I'm standing hushed, arm outstretched. A giant hawk hurtles towards me, rocketing from the treetops, its wings spread wide as it dives at me in a 70-mile-an-hour burst of feathers and talons. And I'm having the time of my life.
It's fast. It's phenomenal. It's fun. It's falconry. The 4,000-year-old "sport of kings" that conjures up images of King Arthur and the medieval countryside is available stateside through an exhilarating "hawk walk" at the Equinox British School of Falconry in Manchester, Vermont, as well as other schools throughout the country. And you don't have to be royalty to try it.
Anyone can learn the hands-on basics of flying and handling a hawk at this first-of-its-kind American school. In a field of green dreams, I am Lady Guinevere, exuberant falconress for a day, tramping through the woods of the sprawling Hildene estate, a majestic hawk perched on my glove.
I learn hawking terms like furniture—not something sold at Ethan Allen, but the bells, hand-stitched hoods and pheasant feather lure training equipment. I also discover that Harris hawks have a wingspread of three to three and a half feet and can spot a rabbit a mile away. No optometrists necessary.
I'm now in the company of historic falconers Catherine of Valois and Empress Catherine of Russia and 6,000 Americans, from astronomers to truck drivers.
Against a moss-purple mountain backdrop, I watch the noble flight of sisters Skye and Haggis circle, soar and zoom back down to my glove. It's such a thrill that "frequent flyers" return to the school's bucolic trails that were once owned by descendants of Abe Lincoln.
"As a teen I took up falconry," says Equinox master falconer Rob Waite, a witty blend of Hugh Grant and Tony Blair. "One brother works in aviation. We both ended up in flying, but in different ways." In reality, this flight of bird fancy is all about hunting with trained birds of prey—eagles, hawks and falcons. The man-hawk bond is food: the constant search for raw meat. Explains Waite, "The Pavlov gesture is raising your arm, and presto—swoop—the hawk is called back to your fist."
An introductory lesson costs $85; a one-hour Hawk Walk, $145; and a half-day hunt, $319—all complete with Barbour jacket, Wellington boots and leather glove.
Visit www.falconry.com or www.equinoxresort.com or call 802-362-4780.
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