It is the getting there that has always been the thing. Drift-blocked roads on normal years and tires spinning. Even with chains on all four.
But this is not a normal year. There has been snow cover, but thin, at best. Enough for tracking. Tracking an unbelled bird dog somewhere off in the Doug fir. A dog you haven’t heard from in a while. The woods completely silent and ears straining for the sound of pant and twig-snap. Nothing. Minutes tick by. Nothing. She’s gotta be on point. Why didn’t you bell that dog? Why don’t she write?
She’s out there somewhere in the thick of it and then you hear a far off sound like the soft roll of distant thunder. The thunder of air and wing meeting silent winter afternoon. You follow her tracks as best you can, marveling at evidence of leaps over ten feet, the vaulting of timber, the tale of a nimble athlete drinking in life. And here she is, frantic pant as if she’s been holding her breath for an hour, nose full of bird and bird pretending to hide then giving up the wait and skying for tree top. Where were you? she asks. I had ’em. You need to learn to keep up.
It’s your fault, not hers. Your fault that you forgot the bell and in the climb up the hill, forgot to manage the dog and took your eye off the game and lost her. Lost her direction and eventually lost her track, even in that new blank chalkboard of new snow. So, one for seed is off there in the timber somewhere. And that’s okay. It is December. The time of gifts. Every minute in the last days of a season is reward. Just being up at this elevation with a shotgun and a good bird dog at this time of year is enough.
You release her again and this time, you stay focused, stay on her. Keep her in range, watch her move through the aspen and fir and gooseberry. You make a big circle, drop down a draw choked with alder and willow and aspen and bramble. Over the logs of granddaddy aspen that fell a decade ago. Then you pick up tracks. Grouse tracks everywhere. The dog is hot, then she disappears behind a stand of trees. Then all is silent.
This time, she is close. This time, you were on it and just behind those trees is where she is. Hidden, but everything is in range. You are certain of it. The gun is ready, safety beneath digit. Heart pounding. Get ready. Step out.