From a Monet-like painting with blotches of color and only impressions of fields and trees blending together, the scene at the Willow Lake Sportsmen's Club changed dramatically. The frigid October morning and threat of thunderstorms gave way to the sun's radiant beams. Every leaf and branch now appeared in high definition. For the moment, the will of the gods seemed to favor my plans.
Yes, it was going to be a fine day in Michigan to hunt pheasants with my friends. For each of us, however, this was no ordinary outing.
For Don Hillyer, this day was a chance to return to the fields and hunt, once again, after a 40-year hiatus. For Vince Gordon, it was the fulfillment of a dream he had since growing up in Montana. For Sherie Presta, my fiancée, it was an opportunity to prepare her own version of Babette's feast. For me, it was the fulfillment of a wish that I wished long ago: To see my English springer spaniel do what he was born to do.
It began ten years ago with the heartbreaking task of putting down the last of two English setters that lived with my parents in a northern suburb of Chicago. My father had died the previous year and my mother, active all her life, was now tethered to an oxygen machine battling emphysema. She missed canine companionship and wanted another dog. As the primary caregiver and also working long hours running my own business, I tried to convince her otherwise - to no avail.
On Mother's Day, we went to Orphans of the Storm, a shelter for dogs we supported. Walking the grounds, we saw hundreds of dogs in long rows of indoor-outdoor cages. We gazed in disbelief and compassion at them, almost all mutts, in desperate need of love, care and a home. Strolling past the pens, mom carrying her portable oxygen machine, we set off a ruckus.
Then, I spotted him: A purebred black and white springier spaniel. He was sitting calmly at the back of his cage. Stately, proud, above the fray. His big, beautiful eyes, separated by a pure white stripe, followed me patiently, strategically, while his fellow inmates went berserk. He was selecting us, it turned out, not the other way around.
"How in the world did he wind up here?" Mom wondered. We moved in to take a closer look.
He rose, trotted over to greet us, sat down and put his huge, oar-like paw on the fence. The place was in an uproar, a cacophony of howls and barks. "Take note, my boisterous brethren," I'm sure this charming fellow was thinking, "...for this how you get out of here." His strategy, along with exceptional good looks and disposition, paid off. Coley, named after one of our setters, went home with us.
At the house, free at last, Coley sprung from the car to survey his property, sniffing frantically - the crisscrossing trails of squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, possums, birds - joyfully bounding around the wooded perimeter. Yes, I had increased my responsibilities, but the lift to mom's spirits - and mine - was worth it. When mom rested, slept and eventually died a few months later, Coley was always by her side.
Grieving and contemplating what to do with my parent's beautiful grounds, I would unwind by throwing a cloth, frisbee-like disc for Coley to catch. For hours I marveled at his agility and speed. Whether a low and fast missile or a high curving throw he would catch it with a perfectly timed leap. I think he would purposely hang back to build suspense, snatch it mid-air at the last possible second, then victoriously saunter back to his master.
One spring day, a tradesman and I saw Coley do something I had never seen before. He started to spring, gazelle-like, exploding off the ground using all four legs, straight up in the air and bouncing forward. "He trying to flush out birds," the man said. "You should take him hunting. That's what he was born to do." I agreed. But I was not a hunter and business was all consuming. Nevertheless, his remark echoed in my mind for years.
Bill and Coley at the cabin on Harwood Lake, MI
I did know, however, an experienced hunter. I met Don through Sherie, who I had just started dating. Don and Sherie were close friends and owned a studio in Chicago working as art directors in advertising. Don, 13 years my senior, had grown up in Lincoln, Nebraska in the early 1950s. There were few distractions for a kid back then - just wide-open spaces for Don, his terrier and friends to camp, explore and hunt rabbits. He later joined his father hunting pheasants, a weekend ritual for more than a decade.
When Don retired, he asked me if I wanted to buy his cabin on a small lake near Three Rivers, Michigan. I had spent good times there as his guest and said yes. Built in the 1940s with tongue-and-groove pine paneling and a huge stone fireplace, the cabin sits on a bluff overlooking spring-fed Harwood Lake, home to an abundance of waterfowl - geese, ducks, swans and herons - and loaded with trout, bass and bluegills.
On one of my trips to the Home Depot, in town, I overheard Norm in the paint department talking with a customer about hunting pheasants with his German shorthair pointer. When Norm turned to help me, I asked him more about his day in the fields. I told him about Coley and that while I did not have papers on him I was certain he was from a good line. "You need to see Andrew Green," he said. "He's from England and is an authority on springers. He guides at Willow Lake, north of town." Norm wrote down Andrew's phone number and gave it to me.
"Hello, Andrew Green speaking," said the voice over the phone, his crisp British accent clearly discernable. I introduced myself and explained why I was calling. "Can you and your springer meet me at Willow Lake tomorrow at 9 a.m.?" He gave me directions and a code to open the club's gate. I was thrilled.
Driving back to my cabin, I formed a plan.
Andrew came to America 18 years ago. Before that, he bred and trained English springer spaniels for Talbot Radcliffe, a legend among upper-crust hunters in the United Kingdom and creator of the Saighton line of springers, so named after a certain bridal path on the Duke of Westminster's estate near Cheshire where Radcliffe trained springers as a young man.
After World War II, Radcliffe acquired the historic Presaddfed Estate on the Isle of Anglesey off Wales. It was the ultimate paradise for sportsmen: more than 60,000 acres of pristine land with a lake and quantities of game - rabbits, pheasant and woodcock, flocks of ducks and geese - hard to imagine. Radcliffe, at one time, employed four gamekeepers and raised thousands of pheasants. Well-heeled hunters from around the world came to Presaddfed to acquire springer spaniels bred by the preeminent Saighton Kennels.
Taught by his grandfather how to train and handle bird dogs while growing up outside London, Andrew's reputation as a first-rate trainer was well known to the U.K. hunting community when Radcliffe hired him shortly before the kennel was closed. Andrew bought the Saighton line and moved to a small town near my cabin where he breeds and trains his own line of flushing springers called Saradynpark. His wife, Rebecca, raises Arabian horses.
Coley and I pulled in the heavily wooded driveway and entered though the gate. I expected to see a simple clubhouse, but this place was on par with the stately lodges I had visited out west.
The entrance opened into a spacious room with high ceilings and a large fireplace. On all the walls - even the hallways - were hundreds of animal heads: water buffalo, dik dik, baboon, black Russian boar, elk, kudu, Chinese deer, white tail, mule deer, giraffe, elephant, zebra, antelope and bighorn ram, to name a few.
Were Coley and I still in rural Michigan, or had we somehow been transported to a big-game hunter's estate in a far away land?
Woody Thompson, owner of Willow Lake and also a hunting lodge in South Africa called Kikuyu whose trophies were on the walls, came out from the office and greeted us.
"You're here to see Andrew," he said. Bending down, he scratched Coley's throat and rubbed his ears. "He'll certainly enjoy meeting this handsome fellow," he said. "I hear you'd like to see how he does hunting?"
"Yes," I replied. "I'd like to see what he can do."
"And what about you, would you like to see what you can do?" he asked still stroking Coley's back. Woody didn't mean to put me on the spot, but I nevertheless sensed he was probing and was momentarily at a loss for words.
True, my plan was to organize a hunt for Coley and my friends. In the end, however, I would be a passive observer. I would not experience the thrill of actually commanding dogs or bagging a bird. In the back of my mind was a deeper issue I had been pondering of late: As an advertising executive, what did I really do but try to convince people to buy stuff they really did not want or need? When I explained to hard-working locals - machinists, farmers, bow hunters - what I did for a living over a beer at the Happy Landing Cafe, their response might be a courteous but perplexed, "Is that so."
Before I could utter some vapid reply to Woody, the lodge doors opened and in walked a man wearing a tweed sports jacket and neatly pressed pants. In his early 60s, well groomed with a mustache and goatee, he exuded polish and sophistication.
"Mr. Baltz, I presume," he queried with a friendly smile, extending his hand to shake mine. "I am Andrew Green and it is a pleasure to meet you both," he said. Then, glancing down, he held out his hand for Coley to sniff. Friends made, he squatted down. Coley raised his paw and Andrew took hold of it. "Yes, indeed, a fine springer," he said running his other hand gently over Coley's head and across his back. "Exquisite coat."
We sat by the fireplace. Overall, he had a serious demeanor. As I got to know and admire him, I learned that he approached every aspect of the sport - breeding and training champion springers, field trial judge for the American Kennel Club, guiding, hunting, everything - with professionalism, devotion and high regard for tradition.
An immensely learned man, our conversation touched on a variety of subjects. In his youth, he had been an equestrian show jumper and competitive falconer. Today, in addition to hunting, he is also a respected aviculturalist who, together with his wife, operates a business breeding rare and exotic birds.
Andrew said he developed his passion for birds as a child and, although I sensed a profound connection between his love of birds and hunting, I did not fully understand it. After all, hunting birds entails shooting and killing them.
But Andrew made clear his motive and underlying principle: "The reason I train dogs with the precision and care that I do is for the birds," he said. "You see, a bird that has been shot can fall anywhere - in the grass or in the woods and into thick brush. It is imperative to retrieve the bird so that it does not suffer. That is the proper way to hunt."
I had much to learn but felt a new door opening. "Shall we take your dog outside for a bit," said Andrew, rising from his chair. While he changed into field attire, I stopped in the lodge office. On the walls were photos of Andrew with champion field springers. One was Andrew posing proudly with a springer from his line surrounded by silver trophies, goblets, platters, cups. Andrew embodied all that was good about the sport and its traditions. I hoped that Coley and I might be part of it, if only for a day.
"Then, his eyes locked on mine. He didn't have to say anything, I knew what he was thinking: "So, is it life on the sidelines or in the fields hunting with your dog?"
We went outside to Andrew's car and he opened the rear hatch. Two beautiful English cocker spaniels, a liver and white named Maddie and a black and white named Ria, jumped out to greet Coley. After introductory sniffs, Andrew took a whistle from his pocket and blew it. His dogs immediately came to attention and Coley followed. We walked to a field near the lodge. The dogs eagerly began moving back and forth through the grass, sniffing intently, their tails registering various intensities of scent like Geiger counters.
Andrew assessed Coley then turned to me. "Let's arrange a time to hunt to see how your dog does," he said. "Invite your friends." Coley had passed some sort of basic test and I was ecstatic.
He later explained to me his reason for taking Coley into the field with his trained dogs: "I wanted to see if your dog had any natural tendency to course back and forth as if hunting for something - even if he doesn't know exactly what that something might be - or if he would simply frolic in the field with no apparent purpose.
"Does he put his nose to the ground to try to find a bird's foot scent and then up into the wind to try to find body scent? Is there any indication that your dog is reacting to the scent of game?"
Andrew also related that he was checking to see if Coley had "good action in movement." He defined this action as a specific, almost animated way of moving. "They seem to bend in the middle, almost as if there were a middle joint in their back."
And so our hunt was arranged. In addition to Don and Sherie, I invited Vince. I met Vince on a National Outdoor Leadership School course I took several years ago in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. He was a 15-year veteran of NOLS, becoming an instructor at age 19. We became friends instantly. Our common bond was laughter and fly fishing. Vince invited me to stay after the course at his home in Lander, where NOLS is based. Our bond of friendship was forever cemented fly fishing on the Popo Agie River, a 15-minute drive from his house, more laughter and discussing that unfathomable subject called womankind over a potent, if not entirely smooth, whiskey called Old Crow at the Lander Bar & Grill.
He called me one day to say he and his wife were moving to Lansing, about two hours from my cabin, where she would attend veterinarian school.
Vince, Bill, Don and Coley
Vince's gentle demeanor belied his rugged endurance and superior outdoor skills, in virtually every category, on land and sea. When not teaching winter NOLS courses, he worked in Antarctica as a mechanic on the McMurdo research base and piloted Zodiac boats for search and rescue at the Palmer Station. He was from Cut Bank, Montana, a small town near Glacier National Park. Vince and a good buddy of his grew up hiking and climbing in the Lewis and Clark National Forest and fly fishing on the Two Medicine River. But, the one thing he wanted to do but didn't was hunt pheasants. He was looking forwarded to hunting with his dad, but a divorce separated the two. Vince never got the chance to hunt pheasants until now.
Finally, we were all gathered at the Willow Lake lodge. Andrew greeted us with Maddie. Woody led the way to an area to warm up shooting clay pigeons. Don removed his Remington 870 12-gauge pump shotgun from a worn case. The gun had belonged to his father who gave it to Don when he turned twelve. He kept it well maintained, but had not fired it in 20 years. Vince took out his Ruger over/under 28-gauge shotgun. Don, steeped in the ethos of safety, observed Vince, carefully though discreetly. Later, Don said Vince performed like a seasoned pro. Don and Vince hit every target Woody launched, including numerous mini clays. Andrew and I watched Coley's reaction to the gunshots. He remained alert, eagerly surveying the practice range.
Woody then drove us to the field we would hunt. We disembarked and unloaded gear. Coley and Maddie could hardly contain themselves. Andrew addressed the group, and fixed on me in particular.
"Scent from a bird moves up a field in much the same way smoke would. It is moved by air currents which are affected by the contour of the ground," he said. "Is it flat? Are there hills over which the air will roll? Are there tree lines over or through which the air could travel, making it change its direction? The birds, walking up the field, leave foot scent on the ground, grass or brush they touch," he explained. "But, their body scent is carried by the wind, as well. Smart dogs learn to use the wind to their advantage and a wise hunter will learn how to use the wind, as well, depending on whether he wants to work into the wind, a cross wind, and, in some instances, with it coming over his back."
"Think about this: if the dog is working back and forth in front of you, and the wind is moving into your face, carrying with it the scent of the bird, when the dog crosses that scent line - remember the analogy with smoke - they're going to get a whiff of it and turn into it. They'll work back and forth, moving in and out of it in S-curves or circles. Gradually, those curves or circles will get smaller and tighter until they're right on the line, traveling straight up the scent line."
"There will be other indications: a quick flick of their head, a perking in the eyes, excited body language, accelerated movement of the tail - all indications they're on scent. You need to know your dogs; how to read them. Many people spend a lifetime hunting, but never really learn how to read a dog.
"The other scent a bird may leave behind would be blood or gun powder, if they have been shot and dropped to the ground. Game birds, pheasants especially, have an incredibly strong scent for dogs. It really winds them up and gets their adrenaline pumping."
As we began to hunt, I saw Andrew take a puff on his cigarette and blow into the air. He was checking to see which way the wind was blowing.
Andrew turned to me, "During the time my dog is coursing up the field my whistle commands are as follows: two short beeps and Maddie will turn the opposite direction. If she is moving across the line of Don and Vince and traveling due east and I blow two short beeps, Maddie will turn and begin traveling immediately due west, and vice versa."
"A series of multiple short beeps and she will return to me, or perhaps she is too far out and she knows I am asking her to return to closer range. One long, long beep and she is to stop and look immediately at me for direction, perhaps through my hand signals."
I was enthralled and captivated by Andrew's commands.
Andrew continued, "The whistle should always be a soft whistle, a subtle sound, not a loud, protrusive sound. The English whistles are soft and high pitched, you don't need to blow them with all your might in order for the dog to hear them."
Coley learns from Andrew Green, guide, and Maddie, his English cocker spaniel.
Suddenly, Coley was on to something. "Get in!" called Andrew to Maddie, the command to get into the cover, the brush, the pile of brush in which a bird may be hiding.
"Here we go!" exclaimed Andrew. My heart began pounding.
"You asked me why we want to outthink the dog," said Andrew hurriedly as we followed Coley bounding, gazelle-like, through the tall grass. "It's because when he gets that scent, he's hot to go - everything in his body tells him this is why he is on this earth. This is what he was born to do."
Andrew's words reverberated through my head. This was the moment. I wanted to savor and hold on to it forever.
But this is where your dog can take off, run up the field and flush the bird out of gun range," Andrew warned. "That won't help the hunters. The bird is too far away to shoot. It flies away and is lost."
Vince and Don were moving up field. "Stay in a straight line," Andrew yelled. We heard a clucking sound. "That's the male signaling the hens. He's going to zig zag to throw off your dog."
Then it happened: The sound of beating wings, the rapid flight upward of a ringed-necked pheasant, a blaze of blue and brown feathers. I saw the red splotch around its eye, then heard Vince's shotgun. "Bird down," he cried.
Coley had flushed the bird within range. Maddie, much younger and faster than Coley, got to the bird first, picked it up, feathers covering part of her face, and brought it gently back to Andrew. Coley, more beautiful and majestic than I had ever seen him, followed closely. It was a clean kill.
"You both were splendid," said Andrew to the dogs.
Great shot. Congratulations," Don said to Vince.
I got down to rub Coley's ears and received, in kind, huge licks to my face. "He says thank you," Vince said beaming while holding his bird. "And so do I."
Vince and Don went on to bag their fill of birds. Don demonstrated his mastery of shooting, but had one vexing moment; one he says haunts him to this day. He shot a bird and we all watched it veer off, crash into tree branches on the field's perimeter, then disappear.
"I only shot its legs off," Don said in a hushed voice. "I've never done that before... Damn." The dogs tried, but could not find it.
"It flew over the fence, injured," Andrew said. We all felt bad and Don took it to heart. Only a hunter with his unblemished record and devotion to the proper way to hunt could fully understand his angst. "I know how he feels," Andrew said and I recalled his mandate to retrieve the bird so it doesn't suffer.
Woody arrived in his truck to pick us up. Coley trotted over to him. "Hello, big fellow, looks like you did all right," he said rubbing Coley's ears.
"He certainly did," said Andrew.
"How'd it go?" Woody asked me.
"Wonderful," I replied. Then, his eyes locked on mine. He didn't have to say anything, I knew what he was thinking: "So, is it life on the sidelines or in the fields hunting with your dog?"
At the lodge, we bid farewell to Andrew. "Your dog has what it takes," he said. "I'd like to work with him."
Bill and Coley: an eternal bond of love and friendship
At the cabin, Sherie cooked to perfection three birds infused with rosemary and thyme, roasted roots and served with wild rice. Coley, exhausted, slept blissfully by the fire. Recounting the day's events, laughing and feasting away we toasted to the next hunt.
Unknown to us then, as these things are unknowable, there would be no next hunt.
Don's emphysema got worse and made walking the fields impossible. Vince's wife finished school and they moved to Sequim, Washington where, ironically, the one place to hunt pheasants was closed to the sport soon after their arrival. My engagement to Sherie ended. Andrew Green fell gravely ill.
Last fall, Coley and I went to the cabin. It turned out to be our last and best Thanksgiving together. A few days later, he was dead. He had gone through enough. Soon after his one day hunting with me, he developed diabetes, had two bouts with pancreatitis, a splenectomy and tests for Cushing’s disease. He had surgery in both eyes to remove cataracts and lost one eye all together - an excruciating experience for both of us. Through it all, he never whimpered, a far more courageous being than I.
But then, by the fire, I felt an inner peace that only my cabin and dog beside me can bestow. I gazed out the picture window at swans and ducks floating idly on the glassy water. A huge flock of geese flew over the lake then splashed down. A heron glided low over the water. I looked at Coley, stretched out next to me. His legs occasionally twitched, as they often did when deep in slumber, and from him came a soft groan of contentment. I like to think that, at that moment, he was dreaming about his day in the fields, bounding with heart-pounding bursts in hot pursuit of pheasants, his nose filled with scents unknown to us humans. Coley was doing what he was born to do, with his proud master watching, filled with joy because he, too, had found - or more precisely, discovered - purpose. A most sought-after but elusive thing.
Yes, life can open new doors in the most sublime and wondrous ways. It can also turn on a dime.