“It’s been four years since we were here,” I said to the box sitting on the camp chair beside me. “Nothing much has changed. The muddy Cook Inlet water, brought in with the tide, is flowing back to the sea like I guess it always has.
“It’s last light now, past shooting time, your favorite time. A pair of northern harriers are gliding over the grass across the slough, making a final hunt before the night closes in, and the short-eared owls are swooping around the pond behind the cabin where that lonesome old mallard hen is quacking. I don’t know if it is the same hen, but they can live a long time. It doesn’t much matter, the quacking always made your ears perk and kept us company while we sat.
“Your mom and Cheyenne are in the cabin; I expect Cheyenne misses stealing those ducks from you. She’s slowed down a lot, and her hips aren’t so good anymore. That’s why we aren’t hunting the big slough this time — that big, fast-moving water is too much. But you know Cheyenne, she still thinks she can do it all, we just have to look out for her.
“Remember the last time we were here, when you went after that pintail that got a head start heading downstream in fast water? You were 100 pounds of muscle and having the best season of your life, and I didn’t worry when you went out of sight after that duck. It took a bit, but you brought that big drake back, and Cheyenne stole it from you just as you brought it to hand. You were always good-natured with her, and I suspect that was because you never much liked the taste of duck and would spit them out quick as you could.
“Here in a bit, I’ll go grab those teal we shot earlier and dress them out for supper. Cheyenne will be out to have the hearts and livers, all to herself this time. You know that’ll make her happy, being the little pig she still is.
“You know, old friend, we got to see something not many folks see these days. This place that we love, and it seemed many other hunters and dogs loved too, has changed. It still looks the same, except for the cabins. When I first started coming here, 40 years ago, all the cabins we used to see had hunters in them. The shooting would start at first light, quiet down at midday and start back up for the evening flight.
“It was a waterfowlers paradise, it seemed. By the time you came along, there weren’t so many hunters. The cabins still stood, but they were vacant most of the time. We would hear shooting, just not so much. The last time we were here, you might remember, we heard two shots in three days that weren’t our own.
“A lot of those old cabins have crumbled from lack of attendance. That big one down the slough, the one we walked out to one day that had started to fall over from the tide undercutting the foundation, the one where we found a good widgeon pond behind? It’s gone now, swept out to sea by the tide.
“That two-story one that stood out a mile or so north of our cabin, it’s fallen over now, you can’t see it unless you climb up on the roof. Back in those days, there was a comfort in knowing if you forgot to bring coffee, or maybe brandy, you could stump your way around to a cabin and borrow some. Or if you just wanted to talk hunting for a bit, you could do that too. A relationship we all shared with the country that seemed would never end.
“It’s the only place I’ve ever been where the wonder and magnitude of a place cherished by many wasn’t destroyed by progress. I’m grateful for that, but I wonder why few come anymore. Maybe it’s just like us, getting old, suffering losses, life itself stole the wonder away. The quiet is nice but the passing of an era, a way of life, seems sad.
“This old shotgun lying across my lap, well it doesn’t look so good anymore. The case color on the receiver is long gone, the stock scarred, and the barrels have some dents in them. It misfires on the top barrel enough to keep me focused on making the first shot count.
“But you see, this is the shotgun that you started with. Together we’ve put a lot of miles on this old gun, and we’ve brought home our share of fowl with it; it’s been our partner too. At one time I considered sending it in to be refurbished, but I can’t. All those scars and all those memories are better kept just the way they are.
“I shot a couple of teal for supper with it, and I may take a mallard or a pintail, just for you, while we’re here. Then this old gun will be retired, next to that shotshell, the one I kept from your first retrieve, that is now filled with part of you.
“The geese have started their evening flight, and their loud cackling seems much closer than the coast they fly along. The sun is dropping behind the Alaska Range, that orange glow that softens the evening. Your favorite time of the day, when we would sit along this slough and listen to the widgeon go by until the bats came out and the owls began to hunt in earnest.
“We’ve come to the time for the reason we’re here, and I don’t know how to do it. When you left early, three years ago, your mom and I decided that this place, above all others, was special to you. You seemed as happy as you could ever be, sitting here watching the night close in. We believe that this is the place we must let you go. It’s taken this long to face the prospect.
“Well, Gunner,” I said to the box on my lap, as the floatplane lifted off and turned east to take us home, “that old gun shot pretty well this trip. When we came over this time, we believed that it would be our last, like hunters before us, the time had come. But you know, this place still holds its magic, and we aren’t ready to let it, or you, go. We’re going to keep coming back, and when we bring that chocolate puppy that’s in our future, you’ll come with us, and your spirit will be there, guiding that little fellow to repeat the glorious days we shared with you. That old gun, well, it’ll bring that puppy the joy of fulfilling his purpose, just like it did you.”
Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan who lives in Kenai.