When a hunt becomes something different
“We hunt here because it is easy on an old dog. We do not hunt with an expectation of birds. But we hunt, the two of us.” Mitch Mode
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
I have an image, as if a dream, of a tall door, wooden, ornately carved trim; taller by far than I stand. There are brass fittings. It is a very large, very heavy door and when I put my hand on the door knob it has a feel to it as if sun-warmed. It takes effort to pull the door open.
I do not know where this image came from, if it is a true dream born in the dark of night’s sleep; sleep that comes to color with dream, or if it is from that time of wakening when your mind slides between dream world and real world and the two overlap and merge, indistinguishable.
But I have in mind’s eye the image of a door and when I open it light comes to me and I know, somehow, that the door is the door to a new season and that the season is autumn. That is what the door means to me regardless of where it came from, vivid dream or malleable imagination at wakening. It does not matter where it came from. All that matters is the image of door and change and with it hunt season now come.
I have always been a hunter, was a hunter before I ever took to the field, was a hunter even when circumstances kept me from hunting, even when I was known as a skier; above all I was a hunter. Still am though with years and age the fire has dimmed and the importance, while not diminished, is colored as if by different lens; where it once glowed red, the heat of the hunt now perhaps a mellower yellow or dimming orange.
I hunt now for both the memories of hunts long past and for the reality that exists now. I hunt for remnants of what was once abundant; a single bird in flight where there were once many; the sound of duck wings in the dark of dawning; the call of geese, faint; the step of a deer. I hunt to renew connections of life. I hunt for time in the field. I hunt to spend time with my dogs.
Hunting at its core assumes a chance of success in the field measured most often by the presence of game. One does not set foot in the woods without some expectation that one will see game. It is a central element. One may not expect to take game but one rarely, say never, leaves the pavement without expecting some chance to see game and to stalk game.
That expectation has been a foundation on which I have hunted for all my life. So it came as a shock this week to realize it was no longer part of me. I no longer hunt with the assurance that I will see game. I hunt these days, on many days, with no real expectation that I will put up birds, that I will make game. I am left with the thought that without the likelihood of seeing game, am I truly hunting? Or am I just taking a walk in the woods?
It’s the dogs. I hunt over two very old, very special dogs, Riika and Thor. It is that that has caused me to reshape what I do. In their advanced age and in their near complete state of deafness we cannot hunt good cover, we cannot walk for long hours during times of the hunt. We cannot, in short, hunt as we always have, as hunters always have. When I leave the house with the dogs, one or the other for I do not often hunt them both at the same time, I leave with no more of a goal than to hunt the dogs in a hunter’s world. But I do not truly expect to put up game.
I took Riika out last week, just the two of us. I left Thor at home, told Sally to distract him so he’d not feel left out, giving to dogs the emotional feelings that we would have being left at home. I took Riika, at 16-and-a-half years old, of grizzled gray muzzle and face, dimmer in her amber eyes, slower and more prone to aches. I took her, lifted her to the truck, drove to the woods.
I parked where the walking would be easier for her, not where the birds might be. And in that I gave
up the one central value of the hunt: I did not expect to see game. But there are other reasons afoot now. Time with my old dog overrides them all.
Riika on the ground in the grouse woods is a different dog! Gone the tentative, slow moving dog of house and yard, alive now in the cool air of September and in the richness of autumnal woods. Riika in the field is a dog more engaged and in that younger than she is at any other time. She is light on her feet, following her nose searching for the wisp of scent that floats and drifts as woodsmoke on fall breezes. She takes to the woods; the years fall off her shoulders.
We walk the old roads where we have walked for 16 Septembers, roads that used to cut through prime cover that was weighted with grouse and woodcock. Now the cover is older, the prime is past, the grouse and woodcock thin and never to return in numbers in the old forest. We hunt here because it is easy on an old dog. We do not hunt with an expectation of birds. But we hunt, the two of us.
On this day we hunt only 40 minutes; her hunter’s heart burns bright. We put up a solitary woodcock. That is all. That is enough. That is what we have and that is all we need. But I wonder on the drive home: Were we hunting? Or just going for a walk in the fall woods?
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