Just before dawn on Friday, I met Mike Piedt on Sauvie Island, a 26,000-acre agricultural reserve and bird sanctuary at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia about 10 miles downriver from downtown Portland. I followed the tail lights of Mike’s SUV through the misty blackness until the pavement ended and we dropped onto a rutted gravel track that cleaved an ancient oak (above), ending at a private hunting club consisting of a warming hut and several duck blinds sunk into a cornfield at the edge of a fog-shrouded freshwater marsh. Although I’ve lived in Oregon for more than a decade, I’ve never experienced one of the quintessential rights of passage for any Northwesterner: duck hunting. But more to the point, aside from breeding labradoodles for Angel Service Dogs, as proprietor of Killara Ridge Breeding and Research Center, Mike’s wife, Kim, specializes in purebred Labrador retrievers for duck hunters. And I had never seen a bird dog at work. I offhandedly had mentioned this during my last visit to Killara Ridge as Kim and I wrestled with a squirming Tobi (the 10-month-old ‘doodle I’m currently fostering for Angel Service Dogs, who clearly didn’t want to be microchipped or vaccinated), and Mike, an aviator who drives jets for U.S. Air, invited me to join him and Gunner, his primary hunting dog, on their next outing to Sauvie. At the very mention of the word “hunting,” Gunner, the sire of Tres, my previous and most beloved Angel Service Dog pup, yelped and went airborne, leaping four feet off the kennel’s concrete floor.
After shrugging into layers of fleece, down, neoprene and camouflage, Mike shouldered his shotgun, whistled for Gunner (also clad in camo), and together we trudged into the darkness, our boots making sucking sounds in the squishy mud, and waded out onto the marsh, sloshing through thigh-deep thirty-something-degree water. We hoisted ourselves onto cornstalk-sheathed bleachers sunk into the mud and hunkered down on frost-crusted wooden benches. Then we waited.
Waited for ducks that should have arrived at first light. When the sun finally winked over the marsh grass, it was filtered through fog so dense it looked like a lightbulb glowing behind a wet towel. Gradually, the fog boiled away and the sky brightened. Still, no ducks. We sipped coffee from steaming thermoses as our toes grew numb while Gunner sat on the platform of Mike’s blind, staring out over the empty marsh. He looked like this:
Suddenly, a flock descended, dropping like a curtain from the sky and settled over the water. Somehow, I happened to be shooting video at that exact moment:
Now we waited for the birds to take wing, waited for what seemed like an eternity, Mike passing the time by whispering the make and model of airliners roaring overhead to and from PDX, identifying the invisible jets and turboprops by the distinctive sounds of their engines.
When a mated pair soared overhead, Mike reacted. In one fluid motion he took the shot. Thunder, followed by a splash. Gunner leapt off the platform and swam-lunged after his prey, emerging from the cornstalks a few seconds later and leaping onto the platform with a duck dangling between his jaws:
After praising Gunner, Mike reached over and handed me my prize. I cradled the duck in my hands, wondering at how light the creature was, marveling that just seconds ago, it had been alive and flitting through the sky and now here it was, limp and substantial, warming my hands.
As I beheld this beautiful gift, I thought of Carlyle: “One life – a little gleam of time between two eternities.” I’ll literally savor this moment on my next visit to Killara Ridge, compliments of Mike’s Traeger.
Later, at home, I discovered that Tobi, my dutiful little labradoodle retriever, had deposited a desiccated squirrel for me on the concrete pad just outside the back door. Not quite as appetizing as Gunner’s retrieve, but hey, for a working dog, it’s the thought, or rather the instinct, that counts, right?