By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
I was staring at about a thousand ducks sitting on the water when my hunting partner suggested we get closer to the lake. We’d been sitting behind the only cover for an hour and a half without moving. I watched as another flock of a hundred ducks took flight. They were just out of range and flying away from us.
I had prepared a speech of disappointment that included the question of why it was that his father, who did not advocate for hiking the only mile between two roads, kneeling in the cattails for hours or crawling through bean stubble in the rain, managed to shoot more ducks than either of us in the past five days. I heard shots from the road, further rattling my nervous system.
My buddy’s father stayed next to a small pond near the road, and I imagined he shot the only bird of the day as it flew over the pond by chance. His good fortune made all the stories of miserable waterfowl hunting look like masochism. I had crawled and stalked every piece of private property with a pond in Ransom County, N.D. At the end of the day, my buddy, who would crawl just a little farther and wait just a little longer than I did, would bring back a few ducks. His father, who preferred easy access, consistently did just a little better.
He had something else we didn’t have — a black Lab named Lady. Getting a hunting dog was an option I’d considered briefly. The only time I’d wished either of us had a dog was when my buddy shot a pair of mallards over a slough at high tide. No tactic we could think of would get us across to the muddy bank where the mallards fell. Finally, without a fishing pole or way around, we gave up. My buddy came back the next day at low tide and found only one of his two mallards, mentioning for the first time that it would be nice to have a hunting dog.
My first thought was about my white suede furniture. Sure, a dog would be nice to have in the field, but what would I do with it at home? Visions of muddy floors and clothing covered in dog hair dissuaded me. I was content to be miserable and filthy out on the flats, but I didn’t want to turn my living room into a kennel.
The next day we went pheasant hunting, our real reason for going to North Dakota. We met up with his father and his father’s hunting partner, Eddie, at a pullout near a piece of CRP (Conservation Reserve Plots). A British cocker spaniel bounded out of the truck and began sniffing the air nobly.
“This is Windsor,” Eddie said.
I reached down to pet him, but he seemed disinterested.
“He’s a pretty dog,” I said.
“Did you hear that,” Eddie said. “She called you a dog.”
Great, I thought, anthropo-morphism.
We sat on the bumpers of our respective vehicles drinking coffee and waiting for light. Lady and Windsor anxiously smelled the air, but, like the stature their names implied, behaved themselves by staying near the vehicles.
“I’m getting too old for this,” Eddie said. “I mostly hunt for Windsor.”
I couldn’t fathom getting a hunting dog only to have the circumstances change so that I became the dog’s hunting person. I shook my head at Eddie, “That seems backward to me,” I said.
We spread out. Lady would cover her owner and me while Windsor would cover my buddy and Eddie. I had never been pheasant hunting before and wondered how I would tell a rooster from a hen.
“You’ll recognize the roosters,” my buddy’s father assured me. “They’re bright-colored and they cackle.”
I wasn’t sure until it happened. I flushed a rooster two feet in front of me. I couldn’t hear the cackle over my scream. Eddie fired from the far right of the field at the same time my buddy’s father fired and the bird dropped. Windsor’s head bobbed across our line, chasing the wounded bird through the grass. He brought the bird to Eddie the way only a dog can determine whose shot was the successful one.
“What was that?” my buddy said, referring to my scream.
I was embarrassed, so I made something up.
“It’s an old Indian trick. You ‘scream ’em up.’”
“I never heard of that,” Eddie said.
He was petting Windsor’s head and putting the bird in his vest. Maybe if I had a hunting dog I wouldn’t have to come up with so many old Indian tricks, I thought.
Over the course of the morning, Windsor worked the field in front of us, jumping up so he could see over the grass. He went from one side of the line to the other, pulling a double shift, doing his job and Lady’s. I’d never seen a dog work so hard, and it was undeniable that pheasant hunting without a dog wouldn’t have been as productive. They flushed them and found them, running at least four times as much as we walked.
“Once, I’d shot my limit and was heading in, and I felt this thump on the back of my leg,” Eddie said. “Windsor had found another bird. Probably wounded and lost by another hunter.”
Windsor is a little game violator, I thought. I rubbed his sweaty head. He was a cute little game violator, though.
When I got back home I couldn’t stop thinking about Windsor’s enthusiasm. The image of his head bobbing in the field and his eagerness which drug his reluctant owner to the task.
If I got a hunting dog, I would train him not to jump on the furniture, and I’d wipe his paws before bringing
him in the house. Such were my thoughts before I brought Jack home. He was an 8-month-old chocolate Lab brought into the animal shelter by a family that could not handle his hyper behavior. Like all women before me, I thought I could change him.
My buddy also rescued a chocolate Lab about the same age. Gunner was a classic-looking hunting dog, a photogenic, near-black specimen of duck hunting strength and power. He caught on quick to retrieving. We took the two of them to a nearby lake and watched as they improved at retrieving dummies.
“Does he sleep with you?” a fellow duck hunter asked.
“No,” I said, alarmed at the thought.
“You have to let him sleep with you,” he said. “Pointers and setters are good working dogs and hunting companions, but retrievers, they’re family.”
“I don’t even let him on the furniture,” I said, looking at Jack rolling his body in the mud near a rock he’d found.
Gunner sat loyally next to my buddy as if scoffing at Jack’s unprofessionalism. I was anthropomorphizing.
That night, Jack stared at me as I lay in bed.
“No,” I said. “You’re not getting in this bed. You already have ruined the couches.”
He rested his head on the bed, putting a paw on the blanket. I moved his paw off. “No,” I said.
The next morning I met up with my buddy for another day of training. I wasn’t talking much because I didn’t know how to explain what happened. I’d gone from thinking dogs were filthy animals who should be kept outside and on leashes to owning one of the most imposing representatives of its breed.
“I slept with Jack,” I said.
Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. She can be reached at email@example.com.