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.