SOLDOTNA — Opening day of the waterfowl season this year I was sitting in the office instead of a duck blind. A co-worker peeked into the doorway and asked why I wasn't hunting. He had driven by the Kenai River Flats and reported fewer cars than last year. My boss said he could hear shots at his house come first light.
"Sound carries on the water," I said. In my mind, I was trying to dismiss the fact that I was missing out on a tradition. I'd hunted ducks the past 10 opening days.
Earlier this year, Gunner, the first Lab I'd ever hunted ducks with, passed away. He was a classic-looking Lab with the pronounced brow and broad chest that came from bloodlines more than a training regimen.
His ability to retrieve was not what you read about in magazines. He wasn't the kind of Lab that stared at the sky trembling for ducks. He was the kind that sat by your side and brought back the bird in a slow, helpful way because it seemed to be what you wanted.
I missed him.
My hunting partner was out of town for work, and I'd never gone duck hunting by myself. The thought of getting everything ready for my first solo hunt on a "school night" seemed insurmountable, so I decided to pass. Without Gunner or my partner, it made sense to rescind my leave slip and make the mechanical drive to work instead.
The skies were clear — another bad sign for duck hunting, which is best in miserable rain when the birds are flying low.
Still, I found myself leaving the office to get a latte and look at the Flats. It was only 9 a.m., and hunters were heading in already. Another sign of poor hunting, although it was becoming apparent something inside me was arguing against all signs to the contrary.
I didn't make it to 10 a.m. before requesting to leave for the day. I rushed home and found my 12-gauge shotgun and waterfowl loads. I put on wetlands camo and looked in the mirror. It was too warm for a hat, so I took out the camo compact of face paint and worked brown and green through my too-blond hair until it looked close to the color of the swamp.
Cheyenne, a 6-year-old Lab who had hunted with Gunner, recognized my get-up and started jumping. When I opened the door to the garage, Cheyenne ran for the car and attempted to enter through the window only to smack against the door and fall backward. We were both off-kilter and over-excited. I went through a mental checklist at the end of the driveway: shotgun, shells, license, stamps, camo, leash, whistle, snacks.
It was just us girls for the first time. Ten years ago I didn't notice the difference between a flight of seagulls and a flock of ducks in the sky. I didn't know how to pick out drakes, wring a duck's neck, or breast a bird. I didn't know how to find an unoccupied blind or skirt around other hunters.
"Tide book," I said. Cheyenne cocked her head at me. I hadn't checked the tides, but we could play it safe and stick to high ground until we saw which way the tide was going.
"Decoys," I said. She cocked her head again. No matter, nothing I forgot to bring was going to stop us.
When we got to the Flats, it was noon and only one car remained at the pullout. Cheyenne ran ahead of me, and I realized how different everything was. It was not the typical early morning trudge in darkness, but I was grateful for everything that was new, since I wasn't ready to remember that Gunner was absent.
When we got to our favorite blind, it had been refurbished by another hunter. This hunter had added spruce bows, and had hidden a new camp chair and a pair of reading glasses in the back. "It's OK," I said. "Let's just sit here for a while." Cheyenne didn't want to sit, though. She started whining and switching her feet. She was the kind of dog who watched the skies. A lone goose circled us three times. It never came close enough for a shot, and she did not want to hear about my hunting ethics. She started howling.
As we sat in the middle of 300 acres of marsh with Cheyenne howling at blue skies the way a wolf might howl at the moon, I did not know what to do next. She'd never howled in a duck blind before. But she had more knowledge of retrieving waterfowl than I had in book smarts gleaned from this year's outdoor magazines — or even from days spent in the field.
"You're right," I said, and it made me realize how much a human hunting partner normalizes the fact that I talk to a dog — and, also, that I had never been in charge before. Someone had to tell me it didn't make sense to sit in a blind on a pond without decoys. Usually, Steve and I discussed decisions before making them. Cheyenne and I got up and walked our way across the flats. She jumped a few ducks but mostly mallard hens.
I only fired one shot at a drake mallard that day by the time we trudged back to the vehicle empty-handed. We had gone against the odds, maybe out of hope, maybe out of desperation. It didn't seem to matter as long as we were doing what we were meant to do.
Christine Cunningham of Soldotna is a lifetime Alaskan and avid hunter. On alternate weeks she'll write about Alaska hunting. Contact Christine at firstname.lastname@example.org