My dogs have borne the brunt of the long, cold winter. The snow has been too deep to run them; the cold too penetrating to take them to the field. The months have run together and the days form an unbroken chain from early November when we last hunted together to now, mid April, a time that should be full-on spring.
The dogs can usually run free again in March when the snow begins to fade as the days grow longer and the sun warms the snow and crust forms to bear the dogs’ weight. We take them to the fields and to the woods and they run free and wild and full of the craziness that spring brings. They breathe deep of the intoxicating air and it fuels them and they run crazy.
But not this year.
This has been the year that has redefined winter. Back in December, people talked heartily of “an old fashioned winter” but that merry talk was gone in January, lost in the bitter cold that never let loose. We did not know in January that we were only starting on a long sled ride that would seem never to end.
The dogs did what they could. They went outside in the brutal cold, all three of them: Riika, Thor and Fenway. Fenway without an ounce of fat on him, a puppy in his first winter and in the company of the big dogs and into the subzero world. Fenway never did realize that he was not the same as the other two dogs so he went out with them, shivered and quacked, tried to stand on three legs, two. But he never turned back at the door; he never stayed inside when the big dogs went out.
Riika and Thor went out but neither enjoyed it. The yard was too small, the snow too deep, the cold too harsh. They grew heavy and shaggy of coat; they seemed to lack any true enthusiasm and found no joy this winter. Day after day and week after week and month to month; we did not take the dogs out.
Last weekend I did; finally. On Sunday, I rummaged in the backroom and found their collars, the ones they wear in the hunting woods. I’d not had them out since November but when I lifted the two collars the bells on each collar rang clear and when Riika and Thor heard the sound of the bell they ran to me.
It’s funny on that; even after all the months they remember. When they heard the bells they knew for the sound of the bell is, to them, the sound of the woods and the sound of the hunt and the sound of a wildness.
I collared the two of them; Fenway had come with them, curious but aware that if the big dogs were excited that he should be as well. But we were not ready to take him out so Sally got a leash and a small collar and took him for a walk which he thought was very special indeed.
I opened the door and stood back as Thor and Riika ran full bore down the steps and across the yard and back to me, dancing on their feet, their eyes wide and bright; they knew that they were going to the woods and in the woods they come to life as no other time and no other place.
It was a short drive on a pleasant afternoon with the feel of spring in the air. We went to a place we go to often and the dogs recognized where we were and whined with excitement. I do not know how they do that, how they come to know where we are. But they do. They know. And when they recognize where we are they are animated and eager to go.
I pulled over, turned off the truck and, after a moment, opened the door and let the twosome out. They leap from the truck and hit the ground at race pace.
Gone is the memory of the long months of a harsh winter. Forgotten on this afternoon are the days of cold and ice and the long dark nights that tormented all in the north. Gone, those; today there is only spring air and open space.
They are getting old, the two of them. Their age shows in the graying muzzles and eyebrows and eyes that at times are tired and sad. I see the weight of the years that settle in the legs of Riika; on most days now she limps with the ache of tired joints and too many days of hard hunts. She never slowed down; she always ran with a passion and a heat in a heart that burned hard and hot.
Now she is old and I cannot deny that. But on this day it all falls away, all the years and all the aches and on this day in her eyes I see the bright light of optimism at the edges of a dark night. She does not know that she cannot run forever; she does not share the history of those who have come before her. I know all of this and for this I feel a loss; she does not know any of this and she runs and the years fall from her and her eyes are bright and full of life.
She will ache in the hours after this. I know this and I share this. They say there comes a time when we need protect our dogs from their own drive and their own desire, govern their actions as we govern our own, protect them from themselves. But I know people who do the same; run to the end to their reason and do it in full knowledge of the cost. So on this day I let her run in the fullness of her heart.
Riika moves into a swampy area; Thor stays up high on the slope that falls away to the marsh where Riika moves. They are hunters both and on this day they are hunting for they know no season; every day is a day to hunt; there are not seasons or them, only life.
Riika is on something. I can tell it in her stride and I catch a glimpse of her with a mouthful of feathers. A bird. How in the world did she find a bird? The feathers are white and fanned out and she is moving back toward me.
And then there is a slow motion, freeze-frame moment when I see what is really going on in an instant; flash. All stands as an image from a camera; in an instant I take it all in.
What I see is this: a porcupine on the ground, moving away. Thor on the side slope; eyes on the porkie, moving fast down the hill. Rikka; not with feathers but with quills, a mouthful of white porcupine quills. All this in a flash.
I call to Thor; amazingly he responds and comes to me. Riika shakes her head, rolls her face in dirt and then comes to my call. She has 20, perhaps 25 quills along her jaw and in mouth. I grab hold of her collar and tell her to stay and then I pull quills from her. They are not in deep but they sting when I pull them and Riika fights me and I fight back, holding her as tight as I can while I pull the slippery quills out.
She breaks away; I call her, tell her to stay, grab hold of her again and take hold of more quills. Thor watches this all.
I get most of them out and then I turn Riika loose and we walk back to the truck. At home I call Sally and we look close and find two more quills, broken off in her gum and I hold her down and force her mouth open and use a small plier to pull them out.
She is none the worse for it all. She eats her food that evening and lies on her dog bed and sleeps. But when she rises she is achy and she cannot put weight on her rear leg. She stands on three legs and meets my eye and I feel a sadness. I tell her she’s a good girl and when I do she wags her tail and limps to me and I lift her in my arms and carry her upstairs so that she can sleep on the floor next to our bed and we can pretend that all is as it should be.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.