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Outdoors/Adventure

An Alaska hunting dog’s delight: Opening day

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published August 8, 2017

Christine Cunningham and Winchester, in the best place they can be during opening day of the upland bird season in 2016. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

SOLDOTNA — The pungent scent of vegetation past its prime assaults our dog Winchester's olfactory sensibilities without warning. Time is near and his casual indifference to roaming the yard and running summer trails evaporates with the long hours of daylight.

He'll be back on his toes, running high, head up inhaling the air with new purpose. He'll come to wherever I am and stare into my eyes, hoping for a sign. Not yet, I'll tell him.

The night before, he'll know. We don't know how, but he always does. He'll sleep for brief moments that will be tormented; his dreams take him running the high country chasing his purpose in life.

The cold muzzle wake-up nudges will start long before it makes any sense to leave but he is relentless and he'll know, from all of the times before, that his partner will give in. His low-level whines will wake Christine and she'll agree that heading out early is worth relieving his anxiety.

Dog insanity

In his youth, the guns would have to come out before Winchester lost his ability to reason. In his advancing years, he'll begin spinning like a top when he sees the coffee going into the thermos.

The other eight hunting dogs in residence will join the insanity. New claw marks will appear on the leather sofas as they run and jump, swept into the moment they don't yet understand.

We'll hurry to get the guns, lunch, dog treats, cameras and the GPS collar loaded. Winchester will slam his shoulders into the door frame as it cracks open and it won't register as he vaults into the back seat.

In seconds, he'll be sleeping. He'll know the trip is long and he won't fret like he did when he was a pup. He'll be relaxed now, assured that things are as they should be. Christine and I will turn often to watch him sleep, on his back, feet straight in the air.

Winchester on the first point on opening day of the 2016 upland season. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

The drive to the mountains may be moonlit or not, and short of driving rain, it won't matter. The silence we share will be comforting, the thoughts will be memories from so many trips over so many years — comfort food.

A familiar trip

When the truck noses into the curves of the mountain pass to our destination, Winchester will sense it and rise to lay his muzzle on one of our shoulders — a brief reassurance, and then back to sleep he'll go.

The last bit of road will be rough, and Winchester will rise to look out and see his mountains backlit by the coming sunrise. I'll get out the GPS collar and turn it on, and it will turn him on. He'll buck and spin and slobber our faces with kisses of thanks.

When I open the door, he'll explode into his world, and burn off a mile or so getting his legs warmed up as we collect our gear and have a last sip of coffee.

Winchester's strong suit has never been obedience, and he'll express his displeasure when I tell him to stay close, but he'll do it. The climb into hunting country will take about 90 minutes and we'll keep him at heel, conserving his energy for the alpine slopes.

At treeline we'll stop for a break, and with some luck the sky will be dark blue pending a glorious sunrise. We'll settle into a convenient depression on the steep slope, and Winchester will sit above us waiting. When the break is over I'll stand and he'll come to my side, his body quivering. I'll bend over and whisper in his ear, "Find the birds."

Chasing setter dreams

I doubt he ever hears the word "birds" before he rockets away, chasing his setter dreams into the mountain valleys, alpine creek beds and granite chutes, where his birds make their living.

It won't matter if it's sunny or raining, the dew on the vegetation will rumple his beautiful coat. His leg feathers will be matted with moisture but he'll keep his magnificent setter tail high and blowing in the wind.

With shotguns in hand we'll follow him. Our sole expectation is to share his unfettered passion for pursuit, as he takes us beyond our ability. To ride along in his world where the edge of nowhere knows no bounds and where he knows, one way or another, we'll honor his point.

We'll pray to ourselves his point doesn't come where we must sling our shotguns and use our hands and feet or even crawl to get to him. And yet, we'll swell with pride if he takes us there.

We'll strain to keep track of him as he courses the country, a black and white mirage blending into the wild places his birds seek refuge. More often than not, he'll be out of sight.

The point, announced by the GPS collar, will be somewhere high above us. We'll scramble as fast as we can, but knowing no matter how long it takes, he'll be there, holding his birds for his partners. When we reach him, his body may be erect, head and tail high, or maybe he'll be low to the ground, like a leopard in full stalk. He'll decide. It's his show and he'll play it out as only he knows it must be played.

Winchester holding a white-tailed ptarmigan while Christine Cunningham “honors” his point during opening day of the upland bird season in 2016. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

As we move past him we'll strain to spot the mottled gray of the white-tailed ptarmigan he holds at bay. The flush, when it comes, will decide if birds will be taken. They may be too young; the covey may be too small or they may flush wild with some moves we haven't seen yet.

However it goes, if birds are taken he'll go to them, making sure we know where they are and then he'll be off hunting again. He believes, and as far as we are concerned, he is right, that his talents are wasted on retrieving birds that we can easily walk to.

A special partner

If a bird falls where Winchester thinks his partners are too wimpy to retrieve it, he'll go bring the bird out of the offensive territory and drop it with a look of disgust as he heads out again. If that happens, we'll have a good laugh at this most endearing quality. He never read the book about how he is supposed to act, he taught us to hunt, we are just grateful to be along for the ride.

He'll still be on the edge of nowhere when we are spent. We'll call him in and he'll know. We'll sit in silence watching the sun descend in the west. He'll walk to an edge and sit down to look out over his country that he knows he must leave … for the moment.

Every opener is special, but openers when you have a four-legged partner seem extra special. It's a rejuvenation of the spirit, a day of wonder in beautiful places with a beautiful animal doing what he loves most in life — a champion who, no matter how good his upcoming offspring may be, will always have the opening day of upland season to himself.

Steve Meyer of Soldotna is lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at oldduckhunter@outlook.com.

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