Breaking a new trail on 2022

“Penny for your thoughts,” Christine said.

Rigby, exhibiting the eternal Labrador retriever optimism that insists every uttered word is an opportunity for a treat, got up from his bed in the back of the van, filling the space between the front seats, shoved his big nose under my arm and when I risked a quick glance from the windshield, he gave me “the look.” I shook my head and told him, “No treats, mom says you’re fat.”

We were driving back from the mountains, having been on our first hunt after my heart surgery. Six weeks on the other side of quadruple bypass surgery, we were celebrating the cardiologist’s advice from the day before, which was, “Go ahead and push it.”

Plenty of ways to push physical activity, but not many would be better than snowshoeing into the mountains in January when the snow has yet to form a crust. It would be a test.

The first few winters we had Winchester, we hunted all winter, his prey drive overrode any sense of self-preservation, and we loved watching him use his nose to search for white birds in a mostly white landscape. There were times, when snow conditions and temperatures were right, that he would have snowballs the size of baseballs hanging off the backs of his legs, his feathered rear end, and even his tail. He didn’t pay them much attention except when we periodically called him in to crush them up with needle-nose pliers, which annoyed him.

He would run the mountains and plow through snow that would have been waist-deep on us without snowshoes. His tail never stopped wagging, and he would find ptarmigan. One time we had climbed up to a mountain valley, where a lake occupied most of the valley floor. Winchester lit out across the frozen expanse, a foot of fresh powder flying in his wake. About 600 yards out, he slammed on the brakes and pointed.

This happened early in his career, and we didn’t really understand the extent of his gifts, so we were skeptical. There appeared to be no reason a bird would be out in the middle of the lake. It took a while for us to reach him, and as we approached, we couldn’t see anything in front of him. “No bird,” Christine said to Winchester. He glanced at her with a look that we would grow to appreciate. It meant, “Not my fault if you can’t see it, but it’s there.”

Thinking we better humor him, we started past him and were maybe 15 feet off his nose when three ptarmigan burst from the snow. Caught off-guard, we didn’t fire a shot, but he found them again, in some willows along the lake, and we were ready and shot two of the three.

I don’t know how many trips we made like that, but as Winchester got older and we hunted with Parker and his pups who couldn’t do what he did, we reevaluated. Maybe we were asking too much of our gun dogs.

After that realization, we refrained from hunting the mountains until there was a crust on the snow that would hold the dogs. Then a few years ago, we started prebreaking trails.

Climbing in the deep powder is where the dogs burn so much energy; thus, we figured breaking a good trail by snowshoe into areas we wanted to hunt beforehand would allow the setters to get into ptarmigan country with energy left to hunt.

I suppose one might look at that as an awful lot of work just to hunt a few small birds with your bird dogs. Except that there are no bad times snowshoeing into the high country. The air is clean and crisp, the snow is beautiful, there are mysteries written out in footprints everywhere you go. Your choice to try and figure them out.

There is no pressure to get somewhere. Taken in the right frame of mind, it’s like taking a walk anywhere, except it is a whole lot prettier and presents a kind of solitude that is difficult to find anywhere else.

When I got the green light to go, Rigby was the natural choice for a trail-breaking canine companion. Young, full of energy, thinks everything he might do with his people is a party, and yes, he is chubby. His English Labrador genetics destined him to be big, but when your Labrador sits sideways, as they do, and looks like a walrus, he needs to lose a little weight.

So, we loaded up one recent Saturday morning, happy to have a break in the weather, with 30-degree temperatures and a break in precipitation. Crossing the Kenai River at Kenai Lake and looking to the right, the open water contained a menagerie of wildfowl. Swans, goldeneyes, mallards, and mergansers all frolicked about, clearly having a lovely day and a harbinger for our prospects.

When we bailed off into the deep powder, there was no doubt the day would be a test. Rigby made a valiant effort to break trail, but his enormous size had him floundering, even when following in our path. But you would be hard-pressed to find a happier dog. He loves the snow.

Taking turns breaking trail and having Rigby riding the backs of our snowshoes, we climbed. Along the way we noticed sporadic foot trails left by ptarmigan who, true to their nature of being “here today and gone tomorrow” were already gone. But, they would be back, with some luck when we have Hugo along to point them.

A bench around a thousand feet up had beckoned to us from the start, and we stopped just shy of it. Rigby had begun showing signs of tuckering out, and we didn’t want to risk it ceasing to be fun for the walrus.

Heading home, a movement on the side of the road caught my eye. A coyote or a lynx, I told Christine, as we slowed hoping to get a better look. As we came to a stop across from where I saw the movement, a lynx hunkered down behind a snowbank. I asked Christine to dig out my camera, and she said, “It’s running off, no way you’ll get a chance for a photo.”

We were each looking at a different animal. It turned out there were three of them, likely a young family still supporting each other. Being curious animals, they cooperated with my getting out and approaching them for a few photos. Rigby showed no interest in chasing cats.

With those thoughts, I replied to Christine’s question, “Due to inflation, my thoughts are now worth somewhere around fifty bucks, but your credit is good. I think this day is the first good sign that maybe things will get better. I’m going to hang on to that thought and do my best to make it so.”

Steve Meyer

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting.