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A love affair sealed by dogs and duck hunts, and every bit as enduring and inspiring as the stuff of literature

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: February 21
  • Published February 21

Steve Meyer and Christine Cunningham doing what they love with whom they love on a summer day in July 2018. (Photo provided by Steve Meyer)

“I didn’t get you anything for Valentine’s,” I said to Christine. “I figured a day or two wouldn’t matter, and I’ll get it on sale.”

“You are so full of it,” she replied. “Since when do you get me a Valentine, and besides, you won’t even take the senior discount or your free hunting license, so I don’t think you’re worried about a sale.”

“Maybe I’ve decided to become fiscally responsible.”

Laughing, she said, “Uh, we’ve met. So what are you up to?”

When Christine started accompanying me to the shooting range some years ago, my friends got to know her well. They would say stuff to me like, “You’re a decent enough guy, but you ain’t no prize. How in the hell did you end up with a woman who is smarter than you, shoots about as well, hunts, fishes and follows you and your damn setter all over the mountains?”

“I haven’t a clue,” is all I could say, and I still don’t, but I expect folks we have met along the way might wonder the same thing.

When a proper young woman walked into my office for an orientation I was charged with giving, I thought, “She’s an attractive young lady except for her taste in shoes.” I had to make a quick call before we started, and I told her to have a seat.

Instead, she walked around my office, looking at a lifetime of artifacts strewn about. When I finished the call, she was peering at a framed quote from Theodore Roosevelt. Those familiar with his life would know the quote as “the Man in the Arena.”

I waited for her to finish reading it.

“Sort of hits you where you live, doesn’t it?” she said.

“Yes,” I replied. “For me, it’s a reminder that life is about living, not talking about it.”

I thought of all the people who had read the quote without having a clue what it meant. She couldn’t know how impressed I was.

When she left my office, there was no denying an attraction. In the ensuing weeks it became more evident, and I was a bit perplexed about what to do.

I talked with some female friends who insisted, despite the cavernous gap in our ages, that a relationship would be fine. I wasn’t convinced, but then I remembered: life is about living, and it was worth finding out.

Christine accepted an invitation to dinner, and when we sat down among the mounted wildlife displayed throughout the restaurant, she seemed completely at ease.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Having dinner,” she replied.

“No, I mean what are you doing here with me? You could be having dinner with lots of men who aren’t old enough to be your father.”

“I’m doing what I want to do, and I don’t need a note,” she laughed.

I blurted, “I’m not getting married, I’m not having kids, I do what I want, when I want, and no one is going to change that, and by the way, if my pager goes off, you’ll have to find another way home.”

“Do you have the paperwork?” she asked.

“What paperwork?”

“What you just said sounds like a limited liability clause, so get it out and I’ll sign it,” she said with a big grin, like, gotcha.

As time passed and we became friends and constant companions, I had to admit I had been wrong. I didn’t think there would be enough common ground between us for it to last long. Instead it seemed to get better every day.

I hadn’t been hunting much because I was still on call 24/7 and had to put my first love on hold. Then I had some medical difficulties, came close to checking out early, and when I climbed out of the abyss I vowed to get back to living, and that meant hunting.

Christine will tell you that I invited her to go duck hunting. Not true. When I told her I was going, she said, “I want to go too,” in a way that suggested she meant it.

I knew a thing or two about being a first-time duck hunter, having been brought along in the old-school traditions of a boy raised on a North Dakota farm, exploring the nearby sloughs and coulees with a shotgun.

Off to the gun range we went. Christine seemed as eager as I had been when I started, and she was a quick learner who shot well from the start.

When we set off down this path, I told her, “There are no genders when it comes to hunting and shooting.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.

“It means that you just do what needs to be done. You learn to shoot, you learn about the animals you are hunting, you have to take care of them, no matter your gender. There will be times when you are miserable, when you don’t want to finish what you started. Sometimes you won’t be able to hit a damn thing. Sometimes you’ll be sad and happy at the same time. It’s all part of it. It’s like you told me one time when I commented about how I didn’t understand how someone could trade stocks for a living, and you told me that we can’t all be cowboys. We can’t all be hunters either, but it has nothing to do with being male or female, and if you are not, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

When I picked her up for her first duck hunt, it was raining. She wondered if we would still go. She could have quit and sat in the truck that miserable morning. Who knows, that may have changed our lives as much as her sticking it out did. The rest, as they say, is history.

Our relationship wasn’t cemented in roses, silk and diamonds. Over time, it was carved in mountain winds and glacial ice into the granite slopes we climb. It’s filled with smells of mountain flowers, tidal sloughs and the breath of an English setter. Labradors retrieving and English setters coursing the alpine are our poetry. The cry of the distant goshawk, the rustle of flushing wings and the whistle of widgeon is our music. It’s as enduring as Winchester’s points. It won’t be found in the grand romantic literature, but by any definition, a love story it is.

The intimacy of the hunting partner relationship is one of sharing triumphs, failures, misery, joy, sadness, pain and a love of wildlife and the country. It is no small wonder that the relationship, in some indigenous cultures, ranks above marital bliss. When one has both with the same person, well, it’s that slice of utopia most dream about.

Christine was right, I was up to something. The “after Valentine’s Day special,” a 12-gauge Browning Superposed, built around 1958 and a shotgun she has wanted for some time, was worth the wait.

Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.

Christine Cunningham and her belated Valentine's Day presents -- a 12-gauge Browning Superposed built around 1958), and a kiss from Jack the dog. (Photo by Steve Meyer)