Editor’s note: In honor of Father’s Day, we bring you a story written from a hunting dog’s perspective. That dog, named Bear, works at ScatterGun Lodge near Pierre, South Dakota. But the story isn’t about Bear’s owners/masters, Chuck and Sheila Ross. Instead, it’s about Bear’s father, an aging yellow Lab named Rip, who simply loved to hunt pheasants.
It was 2011 when I arrived a ScatterGun Lodge. At 8 weeks of age, life was a pretty big adventure, and there would be no better place to experience that adventure than ScatterGun Lodge. Once all my brothers and sisters left for their new homes, I realized that I got to stay.
For the next 7 years, I got to spend every single day of my life with my dad, Rip. If you were a Labrador retriever, having Rip for a dad was as good as it could get. He was the product of 12 generations of Labs going all the way back to our owners’ first field trial dog in 1962.
The best word I can think of to describe my dad was “stud.” During his 14 years, he hunted for hundreds of guests. Ask Hank Williams Jr., Gary Sinese, Bobby Knight, Vice President Dan Quale, or who knows how many more, and they’ll all tell you the same thing – my dad was the ultimate hunting dog.
He also was the ultimate dad. When I was little (not that I was ever really little), I would decide it was time to play. Dad wasn’t really into puppy stuff, but he’d lay there and let me chew on him until I got tired, or he had enough. I quickly learned when it was time to quit.
He was also incredibly patient. While there were three of us that stayed with Chuck and Sheila all year, the other hunting dogs came and went each hunting season. Dad always just hung out, giving all the strangers a chance to do their thing.
I do remember like it was yesterday my first hunting season. I had made a long retrieve, and Dad sat at the end of the field waiting for me to deliver the pheasant. About 40 yards from the end of the field, one of the guest’s personal dogs came toward me. It obviously had spotted a rookie (me), and it was going to take my bird. I stopped, the stranger dog growled, and before I could decide what to do, there was my dad. However, he wasn’t the gentle, brown-eyed lover dog that hung out in the entry of the lodge; this was a ball of yellow dynamite, traveling at breakneck speed to deal with a bully. The confrontation didn’t last long, maybe 20 seconds. The wannabe bird thief needed only 8-10 stitches.
To watch my dad hunt was a thrill. He literally soared across the cover with a heart bigger than life itself. How many birds did Dad pick up during his lifetime? Chuck estimates the number to be well over 10,000. Like his dad Maxx, and Maxx’s dad Buster, my dad got to spend his last years in the field hunting from the back of Chuck’s truck. Of course, he knew exactly what to do when he heard Chuck command, “Put it in the truck,” which shall we say is somewhat of a family tradition.
It was in December of 2015 when we noticed Dad was not up to par. He had slowed down, but something just kind of said he needed to go see Dr. Wolf. The diagnosis was pretty straightforward, inoperable cancer. There was nothing anyone could do but just wait. Chuck’s rule was the same with Dad as it had been with all the other ScatterGun retrievers: As long as you can get around and have some quality of life, without pain, you are good to go. And when that changes, you’ll never be kept alive just because it is too hard to say good-bye.
When hunting season came around in 2016, the only one that didn’t know Dad was sick was Dad. He had a great appetite, his tail went from side to side at incredible speed, he knew when it was time to go, and his favorite words were, “Get in the truck.” It was no surprise that he found it more difficult to jump in the back of the Suburban to go home at night than he did to go hunting. Maybe it has something to do with that little extra bit of adrenaline that seemed to show up during the fall.
At 14, that is 98 in people years, he was still a stud. The whining noise he couldn’t seem to control started the instant he got in the Suburban, and it never stopped until he got back home. He would wait at the end of the field (just as he had 13 years earlier as a puppy) and wait for his chance to make one more retrieve. He knew where to sit, he knew where to look, and he knew where to go.
Dad retrieved lots of birds last fall. He got a little slower as the season progressed, and the cancer got worse, but his desire never slowed down for a second. Case in point: It was mid-November, and Dad was in the truck with Chuck, and I was hunting with Tim. It was mid-afternoon when an old rooster took to the sky, and a volley of not the world’s best shots followed. As I headed across the open strip, I knew the bird was hit, but certainly not dead. As I reached peak speed, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye – it was my dad, using every bit of energy his tired body would give him, headed toward that bird. Even though I knew the retrieve would be too far and too tough for Dad, I stopped in stride and sat and watched. I looked back at Tim, who in turn looked at Chuck and a group of amazed customers. Ten minutes later, it was over. Out of the cover, some 200 yards from where he started, came a 14-year-old yellow Labrador with a crippled rooster in his mouth. The return trip back to the truck took considerably longer than the trip out, but the big yellow tail never quit moving. He went to Chuck, laid his head on Chuck’s side, looked up and gave him the pheasant. There were a few moments that no one said a word, they just watched in amazement at the size of my dad’s heart, and his devotion to what he loved to do. I was glad they were all looking at Dad, that way no one saw me cry. We had all been part of something special, maybe, just maybe, the best retrieve ever?
Before we knew it, Christmas 2016 had come and gone, and it was time for the Spring Hunt. Paul Blanchard and a group of really nice folks came from New Mexico, and as usual it was a really fun time. Dad made a few retrieves, but I guess we all knew it would probably be his last hunt – at least here on earth. He got a little slower, it took a little more time to walk from the house to the lodge, and we all knew the cancer was not getting any better.
That spring, Dad did something rather strange. We have free access in and out of the garage at our house. Our routine was to spend the night inside, wait for Chuck or Sheila to feed us, then head to the lodge. For whatever reason, Dad didn’t stay inside with us. At first light, Dad would head outdoors, find his favorite spot on the lawn where he could see the lodge and the fields below, then wait for the day to start. We all knew that the time was getting close, but we continued to spend each and every day being together in the place we so love.
There was a lot of excitement at ScatterGun this spring. Chuck was going to take all of his sons on a once-in-a-lifetime bird hunting trip to Argentina. It was the 2nd of June when Chuck headed to Minneapolis to begin the journey. The night before, Chuck came and sat on the steps with Dad. They talked for a long time about their 14 years together, the people they met, the friends they made, and of course, the legend of the ScatterGun Retrievers. The old yellow dog had turned mostly gray, but those brown eyes were still as deep as the sky was wide. When it was time for Chuck to leave, Dad – with his tail slowly moving from left to right – watched him drive away. None of us knew at that moment that Dad had a plan.
June 6, 2017, would be the day. Dad knew that while sometimes Chuck barked more than a Lab, that inside he wasn’t really that tough. It was time to say good-bye, and Dad knew that Sheila would help him on his way. After all, she was the strongest person in our family.
When Soffie and I saw Dr. Wolf pull up to the lodge, we knew what was happening. Dad’s tumor had gotten worse, he continued to lose weight, and his favorite walk from home to the lodge had become a pretty hard task. Dad had given a lot of thought about getting to be with his dad Maxx, Grandpa Buster, and all the other Scattergun friends that had passed on. Dad told me about his visits with his dad – about a place where hunting season was open all year long.
That morning, Sheila had gone to town and Dad told me about what was going to happen. It would now be my job to take over his place at Scattergun, just as it was his place when Grandpa Maxx left. I told him “no”, I just wanted him to stick around and for things to stay the same. I knew that couldn’t happen, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t wish for it to be. Dad had taught us all so well. Things like loyalty, dedication, patience, and unconditional love were given every single day of his life for 14 years.
Doc Wolf made sure we all had a chance to say good-bye. Bruce and Ronnie had found a perfect place for Dad right next to Maxx in the yard. Dad knew how incredibly sad Sheila was, and wanted her to know how much he loved her and appreciated her help in this last step. Dad also wanted me to let all the guests, guides and staff that had been a part of his life know how much he appreciated their kindness.
And on a dirt road in Argentina, thousands of miles away from ScatterGun Lodge, a 75-year-old man stood with his sons enjoying the hunt of a lifetime. For a moment, the bird-filled sky froze in time, and a warm soft light passed overhead. Dad had stopped to say good-bye on his way home.
R.I.P. You will never be forgotten.
P.S. To read OutdoorHub Managing Editor Dave Maas’ article about the ScatterGun Lodge experience, click here.
Images by Dave Maas