Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Walks With Hawks

If you know me you know that I've had a propensity for ah, "enthusiasms," since I was a kid. Those could be anything from racing MG-TDs to bee-keeping, to rocketry to time travel to sailplaning.

Whatever it was, it was usually triggered by a book I had just read and wildly impractical for a 12-year-old to take up. Not that that ever stopped me. I'd simply head for the 1964 version of the Web - back in those days we called them "libraries" - and haunt the reference sections until I had absorbed everything I could find on the subject. If I couldn't actually do whatever had caught my attention, I could sure learn everything I could about it, on the off-chance that I might eventually get a hands-on opportunity . Thus, I can still provide such useful tidbits of information as that M.G. stands for "Morris Garages," that you corner a sports car by cutting through the apex of the curve; that "laser" is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation; that royal jelly is fed exclusively to bee larvae in order to create queens, and that the leather strap used to tether hunting birds is called a "jess." More about that last in a bit.

It's not a bad quirk for a writer to have, as I've learned over the years, although it's occasionally wearing on Peggy who has to listen for weeks - sometimes months - at a time as I take up yet another subject. On the other hand, my long-suffering wife does listen to my babbling and even occasionally acts upon it.

This all takes us up to Manchester, Vermont, where Peggy and I spent last weekend on a postponed anniversary trip. On an earlier trip to Manchester, we had come across a tiny sign in front of a nondescript building that read "The British School of Falconry." Now, I'm totally wild about raptors. It was one of those enthusiasms I mentioned, where I spent several months as a kid wanting nothing so much as to take up falconry and immersed myself in jesses, goshawks, bells, merlins, hoods, peregrines and gloves. Many years after that enthusiasm had all but been forgotten I had spent one of the best summers of my life watching two red tail hawks raise a family of three from just-barely-flying to full-fledged hunters. I made Peggy laugh out loud that summer as I only half-kiddingly presented my gloved arm to the oblivious hawks on the off-chance that one might glide down to me.

Looking for something different for us to do on our 24th, Peggy had looked into getting us a room at The Equinox, a ritzy Manchester resort which is way out of our league except on special occasions. The Equinox has a co-op deal with the group behind the British School of Falconry and Peg was able to get us a package deal that included an introductory handling and flying lesson with a Harris's Hawk as well as a "Hawk Walk" where I was able to fly our hawk along a trail at the Robert Todd Lincoln estate, Hildene.

As it turned out, The Equinox was undergoing major construction, and we decided to take a pass on staying there, instead booking a room at The Wilburton Inn, a delightfully funky place in the off-season run by two true eccentrics who are also wonderful hosts. The Wilburton is highly recommended. And we still did the falconry thing at The Equinox package price.

At 2:00 on Saturday we were with our trainer, Rob, who brought me through the basics of handling my hawk, Sprint, as Peggy acted as observer and photographer. The 45-minute walk-through ranged from holding (left, gloved arm, jess held between thumb and fingers); walking with (hawk needs to face into the wind or will bait [i.e. flap around in an unseeming manner], often backwards and/or sideways; raptor psychology (essentially, smallest possible effort for largest possible reward); training of raptors (essentially, hunger = interest. A satisfied raptor is interested in nothing except standing on the nearest perch); why we were using hawks instead of falcons (Falcons work wide open spaces, gliding around and then swooping on prey. Hawks are more suited to New England woods, able to maneuver around trees and brush and able to take a heavy beating when necessary); and how to cast and retrieve your hawk.

We were with another couple - the woman acting as handler and the man as observer - and we exchanged our hawks for another pair and set off to Hildene and our hawk walk. All our hawks were Harris's, chosen because they tolerate humans much better than most raptors, and interestingly, who like to hunt in teams. Most raptors will attack each other rather than work together. Trained Harris's tend to treat both dogs and humans as members of their hunting pack - "we're the hired help" Rob called it - expecting us to flush out the game for them.

I have many memories I treasure: landing a seaplane for the first time; hiking the Grand Canyon; Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands; Niagara Falls. I added a new memory last Saturday, a surrealistic walk through the woods, two free-flying hawks pacing our group, gliding from tree to tree, occasionally swooping into the brush after unseen game; flying to our gloves if given the opportunity to see if they could convince Rob to provide some free meat. I was flying a hawk named Wallace, the other handler-in-training, Maya, had a hawk named Skye. At the end of the walk, I held up my arm for Skye who, at the last moment, dipped under it, soared a few inches off the ground, and then rose up to gracefully perch on Maya's glove.

It was one of the most beautiful things I think I've ever seen.

Peggy's photo album of the training and walk can be found here, although most of the remaining shots are just me with a goofy grin and a hawk perched on my arm.

The "once-in-a-lifetime" phrase is an overworked term that writers learn to avoid. But I came as close to a once-in-a-lifetime experience as I'm likely to have, thanks to Peggy. If I regret one thing, it's that she didn't get to try too, as the rules say one handler and one observer per couple.

But if I have my way, we'll be doing it again. Soon.


BrainMc said...

This is awesome. I am so jealous. I will have to check out something down here like this.

One of my favorite parts of watching Auburn football games is when the eagle flies around the stadium and then lands on the 50 yard line.

While we were hiking in Big Sur last week, we had a California condor slowly cruise about 10 feet over our head. That was pretty cool, but you've got us beat.

Kym said...

'back in those days we called them "libraries" '


You both (Fred & hawk) have an appropriate 'noble' look on your face in the pics.

Awesome. Color me jealous.

"Boss" James said...

The hawk looks great...who's the old fart with the hat?

suellis said...

Wow...so cool. I know what I'm giving Ian for his birthday this year. Like you, he's got a passion for raptors. I'm sure he'll think he died and went to heaven if he gets to follow in your footsteps out on Hildene ...Heaven being the only place he thought he'd ever get a chance to hang out with a hawk.

Anonymous said...

Hi Fred,
So funny. I actually saw an ad online for this about a year or so ago and promised myself I would some day go up and do it - because like you I've always been "enraptured" ;-) by these birds. I associate them with knights, kings & queens and maybe even Camelot. Dang if you didn't beat me to it. Awesome birds and great photos of your walk! Now I'm inspired to check it out for myself. Thanks for sharing this truly unique and beautiful experience.