Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Category: follow the dog (page 2 of 3)

steadfast

We had driven for two hours even though we knew we were driving into the unknown. Between Christmas and New Years, two feet of snow had fallen in the pass. Winter storms had loaded an already unstable snowpack, and the avalanche advisory kept us out of the mountains. Maybe it was hope in the face of weather predictions that made us see a chance or maybe we knew better and just had to see it ourselves. We figured we could hunt the low meadows for willow ptarmigan under a clear sky as long as the wind didn’t come up and the temperature stayed low. The unexpected rain turned to snow with low visibility. Winchester slept in the backseat as I wondered if it truly was impossible to hunt or if we just hadn’t considered enough alternatives.

The mountain pass was dark with heavy snow. To see it lit by headlights gave it the same desolate appearance as the blue light from electronics I’d wanted to escape. Neither of us said anything about it, but our silence suggested we both knew the plan was going backwards on us. We pulled over to evaluate the snow, which I imagined as a new euphemism for urination. The wind blew and the wet snow sank five inches to a light crust. “What weather report said the sky was going to be clear?” I asked. But I knew the weather report didn’t matter. I didn’t know how else to acknowledge the situation. We weren’t going hunting, and Winchester wasn’t going to understand it in terms of a weather report.

When we turned the truck around and headed back Winchester fell asleep again. He was not as concerned as we were about the change in direction. Although he enjoyed stretching his legs and needed time in the field, he had the steadfastness of a dog. It was something I needed to learn from him. Things are not always what they seem. We had thought we were getting closer to what we wanted by driving for what turned out to be four hours in a snow storm. When we pulled into the driveway at home, disappointed and wasted, it was not because we’d spent a long day in the field. It was because we did not have a dog’s Zen understanding of things as they really are.

And what is real? If I had to ask Winchester, he would not have a view clouded by assumptions. He would not think we were foolish for setting out or wise for turning back. He wouldn’t fill his mind with how things seemed because he had only to notice how things are. He knew what mattered. We can’t change the weather. I didn’t mind going as far as I could – whether it was to look out the window or make the drive to the mountain or ocean – and see for myself the impossibility of certain paths if only to be certain we couldn’t take them. In the same way, I would watch a loved one walk away for as long as I had the view.

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind -Robert Johnson, Love in Vain

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind
-Robert Johnson, Love in Vain

Because, when you love something – a person, a passion, or a dog (or those things combined in the chance to hunt together), you cannot sit at home and look at a computer screen. If the weather is bad and you’ve sat near a fire for long enough and you’ve read enough books, eventually you have to get up and see what’s preventing you. You have to stand on the beach or at the base of a mountain. In those moments, it’s possible to feel that you’re in a futile chase. There’s nothing to be done about the weather except sing its blues. And, to the extent you feel the longing and the pain, you know the feelings not in vain.

stealth

Hugo

The lights were off in my bedroom, and the kitchen light backlit Hugo’s shape at my door. He stood still – he held his breath while the snores of the four other dogs emanated from various points in the room. Purdey nestled against my back, Boss was laying along my legs, Cogswell was on the floor at the foot of the bed, and Colt was making pig-like dream sounds from across the room. Hugo and I stared at each other. I reached my hand out to him, and he took a step into the room. His claws did not tap the wood floor, and he paused. It’s been said when a pointing dog points, the point is nothing but an exaggerated stalk. I never had more insight into Hugo’s character – yes, a dog has character – than to watch him use his physical prowess to cross a bedroom in the night without waking four other sleeping setters.

Hugo never faltered in his technique. It reminded me of the Warner Brothers cartoon in which Yosemite Sam is a Roman legionnaire sneaking across a lion’s den. The lions were undefeated that day in the Coliseum. But, Hugo is no Yosemite Sam.  He was most concerned about waking Colt, and once, when Colt jostled, Hugo froze. One of his back legs was in the air, and it stayed there. His eyes shifted to me. That was the only movement. Seconds had passed before the back leg came down. He waited again. It was agony to watch, but I was fascinated. I wondered if I was prey, like the songbirds he stalked. I wondered if he would launch onto the bed all of a sudden. What is in this dog? I wondered. That he would spend a half hour crossing a room.

A predator searches, stalks, kills and consumes. But, Hugo was not a killer and ate his meals with the discernment of a child who doesn’t like vegetables or anything of a certain color. His attention drifted from food so frequently that it seemed he was looking for reasons not to eat. To call him prey driven when he had little interest in consuming seemed insufficient. There was more seriousness to his actual pursuits, and this was due to breeding. I listened to the other puppies sleeping just as I watched them eat with total normalcy amongst them. Hugo was the exception, and our eyes locked when he stopped between each step, letting the room settle. He was invisible except for those dark eyes, hidden in his mask. Why is he expending so much effort? I wondered. Why would a dog do this?

All I could come up with, at the end of his stalk when he pressed his nose into my neck and was safe to move deliberately onto the bed knowing I would guard his passage, was that Hugo was a perfect expression of himself. He did not spend his time searching, killing or consuming, as other dogs or wolves sharing his ancestry might. He did not fill his time with the play or fights breaking out amongst his litter and yard-mates. He did not spend his time in the unnecessary ways but mastered exactly what it was that he did best. He could stalk like no one else. He could pay attention and plant the seeds that, tended, grew the exact thing he angled toward. There was no denying Hugo, and he would not break to pounce before I alerted the others (I didn’t) or took my shot in the field.

And, it seems odd to say I share a bed with a dog even when I share the hunting field with him. It’s somehow more intimate and controversial to have been stalked and snuggled by an animal that many others keep in kennels and crates. I am not making love to a dog, if there’s any doubt about what it means to sleep with one. I am not changing them into children or lovers. It’s exactly that they are dogs that I enjoy so much. That they are the wolves howling for me somewhere. They are calling me to join them, follow them, and they will show me exactly where birds are hiding in the field. They will set aside animal instinct so that I may shoot a bird cleanly and so we each act our part as beautifully as blood and brain allow. There’s nothing like the bond this partnership creates. It’s an art of expressing our utmost – dog and human. Whether he’s asleep on the floor at my feet while I type or next to me in bed or ahead of me in the field, Hugo brings a light that does not shine on a lifetime but, even brighter, on the thing in each of us that makes a moment last forever.

unlikely harmony

They seemed like strangers when they bounded out of the truck in separate directions. Despite living together in the same house and same yard day after day, their enthusiasm in the field was at different frequencies. Winchester’s single-purpose intensity broadcast from deep space while Hugo took in a whole range of signals. He lit on song birds and flying insects. He ranged the mountainside in wild abandon. To watch them was like watching two different flight plans precluded from intersection. The older and wiser Winchester and the new pup Hugo were each in their own world with a thin line of trust running back toward us.

Winchester ran at full speed to the farthest range of the slope and just inside the curve of our view. He knew it was the furthest he could go before we would call him back. He worked his way through willow patches, weaving so that he covered them all in figure eights before floating in defiance of gravity back down to us. Hugo ran one way and then another, up the mountainside to the rocks and back down. Hugo played loose while Winchester worked with intent.

Hugo had pointed his first ptarmigan earlier in the fall. He had also seen a spruce grouse fall to my partner’s gun in the woods. Those two experiences weren’t enough to impress on him exactly what it was we were doing. The whole of a hunt did not occur to him as much as its parts were all equal wonders in a vast array of possibility. Winchester and Hugo were in two different worlds when Winchester went on point at the top of the hill. We could see just his tail over the rise.

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The birds were a hundred yards away when we put Hugo on a check cord. He bucked and pulled as we moved closer. They were a young group of whitetail ptarmigan more likely to run than fly. I walked past Winchester to flush the nearest bird. The bird did not move even as the rest of the covey wavered at the periphery. I looked back to Winchester. He stood solid in a petrifying stare. In the distance Hugo strained to break the tension against a tight rope.

I walked closer to the bird and caused the rest of the covey to flush. The single bird held. It seemed incapable of moving no matter how close I got. I looked back to Hugo again, and the bird ran. Winchester hadn’t moved. My partner hadn’t moved. Only Hugo and I were frantic. I followed the bird. It flew a short distance – not far enough for a shot. I should have picked out another bird when the covey flushed, I thought. I should have shot already.

All I could do was chase this bird that wouldn’t fly. At what point would I let it go, I wondered. The sounds and smells of the morning were all gone, and all I had was a jam of thoughts slowing my action. Just then, without seeing the rock-colored bird lift off the ground, its white wings opened in the gap of the rocks above me, and I shot.

Hugo, let loose, ran toward the fallen bird. He was wild with the scent in the air and ran all around the bird. His senses were hot, and my voice was lost in static. “It’s right there, Hugo,” I said. His tail wagged in circles as he ran one way and then another, up the rocky slope past the bird and back down. I remembered the first time I had seen a ptarmigan. The bird stood still in the rocks on the bank of a mountain stream. I’d looked at the exact place many times and didn’t see it. It’s hard to see something you’ve never seen. But that moment, when your focus adjusts and you attune, the image strikes you.

Hugo grabbed the bird with the fierceness of that discovery. Winchester let him in a rare act of grace. Their worlds had finally come together in an unlikely harmony. It reminded me of something the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery had said about practice, “I never practice my guitar… from time to time I just open the case and throw in a piece of raw meat.” There are plenty of interpretations on what he could have meant, but I like to think he meant that his guitar was a living thing. Likewise, the hunt is a living thing that we do not play as much as feed.

 

 

onward

Hugo1 Hugo stopped 2,000 feet above us on a ridge. His long body had stretched out and covered first the low sloping hill patched over in wild geranium and a fray of white mountain flowers up to the moss-covered rocks that shifted beneath his feet without his noticing, to the opening of the first valley floor where a lake pooled and broke over the edge, crashed down the rocks and slowed to a stream at our feet. We watched him as he held his pose on the rocks. Our voices calling him back were locked behind the sound of so much water. He’d never been to this particular place, where the mountain terrain seemed endless, and the limits and boundaries that tied him to us were only a tenuous agreement never tested.

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hugo 047A few weeks earlier, Purdey, one of Hugo’s littermates turned away from us on the Kenai River Flats and ran a straight mile to the road. She didn’t respond to the call on her collar or stimulation. Her speed and focus propelled her through sensation just as all of my senses focused on the sight of cars slowing and stopping along the highway. She was too small in the distance to be seen, but I knew she was on the road surface. Even though I was running toward the road, in my mind I was standing still watching as she was being loaded into an SUV. Even though I was calling her name, no one could hear or see me in the distance, and the vehicle drove away with her inside.

Hugo was also still a pup at just a year old. His confidence suggested he was braver, stronger and smarter than any of us knew. Beneath the size and shape of a full-grown dog was the puppy who had only left the safety of the yard on a leash or well-worn trail through the woods behind the house. He pointed moths and attempted to kill redpolls, grosbeaks and downy wood peckers at the feeder just off the porch. As far as I knew, he’d never succeeded, but I’d watched his tense body plan attacks for longer than I’d ever planned a dinner. The kind woman who picked up Purdey on the highway called us to arrange her return. The only time Hugo ran from us on our walks, we knew where he was headed – the bird feeder in the yard.

hugo 089

Hugo dropped from the ridge somewhat like a falcon from its perch. His line from the rock face to us reminded me of Winchester, his father. Hugo was less practiced in catching himself on a descent but, like Winchester, his lightness and grace seemed to make more use of air than ground. Still, when he reached the top of the flower field, a mistaken step resulted in a roll. For a moment I worried, then all I could do was laugh. If only my own spirit lacked the consciousness to fault myself, if only it could use all of my physical capacities and hold nothing back, if only it could take a fall and regain as if fueled by the joy of living. Happiness is not something exclusively human.

Hugo 5

It was four weeks before the start of the bird season. We knew that there was a possibility we would find a white-tailed ptarmigan hen with her chicks. Following a caribou trail along a ridgeline, my partner saw her first. One of the collective nouns for a group of ptarmigan is an “invisibleness” of ptarmigan. Her chicks bounced in the mossy rocks at my partner’s feet, but I couldn’t see them from my distance of 100 yards. As my partner took photos of the chicks, I saw Hugo on point 25 yards away. I haven’t wondered if dogs are conscious of things like truth or meaning, but I know they have thoughts about objects. After a summer of watching tweedy birds, the look on Hugo’s face at seeing the mother bird was, “Wow, that’s a big one.”

He’s going to break, I thought. He’s going to rush that bird and help himself to the chicks.  “Whoa,” I said. Hugo was fixated on the bird, but he didn’t move. I’m not sure if it was his understanding of the command, which he never seemed to hear, or his focus that ensured he didn’t break. I led him away from the birds down the rocky slope back to the lake. We were on the descent now, heading back down the mountain, and he seemed to forget the birds.

hugo 6

hugo7

hugo 9

hugo 8I stopped and sat on a hillside to take one last look at the open valley below, and Hugo sat beside me. The air smelled faintly of mountain flowers in the cold breeze off last winter’s snow. I loved how there could be snow and flowers in the same scene. In a month, the snow would be gone and the flowers would disappear. There would be birds to hunt instead of watch. There were so many things I wanted to tell Hugo, if he could understand them. It was better to keep those things to myself and let them unfold – most of all the obvious. He was shaping up to be a good bird dog and the mountains were beautiful.

Hugo 10

Hugo 11

solace

Winchester and ptarmSometimes there are no birds. Either they are not in a particular valley on a particular day or they are there and elude us. Sometimes I find myself saying, “It doesn’t matter if I take a bird or not.” It seems an odd thing to say. When I was new to bird hunting, it didn’t make sense when I heard a hunter say taking a bird didn’t matter. If only as a practical matter, it mattered. If there were no birds, we would not hunt. For those of us who are not hunting so that we can eat, who can afford the luxury of not taking a bird, we can say it doesn’t matter and suffer no grave significance. It’s only when we have evolved past our need to eat that we can open our eyes to the philosophical light and say taking a bird doesn’t matter.

It’s possible I’m hunting two very different things. The obvious hunt is for the bird. There are a logical number of things included in the pursuit – shotguns, equipment, dogs, location, and weather. Although my birds will end up in a frying pan with rice, their wings sent to a biologist as part of a study to determine abundance, and a few feathers kept for sentimental reasons, I don’t need to kill birds to survive. Neither is hunting entirely symbolic of the requirement that something must die so that I may live. Intellectually, it may be monstrous to kill or necessary. The millions of centuries of bloodletting active in my organic body cannot be undone on principle as they can be made palatable by the sporting life.

When there are no birds to be found, something else rises to the surface. I wrestle with my egoism, arrogance, and all of the other unseen. There is a point when the hunt seems futile, when I know I’ve lost. Part of me gives into this, but part of me continues to hunt. I am anxious  and maybe desperate to bring home a bird. For myself or for the dog. The day is still good if we aren’t lucky. Maybe if there were always birds, I would never get to the bottom of it. Maybe the ease of a full game bag would never allow me to wonder about my motivations in the absence of birds.

An individual ptarmigan or grouse is not a one-dimensional concept any more than a hunter; we are both real and made up of multi-dimensional parts. He wakes up in the morning and searches for food. He cannot believe it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t find it. And I can’t continue to say it doesn’t matter if I don’t find birds. The beauty and sentimentality that goes with bird dogs, bird guns, and all things bird hunting is intoxicating at times. Anticipating the glory of the season, making ready, setting out, following dogs, the adrenaline of a wild flush, taking the shot – it all deserves the paintings on the walls and bourbon by the fireside. But lately, in the face of harsh realities and headlines about declining bird populations nationwide, I wonder. What if there were no birds? Would that change how much it mattered to take a bird or not? I have to think it would.

Hunting the mountains put a spell on me.  No place close to home can share the harshness of their edges, haunted peaks, streams that roll through time, and birds that live amongst rock and scrub. There’s no easy way to climb to them. There’s no ride to the top that gives the same view. To see it the way it was meant to be seen takes heart, legs and lungs. The dog carries the spirit of the hunt, finds the birds and holds them. The entire mountain is cast in the light in which it was dreamed and remembered, and the bird in my hand carries the weight of my sport and solace. It matters.

 

wayward

We were at the base of the valley before sunrise. The dark gates of the mountain loomed ahead and, even though they often summoned me, this morning they were silent. The birds were secreted away in new snow and vacant gray rocks. Their transition colors made them invisible; the mountain made them invulnerable. I was still half-asleep, hungry, and thinking about what it would take to get to the lake.

Winchester ran ahead of us and with the wind. He had to trumpet the morning before hunting. He had to burn off the smells of the house and dust of the yard. Part of me wanted to hunt the way he did – to live so completely as to leave no thought or fear of the outcome. At least I knew enough to follow his path. Knew enough not to call him back and point him toward the creek that led to the lake. The birds were likely in the rocks near water. They often were. Those were the birds I hunted – the birds from times before. Had I gotten tired of it?

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“The flowers do fade, and wanton fields/ to wayward winter reckoning yields” ˜Sir Walter Raleigh

My thoughts were fixed on our destination and how the snow predicted we wouldn’t be able to climb the steep wall to the lake. We hadn’t brought cleats or anticipated a heavy snowfall this early in the year. We watched Winchester work the hill above us and then stop and turn in our direction. To continue straight up, on wet, loose slate rock didn’t make practical sense, and I knew it. But just ahead of us, a pair of whitetail ptarmigan flushed low. Winchester watched from his perch in the distance as I mounted my gun and followed their white wings to their landing further up the valley wall.

Winchester ran to my side to work close in front of me as we climbed to where the birds had landed, 700 vertical feet above us. He went on point just as the pair lifted their heads 30 yards away. They weren’t going to hold for the flush, and as my left leg went out from under me, they flew. We followed them another 400 feet higher and neared the rock face at the top of the valley before flushing them for a third time in much the same way. We went in wrong, I thought as we made our descent. There was no saving it.

“Let’s see where he goes,” my partner said.

It didn’t matter if my thoughts for the day were spent at first sight of snow and then again after a near leg-breaking climb and fall. I followed and contented myself to count steps and glance up at Winchester as he highlined above us and then dropped into the valley. He could quiet his bell on a run as smooth as a fish darting through water or a bird setting its wings, and I wondered if he did it on purpose. Everything he did was an athletic performance and art at the same time. We stopped on a jagged hill of rock that allowed us to see the entire wrap of the valley. A thousand yards below us on a knob, Winchester stopped. He wasn’t on point, just stopped again.

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The wind was wrong for him to scent the birds high above him. He knew they were there, though. He could hear them and so could I. There was a sound that was first like ravens on a kill. Then, it sounded like geese or even crane. It was none of these because I hadn’t heard this sound before. I followed it and then saw the movement of wings. The birds were lifting and setting on the snowy rise. Maybe 20 or more whitetail ptarmigan in the group.

We picked our way down into the creek and back up to the rise where the birds had been. Winchester knew they’d left before we stood in their tracks. He looked toward the rocks across another ravine. If we had wings, it would have been a short flight. On legs, it would be another half hour. Follow the dog, I thought. Don’t try to do his work for him and be damned. Just because I went in wrong, didn’t mean he did.

When we reached Winchester’s point, he was locked solid. The covey was spread out in an array of transition colors from specks of gray to half-gray and white. They perched on rocks and lay in snow, filling the rocky bottom of the gorge. My partner and I both went in to flush birds on either side of Winchester. We each took two birds and my partner took two more on a second flush. One of my birds was winged and rolled down the side of the valley. The wind had picked up and my ears stung as I cursed and slid on the rocks to catch it and stop its fall.

My bird rested near a rock, raised its head in a slow arc and shuddered. I dropped down next to it in the snow. I was out of breath. It was too cold now for a break, but the pace of the few moments before us had overwhelmed me. “We need to get back down into the valley and out of this wind,” my partner said. I didn’t move, and I knew it was as wrong to sit there as it was to chase the first birds of the morning. I knew it didn’t make practical sense. But I would be damned if I would move until I caught myself.

All morning, I had been fighting the onset of winter. My thoughts were louder than anything in the valley until I’d heard the birds. And I’d sit for a minute with the two birds I’d taken for as long as it took for me to forget and remember why I was there. Going in wrong wasn’t the end of things. It was still possible to surrender myself to it. And I did.

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threshold

IMG_1101Ahead of me there was a dog working the fields. His feathers brushed the mountainside with the speed and fury of an artist on fire. This was his work, and I watched it. My work, if it would be done, was to appreciate his gifts, to honor his points, to shoot his birds. I’d need to shoot clean, and this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes a winged bird would drop to the ground still alive and, for a moment, while it breathed, my own painful life became an agony. Why do I kill birds?

When I woke up in the morning, I wanted to go to the mountains. There were birds there or there weren’t. The mood of the place changed from season to season, and it didn’t matter if we went in on snowshoes or wore hiking boots. What mattered was that we followed a dog, and he illustrated and illuminated the country with an inner fire. Following Winchester was an invitation to go to a place that didn’t exist – a Neverland of sorts – where invisible birds appeared ghostlike on the wind. What did any of it have to do with killing birds?

In the cold months, the mountains and the birds are pure white. The snow and cold air distill the landscape so that nothing seems to be alive. Wind pushes snow and suddenly, where there was nothing but arctic waste, a flight of ptarmigan appear in the gusting snow. When the bird is shot and, as it dies, a pinkish glow appears in its feathers. Some might wonder if it is the glow from the sun mistaken by ptarmigan hunters as a phenomenon. Does it matter if some follow a light and then watch in wonder as it goes out and others don’t?

These are wild places, wild birds and yet, they are not a secret. It’s possible to never see the birds, never shoot them, and never see them in their light. The beauty of hunting is that it something more than a hike or a nature-viewing opportunity. The places we hunt are haunted. They have been travelled for centuries or more. If we approach them only to take birds, we will have missed our mark. And if, in missing our mark, we think that we can work harder and somehow earn the opportunity… it isn’t like that.

Chesterton said it best, “There is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset.” If it is in our hearts to be grateful for the worlds we encounter, we must know we are not capable of earning such worlds. We cannot imagine that any amount of daring on our part will reward us with quarry. Instead, there is another threshold that must be passed. It’s this threshold that I long to cross over every day in the field.

Whether it is my life that goes out in a pink hue on the mountains or the life of a bird, it is a pursuit of something beyond myself that drives me. Whether it’s my own spiritual and moral loneliness or something bigger than myself, I’m compelled to get there – to get to the place that isn’t on a map. Not because it hasn’t been charted but because it exists in the chemistry of the moment. It’s where I feel alive. It’s where nothing else matters.

As long as the dog knows how to get there, I’ll follow the dog.

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center point

First it’s the beauty of watching him run. There are all the marks of what would be an athlete if judged on the human scale. In the animal world, it is merely living unfettered by the chains of survival. Where the wolf or the coyote considers the efficiency of the chase, the hunting dog is let loose with a freedom to exhaust his powers. His endless drive doesn’t save for the starving months of winter but fasts on the bounty of wide open spaces. He finds invisible birds on the wind and spends every reserve of his body to hold them, to point.

winwin

At the age of 36, the mid-day sun on the mountain after hours of climbing gave me the feeling of being at the center of my life. It isn’t rational thinking that put me in the center. A divided calculation of life expectancy cannot give a feeling like that. The warmth and light of the sun and the way the snow in the mountains cut the blue sky gave me the feeling. The alert body of the dog a few feet away trembled to hunt while we took a break on a dry bank where last season’s blueberries had frozen and thawed.

“It’s a sin their life spans aren’t much longer,” a friend had said.

Winchester’s entire life would span only a portion of mine. No matter how much he stretched out in the mountains and ran up and down mountainsides that would take me an hour to cross on snowshoes without fear or faintness, no matter how he could out run me and out-live me in so many ways, when it came to a number of years, my sluggish life would drag on longer than his almost by the exact amount that he could outperform me in a daily accounting of miles.

My mother has not stopped imagining that someday she will hear the news that I’ve given up my stubbornness and decided to have children of my own. The conversations on the subject are like the distant noise of the highway while I am tucked away in a mountain valley. Somewhere, back in the modern world, the conversations are still happening between those who may have lost the vocabulary to express the stake we have in life no matter what is born or dies when it is what lives that matters.

We had held Winchester back as we climbed because we thought it would save his strength for when we were above tree line. Then, we surmised, we could let him run in the wide-open way that is his nature. The wind-blown snow had dried so that the surface formed a solid shelf of waves and beneath this crust was dry snow. We broke through on every step and had to pull the surface back up so that what was usually an hour hike took three hours. By the time we reached tree line, he had pointed three coveys and we had not fired a shot. Whether it was the noise of our approach or the will of the day, I’d like to think that there is a reason that some days no birds are taken.

point

Just before we rested, Winchester had stood overlooking the creek bed. The three of us watched over a hundred white birds sail past us against a background of snow. Their flight seemed not to have a sound or a wing beat. We were all three so enchanted that nothing seemed to happen except the birds passing in the same way the wind moved the dry snow in wisps and flurries. The light of the sun coming into the valley cast bird shadows on birds and willow branches, and even the shadows were white.

That’s how I remember it, anyway. We talked about going further up the valley to where it turned and opened into yet another valley over a rise. The other option was to hunt the creek bed back down and find the birds we had watched in the distance. We sat for a while and contemplated without conversing. That was what I loved – the day itself making the decision. We were in a place that did not have a waiting line or validation ticket. There was no goal. I’d like to think that’s why we didn’t shoot any birds. We didn’t need to.

The end of the season was two days away. Here I am, I thought, in the heart of life, and I must stop short. Winchester’s empty stomach and lean muscles still trembled, and the day was half over. We would descend into the creek valley. “Easy,” my partner said to Winchester. And I watched how he ran and checked himself in a choreographed manner – his front paws would switch back and forth then he would run again, stop, switch paws. I love this dog, I thought.

There was a message on my phone from my mother about spending more time with my family. There were birthdays and holidays that had been missed and would be missed. It was fine to not have children, but my solitude was at the expense of relationships and too much time away was “unhealthy.” Winchester was asleep in the back seat. The highway leading back to town had no treacherous passes or open fields. It was just a line of vehicles and a view out the window.

Was I chasing a dream or falling asleep at the wheel?

mountains

I was chasing a dream, damnit. And following a dog to get there. That day we had nearly broke ourselves and were too exhausted to say we were sorry. And we weren’t sorry. And we’ll do it again. For as long as each of us lives.

third set

sleepywinThe 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.

retrieval

My first hunting dog seemed like any other dog. Just as my first duck hunts were about shooting a bird on the wing – and it would take a box of shells; my first hunting dog was a rudimentary animal that fit my skill level. Jack, a chocolate lab, was the filthiest lab I could have brought home. He left Jack-shaped dirt marks on my white suede furniture. He drooled out of both sides of his mouth at the sight of food – long strands of drool that went all the way to the floor and sometimes dried in stripes across his nose if he shook his head. He pushed my limits when he wanted to climb into bed with me at night. It wasn’t going to happen. No way.

jack

That was eight years ago. If someone had asked me, “Should a hunting dog retrieve?” back then, my answer would have been simple: Yes. If it weren’t for the need to have a dog retrieve, I would never have ended up cohabitating with one of the smelliest animals I’d ever owned. My girlfriends all had adorable, well-manicured, purse dogs that wouldn’t bring back a slipper. But what I needed was a dog that could bring back a bird. It only took one lost duck across a slough at high tide (and a trip back home for a fishing pole) to convince me. It was much better to plead with a dog for a half-hour while he dug a hole in search of a rock and still lose the bird before I realized that “retriever” and “dog that can actually retrieve” are two different things.

Jack retired from hunting before he ever became a hunter. He was a rescue dog, and his past included a spine injury he would have the rest of his life. I ended up getting another chocolate lab, this time a puppy with a hunting heritage. Cheyenne is an excellent retriever of ducks. She is also excellent at opening up boxes of shotgun ammunition and dancing across the shop floor atop bird shot with an expression that is part guilt and part pride. She’s the first dog that ever smiled at me. She does it all the time. And I can’t help but smile back.

With a better retriever, I needed to become a better shooter, and I started spending my Sundays at the trap and skeet range. Frustrated with nearly six months of repeated scores of 19-21/25 at trap, I watched a pro-shooter from the sidelines. The Old Trap Boys had shared plenty of tips, but none of them were what a person would call helpful. The tips were more like commentary. They were esoteric sayings that reflected more on life than they rendered any meaningful advice. “Shoot where you are looking” was my favorite. But maybe the pro could give me something useful. I didn’t even have to ask.

“I’ve been at 23 for weeks,” I said. “Some days I get 24 and choke.”

He spit a wad of tobacco as a response.

“It’s really helped me in the field, though,” I said. “I shoot more ducks now. I just can’t shoot 25 straight.”

“This isn’t hunting,” he said. “This is a game.”

Here it comes, I thought. More veiled philosophy in the form of shooting advice. But he didn’t say anything else. He just walked away. Two weeks later he brought me my first shooting jacket. He had purchased it for his wife, but she had never taken to the sport. A year later, I shot my first 25 straight. It was with a BT-99, my favorite trap gun. It was hardly a field gun. After the initial shooting practice improved my shot gunning skills in general, it turned out more practice did not improve my skills more: the better I got at trap shooting, the worse I had gotten at field shooting.

While Cheyenne still chewed up ammunition without remorse and Jack mined the yard for rocks like he was searching for gold, my hunting partner had brought home an English setter. We spent most of our time in the mountains hunting white tail ptarmigan. Winchester would point birds, but he wouldn’t retrieve them. He didn’t chew up anything in the house and he didn’t dig up anything in the yard. From the time he was a pup, all he cared about was pointing.

English setters, as I came to learn, were a breed apart. The chocolate labs were like the group of guys you know in high school – the ones that can drink all night and go fishing in the morning. They show their affection by punching you so hard you think that you’re going to pass out. And that just means they care. They borrow money and don’t pay it back. They have big shoulders and hard heads and soft hearts. They get jobs as truck drivers or in the lumber yards because they could never sit behind a desk. English setters, on the other hand…

breakingpoint1

It took me a while to adjust to sensitivity and smartness in a dog. Winchester wanted to point birds. He didn’t want to eat them whole instead of retrieving them or run off on a wild tear as I had seen plenty of Labradors do (mine weren’t the worst!) He gave me looks that seemed to say, “You’re being rather silly.” If he was a person, he would be a professional at what he did and would spend his evenings in his study reading books on ornithology and doing pencil sketches of game birds. I felt responsible for getting him an education. Early on, we took him to a game farm for training on live birds. We harnessed pigeons and planted chukar.

If someone asked me today, “Should a hunting dog retrieve?” my answer would not be so simple. Anthropomorphism aside, my dogs aren’t family dogs, they’re family. Winchester grew tired of field trial scenarios he had mastered just as I came to realize that trap shooting was an entirely different activity than hunting. Hunting involves more than the skill it takes to acquire game. It involves more than the aesthetic of tradition. It is the sum of all the parts, and the parts are constantly in motion. Every hunter and every dog is at a different stage in the process. And so much depends on the weather.

Retrieving is a small piece of a moving picture in the sporting dog life. If it’s there or if it’s missing, the picture still exists. Maybe, if only one thing mattered and a single image of perfection needed to be placed upon the mantel, it might be the picture of a point or of a retrieve as the symbol of what a dog is capable of. But.

“This isn’t a game.”

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