The younger, Cass, waits behind a bush, his black Labrador beside him. Five ducks rise before him. He points his gun and pops off three shots. Not perfect, but a duck falls, splashing in the middle of the pond.
“Fetch it up. Dead bird.” he commands the dog.
Sage launches into the water, sending ripples to either side, and retrieves the duck. She returns, wagging her whole body.
“Good girl,” Cass tells her, taking the bird from her mouth.
With the excitement of the hunt over, Cass resumes his place with Sage, camouflaged back into the bushes. Sage whines, waiting for more ducks.
“She gets so excited she farts,” Cass says, flashing a signature grin.
Silence follows, and more waiting. A flock of birds honks confidently in the distance.
“Are you going to shoot them?” I ask Jake.
“No, they’re Canada Geese,” he tells me. “You can’t shoot those until tomorrow.”
They fly overhead, almost as if they know they’re safe for one more day. “Fly away, geese,” I think. “Fly far, far, away.”
THIS IS LIFE AT HUNT CAMP
Since I married into the McTigue family, I had always heard about the Montrose Hunt Camp, a 230-acre parcel of land between Montrose and Delta, but, until recently, I had never actually been there. For reasons completely unfounded, I had imagined Hunt Camp as a log cabin – the kind with open beams – and with a fire crackling in the corner. I had a romantic vision of tagging along on a hunting weekend, hanging out and snuggling up to a good book.
Upon arriving the first time, one thing became very apparent: There is nothing romantic about hunt camp.
Hunt camp is a double-wide trailer with a propane stove and green shag carpet. Prints from Ducks Unlimited adorn the walls and a large stuffed goose, with wings spread, hangs above the kitchen table. The water doesn’t always work and an empty outhouse lies tipped over in the yard. To me, it is less than impressive.
But the guys gathered here remain unfazed by the camp’s appearance. They clean birds, wash up and pour drinks. The rules are a little inconspicuous, but I know enough not to complain, threaten to clean or remove the wet dog from the couch.
The allure of the place eludes me, but I’m intrigued. I crack a beer and settle in.
I learn that Mike McTigue and two buddies, Telluride realtor Jim Lucarelli, and former founder and owner of Telluride’s Rose’s Market (now Clark’s) Dave Fruen, bought the property 12 years earlier. They loved the land and they wanted to hunt. With a little research, they also found they could conserve and restore the land’s habitat, by turning 160 of the 230 acres into a conservation easement.
“It’s a shrinking habitat, and this is a way to make up for some of the lost stuff,” Mike says of the easement.
Mike retrieves a picture from the fridge (right next to a thank you letter from the National Rifle Assn.). It’s of Cass, as a kid; he’s wearing his orange hunting hat and brown vest.
“You see stuff that is pretty special out there; there is lots going on,” he says.
He explains that the three owners actively worked with the Department of Wildlife to restore and protect the habitat, planting soil-friendly grasses like milo, and building the ponds. As a result, the land acts as a flyway for birds as they migrate north to south, and then south to north.
“They have to commute,” Mike explains. “They need a place to stop. Where else can they go? Everything else freezes.”
Mike pours a drink, the sun sets, the temperature drops, and action moves inside the doublewide.
Around the dinner table, the guys talk about their Benellis and Remingtons and what gun they’re going to buy next. They drink Dickel whisky, debate whose dog has the best nose and take inventory on how many shells they have for tomorrow. They tell legendary hunting stories – about the badger who undermined an elk kill, and the friend who called his mom to help pack out a bear.
But, even at Hunt Camp, as evening changes to night and whisky to wine, the conversation softens. The roughneck hunter façade fades and topics of married life in a one-bathroom home surface. The purchase of a heated toilet seat is divulged; I ask for the website.
Kevin Croke, Telluride contractor, serves his homemade apple butter on French bread. The subject turns to the proposed uranium mill nearby, and Eric Jacobson, a hydrologist, weighs in. Debate follows before people break off into smaller discussions.
The night grows late and I sit on the leather couch, across from my father-in-law at the end of the table where, still dressed in his camo, he leans back, with his leg crossed. I think about the conflicting principles of establishing a conservation easement, thereby providing a flyway for birds, then using that same land to hunt the birds.
I begin asking questions.
“It’s regulated,” Mike answers. “There are limits.”
“There are a thousand birds cruising by; we only shoot a few,” he adds, reassuringly.
I take in the bad art, green-marbled Formica counter tops, the propane fire and the contentment of the guys and of my father-in-law. I realize this is their hunt camp; I still understand nothing about it.
The next morning the group rises in the dark, puts on their camo, grabs their guns and shells and heads back to the upper pond. I follow reluctantly, taking my post in a bush next to Jake. Cass is 100 yards to one side, and Mike to the other.
We sit and wait and sit and wait. No birds fly. I look around me. The snow-capped San Juans lie to the north, and high desert valley to the south. Autumn orange has faded to brown and the land is barren.
The sun rises a little higher in the sky. More waiting. No birds. With nothing to do, I watch the sunrise. Slowly I see its first rays peek over the eastern foothills. The land begins to glow and the rising sun illuminates the three McTigue men, a father and two sons. In the glow of the early morning, their camouflage fails; everything is visible.
And then I remember something Mike said the previous night.
“As people age, you go in different directions,” he said, glancing at his two adult boys, captivated in their own conversations, “but,” he continued, “with something like this, on opening day, you always get them back.”
I look toward the double-wide. At the edge of the field, in the first light of the sun, it almost looks romantic.
Now, I chuckle. And I vow, next time, to bring a gun.