Friday, January 14, 2011

"High Winds, Swift Currents, and Hopelessness"

Have you ever said something you wished you could take back, but couldn't, for whatever reason? Sure you have, and I've done it more times than I care to think about. But this was different, this wasn't a fight, and I didn't say anything out of anger. Nope, I simply released Gauge for a retrieve. I simply said "BACK"!! A retrieve that I'll never forget, that was probably the most incredible retrieve I'll ever witness, and a retrieve in which I thought I was going to see the death of my main man, Gauge.

Like I said, I'll never forget it. How could I? I had been planning a week and a half long hunting trip to Montana with a good friend of mine for months. We were going to freelance the North Central part of Montana for ducks, geese and pheasants. It was my first trip that far away to hunt, and I had no idea what to expect. I had even less an idea what to pack, so we basically looked like the "Clampetts" as we traveled north and west. What was so strange about that trip was the weather when we arrived. When you think of Montana in early November, sunny and 70 degrees is not what comes to mind - at least to my mind anyway. But, that's just what we were met with, and the trip started off with less than barrel melting shooting.

That all changed on day 3 of the trip. Hal and myself awoke to temperatures in the mid 40's with a wind out of the North at 5-10 mph. That was the last time we would see the temperature get above 15 degrees, and the last time the wind strength would be in the single digits. Throughout the day, the skies got darker, the temps got colder and the winds got stronger. It was as if something very big was slowly waking up after a long nap. I remember thinking the ground itself was shaking. The shooting was phenomenal, and our daily bag changed from wigeon and teal to nothing but greenheads. Overhead, the fabled "grand passage" was taking place as tens of thousands of birds of every flavor (ducks, geese, swans, and cranes) high tailed it South. For about five days, the skies were never empty.

On day 4, we awoke to temperatures in the single (and negative) digits, and hurricane force winds blew from the North. I guess the fact that the locals were buying gas, water and canned goods should have clued us in. It didn't though, we were just having too much fun. We had to hunt hot springs and flowing water though, as everything was beginning to develop heavy ice. It was so cold in fact, that the birds we killed were freezing to the ground if left long enough, and the neoprene decoy gloves froze to my shotgun. Bottomline, it was a miserable type of cold I've not experienced before nor since. Thankfully, the hunt lasted just a few minutes, and Hal and I elected to go get some breakfast, take a break from the pheasant hunting, and do some scouting for the next day.

The local contact I had put me on a little unnamed stretch of the Missouri river that had fast moving water, stayed open all year, and consistently held birds even in the poorest of weather conditions. Hal and I never had to make it to the river to know where we where going to be hunting the next morning - just above the cottonwood trees that lined it's banks, the sky was full of mallards trying to get the wind right so they could land. By the next day, the winds had dropped to a manageable 20 mph, though the temps held and it had begun to snow. Visibility was around 100 sweat, right? Wrong.

Before I go on, let me just say I've been asked on several occasions "when is it too cold to take a dog?". My standard answer has always been that if you can get them out of the water, for the most part, it's really "never" too cold - within reason of course. Nowadays I add the caveat that the environment may lend itself to not being worth taking your dog out. Several situations come to mind where I may leave mine at home these days, but the big one is ICE. Even in a rice field in Arkansas where the risks for drowning is unheard of, ice scares me. It's tough on dogs even when they can break it as they run - think of it like someone slapping a 2x4 across your chins everytime you take a step...same thing. I'm not pompous enough to sit here and say "I don't hunt my dogs in ice" because I do. What I absolutely don't do is hunt the same dog in ice 2 days in a row. I'll switch out Trapper for Gauge or vice versa. I'll bow them both out if they are too stiff, letting someone else take their dog. But, the following is not about being stiff, it's about not thinking things through and quite frankly, being stupid. It's about watching helplesssly as your dog does what he's been trained to do. It's about how these dogs, with hearts the size of pumpkins, are willing to give so much - they're willing to give their last ounce of energy in fact. In the end, everything worked out this time, and I learned a valuable lesson - a duck/retrieve ain't worth my dogs.

The area of the Missouri we were hunting held enough swift current to keep the river open for the most part, save the slow parts of each bend. And that's exactly where the little goldeneye fell. I didn't think anything about it, I mean, the bird was stone dead just at the edge of the ice. Plus, it was Hal's first goldeneye. Just as Gauge hit the halfway point in the river, the goldeneye rolled over, shook his head and flew a few feet further in and fell (again, appearing dead). I didn't realize until Gauge got to the ice just how bad this situation was about to get. The ice was too thick for him to break through, but it didn't matter as the water was too deep for him to get any leverage and get on top of the ice. Horror striken, I started blowing my "come in" whistle. Whether it was the wind, water, or his own desire to retrieve the bird that was just out of his reach, I don't know, but he wasn't coming back.

After struggling at the edge of the ice for what seemed like hours, Gauge finally managed to hoist himself up on the ice. At this point, I'm about to pass out from all the whistle blowing, but he never looked my way. Every step he took caused the ice to break, placing him back in the same situation as he was at the start. Couple that with the goldeneye attempting another break for it, and you can imagine how the exertion was beginning to take it's toll on Gauge. He would climb up on the ice and just lay in one spot for several seconds. As bad as the visibility was, I could still make out the heaving his chest was making from his labored breathing. He made one final lunge just as the goldeneye made one last attempt at escaping, and both disappeared into the cattails on the far side of the river...and, everything got very quiet. Why I remember this, I don't know, but I remember dropping the whistle from my hand. I also remember thinking, "Mega Whistle my ass."

I'm not sure how long Gauge was out of sight, but it must have been a while as Hal later told me he had decided Gauge was "gone". In fact, the next sound I heard was when Hal cleared his throat in what I'm sure was fixing to precede "Justin, I'm sorry", but as I looked up, I saw that big, hard-headed dog come rushing out of the ice still in hot pursuit of that goldeneye. Where he came out must have held a thicker sheet of ice because it held just long enough for him to finally run that bird down. Then, as he picked up the bird, the ice broke again and this time he went under.

I remember thinking a merriad of thoughts, but the one at the forefront of my mind was how cruel a joke had just been played on me. Those thoughtts and Gauge underwater just lasted a split second though, as he came up, and started clawing at the ice with his front paws again all the way out to the flowing water.

By the time all this was over, he was physically spent, and swam just strong enough to stay afloat, allowing the current to push him way down the river...and, I walked every step of the way keeping pace and encouraging him, begging him to come to me. When he made it to shore, he literally collapsed onto the river rocks, taking in big gulps of air...but you know what? He had that goldeneye.

Mr. Sam Milton once told me "never brag on your dog til you drop the last shovel full...because as soon as you do, they'll make a liar out of you."  While that may be true, I'm not too worried about personal embarrassment - I do that just fine on my own.

What I would like to do is honor our retrievers (whatever the flavor) for what they are - hard working animals that put themselves on the line for the only thing that matters to them - our affection.

5 years later, we're both graying, but both still at each others side

HRCH Harrison's Eight Gauge - Gauge

Please understand, this story is less (much less) about that retrieve, but rather my testimony on a lesson that was learned the hard way - but not near as hard as it could have been.

Hope you enjoy and have a great weekend spending time outdoors, Justin

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