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Dire Straits

Dire Straits

A story of risk, reward and love for one's dog

Blue skies and sunny days preferred, but not required.

We've all heard the same tired old sermons: Be prepared, say the family and friends; tell someone where you're going; don't go out alone. And admittedly, I've preached them myself--with the requisite air of a sage, of course. But let's be honest: When opportunity knocks, we answer on occasion with a hasty bolt for the big outside, never mind the finer points of planning.

We fling the door open and go--lest it should swing the other way, dooming us to the vagaries of unpaid overtime, or household chores. And in any event, the last of those eye-rollers (don't go out alone) runs directly counter to the paramount goal of many a nature-bound wanderer: namely, the pursuit of a little uncomplicated, uninterrupted peace and quiet.

In the company of none but our own thoughts, and (if we're lucky) a good dog who understands completely, the mind awakens to ancient rhythms, and the spirit comes alive. This, in a nutshell, is why I hunt, and why I'm often happy to go alone. You can drag your buddies down these contemplative paths if you want to, but that tends to crowd the way.

There are exceptions, though. So with the promise of a ducky day and the dawn of a new year, Trek and I struck for the mountains with a couple of exceptional friends. Billy (the two-legged one) was one of the usual suspects: a hard working engineer, tri-athlete, and fellow native of the Sonoran desert. And riding behind in first class, with the other knot-head in the cab of my truck, was his trusty sidekick: a seven-year veteran of the uplands named Tucker, with a nose like desire itself and a canine athleticism to match the drive of his partner in crime.

To ask a couple of German shorthaired pointers along on a duck hunt is to ask a lot. Possessed of a high-spirited nature that borders on the wild-eyed obsessive, they're not known for their patience--particularly where the confines of a damp, chilly blind may be involved. (In fact, the same can usually be said of their owners.) Nevertheless, Trek and I had developed a taste for waterfowl over the years, and of course, we had been boasting--as men and their dogs so often do. We were anxious, therefore, to show off and have a little fun.

It was a chance discovery from the season before: an isolated meadow, sunk amidst the tall pines in the veritable middle of nowhere--a sparsely covered, unlikely spot, rarely visited by serious duck hunters, nor even by the likes of us. It had paid handsome dividends on my last visit, however, and we had the place to ourselves when we finally rolled in, late by the official chart, but still with plenty of time for some jump shooting.

This pearl in the woods before us was frozen over, and dusted with snow--not a particular surprise, as most of the morning had already been spent making similar discoveries. But when I slipped out of the truck for a better look, my eyes traced the path of something sleek cutting for a hidden pocket around the bend.

Tucker fluffed up his pillow as Trek got the nod. This appeared to be a one-dog show.

On that day, at that hour, however unlikely it may have been, the far corner of that pond was stacked three to five layers high with every duck in the northern half of the state. Had we anticipated this, we might have approached with more care. But we didn't. So as we breeched the low rise at the middle, with eyes peeled for the usual single or a pair, we were baffled by an explosion of feathers and webbed feet that defied all expectation.

The haunting aftermath of a bone-chilling close call.

We didn't lift our shotguns. We didn't even cuss very much. We just stood there, slack-jawed, and watched--as hundreds of ducks lifted in unison, scattering for parts unknown. It was a stunning departure from the local norm; but as we regained our senses, a small contingent of rubberneckers dropped within range--demonstrating the persistent laws of natural selection, still at work in a few odd corners of the world.

When a duck hits the surface of a frozen pond on his feet, and of his own accord, the results are invariably comical. When he hits with his bill, however, after folding behind a shotgunner's bead, it's not so amusing; and it's even less so when he mounts a crippled attempt at escape, taking him well beyond reach over thin ice--if he had been within reach to begin with. Which he wasn't.

As the smoke cleared, it became obvious that we were in need of a good field expedient (borrowing a term from the venerable Tom Kelly). So we retraced our steps, hoping to find something useful in the mound of gear back at the truck. The best that we could come up with, however, in response to the question at hand (what the hell do we do now?) was a pair of neoprene chest waders, a 30-foot check cord, and a canine life vest. And with that, we resolved to make do.

The standard procedure (as I recall) for estimating the swim coefficient of a frozen pond involves jumping up and down on the surface of the ice until it either gives in and cracks, or it doesn't. The ice on this pond didn't pass that test. Convinced that it would hold my dog, however, I fastened the cord to his vest and set him on the edge.

Trek and I had dealt with ice on occasion before, and knew of the risks. But as he reached the end of his line, a decision had to be made. And for no defensible reason, in a lapse of judgment that will trouble me for years to come, I let go of that rope.

The gravity of my mistake was clear as the ice took on the appearance of a thin, rotten membrane. Fearing the consequences of calling him back, however, I could only watch. And then it happened. With the bird in his mouth, he turned in the usual manner. The distribution of his weight was lost, and he went through.

A man in good physical condition has perhaps 15 minutes before a situation like this becomes dire. I have no idea what that means in dog minutes. He was in no immediate danger of drowning, but that was of little consolation--a temporary delay to a tragic end: the vision that pounded my conscience as we scrambled a rescue.

I hacked frantically at the ice, using every aid in the vicinity that wasn't rooted to the ground. But soon it became too deep to make further progress, and as the frigid water rushed over my waders, my feet began to slip in the mucky debris below. I was getting in over my head. So I slogged out o

f the water, tormented by an impossible conflict: the pestering sense of self-preservation versus the blind desire to save my dog--at any possible cost.

Billy ran back to the truck as I stripped to my skivvies, desperate for a miracle. But when I resumed the assault, it brought little more to bear. Pounding in frustration, I was pitted against a terrible paradox: both too thick and not thick enough, the ice held me at bay.

Tucker resumes his nap as Trek recovers under a shared blanket in the warmth of first class.

Minutes passed like hours as I watched Trek struggle, still with the duck in his mouth. And a brutal interrogation echoed relentlessly through my mind: What have you done? What the hell have you done?

In due course, his yipping pleas for help gave way to a confused, shuddering whimper. A stark clarity settled over the scene. If I didn't get him out soon, he would die. There was no other choice left. I would have to swim under the ice.

Needless to say, this was a foolish plan; and the voices in my head--those of my wife and my two precious little boys--told me not to attempt it. Nevertheless, I told myself it could be done. It was his only chance. But as I floundered in the water, with tears in my eyes, I caught Trek's stoic gaze. He knew that I couldn't risk it; and he didn't want me to try.

Tremendous rewards can be realized while roaming the wilds alone; but they come at a price--measured by degrees of risk and severity. On a good day, you might simply get home a little late, with a set of dead batteries in your modern sense of direction. On a bad day, however, you--or your dog--might not make it home at all. Countless eventualities lurk between, of course, but no matter how well one hedges his bets against the darker end of the spectrum, self-reliance only carries so far. Somewhere along the line, a mistake will be made; and sometimes, those mistakes can be costly.

But miracles do happen; and on this day, we were not alone. My numb despondency was broken as Billy raced back, waving our salvation in his hand: a thin blue cable, 90 feet long. I'd thrown it in with the decoys on a whim the night before, when it fell off the top shelf. I'd figured, what the heck.

With the cable clipped around my waist, I tumbled back in--still out of ideas, but I wasn't about to give up. Vaulting from the mud at the bottom, I slammed the biggest log I could manage against the ragged lip of the ice, now rusted with the blood of my battered forearms. When this had no effect, I began to climb, attempting to leverage my weight. But oddly enough, as I slid onto the surface, I found myself fully supported.

Splayed flat, I scratched my way forward by the tips of my fingers and toes. The chalky aroma of crushed ice filled my nostrils, and seeped into my lungs. Just short of the hole, I went through. The plunge took my breath away. But I refocused quickly, and with a few clumsy strokes, the remaining slush gave way. With a firm grip on his vest, I kissed my dog's frozen muzzle--and yelled for Billy to haul us back in.

The view from shore was haunting: 20 yards away, surrounded by flotsam, the tip of a broken wing reached skyward; but we were not going out there again.

As we rambled off the mountain, I knew my dog would recover; but I wondered if his nerve would be permanently shaken. As it turned out, however, I needn't have worried. Within the hour, Trek was on his feet again.

In the long shadows of the afternoon, we climbed back to the high country. Upon our return, a bald eagle circled low above the broken stage. We watched for a spell, then turned away. The eagle would have his meal.

Trek and I still hunt alone more often than not, but we do our best to avoid foolish repeat performances. Call it our system. No, I'm not a gambling man; and I'm not a particularly religious man, either. But I'm ever thankful in our wanderings, and our pursuit of simple grace — for dependable friends, the occasional stroke of luck, and now and then, a little help from above.

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