BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
My dogs run in a silent world. There is shadow and light; there are whip-like saplings and crumpled fern; there is, always, scent. But there is no sound. The dogs are deaf. They hunt in a dream world where everything is real save for sound. They hunt in silence.
They run in the waning days of autumn as November looms, a gray time of shortening daylight and lengthening nights, of chill rain and snow. They run close to the ground in a world rich with smell of duff and leaf and fern, scent of dirt and bark and pine and, most prized, game. They take it all in; the blurred trees and leaf and berry bush; the chill breeze of somber days; the rich smell of rain; and the tantalizing whiff of grouse and woodcock.
But they cannot hear a thing. Or, perhaps, rarely. On occasion the shrill whistle may catch them; but only occasionally. They may hear the concussion of shotgun. I do not know that. When I am on bird and shotgun kicks, my focus is on the bird in flight. I do not know what the dogs do.
“We hunt for the passion the dogs still bring, old, gray-muzzled, in their silent world.” Mitch Mode
I know only that to hunt them now is to hunt dogs that cannot respond to command. They cannot hear whistle and voice and they run as they will. I have no control.
The dogs, Riika and Thor, do what they can; their silent world is a new world to them. Riika lost her hearing, what, two years ago? Thor’s faded with the autumn last year; fell to silence as a leaf falls to the ground.
Riika has adapted better. She stays closer, returns to me, makes eye contact and looks for direction. Thor is another story. He ranges farther. He is long of leg and good to go for distance. He works out to where I cannot see him and then he is gone, gone to thickets and balsam and shadow. In those moments I stand still and strain for the sound of the bell on his collar.
At times I wait longer than I am comfortable. I know he is confused.
Then I see him, distant but moving as a dark shadow in the thickness; now I see him; now not. But he is looking for me, I know that. And when my sight line is clear I can see him stop and look, head up, engaged fully. I see him turn one way, the other, scan what he can see. But if he does not look directly at me he will not find me. I stand helpless as he tries to sort things out.
I blow the whistle loud and sometimes I think he can hear it but he cannot place where it is. I see him stand, look. He looks for me; he wants to be with me. Then, more often than not, he runs in the wrong direction, away from me, still looking and I stand powerless to do anything. Then I cannot see him.
He comes back, eventually. I catch his eye in the distance and wave and he sees the movement and comes to me. He runs to me, looks at me. Then he is off again, in his world of scent and color but not sound.
It can be that way with aging dogs. Logic and reason suggest I leave them home. But hunting is not about logic and reason, not for me, not for the dogs. It is about more; it is about the heart. And it is about less; it is for the simple and fleeting joy of a single moment.
So we hunt this fall, the two dogs and I. We drive to the October woods for there is no other place we would rather be. Then we hunt.
We hunt the past for the familiar country, where a dog without hearing can better find its way. We hunt on comfortable ground that does not confuse a dog that runs in silence. We hunt the old places with memories of better days when birds were thicker.
We hunt in the present for that is all we have. We spend less time; Riika is 14 1/2; Thor two years younger. We spend nearly as much time in the truck, to and from, than on the ground. We hunt on days of a thinning autumn and do not know if there is a tomorrow to come.
There is territory we will not hunt, thick stuff, and new country that when they were younger we would venture into, searching out the good spots, seeing what lay around the corner in the old logging road. Then, when they were younger, we would see new turf and make plans to hunt it another day. No more. We never consider the future.
We hunt for the passion the dogs still bring, old, gray-muzzled, in their silent world.
We will hunt, the dogs and I, until we can no longer. But that is another day, another week, another year. That is an infinity. Perhaps. On these days we have the day and the hour and the moments when the dogs rush into the rich scent of bird and nothing else matters. Nothing else at all.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. 715-362-5800.