Category Archives: Common Ground

Common Ground: Bird (dog) is the word

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Communication is key in training bird dogs — once you learn to speak their particular language.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Communication is key in training bird dogs — once you learn to speak their particular language.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

Bird dogs are sophisticated in the way they understand words. Just as the ancient Greeks recognized six different varieties of the word “love,” a bird dog recognizes many different meanings for a number of simple commands. They will sometimes cock their heads when “No” is yelled because they are not sure which of the word’s 126 meanings is intended.

“How,” they muse, “are we supposed to know how to satisfy a command when humans have not moved beyond their limited vocabulary?” Trans-species communication can transcend many barriers, but the biggest hurdle identified by eight out of 10 bird dogs is “multiple word meanings.” The other two dogs identify “overuse of the exclamation point in basic dog commands.” This survey was performed using homemade ginger treats and may not reflect the views of all dogs.

“Sit,” the first command taught to many dogs, comes from the Old English “sittan,” meaning “to occupy a seat, be seated, sit down, seat oneself; remain, continue; settle, encamp, occupy; lie in wait; besiege.” It can also mean to be inactive, withhold applause, to do nothing or to sit pretty. It’s no wonder the word causes confusion.

Many dogs will lie down and fall asleep in order to demonstrate the word’s Proto-Germanic origins. The word can be frightening, as it involves a lack of action. It would stress me out to be commanded to, “Do nothing!” while my back end was pushed down and I was offered a treat. Given the word’s etymology, I wouldn’t know if I was supposed to put my butt on the floor or run for office.

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Common Ground: Take your ‘time’ in adventures

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Time takes on a different meaning in the outdoors.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Time takes on a different meaning in the outdoors.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

We had been on the boat for 11 hours when the captain suggested we stay out longer and fish for king salmon. We had already caught a limit of halibut. That was the plan for the day. I had agreed to fish for halibut. No one had once mentioned fishing for kings or spending more than 11 hours on a boat. I briefly felt that I’d been kidnapped. While the three others assembled the down riggers necessary to fish for kings, I mentally began to fashion means of escape by assembling an array of useful objects.

Dare I ask, I wondered, how long we were going to be out? The invite to go fishing only had a start time. I’d failed to ascertain when the party would end. These uncoordinated expectations could cause three people to be having the time of their lives, while the person who didn’t pack three square snacks (me) to be like Daffy Duck sizing up the others for a meal.

The more time I spend outdoors on uncoordinated fishing expeditions, the more I realize that the clock on the wall at the office is no longer valid. Time in numbers is meaningless in the outdoors. Even the terms used to describe time cannot be taken literally. Based on my experience working in offices, time is very literal to me. It’s not just the hours and minutes. There is lunchtime and break time and other designated times. All of that was clearly out the window, since the boat didn’t have a window. We were on fishing time, and that was a very scary form of timekeeping. Because I care about my fellow human beings who may count time as I do, it is necessary to share some of the things I’ve learned about declarations of time in the outdoors.

  • Early. If you ask what time we will be leaving the next morning and the answer is “early,” beware! Early is an adverb, not a noun, and it is closer to the word “soon” than “morning.” Some people think 8 a.m. is early. It is not. Early can be any time after midnight.

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Common Ground: Always on the Hugo

Photos courtesy of Christine Cunningham.

Photos courtesy of Christine Cunningham.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

There’s something about Hugo that is ancient and spirited at the same time. He even has an old, sagging right eye with white lashes and a young, daring left eye with brown lashes. When he stares out the truck window, he hunts the ravens flying down the road and the songbirds bursting from the bushes. He is hitchhiking across the Alaska roadways even before daylight because he believes there’s a chance in every moment. While my mind drifts and describes the things I see, he goes to them directly with eyes, nose and body, until he is pressed against the windshield as a grouse flies low across the highway.

“Spruce grouse,” my partner says.

He’s driving and more aware of the road and its travelers than I am. If a dog could talk, he might be the same kind of conversationalist as my partner. Especially a pointing dog, I imagine. They would tend to point things out. As a backseat passenger, Winchester might be the kid who reads signs along the highway. His black-and-white coloring and stylish repose give him the smart looks of a dog that might read. He might peer up through his bifocals and say, “Spruce grouse.”

While the younger, more enthusiastic Hugo would vault over my seat just the way he did, slamming into the windshield. “Spruce grouse!” he’d yell, like it was Bigfoot in the flesh or a woman in a red dress. He’d walk smack into a light pole just to have a look.

Steady to wing and shot Hugo was not. His pointing technique was to pin his quarry into the ground. “It counts,” he seemed to think.

“He’s road hunting,” I said. “We’ve never had a dog that hunted the road before.”

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Common Ground: Duck disdressed — Don’t let bird brains use long johns against you

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Two widgeon with one shot is a far sight better than the view from a lawn chair.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Two widgeon with one shot is a far sight better than the view from a lawn chair.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

The weather was the worst I’d ever seen it — blue skies and warm enough to get a fall tan. That might be good for the complexion, but not for duck hunting. Even worse than the magnificent weather was the fact that the flats were dry. There weren’t any ponds, and ducks like ponds.

I was on a three-day hunt at a remote duck shack where I was supposed to be wet, cold, miserable and so exhausted by the end of the day that a cracker with butter on it would taste like a New York steak. Instead, I was hanging out on a lawn chair by a tidal slough in my long johns with the overly optimistic hope for a shot at passing ducks.

“This kind of sucks,” I said to my hunting partner. It had been two hours of walking and then two hours of sitting with nary a duck in shooting range.

“Yep,” my hunting partner said.

“I’m going to walk up to the shack and get another snack,” I said. The last time I’d left for a snack, ducks had flown by. It was a phenomenon. Or, if it wasn’t a phenomenon, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that the ducks were waiting around the bend laughing at me.

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Common Ground: Don’t mind man’s best friend

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Remember — man’s best friend doesn’t have the mind of a man, though he won’t mind of you forget the distinction.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Remember — man’s best friend doesn’t have the mind of a man, though he won’t mind of you forget the distinction.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

Dog behaviorists caution us not to assign human thoughts and feelings to our canines. It’s dangerous, they say in books on the subject, to treat dogs as if they have human reasons for doing things.

As I read the examples recently, I realized that a dog behaviorist could get a lot of material at my house. Not only did I practice all of the examples, I had a few more that were even more ridiculous. My anthropomorphism (the projecting of human characteristics on nonhuman entities) was difficult for me to realize at first. Ironically, I had to think like a dog in order to not think my dog was thinking like a human.

My favorite motive to falsely assign to my unsuspecting dogs is revenge. If they do something bad, such as poo in the house while I’ve been gone too long, it is because they want revenge. Upon further investigation, it turns out that dogs do not think of poo as a disgusting tool of revenge. They think of it as a wonder of nature, a secondary food source in survival situations, and an object of fascination for dogs and humans alike. The fact that I go into their yard and collect poo tells them that it is highly valuable. What I think of as a disastrous mess, they think of as presents. I do not know what to do about this revelation.

I also tend to think my dogs feel guilt when they do something wrong. Why else would the guilty party make the classic guilt face when I ask, “Who ate the entire ham?”

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Common Ground: Flighty dating habits of the willow ptarmigan

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Willow ptarmigan can play hard to get during mating season. But don’t ptake it ptersonally.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Willow ptarmigan can play hard to get during mating season. But don’t ptake it ptersonally.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

My recent experience volunteering for a spring ptarmigan survey has given me cause to consider the dating habits of these territorial creatures. I am constantly asked questions about what I have learned. Here are the most common questions and answers:

  • Why do male ptarmigan wait up to a week to call after a great date?

If this occurs during mating season, the reason is often because the female is in the territory of another male. He may have been chased off by another territorial male or is busy defending his own area. Ptarmigan are not afraid to appear pushy or overeager, so it is a mistake to assume he is not interested. They are also not worried about commitment, as they are comfortable with infidelity, and believe that the females should look on with interest should they approach another female. The grass may be greener on the other side, but only if that grass is not within the boundary of another territorial male.

  • Why do male ptarmigan make plans to “talk later” and then never follow up?

Male ptarmigan are known to “spin out” on their female counterparts. It doesn’t mean they are ambivalent. It does not mean they are not ready to form a pair relationship. Of the three ptarmigan species (rock, willow and white tail), the willow ptarmigan is the least likely to play games. If he planned to talk later, he meant it. He just doesn’t have the brain capacity to tell time. Their memory is episodic at best, and it’s not clear whether they know how much time has passed.

  • Why does he always talk so much about his accomplishments and how important he is?

Male willow ptarmigan develop a beautiful cape of chestnut red feathers beginning in May. The hens are not as good-looking. Male ptarmigan know that the truth hurts and they would rather say something nice (about themselves) than say something unkind about the less-striking physique and coloring of the hen in comparison. He also believes that his social status and financial portfolio are features that will make him more attractive to women.

  • Why won’t he introduce me to his family?

The reproductive urge makes male ptarmigan less tolerant of each other. They will help care for their chicks and may even take over all family responsibilities if the hen is killed. But they are not that into their parents. There’s a fable from the Jewish tradition that expresses the way love works for the ptarmigan rather well, “The love of the parents goes to their children; the love of these children goes to their children.” The male ptarmigan doesn’t introduce hens to his family either because they might be dead or he forgot about them.

Male ptarmigan territorial activity is greatest at dusk and dawn, much like the common American male human. Once they establish a territory, they are not likely to change their area, making them poor candidates for long-distance relationships. They will often sit within sight of another male and the two will stare across their mutual boundary much like a pair of grumpy old men. It’s a wonder the female ptarmigan have any interest in them at all. I’m not trying to make excuses for their behavior, I’m just glad I never have to date one.

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. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing. She can be reached at christineemal@hotmail.com. For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.

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Common Ground: Crazy for ice fishing — Causation or correlation? No matter, as long as you catch vindication

Photos courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Christine Cunningham, left, and Ruth Cusack pose with the morning’s ice-fishing catch.

Photos courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Christine Cunningham, left, and Ruth Cusack pose with the morning’s ice-fishing catch.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

A light appeared in the darkness behind us. It was someone wearing a headlamp. My pace quickened.

“We’ve got company,” I said.

My fishing partner and I had arrived hours before daylight to get our spot and were taking two friends who had never been to the lake before. I had forgone precious sleep and a latte to get up before coffee shops opened to claim my spot on the lake. I was hauling a sled that weighed 70 pounds and was two miles into a three-mile hike. The thought of not having my sleep or coffee and still not getting my fishing hole flashed before my eyes. Panic set in.

“Is there a problem?” my friend asked.

“That headlamp has been gaining on us,” I said. “We better pick up our pace.”

I tried to pick up my pace, but it was as effective as trying to pick up a Volkswagen. My cc ice fishing 2heart rate quickened, my lean gained a few degrees, but my pace did not change. Maybe the sled weighed 80 pounds, I thought. I’d have to weigh it when I got home.

“If we get passed, we won’t get our spot,” I said.

“Is there only one spot?” my friend asked. In my mind, there was only one spot, but I hadn’t really thought it through. I hadn’t rationalized it.

“Yes,” I said, without any authority. Even as I said it, I wondered if it was really true. I’d fished that same spot for years, but how did I get to the idea it was the only spot? And how did I get to the assumption that the headlight behind us was worn by another ice fisherman who was heading to the exact same spot?

“Are people really this serious about ice fishing?” she asked. At the moment, I was leaned almost perpendicular to the ground trying to haul my sled over a log. I didn’t have time to stop being crazy to explain why I was crazy. We had to get to the spot first and ask questions later. She offered to run ahead with my fishing partner. But the headlamp walked by us leisurely.

“Good morning,” it said.

“Good morning,” I grumbled.

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