Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Happy 41st Birthday Chester the Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Chester the Chesapeake Bay Retriever entered the world on June 4, 1973.  His mom, a brood mother for a Chesapeake Bay Retriever breeder from near Shakopee, Minnesota, gave birth to Chester and his 7 siblings early in the morning that day.  The dog breeder, a well-known and highly respected person in those days, focused on Chesapeake’s because in his mind they were the finest hunting dogs on the face of the earth.

The fall before while hunting ducks in an area of lowland forest and wetland along the Mississippi River near Diamond Bluff, Wisconsin, I trudged out to my favorite pond breaking through ice as I walked.  On arrival at that pond I found another hunter had arrived earlier and set up his decoys in the exact spot where I liked to set out my spread.  He sat on a collapsible chair hidden by some cattails and next to him, in a hole created in the thin ice, sat his Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  Despite the cold temperatures and ice everywhere, his dog sat shivering in the frigid water scanning the sky and waiting.  A male wood duck flew by us as the owner and I talked.  He stood up and shot.  As the duck plummeted to the ice his Chesapeake sat motionless waiting for the command to retrieve.  With the duck lying dead on the ice the dog’s owner said, softly, “retrieve.”  The Chesapeake bounded from his icy seat, broke ice with every lunge, grabbed the duck in his mouth, and turned around to return to his owner.  Safely back by the hunter the Chesapeake dropped the wood duck at his owner’s collapsible seat, walked over several feet and shook himself off. Then, with no commands, returned to his icy seat in the open water, plunked himself down and began scanning the sky for more ducks.  I knew instantly that if I ever had a duck hunting dog it would be a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

Dennis Maus, a local barber in Rice Lake Wisconsin was an avid duck hunter and proud member of Ducks Unlimited.  Denny hunted with a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and once, while clipping my hair, bragged to me that he and his son had shot 115 ring-necked ducks one afternoon the fall before from a blind on Red Cedar Lake.  The bag limit for 2 hunters then would have been 10 ducks between them.  When I asked Denny why he shot so many he said “They kept coming and we kept shooting until we ran out of shells.” 

Our conversation occurred in early June 1973 just after I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at River Falls and just before I began graduate school at the same university.  I told Denny of my interest in a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and he told me about the breeder in Minnesota from which he purchased his Chessie several years earlier.  After finishing with my hair cut, Maus called the man to find out the status of any puppy broods that may have been born recently.  As luck would have it one of his brood mothers had given birth to 8 puppies just a few days earlier.  He promised not to sell any of them until Denny and I had a chance to check them out personally.

Most dog authorities tell you that the earliest you should separate a puppy from its mother is at 7 weeks or 49 days of age.  For whatever reason, Denny Maus and I traveled to Shakopee Minnesota on Chester’s 5 week birthday – just 35 days.  We looked at the litter and I picked out the largest and most active puppy in the bunch.  He was a chocolate brown with the hairs on his back already curly.  His skin was oily (an adaptation to help them endure frigid water) and already the webs between his toes (an adaptation to help them swim) were growing and obvious.  I paid the breeder $150 for this magnificent dog and we began the trek back to Rice Lake.  By the time we returned home I had named my dog “Chester.” It had a bit of a Disney-esque ring to it but the name fit the puppy perfectly.

That first evening at just five weeks old, I drove Chester down to the boat landing at the east edge of Montains Lake (long before all of the uplands there were infested with houses) and summarily threw him in the water.  He splashed down, submerged briefly, and then instinctively paddled back to shore.  Unafraid of the water he shook himself off, turned himself around and pointed at the lake’s surface.  Taking the hint I picked him up and threw him back in.  That continued for an hour when I was tired of the exercise.  Five-week-old Chester still wanted to swim.

Duck hunting season 1973 opened on October 1 and on opening day a rapidly growing Chester sat in the front of my 13 foot canoe as we paddled around on Spring Creek looking for ducks. Not long after the 12:00 noon opening bell a flock of mallards erupted from the water’s surface and after three shots rang out three male mallards lay on the water their orange legs kicking.  Without saying a word, Chester was over the gunwale and paddling out to the first duck.  With it safely in his mouth he returned to the canoe, spit the duck out into my hand and turned around to retrieve the second duck.  He repeated the process again and retrieved the third duck.  Just a few days short of being 4 months old Chester had the concept of retrieving down perfectly.

He and I and my former wife enjoyed many days hunting in western Wisconsin.  It seemed that if an animal flew Chester would retrieve it.  Once while tromping around in the woods of an area known as the Mikana Swamp, Chester tried his hand at retrieving a porcupine.  The porcupine won and we wound up at the veterinarian’s office where the painful quills were removed from his mouth. Not one to quickly learn from such experiences a week later Chester tried his hand at retrieving another porcupine in the same forest.  This time the concept of “quills = pain” sunk in and he never tried for another one.

Our first daughter was born on September 2, 1977, and Chester immediately proclaimed himself the main protector of Jennifer.  Despite having known my parents for more than 4 years when they drove to River Falls to see Jennifer when she was just a couple weeks old they walked in the door and found Chester curled up at the base of Jenny’s crib.  My mom took one step toward Jennifer and Chester was on his feet, teeth bared, hair on his back standing on end, and a deep guttural growl flowing from his throat. Jennifer was his baby now and in Chester’s mind only he would determine who could get near her. 

Several years later in North Dakota, my youngest daughter Dana was playing with some neighbor kids.  At probably 2 years old Dana let out a squeal of happiness typical of a child that age.  Chester however heard the squeal differently and assumed that Dana was in danger.  His response was to walk up to the child who caused Dana to squeal, clamp his mouth on the offender’s forearm, and stand there doing nothing more.  The message however was clear “don’t you dare harm my baby!”  The neighbor boy who made her squeal never did that again.

Chester was in heaven when we lived in North Dakota.  I distinctly remember one morning on Sibley Lake in Kidder County.  He and I drove out there and set up our decoys in anticipation of the opening hour of 7:00 a.m.  Right on cue a pair of male American wigeon flew in and I shot them both.  Chester swam out and retrieved them both in his mouth at the same time.  Placing them at my feet he sat down and waited and soon two male mallards flew in and met a similar fate.  Chester retrieved both in his mouth at the same time and lay them at my feet.  With one more duck to go to have my limit we waited until a male redhead flew in and was taken.  With the redhead safely in our bag I looked at my wrist watch – it was 7:12 a.m.  We had a limit of ducks in 12 minutes.  Soon a flock of snow geese flew in and I shot four of them and Chester retrieved them with no instructions.  One goose was injured and swam ½ mile across the lake.  Chester was in hot pursuit and in the middle of the lake as the goose dove to escape Chester dove after him.  Returning to the surface he had a snow goose in his mouth that he returned to me.  Returning to Jamestown we picked up a limit of 3 sharp-tailed grouse and 10 gray partridge and Chester retrieved them all. That evening I went mourning dove hunting with some friends and took Chester along.  Between us we could shoot 50 mourning doves that evening and only because we ran out of shells we took 49. Despite his huge sloppy mouth Chester retrieved each mourning dove for us and never ruffled a feather.

I didn’t know it at the time but Chester’s last hunt was on November 8, 1982.  Friends from Jamestown and I went hunting and of course took Chester along.  Luck was with us as we shot a bounty of snow geese, several mallards and some lesser scaup.  With one duck remaining to fill our bag limit for the day we stopped at a wetland near Cleveland in Stutsman County and set out our decoys.  With a light snow falling and wind whipping a male redhead flew into the decoy spread and I shot it.  Chester picked it up and we all went home.  It was the last duck he ever touched.

A separation and subsequent divorce the following spring resulted in me living separately from my family and my dog.  For various reasons my almost-former-wife was unable to take care of Chester like he should have been, and the one-bedroom apartment I lived in was too small for a dog even if the apartment complex rules would allow.  With no other option I returned him home to my parents farm on his birthday, June 4, 1983. There as I was leaving I scratched his ears and told him I would see him soon but I never did.  My last sight of him was the dog chasing me down the road trying to catch me thinking we would go hunting again.   Despite having been a hunter since 1960 when I was 8 years old I have not picked up a gun or hunted another animal since the day I last saw Chester.  Without him my passion for hunting burned out and has never been relit.

About 2 years later in 1985, Chester bounded out of his dog house to greet the milk hauler who had arrived at my parents farm to pick up cans of milk from the previous day’s milking.  As he drove into the yard the truck driver didn’t see Chester and Chester wasn’t paying attention and soon Chester was underneath the left front tire of the truck.  He died instantly and was buried in the pasture at the southeast corner of our farm.  Twelve years later we spread the ashes of both of our parents on the same patch of that pasture where my dog was buried.  Most of my family seems to reside on that patch of ground now.

There has been only one other dog in my life since the loss of Chester.  Rauxi, a 105 pound Rottweiler who thought she was a human being was owned by a woman I lived with in Washington DC.  Despite the supposed ferocity that everyone associates with a Rotti, Rauxi was a cream puff.  I trained her to bare her teeth and growl when I said the word “Republican” and then trained her that squirrels were Republicans and whenever one showed up in the yard I’d send Rauxi on a frenzied chase across the back yard cleansing it of Republicans.

Despite having Rauxi in my life for 4 years she never could and never would replace Chester.  In fact 41 years after his birth (that is 287 dog years) and 31 years after I last saw him there is not a single day that goes by in which I don’t think about him or mention his name.  I still have dreams about hunting with him on North Dakota’s prairie and I still feel sad that my divorce put him in a situation where what he loved the most – hunting and protecting his family – were no longer a part of who he was.