In Idaho, some things are still done the old way. Hunting in this state is a rite of passage, an important part of conservation and land management in the region, and a valued tradition to pass on to younger generations. The best means of finding land to hunt are through public access points or by gaining permission to private land in a hand-shake agreement with a property owner. These hand-shakes are based on a relationship of mutual respect made over the years, and often sweetened with gifts of chocolates.
On a clear and cold Saturday morning in November, we slowly loaded the F150, sleep still in our eyes. Into the rig went decoys, foul-weather gear, about six sleeves of chocolates for trade, extra-caffeinated coffee sourced from a seedy gas station (the likes of which you often find in Idaho), a good gundog named Gus, myself, and the other two hunters, Bryant Kealey and Griff Tweeten—old friends from high school.
It was dark as night when we let out, headed away from Boise city limits. The radio failed to work but no one seemed to mind. We all enjoyed the long silence—gathering our senses as the morning grew, watching Interstate 84 blur by out the truck windows. That morning ride went down memory lane. We passed familiar places on our way out of town, remembering hard-to-believe anecdotes from days long past. Those days felt close as we recounted them; we experienced that familiar distortion of time and place that tends to happen when you’ve returned home and reconnected with folks from your youth. I’m from Boise originally, but when I lived here I wasn’t necessarily interested in mallard drakes. I was interested in photography, skateboarding, music, and the occasional camping trip turned kegger. It wasn’t that I disliked the outdoors—I guess I just thought it’d always be the same, so accessible, so near, not changing. The natural landscape in the region is overwhelming and all-knowing, almost deafening in its accessibility and prevalence in daily life. Nature never felt overrun or busy as it has since become: a single track switch back up a path with too many day hikers to count, loud speakers banging in backpacks, and self-facing cameras for viewing the scenery. I hadn’t thought it possible, and I’ll admit it, I took the wilderness of Idaho for granted during my youth.
As we weaved through countless rural roads, the voice of Griff from the driver’s seat brought me out of my thoughts. “Looks like there’s an old pick-up out front of the main house. They should be home.” Griff motioned towards a sleeve of chocolates near me in the back seat, and I tossed him the box.
“Whose turn is it to ask?” He looked back at me, and then to Bryant, knowing the answer already. As the truck bounced over the hardened tracks from previous guests at the property, its contents shifted and squirmed over mud made into a semi-permanent pathway in the freezing winter weather.
“We all know you’re the handsome one, Griff. Go on and ask. We’ll wait here in and keep the truck warm.” Bryant nudged him on, and Griff ducked out of the vehicle and crossed the yard to the front door. We watched an older gentleman answer, shake Griff’s hand, and happily accept the chocolates. He’d given Griff the OK, and we all came bursting out of the truck with excitement—partly because we knew we’d have a good chance at some ducks on this property, partly from the coffee we’d consumed on the way. Gus, a well-trained Labrador, led the charge as we waded through rushing water towards the best vantage point, and there we laid out the decoys in a quiet stretch of river.
As the sun crested over the trees in the distance, I sat in the tall grasses near the river’s edge, surrounded by frost and the primal memory of the place I am from. The morning went from pure black to blaze orange. We called in the ducks one by one. I was greeted with the raw feeling of Idaho cold on my extremities; I heard the quiet lap of the river next to us, the crisp crunching of frozen grass under our feet, and the thundering clap of shotguns in the breaking day.