The farmland along the narrow road on a chilly morning in early October brought back many fond memories. Some were from the homestead abutting the road, and others were from similar-looking farm country in the Dakotas and Idaho, where bird dogs waited impatiently in truck cabs at dawn, and wild pheasant cackled from the field.
An invitation to hunt another person’s property is a gift, and the Tachick Homestead on the Kenai Peninsula has hosted a large gathering of hunters and bird dogs for the annual Women’s and Youth Upland Bird Hunt for over a decade. While Steve and I had volunteered at the event in the past, it had been eight years since we attended.
That is a long time in the life of a bird dog. As we drove 5 miles per hour toward the homestead, I remembered Trigger, an 8-month-old Griffin who pointed and retrieved birds on the farm in 2013. It was my first introduction to his breed, and he grew into a masterful hunting dog.
I smiled as I remembered all the dogs from days gone by — Cheyenne, our chocolate Labrador, in her prime, and a black Lab named Sana. Both dogs are now 12 years old and no longer able to volunteer for a big day of retrieving.
There was also Dixie, a funny little English setter known as a Llewellin setter. She was just a freckle-faced pup then, whose style of pointing birds had an acrobatic flare. As much as I adore setters, living with as many as 7 at one time, Dixie stays in my mind as the most tightly wound ball of affection I have ever met.
Bird dogs have a hallowed place in the hearts of bird hunters, and although the Women’s & Youth Upland Bird Hunt is an annual opportunity for women and youth to learn and participate in shooting and cleaning game birds, bird dogs are a big part of the day.
Beginning in 2020, the Alaska-Yukon Chapter of NAVHDA, a group of folks passionate about bird dogs and bird hunting, be it upland or waterfowl, partnered with the Kenai Peninsula Safari Club International to co-host the annual event, which takes place the first Saturday in October.
The Safari Club provides trap shooting and the opportunity for participants to harvest upland game birds in a stationary setting using retrievers to retrieve downed game. At another station, the Alaska-Yukon NAVHDA gives participants a chance to hunt with pointing dogs and work the field in search of upland game birds. Participants get to see how pointing breeds use their noses to seek out game.
Upland bird hunting can be intimidating for beginners. This has been attributed to everything from the steep learning curve associated with regulations, shotgun use, hunting logistics, cleaning, and preparing birds to the sometimes-formal look of the activity with highly trained dogs and field etiquette.
The event is free for those who sign up, and the clubs provide shotguns, ammunition, instruction, game birds, bird dogs and lunch. Participants receive shotgun training with clay pigeons, and each field is laid out to ensure safety with a safety coach for each shooter and a dog handler for each canine, among many other volunteers.
When we arrived, tents were still going up, and a young Brittany spaniel darted out of the grass — my first glimpse of what would become a paradise for those who love bird dogs.
A man walked past us beside two large munsterlanders, a long-haired breed resembling an English setter. The pair walked side by side at a perfect pace. Out in the field, I could see a friend I had not seen in a while and Magnus, her stately munsterlander, playing together. I had seen photos of him and wanted to meet him “in person” — a term that seems to lack a canine equivalent.
Before I could greet them, I got to meet Chickadee, a sweetheart of a munsterlander, whose person scooped her up for a kiss. I was in dog heaven, but the day was just beginning.
Steve and I wandered over to the field where the retrievers — all Labradors — got bonus practice for upcoming pheasant hunts in the Lower-48.
“This is her favorite day of the year,” one owner said. His yellow Lab sat at his feet, waiting for her turn to retrieve. Alaska dogs don’t often get as much exposure to dogs in game-rich states like North and South Dakota. Here, they retrieved pen-raised chukar and pheasant and looked about as excited as possible for their next chance.
I watched a young girl shoot her first bird on her first shot and saw her mother’s joy at her daughter’s success. All experience levels are welcome at the event — there are mothers and even grandmothers who have attended with their family and friends. At the end of the day afield, everyone returns to the tent to learn how to clean and care for birds to take home to eat.
Steve and I had to leave early, but not before we brought out Rigby, our chocolate Lab, still a pup at one year old, to meet new friends. One of the coordinators suggested letting him retrieve a bird, and he was delighted to help.
As I walked toward the parking area, I saw a dog sitting in the cab of a truck and recognized her immediately. It was Dixie, the Llewellin. She was a little older, and so were we. The years had calmed her, yet she was perhaps sweeter than ever before.
The annual bird hunt is a growing tradition — this year, over 50 volunteers and 30 bird dogs, representing 15 breeds, provided a wide array of individual efforts to help beginners learn how to shoot, upland hunt, clean game, and share a love of all things bird dogs in a safe and joyful environment.
Dogs and people look forward to it each year. I was kind of sorry I had let it get away from me in a busy schedule, and I seemed to pour all of that feeling into telling Dixie how much I missed her and was glad to see her and reconnect because that’s a big part of it, too.
In these difficult and destabilizing times, I realized how important it is to rekindle and share the things we love. And, in the words of Alaska-Yukon NAVHDA Vice President Tracy Smith, “Everything is better with bird dogs!”