Monday, March 28, 2011

formula 1: grouse-a-palooza

I just got back from the 3rd Armstrong-Umbel Endurance Classic held out in western Pennsylvania on the historic Marienville trial grounds. I still have to write the official report, and so what follows is more about the general experience of not merely a wild bird trial, but a true canine endurance event.

As far as I can tell, grouse dog trialing is a game of faith. It might even be blind faith because a true all-age contender will be out of sight for large periods of time, and ideally seen through glimpses in cover coursing across the front in search of the next most likely covert. It takes faith on the part of handler and dog, again, because maybe 75% of what is happening is happening by sound alone. The talisman of such faith is maybe 1.5" deep and 1" at its widest, often copper, sometimes brass or nickel, frequently with an apostle's name attached. (Bob Sorri's is the one that immediately comes to mind.) The chorus of this faith is the jingle or clank of a bell through the trees, and the whoops and hollers of handlers trying to steer their dogs as the course turns and winds. Wild bird trials take faith, too, because one hopes, prays, and makes mystical incantations that grouse and woodcock will be in those next most likely coverts, and that the luck of the drawing also coincides with the luck of weather, course, and cover.

It was cold this weekend -- which might sound goofy from a guy who takes vacations above the Arctic Circle -- but I doubt it got much above freezing, if at all, all weekend. Long-timers familiar with the courses didn't lament the cold so much as the sunshine, claiming that birds would be even harder to find in clear sky weather. And along with the luck of finding birds, there's also the equally strong prayer that a dog doesn't get pulled off course and out of contention by the white flash of deer, or get embroiled in a painful argument with a porcupine. Both of which happened.

A two-hour stake, especially relatively early in the spring grouse trial season, is itself a game of faith -- especially if you live in the snowbelt and don't have the ability to send a dog south for the winter to be conditioned for a two-hour slugfest through mud, marsh, water, high-bush blueberries, and conifer thickets -- in short, grouse cover. I saw some dogs never get their ground race on, a bunch of dogs downshift noticeably at the hour mark (but still finish strongly, credibly, and to the front), and a handful still pulling away as strong as they started, still craving the next objective. It takes faith to run a dog for two hours. And the dogs that can will make all our dogs stronger.

I don't normally care too much for most of the articles in North American Hunter, but Joe Arnette wrote a great piece in the February/March 2011 issue called 'High Octane Dogs Aren't for Everyone.' He concludes in the following way: "Although I still have no interest in following dogs on horseback, and I've long ago thrown away my track shoes for chasing points, when spring is on the make, I'll continue to dream dreams that will never be. Magical dogs with music in their feet, speed in their stride, and distance in their brain are better left to range the forgiving covers of the mind's eye." (p. 61) Nevertheless, as William Brown wrote in The Field Trial Primer back in 1934, "It [the sport of field trialing] aims to provide competition of the highest kind among bird dogs, to stimulate enthusiasm among owners, and to act as a practical guide for breeders by setting a high standard of performance." (p. 8) In short, while most of these screamers will make the average foot hunter a little nervous, the genetic cache of their stamina, strength, and bird-sense is something all of us would want in even our hunting dogs.

But the game of faith is perhaps even more profound when one considers that, firstly, an all-age caliber dog will be stretching the limits of bellshot. (And keep in mind that at this time of year, in these temperatures, with this much moisture underfoot, handlers were frequently de-icing bells to be sure that their mutual faith could hold.) The paradox of course is that the adrenaline actually only truly spikes when the bell falls silent. The true genius of the grouse dog handler is knowing when the quality of an absence of sound signifies that a dog is now standing a bird -- as opposed to having slipped over a rise, the sound of its moving bell caught in a hollow, trapped by brush. And then triangulating the likely invisible dog's position from a sound that only meant something truly crucial after it had stopped.

In ancient Greek, the word pharmakon has multiple oppositional meanings including both poison and cure. And arguably the bell is the same. I know I'm not alone in saying that when I hunt grouse I don't use a beeper or a bell. And Dennis and Bob have seen the proof of what happens in our western Maine covers when a hard-running, jangling dog approaches a brood sunning by a trail. And so, it was no surprise to come across at least two dogs, stopped and silent, but who before even a flushing attempt was made were indicating that their bird had left, if not as it heard the bell, then perhaps as it heard the relative cacophony of a handler calling point, horses carrying judges, and maybe even the gallery's whispered conversations down the trail. The short version is that the single piece of equipment critical to locating the dog locating the bird may also be the same thing that scares the bird out of its roost.

Besides watching mostly red-phase grouse boil out of covers ahead of dogs standing tall, the other major highlight of the trip was getting to meet Joe McCarl's 7x grouse champion, Hard Driving Bev -- there to be run by Joe's grandkids in a junior handler's stake after the main event. At 12yrs old, a little deaf, and a little heavier from a well-earned life on the couch, she was still looking into the trees, eager to to get going and find just one more ruffed grouse. I can only imagine how many hundreds of grouse and woodcock that dog has smelled and seen -- I know I'm still having audio-hallucinations, wondering if the bells I can hear are really there or just out on the edge of my imagination.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

exciting spring

Just got back from a weekend down in northern Virginia at the Old Dominion Vizsla Club trial on the grounds of the very beautiful Blandfield Plantation. I was asked by my wife to be out the house one weekend in March so she could do our taxes -- and then my field-trial-fairy-godmother, Joan, asked if I'd care to run her nice little (Field Champion) dog, Geena, in a couple of amateur stakes to see if a) I could earn a placement or two towards my judging qualifications, and b) we might get a few more points towards finishing Geena's AFC. That was all the excuse I needed.

Jozsi isn't ready to run yet, so I elected to enter Momo in Amateur Gun Dog as well to merit the six-hour drive. We met up with Jamie Fountain, the professional trainer who is getting Geena and Joan's great dog, Octane, ready for the VCA National Gun Dog Championships at the end of the month. I had first met Jamie at the VCA Nationals in Danville back in 2009 and was really pleased to spend a bunch of time with him. In addition to scouting for Jamie in the Open Gun Dog stake, I also ran his Brittany pup, Chip, in Amateur Walking Puppy, and was then able to scout for my southern friends, Michelle and Stephanie, with their Derby dogs, Luna, Frida, and Reece. All three of them ended up with a ribbon, but amidst three solid performances, the highlight came while scouting Reece.

His third find (of six) was that thing of complete magic that we all want to see a pointing dog do, a full 180 skid stop, high and tight front and back, and a bird too uncertain to move because of his precision and certainty of motion. It was a truly lovely moment in a very competent run. And while at least one other dog ran bigger and required some actual scouting, Reece looked so much like an aspiring, and potentially great, broke dog that he came away with the blue ribbon. I have been to a number of trials recently where it seemed that 'run' was being prized more than anything -- even if the dog was gone for minutes, never found on a bird, and brought forward by a scout -- and this was reassuring to me that even for a Derby stake, bird finding and style were being placed on a premium.

Shortly thereafter it started to rain. The birds started to get wet and the wind even less predictable. Joan's Geena has a heck of a nose and, like Momo, is a bird-finding machine. After breaking away like a bat out of hell and a solid first find, sadly our AGD run together was cut short as Geena then found herself on an exposed slope and stuck a point. I was already working the bird in front of her when the wind puffed from a slightly different direction and indicated that the bird was in fact running behind her, and she did a full 180 to indicate her mistake. I was allowed to relocate her, worked the bird successfully, and sent her on. However with the other dog committing a felony on a random resident pheasant ahead of us, and the rain coming down, Geena's previous footwork was sufficient to now get her picked up and end the brace. In the meanwhile, Momo had gotten bumped to the final brace and hit his first bird within 3-4mins. Three more finds, a perfect stop-to-flush, and a really nice run in the back course, and he and I were having a great time!!! My hunting buddy (who's only been trialed from a horse once before) came through like a champ. He placed FOURTH!!! I was told by one judge that if he hadn't taken a couple of small steps before I got in front of him to work the bird on a couple of his points, he would have placed higher. I knew he'd probably creep some after he saw his first bird, the steps an attempt to stay in contact with a wet, running bird -- and I couldn't really fault him for it. But his style was good and his footwork after the flush great, so I was still really satisfied.


I am also very excited to serve as the official reporter for the 2011 running of the Armstrong-Umbel Endurance Classic, a two-hour wild bird stake under the auspices of the American Field. For those of you who don't subscribe to the Field -- and especially those of us that live in the snowy northeast and would rather be working dogs than digging -- it's almost like a time-travel trip getting that white-covered magazine every week. It's like being a kid again, literally waiting beside the letter box every Wednesday morning for my comics to drop through -- Warlord and then 2000AD -- so's I'd have them to read on the way to school. In this age of Tweeting and Facebooking, actually reading paragraphs devoted to trials big and small all across the country, sometimes months after they'd happened, feels delightfully idiosyncratic.

But then again, I like shooting a hammer gun.

In any case, I was flattered to be asked -- and I hope that I can not merely accurately capture the details of what happens but also the dogs' enthusiasm and application. If I can come remotely close to the skill of the great reporters -- Bill Allen, William Brown, William Bruette, amongst others -- I will be pleased with myself.


Next weekend is back to Virginia to meet up with Jamie again, this time for the Conestoga Vizsla Club trial -- and hopefully Geena and I can figure each other out a little better and maybe Momo can squeak out another meritorious performance. Wish us luck.