We wound our way up the edge of the canyon ridge, trudging stiffly and exhaling glass in the cold morning shadow of the peak. The ridge divides the brutally steep drop into the canyon from the slope of benches and buttes where we hoped to lay some claim on dinner. The dog was moving a bit quick and after a succession of beeps that got less and less of the desired response she received a quick zap. It doesn’t take much to remind her what the beeps mean, and she started working close enough to provide some entertainment on the frozen north slope. Watching her lope over salt brush at full gallop and land on ice patches that took her sliding 20 yards down the hill in a tumble made me giggle. Even though she didn’t care if I was watching or if it happened at all I still felt a bit arrogant laughing at her unbridled enthusiasm. The snorty chuckle betrayed my envy of her energy, her ability to vault up this 45 to 60 degree slope like she were crossing a grassy meadow, and her unshakable faith in what we were doing. I’d call it conviction but I never have seen that in a dogs eyes, and I hope I never do.
A single bird flushed wild above my head straight toward the canyon. I swung across the sun and saw a puff of feathers form a tiny eclipse. The bird locked up and disappeared around the edge of the butte it had jumped from. We climbed to the top of it and tried to pick out the trajectory, but you’d have better odds stealing a steak from a tiger. Before we could walk down to find it the dog bolted up the ridge and locked up, and as I was walking toward her about 20 birds got up and flew into the canyon, just out of range. These older, wiser drought birds seem to know how close to the stove they can get and don’t mind burning you one bit.
The dog ran back to me with the what I projected as an incredulous look, and I don’t blame her. The season has been rough. We aren’t having trouble finding the birds and good numbers of them, but getting close to them has been an ordeal. Most of these are older birds who flush far and fly far. When we do get set up my shooting has been humbling this season. I believe this is making the dog suspicious of my true motives for trekking her around the desert wilderness, perhaps to torture her in some sadistic bird dog nightmare or to just plain be Scott the Dick. If only she spoke english or I spoke bird dog we could share our frustrations coherently, but the glances, pats, and collective groaning will have to do for now.
We stood for a few seconds and she gave me the paw for water. I obliged, but she just stepped in it and got right back to work. We dropped lower towards the edge of the canyon into a bowl where we thought the wounded bird would have landed or dropped. I let her work the bowl and after a thorough combing of the area we came up empty. I hate losing birds but I know it’s going to feed something out here.
We headed towards the benches on the north slope. At the last bench she locked up on a single and I blew an easy shot, but she didn’t seem to mind. We turned back toward the canyon and she worked with zeal until we reached the last rock pile before the canyon’s edge. I healed her up to me on top of the rockpile and held my breath. She did the same which makes me wonder if they know you’re trying to listen carefully and that their hyper-panting isn’t helping, as my other dog does the same thing. The cold wind whipped down the canyon from the icy peak and I heard the familiar cackle on the canyon edge 60 yards away, at our same elevation. I could have heard them underwater they were so close.
“Work close, work close!” She stayed within 20 feet as we approached the edge, catching scent in the hard wind and zig zagging the area I figured the calls came from. She climbed a bit higher, faced the canyon edge, and turned to stone. I walked past her and from the ledge below a single got up and was put down cold. Before it hit the rocks a stream of about 15 other birds jumped across the canyon in succession, putting their backs to the wind and rocketing out of range in seconds. One threw feathers from some #5 shot and locked into a steady glide for a quarter mile before disappearing near the bottom. The birds in this spot are tough as nails.
“Dead bird, fetch!” The dog jumped down the short top ledge of the canyon and circled till she found the first bird on top of the next cliff down. She sniffed it and held it up, turned to look at me, and threw it off of the cliff. It took me a few seconds after that to put the safety back on, which I begrudgingly admit. I screamed till I almost passed out, my anger and disbelief overarching good sense at this point, but it did no good. She’s never not retrieved a bird for me, she’s been doing it since she was 5 months old. Her rebellious attitude that I personally used to be known for almost sent me over the top. My mother’s words rang between my ears -“Dogs are like their owners, and she’s definitely your dog.”
Any hopes I had of her retrieving the second bird were dashed, and I couldn’t be sure it was hit solidly enough to still be in the depths of this frigid hell or halfway up the far side of the canyon. Two lost birds in a day is enough to make you pull your hair out, but this country gives and takes like no other, and there is nothing you can do about it. I set my gun down and clambered down the steep face, the dog sniffing sage brush like it was spring flowers and careless as could be. I retrieved the bird, called her to me and began to scold her, but I stopped short.
For one it was well beyond the point of her remembering what she did wrong. Secondly I didn’t want to verbally abuse and smack my dog with a dead chukar in front of her face, perhaps undoing all of the work and progress made so far. That’s damage you can’t take back.
I swallowed my crow and just gave that same chuckle I spouted earlier watching her slide around ass over tea kettle all over the mountainside, thinking perhaps she did take offense to my earlier laughter. I climbed back up to my gun, and she bounded up the face ready for the next showdown.
*Note – She retrieved every bird perfectly on the next outing, and I kept my blood pressure down. Balance has been restored, for now.