Although I followed him into the mountains, it was not always with certainty. He ranged so freely and cut such a wide swath across the open valley–flattening the distance of a summit and whipping down rocky terrain without pause–that I often wondered if he overran the scent he was supposed to follow. We got a GPS collar that would track him for seven miles and still worried we would lose him, as other hunters had lost their dogs in this same country that swallowed itself in sloughing mountainsides and glacial lakes draining clear to the ocean. How could I trust him not to get lost and to instead find white-tail ptarmigan, I wondered, if he sometimes pointed song birds and sometimes, in his haste, passed over lowland willows and grouse?
We were six miles into a valley when my hunting partner slowed from chest pains. He’d been having them all morning, and they had no relation to exertion so we knew it wasn’t a heart attack. Our plan was to follow the valley as it curved westward into a basin and then go over the top into the next valley in search of white tails, the ptarmigan inhabiting the highest elevation of the three species. We watched Winchester run up the rocky side of the valley in a straight line. “Please don’t let him find birds up there,” I thought. And just as I thought it, he stopped. He was 600 vertical feet above us.
“You go ahead,” my hunting partner said. His chest pains would slow him so he would make his way up behind me. There was no getting out of it. We had to honor Winchester’s point. I kept my eye on him as I zigged and zagged my way up the rocky mountainside. His body was ridged. Setter folks say Gordon’s are the most loyal of the setters, Irish setters the most affectionate. English setters have these qualities in part, but they will not spare them for a bird. It took me twenty minutes to reach his point. It was twenty minutes of trust between us as I rushed and he held.
As I walked past him, he never looked at me just as he never looked back. His focus was on the bird, as it should be. The bird’s head reached up at my approach, and I remembered to anchor my feet. With my back to the valley below, I leaned forward into my shot and watched the bird drop as twenty or more other birds scattered white into the rocks a hundred yards above us.
I held Winchester back. My partner was still a hundred feet below us. It was a chance for me to catch my breath but Winchester barely breathed. He sat beside me with blood in his eye. He didn’t whine like the chocolate labs sometimes do in the duck blind. It wasn’t patience, just drive that cooled like steel beside me. I knew not to pet him or offer him water. We would just wait in methodical silence in the same way he hunted. He was still hunting.
My partner’s chest pains didn’t stop him from proposing we continue upward. He let Winchester go, and 200 yards above us, he found the birds again. This time his point cut one of the most beautiful silhouettes I’d ever seen on a mountain. Like the elk or the caribou making a stand, his posture held a mastery over a place and time. “You go ahead,” I told my partner. “I’ll follow you with the camera.” Winchester was his dog, and they shared a drive that could not acknowledge the distraction of a torn carpal pad or chest pains so long as there were birds and the pain did not stop them completely.
Together, they took two birds. When each bird fell, it glanced off the rocks and rolled, hitting rocks and bouncing all the way to the valley floor some thousand feet below. Winchester pointed a third bird below us, and we began our descent, figuring we would end the day early with these few birds after this last point, find our birds in the valley, and possibly stop by the hospital on our way home.
The next bird fell into a ravine, and Winchester found it. He was not a retriever and, in fact, had only retrieved one or two birds in his three years of hunting. These were birds we had no hope of retrieving ourselves. It was as if he knew. He had begrudgingly brought each bird to the farthest edge of our reach and dropped it with disinterest. But, he would pick up a bird, just to hold it in his mouth, never damaging it. He held this bird that way and I snapped a picture before he whirled around. He didn’t have time to drop it and was on point again with the bird still in his mouth.
My partner took aim, and I took a photo of something that I had not ever seen before. This dog, I thought, could be trusted. I should never doubt him when he passes over grouse or has a passing interest in song birds. He knows what he is doing. He is hunting the birds we are hunting. He is doing it even when we are not. He is following a scent that is so strong, it completely masters him so that nothing else matters. It didn’t matter if he had a bird in his mouth already. His owner didn’t care that he was near exhausted with pain. The two of them looked about as reverent as I could ever hope to be, and the birds flushed wild.