BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
I hunted over the two dogs on a chill November day under a lowering sky that held portent of hard times to come. We pushed the thick stuff along the Wisconsin River, thickets twisted with tag alders and tangled with brush and fern. The dogs worked hard.
We rested and then turned from the river and moved upland; an old logging road, thick popple on each side. We got into birds there; one, then another and a third, but distant. It was a breezy day and the dogs ranged too far out and birds flushed wild. I never fired a shot.
Then we looped back, off the path into the thick of it and hunted parallel to the old road back toward the truck. We put up two more birds.
I shouldered the shotgun and the three of us, Riika and Thor and I, walked back to the truck. I unloaded the gun. We got in the truck and drove home into another season.
It was a year ago this week.
I planned to hunt again, one more time, maybe two, but things got in the way, life things, the day-to-day things that fill time but bring less satisfaction than time in the field. We planned to get out again, really did. But good intentions come easy; execution another thing entirely. We never hunted again that season.
There came a time when I thought: That may have been Riika’s last hunt. She was 13 1/2 then and was slowing down. She had hunted hard; she knows no other way. In the cold and snow of winter I thought back to that day, wondered, Was that the last time out for my old girl?
I accepted that it was probably the case.
Over summer Riika put on weight, exercised not at all. Come September I went hunting one day and Riika came to the door and looked at me. My dog who would rather hunt than eat, who would run til she could not longer move, who lived for the hunt. She came to the door, looked at me. Then turned back to her bed.
For the first time in 14 years my dog did not hunt. I thought back to day of gray November chill and the wide ranging dogs and good intentions unfulfilled and the end of things. I told myself: It’s all changed now. It has ended, that chapter of life’s book. It is over and gone and it will not come back. Riika, against all she was made up of, did not want to hunt.
A week later she wanted to go. I don’t know what had changed. We hunted for half an hour. She was slow but steady. She was not ready to quit.
So we hunted this autumn, Riika and Thor and I, hunted the old ground that now holds more memories than birds, the old roads that the dogs know like their backyard. We hunted as we could and in the evening I would pull burrs and twigs out of their coats while they lay on the dog beds, exhausted. In a day or two we might go again. Or not.
Last weekend the weather turned warm, 70 by mid-afternoon on Saturday. I planned to hunt but the day got away from me and then it was too warm. I won’t hunt the dogs in that heat, especially not Riika who does not fare well in temperatures above 60.
We waited until Sunday morning before the temperature rose, when the night’s chill held comfort in the shadow of the thickets. In the coolness we hunted.
We worked a familiar piece of Wisconsin wood lot, cut over 6 or 8 years ago, thick with saplings; a good mix of cover and food. The sky was near cloudless; the temperature was on the rise.
We walked the woods, the three of us. We walked the woods as we’ve done for over 14 seasons with Riika, 12 for Thor. In the old days they’d run wild as an autumn breeze, crazy with scent and with the joy of life and the thrill of the hunt. We’d go for hours, cover broad swathes of woodlands, hunt til we were tired and then make one more little push in a thicket that I knew would hold birds. Sometimes it did; sometimes not.
We hunted this morning on a day of false promise, of a day borne of September but come now in November. We could hunt on this day and delude ourselves with a fool’s promise of better days to come, days of sun and warmth and optimism. Better days ahead. We could think that.
It was an easy trap to fall into that morning when the sun rose high in a blue sky and the dogs worked to tantalizing scent of bird, when the sun warmed the earth exposed beneath thin trees with bark the color of dry bone. Better days here to stay.
We would be wrong of course. Change was coming, an abrupt clash of the forces of nature and the balm of this Sunday would be gone far too soon, its passing a shock and a jolt of new reality that one could hardly see coming. There was change in the air even if we did not feel it, a new world soon to arrive.
For now, on this morning of hope and dreams and promise we would have our day. We would hunt as though the days of change were not at hand and as if we could go this way forever with dogs that would never age.
Riika hunted with bright eyes, deliberate and patient and working all the time. She lay down in the cooling water of gathered puddles, rested, then up again and into the woods. At hunts end I lifted her into the truck for the drive home.
Thought to myself: We’ll hunt again, maybe once or twice, my old dog and I. Thought again, a caution: Don’t let good intentions go unheeded.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. 715-362-5800.