Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why Roadless Areas Matter, Even in Oklahoma

 My favorite place in the whole wide world to dove hunt will never win any beauty awards. In fact, by most standards, it's a pretty damn ugly spot; an ancient, creaking old Aermotor rising above an equally ancient stock tank nestled amongst the dessicated, sage-covered sandhills of a worn-out, drilled-and fracked-to-hell local public hunting area that gets continually slammed by hunters from the Sept. 1 dove opener all the way until the last day of deer archery season, and continually slammed by the oil, gas, power, and pipeline companies year-round. A sylvan postcard destination it isn't.

I found it not long after I first moved up here, many years ago. I was new to this region, with few contacts for private-land access. I needed a place to dove hunt, so I grabbed a map of the public hunting area marked with the locations of all the windmills and ponds, picked the one that seemed farthest from any road, and started walking.

By virtually any standard, it wasn't much of a hike in, and even less of a roadless area, perhaps a mile in from the parking area on the county line road, behind a gated two-track used only by the area manager and the rancher who has the grazing lease. Just a mile, but that mile made all the difference in the world. Like most public hunting areas in Oklahoma, this one, despite its relatively small size (some 14,000 acres or so) was a maze of roads. You could (and still can) drive to within a mile of damn near any point on the area.

As such, virtually every other windmill and stock tank on the area was either right by the road, or a short, easy walk from it. And come dove season, every single one would be occupied, some by good folk, some by bad. Just like life. Eventually, however, within a week or so all of them would be shot up, littered up, and used up. Tire tracks, shotgun hulls, beer cans, candy wrappers, water bottles, toilet paper, and the dried-up carcasses of the killdeer, nighthawks and meadowlarks that are the inevitable result of the marriage of dipshit and shotgun.

Except for my windmill. That mile walk up and down those sandhills under an often-scorching September sun apparently dissuaded the worst elements of the beer cooler-and-lawn chair crowd. I never saw anyone else hunt it, never saw anyone else parked in that area during dove season. For the price of a little sweat and a pair of sand burr-perforated legs, I largely had that spot to myself.

Of course, I wasn't gullible enough to believe that my windmill was secret, sacrosanct, somehow impervious to foreign invasion. I know other guys hunted it sometimes, but I never found trash, never found collateral bird or animal damage rotting in the sun, only a few feathers, a few footprints, and sometimes a hull that had been overlooked. But I didn't mind, much. Distance and isolation tend to weed out the riffraff, and I liked to think that one who would sacrifice a bit of sweat to reach this spot was the kind for whom easy access and easy killing were of secondary importance to the quality of experience.

And this lonely old windmill was good for both killing dove and killing time. I have shot many limits here, but I have also sat for many long hours under its rusted blades, just listening to the sound of the wind and watching the prairie go about living. I had fallen in love with the sheer, overpowering sweep of the plains elsewhere years earlier, but it was here, at the base of this windmill, in the heat of late summer, with a shotgun in my hand and my head sopped with the cold fossil water pouring from the pipe, that I first fell in love with its minutia, with the small discoveries and wonders and spectacles of quiet observation, the quiet being that allows a place to come alive and reveal itself, that is such an important part of hunting.    

A pitifully small and isolated prairie dog town, a relic population of perhaps two acres and a hundred or so animals, spreads out around the stock tank. Its existence is a curiosity. How it came to be here, and continues to hang on after every other prairie dog town in the area has long since vanished is a mystery. Every year I think this must be the year that town gets wiped out, either by plague, illegal poisoning or by the guns of the "varmint" shooters, but every year I top that last rise and see the dogs running to their burrows in alarm and the burrowing owls that come back to this spot season after season fly away into the sagebrush, and I know they've made it one more year, thanks to that one thin mile.

I always like to get there early on those afternoon hunts, not only to make sure I claim the spot, but to just sit and watch silently for a couple hours before the dove start coming in and the shooting starts. Sitting under that windmill, I have observed coyotes, bobcats, badgers, ferruginous, Swainson's and red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, merlins, kestrels, burrowing owls, short-eared owls, northern harriers, great-horned owls and roadrunners, as well as prairie rattlers, western diamondbacks, massasaugas, bullsnakes, speckled king snakes and great plains king snakes, all of them trying to eat the prairie dogs, cottontails, jackrabbits, gophers, cotton rats, kangaroo rats, voles, shrews, mice, bobwhite quail, larks, turkeys, dickcissels, sparrows and numerous other prairie birds that frequent the area.

I have watched fence lizards, racerunners, collared lizards and great plains skinks stalk the unbelievable number of dragonflies that depend on the stock tank and the overflow pond for their life cycle. I have watched garter snakes hunt the plains leopard frogs that abound around the tank, and in turn watched the leopard frogs merrily eat each other (a vicious little cannibal, the leopard frog...).

Everyone and everything is busy trying to eat everyone else. Including me, hoping to eat a few dove. There's a certain Mobius-like quality to it all, a satisfaction in knowing I'm taking an active (if somewhat ungraceful) part in this fascinating tapestry of honest violence.

It is a unique spot. There's not another like it on the area. But it's all held together by that one thin mile. Lose that, and you lose it all; the prairie dogs, the burrowing owls, the great hunting, that sense of aloneness and being. Easier, faster and more convenient is great for microwave dinners, but it has no place, no place at all, in accessing wild areas. Some things should be earned, experienced, and appreciated, not simply driven to. Even in a state where the wild places aren't so wild any more, and are measured in a few small acres rather than square miles.

This past weekend, after getting blanked on opening-day teal, I grabbed the shotgun, drove to the local public hunting area, and made the not-so-long walk to my spot. It was my first time here this year. I hadn't had a chance to do much dove hunting this season, and by Saturday the season had been open for two weeks. And it showed. Few birds, many hunters, much trash, much frustration. I honestly didn't know what to expect, but as I topped the last rise, I saw the prairie dogs running for the holes, the burrowing owls flying into the sage, and I thought everything would probably be all right for one more year. And it was. One great evening, one limit and one lousy photo, courtesy of a locked gate, sweet isolation, and a willingness to use my legs for walking instead of mashing down an accelerator.



  1. Beautifully written, and absolutely spot on.

  2. Replies
    1. Mark, it's pretty cool, but it's certainly an acquired cool, especially when it's 104. That cold windmill water helps, though...

  3. My kind of country, still almost wild...

  4. Glad you have a slice of greenbelt (or sandhill I guess) to call "yours". I always am in awe of the hunters who live in places with little to no public land access, especially those that make it work and enjoy it. Thanks for sharing your spot. It reminds me to not take my endless public backyard for granted, as I hope that the frackers don't find a large reserve in the Great Basin.