It was cold that evening in Amarillo, the kind of cold you don’t want to be lost in. January can be like this I was told, so I packed accordingly before leaving Florida. There was a group of us falconers, mostly from Florida, and this was my first invite to an annual trip of friends. I brought my Aplomado falcon, Obi, and the eternal puppy Beezle as my hunting partners and companions to this new and exciting adventure. As the new guy on the trip I felt it imperative to prove my worth and show the appreciation necessary to our hosts and hopefully get invited again on the next outing. Keep this mindset with you as we move along this story…..
It was the third day of hawking, and a good one at that. Most of us had taken game in the high plains setting and were feeling pretty good, but falconry is a community sport and if one doesn’t catch its like none of us did. So, the crew set out to help one of our own to get his head of game before the quickly falling sun faded away and the day closed with a loss. We broke up into groups to scout game, and I was with my friend who had yet to catch with his Richardson’s merlin. The game was scare and light was going fast, but game was spotted; a dove. Dove are notoriously tricky especially in the pursuit style of flight that the merlin prefers and this set up was difficult at best. The bird was a ways off and there were canyons, gulches and crevasses that could be obstacles in the instance a foot chase was initiated. “Let’s do it” he said and being the newbie, saying anything other then an enthusiastic yes was unfathomable despite my reservations. Shut the Ford Explorer off and out we were.
Looking back, there were many signs that said this was a bad idea. First being the merlin didn’t want to chase the dove after rousing on the roof rack and looking generally underwhelmed. Second, we didn’t let the others in the party know where we were or what we were doing. Third, the sun was very close to setting at this point. I brought the concerns up to my friend, and he agreed, defeatedly, that it was time to pack it in. Murphy being Murphy and tending to his own law, the merlin took this opportunity to take off after the dove in the canyon and the chase was on! We watched as the merlin leisurely flew toward the dove, which saw this lame attempt to hunt and took the opportunity to fly away in case the raptor decided to get serious. With the dove in flight the raptor flew over the nearest crag of rock turned golden red with the sun’s last light and we both lost sight of the bird on the binoculars and it was on to telemetry games. For those who don’t know, falconers often use radio tracking on their birds to help locate them after they have flown off or are on game. It is nothing too fancy, a transmitter is placed on the bird, and the falconer holds the receiver. When in use, the transmitter emits short beeps that get stronger as you get closer to the bird. Beep——beep—–beep—–beep, the merciless sound drones in changing intensity to give you hope that you will see your hunting partner again, or fear that mother nature has called your bird back to her bosom. So, with telemetry out and on the ready, we began the search for the merlin which was more than likely calling it a night in a safe location. No beep from where the truck was parked, so on foot down into the canyon in the direction the little falcon flew was the way to go. My friend, being far more familiar with the area, headed right down and into the thick of things. I started out after him and had an idea, turn the headlights on the Ford Explorer as it was sitting on the highest ridge and as the light faded we could at least make our way back to the SUV. With that I locked up the truck and hustled to catch my friend already in hot pursuit.
After several ins and outs, ups and downs, the first barely audible beep emerged from the receiver like the whisper of a ghost and filled our cold bones with hope. I took this moment to see if my trick worked, if the SUV was visible from our vantage point to guide our way back and it was. Without a word we set off in the direction of the beep only to lose it, then find it, then lose it again. At this point it was dark and cold, and the lights from the Explorer were far enough away that they looked like stars in the sky and for where we were they may have just been that. Then, a strong, harsh BEEP emerged from the receiver and my friend said, “She’s up!” (meaning that the merlin took flight again) and literally darted up and over the next hill like a mountain goat into the night. I wearily crossed over the rise and, like David Copperfield, he was gone. No beep, no tracks, no call back, nothing; just dark canyon.
At this point, I was nervous. Though growing up in the small mountain town of Estes Park gave me some skills in the wilderness, the thought of getting back through unknown territory without having decent light to guide the way was daunting. Heading in the direction I thought my friend would have gone, my only light a small LED flashlight kept in my trusty Filson field bag, I meandered for about ten minutes more before having to make the decision of going back or continue the search. Mobile phone service was nonexistent so no option there, and my flashlight has been sitting in my bag for years with old batteries the writing was on the dark canyon wall. Time to head back.
Maneuvering through canyon by flashlight was tricky at best, but what really sent me into a dramatic “Hope they find my body” mindset was the fact that the headlights were no longer visible. My brilliant idea, my saving grace, was dimmed like the hope of getting back unscathed. “Well, you can’t stop and despair” my thought was headed back in the direction I thought best. It’s funny looking back at the silly thoughts one thinks when impending doom is a perceived reality. “Maybe they’ll put a place marker here for me, name this spot in my honor and talk in the hushed tones of remembrance when in this area. Hmmm, yeah, probably not since they won’t find my body…” I thought to myself with the real knowing that it would most likely turn out okay in the end. Just then, when all fantastic hope was lost I saw in the distance the twinkling headlights. O’ Glorious Ford Explorer, shine thy brilliant light upon thee and guide my sorry ass home! Hope was renewed, and my pace quickened as I approached the SUV. It should be noted, though, that I was heading in the wrong direction and one more hill would have sealed my fate!
It took about 30 minutes of climbing, scaling, and jumping to get back to the vehicle but when I arrived it was a great feeling. I didn’t want to leave in case my friend was using the lights to find his way, so I stood on the roof of the Ford (it was a rental) to try and get a cellular signal and got one. Promptly called the posse to start the rescue mission only to find out that while I was out looking for my friend, they rest of the group was looking for me! As it turns out, my friend found his merlin and used the lights from the Explorer to guide his way back to the highway where he called the group to be picked up. But, I was presumed lost so they were searching for me. With directions back to the highway form my last known location, I hopped in the Explorer and headed over to our local host’s home where a nice dinner of pizza and beer soothed my cold, rattled soul.
The rest of the trip went off without a hitch. Even though there were no more adventure quite like this one, it was a great trip that will be remembered for the rest of my days. And, I did get that invite the next year.