voking the last glowing embers of a bonfire, flickers of crimson, copper and amber interspersed among the barren, smoky gray, timbered hills danced to the song of the north wind. Layered against a cold, billowy, slate October sky, a late afternoon sunbeam burst free from the clouds igniting the scenery. I caught my breath and stood mesmerized. Such a beautiful sight.
I was jolted back from my blissful enchantment as my built-like-a-tank, 20-something son bumped into me. Dustin is severely vision impaired. He has retinitis pigmentosa - RP - which is, in humans, virtually the same thing as progressive retinal atrophy - PRA - is in dogs. Both are genetically inherited and despite continuing research, are currently without treatment or cure. Itís worth noting that spaniels, along with other affected breeds, are being used by researchers at Cornell and elsewhere in hopes of discovering a way to help people afflicted with RP.
Loss of eyesight first became evident when Dustin was about seven years old with symptoms of night blindness and tunnel vision. Over the years, it has progressed, leaving him with only a very small amount of limited central vision. Yet, he has never complained. He has been blessed with a cheerful, always positive attitude. "Without laughing and having fun, it would be a boring world," is his motto.
I knew that Rocky was special from the minute he was born. He was one of a litter of thirteen English springer spaniel puppies. His body was pure white, except for a liver pirateís patch over one eye and another on his side. Field trialer, Wray Upper, of Cambridge, Ontario, who owned the litterís sire, teasingly nicknamed him "clown dog". Even though we hadnít planned to keep a male, I found that I just couldn't part with him... and so he was named Autumnskye Stinger Rocket, in honor of a legendary ancestor, the 1965 English National Field Trial Champion Saighton's Stinger.
Rocky and Dustin have been nearly inseparable over the past decade. He had a wonderful, calm demeanor right from the start. As a young dog, he spent many hours on hot summer days sitting alongside Dustin on the front porch. They listened to Detroit Tiger baseball games on the radio, sipped iced lemonade from a glass and napped. Past times the pair still enjoy.
In the field, Rocky was dynamite. We did little formal training back then other than basic obedience, a few planted chukars, a trip to a hunt club for some pheasants - and he was hunting by his first autumn.
It had been a long time dream of Dustinís to bird hunt with Rocky. Not an easy task even for a sighted person as the terrain can often be very difficult to negotiate. We relocated to northern Wisconsin where we have a beautiful field groomed for dog training right out the back door. Thereís a seasonal pond where we are able to do water work in the spring as soon as the snow melts, which also attracts all sorts of birds on their northerly migration, as well. Although hilly, it is fairly easy walking in our field. I decided to find a way to take Dustin and Rocky hunting. Dressed in a blaze hunting vest, which he could see,
Dustin was able to follow me - walking a few steps behind with Rocky on leash. After our minor collision, I focused on the task at hand. We had reached the end of the two-track trail. We would be working down into a hollow and around a seasonal pond.
I cast Rock into the wind. He quartered the field with a confidence and style that only comes with age and experience. Effortlessly, he glided through the dry field as he worked the wind. Watching him work was in itself, exhilarating. Seeing him make scent and expertly corralled the bird back towards the gun, I could almost hear my heart beat in anticipation. Just thirty feet ahead, the wild ring neck exploded from cover, cackled then flew low and away, brushing the tips of the dry grass with his magnificent tail. The setting sun illuminated his jewel-tone feathers.
It was almost as though it all happened in slow motion. I waited... watching for an opportunity at a clear shot. Unlike the planted pheasants I was accustomed to shooting during training that quickly gained altitude, this wily rooster stayed low and in a direct line beyond the dog until it reached the outer limits of my 12 gauge shotgun. Finally, I was able to fire, but fell short of the mark.
"What was that?" he asked breathless from excitement.
"Dusty, Rock just flushed a rooster pheasant."
"Did you shoot it?"
"I tried, but missed."
"Mom, I heard itís wings flapping as it flew and the cackle!" Dustin was thrilled and I was, too.
It was indeed a beautiful sight.