Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Page 3 of 5

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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strive

When a puppy is three to four weeks old their dormant senses wake up, and they become aware of their surroundings. The puppy realizes it is alive. These are the tender weeks that would never be known to me if my dogs continued to come as rescue dogs or were purchased from a reputable breeder. The first week was the toughest of my life. Not all of the pups born lived. There is a pair of boxes buried on a hill with names and a short span of days.

“We’re not breeders,” I told my hunting partner.

We were lovers of dogs. More specifically, hunting dogs. They came to us with breeding or without much of it, but each of them strived toward the kind of manners a dog needs afield. It was as if the dog, in a striving to abide by human conventions, was striving to overcome its breeding. Yet, in possessing the manners of a gentleman, a dog is ahead of most precisely by what he is not. By virtue of human surroundings, he constantly aims to rise the way we might in a higher culture. They are incapable of the deadly sins, do not strive for false effects, create scandals, or tell sad stories. Sometimes, in the cock of their head, they want to understand the universe.

“The longing for light is the longing for consciousness” C.G. Jung

“The longing for light is the longing for consciousness” C.G. Jung

 

If I was not a breeder, why did I want my dog to have puppies? Did my reasons fall into one of the polarized categories (reputable breeder or backyard breeder)? Did anyone else have my reasons? Where had this person or persons written about these reasons? Did they first have to announce to the judgment of the categorical tribes that yes, their dog passed conformation, temperament, health and genetic tests? And if I truly valued the reputation of the breed, only then, and perhaps out of a sense of service, would I seek to improve it?

There were more interesting questions, and they came in the form of symptoms, denials, and confessions that always end with “am I the worst?” The first of which was: did I want my dog to have puppies to experience the closest thing I would know to having children (which I would never have)? Was this a reason as badly expressed as “for the sake of it” or “because I could”? Was I as reckless as any mother who wanted a child no matter her circumstances? Or, any man who wanted a woman without a thought of children? These miserable comparisons would not suffice.

The puppies all sat like dogs and peered up at me with their veiled eyes. Their world had not happened yet. They were a delight. They would yield to the tyranny of manners and they would act according to their breeding, which, despite my own contribution, was on footing as sure and sanctioned as any other great line. They would look heavenward for birds in the air, for things I can’t see or smell. And, there would be no apology for why we ended exactly in the place we found ourselves. Somewhere I’d read that dogs are striving to be human the way humans are striving to be gods. Where we fall short of our striving, we wonder. And in wondering we strive again to be something that is merely what we are. Alive.

What I wanted most was a chance to be a part of the life of my hunting dog at its earliest beginnings when its character develops. We were going to keep two pups from the litter. That was decided before they were born. Which to keep was the trouble. There was three spot, the sole female, a tri-color with spirit enough to pounce her littermates; two spot, a black and white who looked a miniature version of his father with one spot extra; orange spot, the biggest and calmest; side spot, a pup who looked upward more than any other; and no spot, a shy and sleepy pup that wanted most to be held.

The five dwarves slept in a pile and they were named, as we promised not, when we agreed to the spot-method: Purdey, Colt, Boss, Cogswell, and Hugo. We would keep them all.

the edge

cc-remote-writingAdventurers inspire me. They are the fearless few of us who do not shrink at change, at risk, at loss or gain, at limitations, at third party perspective, at any of the things that truly do not matter. Instead of emotionalizing a static world, they vitalize the real world with their daring. They are never victims. While the world vaults them as heroes just as it attempts to wrap its arms around them never wanting to let them go and crying over goodbyes, the adventurer always must go, always grow, and lean into the light.

The spirit of adventure is one of the most attractive, healthy, thriving spirits out there. It is often unapologetic, not because it doesn’t care, but because it lives so close to the survival instinct. It cannot explain, promise, or otherwise foster co-dependency. Hesitation means death, stopping to explain or wrongly consider is a waste of its time. The adventurer is meant for heavenward flights and plummets by the grace of gods within us all. Let them go.

I remember a friend who always stopped when entering a store. Right inside the doorway, he would stop. Much like a deer transfixed in a road way by lights, new information came to my friend at overwhelming and dangerous speed. I ran into his back at least twenty times. “What are you doing?” I would say. We were on the anti-adventure of shopping and still it dealt too much adventure for this friend. I got to where I would map out the store in advance of the visit: “When we go in, head to the right…”

Although my adventures do not amount to heroism, world records, or even great feats, the spirit of adventure courses through me to a degree that I make decisions as fast and wrong or right as possible just to keep on top of what feels like a wave. When I walk into a building, I never stop. I’ve been known to push through a crowd. I’ve been known to walk out of meetings and classrooms. I’ve been known to chunk away relationships, jobs, and ways of life just to feel the raw edge of new beginnings again.

Most of all, I love other adventurers. I love, especially women, who never say “I can’t.” They become young mothers and find a way to make it work. They have a dream and they do everything to make it real. When obstacles are presented, they find paths to a solution. Or better, their way of thinking is constantly addressing obstacles before they arise and developing contingencies and alternate routes before they ever need them. They inspire others with their conviction, and they have conviction in spirit if not by way of explanation.

In my mind, these rare few are always living on the edge. They are recognizable instantly by a certain clarity in their eyes, a weathered complexion, a distracted purpose if any where other than the mountains, air, or sea. This edge that they live on and I hope to always live on is also a gap. It is the space beyond. It is the sun that a blade of grass reaches toward. It is the next bend or hill a hunter must travel. Or else it is the endless night and ache and torture of a life spent in the office.

When I had the recent opportunity to write a regular column for Women’s Outdoor News (the WON), there were several ideas for what we could call it. We thought about what I would write and the appeal of Alaska to readers. I thought of Alaska titles with a bit of dislike. What I wanted to write about was living on the edge. I wanted to write about why adventure matters. Why it matters in small ways and big ways. How it matters. Where it matters.

My new column “The Edge,” sponsored by EvoOutdoors, explores the expanding perspectives on hunting and the outdoors offered by a growing community of women hunters. I hope you read it between adventures.

 

inside the outdoors

boatEvery couple of days, the need to get outdoors overcomes me. It isn’t the need to go “outside,” which is just the external of being inside the house – the outdoors is a place that is everywhere and nowhere. It can be on the edge of the neighboring woods or in a farmer’s field. It can be on the summit of a mountain, if that’s how far it takes to feel spaciousness and serenity. Being outdoors means being beyond the edge of the modern world. It’s a place where there are rhythms instead of language, cycles instead of signs and, suddenly, you pass through an invisible door that is not like the one that exists on a house. It’s a door that closes everything that is behind you and you are finally free. Once you find that place, you never stop looking for it.

There are plenty of legendary outdoorsmen who have crossed that threshold and never come back. They are the storied mountain men of another era or even the cautionary tales of today. Most of us have to come back from our outdoor trips. We have families and jobs. We have to find a balance between the need to experience the great outdoors and still keep the lights on back home. Sometimes, it seems like it would be ideal to live a techno-primitive lifestyle – a remote cabin with an internet connection and espresso machine. As cool as it would be to scrawl out a note that says my gun “kilt the bear that kilt me,” the best thing I can do is just try to get outdoors at least every couple of days.

Several years ago, at the Vancouver Peace Summit, the Dalai Lama famously said, “The world will be saved by the western woman.” His words were in the context of global and humanitarian issues, but his words rang true for something else as well. This isn’t to say that women aren’t powerful globally or there is an impending apocalypse we all need saving from. It just so happened that I read his words after reading a similar quote in a conservation journal: It had said that women were the future of hunting.

In the context of the outdoor industry, more women hunters means more hunters and more hunters means the salvation of hunting. Statistics then showed women were the only growing demographic and the rate in which children were apt to hunt increased when their mothers hunted (more so than their fathers). What interested me most in these numbers, however, was the potential for quality instead of quantity. Women have always hunted, but what would the growing number of women bring in terms of the female values of compassion, connectedness, and community? As articles went to press about the downward trend of the “vanishing hunter,” I was more interested in the hunter that was emerging.

In the same way that western women have a sociopolitical position that allows us to take a leading role in humanitarian efforts and business, hunters also have the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation on our side. Even as media began promoting women as the new sportsmen, we had already been connecting socially online and creating communities some writers have called “the underground sisterhood.” It wasn’t anything so clandestine as far as I could tell. But, something was happening, and we were all part of an emerging industry that matters.

As much as it is fun to share the outdoor experiences that connect us, the adventure happens in the field. That’s where we find that place that is a Neverland of sorts, where we walk through the invisible boundary between our human world and the world that always was and will be. It’s a place for new beginnings and restoration. For those who crave reality, there is nothing more real, more life-affirming, than the outdoors. It was there before the indoors, afterall and before a word like “outside” became possible.

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.

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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.

reset

Without thinking much about it, my day starts in a darkened bedroom. The yawn of an English setter lends a voice to my stretching of arms. Half-asleep, the faucet in the bathroom runs cold while I stand bare-footed in front of the mirror, daring not to look. My short hair is standing on end. My eyes are smudged black from a forgetting to remove yesterday’s mascara. I had crashed into bed recklessly again. The cold water feels good on my puffy eyes and hot skin. If someone asked me why I felt a need to “put myself together” before the office or a day in the field, it’s because they haven’t seen me in the morning.

Source: https://www.facebook.com/berkeleybreathedIt’s long been a fantasy of mine to leave the civilized world and live alone for a year in the wild. There, I would get wooly and wise. The wreckage of my morning looks would be purified by abstinence of all things contaminated and contaminating. Free of alcohol, espresso, and mascara, I would instead breathe mountain air and feel the sun and wind on my skin. My eyebrows would surely grow together as nature intended, but I would see my image in the river and not know the difference. Such are dreams.

The civilized world, on the other hand, provides a set of problems and solutions that do not exist in nature: the economy requires a vocation; the sedentary life requires a gym; the food industry requires a diet; pain and boredom require medicine and entertainment; relationships require excessive verbalization and therapy; time requires time-saving devices; the home environment requires cleaning products and organization; technology requires meditation; safety requires security; and, “education is the cure for imagination.” When asked if I wear makeup while hunting, it seems an arbitrary question given everything else a human brings (or ought to leave behind?).

Conservation, in the hunting arena, is the way in which hunters value, restore, conserve, and share wild resources. It is the marriage of the human world with the wild. My love of hunting began with a desire to recognize my dependence on other creatures to survive and encompassed the benefits of doing something difficult with skill and reverence. Until asked, whether or not I wore makeup in the field did not occur to me. It was something I put on like a clean shirt. However, the discussion with other hunters on the subject grew to include such topics as vanity, fashion, and the sexual objectification of women.

Those discussions are the sort of thing that make me want to run to the mountains. There is little difference between a man who purchases a gentleman’s upland hunting outfit to wear in the field and a woman who puts on a little bit of makeup. The idea that we should go afield un-washed, un-shaved, un-clothed, and sans made-up doesn’t make complete sense. Should every article of our person and personage be held to such a high level of scrutiny and sliding scale of judgment?

Interestingly, while discussing the subject with women hunters, many deny wearing makeup in the field, but wear it nonetheless. It’s a polite deceit that is something like saying to an unexpected house guest “I didn’t have time to clean the house” when the eyes of every taxidermy mount shine and say otherwise. Some women don’t wear makeup because it is not their idea of beauty. They leave the modern world to breathe and experience the outdoor environment. Still others admit to wearing it because they look the way I do in the morning and want to spare the world the ravages of a work-week and night spent face down and drooling on a pillow.

source of image: https://www.facebook.com/berkeleybreathed

 

about face

Upland hunting is often looked upon as a genteel activity. In the days of old, hunters were seen wearing tweed jackets and tailored brush pants. They shot fine double-barrel shotguns and worked over well-trained and groomed pointing dogs. This upland hunter paid close attention to appearance whether he had money to spend, as he often did, or not. But recently a discussion amongst upland hunters on whether or not an attractive female hunter should wear makeup on a grouse hunt revealed a compelling divide over representations of women hunters in the field. What does a woman upland hunter look like? Does she wear makeup? Why and why not?

Photo courtesy of Sarah Fromenthal

Photo courtesy of Sarah Fromenthal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The aesthetic difference between a well-groomed, outfitted, and physically fit hunter and one who has dirty nails, well-worn gear, and a face spent in the mountain sun has little to do with the solace such a hunter finds in the field. While fashion, style, and beauty involve personal preference, they are disconcerting when they move into the realm of frivolity, vanity, or pressure for a woman to “look” a particular way. The wearing of makeup is as old as archeological evidence of hunting, but that has little to do with what happens in front of the mirror for today’s female hunter.

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”
~ Rene Magritte

Elaina Spraker leads the Kenai Peninsula Women on Target and Teens on Target firearm education clinics in Alaska, and harvesting wild food has always been a part of her life. For Elaina, makeup is a way of enhancing her appearance, and she wears it at the range as well as in the field. “Being part of wild, beautiful, scenic places makes me feel obliged to enhance my appearance.” She hunts with her husband and has enjoyed the look on his face when he discovered she had brought her makeup along on a sheep hunt. “The look on his face is priceless,” Elaina said, “and even more priceless, when he finds out that he carried a nice bottle of merlot up the mountain.”

Becca Moffat, who hunts avidly and has been filmed for national television, doesn’t wear makeup hunting, and made the conscious decision not to wear makeup just because a specific hunt was being filmed. When she appears on Alaska Outdoors Television, she is often on un-guided hunts for weeks without a shower and in difficult country. Although she wears makeup in her daily non-hunting life, she doesn’t see the need to wear it hunting and feels strongly that wearing it on film or in photos while hunting sends the wrong message to other women or young girls who may be interested in the sport. “I feel like the photos I take in the field should reflect the difficult and very physical work that often goes into hunting.”

The fact that photographs or video have become a growing part of hunting has caused many women to base the decision on whether or not to wear makeup solely on whether or not they are likely to be the subject of a photo or film. Some women dye their lashes to avoid the need for mascara, pack a small kit to apply makeup in the field (should a photographic opportunity arise), while others bring along a pair of sunglasses. Still others find the field itself offers a chance to enhance beauty. Ladies in Camo Director Diane Baxter Hassinger jokes that her “rosy cheeks are from the cold” and her tousled hairstyle is “from briars ripping my hair from my pony tail.”

While most agree that Vogue-sque makeup has no place in the woods, Sarah Fromenthal, who was raised hunting small game and fishing the swamps and brackish marshes of the Louisiana coast, acknowledges that for many women, makeup is such a part of a daily ritual that going completely without it would be unnatural. She follows the makeup-middle-road, realizing that a morning routine makes her feel more alert in the field “versus just rolling out of bed.” Sarah uses a basic tinted moisturizer that has SPF in it for the dual function of providing a barrier from the sun as well as any camouflage she may apply in the blind or stand.

aboutface2huntinggirlsmakeupcompact

A hunting girl’s makeup compact. Photo courtesy of Sarah Fromenthal

Tracy Harden, co-founder of EvoOutdoors, knows that hunting is not only about being with nature but about the internal confidence hunting requires. Although she does not personally wear makeup on a hunt, she believes the outdoors is about being yourself (whether made-up or sans makeup), getting away from it all, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the hunt. Her focus is more on skin-care, “You can change your hunting gear every season but you only get one skin to live in.” On eight-to-ten-day hunts in the backcountry, Tracy packs cotton rounds, witch hazel, nightly moisturizer, daily SPF, and mascara as a “guilty pleasure.”

Professional outdoor photographer Chip Laughton of Days Afield Photography offers some practical reasons why a woman hunter might wear makeup. When creating professional images, he makes every effort to take as flattering a picture as possible. While he admits to not knowing “the ins and outs of makeup,” it is something that makes his job easier. “The camera is going to show every wrinkle or blemish on your face. Makeup saves me time – shiny spots are eliminated, and it hides the skin imperfections that everyone has. Any minor blemish really sticks out.” In the same way that it helps if his subjects wear a completed hunting outfit, from a photographer’s perspective, makeup “helps the photographer make you look the best you can.”

Whether makeup is an enhancement of femininity, a comfort in the field, or an opportunity to “put your best face forward,” it is a personal preference that not all women share to the same degree. Sometimes the feel of the sun and wind on bare skin is too irresistible, the appeal of the simple life, or the realities of the day make the same woman who wore makeup one day pass up on it the next. The aesthetic difference between a woman in makeup and a woman without it is best overcome by what is going on behind the image. More women are taking to the field, regardless of their “make up” and they’re doing it with passion, reverence, and skill.

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.

what matters

happywin

It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, if you are a man or a woman; it matters that there are hills you dream of hunting and still others you will never know, that there are coverts left long after you are gone.

It doesn’t matter if you are hunting behind a pointer, setter, retriever, or spaniel; it matters that there is a trust and devotion that will just as easily cause you to smile as bring you to tears.

It doesn’t matter if you are hunting with a pump, semi-auto, side by side, over/under or single shot; it matters that there is skill behind the gun and, if you’re lucky, a treasured story.

If doesn’t matter if you shoot the most birds, the best birds, the rarest birds, or no birds at all; it matters that you go afield with reverence for the species you hunt, unhurried and worthy of your game.

It doesn’t matter if you are traditional or modern in your approach; it matters that you are still learning every day and willing to find your own answers.

It doesn’t matter if you are a member of organizations; it matters that your thoughts are your own and you give back to the earth as much as you have gained from it.

It doesn’t matter who you know or how you came to be an upland hunter; it matters that you found something worth doing, worth fighting for, and worth remembering.

It doesn’t matter if you have love, money, or fame; it’s truth that matters most, that and your ability to breathe the air, taste the bitterness in the rain, feel the coldness of the wind, and experience all of the things in life that can only be done as a solitary person.

It matters that there is skill, honor, beauty, and death in upland hunting. It matters that, no matter how many evolutions there are of the story or how many have shared it, the moments are yours. And they are worth every second.

what_matters

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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