Winchester lay on the bed in the hotel with sore eyes and shorn fur. In his four years, he had never hunted four days in a row, and he had never pursued birds in North Dakota, where he was born.
The only hunting he knew was upland hunting in Alaska, where he ran mountain country and found the faint scent of ptarmigan mixed with waning alpine flowers in the early fall and deep in the snow on steep hillsides in winter.
Whether the ground is covered in snow or bare rocks and lichen fields with patches of crowberries and willows at the lower elevations, we can always see him brush over the landscape ahead of us.
When Winchester first ran the wild growth in his home state, all I could see was his tail — a white wisp of setter fur flagging in the sun.
What is it like, I wondered, to run through a jungle of wet barley sprouts and rank weeds at eye level for the first time? He followed the strong scent of pheasant — a larger, brighter, more pungent game bird than ptarmigan — as we followed him to the edge of a cattail slough.
Back home in Alaska, we never worried about encounters with snakes, skunks or cocklebur — a prickly weed that sticks to dog fur. The first day we hunted, we were lucky. I watched Winchester work and felt the vicarious excitement of his first sight of a wild pheasant. Steve flushed the bird, and it flashed before Winchester’s eyes — a giant orange and purple burst of feathers just inches from his nose.
If travel by plane is difficult for humans, it is far worse for dogs. We expect certainty in our plans as much as we plan for the unexpected. After the noise, temperature and air pressure changes of the flight as cargo, Winchester encountered a whole new landscape of smells.
On the third day, his eyes were red and he had cockleburs so tangled in his fur that no amount of combing could get them out. We took him to a vet, who recommended sedation and shearing.
Winchester emerged from the vet’s office looking more like a Dalmatian than an English setter. The clippers had nicked the long strokes of his black and white fur away so that the black spots appeared as flat specks on a much smaller dog. His wiry muscles were on display as if someone had taken his heavy fur coat and given him a skin-tight Lycra suit.
Besides looking cold and chaffed, he also had a bewildered expression that seemed to ask, “Why do I smell like oatmeal?”
Steve suggested we take him hunting. While I tended to “mother” the dogs, Steve knew what a bird dog needed most — birds.
Winchester was excited to be back in the field hunting. He flushed a pheasant 45 minutes after a reversal of sedation. That night at the hotel, the aloof dog I had never known to ask for affection snuggled up to me for the first time in his standoffish life.
A friend who raises and mushes dogs had told me that it’s important not to push a dog too far. “You never want to get to the point where they lay down on the trail,” she said. “You have to know what they’re capable of even when they don’t, but you can’t push them past that point or you lose their trust.”
We took the next day off, and on our last morning hunt Winchester had regained his energy and mastered the pheasant fields. He ran with his nose in the air and, just like back home, when he was on to a bird, his tail circled like a helicopter — this time without so much fur — and stopped straight when he was sure.
Steve had arranged direct flights to and from Minneapolis to ensure there was no chance of a delay while making a connection. He had done everything possible to reduce the stress both he and Winchester would endure by choosing a mid-day flight during the week and familiarizing Winchester with his crate, since he had never used one before.
Steve even decorated the inside of the kennel with photos of game birds and a “good-looking” female English setter. I still don’t know how he determined the setter was good-looking.
On the drive to the airport, I made a mistake in navigation and directed us to an unfamiliar part of town. Steve is never good in circumstances where any part of the plan is on someone else’s terms. In this case, air travel meant he had to rely on the efficient tourism business to ensure Winchester’s safety in the event of a delay or a connection.
When we arrived at the airport on time, Steve was covered in sweat and Winchester was asleep in his crate. Ever since, when we hear stories about the added expense and stress of missed connections involving dogs — or worse, the news of an animal lost due to the unpredictable conditions experienced in travel by aircraft — Steve re-lives the 15-minute detour that cost him his cool.
The next time we took Winchester to the Dakotas, Steve drove them through Canada, and I met them at the airport.
Both seemed more relaxed — Winchester had a pre-trip haircut that allowed him to keep his feathered tail, and Steve had kept his wits better after 72 hours of driving.
Last week, when the weather was particularly bad, I suggested we take a long weekend and fly one of the dogs somewhere out-of-state to hunt pheasant. Steve looked at me like I was crazy. For some people, flying with a pet is part of life in the fast lane. For others, the whole object of travel is to slow down and see the country with your dog at your side.
There’s a rule of thumb that epitomizes the love bird hunters have for their dogs and guides us in the field: keep the wind in the dog’s face and follow the dog.
If applied to travel across the country, I learned it might also mean you can’t ship your hunting partner as cargo.
Christine Cunningham is an avid hunter and lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.