A Heartbeat Away from Nothin’

By Ken Mac Donald 

“A heartbeat away from nothin’.” The saying kept racing through my mind as I watched the pup round the corner and head out into the 30mph Nor’easter, 38 degree water, strong currents, waves, and floating slabs of ice. The “Perfect Storm” and she was headed right into it.

“A heartbeat away from nothin’.” When I was yet a professional trainer, I had a good friend, also a pro trainer, that when asked by a client if he should sell a dog for a decent price would answer: “ Hell yes, you’re only a heartbeat away from nothin’.” These hunting dogs, they make their livings doing such perilous things in such perilous places and despite our many precautions, we’re never sure when disaster may strike.

That trainer’s response became a reality for my son and I in an April Nor’easter that raged through northern Wisconsin the spring of 2018. One of the spots where I exercise my two Drahthaars is a gravel road bordered by a small stream that feeds into a large bay, which then empties into Lake Michigan. If I’m not free running the dogs, they’re trained to run in front of the truck while I drive, drink coffee, and give thanks that it’s not me running in front of the truck. Only problem with this system is that the old dog, Lani, is 13 and the youngster, Burley, is two. Lani can only lope along at about 5-7mph while Burley turns the gravel to dust at 15-17mph for miles. This means she is typically quite far ahead of the two old dogs, Lani and I.

A storm was coming in and record snow was predicted, so I wanted to get a good exercise session in before the pooches were housebound for several days. The rain had started and the wind was howling at about 25-30 mph out of the NE; a true Nor’easter. I watched far ahead as Burley dove off the road into a field of tag alder with a creek flowing through it. I wasn’t worried in the least, assuming she had a snoot full of spring woodcock and we’d see her on point in an alder thicket when we caught up. When Lani and I finally arrived, there was no dog. I scanned the tag alder to see if she had a woodcock pinned but no patch of Drahthaar did I see.

When I dumped them out of their kennels I had gotten lazy and not put the electric collars or tracking collars on them, a thing I never neglect. The electric collar is the greatest training tool and safety device ever invented so it’s something mine always wear, and a practice I have adhered to and preached religiously in favor of for over 40 years. The collars are rarely used for corrections, but the dogs are trained to respond to the tone feature. Whoa on one beep, two beeps means no, and three means here.

Handy for silent hunting in the forest of northern Wisconsin or the wind-scoured prairies of the Dakotas. They respond to the same signals on my truck’s horn. Seeing no immobile Draht in the marsh, I scanned the horizon, looking toward the water, and there, at the mouth of the bay with four geese swimming ahead of her, was Burley in hot pursuit. I could think of no more dangerous place for her to be heading. She was a good quarter-mile away and couldn’t hear me or my whistle with the roaring wind shoving the sounds right back into my face. I began honking three honks on the truck horn but she couldn’t hear that either. Soon she was out of sight around a corner and headed straight out into the floating sea of ice, geese, and frigid waters.

I loaded Lani into the front seat next to me and we circled south to see if we could spot Burley. No dog; I got the feeling Lani was happy on the front seat and didn’t care if we found the pup or not as long as she didn’t lose her place of distinction. I went back north to try for a better view but still no dog. Back I drove to the drop-off point, saying a not-so-silent prayer, knowing the pup would eventually return there if able. Still no dog.

By now an hour had elapsed and I was scared. I feared hypothermia and visualized the pup floating dead in the bay, another spring casualty of the Arctic-like waters. I grabbed for my phone to call my wife and tell her I needed help (she’s known that for a long time) and naturally, no phone. It was back on the kitchen table. I did not want to leave that pup but with no choice, I raced back home, yelled at my son to get out there and help me, told him where to meet me, and raced back to where I lost Burley. I felt totally helpless, my thoughts racing and jumbled, literally choking on the fear overtaking me as I visualized what the youngster was going through in the bay. I’m old so this pup would be my last dog and she was something very special to me — one of the great dog’s I have been blessed to own.

My son almost beat me back to the spot and asked what had happened. The dog sleeps with him nightly and I think he sometimes has the mistaken impression she’s his dog. He was worried as well and perhaps a touch irate with the Old Man for losing her. I showed him where I had last seen her and told him to stay there and I would head south again to try to spot her with the binoculars. He was in street shoe and rather than staying put, immediately took off through the swamp to get closer to the bay. I’m often reminded that the dogs mind better than he does.

I circled south and he called me on the cell phone saying he could see her in the middle of the bay but that she was so far from shore she couldn’t hear him. She was so far out he thought she was a duck swimming in the bay at first, but he finally made out it was a dog and at least, for now, she was still alive. Finally, she turned toward shore and my son started jumping up and down and waving his arms at her in an attempt to gain her attention. When she spotted him, she broke off the chase and started for shore. Then the snow started and with the snow another problem: the geese wouldn’t leave her alone.

They were mad, the pup had been chasing them for about two hours. They swam after her and were pecking at her back as she stroked for shore. She’d spin and bite at them, chase them for a while, then turn and head for my son again. Plainly, the bitter cold water and lengthy chase were exacting a toll on her; she seemed to be swimming slower and slower and wasn’t as anxious to chase the geese. I told my son by cell phone that if she could hear him, to yell NO!, HERE! whenever she turned in pursuit of the geese. He did and she gradually made it closer to shore, then turned back for the geese one final time. One more “NO! HERE!” convinced her to heel in to him, out of the swamp and back to the truck. When he and the pup broke out of the swamp and I could see the pup was finally safe, relief surged over me and I immediately knelt down and hugged her.

When she hit shore, she had been in the 38-degree water for two hours and 15 minutes, nonstop. She is a tremendous water dog, as good and as tough in cold water as any Lab I’ve ever owned, and I believe she’d as soon hunt waterfowl as pheasant or grouse. We got her home and dried her with a hair dryer, with her displaying absolutely no signs of hypothermia. When the full brunt of the storm hit, it locked us in the house for three days until a Volvo front-end loader opened us up to the tune of about $500. By the time the storm ended, we had 31 inches of snow on the ground with drifts eight feet high around the house. Had we not gotten her that day, I’m certain she’d have perished that night or following day, engulfed and frozen in the desolation of the swamp.

A week later I took her to Lake Michigan for a walk down the beach and she happily bounded into the water and spent an hour chasing loons in the lake, one loon following another. Oh, yes, this time though, the dogs both had their electric collars on.

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