Outdoors/Adventure

In which Rigby travels to Interior Alaska as a lapdog and returns home as a duck dog

Our gear was packed the night before. It has been our tradition to wake up ready to go hunting on opening day. The only thing we did before leaving the house was make a pot of coffee.

The moon lit the clear sky. Even though my favorite opening days are as dark as the inside of a cow, as Steve is fond of saying, we weren’t heading to the nearby flats.

Instead, we faced nine hours of light traffic before we reached our destination. The opening-day tides were small and the ponds were mostly dry on the Kenai River Flats. There was still every chance that ducks would fly downriver or pass over our favorite blind, and some surely did while we were on the road headed to Interior Alaska.

Some days come once a year, and some days only come once. This opening day would be Rigby’s first chance to go from lapdog to duck dog. I tried not to overthink it and kept an eye out for moose along the highway.

The construction along the Richardson Highway was as bad as we remembered. Nightly blasting created a roadside canyon to generate materials for a reconstruction project, and mining trucks with tires twice as tall as our van hauled rock and churned dust.

Rigby slept through the rumble, his head resting on the edge of his dog bed behind our seats. He didn’t get up when we turned onto the Denali Highway — nothing but the crackle of a wrapper seemed to rouse him on this trip. We had to wake him at our final destination near a lake around 3 in the afternoon.

There was no point in questioning the unorthodoxy of starting the waterfowl season this late in the day.

The lake appeared calm, with no ducks in sight.

Rigby ran to the edge and began plopping his feet in the water before swimming along the shore.

“They’ll just think he’s a beaver,” Steve said, referring to the imaginary ducks that could be watching our every move.

From the road, the country looks like a tapestry of red berry and amber-colored carpets, as if you could run out into it, arms wide like Julie Andrews singing “The Hills are Alive.”

The reality was rolling tangles of waist-high willow, lichens, and berries growing on shifting rocks and sinking marsh.

Rigby plowed through brush and crashed into the lake again as the two of us whispered our plans. We would circle and drop down near a raft of ducks along the backshore.

“Maybe they will think he’s a tolling dog and swim over,” I said as I watched Rigby perform another delightful display of splashing.

Dog-training experts or die-hard duck hunters may not subscribe to our casual approach. Professionals might also point out that Rigby in no way resembles a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever or the red fox that inspired the breed, bred to lure ducks into range by working the shoreline.

Serious as we were about hunting, what mattered most to us was Rigby.

It’s hard to guess what he understood about our intentions, but I knew we would never have another first duck hunt with him. That didn’t pressure me as much as make me pay more attention.

Any skills we didn’t bring with us, we could work on later. One of my favorite things about duck hunting is it keeps you in the present moment. Let your thoughts take you away and a flock of wigeon whistle by, teal slip beneath your view, pintail fly high overhead.

I’ve never understood hunters who yell if the dog does something unplanned. The hunter might do 10 things wrong and never know it or let it slide. But a dog is my conscience, and Rigby is a good one.

A group of five widgeon drifted into sight. The wind seemed to push them our way gently, and they sailed to the left and right as if viewing us with cautionary interest.

“They see us,” I said. Rigby stood near me, streaming water and watching the ducks.

Just as they came to the edge of my shooting range, about 40 yards, they seemed to pause. Rigby made a sudden dash for the lake.

His first duck lay in the water ahead of him, and I don’t remember my shot. I just remember watching him swim toward the duck. I might have been holding my breath, but I was also taking in as much detail as I could — his roly-poly body propelled by strong legs and big webbed feet, the water pushed ahead of him with strings of grass trailing.

He grabbed the widgeon, and we cheered. Then he let it go for a moment, staring at it and treading water. When he grabbed it again, we cheered.

He swam to us with the bird gently in his mouth and dropped it on the shore. We needed to work on bringing the bird to hand, but when you are a sap for your dog who just retrieved his first duck, what he did right is more than good enough.

I ruffed his wet ears and soaked in his Labrador goodness as he seemed proud and ready to go again.

The following day the three of us woke up in the dark with no electricity to light our movements. It felt more like an opening day. Nothing rose to the level of conversation, and Rigby watched us as if reading Braille.

On his second day as a duck dog, he retrieved five ducks — three widgeon, one green-winged teal and a pintail.

The last duck, a widgeon, was his longest retrieve, and at first, he couldn’t see it on the water. Steve waded out with him as I watched from shore. The two of them in the water — a man and his dog — nearly had me in tears.

I don’t know all there is to know about duck hunting, dog training, shotguns or birds, even though people will sometimes ask me how to do things, where to find birds, or what is the best.

The one thing I know for sure right now is something I probably knew from the start. Loving a dog is the best, and learning to do something together has all the ingredients for happiness built right into it.

Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.

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