Sentimental Journey to an Old Dog’s Last Hunt

Sam, age 13, and the opening day of the 1983 North Dakota waterfowl season.

I’m not ready to get in the Christmas rush. This past week I’ve been reminiscing, especially after reading the most recent issue of Gun Dog magazine, with sentimental features on hunts with old dogs. That got me thinking of our first Labrador retriever, Sam (for Samantha).

In 1970 we moved to Miles City, Montana in a job transfer and after a decade of renting we bought a house, and after some negotiations my wife and I agreed that now that we had our own home we needed a dog, and that dog would be a Labrador retriever. We answered an ad in the Billings Gazette for Lab puppies, but the owners wanted, as I recall, $100 for a pup. That seemed a little much, we thought, so we declined. Several weeks later the breeder called us back and said they’d let us have their last one for $60, and so a black puppy became part of our family.

Sam turned out to be a great first dog for our family. She was good with our kids, was easy to train, and a good citizen in the house. She readily took to hunting and I learned the pleasure of hunting with a bird dog that could sniff out hiding pheasants and then bring them back if I held up my part of the deal.

If she had a shortcoming it was that she didn’t like retrieving ducks, though after a move to North Dakota several years later she figured out it was part of the job and she did it well.

Together, we learned about ruffed grouse and she had a talent for finding grouse and retrieving them, and even when I thought I’d missed my shot she often ran off in the direction of the bird’s flight and came back with a grouse.

Sam somehow developed a taste for sweet corn and would occasionally go down the alley and raid a neighbor’s garden, and come home dragging a cornstalk behind her. Fortunately, the neighbor, a co-worker, had a sense of humor about this quirk.

Sam helped raise our children and send them off to college, and we kept hunting every chance we had, though she was clearly aging, as her muzzle turned gray and her tolerance for long days in the field diminished.

In the fall of 1984, Sam was 14 years old, but she wasn’t about to let me go off on an outing without her.  On Monday, October 8, I had the day off for Columbus Day, so Sam and I went off in search of ruffed grouse in a wooded creek bottom, the remains of a long-abandoned farmstead, with an old barn slowly collapsing on itself and a couple rusting car bodies.

It was one of those stunningly beautiful days of early autumn, with blue skies and warm sunshine, and with trees at their October best, in my memory a golden day.

Sam mostly trudged at my heels that day, though she surprised me at the beginning of our walk by trotting ahead and flushing a covey of Hungarian partridge. I think I was too surprised to shoot. In fact, I don’t recall shooting my gun at all that day. A highlight of the day was seeing wild turkeys scamper off into the trees.

That turned out to be Sam’s last hunt. I wanted to go out on the following Saturday, but I had an appointment to take in our International Scout for brake work on Monday and Kay wouldn’t let me go anywhere until that was completed. On Saturday afternoon we watched Sam romping in the back yard and Kay remarked, “She still thinks she’s a puppy.”

The next morning I went downstairs to the laundry room where Sam slept and found she had died during the night, her body already cold and stiff. I was an emotional wreck that day, though a light rain helped wash away tears as I dug a grave and laid her to rest with some pheasant and grouse feathers next to her nose to help her find her way.

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