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As Magic proves, good dogs die but they never leave you

Craig Medred
Magic swims with a duck in 1990. Craig Medred / ADN 1990 archive

DENALI HIGHWAY -- The melancholy flowed down out of Crazy Notch like a river. Magic rode it straight into my heart. Good dogs die, but they never leave you.

Magic was the good dog who lived in the shadow of litter mate Arlo. Arlo was a phenom, a Labrador so black that if you looked hard at him he sometimes almost seemed to disappear. It was like staring into a black hole, an entity there but not there.

But it was neither this oddity nor his oversized personality that made him special. No, what made Arlo a standout was his nose. Over the years, I watched that dog follow the scent of ducks across open water, or go a quarter mile or more on a beeline into the wind after being told to retrieve one of those ducks seemingly missed by my bad shooting only to fly off and then fall out of the sky like a rock due to a lone pellet of shot blocking an artery.

Many times I followed that dog and his nose for a half-mile or more, sometimes well more, into flocks of ducks unseen in flooded grass. Sometimes it happened going into the wind, sometimes in still air, sometimes, I have no idea how, going downwind.

You could always tell when he was on the scent. His body literally vibrated with excitement. The biggest problem was usually getting him to slow down enough that I could hold pace so we would arrive together on the birds.

Over the years, I shot so many mallards over that dog that he started selecting for them. In has later years, when he started working the flooded grass like a water-soaked version of an upland bird dog, it was because there were mallards there.

He'd still retrieve anything he was told to retrieve, but when it came to hunting, he knew what was wanted. We hunted well into his senior years. He lived to be 16, and I still miss him.

Lost in his brother's glow

He shone so bright that his brother sometimes got lost in the glow. Magic was always the family buddy dog. He was Katie's best friend when she was a kid growing up, and he was the proverbial backup, the fill in for Arlo if he happened to be injured or just plain worn out from a string of hard days in the field.

Magic was good, but, compared to Arlo, not that good -- sort of the Frank Reich of Labrador retrievers, for those who are fans of NFL football. For those who aren't, suffice to say that Reich, the backup to NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, in January 1993 led what remains the greatest come-from-behind victory in NFL history.

It actually has its own Wikipedia page headlined simply "The Comeback.''  

Magic had his Comeback along the creeks and in the swamps east of Crazy Notch. There is a long string of lakes along the Denali Highway there, and Oscar Creek drains them slowly toward Clearwater Creek. 

Along this slow-moving creek, there is plenty of marshland, and in these marshes a hunter with a dog and a willingness to walk can sometimes find decent numbers of pintails and mallards in September. Magic and I found them one fall.

I remember because I shot exceptionally well, something not all that common, and Magic was even better. There was a point at which three mallards were knocked out of the sky with three shots. Two of them fell stone-cold dead and then washed up against a bank along a 25-yard wide pond in the creek; one sailed winged into the tall grass on the far side.

Magic saw the ducks go down and sight marked the first of them. He was quick in the water when told to get and quick to bring the first bird back. The second was only slightly more difficult. One retrieve complete, dogs sometimes think their job is done, and retrievers are not as easily directed to shore to retrieve waterfowl as they are directed into open water.

But Magic dutifully leaped into the pond when told "get bird,'' and then followed hand signals directing him to the far shore where he finally spied the second mallard, grabbed it and brought it back. 

About the third, I was nervous. This retrieve was going to require Magic swim across the pond, scramble out into the marshland on the other side, find the scent of a wounded duck and then track it down. I wouldn't have thought twice about Arlo's ability to do that, but Magic?

I probably wished that Arlo was there with me. But I sent Magic across the pond again, and managed to signal him up into the marsh, though he went somewhat reluctantly and then kind of pranced along the edge of it with regular stops to poke his head out of the grass to look at me.

Each time, I waved him back farther from the shore until he finally picked up a scent. For minutes, I could track his progress on the scent trail by the wavering of the grass, and then he went up into the alders on a bank above the grass, and there was no telling where he was. 

So proud of himself

So I waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, I figured I better call for him. I called. Nothing happened. That made me a little nervous. I started calculating where to find the nearest stretch of creek I could cross -- the creek being too deep to wade in places -- to get over onto the far side of the pond. 

About then, Magic's head popped out of the grass. The mallard was firmly but gently clamped in his jaws. 

I called him across the pond. He hit the near shore beaming. It was pretty obvious he was proud of himself. I took the duck from his mouth. He shook himself and sprayed water everywhere. I hugged him anyhow.

The details of the rest of the outing I don't remember well, though I do recall growing tired of plucking and cleaning ducks. For Magic, it was the high point of his career. We spent a lot of quality time together in the field in the years after, and he made many, many, many more retrieves.

But none was that memorable. Driving up the gravel road toward Crazy Notch, the memories of the good times we'd had in this country almost had me in tears. Magic has been dead more than a decade now, but he's clearly not gone.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com