By Chris Dempsey
The weather forecast predicted a partly sunny day with highs in the 50s and then the first in a series of storms would roar out of the Pacific and across Oregon with heavy rain and snow in the mountains. A wave of fronts was stacked up behind that first one. Friday, the last one of October, might be the last day of the glorious Indian summer we’d been enjoying. Friday might be the last day I could hike the high desert and hunt chukar in a light shirt, eat my lunch of salami, cheese, and a granny smith apple, beside the creek. Perhaps even lean back, using my game vest as a pillow, listen to the gurgle and whisper of water trickling through stones in the precious October sunlight.
I put in for a personal day, went home and packed up my gear—loaded the red canvas bag with an extra set of clothes, first aid kit, fluorescent orange collars, dog biscuits, plenty of extra water. I put the 12 gauge in the gun case and outfitted my vest with granola bars, matches, Leatherman tool, extra socks, and shells.
I put the gun case and vest with the gear bag in the entry way for morning. Aspen, my little wirehair pointer, pranced in quick pirouettes when she saw the red bag. But when I set the bag down in the corner instead of going out the door, she flopped down next to the gear, put her head on the vest and whined. Once, I was loading the truck for a pheasant hunt and forgot something and so left my vest and shotgun on the hood of the 4×4 while I went back for it. When I returned, Aspen was curled next to the gear on the hood of the truck. She’d jumped close to five feet to get up there. She lifted her head and drummed her docked tail on the metal. She gave me a look that said, “Not without me, you don’t.”
• • •
Aspen is 10 now, and I am well past 50. Still, I remember that night in September that I picked her up at the airport. She was not quite eight weeks old. She had flown in from Nebraska, nestled in a crate with a brother and sister. She was a wiry, restless bundle of fur that I could cradle in two hands. I held her in my lap as I drove home. She would whine and howl for the next several nights in her dog crate in the kitchen, lonely, separated from the familiar scent and warmth of her mother, from the jumbled pile of siblings she wove herself into just days earlier.
Two weeks later, she was in the field outside of Bruneau, Idaho dragging a cock quail I had tumbled with a load of 8 shot. The quail in her mouth was nearly bigger than she was. I walked away from her, and she followed bringing the quail—her first lesson in the retrieve. If I approached and tried to take the quail, she moved away, not wanting to give it up. She was a puppy, fresh from a litter where her brothers and sisters would try to snatch such a prize. Instinct told her to move away from me and keep that quail for herself. She’d been the one had found it thrashing in the brush and caught it. So, I walked away, and because I was all the pack she’d known for two weeks, she followed and when at last she grew tired and set the quail down, I picked it up and made a fuss over her, cooing, “Good girl, gooood girl.”
We are both older now, a little stiffer at the end of a long day walking, not as quick to recover the following day. After a hard day, she no longer jumps into the back of the pickup, but puts her front feet on the tailgate and waits for me to lift her in. Even when she’s fresh she has trouble jumping up into the pickup. I sometimes spot her, catch her hind quarters in air and boost her up into the bed.
Still when we set off across some high desert plateau, years fall away from her. Her smooth little trot eats up distance effortlessly. She quarters across the wind and looks over her shoulder to make sure I’m coming. Then she gives herself fully to her work, casting for the scent cone of partridge. She draws me along, an invisible thread connecting us, a common goal and a history of trust that comes from repeating the ritual of her locking down chukar or Hungarian partridge and me edging past her, closing on the birds she’s located, a small miracle in all the square miles around us. Then, the covey rise and the shotgun mounted, the shot, feathers drifting in the wind, the clean retrieve, “the good girl” and a rub on her ears. This is the dance we have done for a decade—and she likes to lead.
• • •
Aspen woke me at 5:30 the next morning. She was standing beside the bed, whining softly. I loaded her and Willow—her four-year-old niece– in the truck. Two hours later, we were lumbering in four–wheel high over rough road with speeds averaging between 5 and 10 mph. This barely traveled track would carry us to a quiet little canyon in the high desert with a spring creek coursing in the bottom, an oasis in an arid country and an oasis of solitude in a world of noise and clutter and haste. This is a place where there is no cell phone coverage, no traffic, no flight path overhead. I’ve yet to see another person there other than the few I hunt chukars with. Today, though, I hunt alone. I feel a need for solitude. Solitude is the gift of this place where the wind rises and falls, swaying the bunchgrass, where the hush of water is soothing, the soft gurgle as it tumbles through old rhyolite boulders.
The day would be simple, and I would ask nothing of it. I would go hunting, which by my definition means walking, facing into the wind or quartering across it. It means paying attention to the moving clouds, to the slant of autumn light, paying attention to the splayed tracks of deer or the rabbit fur in coyote scat. It means to mark the dogs’ big loops out into the sagebrush steppe and back again. I love to watch them run, the way they forget themselves and become the work they do.
How often do we ask nothing of a day but the privilege of breath and solid ground beneath our boots, the privilege of wind and the shadows of clouds dappling the ground, a moving mosaic of light and shadow? Perhaps that is the secret: to ask nothing and to accept the black fragments of obsidian glittering in the slant of late October sunlight. To ask nothing and to be grateful for the whisper of water, grateful for the quick flash of small fish darting through the shallows, leaving the v of a ripple where the dorsal fin carves the current just beneath the surface, grateful for the way the sunlight accents the yellowing leaves on the brush. How often do we savor the wonder of our own finite heartbeat or that of a wiry little dog that is at once both old and ageless?
I planned to descend into this canyon frequented by mule deer and range cattle and cross the spring creek that has etched its course through boulders from pool to pool. Then I would climb up the narrow twisting draw across the creek and emerge into a rolling landscape that stretched miles to the south, undulating, and creased with little draws that held springs and ridgelines covered with sage and boulders.
And when the dogs cut the scent of a covey in the breeze, when the scent grew strong and thick, vibrant in the nose, they would go still, their breath and heartbeat slowing from a race to near stillness. I would see one of the girls, a rigid silhouette against the skyline. I would come in fast and loop around to the front. Aspen or Willow would relocate following the scent, easing forward, coiled and all of us would be poised on the edge of that single moment, dog, man, and bird. Then the covey would break and lift into the sky in the flurry and drum of short powerful wings, wings built for explosion and bursts of speed, wings built to glide ballistically and dart over the edge of a canyon into the void and disappear in a breath.
Aspen and Willow were born for this work. They love racing across the face of wind. They love that they can run as far as they want in any direction in this place without fences, without boundaries save for those of geology, the canyons, steep faces and cliffs—but those boundaries can be negotiated.
I love their energy, their singleness of purpose. After thirty years of raising, training, and hunting behind working dogs, I’m still trying to learn how to live as fully in the moment as they, to immerse myself as deeply in the world of my senses, to live the given day as if it were the only day.
• • •
I’ve been hunting now for more than forty years. I killed my first deer at thirteen in a little pass above the South Fork of the Boise River. One clean shot and the little buck dropped. My father showed me how to dress him, to open the belly. I touched the organs that moments before had powered him, organs little different than those which powered me, the heart driving blood, the lungs oxygenating that blood that now covered my hands. For years, I had eaten venison, grilled with onions in the cast iron skillet, but this was the first time I had killed the deer that would grace our table, which would help to feed my family in the coming winter. This was the first time I was keenly aware of touching both life and death at the same time, understanding how they were balanced on a knife edge that could cut me as easily as serve me. It would take me years to understand that when one touches death it stays with you.
Perhaps that is a lesson that only comes to one who is my age, in my 50s, knowing
days that stretch ahead of me are at last finite—not that they weren’t all along, but now I am fully aware that each one–is one less. Not just my days, but Aspen’s and Willow’s days as well. Aspen is my fifth dog and Willow my sixth. They will grow old and frail as have the dogs before them. One day I will grieve them, but I will also carry them with me in these stories we have inscribed together in remote places with long intertwining lines of our footsteps. So these days in the field are even more precious. They are no longer taken as an entitlement, no longer squandered or contaminated by ego or the trophy of ambition.
• • •
I find myself contemplating these ideas early in the afternoon when Willow disappears over the ridge and doesn’t make a loop back, so I know somewhere beyond the ridge I’m climbing she is on point. I walk up the long slope, my heart laboring and my breath coming faster and deeper as I climb. When I crest the ridge, I see her, standing tall and still, intent on the covey hidden somewhere in front of her. Aspen sees Willow and goes serious, goes from a lope to a glide, each step measured and deliberate. She closes in from my left and I make her heel because she’s not usually the second one to the covey, not used to honoring another dog’s point.
The two of us circle around so I approach the covey between Willow and the canyon rim to the north of us. Thirty yards from the clump of sage where I suspect the covey is hunkered, I “whoa” Aspen and she locks up. I can feel the tension in her body coiled and ready to release. Her eyes are fixed on Willow.
The covey, when it rises, will break for the steep walls of the canyon just to our north. I intend to pin them between us and make the covey flare when they rise, veering away from me. I walk in loose and alert. Willow takes a slow-motion step to relocate. One nervous bird breaks, and then the rest of the covey tears off in a wave. I snap the gun to my shoulder, settle my cheek to the smooth wood of the stock and swing on a chukar that separates from the bulk of the covey. I sweep the barrel through him as he darts away downhill and squeeze the trigger. The bird folds, dead, but still carrying all the speed he had gained. An object in motion tends to stay in motion. His last flight carries him well down the slope before he finally tumbles, rolls and comes to a stop even as Aspen who has marked the arc of his flight races down slope to make the retrieve. She trots back, holding the bird high, bringing it to my hand.
And then I am walking again, lengthening my stride while Aspen and Willow sweep across this landscape, dark shapes crisscrossing sagebrush plateaus, dropping over the edge of rhyolite rims, reappearing as if by magic. They are objects in motion. We are passing beneath the immense arc of sky, beneath an October sun moving quietly and inevitably toward the western horizon. I too am an object in motion, carrying my momentum as long as I can, as long as I can hold this pace—all the while looking into the purpling distance that stretches so far it disappears into the fading sky.
Chris Dempsey, from Middleton, Idaho is the author of Winter Horses, a chapbook of poetry. He has also been the recipient of a poetry fellowship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. His poems and essays have appeared in English Journal, Talking River Review, Willow Springs, High Desert Journal, Voices West, Grays Sporting Journal and High Country News. In his free time, he can be found hiking the remote corners of Idaho and Oregon with his two wirehaired pointers.
The inaugural $1250 Salute to the Dog Writing Contest honors man’s best friend and celebrates the emotional experience of sharing one’s life with a dog. We received a tremendous number of heartwarming, beautiful, and often funny stories about how much dogs impact our daily lives. To learn more about the 2020 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.