“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.