The dogs know; they always do. I pull on the worn brush pants, the canvas shirt, the leather boots and the dogs know I’m going to hunt. They watch with ageless eyes; deep amber eyes, seemingly all-knowing. I case the shotgun; they stand at my feet, Thor and Riika, my two hunters. I find the collar, the whistle; look around the room to see if I’ve forgotten anything. The dogs wait, eyes bright, tails wagging. They know; they always do.
They are hunters, Thor and Riika. They love the hunt; the formal ceremony of pre-hunt preparation, the drive down dusty roads in the time of autumn. And they love time in the woods, noses seeking scent as their kind has done since the dawn of their time; seeking scent and the source of that scent, the grouse and the woodcock and whatever bird that takes rise ahead of them. They have no choice but to hunt; that desire is so deep in their heart and their blood and their DNA that there is no other way for them.
We had hunted the day prior, a morning heavy with humidity that lay like a weight upon the land even as the sun rose. We saw birds, a few, but no shots. The dogs ran hard.
We rise now to a cooler dawning; sun rising but air near chill. And the dogs know; it is a day for the hunt.
I walk to the kitchen, shotgun in one hand, gear ready, truck keys and coffee cup making an awkward handful. Then I open the door, let Thor out, turn to Riika and tell her to stay. Then I close the door on Riika.
She has hunted with me on every one of her years. She hunted when she was too young, only 6 or 7 months old, but she hunted still and she found birds that other dogs could not find. Everything we knew said she was too young but nothing about Riika fit the pattern. She hunted from the time she could stand and run and fill her nose with scent.
She ran wild for in those early years, ignoring my pleas to come and to stay. She would run into deep woods and I would hear her barking and hear the barking fade to silence and I would stand there, gun in hand and whistle mute at my lips. I would stand and wait and fear for her.
She would come back, always. She would be muddy and she would be scratched and cut and she would rest at my feet and roll her eyes back to meet mine. She would rest. Then she would hunt again.
I have hunted more years without dogs than I have with dogs, more without than I suspect I will ever hunt with them. Riika was really the first I had; Thor came two years later. I have hunted with them now for near a dozen years since Riika was a puppy and too young, really, to hunt.
There were times when I left Riika at home, days when she was lame from ache or cut or pulled muscle; days when she was treated for Lymes. And on those days she would walk to the door and look at me with the eyes of one betrayed by one that they had trusted. I would feel sick at heart even though I knew it was the right thing.
There were times of injury or illness when she stayed home. But never was there a day when I did not hunt her because she was too old to go for more than one day.
On this morning I left her because she is too old now and I know that if I take her she will run as her wild heart tells her to run and I know that I cannot ask that of her. I took Thor, younger by a brace of years and still able to go.
We loaded the truck and I climbed in, started it and turned to look behind me as I backed up. And when I turned I saw Riika in the window. It was dark inside the house and she blended with the shadow but I could see the gray-white on her muzzle; only that, the gray hair on the face of my dog as she watched me pull away. Was it my imagination or did I see the spark in her eyes as well?
Thor hunted hard. He does not have the drive that Riika does but he loves the hunt nonetheless. We pushed into thick cuts of young popple and birch and balsam and we put up woodcock on a morning as beautiful as anything you could imagine. I watched Thor as he turned sharply, angled into deep brush, ran 30 yards and put up a woodcock. The bird rose steeply on whistling wings then veered into cover before I could shoot.
Then another. Another. We pushed half a dozen birds in the first fifteen minutes of the hunt and I never put the gun to my shoulder; it was still too thick with leaf for a clear shot. But watching a dog work the woods for birds, that alone is reward enough.
Thor flushed the next bird from fern and sapling and it rose at an angle then leveled off and I killed it. The bird folded its wings and fell as a book is closed with finality at the end of a story.
I do not know if I will buy another dog after these two are gone. They can be a handful and a headache and a bother and a devilment. And those are the good ones; the ones that aren’t like that aren’t worth the effort. But I do not know if I will go on with dogs.
I thought of that as I walked to where the bird fell. I think of that often this season. I called Thor to where I thought the bird had come to earth. It was thick with fern and balsam and weed. Somewhere in this was the bird. I looked, bending the fern back as I bent over, looking at the ground. Thor moved a ways off and seemed interested but did not bring out the bird.
I went to where he was and looked close and after a moment or two if saw the bird; it was lying tight to a small tree and the feathers on its back matched the fallen leaf and the light and the shadow and I knew as certain as I was standing there that I would never have found the bird had Thor not been there.
That’s happened a lot in the past years; birds have fallen like ash from a fallen star and blended so well that I could not see them. The dogs have found them. I never would have.
I hefted the bird and thought to myself, To shoot a bird and never find it is a sin and a crime and for this the dogs are worth everything and if I do not have a dog can I really hunt the way I wish to? I held the bird to the light of the day and thought of this. Then I pocket the bird and Thor and I hunted.
We hunted for 2 more hours and never killed another bird. Thor hunted hard and well and I am proud of him. We drove home under a high sun that lit the yellow leaf as if it has fire inside. I drove slowly and took it all in.
I drove down the street where we live and pulled into the driveway and shut the truck down. I looked at Thor who sat in the passenger seat and I told him he did well and then I looked past him, looked past him to the house and the dark window.
It is dark behind the window and for a moment all I saw was the black shadow. Then I saw a movement and I focus on it and I saw it for what it is; the gray-white hair on Riika’s muzzle as she sat alone at the window and watched Thor and I come home from the hunt.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.