Like most Minnesota waterfowlers, Steve Cordts, of Bemidji, the Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist, rarely leaves home without his Labrador retriever.
Until sometime in November, when Minnesota ponds freeze over, Cordts and Larkin, his 3-year-old male Labrador, will clamber into Cordts' pickup on chilled mornings to immerse themselves in dank marshes, hoping that mallards and other fowl arrow from half-lit skies and bank over their decoys.
Cordts' love of Labradors, and the countryside where they serve their ancient callings, puts him in good company — not only with the tens of thousands of Minnesota waterfowlers who will go afield with these loyal animals on Saturday, the first day of the state's regular duck season, but with the late Queen Elizabeth II.
A lifelong dog lover and matriarch of a kennel of more than 20 Labradors — whose charge she commanded expertly — the queen was at heart a country woman who was most comfortable at Balmoral or Sandringham, her estates in rural Scotland and England, respectively.
These were my impressions, at any rate, while observing her over multiple days and while meeting her a few times at Sandringham, where the Royal Family regularly shoots and where she periodically hosted the British Retriever Championship.
When the queen died Sept. 8 at Balmoral, her body departed the 50,000-acre estate in an oak coffin borne on the shoulders of Balmoral's six gamekeepers — managers of the manor's grouse and pheasant shoots.
The image of workaday gillies bearing their queen, and friend, lacked the pageantry of processions that followed in London. But it affirmed the kinship she shared with those of common field interests, whether king or courtier.
A lifelong fancier also of Pembroke Welsh corgis as house companions, the queen first learned about game shooting and retrieving dogs at the elbow of her father, King George VI.
George VI, in turn, had first shot with his father, King George V, whose voluminous driven-bird days were, and remain, unmatched in Britain.
In 1913, he was among a shooting party that felled nearly 4,000 driven pheasants in a day, cause enough even for him, a known bird stacker who shot double guns by Purdey and Westley Richards, to acknowledge contritely, "Perhaps we overdid it today.''
Like Balmoral, and in contrast to other properties owned by the Crown, Sandringham is, or was, owned personally by the queen, following a long succession of ownership by her forebears, beginning with its purchase as a shooting estate in 1862 by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.
Famously, it was Edward VII who ordered Sandringham's clocks to be set a half-hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time to stretch the time available for gunning. This came to be known as Sandringham Time and was in effect from 1901 to 1936.
. . .
I first met the queen at the 1987 retriever championship. My friend Tony Parnell managed Sandringham House and its staff for the queen, and at Sandringham, at various times, he wrangled for me and some of my pals invitations to small receptions the queen cordially hosted.
I had traveled to the trial because of my interest in British Labradors. In demeanor and the way they are trained — without electronic collars — they recalled the Labradors I knew as a kid in North Dakota.
Qualifying for the 1987 championship were 30 or so handlers, including the eventual winner, John Halstead, whose Labrador, Breeze, that year accomplished what no British retriever had done before or since: Win the championship three consecutive years.
Breeze's game-finding had been flawless throughout the two-day trial, and by the end of a driven shoot on the second day, as the judges prepared to tally the four finalists' scores — with Breeze surely the winner — the queen interjected.
To that point, she had been only an observer of the trial, albeit a highly knowledgeable one. Four of her Labradors, after all, would win top placements at the championship during her reign: Field Trial Champion (FTCh) Sandringham Sydney, FTCh Sandringham Slipper, Sandringham Flora and FTCh Sherry of Biteabout.
Both mornings of the 1987 trial, the queen had driven her personal Land Rover Defender to the shooting grounds. The military style vehicle bore a small Labrador emblem on its hood, and the dog carried in its mouth, appropriately, a pheasant.
Emerging from the Rover, dressed in silk headscarf and Barbour overcoat, with wellies keeping her feet dry, and accompanied by a lady friend, the queen was otherwise unremarkable from others in attendance.
Now, only at this last minute of the trial had she weighed in with the judges. A high-flying partridge, she said, had been winged during the drive's final moments and the bird had fluttered down distantly, beyond a walled fence.
With her dogs, the queen regularly picked up pheasants, grouse and rabbits on Sandringham shooting days, and she didn't abide the thought of wasted game.
Which was bad news for Halstead, because Breeze was up next to retrieve, and his chance at a third championship hung in the balance.
If the retrieve could be made, the distance covered might be 200 yards or more, and an impenetrable wall must be scaled coming and going.
"Back!'' Halstead commanded, and Breeze beelined for the wall.
"Get over!'' hollered Halstead, and Breeze scaled the wall and disappeared.
"Go back!'' Halstead called to the unseen dog, directing him to continue further.
Then Breeze again topped the fence. In his mouth was a bird, wounded but still very much alive. The gallery erupted in cheers, and the queen smiled broadly.
. . .
On Thursday, I called Steve Cordts to ask if he and his best friend were ready to hunt on Saturday's Minnesota duck opener.
Shooting time near Bemidji Saturday is about 6:40 a.m., and by then, Cordts said, he and Larkin will be looking for mallards and other fowl to arrow from half-lit skies and bank over their decoys.
"We'll be there together,'' Cordts said. "Hopefully we'll see some ducks, and Larkin will get some retrieves.''
So it goes.