An aging bird dog and his ailing caretaker head north for the season-opener ptarmigan hunt, perhaps more eager than ever

“If you can, with shotgun in hand, follow your gun dog into the field with the sole expectation of sharing his unbridled enthusiasm, his happiness and his uncensored lust of simply being who he is, life becomes as rich and precious as only he seems able to embrace.”

The typing is mine, pounded out many years ago. The inspiration belongs to Winchester, our English setter — the four-legged hunting partner who blew into our lives like a spring chinook, melted our hearts and forever changed who we are.

Over his first 11 seasons in the field with us, we built traditions and fell in love with places he has taken us, places we would never have known.

But the cost of admission to life outdoors, following your gun dog into the backcountry, isn’t cheap. For many years following Winchester into the mountains, it seemed as if we had wings leading into the wind his nose sought.

The years and the climbs took a toll.

With his 12th season looming and his ability to climb thousands of feet in stunning bursts of speed now a fond memory, we had to make the tough decision to break the tradition of following Winchester into the Kenai Mountains for last week’s opener.

Instead, we drove north to Interior Alaska, where the gun dog doesn’t have to climb thousands of feet before the hunt begins.

Winchester and I have a special connection. I’ve spoken of it before, and it seems to be born out in the way things have gone. I am not a religious fellow, but I believe we are connected to the creatures and the land in a profound way that I don’t question. Rather, I am thankful to have the opportunity to try and understand.

That Winchester knows we are going hunting before anything beyond my thoughts evidence it is enough. When one leaves work in the middle of the day because the mountains are calling and finds Winchester trembling in excitement, somehow knowing, what else explains it?

It seems a bit too much to be a coincidence that the first year Winchester began slowing down, I developed issues that slowed me down too. A year ago, technology being what it is, I found some relief, and we found some medication that seemed to help Winchester as well, for a while.

Other issues plagued me early this year and I have struggled to climb and do much of anything very well since. Depending on whose chart you believe, Winchester is anywhere from 77 to 110 years old in human years, and his issues are simple aging and a life lived well.

But here we are, in lockstep, and in a sort of strange way it feels good to be with him, and to understand.

In the search to find answers to the health issues I’ve struggled with, it is not without some irony that the day before the ptarmigan season opened on Aug. 10 I got the answer.

In one fell swoop, open-heart surgery became my future, and the enormity of that truth didn’t register. I just wanted Winchester, Christine and me to make another opener. Yes, I could go, the doctor told me. I just wouldn’t be able to shoot for a few days.

Breaking from tradition, at least for me, is daunting. I’m not superstitious, but when you do things long enough for them to become traditional, it is like a train running the tracks, the process is sort of automated and things go well. When you run off the track, not so much.

The spirits of the hunt seemed unhappy with our break from tradition as the toad-strangling rain beat the windshield and we suffered through the road construction from hell on the Richardson Highway north of Glennallen.

We arrived in the alpine with enough time to get in a hunt and at least not miss the opener.

Winchester, who slumbered in the back seat for most of the drive, got up as we stopped, looked around, and came to life. His eyes got bright, and his tail thumped while he slathered my face with setter slobber.

Christine, always delighted with Winchester’s zest for the life of a gun dog, beamed. “This is why we came, he’s so happy,” she said.

And off we went, Christine with her 28 gauge and me with a camera, Winchester drawing us into his world.

It rained sideways at times with strong gusts blowing out of the north. Brief breaks in the deluge kept our spirits strong, and we wandered the rolling hills much longer than we should have. The conditions were miserable for a dog to find birds.

Winchester doesn’t seem to care if we shoot birds, but he takes it personally if he cannot find birds, and he’ll become almost frantic when it doesn’t happen,and would run himself to death in search of birds if we allowed it. We called it a day.

For years we had driven past a lodge that overlooked cabins for rent along the lakeshore below. We either camped out or continued north to stay in Delta or Fairbanks when in the Interior. With our limited and not wanting to camp in the August rains, we reserved a cabin.

Christine walked around the lodge, looking at the photos and prints adorning the walls while I finished up the paperwork for the cabin. “Are you a falconer?” she blurted to the owner, with a big smile.

Rich smiled back and said , yes, he was, and we all made a connection in that moment. Christine and I have read about falconry as there is a history of pointing dogs in collaboration with raptors for hunting.

But reading isn’t the same as talking with someone who has lived a life of it, particularly when they clearly love the birds, the dogs, the country and the totality of the experience.

While talking about the raptors, I referred to a goshawk and pronounced it “gosh hawk,” instead of “gos hawk” and also pronounced gyrfalcon with a hard “G” instead of “juhr.” I know my pronunciations are wrong and I’ve tried to correct myself with little success. First learned, first used, that sort of thing.

“Now Steve,” Rich said, “If we are going to talk about these birds, I have to insist that you pronounce their names right.”

I grinned back at him, thanked him rather sheepishly, embarrassed in the face of a man whose reverence for the process wouldn’t allow him to abide someone butchering the name of his beloved raptors. As it is supposed to be.

We had a wonderful conversation that evening that continued the following morning and found a commonality that isn’t easy to come by: That just being out there is enough.

It occurred to me that the phrase that started this column doesn’t need a shotgun to make it complete, but you gotta get out there.

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