Rigby now weighs more than 100 pounds. He is a powerful force when he runs toward me with the ball or stick that I throw for him to retrieve. I have a flash of fear that this brown bear of a dog might crash into me and crush me with his cargo.
We don’t call grizzlies “chocolate bears,” so it must be the sweetness of Labradors that makes them deserve the name of a confection.
In September, Rigby will be 11 months old. His puppyhood during difficult times has seemed longer than those of the other dogs we’ve raised, and I wonder why that is.
“Maybe,” Steve said, “we were just more about ourselves back then.”
He was talking about the way we used to start each waterfowl season with obsessive zeal. We would wake up at 3 a.m. so we were the first ones to the flats even though shooting light wasn’t until 6:23 a.m.
I wonder how many other productive wetlands have several vehicles packed with camouflaged hunters drinking coffee two hours before the opening of duck hunting season. For the first time it occurred to me this year that as much as so many of us strive to be the first, how sad it would be if that parking lot were empty.
The first few years I went duck hunting with Steve, we didn’t have a dog with us. Gunner and Jack, two chocolate Labs, were adults when they came to us. Our first Lab puppy, Cheyenne, seemed to grow up in the flash of four photographs that are still moving.
Cheyenne, the runt of a litter, is no bigger than my hands the day we brought her home. A week later, she drags a muddy widgeon larger than she is across the boat launch parking lot. We pose her in a layout blind with brand new decoys as bright as her eyes. Then she’s a year old, sniffing Winchester, our new puppy, while he shivers in a towel next to Steve, who holds him to keep him warm after his first and last attempt at swimming.
“Make lots of photos” is good advice for stretching out memories. Maybe our lack of photography skills back then contributed to how few details we could remember about Cheyenne before she started her first season with us.
I search my mind for those harder-to-find, undocumented memories that I can feel in my bones. If I close my eyes and imagine sitting in a duck blind, Gunner, our first hunting partner, is next to me, alert and serious. His dark brown fur is wet. The water runs a familiar line from his ear to his neck. He never shivers or whines.
It is difficult to imagine Rigby as powerfully present in the duck blind, even if he is always on my mind and, if nearby, full of joy at my feet or in my lap.
We’ve taken him to the flats a few times as the waterfowl season approaches, so he can learn and teach us patience.
A friend commented on a recent photo of Rigby: “You can tell by his eyes and head attitude that his mind is fixed on his purpose in life. Power in a kindly body.”
I love this comment because it reflects the perfect composure and beauty of a duck dog. But if a photo is worth a thousand words, some of them might be lies.
Sure, Rigby is a big dog, and he is the kindest dog I’ve ever gotten to know. But a photo is snapped in 1/200 of a second. My memory from the much longer evening barely registers the single frame that garnered speculation about Rigby’s serious gun-dog looks. Instead, I remember his joy at wallowing in the first brackish pond. I’ve never seen a pig do such a thing, but I guess they might delight with similar sounds of contentment.
Once we got to the duck blind, I figured we would practice sitting there for a half-hour before throwing a dummy for Rigby to retrieve.
Rigby figured 1/200 of a second was long enough to wait.
Before we left the blind, Rigby had retrieved the dummy dozens of times, covered us both in mud and attempted to rob us of all our jerky.
On the way back to the truck, I sat on a favorite old log to take in the ocean breeze. This washed-up tree had been out there a long time and was covered in new green growth. For the first time, grass grew in the place I often sit.
I pulled out my notebook as I remembered the ducks Steve had laid out across the log for a photo at the end of the day. Gunner had retrieved a rare limit of mallards, wigeon and teal. He was proud because we were — his look, powerful and kindly in the day’s last light.
Cheyenne, our old lady of a Lab, now retired, retrieved a single widgeon once after a long day of jump shooting. It was all we had to show for a few bluebird days of hunting. We stopped at this same spot, and she would not sit for a photo. The best we got was her peering through the branches with the duck out of the frame. Those branches are mostly gone now.
Just as the poetry of the evening was waxing its way through my mind, Rigby plopped down at my feet, splashing mud into my face and knocking me back into the wet grass.
More than anything, Rigby makes us laugh. A girlfriend calls him our mental health dog because he came into our lives when things seemed to be falling apart. And he is full of floppy joy and oafish charm.
He won’t know, as our other dogs seem to, that a single day each year holds a kind of magic. While students start the first day of school and perhaps write papers on their summer vacation or what fall means to them, many things have changed, will always change, and a few will stay the same.
I stand at the fridge and look at the schedule that hasn’t changed in a decade — the one that tells us when shooting light starts and ends. Steve looks at the tide book to report that the flats won’t flood in the next few months, which means the ponds won’t fill.
Rigby doesn’t know what to expect, and I wonder what it will be like to start all over again — this time, knowing how much it means to slow down and make the most of each moment.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.