While driving through the night to beat the sunrise over the hunting grounds that were still a hundred miles distant, our furry hunting partner was tossing and turning in the backseat, dreaming of coursing over harsh terrain and climbing vertical rocky outcrops for a bird he has found. Occasionally he would rise to press his soft muzzle on our cheeks to nuzzle and make sure all was well.
Moments after reaching the entrance to the hopelessly barren and ominous terrain where nature has somehow orchestrated the survival of birds, Winchester is long gone, only visible by the GPS screen communicating his location. A half mile distant, and about 800 vertical feet above, his body goes rigid; only his tail “feathers” blow in the mountain air. You would think he was cast in stone. Finally, after ascending to his position, I search for the small, fuzzy blobs of camouflage feathers that are surely there. Slowly I begin to doubt. I look again to Winchester for reassurance; he ignores me. I turn back and glimpse gray-and-white ghosts flying up the mountainside. Ptarmigan. Ah, no matter. Winchester has struck out again, up the mountain and is coursing the slopes with his head held high, a tireless hunter cast in the memory of his storied English setter ancestry. Moments in time.
One summer day in 2010, Winchester bravely made the trip from his birthplace in North
Dakota to the Delta Airlines cargo office in Anchorage, Alaska, and forever changed our lives.
At seven weeks old he ran across the parking lot on his wobbly puppy legs and promptly pointed a songbird. After catching him, with the assistance of some friendly folks who were mesmerized by this black-and-white ball of energy, we immediately knew he was going to be special.
Pointing dogs are not your typical gun dog, and big running setters are, similar to their only serious competition in the gun-dog world, English pointers, incredibly gifted physical specimens that astound the senses with their prey drive and bird-finding ability.
The wide-open spaces of high country become theaters as their human hunting partners are mesmerized by the ballet conducted before their eyes. The edge of nowhere, places where few have been or will ever go, where even horses cannot climb, these magnificent animals unfold a drama that can find us sentimental gun-dog folks teary-eyed, and grateful for the front row seat to the show.
When Winchester showed up at the trap and skeet range at nine weeks of age he had already been exposed to gunfire in a way that convinced him it was a good thing. A fellow shooter asked, “What are you going to do with a bird dog in territory that has no birds?” It’s a common reaction we Alaskans with gun dogs hear. Most folks here are conditioned to the spruce grouse that are typically taken on the side of gravel roads where they come for grit to aid in digestion, and a dog is hardly required for success. Most hunters, even bird hunters in Alaska, don’t consider ptarmigan as a viable proposition for the gun dog. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game concluded with annual surveys that 90 percent of ptarmigan are taken via snowmobile during the winter months when they can be easily found and shot with .22 rifles or pistols. When they flush they don’t flush far, and some hunters follow the flock, shooting until none are left.
There is an exception to these standards: the whitetail ptarmigan. The smallest member of the ptarmigan family is also its wildest.
Whitetail ptarmigan inhabit country that is foreboding to any type of vehicle traffic, and they live where Dall sheep dwell, way up high. Just getting into these areas is an adventure in itself. If there is a perfect match for running gun dogs, it is this bird. Spreading out across the range they will inhabit a 2,500-acre mountain valley. Setters, with their physical gifts and ability to operate in cold environments all day long, are uniquely qualified to find the birds.
At six months old, Winchester was climbing into sheep country and finding whitetails as if he had been born doing it. Some gun-dog folks were critical of allowing Winchester to run around mountain country at such a young age. Worried that we might be doing something detrimental, we called the breeder to inquire. He laughed and said, “Yeah, most folks don’t get what these setters are about. As long as he is happy and wants to go, let him go.” After the first year of watching Winchester unfold in the field, I was certain that he exemplified the qualities of an extraordinary gun dog – a true once-in-a-lifetime prospect.
Before Winchester’s first birthday we had already decided another setter was necessary. In spite of their physical prowess, even the best of the best dogs cannot hunt in the mountains day after day. Winchester’s GPS collar showed his typical day in the high country covered 30 to 35 miles. So, with a dual purpose in mind, Parker arrived at the same Delta cargo office shortly after Winchester’s first birthday. Having come from the same kennel with equally magnificent bloodlines, she would be Winchester’s relief until she was old enough to breed, and then she would make more setters; two that would hunt with their papa into the foreseeable future. Best laid plans.
When Parker turned two the process of breeding started. Well, it could have started; Parker would have nothing to do Winchester. Parker was smitten with Red, our Irish setter who was neutered. For two cycles she avoided Winchester’s advances, and it seemed unlikely they would ever conceive, but just after her third birthday she came into heat again, and something changed because she was quite receptive. On June 30, 2014, the blessed arrival of the puppies quickly turned into a nightmare because Parker was having extreme difficulties. She was seen by the vet, who induced labor to get the process started. Her labor lasted for three days, bearing seven pups in the first 24 hours and then four more over the next two days. It was a very large first litter, with one stillborn and several extremely small. An emergency trip to the vet, lots of bottle feeding and hoping for the best wasn’t good enough; we lost five more. The last little one was a beautiful tri-colored girl who we held in our arms to comfort until she passed.
We aren’t breeders, and although we had prior experience with litters, this was different. These puppies were special; losing so many was heartbreaking and life changing. After that, any thought of letting the survivors go to other homes was unthinkable. Four boys – Colt, Hugo, Cogswell, Boss – and one little girl named Purdey would never have to leave their family. “Have you lost your minds?” people would ask. Granted, when you already have three chocolate Labrador retrievers (the duck hunters) and three setters it does appear to be a bit irrational. We had the good fortune of unique circumstances which allowed us to foster the relationships that are so important for four-legged hunting partners: my recent retirement coupled with enough space for them to run and grow, and an extraordinary love of dogs. Possible? Yes, if not a bit daunting.
Timing found the pups too young for real hunting when the season rolled around in fall. The experiences with all of our dogs have shown that a critical element in building a relationship is taking them out of their comfort zone and into the field, where they learn that you will always be there for them. Colt, because he looks so much like Winchester, went to the field first. At nine weeks old he rode in his first bush plane to a mountain lake that’s an ideal base to hunt ptarmigan from. Winchester had been injured earlier and could not make the trip, so we hunted with another fella who had a Lab and a setter. Colt ran the mountains with all his might. When he got tired he rode in a small backpack or my wife Christine’s game vest. He had the time of his puppy life, and the way he interacted with us showed the strong bond that trip formed. A few days later, Boss flew into Redoubt Bay with the Labs, and donned camouflage face paint to hide his little white setter face in the blind; he loved every minute. Cogswell, Hugo and Purdey all made overnight camping trips before they were three months old.
There may be something better than a setter puppy snuggled into your sleeping bag, but whatever it is escapes me at the moment. It is said that puppies that stay together, like ours
have, will form a “superbond,” and be less bonded to their people. That might happen, but for
now they are ten months old, and there is no question who they would rather be with. The difficulty is refereeing the fights over who gets to lay in the recliners with us because they won’t all fit – we’ve have tried.
The next chapter for these pups will be written this fall when they follow their magnificent father’s lead into the high country for the season opener. The moment in time when he points the first bird and all of his pups back him up will be the reward of all time. The trouble, the vet bills, the chewed items and everything else that comes with a setter family will mean nothing, and that moment cannot come soon enough. ASJ