The dog makes the first tracks. He breaks through the soft, pure, white ahead of us, and we stop to watch, to catch our breath. We won’t ever run so fast in our lives. We won’t ever be so “wide open” or keenly aware of our world. The warm-bodied smell of ptarmigan buried in willow patches across the valley will never halt us all of a sudden and send us racing back the way we came. Only a dog can run the way we feel we ought to. When he stops, we know he’s found a bird, and our pace is labored and willing where his was as driven and natural as any element on the mountain.
When I left the road side to hunt a field for the first time, there was so much I didn’t know. In the company of wild grass and skies that might be filled with birds or clouds on an afternoon, I guess I never figured how a dog would play a part. My time alone in wilderness was filled with lazy thoughts and ramblings with a friend who showed me how to shoot a bird or two. We took photos of ourselves and the game. One photo showed our lonely tracks across the grass. A pair of drifters, we were just beginning without knowing what to call the start until, looking back, it’s plain to see where a set of tracks were missing.
Winchester arrived at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska from his birth place 3,000 miles away in New England, North Dakota. When his kennel was placed on the counter, the notion of owning an English setter and the reality of approaching a live pup in a crate were two different things. My partner chose the breed, the breeder and the name. All I had to do was look inside. Airport personnel opened the door, and crouched toward the back was a little dog more weary than afraid.
A black spot covered each of his eyes which were of the darkest brown. His head lifted. It didn’t occur to me just then that the soft, dark eyes of this little dog would serve him well as a hunter because they were not probing eyes. They were eyes that would hold ptarmigan for as long as it took us to reach them without causing them to run or fly. They were eyes that said, “I will follow you,” but which would instead lead us. Whether it was a hundred years of breeding or a hundred lives lived before made no difference. I was a young heart looking at an old soul.
His white and black fur was bright in the jade-green grass of summer and purple fields of mountain geranium. He hunted whether it was bird season or not. He hunted while we fished for grayling in July and in the nearby cow pastures while we fished for pink salmon in August. In fall, Winchester took us across the sun-burned mountain valleys and past them to rocky climbs. There were times when we stopped, our breath ragged from the climb. He hunted shale slides far above us, leading us further into the mountains so that we discovered lakes and creeks so quiet, the coursing sound of the water was as pure-sounding as an ascending violin.
In the fall of his fourth year we travelled to North Dakota and a mass of cockleburs caused him to require a near-shave. It was the first time he had pressed so hard in the field that he became exhausted and had to be rested for two days. I sat beside him in the hotel room and looked into his eyes. Even tired he was a hunter and every bone and muscle in his body was crafted from the time he spent pursuing birds. In his tiredness, his eyes were the same soft eyes he had as a puppy and when my partner headed to the door with his shotgun, Winchester raised his head.
No matter how beat he was, he was a hunter and was hunting while he rested on a hotel room bed. He was running in his sleep and crashing through cattails until he was bloody. He was piling down the steep terrain of mountain rock and shale, slipping and catching himself with the art and balance of a dancer. I shook him to wake up to rest, and he peered at me with those same dark puppy eyes. Nothing could stop him except his two companions. “You’ll have to sit this one out,” we said. But, hunting without him we knew what was missing – a dog is an accessory for just a few, for most, he is an indispensable member.