The last remnants of snow and wet lichen glistened in the morning sun. On a rise in the distance, Winchester rounded the top and jagged to the left, then to the right. I slung my shotgun to watch him work the high mountain plains carved out by the force of ancient glaciers. His feathers glowed in a white halo around him as he traversed the countryside. His head remained steadfast like a dancers’ while his body performed leaps across creek draws and rock slides until he broke into a full throttle gait through highland grasses still brown from the previous fall. Only the tilt of his nose changed the position of his head as he took in a world of smell more expansive than my view.
It was in those mountains that I first followed a dog. Winchester, a big running English setter, captured the essence of something in me that was both wild and refined. His coat of fur reminded me of a tux, a black and white article of fashion worn best when pressed but looking even better with the tie loosened and jacket ruffled from a night on the town. It wasn’t his looks alone that I followed, although it would have been easy enough. He pointed birds with a force of conviction. He held his point in the American style, tail high and every muscle proud and sure.
Before upland hunting with a pointing dog, my experience was lowland grouse hunting and waterfowling with retrievers. There was plenty to love about the world of flushing and fetching dogs. My chocolate lab brought back birds in some of the strongest tides and over mud and muck. The job of retrieving ducks in Alaska requires a tough dog, and she is as tough as she is sweet. Her tail wags her entire body. She stays close and works close. She tires easy on climbs but loves water and the warm-bodied smell of ducks. She’s one of the best dogs at what she does. She just doesn’t point.
Before I hunted with Winchester, I knew a little about the difference in style between pointing dogs and retrieving dogs. I thought of it much like the manner in which one drinks whiskey. It seems every whiskey drinker has a particular way in which they enjoy their drink. A gentleman at the trap club separates his whiskey into dedicated flasks and brings ice and a lowball glass. His whiskey is a high-end sort he sips and savors. Another whiskey drinker’s style is to drink directly from the bottle, still wrapped in the liquor store paper. The presentation makes a difference and says much about each of them. It didn’t surprise me that the man who takes his on the rocks had a preference for setters and the man who drank his from the bottle and smacked his lips preferred Labradors.
I didn’t know where I fit in when it came to hunting. I loved good dog work and whiskey, but my personal style had not developed. If someone handed me a bottle, I drank from the bottle. If someone handed me a glass, I drank from the glass. My upbringing was not what anyone would call noble. There were no great hunting figures in my childhood to enthrall me with the traditions of the sporting life. All I knew as a girl was how to wander the woods alone and how to delight a waitress by ordering my soda on the rocks with a twist and a red straw.
Winchester, at the very moment I was content not to shoot a bird and instead just enjoy the landscape, went on point. His particular style was studious. He watched the bird but did not stare at it. They held together in one of the most intriguing pairings of predator and prey. I had been told the dog must know that if he breaks, the bird will also. He is trained to wait for the hunter to flush the bird if he is to have a chance at it. My hunting partner motioned for me to go in for the flush. “Get ready,” he insisted. My shotgun was still slung and my lethargy was somewhat like awakening from a dream state. We had been hiking for hours, we had climbed above the valley and were into the rocks and, just when we found them, I’d given up on birds.
We had “trained” Winchester. In my mind, I was following the directions in Wolter’s Gun Dog. In reality, my partner and I drove hundreds of miles to a game farm in Point Mackenzie, Alaska to plant chukars. We adopted and harnessed pigeons that destroyed the paint on fence posts in the yard. We purchased a breed of quail that burrowed into the grass. A friend with setters said he preferred the breed because, if he was going to have a dog, it might as well be the best looking. Nothing we had done training-wise prepared me for how much better Winchester looked when ranging the mountains for ptarmigan. Certainly, nothing had prepared any of us for how well he would perform when freed from the training gauntlet.
I followed Winchester’s point and, ten yards ahead of him there was a white ball of snow. Next to it was another white ball. As my eyes focused, I found the bird’s eye, which gave definition to his entire shape down to the feathers on his feet. Shadows moved on the periphery as the covey waggled in a nervous communication. “Be ready,” my partner whispered. Winchester held. The birds lifted at once. Their shapes were in the sky like blowing snow. I shot and missed and shot again. I heard a shot fire from beside me. I watched the farthest bird drop from the sky. Another shot, and another bird dropped. My partner opened his 28 gauge and the smoke plumed beautifully into the cold air.
I watched as Winchester ran to the birds and my partner reloaded his shotgun. Mine was still closed and I opened it, ejecting my 12 gauge shells into the snow. I reached down to pick them up and realized how much I had missed not just the bird, but the point in its entirety. I wore a black rain jacket and pants that doubled as the gear I wore on ocean fishing charters. My rubber boots were made for the deck of a boat. My bulky waterfowl gun and practical attire ruined the look of the sport. I was the girl who showed up for the opera in jeans and a work shirt.
Winchester’s stylish points counted not so much on bloodline or training as on a forbearing all his own. When he held, it was in the manner of a true gentleman. The point itself was an expression of a tradition as timeless as the surrounding vision. My approach to hunting required an upgrade. If the country, birds, and dog conducted themselves with style, the least I could do was rise to the occasion. I thought that I would train him according to the books and take him to places so he could perform as trained. Instead, he would teach me everything I hadn’t learned. I’d follow the dog.