A film of bird dogs, row boats, and wild grouse.
Raised on the water, there is no place I’d rather be than on a river. Oregon’s Grande Ronde River is a particularly magical place filled with wildlife, gorgeous views, and adventure. Once I started bird hunting, it was impossible not to combine my two beloved hobbies: rafting and chasing grouse. My husband, Tanner, photographer Adam Regier, and I embarked on this hybrid voyage during last year’s grouse season with the river as our guide.
The Ronde is stunning in October. It is also low flow season. Rafters endearingly refer to rivers during this time as “bony” or “busy,” meaning there is a heck of a lot of rocks poking out of the water that one must navigate around. Although low flows sound challenging, they’re the root of my favorite parts of rafting. Between changing water speeds and new obstacles, you never float the same river twice. Variable conditions always offer different paths to take.
A veteran river guide who had floated the Ronde countless times met us at The Minam Store in Wallowa, Oregon. He gave us the inside scoop on several excellent grouse spots along the river. With our anticipation at its peak, we left the store to set up camp down the road in the pouring rain. After we got thoroughly soaked, it was time for a much-needed beer at a nearby brewery.
Driving back to camp, we had a very close run-in with a bear on the highway. Unbeknownst to us, bears would become as much a theme for our trip as the birds. Our cozy cots were a welcome sight after we safely returned to camp. We were lulled into sleep by the sound of pounding rain on the tent flies, and dreams of the adventure ahead of us flowed through our minds.
Day One: Launch Day
Launch day is always exciting. Following your checklist is required when preparing for a multi-day wilderness adventure without phone service or access to any outside resources. One must walk that fine line between taking everything you need and not weighing the boats down too much during low flow season. As we buzzed around The Minam Store, loading the two 14-foot rafts with gear, we felt thankful that the rain had cleared and promised a beautiful day.
With the rafts loaded, gear strapped down, and checklist checked, we put on life jackets and jumped in. Grant and Lottie, the store’s owners, helped us shove off into the Wallowa River and waved with encouragement as the water took hold of our boats. The Wallowa would carry us ten miles downstream to its confluence with the Grande Ronde.
Serenity and contentment are ever-present on the river. The slow, steady pull of the oars, the sounds of birds chirping, the rippling, churning water; nothing is better. Add in grouse hunting, and it’s absolute heaven.
In my family, it isn’t a real outdoor outing without dogs. From day one, my pups have gone on every trip with us. Hayward, a black and white French Brittany, is our anxious little fella. He paces and takes forever to settle in. More times than I care to mention, he has slipped off the raft’s thwart and ended up in the water, often within minutes of us launching. This trip was no different. Soppy and soggy, we tossed him back into the boat. Pup lifejackets are a rafting essential.
Then there is Charlie. He is Hayward’s antithesis. He is an American Brittany we rescued from a shelter at 18 months old. Usually independent and rambunctious, Charlie is a chill river dog. He promptly finds a cushy spot on the gear stack and falls asleep every time. Funnily enough, when we land, their personalities flip. Hayward is the perfect camp dog, staying close, always looking for an available, accepting lap to curl up in. Charlie, on the other hand, hits the beach running. He explores the surrounding camp area, often having to be corralled to keep him from wandering off. We lovingly refer to Hayward as “The Babe” and Charlie as “White Lightning.” Usually, they hunt this way, too.
However, we were all off our game on the first day. The dogs must have felt my self-conscious energy; I had never had a camera follow me around before. Usually, Hayward is my grouse champion. Charlie shines in the chukar hills. However, on our first hunt, Charlie was the rockstar and Hayward…well, he was there.
Charlie and Hayward came into my life during a difficult time. In the last two years, their companionship in the field and at home were welcome distractions from family emergencies. They continue to bring joy to my life today while balancing life and medical school. However, one of my biggest pet peeves with strong women in the hunting space (and medicine, for that matter) is that women are frequently overrepresented as emotional and making decisions or having passions that stem from that emotion, especially if it is from a source of sadness or trauma.
I got into bird hunting during a time of great sorrow. Learning to bird hunt brought a profound connection with nature and offered me much-needed peace. Since then, though, I hunt birds because I love that harmony and tranquility, not because I am escaping from troubles. Instead, I simply enjoy spending time in quiet places that let me reset from a busy world, foster a union with the outdoors, and make community with the land while loving on some pups. My time spent outdoors is predominantly light-hearted.
And finding light-hearted adventure was undoubtedly the theme of our float trip. After a quick lunch pitstop and bear sighting on the opposite side of the river, we landed at our first grouse hunting location. We pulled the shotguns out of the dry box and assembled them on the beach. We swapped our boat shoes for hiking boots, grabbed our packs, collared the dogs, and headed into the woods.
Hunting equals climbing in the Pacific Northwest, especially in a river canyon, and climb we did. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before Charlie was on point, and it was a beautiful point. Adam and I were chatting as we scrambled over downed trees and waded through the thick forest. In an instant, we both looked up to see Charlie, head held high, standing stock still. His body language made it clear the birds were close, but he hadn’t seen them yet.
I ran to close the gap, decreasing my speed to a creep as I closed in. In a flash, two grouse rocketed past me in opposite directions. Disoriented, I did the classic spin, hesitate, turn the other way, hesitate, and fire without any hope of connecting. Luckily, Charlie immediately relocated one, having seen it light in a nearby tree. I advanced more intentionally this time, shot without hesitation, and watched the bird fall to the forest floor.
By this time, Hayward had abandoned his pursuit of the other bird and was racing to fetch Charlie’s ruffed grouse. Or, at least, that is what he was supposed to do. Instead, he stood guard over it, being more interested in keeping Charlie away than delivering it to my hand. When I finally got Hayward off the bird, Charlie completed a gorgeous retrieve.
Grouse are amazing little birds. Holding them in your hands is special every time. I can’t help but always take a few moments to appreciate their beauty before moving on.
Hayward and I had a quick reset with a few stern words, and we were off to find the next bird. We were in the thick of them at that point. It wasn’t another minute before both dogs were locked up again. This time, I made a clean initial shot and just missed doubling. Another bird for the bag and much better dog work. Things were on a roll.
Standing in the middle of a narrow, fallen tree ten feet before us, the next grouse stared up at Hayward curiously. Neither Hayward nor I had ever found ourselves in this particular position before. We were rather dumbfounded. As I shifted my weight in hopes of encouraging a flush, Hayward lunged forward, full force, right into the line of fire. Not wanting to risk hitting my pup, we watched the final bird to my bag limit glide away and we were fortunate enough to get it all on camera. Sheesh.
Truthfully, I was so excited to have the other two birds I was only slightly annoyed. My pointing dogs and I understand that we all have bad days. Hayward and I had another chat. I like to think his eyes told me he would do better tomorrow.
Needing to get back on the water to make our first camp, we headed down the hill. Tanner, who had just gotten off another river trip, had opted to sit this hunt out. He was waiting at the boats when we got back, anticipating the story that would follow the shots he had heard in the distance. I presented my prizes to him, regaled him with my hunting tale, and we had a good head shake about The Babe’s wacky performance. Everybody loaded up, and we got back into the current.
A few river miles more, and we pulled into our camp. Unloading and setting up always takes the longest on night one, but it was a breeze that day. Before the sun set, we enjoyed pre-prepared grouse asada tacos and beers around a campfire. Adam, Tanner, and I explored the depths of thought that only a day on the river can provoke. We slept well under the stars, the sound of water guiding our dreams as it had guided our day.
Day Two: Getting into Grouse
Bright and early the following day, we were greeted by cows across the river. Motivation came easily. Coffee, whipped cream, and homemade brown sugar scones fueled us as we packed camp and loaded up the rafts.
In my infinite wisdom, I thought it would be delightful to hand-whip the cream (something I typically use an electric appliance for at home). When it comes to food on overnight rafting excursions, we go big. Why not? It’s not like I had to carry around a carton of cream in my backpack for several days.
However, whipping the cream took forever. The three of us even shared the work. Giving up was briefly considered, I’ll admit. At last, we made the best whipped cream; it was slightly sweet and airy. Without delay, Adam and I enjoyed the fruits of our labor. Tanner was busy tinkering with the raft frames; he would be up in a minute. Preoccupation with packing captured our attention, and we walked away from the kitchen. Sensing his opportunity, Charlie gingerly took the bowl from the table and snuck off to a nearby tree, licking it clean.
Poor Tanner. He’ll never know the perfection of that whipped cream.
At that moment, I was convinced I had the most poorly-mannered bird dogs in all the West. Thankfully, this was our last hiccup with bad pup behavior. By the end of the trip, we were all reassured that my dogs are indeed stellar.
We began the day’s float right above the confluence of the Wallowa and the Ronde. Once on the Grande Ronde proper, we found ourselves in a wilderness area. No more cows, roads, train tracks, or people; it was just us and the outdoors.
The river’s quality changes once the Wallowa and Grande Ronde join. Most notably, the grade steepens, causing maneuvering the rafts to be far more technical. Not surprisingly, every mile took a bit longer than it had before. Tanner and I were both captaining our own boats. A handful of times, we each hung our rafts up on rocks.
There are a couple of ways to unstick a stuck boat. One is to adjust the gear and change the weight distribution. Another, especially if the water is shallow, is to get out and give the boat a good tug. When the water is too deep, lowering your body halfway over the side and trying to bench press the edge of the boat while standing on a boulder also can work.
That last one is tricky. You never want to be the captain left standing on a rock in the middle of the river while your raft floats away downstream without you. On that second day, I managed to hang up on a particularly snaggly rock. Tossing gear around the boat didn’t work, so I had to do the risky unsticking method. Free-floating once again, I got back to my rowing seat easily, only slightly wet and chilly. By far the worst hang-up of the trip, I managed to sail smoothly for the rest of our trek.
Making river miles is a big part of rafting trips. Day two took longer than anticipated, so we pulled into camp with hardly enough light left for an evening hunt. (We did, of course, make time to stop and watch the black bear scaling the rocky hillside on the other side of the narrow river. It was close enough to hear every pebble move under its paws.) Tanner volunteered to start making camp while Adam, the pups, and I went looking for birds.
The terrain was particularly steep and thick. In fact, right as Adam was saying, “I would expect birds to be here since we aren’t hardly able to move,” a grouse popped up between us. The dogs’ point collars had gone off a few times previously, but getting to them was impossible. We finished out the daylight by trudging our way back down to camp. After a long day and success the afternoon before, disappointment was nowhere to be found.
Instead, I dove into making a special dinner: Grandma Anne’s grouse and dumplings. It’s a dear friend’s beloved family recipe that he shared with us after Tanner and I fell in love with it. Although it’s simple enough, it does involve making and rolling dough. Let me tell you, this is a messy endeavor at a river camp. Also, it’s so worth it. (Unlike the whipped cream, it is most certainly a repeatable menu item.) Thankfully, I had saved grouse from earlier in the season specifically for this trip. I wanted to be sure, just in case we didn’t find grouse, or I failed to connect with one, that we would still be able to enjoy scrumptious upland dinners.
While I was making dinner, Tanner was wrapping up the tent setup. We heard a rustling sound in the bushes. Tanner went to investigate, concerned that a dog had found a skunk, which was not uncommon on the Grande Ronde. Moments later, bellowing yells filled the camp.
“HEY BEAR! GO ON BEAR!” The bear we had seen earlier had crossed the river. It was staring at Tanner with a puzzled expression. A frenzied moment followed by a gigantic splash echoed out across the canyon. In the dim light, we could just make out the bear as it swam back the way it had come.
Anxiety in camp was a touch high after such a close encounter. We may have drank a few more beers than intended to calm the nerves. Good food also helped reset the mood. The conversation shifted back to pondering the river in no time. We all slept with one ear open that night, searching the night sounds for big movements behind camp. From then on, I am happy to relay that we only saw bears from afar.
Day Three: Fishing, Hunting, and Fried Snakes
A couple of long days and an exciting evening had left us all drained. We slept in a bit the next morning, comforted by the mileage we had already made. By day three, loading the boats had become efficient and routine. Pushing out of camp, we saw what we could only assume was the same bear from the night before, watching us from the other side of the river.
Sun shining, bugs humming, it was the perfect day for fishing. That stretch of water does a lot of dropping and pooling. There will be white water, including some pretty good rapids, followed by slow eddying water, where the fish love hanging out. As the Grande Ronde gets closer to its confluence with the Snake (yes, that Snake), the thickly wooded landscape changes into steep, rolling hills. We pulled off the river into our last camp in the middle of that natural transition. With plenty of daylight, we tied off the boats, and all went for a hunt.
The dogs performed beautifully. We covered ground and elevation quickly. After a few miles, the dogs went on point, angling toward each other, a sure sign a bird was very, very close. All three of us scrambled up to them. A flush, a shot, and another bird for the belly. Tanner was stoked to have gotten his first bird of the journey.
It was hot, and the dogs tuckered out rather quickly. Not long after we had left, we headed back down to the water. On the way, I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake at the edge of our camp. Usually, we leave snakes alone. Instead of killing them, we redirect the dogs as we head in a different direction. However, this one was a little too close for comfort. So, Adam got to try fried rattlesnake for the first time. It was a hit.
The final night of any excursion is always bittersweet. Knowing that the end is literally right around the corner creates pangs of longing to stay on the river forever. Although I never want to leave the river, hot showers and warm beds have quite the appeal. While pondering this rafting and hunting experience, newly learned life lessons, and the wonder of the wild, I remembered how the untouched beauty of nature is intimately intertwined with living for just a few days on the water. It’s all part of the magic of raft trips.
We made fancy whiskey drinks with lemon and basil simple syrup that night. We ate venison meatballs with morel gravy, brussel sprouts, and homemade huckleberry chutney in appreciation of the land and all its riches. Watching the stars light up the sky between wafts of smoke from our campfire warms the soul in a way nothing else can. Our beds were especially comfortable that night.
Day Four: The Last Day
At daybreak on our final day, we tooled around. We were not particularly motivated to break camp, knowing it wouldn’t be going up again. I cleaned the grouse we had harvested the evening prior for our final river meal.
Hearts, livers, and gizzards always go to the dogs; it’s part of our arrangement for a job well done. Breasts, legs, and wings were fried over the top of onions and garlic in butter with salt and pepper. A friend of ours who was a renowned chef once told me, “If you don’t like it fried in butter, with a little salt and pepper, then you don’t like it. It doesn’t matter what it is.” Oh man, we all love grouse. It was the perfect way to end an excellent voyage.
For the last time, we loaded the boats and shoved off. In the last few miles, we spotted 40 or so chukar running up the cliff side on river right, as if taunting us to go for just one more hunt. If time had allowed, we would have done so in an instant. Alas, we pulled out of the current to get as much time as possible to watch them. Before long, we turned the corner and spotted the boat ramp. Tired but content, we tore down the rafts, loaded the gear into the back of the truck, and set off back to The Minam Store.
On the drive back to our cars, we recounted the highlights, already reminiscing, solidifying every moment of the trip into our memories. There really is nothing like a river adventure, especially when bird dogs and grouse are involved.
I am a very new, first generation, adult-onset, female uplander from Eastern Oregon, where I live with my husband, Tanner, and our two dogs, Lenny and Hayward. The untainted meat and exercise is what got me into it, but the love of bird dogs gets me out most weekdays and nearly every weekend during the season. I am passionate about sharing my experience as a novice bird hunter in order to encourage others, from all walks of life, to try it out.
Kevin is the lead filmmaker at Project Upland. He is obsessed with Ruffed Grouse, Trout, and Filming and Photographing the pursuit of both. Telling meaningful stories about people and their passions is what drives Kevin in his filmmaking career. Hailing from Pennsylvania, Kevin and his young English Setter "Torfinn" can be found in the woods all year round enjoying creation and any adventure they stumble upon.
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.