We walked a slow mile from the truck to the top of the ridge where I am now crouched behind a rock. My fingers are starting to get cold. Snow is falling softly from the late afternoon sky. We are disguised by the desert sage that surrounds us in every direction. Underneath my camouflage woolies I have on three shirts and a down Patagonia pullover to keep out the New Year’s Day chill. Three feet to my left, my dad is peaking over a boulder scouring the brush for life. Suddenly, the wailing begins. I cover my ears. I hear the shrill, frightening sound of death. Shrieking, screeching. It unravels my insides. Oh, how I want it to stop. We each have a bullet in the chamber and are ready to fire.
Before sunrise we were driving the back roads. The new dusting of snow made fresh cat tracks easy to spot. Dad had a buddy on call with hound dogs just in case we got lucky. I have tracked with my dad over the years, but never for cougar. This kind of tracking is new and I need some coaching. “They have huge paws and you can’t mistake their prints,” dad says from the passenger’s seat. The first few miles I stopped the truck at almost every paw print that crossed the fresh snow on the road.
“How about this one?” I asked him. The coyote and jack rabbit tracks were easy to identify and there was no shortage of them. He continued to reassure me, “You will know it when you see it. Cat tracks are huuuuge.”
Turns out you have to cover a lot of territory to uncover a fresh cat track. When the rabbit tracks got too thick across the road dad decided we should temporarily abandon the lion hunt and call in coyotes.
His plan was to perch on the top of a hill, hiding behind some sagebrush or a rock. From our hideout he would sneak 20 feet away and set up a noisemaking contraption. This technical hunting device is the shape of a large flashlight with a bunch of knobs and digital readouts on the side. On the other side of the box is a post where you can attach a piece of cloth that looks like a Daniel Boone hat. The fur wags back and forth when you turn it on. Dad calls it a coyote call, I refer to it as “That damned Foxtracker noise making son of a bitch.” At seventy two years old, my dad doesn’t hear well. I don’t think he has any idea how obnoxious it sounds. He wants it loud for all of the coyotes in the valley to hear. He delightfully chimes, “It works, and the yotes come running when you let it scream long enough. They come runnin’ so fast they almost run right over the top of you.” When he talks about hunting coyotes with a shotgun he gets to chuckling, and giggling, and is so pleased with himself. He says the look of surprise on their faces when they realize they have been suckered is hilarious. It must be funny because he spontaneously bursts into laughter and shakes his head. Not a sick, mean laugh, but more of school boy victory laugh.
This is my first tracking adventure in the snow. We are driving around looking out the window and talking. “How much do you get for a coyote pelt?” I ask.
“Fifteen dollars.” He continues, “It takes me thirty minutes to skin one, but the guy at the trapping shop is fast and can do it in five.”
I find out a bobcat pelt is worth eight to twelve hundred dollars. “Ooooooh,” I say. “Where can we find one of thoooossse?” Then, dad explains about another scream setting on the “Son of a bitch call,” that we can use to trick in bobcats. He tells me a wolf pelt is worth two hundred to five hundred dollars and that the Fish and Game report shows over sixty deer kills, likely lions, this year within two hours of our location. I keep asking questions and he enjoys sharing his hunting knowledge with me.
Dad’s occupation has been farm and ranch real estate. He loves open country and the outdoors. He has been an avid outdoorsman, hunter and hunting guide. He loves wild sheep the most. There is a small population of wild sheep within an hour’s drive of his ranch. There is a problem with the cougars killing the wild sheep and the population is in danger. For him, cougar hunting is conservation. He has a real concern for conserving the wild sheep populations.
I enjoy his knowledge of the hunt and I know that he has many stories in him that I have never heard. I wish I knew more. I am afraid that I won’t remember them. I am afraid of not knowing this man completely in the time we have left together. For an old guy, my dad is fit, healthy and can do some yoga moves I haven’t mastered yet. I have no reason to worry about his health, but I am keenly aware that our time together may not be as long as I would like it to be. I want to treasure the time we have together and if this is how I get him, one on one, then, a hunting we will go. Some words from the song he used to sing to my little sister and me when we were young. “A hunting we will go, a hunting we will go, we’ll catch a fox and put-him-in-a-box …and then we’ll let him go”.
On this New Year’s Day I could be taking down Christmas decorations and putting memories in red and green totes. Instead, I am patiently sitting in the snow in the freezing cold with my father listening to the scream of a dying rabbit call hoping to get run over by a coyote. I am hoping to see delight in my father’s face. I am hoping to become and rank among one of the hunting stories he tells to his friends when they stand around their campfires.
This hunting might not be for everyone. Sometimes I am not sure that it’s for me. Together my dad and I have hunted bear, caribou, deer, moose, pheasant, ducks, and geese. When I was ten we were hunting ducks and stumbled upon a porcupine high in a tree. He wanted me to shoot it. So, I did. It was the first thing I killed. I wanted to tell it I was sorry. And, in another way, I was proud. Hunting can be a mixed bag of emotions for a girl. It took me a while to understand that hunting is not about killing. My father had to teach me that. It’s about making memories and being together in circumstances and places that are unpredictable, thrilling and sometimes discouraging. It’s how you weather the hunt together. It’s how you show regard and reverence when you do make a kill and when you don’t. Truth be known, I have come to love the thrill of the hunt just like him.
I sense sweet winter stillness between the bawling dying rabbit calls. There is no movement anywhere and I can see my breath. I have on a camouflage head net and I can barely see out because this is the garb you wear hiding from yotes. It is the official disguise. When we hunt I do whatever my dad tells me to do. I am an independent forty four year old woman, but in the field I let my independence go.
I feel protected with my dad. He has guided me through much of life’s unfamiliar territory. Every step I take with him on a hunting trip feels like I being guided. I entrust him with my safety and I succumb to following. Following, in many respects, is not my nature, but in the great outdoors with him I enjoy this dynamic. It fills me with humility and pride at the same time. He has been my hunting guide and my life’s guide, whether we take a trophy or not.
Sitting with him in this quiet closeness I am present to life’s seasons, including ours. I notice that he tells some stories twice. I notice that he is more patient with life, and I notice that he is gentle. In the stillness, without the world chirping in my ear, I can take in the quiet. I can take in the day, and I have time to notice the beauty of small details like the rust colored lichen on the bottom of the sagebrush. I notice the seriousness of this hunt for my dad. And, I notice when he lets out a disappointing “ugh” when the coyotes don’t run to our call. I think to myself how much he wants this hunt to be a success. He wants me to think he is a “good guide” and he wants us to take home a story about today. Perhaps, a campfire story about tracking down a cat with his daughter.
Sunset was on its way and signaled us to call it a day. It’s hard to give up when you’ve been skunked. We were out of daylight and couldn’t stay for another “ten minutes.” We threw our guns over our shoulders and headed the mile back to the truck. There was only the sound of the top layer of snow crunching beneath my clunky snow boots as I walked ahead of my dad. I began to worry about getting my truck stuck on our way out. With each step I was taking back on the cares of the world. It was my turn to guide my dad safely home. I stopped dead in my tracks. He stopped when I stopped. The crunching snow stopped. Slowly, as if I needed to cautiously signal my hunting partner about a critter I saw crossing the ridge, I turned around, and with my whole heart I said, “I love you dad.” He smiled a huge grin. I crunched back through the snow and gave him a big hug. Gun to gun, camo to camo. We might not have found cat tracks, but because of him, in more ways than one, I still believe, “I will know it when I see it.”
In loving memory of my missed father, and hunting partner, Dave Putnam, 12-11-19.