As this November brings the first lasting snow along with real cold in negative temperatures that seem to pull the heat out of you, I find myself early to reflect on the fall hunting season.
Although there are plenty of open hunting seasons left and, according to the calendar on my wall, fall runs from September 22 to December 21, this recent cold snap feels more like January than November.
Some say Alaska has two seasons — winter and the Fourth of July. Maybe it’s because their life spans are shorter than ours that bird dog seasons seem to have less to do with a calendar year than the whole of their lives in consideration of human constraints and conditions. And, the seasons of a bird dog’s life weigh more heavily in favor of fall when they are able to live their best lives.
Although, based on their various states of repose around a woodstove, our six English setters and two Labradors give the impression that a day off is not too much of an imposition.
This fall, Rigby enjoyed the spring of his life and lifted our spirits with his joy at everything new and possible.
Five of our English setters, all born from the same litter and seven years old, are still in the summer of their lives. They are energetic and vault down stairs or run wide open fields with abandon. We have gotten to know each of their quirks by now, and if they still have something to learn, they might have to unlearn two other things first.
Winchester, at 11 years old, is in the autumn of his life. We have a painting of him in his prime that looks over us in our living room. It reminds us, in case we ever forget, how riveted we once were to watch him cover a mountain valley, its green carpet alive with crowberry blossoms leading to vast moraines worn by water trickling from a heavenly plateau, full of promise.
Cheyenne, our oldest dog, is a chocolate Labrador with white fur around her muzzle and between her paw pads. She is no longer interested in running or jumping, but she watches the room as well as she can see it and enjoys the sound of our voices when we are close enough to hear.
As if embodying the quiet of winter, she rests in her favorite corner bed and regards the rest of the household as disturbing her privacy. When Steve hands out dog treats, she lifts her head. After the other dogs line up and sit for their tidbits, with Colt and Rigby getting back in line for a chance at seconds, Steve walks over and gives Cheyenne her treat in bed.
As I watch the dogs sleep and listen to them snore mid-morning, I think of winter as a state of mind and invitation to reflect. I ponder the so-called “winter of our discontent,” which is often misunderstood to mean unfortunate times when the actual meaning of the phrase penned by William Shakespeare was that unhappy times are in the past.
Rigby jumps on the couch and flops his 100-pound body next to mine. He’s chewing an antler with an affable nature that seems like an old friend sidling up next to you to show support and solidarity without need for a word.
This summer, he met a woman on a trail who knelt to greet him, and it surprised Steve and me when Rigby shied away. “He’s just still a pup,” Steve said.
“You are a COVID baby then,” she said as she scratched his ears, which made Rigby wag his tail. She went on to tell us about a friend’s “COVID pup” who was not properly socialized.
I hadn’t thought about it until then, but it seemed that Rigby did not meet as many people as our other dogs had when they were pups. Instead, we spent most of his first summer on lesser-known trails where he retrieved his favorite toy we always packed with us and ran through quiet fields of flowers.
It was like one of those enchanted young lives spent on an island far from civilization with the kind of family that builds elaborate tree dog houses, has mountain picnics, and spends days full of discovery with the occasional visit from an ordinary child outside the world of Neverland.
Steve and I did not seriously hunt big game this year or go out of state. Unlike previous years, we didn’t fly out to remote camps or leave the dogs for extended amounts of time with their favorite “aunt” to watch over them.
Maybe, because of this prolonged insulation from the outer world, Rigby grew a stronger bond with us than the other dogs. It might be his nature, but when I reflect on the past few decades living and hunting with dogs, I can’t think of another year so focused on getting away just for peace of mind in good company.
Rigby brought an added delight to places we had seen before and got to show him for the first time. He encountered bunnies and black bears on trails in June, slid down mountaintop snowbanks in July, ate wild blueberries in August, retrieved his first ducks and ptarmigan in September and his first goose and many mallards in October.
Despite that there is much to lament and grieve, I’ll remember this year and fall most as Rigby’s first hunting season — the spring of his life when everything was new. The winter of our discontent was “made glorious summer” — the often-forgotten words following the expression in Shakespeare’s play — by a Labrador’s good cheer.
Heading into actual winter, a time that may offer rest and consideration of what is still possible, I look forward to the seasons of Rigby’s life and his everyday joy that makes everything else just weather.