Outdoor Adventures: Hunting in a silent world
Mid-summer I asked Sally, “Is Riika’s hearing going?” Sally said not that she’d noticed.
Sally spends more time with the dogs, day in and day out. She’d probably have noticed it.
I wasn’t so sure. You can’t put a measure to that, not with dogs. But there was a nagging feeling that things were changing. No date; no single day; no one event, nothing that you could put a finger on. Just a gut hunch.
I can’t really say when it all faded, when Sally and I both came up against reality, that our dog, our dear old girl, was losing her hearing.
I remember early summer on a cloudy evening and Riika on the run and her turning to the sound of the whistle and call. When? June? I think so.
Then things changed. A week later? Two weeks? A month? At some point it became apparent that she was going deaf.
I talked to a vet. I asked of precipitous drop in hearing; good to bad to very bad and in a short time. He said it happens, the hard, sharp, drop-off, a plateau; then often a drop again. No reason for it; not predicable. Nerve damage. Irreversible.
By fall hunt season I did not know if she could hear the whistle or my call.
Life with Riika has always been interesting. She was born smart and born independent and born to hunt. She was born with fire in her belly and wildness in her soul and sweetness and devotion in her heart.
From the time she could walk she hunted; sparrows and chipmunks in the back yard and at 6 months pheasant and grouse. She’d go crazy when she had a nose full of scent and she’d run after game, oh lord how she’d run.
She’d run wild, run over the horizon, run to another zip code, run from the sound of the whistle and the throat-aching calls to “Come”. I’d stand in the thick woods and blow the whistle until my temples ached and she’d ignore me and ignore the whistle and run.
I’d come home with a stress headache and a vow to never, ever own another dog.
We worked it out.
In the years she slowed, worked closer, ran less. I like to think she bonded, but she was always independent and wild at heart and bonding may not be what she had in mind. One never knows with dogs.
She tangled with porcupines; repeatedly. She swam after downed ducks on cold days of heavy wind and I’d race out in the boat to pull her aboard before she drowned. She’d chase deer and rabbits and birds and do it with passion and with joy and for that I envied her.
If I had any clue on how to train dogs she’d have been a magnificent hunter. But I did not. She and I learned together and made our pact; I’d drive the truck, she’d hunt. We’d work it out. For over a decade it’s been fine.
Now, a full dozen autumns into it and her muzzle is gray and her eyebrows white and everything has changed and yet nothing has changed, nothing that counts. She is still a full-bore, ninety miles an hour, go-til-you-can’t-go-anymore, wild-hearted hunt dog.
This September we hunted in the early season. It was too warm for Riika who does not like the heat. We hunted anyway; short hunts, easing her into it after surgery on her leg in the spring. After half an hour she was done.
So we’d quit then even though Thor and I could have gone longer. Riika would come home and limp and favor her bad leg and lie down and sleep hard. She’d sleep all day and the next day would limp.
She got better. She ran harder and ran longer. The days cooled off. The half an hour she could hunt became 45 minutes, became an hour, an hour and a half. She lost weight; she lost her limp. By mid October I could run my hand along her side and feel the furrowed line of rib and muscle. She was fit. But she was near stone cold deaf.
We hunt, the dogs and I, by vision and by sound. The dogs come to me but if I am stationary they do not see me. I’ll watch them in the underbrush, see them stop, look for me, uncertain as to where I am. I move, wave a hand, and they’ll see me and come to me.
Or I will call to them or use the whistle. The sound of the whistle can carry over distance. But with Riika this fall that no longer worked.
We needed, my old dog and I, to find a new way to hunt for if Riika cannot hunt Riika’s life is without meaning. So this fall as the leaves turned, green to gold and then dropped, as the daylight came later and night earlier, this fall we have gone back to the basics, Riika and I, learning again how to hunt together, working things out.
We hunt together these days and weeks as October turns. We work together and teach each other how to hunt as November draws down. Riika comes to me, meets my eyes, stands; I point left or I point right; she goes in the direction I indicate. There is no sound now between us; there is eye contact, a wave of the arm, a pointing of the hand.
She hunts alongside of me and ahead, looking for me or circling back to check in with me. If I change direction, turn back toward where we came from or go hard right or left, if I do that and she does not see me she will continue to range ahead of where I was going, away from me, always away from me. I cannot whistle her back now; she does not know where I stand.
I have learned from her that if I am to change directions I need wait for her, wait for her to return, to see where I am and see where I want to go. If I turn and she does not see me she will work out, farther and farther and when she comes back I am not there. I wonder what she thinks when she turns for me and I am not there and she cannot hear where I am.
There have been times when for minutes I cannot find her. We are both learning you understand, learning the new rules of our hunt. There have been times when I stand alone and the wind in the trees blows and I cannot hear the sound of her bell and I know she is working out away from me.
I’ve learned from her. Now I never change direction unless I can see her, without reaching across the open air with my eyes and meeting her eyes and agreeing, without word and without sound, where we will go next.
She hunts hard and her eyes alive as only they are during the hunt times. She comes back with fur tangled with briars, with woodticks on her forehead, and with a limp in her surgically repaired leg. But she hunts and she hunts well.
But at times she gets a nosefull of birdscent and runs, runs crazy-wild as she did as a puppy and for the same reasons, as if nothing had ever changed, as if things were as they’d always been, as if she was young and full of life and could hunt forever.
But things always change and in those times when she runs big and wide, at those times I stand and know that she cannot hear me and I stand powerless and the last thing I care about is a bird on the wing or a bird in hand.
At those times I stand stock still and my ears ache to hear her bell and all I care about in that moment is Riika coming back to my side eyes wide and joyful, hunting together again as we have; as we will.
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