On the first day I go alone. I leave the dogs at home. In 15 years I’ve done this a handful of times, times when they were sick or lame. But it’s rare, rare that I hunt alone. This day I do. It’s been too hot; the dogs are too old; there are too many leaves. I go alone.
I walk in the heavy greenery on old roads that the dogs and I have hunted for years. I hunt as I did in times before I had dogs, moving slowly, pausing, waiting for the bird to take wing. It does not happen, the birds on wing. I do not see a single bird.
I think to myself, if my dogs were here we’d see birds. If Thor and Riika were here they’d work the thick shadows of mystery where the birds take refuge. I think, my dogs, they’d get their feet wet in the edges of marsh, in the coolness where the woodcock and grouse lie up under the September sun. If my dogs were here, we’d make birds.
But my dogs are not with me.
I walk a woodlot thick with balsam and popple and a woodcock takes to wobbly flight as if a leaf blows skyward by autumn wind. I am hopelessly off balance and I do not raise the gun.
My cell phone rings. It is my brother calling to wish me happy birthday. I lean the shotgun against a tree.
I think to myself, this is the modern hunter, connected to the world by invisible strands as if a spider in a web. Or, worse, as if a fly in the web. We catch up some, my brother and I. The sun has warmth on that September day; there is beauty in the woodlands.
We say our goodbyes and I work my way back to the truck. I do not see another bird.
And the hunt ends thusly: no birds, no shots, nothing but the wonder and splendor of autumn and in that, everything.
* * *
Two days later I take Thor. Thor of long legs, easy striding as a marathon runner, built for the distance. He is 13 1/2 years old and he is stone, cold deaf. I hunt him with caution, tending to him, fretting that he will get separated from me and not sight me and be lost and confused and scared. And knowing that when he is gone, when he is hidden by the curtain of brush and leaves that my heart will rise with concern and I will stand in the woods alone and, as he is, scared for not knowing.
On this day we hunt well. Thor keeps in sight. We flush two birds, but I see neither of them in the wall of green and yellow leaves that seems as if a mask on the woods.
I walk him to a place I know, a stand of birch trees that slopes up to a gentle fold in the land. I go there often with my dogs not because there are birds, but because it is a place of calm and tranquility and I feel better for being there. I never see birds in the place of the birch. I never feel a loss in that.
Thor sits in the sun with the birch trees’ chalky white trunks and their yellow leaves against the blue cathedral of sky. I lie prone in the grass with the camera and take his photo. In the photo Thor sits, head up and turned slightly as if he is seeing something behind the edge of the photo. He looks regal, handsome and powerful. It is only when you look close that you can see the white on his muzzle and around his eyes and know in that that he is aged. Look closer still and one can see the tarnished plating on the bell on his collar is abraded from the brush and the years and the miles.
We do not see another bird that day and the hunt ends thusly: my old dog and I, with my dog looking over the horizon as if he sees something that I cannot see with his golden eyes now clouded with age.
* * *
And then another day, another hunt: And Riika. Riika who three years ago was lame and achy after every hunt and in that November I said she would not hunt again. I said the same two years ago and I said it last year. Riika defies the odds. Riika, who has hunted with me for the past 15 years from when she was a six-month-old pup that would run wild with joy and run crazy with her hunter’s heart, run to the horizon and, eventually, back. Riika, who at six months could outhunt older dogs and who never, ever, quit.
She and I hunt. She is slow; she is overweight; and she too is stone deaf. We manage. Riika keeps track of me, keeps in eye contact. We hunt, my old girl and I. We walk the old trails that we have walked for over a decade now. In the early days they were prime country, chock-full of grouse and woodcock. It’s changed. All things change. Now the woods are past their prime, grown older and heavier and the grouse and woodcock are thin. We walk nonetheless, the two of us comfortable with the familiarity.
At an intersection of two trails, Riika goes ahead and turns down the old trail that we have always turned on. She remembers, year to year, where to go. She walks down the trail, then turns to make certain I am following. Then we hunt together.
We do not flush a bird. We hunt for less than an hour. And the hunt ends thusly: Two of us, walking into the memories of hunts past, with the Harvest Moon on the rise, doing what it is that we are meant to do. It is a very good hunt.