We were about a mile into our chest-wader-clad walk to our duck blind on the Kenai River flats and had another third of a mile to go. The late-September sky was dark with low clouds, and a mild breeze blew out of the north.
"What happens if the water comes over our chest waders?" Christine asked.
It was one of the several times during the year that the tide comes up and floods the entire flats. The water had, by that time, covered the flats and was lapping a few inches from the tops of our waders. We were inching along, sliding our feet on the submerged grass, knowing a regular could find a dropoff into a channel and submerge us too.
"Well," I smiled, "it'll be real cold, but as long as we can keep our heads out of the water we won't drown. Just stay right behind me and if I disappear, don't take another step."
We made it another 100 yards and the tide slowed to a near standstill. Then I felt a slap on the back of my head and turned to see Christine grinning at me.
"This has nothing to do with duck hunting," she said. "Even if we shot a duck we could never retrieve it."
"Yeah," I replied. "Something like that."
A few steps farther we came across an immature red-backed vole, clinging for his life on a stalk of grass a few inches above the water.
"What can we do to help him?" Christine asked.
"Let's build him a raft," I said, and started grabbing the tops of the grass sticking up.
In practically no time, we had built a small raft and held it beside the little guy's stalk of grass. He jumped onto it, the raft held his weight just fine and he floated off. The best we could tell, he was a happy little vole.
"Thank you," Christine said, as she gave me a hug.
We spent every night of those flood tides out there. Ducks swam by, looking at us as we stuck up out of the water like some weird creature they had never seen before. We saved a few more voles and never raised our shotguns.
It was another September day, this time in the morning. Winchester, one of our English setters, led us up the mountain trail that would take us to the alpine, where his birds made their living. The sun was just cresting the top of the steep peaks to the east when we broke out above tree line.
Winchester broke into overdrive, as he does when the country opens, and was soon a half-mile distant, coursing the mountain valley floor. That's when the chest pains started.
Not wanting to ruin the day, I didn't say anything and kept climbing for another 15 minutes until it became so bad I was doubled over, holding my chest.
Some say there is no greater social sin than poor timing and some would say what happened next was the worst of timing. I would not be among those people.
As I rocked in pain on my knees and Christine tried to determine what was going on, I looked up to see Winchester make an abrupt turn to the west and run straight up a granite mountain creek chute. Seven hundred vertical feet above us, he locked into a point.
Thinking it was my heart, Christine insisted we head back down and get to the hospital. Two things, I told her. If it is my heart, we're two hours away from help, whatever is going to happen will be over by then. And, Winchester is up there on point. I'll do the best I can to get up there, but you've got to honor his point.
"What if you die, what am I supposed to do then?" she asked.
"The truck keys are in the top of my pack. I would say head down and tell someone where to find the corpse," I said, trying to make light without letting her know I was terrified. "I'm pretty sure you aren't responsible for body disposal, now get up there, he's holding like a champ."
As she headed up, I told myself I wasn't going to die on this mountain with my setter on point.
I half crawled and stumbled my way up behind her. I was still several hundred vertical feet below them when Christine eased past Winchester. The whitetail ptarmigan flushed and dropped, and it seemed a long time before I heard the report of the shot.
Bursting with pride in the two of them, I continued to claw my way up, and as I did, the pain began to ease a bit. When I got to Christine, she was sitting there with her bird in hand.
She grinned and said, "Glad you aren't dead, your boy is up the mountain on another bird, you better go get it for him."
He was, and I did.
It was few days later and I hadn't yet gone to the doctor to see what was going on when the mountains called again. Christine couldn't go, so it would be Winchester and me.
"So," she said, "you think if you die up there Winchester is just going to find his way home?"
Dang it! You can go a lifetime and never find a hunting partner, much less a life partner, who not only gets who you are but celebrates it.
During the holiday season, there are so many things I am thankful for. By any stretch my life is rich beyond any riches most measure things by. But if there is one thing I am most thankful for, it is my partner. She gets who I am and I get who she is, and we never try to change that. I'm pretty sure it doesn't get better than that.
Steve Meyer is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and hunting. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org