FORT BENTON – The most famous falconer in the world lives in retirement here, retirement being a relative notion.
Hal Webster, a Navy man, was the man responsible for giving the Air Force Academy its Falcons mascot, live and otherwise. He was co-creator of the association of falconers and grouse hawkers in North America, and he co-authored the consummate book on the sport on this continent 53 years and nine editions ago.
Webster turns 95 next month, and he’s not done yet.
“I’m writing a new book on gyrfalcons,” Webster said recently in his second-floor apartment at the Sunrise Bluff Estates. “We’ve already got the title copyrighted, and I’m not going to give it to you.”
Webster started on his book-to-be-named-later two years ago and figures he has three-fourths of it in the can. He knows what you’re thinking, but don’t worry.
“I’ll get through it,” he assured.
One room and a corner of another in Webster’s apartment overflow with 10,000 fish hooks and the streamers he ties on them. Fly-tying and fishing is a distraction from writing, for sure.
“I’ve already got my application in for this year with Joe Sowerby on the Smith River,” he said.
There’s not enough room in this newspaper or any other to cover half the Hal Webster stories – the years he spent well into his 90s living in a remote ranch house on a Hutterite colony north of here, the fish he’s caught, the sport he built, the cigar he smokes and fine whiskey he sips to watch the Denver Broncos play.
“I used to be quite a dapper bastard,” Webster said with a smile.
You choose your quotes carefully when you write about him. He didn’t put it in these words, but said his family is (upset) at him because he just bought a shiny new Ford four-wheel-drive truck.
“It’s so high I can’t get into the (shiny new Ford four-wheel-drive truck),” Webster said. “So I’ll worry about it in the spring.”
Sowerby, a Missoula guide, is one of Webster’s favorite people. He calls Webster “one of a kind.” Webster calls him "just one sweet guy."
They met at a fly-fishing show in Denver 11 or 12 years ago, and Webster has floated the Smith with Sowerby’s Montana Flyfishing Connection at least once a year since.
He’s broken both hips, the second one when he stumbled last July and broke the ball off the top of his femur. It was the first night in camp on the Smith. True to character, Webster refused a helicopter rescue.
“He sat up at the dinner table and told stories to the other anglers all night,” Sowerby said.
By morning, the pain and swelling had Webster in their grip. Sowerby arranged by satellite phone for an ambulance to meet them at a private river access. He took Webster by raft to the rendezvous, then accompanied him to Great Falls.
Six months later, Webster curses his reduced mobility, but to no one's surprise he’s ready to mark age 95 with another Smith float in the summer.
“I promised him long ago we’d keep taking him as long as he wanted to go,” Sowerby said.
Webster was 87 when he asked Sowerby to teach him the powerful two-handed spey cast he needed to fish for steelhead and salmon.
“He’s a fascinating guy and just a huge inspiration to a lot of us who look at him at 85 to 95 out there fishing and having the passion to learn new things,” Sowerby said.
In a nutshell, the millennia-old sport of falconry is the hunting of wild birds with a trained and hungry falcon or hawk. It’s tightly regulated by state licensing and other laws. The quarries of choice are grouse and pheasants in their natural habitat.
There’s a lot of the above around Fort Benton. It’s what drew Webster here from his native Denver in 1996.
“I had friends who lived in Montana, and one particular fellow that lives in Havre said he had heard that the Fort Benton area had more grouse than any area in Montana,” Webster said. “So I came up to Fort Benton, liked it very much, and brought my wife up here on two occasions for short stays. When she passed away, I sold the big house that I had out of Denver and came here.”
Mike and Meredith Gregston had a different pull – the river – when they moved their business, Adventure Bound Canoes, from Lewistown to Fort Benton around 2000.
Ten years ago, they bought Missouri River Outfitters and began guiding river trips below Fort Benton. Mike, now 62, had long dabbled in falconry, having received his permit and served the required two-year apprenticeship in the early 1980s.
He knew of Webster, all falconers do, but didn’t meet him until the older man heard about the peregrine falcon Gregston kept with him in the store. He walked in one day and said, “Hi, I’m Hal Webster.”
“As soon as he said it, his picture in the book flashed in my mind,” Gregston said. “The first thing that gets you is he's 5-(foot-)4.”
The two have grown to become close friends – you can tell by the ribbing they give each other.
Gregston is the only federally licensed falconer in Montana. He was featured in the Wall Street Journal in January 2013 after he and his Harris hawks were hired by the Phillips 66 refinery in Billings to help abate a starling infestation.
In its third September-April season of the program, Gregston has a pair of employees handling the job. He’s home in Fort Benton trying to keep the likes of Nervous Norvis and Oprah, two peregrine/gyrfalcon hybrids, happy. It's not easy right now.
The grain fields that stretch above town in all directions are covered with an abnormally deep blanket of snow. But it hasn’t kept Webster, hobbled as he is, from climbing into the cab beside Mike Gregston and bouncing down farm roads to get to a hunting field.
There Gregston might unhood Oprah, easily the larger of the two birds, as is common with raptors. By limiting her feed, she’s been carefully trimmed to a hunting weight of 38 ounces, and soars to the task when Gregston sics her on an unsuspecting prey.
“I take him out every day I go,” Gregston said of Webster. “I stick the truck into the field facing where I’m going and he can watch through the windshield. Until two years ago, he was going out with me. Five years ago, he was goose hunting.”
Inevitably, when Gregston gets back to the truck, Webster will tell him how he should have done it.
For Webster, the writing thing isn’t just a nonagenarian fling.
In 1962, he and the late Frank Beebe, a prominent falconer, writer and wildlife illustrator from Canada published “North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks.”
Dubbed a “masterpiece” by one critic of the genre, and widely recognized as the bible of falconry in North America, the beautifully illustrated book has expanded to 840 pages and two volumes.
Webster and Beebe put out the first edition a year after they co-founded the North American Falcon Association, with Webster as its inaugural president. Not a single state recognized falconry as a field sport in 1961, he said. Now all but Hawaii do, and NAFA is the umbrella organization over them all.
Webster was 15 in 1935 when he landed a cleaning job at a Denver elementary school for 25 cents an hour. One day a merlin flew into the school. He captured and kept it.
“I soon had it on my fist and was training it,” he said.
So began his education in the ways of falcons, despite a dearth of information available in this country at the time. Through active naval service in the South Pacific in World War II and then Korea, he kept the hawking fires burning.
When the new Air Force Academy, based temporarily at Lowry Field in Denver, went looking for a mascot in 1955, Webster was in the right place (Denver) at the right time, near the start of a 30-year stint with what was then Mountain Bell Telephone.
The falcon was a candidate, but a picture Webster saw accompanying an article in the newspaper was that of a goshawk.
“Now the goshawk is a raptor that has short-tipped wings and a long tail,” Webster said. “It can fly right through a pine tree by just moving that tail.”
But it’s not a falcon, a point he made to an Air Force public information officer when he called. Five minutes later, he got a call back from the head man of the academy himself, Lt. Gen. Hubert R. Harmon. A day later, Harmon had Webster on the parade field at Lowry.
“I saluted him because I had a bird on my fist. And he had the first class all lined up,” he said.
The first class at the Academy numbered 306, and they were all present and in formation that September day, Webster recalled.
“I said, ‘Sir, if you have no objections, I’ll fly the bird right here on the parade ground.’ He said go ahead.”
Webster checked the wind and threw the falcon off.
“I had a pigeon in my pocket bag, and when the bird got up to three or four hundred feet I took the pigeon and threw it down,” he said.
Falcons have been clocked at more than 230 mph in flight.
“That hawk came down and … just cut it down.”
Webster said the cadets and Harmon watched the demonstration in awe.
“They voted the next day," he said. "The cougar didn’t get any (votes), the lion didn’t get any. The cheetahs might have gotten a vote. Butterflies got nothing. And the falcon won hands down.”
It marked the beginning of an exciting chapter in Webster’s life. He was commissioned a liaison officer and appointed the Academy's “honorary guide and trainer.” He started the Air Force Academy’s falcon mascot program, including the tradition of flying a white phase Arctic gyrfalcon named Mach I at Air Force athletic events.
“Sometimes they fly them indoors, sometimes outdoors,” Webster said. “They have a breeding arrangement there and they have guests from all over the world come.”
For decades, he combed the high arctic areas of the world for the rare gyrfalcon, on behalf of the Academy. Webster said his last football game as falcon master was in 1996, before he moved to Montana.
He's rooted here now, writing his next book, waiting for his next outing with Gregston and the birds, for fishing season, for the next Friday dinner at the Grand Union, and who knows what all?
“You don’t realize when you’re around a guy 90 years old the amount of experiences he’s had in his life,” Sowerby said. “When I first got to meet him, I said, 'OK, is this B.S. or what’s going on here?'
"He was active in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But wait a minute, he had a 30-year career as marketing executive for U.S. West. But wait a minute, he has this whole falconry life that he is a famous person in. You just realize that great people can have a lot of stories.”
Webster is happy to be back in the heart of hawking.
“This isn’t braggadocio,” Mike Gregston said, gazing across the white expanse with Oprah on his fist and his veteran English setters Scooter and Chester bounding alongside. “There’s falconry and then there’s grouse hawking. If you can live here and catch sharp-tail grouse with one of these (birds) using one of those dogs, you’re at the absolute pinnacle of falconry in the world.
“That’s why people like Hal are here. That’s why I’m here.”