I watched Hugo at the edge of a small mountain lake, his entire body attuned to a snipe at the opposite edge of the water. English setters are pointing dogs, trained to hold a bird for a hunter.
The absence of a shotgun on a midsummer day should have been Hugo’s clue that we weren’t hunting. But the allure of the snipe had him within its spell.
How many times had I seen this play out before? The sudden burst of pointed beak and wings from the grasses, the short-distance flight of the snipe, followed by Hugo’s point — a flash of recognition that sets him on edge.
Hugo’s posture does not resemble the classic cartoon bird dog that points a paw toward a bird. Instead, it resembles a crouching tiger stalk, riveted and as if concealed by jungle leaves. Yet Hugo is most often wholly visible in a wide-open mountain valley or plateau, balanced on front legs hugged to the midline, entire body engaged, tail high.
Ahead of him, 20 or so yards, the snipe moves in beats as if feeding. Winchester, Hugo’s father if not mentor, is a staunch hunter who will stand on point until you arrive. He does not often point snipe, but if he did, I could count on him to stay firm even as one waltzed lightly ahead of him.
Not Hugo. As much as both Steve and I have worked with him and a hundred birds have taught him that he cannot fly, he still hunts for himself. This is especially true when it is not hunting season, and he appoints himself the hunter.
I had lost sight of the dun-colored bird in scabby gray rocks and looked back to Hugo to follow his line of sight. He had begun to creep, stepping one foot into the water. His stalk was so slow and deliberate that it allowed his reflection to remain undisturbed without a ripple beyond the wind.
What a silly head, I thought. If the past was any prediction, he would be occupied for the next 20 minutes as the snipe lured him slowly with its wary meanderings and short-distance flights. Hugo would follow it, like Alice following the White Rabbit into Wonderland, until I called him off.
I took the occasion to empty my pack and sort out my belongings. I laid my whistle, GPS and sunglasses down beside me, wrote a few lines in my notebook, and snapped several photos of Hugo.
Sometimes I will flatter myself and say, “Hugo is my spirit animal.” I admire his wide-open run of the country. He seems to hold nothing back and explore un-checked, and yet, that’s his biggest problem.
“Come on, Hugo. No bird,” I said, an expression used by bird hunters that means, “Not that bird.”
We had planned a short hike, but I figured we had time to head up one more level, following an old mining trail. Hugo gave the snipe a final charge, and the bird sprang into the air. This time, Hugo did not wait to see it land and headed up the trail ahead of me.
As I walked, I thought about how much I needed time in nature. The past few years I have begun to worry more. Instead of being present in the moment, I worry about the pandemic, our fractured relationship with nature, and how the earth seems both at the limit of its capacity to absorb abuse and somehow stronger than us, able to heal itself as well as us.
A piece of mining equipment had fallen from above and rested on the trail. I could hear shouts and laughter below us. These reminded me of the history of the place as a mining camp and how it seemed there are more people outdoors than I have ever seen before. Our “wilderness” was not an undiscovered Eden, much as we felt that way about it.
At this thought, I looked for Hugo. Where had he run off to? My GPS did not show his location.
I grabbed for my whistle, which was not around my neck. I must have left it in the spot where I set down my things. “Hugo!” I yelled.
The trail zigged and zagged up the mountainside, and Hugo appeared at the end of a zig and kept zigging. I headed off-trail in his direction. If I made it across the same rocky stretch, we could drop down into the next valley and follow another trail down to rejoin with the main one.
“Follow the dog” is generally a good principle when bird hunting, especially with Winchester.
Deciding to follow Hugo may have been my second-worst mistake since misplacing my whistle.
“Hugo!” I yelled. When he didn’t appear over the vertical horizon, I began to worry.
I climbed and hollered his name, peered into the next valley — empty except for a few hikers. Several moments lost to panic, I stood at the highest point for a moment, searching for the white flash of his tail.
A man in a bright yellow shirt at the bottom of the valley pointed. He was on the trail, and Hugo was likely down there even though I couldn’t hear if the man was shouting anything up to me.
I made a poor decision to bail off from where I was, directly down a steep face. On my way down, my heart raced as I clung to grass where I could. I slid, fell and scraped myself on rocks.
I stopped and perched on a clump of ground to catch my breath — my nerves shot, my leg muscles shaking.
“Keep calling him,” the man, who I could now hear, shouted.
I did, and a few seconds later, Hugo popped out from behind a rock and jumped into my lap. He was delighted to be reunited and licked my face to show it. Meanwhile, I was terrified he would knock me from my perch.
We made it to the trail, and I put Hugo on a leash. As I ran alongside him, I thanked the man in the yellow shirt as we passed by.
My shock at almost losing Hugo is one of many recent experiences intensified by the profound shock of the pandemic. I’d lost connection with him, but we had both rekindled our love of the wild around us and renewed our respect for the joys and dangers inherent in nature.
As so many more of us seek out the stability of the natural world that we need to survive, I hope it awakens our relationship and identity with the environment. We’ll learn lessons, make memories, and perhaps feel obliged to protect what connects us — maybe not a device but a deep emotional connection to each other.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.