.

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Frost covered every rocky shoreline and sandy beach that lived in zones of the all-day shade.  Isolated from  sun, the inner sanctum of the canyon was coated with mold-like tendrils of white ice, called verglas. It was like floating through  nature’s freezer box.  I half expected to see packages of elk burger and salmon fillets stacked in rows along each side of the river.

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 The sheer beauty of the gorge stripped of her summer clothes, is outrageous enough to make even an envious lover jealous.  A low hanging winter sun creates long shadows across the viewscape and marbles the terrain with sharp contrasts that simply are not possible any other time of year.  It conjures up various moods, as if some ancient shaman was stirring up mystical magic and sprinkling it generously over all the world.

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Excessive chasms inspire deep thoughts, about as much as high ridges inspire lofty ones.  Finding ones self alone in the middle of such largeness and solitude while hunting chukars makes me feel my smallness..  It unleashes my mind to be wild and free as if being blown by gale force winds and whipped across infinite horizons to be absorbed  by the far off hinterlands.  Getting so lost is the best way to find yourself.

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Living in the Land of Oz can’t last forever, as I was reminded when  chukars  rudely burst  into the sky and triggered me back into the real world.  When chasing ninja chukars, also known as “devil birds,”  during the winter in steep canyons it is quite important to consider how much snow accumulates, where, and in what condition it is.  Footing is treacherous enough in good conditions, but downright dangerous when snow freezes hard after a slight melt. Elk, deer, and cow carcasses can sometimes be found in gullies after taking a slip on steep side slopes in such extremes.  Unlike clawed animals, they can’t just turn over on their bellies and dig themselves a self-arrest. A tragic end for them, but lucky for ravens, magpies, and coyotes.

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When I wasn’t hunting chukars, which were hard to find,  I was dodging rocks and avoiding splash. In the process,  I did see a few bald eagles, 3 or 4 otters, 10 whitetail deer, and an assortment of ducks, geese, and birds. But, no elk. Not even in the upper reaches of the canyon  did I see one anywhere.  Where were they? And where were all the chukars that normally fill this riverine niche?

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My theory is that during mild winters the lower elevations are in the shade far too long during the day while birds can enjoy wind-swept ridges in the sun for far longer periods of time. Food, cover, and water is all there. They don’t need to get to the river for critical water like they do when it is hot. Nor do they need to leave the heavenly heights for food and can bask above while laughing at me far below.  They innately seem to know that negotiating through  layers of edgy lava flows can be demoralizing and the tortuously rugged steepness will wear me out before getting to their level of refuge.  Did I mention the canyon is a mile deep in places?

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So though I did have chukar for dinner, the conditions were not that great for good hunting. But they were nice for making an off beat outdoor adventure down the canyon much easier. Sure it was cold, but in a tipi style tent accommodated with heater and plenty of blankets, it was a cozy affair.  Unfathomable numbers of stars sparkled like diamonds dancing in a frigid sky, despite the inevitable pee break that was usually needed in the middle of the night. Did I mention ice box canyon before?

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While my primary goal was chukar hunting, another aspect I enjoy about solo running,  is the ease to become so thoroughly absorbed by such  moments smack dab in the middle of nowhere (or everywhere)  that one can get lost in time.  Since I have never had a wrist watch since high school, and due to the nature of my lifestyle and allergic reactions to strict schedules and time tables, I often don’t know until I need to know, what day it is.

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Such was the case by the time I got to Blue Canyon, not too distant from trips end.  It is one of my favorite places and its vertical cliffs are so steep and narrow, it is more like being far enough in the bottom of a well to see the stars in the middle of the day.  Though not able to see any constellations, it did allow for much pondering. I like that feeling of getting all swallowed up by great natural beauty and getting lost in space and time. Day what?

On the last day as I was pulling into the take-out, I reminisced about my more youthful days that helped make this type of journey possible. Having a track coach dad helped, , whom taught me early on, to always get up when I fall down, and that finishing the race is far more important than how fast you run it.   Never say die, and keep on keeping on, soon became my life-time mantra.

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Of course, I was also thankful that I was a distance runner and wrestler in those days, too. In my profession and in the crucible of chukar hunting world, endurance sports make a big difference.  65 isn’t my IQ, though it helps for running after chukars, but it is proof that doing things like this is possible to do and still live to tell about it, despite age. Keep on, keepin on, even if death is an inch or mile away.

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Note: Anyone who would like to see video footage of our run through Snowhole Rapid can go to: https://www.facebook.com/Riverdoryfun

Gary Lane
Wapiti River Guides
www.doryfun.com

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Chukar Hunting Isn’t About the Chukar

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pittsburg landing oct 23, 2013 006

At first, as you gather your gear to ready for the endurance performance lying in wait, you might think it is about hunting down the elusive chukar. But, in reality it is far more than that.  It is ironically more about the hunter than the bird.  Sure, we dress our delusions in all kinds of appropriate garb, from blistering  “see me from a thousand miles off” blaze orange, to thick-skinned gators for counteracting ominous rattlesnake fangs, and go about the business of putting one foot in front of the other.  Then we leap forward into challenging terrain meant more to accommodate an assorted disarrayment of miscellaneous  personality disorders, than common sense.

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Like the Tuhumarra runners, who run for the sheer joy of running, chukar hunters hunt for the joy of the hunt.  Getting  birds is only a mild side attraction that happens during a grueling confrontation with the self, as that is always the result when the extremes of mother nature rears its head. You don’t have to be crazy to hunt chukars, but it helps.

 

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It is not often easy to start oneself at the foot of any kind of precipitous slope.  But the real trick is how to get the momentum to move in the  beginning. Yet even when you find the right pull-cord to ignite that internal switch, there is still  that need to find enough courage to yank on the line. Sometimes, shutting your eyes is all it takes, other times all kinds of procrastinating mechanisms keep running in the background of our cerebral computer, so finding the right key to unlock access to them is ultimately required.  Whatever method finally works,  then it pretty much is about putting in the time, and repetition of increasing the amount of time one puts in. The more you add, the better you get at adjusting to the physical demands, and quelling those demons of the mind that always surface to tell you to go back home to a warm fire and comfortable recliner. Getting those wanton images of comfort  repressed, is no easy task as they keep permeating the mind like those nuisance computer pop-up ads that invites an angry smack-a-mole response.

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This might be more of a common  problem to those of us who hunt a lot; more than just a weekend warrior battleground; or are at least old enough to have already bagged  a vast number of heavenly treks to the skyward lairs of the ninja chukars.  So we, or I, in my case, sometimes find it hard to get all charged up with the enthusiasm like we did in our youth or when we were novice hunters.  When every thing is fresh and new, there is always more energy associated with the magic of anticipation.  Not knowing all the harsh realities that come with naïve exuberance helps motivate the uninitiated. While it takes a bit more to so thoroughly excite those juices of electricity for the more experienced veterans.

 

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More often that not my biggest help in getting motivated are my two weims. If I just mention the word “chukar” their ears perk up, tails go full throttle, and they stare me down with that can-we-go-now look, that just can’t be ignored.  Like kids excited for a trip to the carnival, I can’t say no. So before I know what happened, they are kenneled-up and on  our way to chukar-land.  Be it by rig or boat, lookout chukars, here we come. As if those rascally birds need any kind of warning once our presence is on their turf, they practically know when we are there before we do. But, all the same, we play on their board, their game and forget about the small print that spelled out the real rules we soon learn first-hand on the slopes.  For such a small bird there sure is a lot of ruthless ninja-ness to them.

Soon my attention is all on the dogs.  As their noses do their business they eventually find the money.  And nothing is so beautiful as seeing them on point and testing birds, or more accurately being tested by the birds.  The next test is for me to get in front of them to flush birds and get something on the ground for their next phase of the hunt.

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However, admittedly my  first objective is to get the “if-I’m-only-quick-enough” photograph, and this often means sacrificing  good shots or an opportunity to down a bird.  Sometimes I even hesitate to tell friends about my skirmishes with these devil birds, as they already think it crazy to hike to such extremes and then return home without a bird or any trace of the feathers.  What to show for?   But I am not married to having preconceived numbers to satisfy, or some sort of symbol to represent my hunting prowess or lack thereof. It isn’t about the chukar, it is all about the hunt, the dogs, the views, the falls, the challenges, the feelings of being alive that always comes with the evoked inspiration of special places.

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So, that’s ok, the old proverb about great rewards come with great difficulty is also true.  And, once I find myself out on the hill again, soloing silently in  solitude and never knowing  what new drama nature has in store still makes me thankful every time I go.  And in reality, those are all the things, rather than the actually killing of a chukar that stir my juices and get me going.  A sip of that lingering thought is the catalyst required for me to lower that  first foot down, so the other can be lifted up to seek the lofty stratosphere enriched with that  rarified air so invigorating to the soul.

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Gary Lane
Wapiti River Guides
www.doryfun.com

Copper Canyon of Chukarville

2 Comments

 

chukar roger dec 26, 2013 094

No, as far as I know, there are no chukars in the Copper Canyon, where the greatest ultradistance runners of all time  eek out a living in the Lost-World like remoteness of the deepest canyon in Mexico.  Though deeper than the Grand Canyon, it isn’t as deep as the Salmon River Canyon, where I spend most of my time hunting chukars.

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However, as I spend most of my time yo-yoing up and down some of the most precipitous chukar terrain in North America, I often feel like a Talaharara runner, who need and have the physical prowess and endurance required to scale such grandiose exotica terra firma as their beloved Copper Canyon.

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Another reason I can identify with those crazy indigenous people who run such torturous courses, is that I chase chukars for the same reason they  insanely push the limits of human kind.    As odd as it might seem when you think about the endurance and internal toughness that such endeavors require, love of running and hiking is what brings a smile to those who know deep inside what the entire affair really is all about.

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As an elder huntsman  chukar chaser, an old runners motto that I like to apply to my hunting endeavors is:  “you don’t stop running because you are too old, you get old because you stop running. ”  Though I may not be running up these steeply inclined obstacle courses, the challenges are not much different,  only the  pace.  Yet pacing is what it is essentially all about, which reminds me of another quote by Ken Mierke that I often think  about  when the going gets tough: “Nearly all runners do their slow runs too fast, and their fast runs too slow.”

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So when my breath gets out of tune with my steps on  treacherous ground that leads ever upward where the neck must be bent far back on the shoulders to see the goal above, I think about balance. Adjusting between fast and slow during acclivity and declivity is the ticket to chukar land,  as dictated by physio-inclinations and geomorphology. Ok, fancy words for steep-sum-bitch, act accordingly.

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So for those of you chukar hunters in the elder huntsman upward age category, here is another encouraging thought to consider the next time you take to the hills, it is all about a state of mind. Take into account  some of the recent science from the runner’s world of those ultra marathoner athletes. Studies show that starting at age 19, most runners get faster until they peak at age 27. But, the rate for slowing back down to that 19-year-old level isn’t the same 8 years. In fact, it isn’t until age 64. Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t  it? Note: I write this at age 64, just so I can celebrate appropriately, before another birthday.

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The amazing thing  is, this rate of endurance change  is not the same case for any other human sport, except running. Thus, in my mind is prima facia evidence that we are made for endurance. Thank goodness for that, because chukars require such worthiness of endurance for anyone crazy enough to pursue  them. It also makes me glad I was a distance runner in high school and college, though only one marathon, because it helps me tremendously now for chasing birds.  So, while I was never an ultramartathoner, or even an ultra runner, I do like to think of myself as always in training to be an ultrachukar hunter.  And when I think about the 97-year-old marathon runner still pounding the ground,  it gives me hope that I can continue chasing these little feathered demons for a good long while yet. And also, to continue guiding  those too, whom are similarly afflicted with   such ambitious addictions. May the chukar be with you. Keep on keeping on.

Dave Baum chukar sept 20 and 21 009

Gary Lane
Wapiti River Guides
www.doryfun.com