by Joe Atkinson
One of the things that I like about the sport of falconry is its unpredictability. Each time a falconer releases his or her bird a new adventure starts and you can end up in the darndest places. Some years ago while entering a first year female peals peregrine I was standing at the dike of a small stock pond that had several different kinds of ducks in it. My new falcon was a very aggressive, powerful flying bird that in the end became a very nice duck hawk. But on this day in the early stages of her training she was a little inclined to rake off on anything she saw and would generally fly down whatever she saw. So the trick was to not wait too long to flush because if things did not happen under her quickly she would start to look elsewhere. I went in to flush the ducks and of course she was gone. I pulled out my receiver and got a weak signal. And so the adventure begins.
In order to drive in the direction of the signal I needed to cross a river. That meant I had to drive in the opposite direction from the signal which, as anyone who has ever tracked a bird knows, is an unnerving thing to have to do. Driving along a winding two lane country highway with no signal at all is no pleasure, I assure you. The area is for the most part treeless with rolling grass covered hills. The hills are fairly steep with big open valleys that run up hill and open up into large open areas dotted with ranch houses. Cattle can be seen grazing everywhere. As I passed by one of these valleys I suddenly got a weak signal. Even before I could react the signal was gone. I made a quick u-turn and drove back to the spot where I had heard the signal and, sure enough, I could hear it once again…weak, but still a signal. I couldn’t see any roads going up into the valley so the only course of action was to grab my hawking vest and receiver and start walking in the direction of the signal. I climbed over the barbed wire fence and headed out into the valley. Where will the signal take me and what will I find at the journey’s end?
I had a vague idea whose ranch I would be walking on but wasn’t sure and, truthfully, it didn’t matter. My falcon was up there somewhere and I was going to get her back. After walking nearly two miles up into the valley I was sure that my bird was sitting still as the signal had remained the same for a long time. This meant she was not moving which could only be one of a couple things; she had landed, which, knowing this bird, was unlikely; she caught something and was pigging out on it, which would create another set of problems — trying to call back a young bird with a full crop; or, and this is the one that every falconer dreads, she was hurt or dead. As the signal got stronger it lead me to a home with three barking dogs and a small barn clearly built to keep bulls in. Naturally, that was where the pounding signal was coming from, the bull barn. I remember standing next to the fence and thinking, man, if there is someone home surely they will come out to see why their dogs are making all this racket. I stood there hoping that someone would show up, thinking that things would be better if, when someone came out of the house, I wasn’t trying to get into their barn. It could be the difference between getting shot or not. Well, nobody came out and the dogs never stopped barking. Thankfully the dogs were all tied up and could not come after me, so I slipped over the fence, walked around the barn only to find the doors locked. This meant that the only way in was to climb into the bull pen and hope there was not a bull in there! I moved very cautiously, receiver out in front of me, like that was going to be any help against a charging bull!
>From the signal I was getting my falcon was clearly in this barn, but as I stepped through an inside gate I could see no sign of my falcon at all. I couldn’t help but think that at any moment someone was going to yell “come out with your hands in the air”! Scanning the room off to the right I could see some pigeon feathers and a few drops of blood on the floor next to a room used to store tack, feed and other bull keeping stuff. The door was just slightly opened so I slowly opened it and peaked in. There on the floor was my falcon, happily plucking every feather off the barn pigeon she had caught. The entire floor was covered with feathers and blood; it looked like a serious pillow fight had happened there. I always wondered what the rancher thought when he went into the tack room and saw all those feathers.
Sometimes adventures can start out slowly and end up taking over your life. A small group of us were flying small falcons, perlins and Barbary’s, and we had happened on some land that looked very promising to fly our birds. We hunt dove, starlings, and snipe. The fields that we were interested in happened to be way out in the back of a large pheasant hunting club which we were given permission to fly our falcons on on the non- shooting days. In order to get to the areas that we wanted to hunt it was necessary to drive along the roads that bordered the rice checks. The dirt roads were passable, with mud in some places, but nothing our four wheel drive trucks couldn’t handle. Driving though the rice checks was like being in a huge maze — roads going in every direction looking like a giant checker board. A few times the check roads we were driving on came to a sudden end, so all three trucks had to back up and take another road in the direction we wanted to go. After weaving our way through the maze we finally found what we were searching for, open grass fields with no fences and tons of slips for our falcons. I was leading the way following a seldom used farm road that headed out over a large field that has a slight rise to it. Looking at the fields we could see doves and snipe flying in and out of the area. We all wired up our falcons and moved out slowly, looking for the first slip. The three trucks moved along the edge of the field going up over the first rise and down into a shallow valley.
The sky was cloudless, bright blue, and the air was cold and crisp. Both my perlins had been flying great, taking high pitches and stooping fast at anything flushed under them, so I was looking everywhere for a slip. We drove up the hill and over into the next valley to see, much to our surprise, a small four wheel drive truck absolutely buried up to the doors in mud! Furthermore, it was clear that some unfortunate sole had spent many hours trying in vain to dig out this truck. Being the trail boss, I stopped the convoy and gave the order to turn around and go back in the opposite direction. The ground we were driving on was not mud or, for that matter, very soft. We all turned around and started back the way we came..I was now the third truck in line. Now, before I go on. let me give you a little background about myself in an effort to offer up some kind of defense for what was about to take place. I grew up on ranches driving all sorts of tractors, trucks, as well as huge construction earth-\moving machines. I have driven four wheel drive vehicles my entire life in any and all off road conditions. In fact, every vehicle that my wife and I now own is a four wheel drive. I am not some citified yuppie driving around clueless about driving off road. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. We all turned around without any trouble and started driving back up the road. We had come in on. Now, keep in mind, it’s a sunny day, and we were driving on a nice old ranch road just looking for slips for our birds. (This is another shameless attempt to defend myself, of which I’m not particularly proud.) Still, looking more for a slip than paying attention to the road, I suddenly noticed that the truck directly in front of me was having a little trouble finding traction on the now muddy road! I instantly realized that I had two options — gun the gas and power through the mud, or stop and go around the bad spot. In the time it took me to realize that I was in trouble it was too late and gunning the engine did little to help. In hind sight it probably made the situation worse. But, thinking that the muddy spot was not that bad and wasn’t very big, I thought I could find some solid ground and pull myself out.
There is a sensation you get when you get a truck stuck that is unforgettable. You instantly feel a very real sense of dread. All of the day’s plans are over. Especially in this case because I was 50 miles from home and 5 miles back off any paved road, which was going to further complicate getting any help such as a tow truck. Yes, we hooked up the other two trucks and tried to pull my truck out…wasn’t going to happen! So Eric and I drove back in his truck to the main road where I called for a four wheel drive tow truck that should also have a winch on it. After a good hour’s wait, two large flat-bed two wheel drive one ton trucks showed up. Not seeing five miles of cable on either truck I sent them away and got the number of a company that had an “off road monster” that was not even street legal. This, we thought, was sounding good. I didn’t know it at the time but the two useless flatbeds showing up was a signal that things were not going to go well.
After another hour a big tow truck pulled up with an older Chevy truck on the back that was seemingly set up for off road use — large tires and front and rear winches. My hopes where renewed. Heck… might even be able to fly today. We climbed up in the truck and listened to the driver proclaim that he has never failed to get a truck un-stuck, just a matter of hooking up the chain and popping your truck out! After the monster nearly buried itself trying to pop out my truck, we started to pull out the winch cable. The 9,000 pound winch moved my Toyota Tundra about five feet and stopped working. Instead of taking our suggestion and moving out slowly, the driver popped the clutch of the monster and it promptly buried itself, breaking through the thin hard soil that covered soft oatmeal-like gook that was hidden underneath. Calling on his radio, the now embarrassed monster driver called for another four wheel drive truck to come and pull him out so he could pull me out. The second truck arrived armed with oversize tires and a winch mounted on the front bumper. Hooking up a chain to the monster, the second truck tried in vain to pull the monster free, eventually burrowing itself 30 feet behind the monster. The monster had a rear mounted winch but it was not in working order. Now remember, the monster always gets you out… remember that statement! The winch on the front of the second truck called in to pull out the monster was only a 6,000 pound winch and therefore useless, as my Tundra tips the scale at 7,700 lbs, and who knows what the monster weighs, way more than that, I’m sure. Both drivers were now on their radios calling for more help, and I was feeding up my falcons! About an hour before sundown the mother of all off road recovery vehicles, so I was told, arrived and yes, got stuck.. but not even next to the other 3 vehicles, this one only made it part way in and sank. Armed with both front and back hydraulic winches the driver was able to hook onto a jeep that had also shown up and pull himself free. The sun was down and darkness was upon us, and, on top of everything, it started to rain as I started to walk out with my falcons and two dogs, heading for lights way off in the distance. The journey on foot was half the distance, about two miles, compared to the five miles it took to drive. And frankly, I felt safer walking than riding with drivers that think any mud puddle is an excuse to hit the gas! A rice check road is a muddy road just wide enough for a single vehicle to pass and on both sides of the road there is a drop off of at least 10 feet into water. The chances of rolling off a rice check seemed real, so I walked.This day had started at seven o’clock in the morning and it was now nine o’clock in the evening. I was standing up next to a tree bent over at the waist in an effort to keep the downpour of rain off of my falcons, with both dogs looking at me like I had gone nuts. Falcons, dogs, and me, all soaked to the skin, waiting for my wife to arrive from some fifty miles away. The rain continued for the next four days turning the entire area into a soggy swamp. With now a total of four tow trucks all stuck in the mud the prospect of my truck getting out anytime soon didn’t look good. At one point I actually contacted a log lifting helicopter about air lifting my brand new.. oh, did I mention that this 2005 Toyota Tundra truck was only six days off the new car lot, I don’t think I did. Anyway, although a helicopter lifting my Tundra onto dry land seemed like a good idea, at $3,500 an hour that option was put on hold. In hind sight I probably should have given it more consideration. I did feel that the tow company would eventually recover my truck. At least I didn’t think they would walk away, seeing that four of their trucks were out there stuck in the mud too.
On that beautiful cool clear morning going out to fly my falcons, something I’ve done hundreds of times, meeting up with fellow falconers and driving around looking for slips, had turned into having my new truck stuck in the mud for six days. You got to love falconry because you never know what’s going to happen on any given day. Oh, and that small truck that we saw, it’s still out there.