If a portrait photo is meant to reveal human complexities, my favorite images are the ones in which the subject takes on the photographer. Instead of a picture worth a thousand words, you get the feeling the person photographed got the last word. They stare down the lens, defying it to steal their soul or disrespect their spirit. Like the iconic image of a Sioux Indian who wrapped himself in a blanket at the end of a photo session and glared at the camera, some portraits tell a story, others witness one.
When Steve suggested we stop for a photo, the two dogs — Winchester and Hugo — were exhausting themselves in deep snow and following the scent of ptarmigan that had flown long before we arrived. I had a willow ptarmigan in my vest. It was Winchester’s bird. He had pointed it, and Hugo had charged across the side of the hill to claim it as his own.
After 20 minutes of catching up to the dogs and steering them away from the rest of the flock, we were down in the valley. The snow was deep and soft — tough on snowshoes and the dogs’ feet. We had watched them “run” to each point in leaps that displaced snow in beautiful puffs of white as they interlaced each other in slow motion.
“They need a break,” Steve said. I agreed.
Neither dog is keen on breaks. A photo is usually an opportunity to calm them down after too much excitement. I think they have learned the word “photo,” and it ranks in their vocabularies somewhere with “bath” and “vet.”
Hugo came close enough for me to grab, and I scooped him up like a rabbit. As he wrestled me, I pulled out a few of the larger snowballs from his fur and paws. His heart was pounding, tongue sideways, eyes bulging with excitement.
As dogs go, Hugo has little regard for personal space. My photo files are filled with images of him propping himself on me as if the sole reason for my existence is to serve as his furniture. Winchester’s personal space takes up a staggering 20-some-foot bubble, and he acts as though all birds are his.
I doubted we would get the two of them in a photo together.
One of my favorite moments in a given day of hunting is the time when everything stops. You take a break and lay out the bird on a rock or the snow. It’s a ritual of recognition. If we didn’t stop sometimes, the day might get away from us and become a blur of activity. Just as at the end of the day, when you are putting the gun away or plucking the bird, these breaks are good for reflection.
If I had a pipe, this would be a time to smoke and ponder. If I had packed a lunch, we could eat sandwiches. Instead, we take the photo break.
I looked up at Steve and the camera. His face was not behind the lens. Instead, he was laughing at the scene. Hugo was rolling in the snow next to me, and Winchester was growling at us.
“Hugo!” I said. His head popped out of the snow, and he looked around. I scooted next to him and held the bird out to gain his interest. He licked his nostril. Click. He shook the snow off himself and all over me. Click.
Winchester lunged at him, and they rolled in the snow next to me as I hopped to the side. Then, grabbing Hugo, I hugged him to me as he pulled away. Click.
The break was over, and we continued to the next likely willow patch. Winchester’s tail helicoptered like it does when he catches the scent of birds but hasn’t locked in yet. Hugo went in a different direction and gave his own set of “tells” that he was also onto birds.
This is the trouble, I thought, of hunting with two dogs and one gun. Steve had the camera and the GPS controller. I didn’t know who to follow — Winchester, who is never wrong, or Hugo, who needs to be right just once in his young life.
I followed Winchester, and Hugo saw the wisdom of this. He lunged through the snow toward us and then ahead of Winchester’s point and flushed six ptarmigan, well out of the range of my shotgun.
There are only a few opportunities in any given day, and this felt like the turning point. We had traveled far enough that we needed to get back to let the dogs thaw and rest.
We watched the two of them get in line atop our snowshoe tracks for the trek back to the truck.
There are plenty of hunters who don’t take photos. Of those who do, some share candid shots and some seem always to have the classic posed photo of the proud bird dog with its quarry. I am most grateful for photos that reveal the spirit of the day — for us, the time we took to laugh and enjoy our diva dogs.
Other photos may show well-behaved dogs that work well together, know their bird-dog business and fetch, sit and stay on command — the school pictures of the sporting-dog world. You’d never know that most dogs are characters who reveal themselves to you each day in a different light, one that entertains as much as it rewards you for your endeavor.
With a small window of luck, we have both kind of photos from the day, one bird in the bag, several to live wild on the hill, two dogs eating ice cream on the way home in the cab of the truck, and a smile in our hearts.
Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid hunter.