By Nick Simonson
If one human year equals seven dog years as the old adage goes, then one dog year is 52.14 days, by my public school math. If that is the case, then 5,214 days – or 100 dog years ago this week – my old lab Gunnar was born in a mom and pop operation just outside of Pequot Lakes, Minn. I recall the evening I picked him up from the farm just off the gravel road, in the warmth of Labor Day in 2004. He and three of his siblings remained from a litter of eight, and I inspected them all as they came to the wire fence and attempted to climb up and out of the kennel.
Selecting the largest remaining male, I lifted him out and set him in the grass. He wrapped himself around my ankle and nipped at my fingertips. As I walked away and whistled, he followed me.
“Does he point,” I asked the farmer, in an effort to confirm the black-and-white classified ad in one of the newspapers I had scoured for hunting dogs in the week leading up to the holiday weekend.
The man grabbed a cane pole stashed behind the shed that provided the pups’ shelter and flipped out a fold of heavy monofilament. A brown wing fluttered down through the air and he twitched it a couple of times through the grass. The dog that would be mine for the next going-on-15 years, lifted his right paw and stood stiff behind what remained of the previous year’s ruffed grouse.
“Sold,” I proclaimed and handed the farmer my money, signed the paperwork and hit the road back to Valley City with the white-coated lab riding shotgun, gnawing on the corner of the fabric console in my blue Ford Ranger.
From that point on, we were in the field chasing doves, partridge, grouse and pheasants at the height of CRP, where the birds were practically on our doorstep. When we weren’t, Gunnar was rooting up the wings I planted around the backyard or in the grassy stretch along the nearby golf course. With the practice, he pointed his first rooster on Christmas Day that year, and with full fields for the next three autumns, we cleared the grass and cattails in Barnes County and beyond in search of any upland species.
With a big move in 2007, we took to the trails of northern Minnesota and each autumn chased thundering ruffed grouse through the pines and popples of the iron range. While my sense of direction sputtered in the sometimes claustrophobic and winding stretches of trees, Gunnar’s remained sharp as the pounding wingbeats would sound in the brush and a ruffie would shoot out into the open, providing a reactionary shot.
Following the economic downtrend of 2009 and a new job opportunity in southwestern Minnesota, we headed to Marshall as the glory days of grassland began to wane on the prairies of the country and CRP acres were replaced by endless stretches of corn and soybeans. While the pheasants weren’t as frequent, Gunnar did everything he could to get them in the air, and we still found more than our share of success on the public lands of Lyon County and the surrounding area for seven seasons before a move brought us back where it all began.
Last season, with a new lab in tow, Gunnar tagged along on a pair of courtesy walks, huffing and puffing through the old family farmstead where the old dog pointed a hen, and then around a small stretch of remaining grass around an abandoned barn on land once leased by the Apache drilling company near Watford City. There, he locked up on a rooster at the end of a scraggly, overgrown caragana row, and the bird flushed without providing a shot through the twisted wall of dead tree limbs and brush.
Now retired, Gunnar spends much of his day on the gray bed in the corner of the living room, occasionally finding the energy to rough up the young dog and wrestle for a minute or two. A bit rickety from a lifetime of running the fields and trails no matter where we resided, he still makes it around the block a couple of times a day and protects the backyard when it’s too hot, or he just doesn’t feel like it and eyes the sliding glass door.
Through ten years of marriage, two kids, two cats, two new dogs, four houses in three different towns, and hundreds of different stretches of land – state, federal, prairie, forest, WIA, WPA, WMA, PLOTS and more – he’s been a fixture in my life and much of my writing – a lodestar in the parlance of our times. And like that guiding light and any good first dog, he will set the standard for what each one that follows should be, until he’s finally called up to his warm space under the table before the hearth in that hunting cabin on the edge of heaven’s golden fields, to keep a watchful eye on me and all the dogs that come after him…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: The author and his lab, Gunnar, on pheasant opener in 2012. Gunnar turned 100 (in dog years) on Tues. Sep. 18, which coincidentally was the author’s 40th birthday. Simonson Photo.