In the mountains of West Virginia, in the covers of ruffed grouse and woodcock journey through different perspectives of a story of passion told through the medium of film and words
For a Minnesota boy like me, accustomed to the isolating forest walls of my home state, the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia were absolutely gigantic. Driving the narrow mountain roads to meet and film with the Ballengee family, I couldn’t help but squeeze the steering wheel of my rental car a little tighter as I passed mere feet from the rails separating me from an unsurvivable drop to the forest below. Roads like these were rare in Minnesota but were evidently commonplace for the residents of this particular area of West Virginia. I noticed a stack of headlights accumulating in my rear view mirror. Eventually, my nerves calmed, my white knuckles regained their color, I was able to get comfortable with the winding roads, and I finally tore my eyes away from the blacktop to look up at the auburn valleys sprawling alongside my vehicle. The rolling mountains were carpeted in a forest of greens, reds, and browns with splashes of vibrant yellow. A glistening cool black river wound its way through the dawn-lit valley, contrasting against the warm colors of the autumn leaf canopy. Following the line of the river, my eyes were drawn to some of the taller mountains, their size and beckoning mystery humbled me, and I couldn’t help but imagine what the valley I was driving along looked like from their softly sloping tops. Little did I know—I would witness that sight as I followed Amanda Ballengee, her husband Sam, and her father Michael Bolling, in the pursuit of the sadly scarce ruffed grouse of West Virginia.
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I knew fairly little about the Ballengees. Most of what I did know was through Instagram conversations regarding the film with Amanda, and it is difficult to get a good grasp of a person through social media. What I did see at a glance from her posts was a passion for art, photography, hunting, and her beautiful Weimaraner named Schautzie. Her art and photography color choices richly depicted earthy browns, reds, and fading greens and seemed to echo the garb of an early grouse or deer season thicket. These colors are the ones that often accompany a crisp chill in the air and the sweet smell of October slowly coming around the corner. I was also anxious to meet the man behind the camera lens in many of her photos—Sam. It was obvious to me from their work that Amanda and Sam were a well-matched team and that both had an immense love for what they did. I was excited to meet them, see the latest painting Amanda had been working on, and spend a few days discovering this land I had never experienced before with the help of those that have spent their entire lives exploring its nooks and crannies. When I arrived, I was not disappointed in the least. Amanda, Sam, and Michael were among the most kind and warm people I had ever met in my life.
Our first day was spent at Michael’s house—a humble home located in the beautiful Appalachians. Its lovely sun room was lit up by the soft light of a sun filtered through mildly overcast skies. Amanda’s painting, sitting on a wooden easel, portrayed a grouse drumming proudly upon a log. He looked quite kingly within his painting, backlit by the sun. The painting was the focal point of the room. The windows on each side of the piece glowed amber as the light reflected off their natural wooden sills. Through them, the leaves outside shone in the sunlight various shades of emerald and ruby, framing the valley beyond. It seemed this beautiful sun room where Amanda painted was as much a part of her art as the paint she used to create it. That was even more evident as golden hour—a period of time during the evening beloved by photographers for its soft even light—approached. I was taken with the scene as the tones of the painting blended perfectly with the tones of its surroundings. Schautzie sat nearby Amanda as she began mixing colors to add the finishing touches to the piece. Sam and I observed quietly with our cameras, furiously adjusting settings, hoping to capture the impossible-to-capture scene. Afterward, as the sky darkened and golden hour had passed, Amanda’s father arrived, and we all chatted for a while in the now dimly lit sun room, planning our hunts for the days to come.
The next day, I found myself sitting next to Michael in his Jeep. His Pointer, Ellie, sat in the back as we made the two-hour drive to the area we were going to hunt. I found out during the trip that Michael was a storyteller of the best kind as he intricately described his long history of hunting the Appalachian Mountains, and his memories of hunting with friends and family alike. There are moments in every cameraman’s life that he just needs to put the camera down and enjoy the moment, and that time in the car was easily one of those. It was plain to see Michael’s deep love for the outdoors, family, and his dogs as well as the immense pride he held for Amanda. Our conversation was cut short as we approached the mountain where we were going to hunt. My knuckles returned to white as we began the climb in our Jeeps on the narrow mountain road. Amanda and Sam followed behind us, and after traversing enough very-low-maintenance road to make a Minnesota flatland boy tear up, we were stopping the vehicles, unloading the dogs, loading the shotguns, and hitting the trails for grouse. Amanda, Michael, and the energetic Schautzie and Ellie were quick to start carving lines through the rugged landscape, taking their time to thoroughly work covers that held older bird scent in case there were any remnant ruffs to be found. Following a few yards behind them were Sam and I, cameras in hand. I was hopeful we would see birds, but I had heard that grouse hunting in West Virginia was quite challenging due to low populations. Later, we would finally bump into a small covey of grouse as well as a few lone birds, which all added up to around seven flushes altogether. One American woodcock was taken by Michael, as well—the only one we had seen that day. But we were quite happy at the end of our time chasing birds. It was a banner day of ruffed grouse hunting in West Virginia according to Michael’s many years of experience with the area. After the shotguns were put away and the dogs were kenneled up, we capped it all off by following the road to the top of the mountain and looking out to the land below, which was as wonderful as I had imagined it the day before.
The following days were a blast, with a grouse and a woodcock harvested and great dog work witnessed in both Schautzie and Ellie. Seeing Amanda, Sam, and Michael work together as a family really struck me as special and something I wanted to know more about. I was looking forward to more stories on our last day because we had set aside time to sit down and talk. When we got back, one of the first thing I asked Amanda was to tell me the story of the first woodcock she had ever shot, which, coincidentally, was one of the first birds she had harvested over her dog Schautzie.
“I was hunting with Dad, and at the time I didn’t carry a gun. I would tag around with Dad with a camera, taking pictures while we were grouse hunting. We had hit this honey hole that held all kinds of woodcock, and it was my first real experience of seeing woodcock, and dad went in there and got his limit and handed me the gun and said, ‘It’s your turn.’ I was super nervous, but I was excited. Schautzie stuck a bird, and I walked in and flushed it, shot it, and was shocked that I hit it. Schautzie ran out to retrieve it, and I was assuming she would retrieve it for Dad, because she had usually hunted for Dad, and retrieved for Dad, but somehow Schautzie knew that it was my bird. She brought it to me, and it was so special.
“It was at that moment I realized I had really been missing something by just carrying a camera. It changed my perspective of bird hunting right then and there. I love being outside, I love the birds, I love the adventure of it, but there’s something about hunting with your own dog that was just . . . it was unlike anything else. It pieced it together for me, and it hasn’t been the same since. And I’ve enjoyed hunting over Schautzie for the past handful of years now. It will never be the same. I will always have my own bird dog. And she will always hold that special place, forever being my first dog, and the dog that really changed my perspective of bird hunting.”
As a photographer, father, and hunter myself, I resonated with Amanda’s woodcock story. From further stories I gathered from her father, it was apparent that Michael included his children in grouse hunting with him as they showed interest. It wasn’t something he forced upon them, but they ended up wanting to participate in after seeing his love for it—developing a love of their own.
My experience with the Amanda, Same, and Michael is one I will never forget for a few reasons. The first was being able to witness Amanda and Sam in the outdoors, not only partners in life but the best of friends each enjoying bird hunting in their own way, and encouraging each other steadfastly in the facets of it they each pursued. The second reason was being floored to see hunting shared down from father to daughter and the deep rewards it brought each of them individually and through the bonds it created between them as family. Perhaps we try too hard to make our children love what we love and need to be more like Michael, who simply let his children witness how the outdoors brought him fulfilment so that they wanted to try it themselves. This was something I dream of sharing with my own daughter—to witness her experience her first bird and bird dog and to watch the spark ignite in her for the outdoors and, more specifically, for bird hunting. It’s not just my dream, but the dream of many fathers. Amanda, Sam, and Michael are a beautiful example of what a family looks like when they are brought together frequently by their love of bird hunting and bird dogs. Thinking back to that first day of hunting with them when Michael declared it a “Banner day in West Virginia,” I can’t help but wonder whether he was talking about the birds we had seen that day, or the fact that he was hunting within the good and favored company of his family.
Adam has been involved in the outdoor industry for over 10 years, and an enthusiast since he was old enough to carry a shotgun. He is a father of two, photographer, writer, upland hunter, fly fisher, and the middle brother out of the three that are Modern Wild - a company started out of love for the outdoors and its many communities.