The good, the badlands, and the ugly dogs
Remy's tail wagged fervently as he worked the ground ahead. A strong breeze from the west pushed scent perfectly in his direction, and the 19-month-old pup used it to his advantage.
"Good boy," I said. "Find the birds."
Although young, Remy has picked up on the English language in fairly short order. In contrast, it took his owner much longer to decipher tail language; to know the difference between "I'm just a happy hunting dog" and "bird!"
Believe it or not, the signs are subtle; but the real key is the angle of the waggle. A tight vibration that doesn't cross more than 30 degrees either way means the German wirehaired pointer is simply loving life.
"Boy, it sure is a great day," he might think. "And running through this soft grass beats sitting in that dang kennel."
At 60 degrees, he's probably smelling something important, but nothing in close proximity.
Or just rabbit poop. He loves the smell of rabbit poop.
But when that six-inch white wand hits 90 degrees, and the wagging nearly causes Remy's behind to create lift and rise off the ground, mark his words that there's a feather-covered creature hidden somewhere within shooting distance, or at the very least, it was recently.
So when we reached the base of a steep plateau, and that four-legged tracking machine's tail turned into a crescent blur, it was time to heave that shotgun off my shoulder and prepare for controlled chaos.
His mostly linear path turned into a zigzagging cacophony; where his head would jerk in unnatural way as he caught scent, forcing his body from the neck down to catch up. Although seemingly inefficient, he managed to make forward progress, and continued this way up the embankment.
I followed suit, albeit on a slightly straighter path.
North Dakota's heart
Trudging up the steep rise of the hill, I did a quick double-take at something oddly familiar. Menacing red-green cacti with sharp quills were nestled deep in the grass, hidden from view like devilishly clever landmines of pain.
"We sure don't have these in the valley," I thought, as I whipped out my camera and snapped a quick picture. I also mentally noted to check Remy's paws later, just in case one of the half-inch-long thorns snuck up on him.
On top of the big hill - a small mountain, really, at least in this flatlander's perspective - I could see the vast, cragged beauty of North Dakota's eastern Badlands. I'd been to similar areas before, so the countryside was not entirely foreign.
Still, no matter how many times a person sees it, there is something awe inspiring about the almost Martian landscape; the unbridled wildness of draws and cuts and sharp, geometrical edges. A polar opposite to the flat monotony of patch-worked fields that comprise the state's eastern half.
The side I call home.
Riddled across the butte was that tell-tale red rock that gives away a Badland inhabitant faster than a 10-gallon hat or a giant belt buckle: scoria. It's everywhere. In fact, giant unnatural heaps of it could be seen piled up from a mining operation more than a mile away.
All the dirt roads are scoria, and the infamous silt-fine dust works its way into everything. Not a vehicle around is immune from the rusty hue, and neither were we. My khaki-colored brush pants had blood-red stains on the pockets from where water and dust had mixed, and my brown leather boots looked as if they'd been covered in fuzzy, reddish-orange flocking.
That color is part of the mystique of the badlands, and is ironically appropriate. As veins carry life throughout a body, the blood-red roads carry the new-found bounty of this land, oil, and keep the state running at full tilt.
While metro areas such as Fargo and Bismarck may lay claim to North Dakota's identity, there is little doubt its heart can be found it places like Dickinson, Williston and Watford City; sudden metropolises bustling with the throngs of burgeoning economies, populations and the nouveau riche.
Even so, it does not take long to get away from the city hustle, even as the slow-turning pumps of oil rigs dotting the horizon remind us of what lies just beyond it.
Remy crested the plateau and immediately began working its edge. Down below walked my good friend, Andrew Thill of Fargo, who followed behind his own wirehair, Asic, as it meticulously combed through mane-thick prairie grass.
So far, we'd experienced a remarkable weekend, replete with numerous birds, excellent dog work, and more than generous people.
Both of us had been trying to work out a "Wirehair Weekend" all fall with our breeder, Jeff Jalbert of Top Shelf Kennels in Horace. It had come down to the bitter end, but when we received that call on Thursday that he had a hot tip on pheasants and open access to thousands of acres near Dickinson, we jumped at the opportunity.
It just so happened that Jeff's brother, Jason, who works at a dealership, needed to drop a truck off with a loyal customer wanting to trade up from a newer model. We'd have a free ride there and back, plus access to the man's river-bottom ranchland.
It was almost too good to be true.
It wasn't really until we found ourselves in a brand-new, decked-out 2012 Ford Platinum Edition F150, towing a six-dog aluminum trailer from Fargo, when reality sunk in.
And after the more than four-hour drive, after we'd exited Interstate 94 and meandered down one of the characteristic scoria roads, after we'd adventured into the far reaches of North Dakota's vast network of draws and hills and jagged ridgelines, we finally turned onto a long, steep driveway that led to the ranch.
A laser-cut steel sign boasting the ranch's name greeted us, as a bleached cow skull dangled below it.
Descending the mile-long drive, we entered the main yard and were greeted by its inhabitants: at first horses and cattle, but eventually humans, too.
To the east was a log house, festooned with a green steel roof, and across from it sat another house, which nestled comfortably along a pine shelter belt. Scattered around were a number of outbuildings and barns surrounded, in turn, by cattle yards and a horse corral.
It was as if we'd crossed some invisible barrier and been transported back to the Wild West.
The owner of the ranch was an ex- rodeo star, and his powerful grip proved he hadn't lost his eight-second touch. He wore a weathered red down vest, and atop his head sat a black felt hat with flaps.
Everyone shook hand and introductions were made. We were treated like long-lost friends, and in short order were invited in for an early dinner.
"It's only leftovers," the rancher's wife said as she scurried to the barn to grab some juice for her grandson. "But you're more than welcome to join us."
We politely declined, our excitement for the hunt overwhelming any need for sustenance.
After swapping gear from the new truck to the old and reattaching the trailer, the rancher gave us some pointers on where we might find some pheasants before wishing us luck.
From then on, the four of us worked behind a venerable pack of Jeff's dogs - he'd brought five - as well as Asic and Remy. Some stretches of ground proved more fruitful than others, but it was not long until we had collectively sore shoulders and a mess of birds in the bag.
Sunday, bloody Sunday
For late December, we were experiencing remarkably unseasonable weather. Snow that had covered the dead, brown grass in a veil of white slowly faded like a dissolving sheet of tissue paper. Rivulets trickled all around, covering iced up ponds and sloughs with a slushy mixture of snow and water.
Even if I wouldn't have been able to hear or see Remy ahead of me, I knew where he had been. Bright, red blood splattered the snow-covered ground like a modern art masterpiece.
The poor dog had a run-in with a barbwire fence - and lost.
At first I was sure he was a goner. The amount of blood gushing from his gaping maw seemed impossible. But Jeff assured me Remy would be alright.
"Tongue injuries always look worse than they are," he said. "Just rest him a bit and he'll be fine."
I was shaking as we walked back to the pickup truck. I've shot deer with high-powered rifles, and still have yet to witness a blood trail as incredible as the one just now being left by my 45-pound dog. It might as well have been made by a highway construction crew painting lines along the road.
Remy drank water from a bowl, which quickly turned crimson from his dripping mouth. He laid down for a while as the blood pooled below his mouth.
But eventually, slowly, the bleeding subsided. I fought with the instinct to make him rest in the kennel for the remainder of the trip, but decided hunting would suit him just as well.
Besides, if something did happen, if he did pass away, I'd never forgive myself if his last minutes were looking at the inside of a metal box.
One last bird
Remy continued around the edge of the butte, then suddenly turned into the wind and made a 90-degree change in direction. He had the scent, and it was fresh. Like a heat-seeking sidewinder missile, the wirehair quickly crossed the 50 yards that made up the hilltop.
Nearly to the opposite side, he froze in his tracks.
I crept up beside him, then saw the small angular head of a bird.
The ground exploded in a fury of wing beats. Six hen pheasants were airborne in an instant, and disappeared just as quickly.
Remy was gone in a flash, and I yelled "no bird," to cease his pursuit.
About the same time, Andrew and Asic rounded the base of the butte, and we worked in parallel back toward the south.
Both Asic and Remy were almost immediately birdy again, and soon the former locked up on a point of his own.
Andrew stomped the ground and, seeing no bird flushed, released his dog to relocate.
A crescendo of whistling flaps tore through the wind behind me, opposite Asic's point. Spinning like a top, I shouldered my gun and fired the instant gleams of rainbow feathers caught my eye.
A tickertape parade of feathers floated in the breeze, either ascending over the top of the butte or catching on foliage. Remy was on the rooster in a flash, and delivered it to his master's hand shortly after.
The young dog licked blood off his nose, likely his own, and worked at a few obnoxious remnants of bird plastered to his muzzle.
We were almost done with a weekend worth remembering: be it good, bad or ugly.
I smiled as our little troupe continued on its way.