It’s pure serendipity, the two of us being in our late 70s together. Neither of us ever planned on being old. Oh, there was the undeniable march of the calendar. But that was always something to be ignored. We didn’t have time to think about aging, we had ducks to hunt.
Planned or not, here we are, both on the cusp of 80, both with beards long ago gone gray. He’s got some arthritis in a leg that causes him to limp when there is rain in the forecast. Time to pay the piper for those youthful retrieves in icy November water. I’ve got a growing list of health issues that often come with the septuagenarian territory. What is — is.
Doc the black Labrador and I joined forces in 2008, when I plucked him and his wagging tail from a litter of eight in a local breeder’s barn. If the old saw about being allowed one great dog in your life is true, Doc is mine. He could do it all afield. In addition to his remarkable retrieving skills, he had a passion for the sport of duck hunting to match mine. That is the indelible bond we carry forward into retirement.
Mornings these days stand in stark contrast to our duck camp. There the alarm jangled in the dark of night signaling the start of a frenetic race to beat dawn to the boat and blind. Toast-gulping, gear-grabbing, Thermos-filling chaos, all with an amped-up 80-pound retriever straining to go, go, go. In retirement, we’re normally up at the crack of 8 o’clock, tending a more gentlemanly pace in our morning routine. Doc often chomps a Milk-Bone after he pads around his outdoor domain sniffing out the telltale scents of night-critter interlopers. I may linger over a third cup of coffee with the morning paper.
Let’s be honest here. Neither Doc nor I has a plate piled high with mandatory activities. One another’s company is enough to fill the day. As a companion, he is always grinning, tail-thumping happy. Always. There’s a lesson there. I find his joy contagious.
My wife was raised in a home without pets. She was always a little nervous around big dogs.
Until Doc. He has a habit of nudging her hand with his nose until he’s certain she loves him too.
The only time I have to raise my voice with Doc is to curb his insistence on introducing himself to every new person he sees. A certain FedEx driver pops out of his truck on our place armed with a pocketful of treats to distract dogs on his appointed rounds. Doc runs right past the dropped treat. He’s far more interested in greeting the driver.
For me, Doc is an in-the-moment attachment to yesteryear’s hunts; to the hundreds of hours we spent together in duck blinds; to wing shots made and missed; to heroic retrieves made in impossibly difficult conditions. When, on our current day walks, we flush a pair of mallards from our back pond, I see again that look. It’s the look that speaks of his love for the hunt.
Oh, did we love the duck hunts. From early October on the Coteau des Prairies in North Dakota to the mid-November sloughs of South Dakota and in our own western Minnesota duck camp in between, we pursued waterfowl with a passion. We were truly the boys of autumn.
As I aged I found hunting partners harder to come by. Deaths, failing health and, frankly, fewer Minnesota ducks thinned the corps of friends I could talk into heading west.
The worst part of hunting alone is making a spectacular shot on a downwind greenhead with no one there to witness it. Doc was always there and anxious to “get back” for the retrieve.
Toward the end of our active hunting careers, bagging ducks became less important to us.
Watching a prairie sunrise from behind cattails; admiring freshly repainted decoys rigged just so on the water; enjoying one another’s company was well worth the drive out and home. And being together now in our dessert days makes all those memories more vivid.
When Doc was in his prime he was recruited by his breeder and matched with a promising bitch as a stud dog. The resulting litter was predictably black, handsome and full of hunting DNA.
This means there’s a good chance, now years later, that a litter of Doc’s extended progeny is squirming under a heat lamp in some Upper Midwest barn. If you are a duck hunter looking for a gun dog, pick the puppy that can’t stop wagging his tail.
Bill Klein is a retired executive and Twin Cities writer.