Riika woke early, restless, wanting to go out. I felt for clothing in the dark room, pulled on a pair of pants, a shirt, more from memory than from intent. I was still near sleep. I walked with her downstairs, across the inky living room and kitchen to the back door. I turned on the outside light and opened the door.
She paused, sniffed the air as if tasting it, then, having approved, stepped off the stoop and into the yard. After a moment I followed.
I walked barefoot across the patio. The air was fresh and pure; there was a faint smudge of pale light to the east but dawn was a time away. I looked to the sky; it was hazy, as layers of gauze; nothing seemed real, there was no definition, just gloomy shades of gray without stars.
The trees were smudged against the dark of sky; black on near-black. The trees were massive in the darkness as if a cliff, a steep pitch of hillside or foothill.
The air felt good. I had the fleeting image of a spring morning but no, not today. It was mid-September and spring was a long time gone or a longer time coming; take your pick.
Riika moved in the darkness at the edge of the yard, a shadow that came to view then faded, as indistinct as the sky above. It was very quiet.
It was the opening morning of grouse season.
Time was that we would hunt the opener, come what may. Time was we’d go without question. We’d go, Riika and I, or Thor and Riika and I. We’d go to the woods; we’d go to the hunt; it was what we did.
But not today. Not this time around.
Time was when Riika was young and she’d hunt wild and free. She hunted crazy when young; more reasoned with age; slowly, achy in the latter years. She hunted through briar and bramble; belly and face a web of scratches. She hunted after a cancerous tumor; she hunted after ACL surgery; she hunted against all odds and overcame them all. Overcame all save for age. Age is the ailment from which she cannot recover. Age is the distance she cannot range. Age the thicket that she cannot bust through.
“We could do a short walk … bust out a grouse or woodcock and I’d miss the shot but I wouldn’t care…as long as Riika had bird scent one more time.”
She came to me out of the darkness, my old hunt partner, 16 ½ years old now. I led her inside and turned off the lights and we went back to sleep for another hour. When we woke again dawn was a pale blossom and the sky showed dim light. But we did not hunt. Not on that day, on the opening, the day of significance that borders on spiritual as all openings do.
I found reasons for the not hunting, rational thoughts on the ledger. It would be too hot and Riika never liked the heat. There were too many leaves and the woods would be heavy with cover; a clear shot would be rare. The grouse numbers are down, the reason still a mystery, as mysterious as a dark sky at daybreak. Reasons all not to hunt.
But in years past I’d have gone out, taken one dog or both, gone out for an hour just to do it, simply to hunt the opener and start the season that has defined so much of who I am and who Riika and Thor are. Not that long ago we’d have gone to the woods. It would be our private ceremony, the dogs and me.
Instead, I went to work. In the afternoon the temperature reached to record highs and why not? It’s been that type of a year from the 90s of late May to the near-90 in September and the novelty of high heat, the oddity of 90 degrees in the Northwoods has long since faded into the drudgery of another too-hot day that breeds ill temper and drains resolve.
Riika never did well in the heat. The only way we could hunt would be to find cover near water, a backwater elbow of a small stream that she could wade into and lie down and let the waters wash over her. She’d lie in the waters and look up at me. Then, cooled, she’d be ready to go.
Thor was better at the heat. But Thor never hunted with the passion that burned hot in Riika and part of what the hunt brought to me was seeing Riika and her unbridled desire to hunt that inspired me beyond any satisfaction that killing birds would do. I did not care, do not care, about a full game bag. Watching Riika work was a full measure of satisfaction.
Now she’s old and for the past three years I’ve left the woods after the season convinced that she’d never hunt again. Then, come fall, come autumn, come Riika’s time, she’d hunt, against all odds. Last year on a December afternoon I killed the last grouse of my season over Riika and I knew that would be her last day to hunt.
Now I don’t know that. Now I think, “I could take her out for a little while.” We could do a short walk on old familiar trails and we could hope to bust out a grouse or woodcock and I’d miss the shot but I wouldn’t care, wouldn’t care at all as long as Riika had bird scent one more time.
I hold the promise of the hunt to come. It will come as will come the frost and the leaf fall and the shortening days. It will ride in on north wind and chill. We will hunt for birds, yes, but more, we will hunt for memories, for moments, for the ceremony of it all; we will hunt for things light as a feather on the September breeze, as fleeting as the drift of a falling leaf, as precious as the look in an old dog’s golden eyes.