It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true; it’s called ‘Life.’
– from the novel The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett (1948-2015), English author of fantasy novels
It is still months away, my next, and perhaps my last, journey to the Nebraska Sandhills to hunt sharptail grouse and prairie chickens, but the anticipation and longing for another adventure in that country have already become smoldering embers in the tinderbox of my bird hunter’s imagination. The first breeze from the west that carries the scent of autumn this year will set my mind afire with bright remembrances of Sandhills hunts of the past and burning hopes for just one more glorious week among the dunes and prairie potholes.
How many September and October days have my dogs and I hiked the Sandhills in search of grouse? At least a hundred. Maybe two hundred. Dating back forty years now. But we have not made the journey for several years, choosing instead to hunt grasslands in South Dakota and North Dakota.
Drought and the hardships it imposed on the Sandhills have kept us away. The parts of it we hunt were transformed from semi-arid high plains to dusty desert by year after year of record-low precipitation. The rain-deprived, desiccated prairie was a carpet of cactus and sandburs that tortured the dogs’ feet, and the withered plant life could not support the wildlife populations that I knew from “wet” years. Grouse numbers plunged.
Prairie potholes and ponds, the surface waters of the Ogallala Aquifer where it emerges from underground in the deeper valleys between the of dunes, evaporated to puddles, then disappeared. The stock tanks that are filled with water pumped from shallow wells by windmills across the grazing allotments, those stood empty, bone dry, as water levels dropped lower and lower beneath the ground. The Merritt Reservoir shrank until that long, deep lake that borders the 160,000 acres of the McKelvie National Grassland looked like a depleted water storage lagoon in thirsty Southern California.
We hunted one long morning in that desert four years ago and flushed a pair of sharptail grouse in the course of a five or six-mile hike. I did not have the heart to shoot; they may have been the sole survivors on an entire section of parched grazing land.
But the drought has ended with two years of plentiful rains, I am told. The cactus has shriveled, the clumps of prairie grass are tall and thick and waving in the wind, the prairie potholes have re-emerged, the reservoir is filling, and wildlife numbers – including sharptails and prairie chickens – have rebounded. The Sandhills has regained the character of the land I knew and loved forty years ago, and I am eager to renew our affair.
Can a man love a country, 20,000 square miles of rolling hills and steeper dunes, sparsely covered with prairie grasses and forbs, one of the most desolate looking stretches of land on the Great Plains? My rational and reasoning mind tells me “No,” but the swell in my heart when I see the Sandhills come to light and life with an October sunrise tells me “Yes! Oh, most assuredly yes.”
It’s ludicrous, I know, but my enchantment with this place is like an infatuation with a mistress from which I cannot free myself. This fascination has become a cruel, possibly even fatal relationship because she is indifferent to my advancing years, utterly lacking in sympathy for my declining prowess, uncaring that she is timeless while I have grown too old for her and can renew our yearly, week-long fling no longer.
So this autumn may be our “Good-bye tryst.” A last passionate meeting. There may be encounters in years ahead, but they will not be the same. Venturing into the Sandhills when my legs and heart and lungs can no longer meet the demands of hiking the hills, that would be an evening at a philharmonic concert when my failing ears can no longer hear the nuances of the music. Camping by the reservoir when my back cannot tolerate a night sleeping in a tent and let me rise with the morning sun? That would be an eight-course dinner where I cannot drink the wine. A glimpse of a herd of pronghorns that I cannot stalk and photograph because my strength and speed and stamina cannot cover the mile between? A night in the wilderness when I can no longer see the stars clearly?
Times and places that evoke good memories can also dole out bitter torment.
But, as with all musings on pleasures past and likely gone, I remember the excitement and wonder of the first days of our relationship. The promise of a new type of bird to hunt drew me to the Sandhills, and the sharptails and prairie chickens are still at the core of my affection for this place.
My first hunts here, in the 1970s, coincided with peak years of grouse populations, brought on by a series of relatively mild winters followed by warm and rainy nesting seasons in the spring. Warm and wet years are good. A few days of frosty weather and one cold, drenching rainstorm can kill whole broods of chicks in fledgling feathers, thousands of birds across the great open sweep of the Sandhills where there is little protection from a sudden storm. But for a decade, if my memory is right, there were plentiful hatches of birds and good survival as timely rains produced bountiful grasses and forbs, the basis for the greens, shoots, seeds, berries, and insects that are grouse manna.
Those were especially good years for the wild rose. Grouse love rose hips, the bright red berries, smaller than a marble, that grow thick on Nebraska’s wild rose stems in wet years. In the days I was a tyro prairie grouse hunter and a neophyte in knowledge of Sandhills eco-systems, I assumed the sheltered pockets and leeward slopes of the hills were always awash in red, bearing bumper crops of rose hips every summer. I was to learn that a year or two of drought can shrivel these knee-high prairie roses into a dry and brittle state of self-preservation, during which they produce few, if any, berries.
In periods of extended drought (five, six, seven years or more) the entire range of botanical species goes into a sort of dormancy, a defense against the double assault of waterless ground and glaring sun. Tens of thousands of years of natural selection and conditioning has produced plants that can live through this siege, but their lockdown ends the supply of food and shelter that the grouse require, and being a more fragile species than the hearty prairie plants some die of starvation, all decline in reproductive capacity, and the birds seem to be teetering on the brink of extinction.
But it is the years of plentiful grouse numbers that hold my memory and imagination in thrall. I refuse to remember those days when we topped a ridge, the wind at our backs, and looked out across miles of desert that held no sign of life. I vividly recall the days we topped those same ridges and saw endless clumps of prairie grass intergrown with thousands of rose stems that were loaded with berries. Some hillsides seemed to flash a solid blush of crimson.
There were years when every one of those slopes and vales seemed to hold pods of grouse feeding on rose hips, or loafing in bare blow-out dusting areas only yards away. The dogs would get frantically birdy, and suddenly a flock of ten, twenty, thirty birds would go rocketing up from shaded spots in the grass, their tuk-tuk-tuk alarm squawks punctuating the always blowing Nebraska wind.
I remember walking one long series of dunes, foolishly with the wind in our faces, where the grouse that were huddled under the lee of the ridges could see us approach and took wing far out of shotgun range: fifty birds, a hundred, two hundred. They lifted high, set their wings, and went cruising on the wind, disappearing over distant hills.
Every now and then we outsmarted grouse, approaching a set of hills from the upwind side, running across a “saddle” between two likely dunes, stumbling into a “bowl” a half acre in size, and putting to flight dozens of panicked grouse that flushed all around us, a swarm of fat feathery bumblebee-looking birds, the hammering of wings making the dogs run wildly and destroying my shooting form (Shoot that sharpie! No, this one! No, that one! There’s another one! Get the closer one!), leaving me with two smoking barrels and no dead birds on the ground to show for it. I stamped my foot in frustration and had a “skulker” fly up in my face.
Well, there were plenty more to shoot at those years, and bag limit is only three. An embarrassing two-barrel miss did not darken my mood for long.
We were young and could easily walk ten or twelve miles of that broken country, sometimes taking a roundabout hike back to the pickup, each with our three birds in the vest, letting the dogs work and flush grouse we had no intention of shooting, looking out across that fabulous landscape.
I remember it all. How did it go by so quickly? In a flash.
Give me one more day like that. Just one. This October. The birds are there again, I’m told. I have good dogs and a good gun. Good companions are going with me. We know the land and how to hunt it. Somehow I will force my battered and weary old body to hike up and down those hills. Or die trying.
One more day like that in the Sandhills, and this time, I promise, I swear, I won’t take it for granted. I will love it with every ounce of passion that’s left in me.
Scatter my ashes there when I’m gone.
More stories about wildlife, outdoor adventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition through IndieBound independent bookstores.