This fall, the two best hunting dogs I have known will head into their respective seasons as older dogs.
Winchester, a black and white English setter who lives for the mountains and first brought them alive for me, begins his 11th grouse season on Aug. 10.
On Sept. 1, the opening of the waterfowl season, Cheyenne, a chocolate Labrador, will wake up well before first light for her 12th season as a duck dog. The vision of her pulling a widgeon twice her size by the bill across the grass is as sharp in my mind as Winchester’s bright puppy eyes when I saw them for the first time.
It goes by fast — not just the summer, but the summer of our lives.
Steve and I have made a few mistakes in our sweeping love of gun dogs, not the least of which was keeping so many to raise. Our house looks like the ruins of misadventure — the deck is a few years past needing to be re-stained, and there’s more than just paint peeling on the fence posts. Some are growing a kind of mushroom fungus.
At the height of my fascination for gun dogs, we had 11 sporting breeds — one Irish setter, three chocolate Labs and seven English setters. Back when I lived in a much cleaner house in town, I would have said that’s crazy.
Life doesn’t often end up as planned. One thing leads to another, and you are heading into what you hope isn’t the last good year with your best dogs.
A few years ago, Steve let Hugo, one of Winchester’s pups, join us on opening day of the ptarmigan season. Winchester was 9 and Hugo was 4. The older dog was like a fine wine, a rare violin, a custom shotgun. He still looks as good next to a wood stove as at the back of a mountain valley with a long line of English setters behind him just as fine.
Hugo comes from the same bloodline, but his style is less refined — more guitar and drums played by the kid next door than Beethoven’s string quartets. Hugo at 4 was like me when I still wanted clean floors — we didn’t know what we wanted because life hadn’t happened yet.
I wasn’t sure Hugo even knew what we were doing up there hunting birds. Was he hunting for himself, as they say? He didn’t seem to understand that a pointing dog’s essential job was to find the bird and point its location so the hunter could move into shotgun range.
It was that last part that gave him difficulty. Whenever I got into range, Hugo would race me for the bird while Steve made unintelligible sounds of agony from a distance.
We weren’t sure if Winchester would take him under his wing. The year before, they had hunted in separate territories, avoiding each other. They didn’t follow a scent if it intersected the wide boundary around them.
But, right out of the truck, they took off together. Winchester in the lead, and Hugo following at his heels.
When they finally parted, they made wide-arcing figure eights, crossing in front of me. It was like a dream to watch their flashing white tails against the mountain’s green slope, then splashing in the creek.
I’d never seen anything so transfixing. They were working together. I looked back at Steve. He saw it too and was clicking his camera.
The memory recorded itself in front of me, and I was on the edge of my seat — so to speak — as I took each step higher. The two of them led us down to the creek for a drink, then laced back and forth across the creek bed — the moving image on the caliber of oil-painted dreams with African drumming and jazz vocals. A dream so good that when it ends, credits roll. And you think — no, you actually say — “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”
And Steve says, “What?” because he can’t hear you over the sound of the waterfall crashing down slate slabs, cold and glistening with the chance of placer gold.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” you scream across the crashing sound, mostly because it’s fun to say it so loud.
The next time I see the dogs, they are both on point. A ptarmigan is just two feet in front of Winchester’s nose, and he held it. It was 40 feet away from Hugo, and he dashed it. That, I thought, is the difference between youth and age. Winchester knows what he’s after, and Hugo is still chasing a dream.
I opened my shotgun to communicate my thought on the subject as the bird coasted away to safety.
Winchester knew what that meant — we are not shooting the bird Hugo chased. But Hugo went on chasing the bird until Steve called him back. I was too focused on the positive to worry about what Hugo had done wrong. What he did right was point a bird. He stood out in the open where I could see him from 500 yards, and in my generous book he got a point.
“Hugo sure is doing good,” I said when Steve approached.
It didn’t look so good from his view. And the few points that followed generally went the same way. Winchester pointed, Hugo honored the point until one of us approached, and then he crept along with us as if we were the proverbial bush he used to hide behind. When we got closer, Hugo rushed toward the bird.
So what? I wasn’t a dog trainer. I was a bird hunter hunting with her bird dog. I didn’t want to train him to be robot-perfect when he was ranging wilder than my dreams. I wouldn’t want a hunting dog that didn’t hunt for himself some of the time.
But those thoughts were a luxury because we had Winchester to save the day. As we headed down the mountain without a bird in our vests, Winchester worked privately down a creek without alerting Hugo, who dallied on the high slopes above us while we followed Winchester to a covey of ptarmigan.
Some people will tell me my dogs are like my children, but that’s not quite right. It’s that they are precisely dogs that I enjoy so much. They are the wolves howling for me somewhere. They are calling me to join them, follow them, and they set aside animal instinct to share the hunt and the bond this partnership creates.
As the two older dogs lay about the house on softer surfaces due to old bones, I look forward to fall — the old duck blind with Cheyenne and the mountain haunts with Winchester. I know our days will be slower and shorter, with more accommodations. Yet the last surge of light seems the brightest, sure to be full of moments we’d like to last forever.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.
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