That dog don’t hunt. So it could be said about our dog Sam – a goofy, spirited black Lab that blessed us with his energy and quirkiness from 1992-2003.
But Sam did hunt, sort of. He just lacked the proper training to hunt like all those fancy dogs that do stuff like retrieve game and listen well.
My wife, Cheryl, liked duck hunting, so we could probably could have benefitted by actually teaching Sam about the things Labs were born to do, but Sam was just a pet from the start.
Sam wasn’t all Lab. We always suspected, with his somewhat lanky build, plus-size ears and stretchy hide, that Sam was part hound as well.
Cheryl had access to her father’s chocolate Lab, Katie, for duck hunting anyway. And she was trained for the pursuit. That doesn’t mean Sam didn’t get to spend time in the wild.
Despite his excitable nature, Sam did well, with some exceptions, riding in vehicles, so he was allowed to tag along almost everywhere. In fact, by the time he was a few years old, I’m certain Sam would have happily resided on the bench seat of my old Ford full time, either asleep and awaiting the next adventure, or seated behind the steering wheel trying to figure out how to start the truck.
He never figured out how to start, much less drive, the truck, though he was a crafty animal, often using his wits to get what he wanted.
Cheryl’s dad left town frequently and Katie was often left to stay with us. Katie absolutely adored Cheryl and Sam would use Katie’s jealous nature to secure the best napping spots.
If Sam noticed Katie was laying in a favored spot, he would find Cheryl. Of course, Cheryl would pet him and talk the obligatory baby talk. This never failed to rouse Katie, and as soon as she moved to get in on the action, Sam would dart to the favored spot and go to sleep. Sam was a pretty good speller, too.
His extensive vocabulary often had us spelling out certain words that caused him to get too excited. In some cases, he eventually learned to get excited at the spelling.
His love of hunting camp, Muutka Lodge, rendered the words “Muutka” and “Lodge” rarely-spoken in our house. And saying “m-u-u-t-k-a” was quickly off-limits as well.
For years, camp was simply referred to as “The Place” in Sam’s presence. Even that got some glances from him, but at least he didn’t break into a happy dance that made the Tasmanian Devil look subdued by comparison.
Sam spent many happy hours at The Place. Watching his excitement build as the truck got closer and closer to camp was both amusing and irritating. One moment I’d be laughing at his intensity, the next I’d be screaming, “Shut up and lay down!” But the ride was just too exciting.
One summer, a branch had the nerve to hang low over the dirt road that the camp is located on. The branch would hit about two-thirds of the way up the windshield when we drove through. Sam would always try to grab the branch, and over the course of a few weeks, came to regard it as quite a nemesis.
About a quarter-mile shy of the branch, Sam was anticipating it with bright-eyed alertness. By the time contact was made, he was a snarling fury of bared teeth and flying spittle that was once again failing to bring down the branch. I’d be yelling and grabbing his collar to haul him back from the windshield.
I’d relate Sam’s adventures with the branch to Cheryl. Once she said, “Why don’t you cut the branch down?”
Why would I do that?
It’s the winter and spring months I remember most with Sam in the woods surrounding camp, though. I’d go shed hunting and scouting and, usually, Sam was along for the adventure.
I never really trained Sam to do any other kind of hunting, so I figured I’d “train” him for looking for shed antlers. I didn’t think it would be too difficult. He loved antlers.
Sam was a voracious chewer, nearly wearing out his welcome as a pup by destroying and consuming everything from shoes to Christmas tree ornaments to trash to carpeting and furniture. Plus a favored and often-repaired teddy bear of Cheryl’s, which Sam seemed to go for any time we left the house without taking him along.
Eventually, though, Sam matured to the point that he only destroyed stuff we gave to him for the purpose. He was extremely fond of rawhide. But it was hard to keep him supplied.
Once, we gave him a 3-foot rawhide bone as a Christmas gift, thinking that would keep him occupied for a while. By the afternoon of Dec. 26, no trace of the 3-footer remained. Back to the drawing board.
It turned out that deer antlers made enjoyable and hard-to-destroy chew-toys for Sam. He loved’em. Of course, I concluded he’d be a natural shed hunter.
There was some concern he’d be unwilling to hand the sheds over, but Sam was without a mean bone in his body. If I was to wrestle one away, he’d never bite. In fact, I regularily put him in a headlock and took his chew toys away. It only added to the fun for him. I had visions of Sam the Mighty Shed Retriever. It worked out a little differently.
The main objective I had in mind while roaming the winter woods was the scouting, so I generally stayed in the woods nearest the shack – the woods I was most likely to hunt the following fall.
In the 1990s, deer in the area exhibited yarding behavior (less common now) and tended to vacate the immediate vicinity by about mid January. That means, though there were some great bedding spots to search early, some of the bucks might still be retaining their antlers when they moved for the winter.
I knew where they went, but stubbornly stuck to my favored hunting areas. It wasn’t an automatic departure anyway. Depending on snow depth, deer sign might be evident later on, or even all winter. There was always a chance.
Sam and I would ply those woods, putting hours and miles in our wake. I think Sam enjoyed it more than I did, even, because he seemed completely unconcerned about finding shed antlers. He never found one. Well, I shouldn’t say never.
One early spring, I was out at The Place to work on something and had brought Sam, along with my stepson Ben and a friend of his, along. While dog and boys roamed the woods, I toiled.
The boys and dog returned later with a fairly impressive find – a big and heavy 3-point shed. One-half of an apparent slick-six (no brow tine). Ben told me, “I saw Sam sniffing it.”
Well, isn’t that special.
It’s not like Sam never led me to animal parts, though. He found many a gut pile, remnants of bird-of-prey-killed rabbits and grouse, coyote and fox skulls, and rank piles of whatever. Luckily, Sam wasn’t mean, so wrestling away rank whatevers he glommed onto only resulted in stinky gloves and not puncture wounds for me.
Though Sam failed to retrieve me any shed antlers, he did on occasion find other external parts from a living creature.
As we roamed a swamp one day, I saw where an uprooted spruce had created a tiny cave. Its roots had mostly pulled from the ground, arching and creating a moss-roofed shelter with one significant entrance.
The scat and tracks littering the entrance were fresh, and I knew what resided within. I wasn’t going to hazard a close look, but Sam was game – despite my protests. As Sam jammed his head in the entrance, I yelled, “No!”
I knew Sam was likely to ignore the plea, but I figured if I kept walking he’d follow. He didn’t follow. A few yards down the trail, I decided I better go back.
I was just in time. Just in time to see a fool dog backing out of a porcupine den with a face full of quills. I had my sheds: Twelve of them – all narrow spikes.
Sam knew he was had, but he wasn’t in poor spirits (he almost never was). He followed me now, but with head held high, like his additional whiskers were just something natural.
About 50 yards down the trail, I sat on the forest floor and called my dog to my side. Arm around his neck, I began plucking the quills. He was remarkably patient for half of them, then balked. I decided we should head back to the truck.
I was able to get all but one of the remaining quills out after we returned home and Sam was drowsy from his day. The last was buried dead-center just beneath his nose and stuck hard. A vet advised me to let the quill be and watch it. A day later, it was out on its own.
“At least he learned his lesson on porcupines,” I thought.
A few weeks later, Sam was roaming the woods near Muutka while I worked on something. I called him when it was time to leave and, eventually, he came running.
He sat atop the truck’s bench seat as we headed out and I noticed a rather prominent whisker jutting from the center of his chin. Yeah, it was a porcupine quill. Sam, not known for his shame, might have been feeling a little humility, judging the look on his face, as I pulled the quill out. At least, apparently, he had backed out of the den faster that time.
As Sam got older, I took him along less and less frequently on my excursions in the winter woods. He seemed to enjoy staying home more and more, where there was a couch and few, if any, porcupines.
Sam was still around at the time, but it was Cheryl that accompanied me when I finally found a shed in the woods Sam and I so often searched.
I was on a tiny red pine-covered island in the midst of a thick spruce swamp when I discovered one side of a 4-point rack hidden under pine needles. I found it all on my own, too. Like Sam, Cheryl had failed to point out any antlers for me.
Well, at least I didn’t have to sit on the forest floor and pluck quills out of her face on the walk out.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.