Peter’s Pheasant is a true story that I wrote 20 years ago and had forgotten about until I found it stuffed into a file box that was unearthed during our move from Idaho to the Olympic Peninsula last year.
Our friend Peter turned 70 this year and I shared this story with him.
“Can’t Hack it Farm” is situated along the banks of the Payette River near the town of Emmett, Idaho. The town is known for its annual cherry festival held each summer but the area’s once abundant cherry orchards with rows and rows of trees have been gradually replaced by rows and rows of homes. Families from the Boise area, 30 miles southeast of Emmett, moved here looking for cheaper home prices even though some of them now make the commute to Boise five days a week. The only road into this valley has turned into a major highway to and from Boise. A large Butte rises from the valley floor in this county known as Gem County. Over the generations, I was told, the rule of thumb was once the snow melted off the Butte it was time to plant crops in the fields. Besides some cherry trees, the valley is also home to rows and rows of sugar beet and onion fields.
In July 2002, Bob, my boyfriend at the time, and I drove out to Emmett from Boise to visit the farm which was owned by my brother-in-law’s uncle Wally and his son Jim. Both retired National Forest Supervisors, this farm was a post retirement hobby. The 200-acre farm once grew barley and some other crops, and Wally also used to raise Limousin cattle. Now, though, most of it, I think, has been leased out to other farmers in the area. I guess that’s where the name “Can’t Hack it Farm” came from.
When Bob met Wally for the first time they took an immediate liking to each other. The two bonded over the fact that they both had liked Brittany bird dogs. Wally used to own and hunt with Brittanies and Bob had a two-year-old Brittany named Glenna that he was training to upland hunt. Glenna was a rather large orange and white American Brittany that was born in the backyard of a breeder from Mountain Home, Idaho. On this day of the meet and greet, the discussion was mostly about dogs, and Bob ended up being one of the chosen few that would be given permission to hunt at “Can’t Hack it Farm.”
The Emmett valley is growing so much that finding somewhere to hunt that doesn’t have “No Trespassing” or “No Hunting” signs posted everywhere has become a challenge in places where the farmland is being taken over by homes. Whatever huntable farm land that is left, you have to know someone, be related to someone, or put in the leg work and drive around knocking on doors to get permission. The other problem is that on most farms these days, farmers practice clean farming where the canal banks and ditches are totally free of any kind of weed or vegetation so as not to impede the flow of irrigation water. The dwindling wild ring-neck pheasant population and decline of this species in the wild can be partly blamed for this attempt to maximize tillable acreage. Wally and Jim left some big swaths of land on the farm for nature and wildlife to take over and to increase the wild bird population.
Peter, was an old friend of Bob’s and had arrived in Idaho for a visit on his trip around the West upland bird hunting with his two dogs, brother and sister, Nick and Nora. Peter had strong attachments to his two dogs and treated them like part of the family and they respected and obeyed the pack leader Peter most of the time. Nora, the alpha female who was a spitting image in my opinion of the“Grinch” would, however, occasionally question authority; on several occasions she would try her luck at seeing what she could get away with. Nick, slightly larger, was the mellower and sweeter one of the two.
One afternoon during Peter’s visit, Nick and Nora scaled our 6-foot wooden fence and escaped the backyard. The two, according to the old lady who lived directly across the street from us, ran amok in the neighborhood and raised hell. These weren’t your ordinary bird dogs; these were highly bred, probably expensive, Drahthaars that came from a breeder in Montana. Peter sometimes referred to them as savages. To this day, I still blame the old woman from across the street for taking my cat Moby to the animal shelter because I think she had it in for us after Nick and Nora escaped.
Bob decided he wanted to travel over to Emmett to hunt for pheasant at “Can’t Hack it Farm,” and phoned up Wally and asked permission to bring along Peter and Peter’s brother Matthew from Long Island, New York. Wally gave the go ahead and the next morning as the sun was just coming up over the mountains to the east of Boise we headed out in separate vehicles to the farm. Bob and I were in our pickup, while Peter, Matthew followed closely behind so as not to get lost on the back roads to the farm. We both had two-way radios and the men started talking back and forth to each other like kids playing with walkie talkies in the backyard. They did come in handy when Matthew radioed us that he needed to stop for a pee break along the side of the road. We pulled over and waited and I watched slow moving rickety farm trucks hauling their goods to the sugar beet factory or to the onion packing sheds; along the sides of the road, you could see beets and onions that had fallen off the trucks on the bumpy sections and corners of roads and scattered themselves like road kill.
We eventually arrived at the farm by turning off the main paved road and onto a narrow dirt road and drove to a spot near a tall stack of hale bales where Wally had told us to park. The men exited the vehicles and assembled all the goods needed for bird hunting. Shot guns, ammunition, bright orange hunting vests, and tan colored canvas hunting pants were the uniform for the morning’s activities. Bob prepared to hunt for mule deer instead of birds by unloading a big bow with very sharp arrows. Each year the Idaho Fish and Game gives landowners special permission to allow hunting for deer on their property because they can sometimes be pests by eating hay and destroying other vegetation reserved for livestock. The deer Bob was hoping to find live most of the time in the foothills north of the farm but make their journey back and forth across the farm on their way to the river every day.
On this day, I was at the farm strictly as being a lover of nature because I wasn’t interested in hunting and had brought along our dog Glenna on a leash because we didn’t want to leave her home. Glenna didn’t get to hunt much because she was one of those dogs that has a great nose but would hunt for herself and proceed to flush and then chase every bird she could find into the next county and return hours later like nothing happened.
Once prepared, the men set out for their hunting adventures. I had one of the two-way radios so that I’d be able to communicate and keep track of their whereabouts. Bob went north while Peter and Matthew took off towards the middle part of the farm where tall cattails and tall weeds lined the draws and canal banks and where birds hopefully would be plentiful. Glenna and I traveled south as far from any kind of hunting activity since I didn’t want any part of it. I found a nice place to stop on a high bank overlooking the river. A downed cottonwood tree offered me a relaxing place to sit down and enjoy the view. The morning air was filled with the smell emitting from the huge concrete smokestacks of the sugar beet factory about 25 miles away over in Nampa. To most it’s a terrible smell, but I grew up in Nyssa, where our town also had a sugar beet factory, and it was a familiar smell and it reminded me of home where my parents still lived.
After about an hour of basking in the late morning autumn sunshine I eventually let Glenna off her leash and the river was like a magnet to her and she was down the bank to check it out in no time flat. I then overheard conversations between the men come over the radios. Peter and Matthew were in a draw along the creek on the east side of the farm while Bob was on the west side. The Atkinson brothers were hoping to push some deer that might be hiding amongst the willows and cattails into Bob’s direction. Peter yelled on the radio to Bob that a lone mule deer buck was heading towards the river. All of a sudden I realized I was “by the river,” and at that exact moment the deer came running right towards me and we came face to face with each other. It quickly bolted and ran down the embankment and to the river. I was worried that Glenna, who was down there, might chase it but she was already off on her next adventure, most likely a few acres or miles away.
I radioed Bob and told him the deer that Peter saw heading toward the river was now swimming across the river to a big island. From a distance, I heard a series of shotgun blasts echoing across the hills. I figured Peter and Matthew must have got into some birds. It was about noon at this point so I decided to head back and start looking for Glenna. When I arrived at the pickups Peter and Matthew were there. Matthew walked from behind his truck; he had a big grin on his face and was gently cradling and slowly stroking a beautiful orange, gold, and gray pheasant with an obvious white ring around its neck. My eyes lit up to see such a handsome bird up close for the first time but suddenly my heart sank when I realized that it was dead. My joy was quickly replaced by sadness and I somehow managed to act happy for their dead bird by congratulating them and taking group photos of Peter, Matthew, and the dogs. Bob eventually showed back up and had Glenna with him. We then loaded up and drove back to Boise. The hunting trip was successful for the bird hunters.
Shortly after the trip out to the farm, Peter drove back to California and that’s when I was surprised to learn Peter had taken his pheasant to the local taxidermist that lived just down the road. I guess I’d assumed that everyone who shoots birds eats them rather than having them stuffed for display.
The following spring, Bob received a call from Peter and was told that the bird was ready for pickup and asked if we could go get it for him. Bob agreed and I tagged along with him on the drive over to the taxidermist’s office, just out of pure curiosity because I’d ridden my bicycle past the place hundreds of times and wanted to see what was inside the building. As we pulled up to the office, I chickened out and quickly changed my mind about going inside and waited in the truck instead. Bob went in and then shortly came out carefully carrying the mounted bird then walked over to the passenger side and asked me to open my door and then hold the thing on the way home. I’m sure I grimaced but then accepted my job to keep the bird safe from damage on the way home. The pheasant was mounted to look like a bird in flight and I tried to figure out where it got shot but couldn’t tell. In my opinion the taxidermist did an excellent job. I had always avoided any type of close encounters with anything stuffed but I thought it looked pretty realistic.
We arrived home and I carried the bird carefully into the house where we took it into our office and set it on the desk and then quickly shut the door. We took our job of watching over Peter’s Pheasant very seriously and didn’t want anything to happen to it, especially knowing that we have a big fluffy cat that loves birds. Later that day, we started wondering just where the cat was since we hadn’t seen him in a while. I went into the office to check on the bird and discovered that Moby had been in the office the entire time. I guess he had been sleeping underneath the futon the whole time we’d been home. Thank god nothing happened to Peter’s pheasant. I’d have felt horrible if Moby had destroyed it after Peter had waited so long for it to be finished. We moved it from the desk and found a place to hang it on the wall. Over the next few months, the bird lived with us, and Bob and I got quite attached to it. Honestly, I admired it whenever I was in the office. On Peter’s next visit to Idaho a couple of years later, he finally took possession of his pheasant to hand-carry back to California. I have to admit, Bob and I were sad to see it go.
The following Spring, Bob and I took a vacation from work and went down to Orange County, California to visit his family and friends. One of our stops on the trip was at Peter’s house in Irvine. As we entered the living room, on the wall hung that pheasant and, like an old friend, I was happy to see it and walked over to it and gazed at it. The bird fondly reminded me of that gorgeous October fall day at “Can’t Hack it Farm.”