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Outdoors/Adventure

Many Alaskans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. A few go duck hunting.

  • Author: Christine Cunningham
  • Updated: December 12, 2017
  • Published November 22, 2017

Christine Cunningham’s dog Cheyenne retrieves a duck in 2016. (Steve Meyer)

Cheyenne hit the water as hard and as fast as Steve responded to the opportunity to shoot a teal that rocketed out of the slough.

Their effort was simultaneous, while my shotgun stayed slung along with the weight of a pack on my shoulders. That was the moment, looking back on it, that I saw something more in a dog than a pet or a working animal.

The tide was going out when Cheyenne snatched the teal from the top of the water and turned back toward us with certainty. We watched as she ran up the chest-deep mud as fast as her short legs could carry her.

She didn't stop as she passed Steve's outstretched hand. She ran straight toward me. Her tail wagging, she circled me three times before letting go of the teal. We had trained her, but what she did now she did without commands. There was something inside her that made her a duck dog.

Cheyenne, a chocolate Labrador, was unruly in the house. She opened boxes of shotgun shells without remorse and spread the shot across the shop floor. Her nose led her into pockets that once held treats so that only a few jacket pockets survived without bite holes. She had an affinity for tearing open anything stuffed, including sofa cushions. Given her rodent-like behavior in the house, my hope that she would be good in the field was low.

But she was made for the marsh, not the house. That's what I didn't understand. On the duck flats, her anxiety converted to enthusiasm. She wanted to bring back ducks with a force that was its own reward.

As we flew over Cook Inlet on our way home, I wanted to go back. I could still taste the salt air of the flats and smell the warm-bodied aroma of ducks and decomposing swamp mixed with Cheyenne's wet fur. I wanted to watch Cheyenne, not just because she was physically tough when it came to running in the mud and swimming the tide or because she found birds we would have lost in the grass. I wanted her to have as many chances as possible to do what was in her nature.

Christine Cunningham and her dog Cheyenne hunt along the Kasilof River in 2015. (Steve Meyer)

I started calling her my little duck dog — my little ducker. Her constant attention, which used to annoy me, filled me with admiration. She seemed always to be saying, "Let's go duck hunting." I started shooting trap and skeet to improve my shotgun skills.

I don't know whether it was the desire to acquire a complete skeet set or because I'd had a bit too much to drink, but it was at a fundraising banquet that I made a split-second decision that would complicate our lives.

I was acting as master of ceremonies, and the bidding was about to close on a beautiful Beretta white onyx 28 gauge over/under shotgun, with a 28-inch barrel and gold inlay engraving. No one had met the reserve, and the gun was about to be placed back in its custom Giugiaro case, not to be used for another year.

I cleared my throat into my microphone. The auctioneer, Loveable Larry, seemed to know what I meant. I'd meet the reserve.

When I made my way offstage, I found Steve so he could congratulate me on my purchase. "You know what this means?" he said. I shook my head.

"If you're going to own a proper upland gun, you're going to have to get a proper bird dog," he said.

He had mentioned before that since childhood he had wanted to hunt behind an English setter after seeing two of them work a pheasant field in his home state of North Dakota. I laughed, but he was serious.

It was two months later that Theodore Roosevelt Winchester traveled from a 70,000-acre ranch in New England, North Dakota, to meet his new hunting family in Alaska.

Winchester lifted his 8-week-old head to look at me when I reached into the kennel. He had the blackest eyes I'd ever seen on a dog. He wasn't the panicky bundle of joy that Cheyenne was as a puppy. I remember thinking there was something special about him.

There was. If Cheyenne was the first to show me that a dog could represent the spirit half of the hunter, Winchester took the lesson a step further. To follow him into the mountains, into the toughest high country, to hunt ptarmigan and watch as he gained mastery at finding and pointing them, stirred something in me I did not know existed.

His feathery silhouette lighted by the sun, the snow blowing over the hills as he led two hunters higher and higher, is a sight belonging to a renaissance world of oil paintings and gentlemen's parlors. He represents the best in athleticism and breeding. His drive calls me, again and again, to get up early, drive a hundred miles and walk 10 or 20 more. It doesn't matter how tired I am. There is not enough time in his life to spare a recess on my part.

The best lessons in my life are those I've learned from sporting dogs – we now have nine. They are athletic, that is certain. But they are also indifferent to everything that does not matter. They teach me to strive to exhaust myself as many times as they ask. They invite me to an outdoor life of adventure and passion for birds.

I sat down to write my thoughts on family and what I'm thankful for after declining an invitation to a family Thanksgiving dinner. My plan is to spend Thanksgiving in the field with Steve and one of dogs, as we have for several years – usually duck hunting with Cheyenne due to avalanche conditions in the mountains.

I hope it's acceptable to my relatives that I did not become a wife and mother to raise children of my own but instead found a hunting partner and a sporting dog family as a means to connect with the life cycle. I hope they understand that my best contribution and act of responsibility and gratitude is to live as skillfully and reverently as possible.

I hope they don't mind that I'd rather shoot a duck than eat a turkey.

Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifetime Alaskan and avid hunter. She writes about hunting in Alaska on alternate weeks. Contact her at cunningham@yogaforduckhunters.com.

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