Falcon, Dog, Daughter and Dad

by Ross Matteson

( Copyright 2000 Matteson   Please do not print or publish this story without permission from author. )


A smile crossed my face as the simple elegant log home finally appeared in the headlights. Warmth and hospitality took on a lovely new meaning. This was no grimy hunting cabin. It was clean, thoughtfully designed and full of soft, colorful mounted game. A big wild turkey in flight was presented beautifully above the descending staircase. Furs were draped over comfortable furniture and a mantle holding a duck call, feathers, pictures and miscellaneous spent shells framed a welcoming fireplace. My seven year old daughter Alanna buried her face in the soft furs with timeless childlike delight.

We settled in. We were nearing the end of our first day having nicely been missed by the bullet of "too long in the truck and no place to stay." We made our nest, had a bite to eat and then read from her "Harry Potter" book. I promised only two chapters. The suspenseful reading was fun. We were cozy and revived, but I was anxious to get an early start the next morning.

Being exposed to falconry from birth, Alanna has never been squeamish around hooked beak and talons. She loves nature. She also loves tattoo style necklaces, new clothes and danceable CD's. Gratefully, the combination of modern girl with natural predator is not irreconcilable. In the middle ages or the new millenium, there just can't be enough princesses holding falcons!

The new day arrived. It seemed to only slightly brighten the landscape. But the uninviting cold fog began to lift as falcon, dog, daughter and dad all finally started moving forward in four-wheel drive. We were looking for our first "slip" – the falconer's theatrical equivalent to the opening scene of a hunt. My gyrfalcon named "Maquette" had weighed in at 37.1 ounces and my Brittany named "Ace" was of course more than ready to run. Alanna was well informed about the attention I would be giving to the animals. Remembering though, all the times my bush pilot father had almost frozen my feet off, I was working very hard to balance Alanna’s needs with my own.

Our first walk was through the sage. I was trying to act nonchalant as we looked for both arrowheads and bird tracks, but I was also ready to release Maquette at the first point of a paw. We found no pheasants or arrowheads but enjoyed listening to the yap and bark of a lone coyote and we were happy to be together. All of the way out and all of the way back to the truck, my hooded falcon was in hand. We ate a snack and then let Ace run along beside the truck as we continued our slow roll down the farm road. It was certainly not as romantic as the most traditional hunts on horseback, but it was just fine. Our circumstance was going to leave us with enough on our plate even if Ace didn’t give us a rock solid point on our desired game.

I didn't want to unhood and release my falcon until I was certain of a sitting pheasant ready to flush. Why waste the energy of this hungry bird by having him circle high above with no prepared incentive. At some critical moment he would need a reward. If no game materialized and I wanted to keep him hungry for another flight, I would have to call him back to a man-made lure and a measly tidbit of meat. This was certainly not going to leave the same impression as being "cropped up" on a warm pheasant after a gracefully choreographed stoop. A falcon flying fast in the wrong direction was the last thing I needed. I carefully weighed variables of potential flights.

My father always used traditional falconry bells attached to the legs of his falcon to help locate his lost birds. My equipment also includes a small high tech transmitter and directional radio receiver. With the aid of bells, radio telemetry, a full tank of gas, a road going in the right direction and prayer, looking for a lost falcon would not be completely without hope.

We found the swamp. It was one referred to at length with glowing reports in the cabin’s hunting journal, so we all got back out of the truck. Maquette prefers pheasants to ducks, although he is perfectly capable of taking both. I let the waterfowl flush off the open water without chase. There was no doubt in my mind that what we really wanted to find were pheasants. First, we crunched and whacked our way through the dense skeletons of tumbleweed, locally known to hunters as "Brown Death". It grew so high that in places it blocked Alanna’s view of the horizon. No wonder the pheasants liked it in here along the marshy waterline. Ace was excited. Admittedly, he was more likely to flush than to point, but how would I ever be able to see him in all of this cover even if he did hold a good point? I scouted and set a pace trying to keep in mind my daughter's head and boot height. In my gloved left hand, Maquette was still hooded, his head completely covered by one of the relics of ancient falconry – but he was very keen to the situation for a bird still in the dark. He started pumping his wings.

While I had one finger on my falcon trigger, I had my other finger in my daughter’s hand. Creatively adjusting to the new habitat, Alanna suddenly delighted herself with an imaginative derivative of Hansel and Gretel… instead of bread crumbs though, it was cattail fluff! For the next twenty minutes we were protected from losing our way back home because of the fluff she systematically unleashed behind our path. I kept her well supplied with old cattail heads while progressing slowly through the "Brown Death". Finally, finally, a hen pheasant flushed! It was not close but it was in an area fairly easy to mark. My heart started beating like the pheasant's wings. Where was Ace? We managed to gather ourselves for council. Ace was now on heel. Maquette was unhooded. After a short pause, the falcon was "cast off" into flight. His dark eyes absorbed the daylight and promise of intent from an ever-lowering horizon. We quickly worked our way toward the reflush. Maquette was putting on a nice pitch of about 300 to 400 feet up and was not too far out as gyrfalcons are prone to be when first released. I was hoping that if we reflushed the pheasant, the timing would correspond to a good altitude and upwind position of the falcon. Stomping forward, yelling and running through what felt like a net of brushy resistance, I could sense Alanna’s desperation. Her uncertainty was partially contagious to my own thoughts and partially real from just trying to stay up with me. With a burst of adrenaline, I hoisted her up onto my shoulders until we reached the spot where the pheasant should have been. When we got there, I put her down. Ace sensed the excitement but somehow still went in a different direction. We yelled for him to come back to our tangled destination. He just followed his nose, vibrating off through the brush.

What a thrill it was when the pheasant finally did flush with my falcon in an almost ideal position overhead. This hungry falcon was confident of his ability to take this specific bird in flight and made instantaneous pursuit. His stoop was intense but it was not quite enough to touch the pheasant before the arc of her 75 yard low flight dropped back into the thick, shoulder-high cover. The meeting of falcon, game and cover were all within inches before Maquette pitched up to avoid a nasty collision with the brush and unforgiving earth. Wow! I shared my joy of the flight with Alanna even though she had only been able to see the first part of the falcon’s stoop from her low vantage point. "Ace! Alanna did a better job of flushing the pheasant than you did…and you were… who knows where you were?" We laughed and then made only some effort to find the pheasant again. Eventually, we called Maquette down to the lure, rehooded him and made our way back to the truck.

Our next destination was a long planned secret stop to shoot huge bales of straw with our bow and arrows. The bales had been lined up to serve as wind brakes for the soil. Our shooting was brief because the retrieval of arrows transitioned into a delightful activity of bale climbing. We hopped from one giant bale to another hunting for a new kind of game… just having fun! It was not difficult in this ultimate of open playgrounds.

I was at peace. We still had another day left or at least another morning. After that it would be time to head home. I was hopeful, even optimistic of another good flight before then.

When we ventured forth the next day, the enclosed cab of our truck suddenly lost its charm to hold Alanna in. I opened the door and out into an unplanted field she ran like a spring-loaded filly. The joy expressed in that burst of energy was matched only by a calm interlude we also shared. We were back in the truck rolling slowly along. With her eyes closed and her smiling face in the sunshine, Alanna spoke softly. Within a few inspired seconds, everything representing good to her filled our truck – friends, summer, joy, sunshine and life! Her eyes remained closed. Her poetic stream of consciousness immersed us both in gratitude. This unforgettable moment passed after a little while back into a "normal" father/daughter day of hunting with a hungry falcon and pleadingly eager dog.

After that we had a couple of unsuccessful flights which took us through the afternoon, well past our intended departure time. Each attempt had been close to our truck with Ace on point. Ace had either falsely pointed or the prey had smartly escaped. I would then call Maquette back down to the lure and give him a small piece of meat and then cover his eyes again by putting on his hood. Late in the afternoon, peeking into a choice rim-rocked draw, I saw a large covey of quail and just couldn’t resist the third and last flight of the day.

I unhooded and cast the falcon off from my gloved hand. It was a mistake. Maquette saw no future in the program because of the most recent series of events and simply headed up and then out of sight. The rough terrain surrounding this little canyon was not very radio - telemetry friendly. So, I drove up to a high point on the farm hoping to get some useful information from my specialized radio and directional antenna. Thank goodness from the high point, I could hear a faint beeping signal coming from the tiny transmitter attached to Maquette's tail. We had already packed and cleaned the cabin, so the immediate task at hand was just finding my bird.

I looked for roads that would take us in the right direction, but was increasingly faced with the discomforting possibility that my falcon had flown across the Columbia River. My triangulations were not conclusive, however it was getting dark and now it was starting to snow. I had a sixty-mile decision to make as the nearest bridge was not near by. The radio signal was weak, enough to make my bird at least two or three miles away. I thought about the two to three day battery life on Maquette’s small transmitter. After not getting any signal at all from some of the low vantage points, I decided to go for it. I handed Alanna a flashlight to read with, while turning the steering wheel. We had a long shot plan. We would drive well over eighty miles to look for a bird that might only be a few miles away.

One of the benefits of driving to the bridge was getting to a place where I could put some gas in the truck. And since we were in the dark anyway, it also made sense to stop for some food. Alanna’s needs were still my first priority but I was being tested. I called my wife and then bundled Alanna into a warm sleeping bag. I managed to get a seat belt rigged up for her and then continued my search. She was out like a light and at least now I could stew in self-pity without the fear of being interrupted. Perhaps her innocence and my restraint of outward frustration gave her a peace. I could remember a few similar trusting moments in my own childhood.

On the Oregon side of the river, my search was very limited by a divided highway. And especially in the snow, it was not U-turn friendly. This hindered my ability to go back and forth to triangulate directional radio readings essential for pinpointing the falcon. So I ended up driving yet another twenty miles out of my way. The only encouraging thing was that I did have a radio signal now and that it was within the realm of possibility that we had made the right choice to come over to this side of the river. The snow was falling quite heavily now. One of the seldom to be seen exits on my way back up the highway was located in an area where I had a good strong signal. A gravel road took me toward the river and at a railroad crossing I stopped. The directional antenna bringing in an ever-loudening beep might yet take me to my falcon, but there was no way I was going to leave Alanna in the truck to walk down my bird. He could have been perched anywhere – many miles from the nearest road. As I looked, to my disbelief, a narrow railroad frontage road came into view. It was accessible without even a gate to go through. Holding the antenna out the window, I listened intently with freezing fingers and drove in. The signal was good. I made a series of stops, getting up on top of the truck, to establish the most accurate readings that I could.

The signal was strong and the direction was hard to determine. This was an encouraging sign that the bird was near by. I was starting to get my hopes up again when I saw a light coming up from behind me. Law enforcement? No, it was a train!

We were safe, but what falcon wouldn’t panic and fly with the roar of a freight train thundering by. The train passed and the snow continued to fall in the headlights of my GMC. I drove slowly forward, eyeing the short glass insulator type telephone poles along the side of the track and road. There was something perched in the next pole I came to. I stopped. I pulled out my lure and dropped it in the headlights of the truck. Sure enough, it was Maquette. There was a short pause and then, down he came. He was eager to eat and had a bad attitude as if I had been late in bringing the meal. Somewhere in those special voracious moments, I took a long awaited full breath of air. It was finally time to go home. Before telephoning my wife, I woke Alanna to share the news. The only real way to enjoy Maquette's return on this God given day would be to record it on the sleepy smile of my daughter. And I did….


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