Of Gun Dogs, Little Girls & Loss
Spend enough time around gun dog folks, and they’ll explain it to you. There are dogs and then there are those once-in-a-lifetime dogs. Each dog is special, but once in a while there’s a dog that enters our lives and becomes more than simply a four-legged part of our family. It’s as if their sole purpose on this earth is for us. To work with us. To hunt with us. To love on us and our families. That was Beckham.
Scroll through the library of pictures Casey Feininger had of Beckham, and you’d be hard pressed to find one where the dog isn’t completely focused. Whether training, playing with the family or sitting in the blind, he was always on high alert. Always aware of his surroundings, Beckham’s version of rest was seated somewhere near Casey or the kids - back straight, head high and eyes up, waiting for the next flush to come into view. It was always like that for Beckham. It was heaven.
The Incredible Beckham
Beckham was a bourgeoning, beautiful yellow lab of only 2 years. Casey had worked with him religiously, and it was definitely beginning to show. A college professor and high school soccer coach, Casey would get finished with school, grab his 10-year-old daughter Kamryn and his 4-year-old son Cayson, load up the truck and head for the country. With two little ones at Casey’s side and a dog on a mission leading the way, the group would drive the ditches, clear the cattails and slam the sloughs. They’d repeat this process nearly every day.
The flat landscape of Eastern South Dakota made for an ideal place to watch and work a young bird dog. The famous landscape of the Dakotas is also the perfect place to watch a young girl fall in love with the outdoors, her daddy and her dog.
And that’s what happened. Casey and his clan logged many miles that fall and the group was just heating up as the temps began to cool. It was the kind of fall that an outdoor dad dreams about. A great dog at his side. A schedule that allows him to spend time with his family. Healthy kids that share his passion for the outdoors. And the whole system seems to be hitting on all cylinders. Until that fateful day.
The weather was changing quickly, the way it only can in South Dakota. The transition from the mild temps of fall gave way almost overnight to Mother Nature’s bitterness and the cold of winter. On this particular day, the cold had moved into the area in a frenzy. It was the first hard freeze of the year. The kind of crisp cold that will bring tears to your eyes and freeze them as they roll down your face. The kind of weather that waterfowl hunters dream about. But for one man, his daughter and a special dog, these dreams quickly turned to nightmares.
It was an afternoon the family will never forget. Kamryn had yet to hit a bird, but with her youth 20-gauge slung over her shoulder, she was bound and determined to get on the board. Casey was equally determined, but no one wanted it more than Beckham. The trio bundle up and set out as they did every day. With his 4-year-old along for the ride, Casey was optimistic this would be the night.
The quick drop in temperature caused a number of water surfaces to harden. Small ponds, creek edges and other waterways were adding their winter layers, making it a challenge for fowl to find open water. Heavy rains earlier that fall had set up the ditches and creek beds to serve as mini runways for ducks and geese alike.
Driving around, Casey spotted them. A pair of snow geese on the edge of a channel not far off the road. They’d driven past it a number of times that year. A long, narrow ditch that would fill with water after a heavy rain. The perfect rest stop for weary-winged waterfowl.
After parking the truck, he got Kamryn ready and opened the door for Beckham. The geese flushed up in perfect order. Kamryn shouldered her shotgun and fired. It was all coming together as if it had been scripted.
Heart Conditions & Hunting
Casey has a heart condition. At 34 years old, he has a defibrillator placed in his chest. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is a condition where the two sides of the heart are different sizes. This causes difficulty maintaining a safe heart rate. Too much adrenaline, and Casey’s heart rate is unlikely to slow down. The defibrillator would then provide a shock in an effort to return it to a safe level.
Never one to let that stop him, Casey vowed to continue spending as much time hunting as God allowed him to have on this earth. If you’ve spent any time outdoors or enjoy hunting at even a moderate level, you’ll understand the challenge and risks involved for Casey. Maintaining a low heart rate and avoiding bursts of adrenaline while pursuing game is a near impossibility.
Back to the Birds
The shot rang out crystal clear in the cold, open South Dakota air. The goose began to fall and crashed to the earth before working its way towards the bank of water. The ice shelf caused by the cold temps was about 8-10 feet wide before it turned back to open water. Kamryn and Beckham were a good distance from Casey at this point on the other side of the ditch. Beckham lunged after the bird and grabbed it as he slipped on the ice. The awkward fall pushed the giant bird into the water as the sound of ice crashing below him rang out through the clear, cold air. The chill running down Casey’s back was no longer due to the cold South Dakota temps. It was the sight of his dog struggling to get through the ice and out of the water.
Casey sent out on a sprint - at least as fast as his heart would allow. Covering the 100-yard or so distance between them felt like an eternity. When he arrived, Beckham was struggling to fight the layer of ice. Scrambling to free him, Casey urged Kamryn, now screaming, to remain strong for her little brother. Between gasping breaths and tears, Casey worked hard to calm his young family and free his prized pup.
Despite Casey's best efforts, Beckham didn’t make it.
Casey eventually pulled Beckham from the ice jam the dog had created. Cold, wet and scared, he performed CPR and worked to revive the dog for what felt like an eternity. It was no use. As his young family processed what had just taken place, Casey brought his two little youngsters back to the truck. Casey returned and slung Beckham’s lifeless frame over his shoulders and began the difficult walk back to his family at the truck.
Rollercoasters & Redemption
Still in shock, Kamryn said three words that sent Casey even deeper into despair. “I hate hunting” rang out from her tiny 10-year-old voice. The family had just lost the most lovable, purpose-driven four-legged family member anyone could ask for. In leaving, it was clear Kamryn’s love for the outdoors was in jeopardy of departing as well. Casey realized this, and even in midst of the hurt, set out to give her every chance he could to possibly hang on to the love of hunting that had quickly taken hold.
Casey eventually found a new dog, an experience in itself he’ll never forget. He had the perfect pedigree. Casey knew if he would have a chance to redeem Beckham and Kamryn’s love for hunting, this pup - with a sire who was a dock jumping champion and a dame who was a world-ranked fast track racer - was it. Casey worked until the wee hours of the morning with his new lab, Fawkes. He’d get off school, get done with practice and spend hours training. Sometimes he’d work the dog until 1:30 in the morning, only to get up and do it all over again.
When fall hit, Fawkes was ready. Kamryn was ready, too. Casey had done research into a new gun that’d work well for an 11-year-old in the off season. He landed on a full-sized 12-gauge Benelli Super Vinci. Her first time with the gun in hand, Kamryn busted her first three clay pigeons in a row. Her confidence was growing, and the desire to return to the field was growing along with it. Once again it was all coming together.
The first hunt of the year had the same group together again. With her new gun in hand, Kamryn sat in the duck blind with her dad, her younger brother and the newest addition to the family, Fawkes, who was eager to earn his place in the group. There were lots of ducks flying overtop the decoys Casey had carefully placed when suddenly a beautiful Teal decided to swoop within range. Kamryn raised up, shouldered her new shotgun and fired. The bird dropped from the sky and splashed into the cold water. Kamryn had killed her first bird. A quick glance and Fawkes was off. He returned, bird in mouth, and placed it gently in the hand of his teary-eyed master.
It was a bitter-sweet moment afield. With everyone there, the group was able to gain a level of redemption and continue the healing process from the loss of Beckham. There won’t be another dog quite like him. Casey knows that, and so does Kamryn. But for this family, the lessons learned about safety from this tragedy will live on forever. And the memory of Beckham will never be forgotten.
Talk to Casey, and he’ll tell you. He’ll be fighting back tears, but he’ll tell you all about it. “Beckham taught us all a lesson. Since birth, it was like his purpose was for us. We were in love with hunting. And he was a big part of that. He lit a fire inside my daughter and me like we’ve never experienced. We were hunting hard, and with hunting hard sometimes comes mistakes. Beckham taught us a lesson that day, perhaps even saving our lives in the process. No bird is worth risking your safety or your life.”
Casey has a growing family and enough memories and experiences to last a lifetime. Not all of them are fun, but that’s not stopping him. He has a daughter whose goal is to have a 100 snow goose season. She also has a new gun, a new dog and enough gumption for the whole group. There are birds to hunt - and an eager dog that’s ready to work.