A couple days ago we observed the Columbus Day holiday. The brilliant fall colors and the extended Indian summer we had the last couple weeks reminded me of a Columbus Day outing years ago.
It was 1984, and we were living in northeastern North Dakota at that time. One of the things we learned to love about the area was mostly a secret from most people who live or travel through that prairie state.
In that northeastern corner of the state, on the edge of ancient Lake Agassiz and the modern Red River Valley, is a range of hills; actually the eroded beach of the ancient lake, separating the rich agricultural lands of the Valley from the rolling prairie to the west.
It’s where I first learned about ruffed grouse, the woodland grouse that thrives in the aspens and brushy areas of those hills. Our son, Kevin, and I spent many happy weekends during those years while he was still in high school, exploring and wandering that special place.
Our partner in all those outings was our first Labrador retriever, Sam. She was a female Lab, but we named her Sam nevertheless.
Sam was a special dog and we’re eternally grateful we had her, especially as she was our first Lab. She was great with our kids and a wonderful companion to everybody in the family, as well as a sure, gentle-mouthed retriever.
She was probably at her best with pheasants, but she also did well with grouse. She made me a better hunter than I thought I was, as often I’d shoot at a grouse rocketing away into the forest. I occasionally thought I missed my shot, but Sam had more faith than that and went off in search of the bird, and often surprised me, bringing back a lightly-hit grouse.
In the fall of 1984, Sam, at age 14, was an old, old dog, with a grey muzzle, and not a lot of endurance left in her formerly athletic body. Still, when I put on my hunting boots and got my shotgun out, she was not about to stay home. She was a dog born to hunt and she always had to come.
That Columbus Day holiday still sticks in my mind as a magical day, with the trees at their peak of fall colors, a golden day.
Sam couldn’t tolerate much exercise, though she surprised me when she picked up a scent, then trotted forward and flushed a covey of Hungarian partridge. I regret that I missed my shots.
I don’t remember if we even saw any grouse that day, though I do recall that we got into a bunch of wild turkeys in a wooded creek bottom.
All in all, we had a pleasant outing, with bright sunshine, deep blue skies, mild temperatures, and, again, those golden wooded hills.
The pleasant weather lasted through the week. I was hoping for another outing on Saturday, but the International Scout I had back then needed some brake work, which was scheduled for the following week. My wife wouldn’t let me leave town with those bad brakes.
That Saturday afternoon we were in the backyard. I was cooking dinner on the grill and Sam was romping in the autumn sunshine. “She still thinks she’s a puppy,” my wife said, with a loving smile.
The next morning I was up early as I had to make a road trip that day on behalf of our church. I went downstairs to the room where Sam slept and was shocked to discover that she’d died during the night.
It was a chilly, drizzly day, that mostly matched my frame of mind, though the rain helped wash away my tears late that afternoon as I dug a grave for Sam, before laying her to rest with some pheasant and grouse feathers at her nose to keep her company for eternity.
Since then we’ve said goodbye to several more Labs, though it’s not something we will ever get used to. Still, on golden days of October, I can’t help but remember Sam’s last hunt.