Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Month: November 2013

family

“I’m a restless sort, and not a mother. In a sense, hunting has given me a tiny shred of the connection I’ve missed by not having children, causing me to consider my life in the most basic of biological terms and human behaviors. Hunting has given me a stake in the cycle of blood, life, death, and nourishment; it is a devotion- an act of responsibility and courage.”

~Susan Ewing as quoted in Gun Women

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Cheyenne hit the water as hard and as fast as my partner responded to the opportunity to shoot at a flock of teal that rocketed out of the slough. My shotgun was slung and I had a pack on my shoulders. The other pair of hunters with us stood on the porch of the duck shack. Cheyenne had only retrieved one duck in her two-year-old life, and it was from a boat earlier that season. That was the day, looking back on it, that I started following dogs.

The tide was going out when she snatched the teal from the top of the water and turned back toward us with certainty. Four of us watched as she ran up the mud as fast as her short legs could carry her. She didn’t stop as she passed my partner’s outstretched hand. She was running straight toward me. Her tail wagged, and she circled me three times before letting go of the teal. Her training had been minimal; it was something inside her that made her a duck dog.

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The four of us camped on the remote tidal flats for four days with two dogs. Meg, a golden retriever, was a veteran, but she was slow. Meg’s ability was the height of what I knew to expect from a gun dog. She followed commands and was as sweet a dog as I had ever met. I had observed labs on other hunts. They were unruly and so prey driven that one time they would bring a duck back and the next, take off with it across the country on a dead run.

Cheyenne, a chocolate lab, was unruly in the house. She was an unrepentant sinner when it came to opening up boxes of shells and spreading them across the shop floor. Her nose led her into the pockets of jackets so that only a few survived without holes to fulfill their purpose. She had an affinity for tearing open anything that was stuffed, including sofa cushions. My hopes that she would be as good a dog as Meg in the field were low.

She was made for the field, not the house. That’s what I didn’t understand. In the field, her anxiety converted to enthusiasm. She wanted to bring back ducks with a force of interest that was its own reward. Meg spent the day with her pair of hunters and, when it was over, she slumped into a pile of exhaustion. Cheyenne peered from underneath the table with her still eager eyes like a stowaway. She didn’t have time for the indoors.

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As we flew over the inlet on our way home, I wanted to go back. My head was filled with the salt smell of the flats, the warm-bodied smell of ducks, and the alkaline smell of Cheyenne’s wet fur. I wanted to watch Cheyenne, not just because she was physically tough when it came to running the mud and swimming the tide or because she found birds we would have lost in the grass. I wanted her to have as many chances as possible to do what she loved.

I started calling her my little duck dog, my little ducker. Her constant attention, which used to annoy me, instead filled me with mutual admiration. She seemed to always be saying, “let’s go duck hunting.” I started shooting trap and skeet in order to improve my shot gunning skills. And, I don’t know whether it was the desire to acquire a complete skeet set or because I’d had a bit to drink, but it was at a fundraising banquet my partner volunteered me to MC later that year that I made a split-second decision that would change both our lives forever.

I was acting as master of ceremonies and the bidding was about to close on one of the most beautiful guns I’d ever seen: a Beretta white onyx 28 gauge over/under shotgun, with a 28-inch barrel, choke tubes, and gold inlay engraving. No one had met the reserve and the gun was about to be placed back in its custom Giugiato case not to be used for another year. I cleared my throat into my microphone. The auctioneer, Loveable Larry, seemed to know what I meant. I’d meet the reserve.

When I made my way off stage I found my hunting partner to congratulate me on my purchase. “You know what this means,” he said. I shook my head. “If you’re going to own a 28, you’re going to have to get a proper bird dog.” At the time, I thought he was being funny. He’d mentioned before that since his childhood he’d wanted to hunt behind an English Setter after seeing two of them work a pheasant field in his home state of North Dakota. I laughed, but he was serious.

It was two months later that Theodore Roosevelt Winchester travelled from a 70,000 acre ranch in New England, North Dakota all the way to the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, to meet his new hunting family. He lifted his head to look at me when I reached in the kennel. He had the blackest eyes I’d ever seen on a dog. He wasn’t the panicky bundle of joy that Cheyenne was as a puppy. I remember thinking there was something special about him. There was.

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If Cheyenne was the first to show me that a dog could represent the spirit-half of the hunter – the raw and wild world apart that may not wear well on furniture – Winchester would take the lesson a step further. Following him into the mountains, into the toughest country, to hunt ptarmigan and watching as he gained mastery at finding and pointing them…well, it stirred something in me that I did not know existed.

His feathery silhouette lighted by the sun and snow blowing over the hills and leading two hunters higher and higher is a sight belonging to a renaissance world of art museums and gentleman’s parlors. He represents the best in athleticism and breeding. His drive is one that calls me again and again to get up early, drive a hundred miles and walk ten or twenty more. It doesn’t matter how tired I am, there is not enough time in his life to spare an excess on my part.

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The best lessons in my life are those I’ve learned from sporting dogs (I now have six). They are tough, that is sure. But they are also indifferent to everything that truly does not matter. They will strive to “break the body” as many times as they are asked. They invite me to life’s adventure and passion. And, as I sat down to write my thoughts on family and what I’m thankful for, it was after declining an invitation to my human family’s Thanksgiving Dinner.

I plan to spend Thanksgiving in the field with my hunting partner and Winchester as I have for several years. I hope that it’s acceptable to my relatives that I am not a mother by choice and that instead I find another way to connect with life. I hope that they know that my best contribution is to live as skillfully and reverently as possible. I hope they know that it’s nothing personal that I want to spend not just some but almost all of my spare time in the field. I hope they know I’d rather shoot a turkey than eat one.

west creek

“Hill Country is neither here nor there. It’s the place just over the next rise, that soft pool around the next bend, or that cover you planned to hunt but somehow never did.”

~Gene Hill, “Hill Country” Field & Stream, April 1977

It’s hard to say where a trail ends when it goes into the mountains. Sometimes there is a book covered by a rock at a summit, and hikers log their names in it and say that they have “done” a particular hike. Sometimes a groomed trail narrows into the rocks above tree line. The trails were started by game and reinforced first by hunters and then by visitors. We had left the trail several miles behind us. It was a long morning, and we hadn’t found birds when we headed west into a valley that ended in a rock basin.

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Winchester ran the surface of the rocks where there had been white-tailed ptarmigan before. With the valley wall in front of us I waited to hear my hunting partner’s plan. If I were the one to make plans, it would be to accept as the end the first insurmountable obstacle so long as it appeared in front of me and I was facing east. But, he was usually the one to make plans, and he was already following a creek that ran down the rocks from a bench a few hundred feet above us and to the north.

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The vacancy of the mountains, their stillness, composed of rock and further stifled by cold, wind, and a fresh coat of snow made for a blank canvas in which to find a living creature. The birds we hunted used as their best defense the very silence, shape, and color of the mountain itself. The view beyond my hunting partner’s back promised me nothing but a chance at exhaustion. It was easy to say it was a dead valley, a dead end. I was tired already, and my eyes were scraped raw from the scenery.

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Instead of looking ahead, I looked at the ground. The detail of the lichen and scabbed rocks and snow were a relief from the daunting white landscape. When looking straight down, the minty green lichen plumed on bare rock, rootless and capable of growing on a gravestone. It was interesting at least. And something to muse about.

When I looked up, Winchester had stopped. My partner had readied his gun just a few yards ahead of me. I searched the snow and rocks for birds. The snow on the rocks made every surface appear to be a white-tailed ptarmigan and not a white-tailed ptarmigan until a shot fired and the wings flapped in the snow across the creek. Winchester was pointing yet another bird that had not flushed. If it flushed to the right, I would have a shot.

The little bird sat still, his feathers puffed. Even with three sets of eyes fixed on him, he dared us to see him.

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I stepped in the stream. Part of me wanted to see him elude us. Even as Winchester held his point and had run the mountains until there were spots of blood left in his paw prints and knowing this was the moment that we had all worked the morning to attain and thought about in the off-season, I hesitated. The bird stretched his neck, signaling he would fly. I mounted my gun and watched as he lifted in the opposite direction. If he had flown my way, I might have betrayed us all and missed a shot. My partner fired and the bird dropped in the snow as light as air.

There was no sound, no wind, and no cold. There was just the glory of the dog rushing toward the bird. There was the beauty of it. The kind of beauty that takes a moment and, by taking a moment, it suspends all the senses. There’s a gap in breathing, a gap in everything. Then the senses come slamming back in an exhale. I was rushing toward the bird.

Just above the creek we found a small lake where our trail ended that day. It could have gone on, but it ended there. We rested as the wind blew and broke against the thin layer of ice making a haunting chirping sound.

Before I had hunted birds, my trails had ended in a logical place. They ended where the trail marker said they ended or when there was nothing left to think about and so it made sense to turn back. It wasn’t until my hunting partner, and later both my partner and Winchester, pushed me past a lackluster reason to stop marching onward without a “real” destination, that I learned how to know when the day was over. It wasn’t a single bird, a few birds, or a limit of birds. Every day in the field had its own rhythm of urgency.

A hunting trail doesn’t end anywhere in particular. It is just followed, and my partners were the trail I was following just as they followed the birds they knew were there. Each day I spend afield with them I learn to recognize what is the privilege of a sporting few, and it is this. When we go out in nature as participants rather than observers, as hunters rather than wildlife viewers, we are embarking in a sacred right. It has all the rigors of tradition, the beauty of ritual, and the abundance of human imagination. But it has something even more. We are taking game and depending on it. So where or when does the trail end?

For me, it ends when there is something left for tomorrow.

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breaking point

First he ran the mountains, stretching out to thirty miles. He ran the length of the valley floor and darted to summit its walls on a route as haphazard as the morning wind. Several times he stopped violently only to change his mind and run in another direction. His false alerts and fresh starts were a joy to share; the athleticism was his alone.  He out-ran us for several hours before he finally sat down on a hillside overlooking the country. If Winchester had anything in common with humans, it was this trait of his to sit for a moment. Not to rest, not to wait, but to take a vantage point. I was glad he did.

First snow 9-21-13 108 My hunting partner called them “Winchester’s mountains,” and now I think of them that way. Without him, the distant peaks appear lonely and vacant just as he is aloof and sleepy in the house. Together, both the mountains and the dog come alive. He hunted the deep snow, the avalanche drifts, the slate rocks, the cold creek beds, the willow patches, and the lichen-covered hillsides all the same. He just ran until he found birds. An English setter born in New England, North Dakota, he had been raised pointing ptarmigan in the Kenai mountains.

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My two hunting partners had a lot in common. It wasn’t just that they were both male and born in North Dakota. They both possessed a prey drive resembling a survival instinct. Our days in the field were long and there were no breaks for food. They both searched for an elusive bird, not just a game bird but a particular game bird and under the right circumstances. Winchester scoffed at retrieving the way my hunting partner scoffed at a song bird. Between all their scoffing were miles of country and an endless drive.

Despite the call of his puppy face and black-spotted fur for petting and cuddling, Winchester was not a particularly affectionate dog. After a day of hunting he was distant and preferred to be alone. Like the stereotypical man lover who asks a girl to leave in the night, Winchester was only a gentleman in the game fields. At home he was moody and surly with the other dogs, mostly the Labradors. We never bonded, but he was my favorite of the six hunting dogs. He was the best.

His distrust of me started with a bath he was given as a puppy. He didn’t want to go in the tub, but I picked him up and set him down in the warm water. He let me wash him and dry him without the rambunctious struggle of the Labradors. I thought his dislike of baths was an extension of his dislike of water. Feathers like the ones he developed as an adult dog were only meant to blow in the wind. He side-stepped puddles and avoided the rain. But it wasn’t the water. He didn’t trust me.

North Dakota was much different than I remembered when we had hunted it six years prior, before Winchester was born or the thought of owning a setter had ever crossed my mind. I had remembered the soft fields of grass lit by the sun and crackling with roosters. We had our limits before breakfast and hunted geese in the afternoon. Now, corn fields replaced the grasslands and the shelter belts we had hunted in previous years. Corn grew right up to the barricaded doors of an abandoned farm house, and the undergrowth and overgrowth of once carefully planted trees burned in piles to ready yet more acreage for planting.

The first morning we hunted it was obvious the birds weren’t there. Not like they used to be. Winchester ran his first grass field with his nose in the air. Maybe it was the newness of the place or the fact that pheasants have a stronger smell than ptarmigan that made him use his nose more than usual. Finally, he locked up, pointed into the cattails. I didn’t have time to wonder over what it was like for him to point a bird he had never seen or the way it felt for him to run through blades of grass and cockleburs. The landscape must have been a jungle compared to the cold rocks, lichens, and snow in the mountains.

My partner flushed and shot a rooster. It was the only one our party took that morning. We had no idea how lucky we were. After breakfast at his father’s house, the 76-year-old came with us on another hunt. That would be our pattern for the remaining five days. The five of us, including a black lab named Lady, would hunt the first two fields on either side of breakfast then my hunting partner and I would spend the rest of the day on our own with Winchester. We hunted until sunset with a break for lunch at a gas station diner.

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After the morning hunt on the second day, Winchester was covered in cockleburs. He let me pull out a few before lowering his ears and growling. “He’s not going to let us comb them out,” I said. We pulled into the parking lot of a veterinarian’s office my partner’s father had told us about. The vet looked him over and recommended we let her give him a haircut. He could be sedated, sheared, have the sedation reversed, and be ready to hunt in a few hours. We drove the countryside and walked a fence line before heading back to the vet’s office.

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A little girl led Winchester out of the back room on a leash. His muscles and bones stood out to me for the first time. His feathered hair had covered so much vulnerability. And, apparently, an English Pointer.  His skin was red and raw where burs had imbedded into his skin under his collar and groin. We headed to a nearby section of PLOTS land, but I wondered if Winchester would be ready so soon after the experience. Wouldn’t it be disconcerting for any creature to wake up from sedation in a strange place, shorn, and smelling like an oatmeal bath?

“We need to get him back out there,” my partner said. Winchester was his dog and cowboy logic worked better on him than mothering, that much I had learned. I enjoyed hunting birds because he enjoyed it. I’d never have the sight or excitement of flushing a bright colored bird at eye level for the first time like he did. It wasn’t just his first time hunting pheasants on that trip, it was his first time being the only dog in the “house.”  If it was up to me he’d be back at the hotel sitting on a pillow and being read a Gene Hill story.

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But Winchester wasn’t me. He was the best, and he hunted without hair as well as with hair. He hunted from sun up to sun down with us for two more days. His beautiful feathered tail and legs were not his lion’s mane, they were not a shield for fighting the cold nor a symbol of his royal breeding. They were just fur and I’d have to get over the loss. “His under coat is fine,” my partner said, “the feathers are just for pride and show.” Despite being a mountain dog, he’d never hunted for four days straight. He was “dog tired,” and we decided to rest him for a day before our last day of hunting. That night, after a day of sleeping in the car, Winchester snuggled up beside me.

My sympathy for his raw skin, sore eyes, and badly cut coat of fur was such that it distracted my imagination in the field as well as at “home” in the hotel room. His manner in the field had always been for me nothing short of a work of art both in meaning and vision. His hair was more about romance than efficiency. I missed the way the wind blew through his feathers and the light played on his fur so that he glowed as he ran the skyline. I thought of this as I pet his ears and rubbed his neck. As he gently licked my hand it occurred to me that something else had changed, and this had happened more gradually and more importantly than his loss of fur. He trusted me.

on the last day of our hunt, Winchester worked har to find these last two birds for us, they were a perfect pair

On the last day of our hunt, Winchester worked hard to find these last two birds for us, they were a perfect pair