“Well,” I said to Christine. “Not a great start to a new tradition.”
Rather than confuse me with questions, she waited.
“We won’t be able to do the ‘Shoot for the Cure’ this year,” she said.
The mid-May date for the event, a fundraising clay target shoot benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, coincided with my father’s memorial service in North Dakota.
We had shot in the fundraising event the year before, for the first time. We enjoyed it so much that we made an oath to participate every year.
“Next year will come around before you know it,” Christine said.
True enough, and it got me to think about the traditions that evolve over time and maybe why one thing becomes a part of your life for as long as it can be, and another is practically forgotten before the last smoking hull is ejected.
We take an annual trip to the Interior, where ptarmigan hunting season remains open to the end of April, a month beyond the closure in the Kenai Mountains where we usually hunt.
The annual sojourn started with a near-frantic desire to expose a young Winchester, our first pointing dog, to as many wild birds as possible. Wild birds make the bird dog and as a pup Winchester had shown promise that we could not have envisioned. So, off we went.
[Summertime brings the fine and pleasant misery of camping, and thoughts of making it more pleasant]
When we were younger and driven by a lust for life that defies most barriers, we would finish our work days, fill up food and water dishes for Gunner, Cheyenne and Jack, our three Labrador retrievers that would stay home, and hit the road.
We would start north on the Richardson Highway after midnight. One might argue that the stretch of road between Glennallen and Delta Junction, in April, with a full moon, is as pleasant and beautiful a drive as one can find anywhere. The traffic is so light it can be almost spooky, like; did the rest of the world shut down?
Fueled by gas station snacks, our arrival to the hunting grounds, which were a semi-educated guess the first time, came with time for a brief nap before Winchester headed into the alpine. The snowpack had crusted hard during the frigid night hours, providing a solid and fast surface that found a young Winchester nearly out of sight, and on point, in moments.
By midday, we had taken a fair number of rock ptarmigan, and the mission of exposing our young setter to wild birds was accomplished. Twelve hours later, we were home and agreed that making the trip would be a yearly tradition.
Except for the spring when the beer bug prevented much travel, we’ve made the trip ever since, but it has evolved a bit. Turns out that a 1,400-mile road trip, and a bird hunt compressed into 36 hours are doable, but exhausting and perhaps, dare I say, except for the brief time on the ground with Winchester, not so much fun.
Being long past the time when youth demanded wild bird exposure for the dogs to learn their business, the trip has evolved into a pleasant drive through delightful country. Now we can make leisurely stops along the way to renew acquaintances we’ve made over the years.
Thinking about it now, the tradition we started many years ago bears little resemblance to its inauguration today. And yet, it retains that “chicken soup for the soul” quality that, more than anything, drives us to repeat behavior, even when it isn’t “what it used to be.”
On arrival to the grounds we have hunted up north for many years, there was a wall of packed snow left behind after snowblowers had cleared the massive snow load from the road. This presented an obstacle we hadn’t seen before.
“Well,” I said to Christine, “the boys (Hugo and Rigby) probably won’t be able to climb that wall; we may have to go someplace else.”
“Oh,” she replied. “I think they’ll figure out a way. If they smell birds, Hugo won’t give up until he finds a way. I’m more worried about us climbing up after them; we’ve never had to do this before.”
“If they figure it out, then we will too,” I said, while thinking for a moment. “Why don’t we just go someplace else?”
It wasn’t like there aren’t birds all over.
Upon exiting from the truck, it became instantly evident that Hugo’s magnificent nose had caught a bird scent. He ran back and forth along the snow wall, trying to figure his way up. Rigby followed, no doubt wondering what his little buddy was thinking.
“All we have to do is throw a hot dog up over the bank and Rigby will get up there,” Christine said with a chuckle.
In a moment, Hugo launched himself up the snow wall, hooked his claws and pulled himself up, like a rock climber. Christine and I looked at each other, thinking Rigby would not be able to pull his enormous Labrador body up. While we contemplated, Rigby followed Hugo’s lead and launched himself up too.
Hugo went off up the hill in a flash of setter leg and tail feathers, hell-bent on locating the wonderful smell filling his nose, while Rigby, holding to his breeding, paced back and forth along the snow wall, cheering us on as we climbed up, with a fair amount more difficulty than the boys had.
By the time we made it over the wall, Hugo was a dot up the slope, rigid at point. As we moved closer to Hugo, the bird he pointed had gotten skittish and flushed early, flying back our direction. The smart bird flew right between us, offering no shot.
“Let’s go see how the ducks are doing,” Christine said, after coming off another mountain, where Hugo had found birds.
It was her way of calling it a day. We both looked forward to heading to Delta Junction, where we would spend the night in a cabin that had become home away from home. Out the cabin window is a field, among many in the area, where the spring waterfowl migration stops for vittles. Watching them had become a recent addition to the tradition.
Instead of waterfowl, there was snow, lots of it. The owners of the cabin remarked that in 31 years, they had never seen so much snow on the ground past mid-April.
The flooded fields that held thousands of ducks and geese the year before were under three feet of snow.
On the way home the next day, we stopped near a place we often see ptarmigan, south of the open hunting area. Over the years, we had seen ptarmigan perched in trees, but always just one bird that seemed like the goofball of the flock. This time, there were bunches of the brilliant white birds, that had just barely begun to change color with the season. Many were perched in willow trees along a creek bank, nipping buds off the trees for breakfast.
As we lost track of time watching the ptarmigan along a creek bed, we had found another anomaly for a trip that broke new ground for our annual tradition, proving it’s a fine thing to establish a tradition, if only to allow it to lead you to new and greater things.