My Best Friend Remembered

It started with a handshake. Completing the deal and signing the last of the papers, I looked down at a fluffy ball of blonde fur who apparently was now mine. She quizzically stared back at me as if to ask, “what are we going to do now”? As the next twelve and a half years would tell, we had our share of adventure together. From the early years of potty and house training to the numerous sunrises and sets in the marsh or in the woods, my Penny girl was always up for some shenanigans.

I vividly remember when she was teething as a puppy, how a beloved Christmas dvd vanished into thin air.   My wife and I searched high and low for the disc but stopped looking the following week when we noticed something a little peculiar in the backyard.  As we gazed across the summer grass, tiny dots sparkled with the noon sun in a mosaic pattern.  Upon closer inspection we had found the dvd, evenly distributed through numerous Penny droppings.  We could only laugh at the seemingly indestructible internal organs of our newly acquired pup.  

Then came the field training. My twenty-five year old self was very naïve as to what it would take to get my new pup and turn her into a bird hungry hunter. Although I had read a few books and a plethora of articles, translating that knowledge into reality took quite the effort. Starting by releasing game farm pheasants for her to retrieve, my sheepish grin turned to grimace as Penny looked back at me with a confused look on her face. I could only stand and watch the elegant long grey legs of the pheasants as they dashed off into the wild, and my thirty dollars along with all of them.

After a few years, all my pressed efforts seemed to be paying off. Penny could retrieve most household items on command, and her prowess for hunting grouse was a thing of beauty. Her blonde coat streaking through the thick northern woods reminded me of a lioness surging after its prey on the African plain. It was at this sweet spot that I made the switch to hunting waterfowl. Penny loved the water, and her ability to soar sixteen feet from a dock made me believe that she would be a superb water retriever.

The truth is, we really struggled. The seamless transition that I was hoping for was met with whines, barking, and utter confusion when in a duck boat. I almost stopped bringing her with me completely when I talked to an older friend of mine who had owned numerous waterfowl Labradors throughout the years. I explained my frustration with her behavior, and what he said next completely shocked me. “It sounds like you want a robot for a dog”. Over the length of our conversation, he explained to me that every dog he’s ever owned has had its own little quirks and bad habits. It’s up to the owner to show patience, and to make the relationship work. After that conversation, our experiences waterfowling turned a corner. Instead of showing frustration at every whine, I would just focus on the working birds or the majestic sunset before me. In turn, Penny showed just how good her nose was by blind retrieving birds that had dropped in the deepest cattails or show her excellent swimming ability by chasing down cripples in the thickest muck imaginable.

Over the course of the next years, we spent many days in the marsh.  Whether we were watching the sunrise together or staying close on November mornings to stay warm, we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. When her hips were getting too stiff to hunt, I reluctantly kept her home as I knew her mind was willing, but her body was not able. Watching her struggle through that pain was unbearable, as she could barely stand or walk after a weekend of hunting. 

After a few years of well-deserved retirement, those old hips of Penny’s couldn’t produce enough energy to get her around. That’s when it ended, with a handshake. A tear-filled handshake to the veterinarian who helped her pass into the woods and marsh in the sky.

Her last retrieve

It’s been very difficult saying goodbye for my family and I, so I decided to carve an urn for Penny. I decided to carve a ringneck drake, as that bird was her first unassisted water retrieve. Placing her ashes in the decoy, I felt that she would be hunting with me for the rest of my life. A steadfast reminder of the hours we spent in the great outdoors.

This fall I set her in the water for the opening day of duck season. Being she was in a ringneck decoy; I kept her 15 yards away from the puddle duck decoys we had placed for early season birds. Over the course of the morning, my friend and I sat back to drink some coffee and have a chat. I briefly looked up at the decoys and couldn’t believe my eyes. A hen wood duck sat two feet from Penny’s decoy. I had time to rise as the hen exploded of the water and was quickly sent down again with a thunderclap. I had to smile, as I new Penny sent me that duck. It was definitely an easy retrieve.

North Dakota Bound

The cold October air brushed my face with an electric velocity, awaking me from my slight slumber to a picturesque red-hued sunset.  My friend Jeff sat in the driver’s seat with a sheepish smile, elated to display our current surroundings.  I begrudgingly lifted the lever to raise my seat and say a few choice words to my friend, but stopped short when I glanced out my window.  We were driving directly through the Hobart Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and the scene was exhilarating.   Thousands of ducks fed lackadaisically in the shallow water, as hundreds of their kin buzzed above looking for a seat at the table.  I felt like a kid in a candy store, as beautiful pintails and widgeon, teal and gadwalls were a mere 25 yards away.  With a sly smile Jeff said, “Welcome to North Dakota”.  I had heard the tales, the myths, the legends, but this was my first time trekking to the Bison state in pursuit of waterfowl, and my first taste was invigorating to say the least.  

We pulled into our hotel parking lot in rash fashion, eager to connect with our contact for the next morning’s excursion.  Kevin, a good-humored, laidback farmer whose passion for hunting waterfowl was easy to discern over the phone, greeted us with a promising proposal.  “I watched a thousand greenheads feeding on my wheat field tonight”.  We both grinned ear to ear, but having driven through dismal rain in the last hour of our drive, we placed some concern on similar weather for the morning.  “Oh man, I hope this continues” was his reply.  Apprehensive about his confidence, we agreed on the place and time to meet and put in for the night.  

We awoke to the same steady rain that had soaked our bags the night before, and trudged tiredly north to the field.  The windshield wipers screeched over the damp glass, as we were blindingly greeted by the 10,000 lumen display of Kevin’s trailer, a bright beacon in the dark landscape.  After quick introductions, we began the ominous task of placing several hundred snow geese and mallard decoys in the short wheat stubble.  Luckily, Kevin had invited another four hunters to join our party, and we set the field to his liking in seemingly a matter of minutes.  

I sunk into my layout blind, relishing the relief it partially provided from the dismal droplets of icy water.  We sat in the gray-hued darkness for nearly thirty minutes, when I heard whispers off to my left, “two greenies just dropped in”.  My eyes quickly prodded for the shape of duck heads intermixed in the decoys, when a yell and a barrage of gun fire snatched my attention.  Four dark shapes plummeted to the ground, and twenty more silhouettes darted away from our location in desperate fashion.  “We’re on them today boys”, came a quick statement from Kevin as he raced out to grab the fallen ducks.  As he picked up the last bird, another wave of thirty mallards were careening from the north horizon.  

As the first ten mallards set their wings, I waited for the call to fire.  “Take em!” Kevin shouted from my left. Bam! Bam! A hen mallard fell with my second shot, and a drake pintail sailed over my head.  I quickly spun around my position and surprisingly fell the pintail with my last shot.  I ran to the downed drake like a kid running downstairs on Christmas morning looking for the haul of presents (being from North-Central Minnesota, I had never seen a pintail in the wild or much less a drake).  I carefully carried my prize back to my blind and tried to tell Jeff about the pintail.  I didn’t get more than two words in, when his eyes were immediately drawn upward to the front the decoys.  More ducks were streaming down in groups of twenty to thirty, eager for a seat at the wheat scrap table.  The action came so fast, that I had to remind myself to continue to load my gun.  On numerous occasions, I heard the unmistakable “click” of a dry fire from not only myself, but of my companions to the left and right of me as well.  

After an hour, the action had not slowed down, and I was patiently waiting the next wave of twenty to thirty ducks to dip into shooting range.  “Pack it up boys”, Kevin shouted from the left.  Jeff and I both started laughing, but then we realized he was serious.  As he turned off the motorized decoys in the middle, drake mallards were still landing in our spread, avoiding Kevin as they touched down.  It was then that I understood why he wanted us to end our hunt early.  At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I wiped the rain off of my hat and took a second look.  Directly above me, there were 500 mallards that had formed a cyclone and were circling down to our location to feed.  “Don’t want to educate those guys”, Kevin said as he pointed up.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would be stopping a hunt because there were too many ducks coming into the decoys.  I must have spent twenty minutes watching those magnificent creatures curve ad sail above us.

After we packed up the decoys, we traded pats on the backs and kudos for certain shots during the course of the morning.  We profusely thanked Kevin for taking us out that morning, and all he said was “don’t worry about it, I was hoping they’d do that this morning”.  As Jeff and I left the field with our share of the morning’s success, we couldn’t contain our excitement as our first day in North Dakota was a smashing success.  I realize that these days don’t happen every day, or even every year for that matter, but it makes the next trip so much more exciting, knowing that anything can happen in North Dakota.  The state, the myth, the legend…