But it wasn’t a dog I heard. It was geese, what were soon dozens—?perhaps a hundred—honking to one another in staggered lines just over the trees. They appeared as silhouettes in the night sky, moon shadows flecked by the stars. The hullabaloo was such that even Belle stopped with the sniffing and gazed skyward.
“Whatta ya think of that, Belle?” I asked when the sound of their passing died away. But she was already back nosing at the ground.
I turned the way the geese had flown, straining in the quiet to hear them and imagining for a moment that I could. I remembered what Aldo Leopold said, “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.” When I looked back at Belle, she was merrily gnawing on a pinecone, lost in a moment of her own.
As tentative as she seems, Belle took to the water without a lick of coercion. But then again, introducing a Labrador retriever to water is a lot like teaching a bird to fly. Once again, in matters of instinct, it’s always best that we humans not muck things up by getting too much in the way.
Nancy and I like walking the beach in the evenings. We take both Harper and Belle on those outings, where the dogs run the shoreline unfettered by either leads or commands. When she tires of chasing Harper, Belle likes ?digging in the slick, wet sand where the waves roll up and fall back, leaving crooked, white, frothy lines like snail trials. Plump as a shoat and happily involved in the business of digging, Belle is not always quick or agile enough to dodge the breaking waves. Lake Michigan has given her more than one soaking over the months, but like a duck she lets the water roll off her back.
We’ve taken regular forays into some of my favorite covers. There the grouse are drumming. When I find their dust bowls on the wooded two-tracks, I hunker down until Belle sidles over to give them a smell. She feigns interest, snorkeling in the grit, then bounds off into the bushes, seeking out other smells.
On the two-tracks we cross every mud puddle. Belle quickly graduates to negotiating small streams as deep as her knotty knees. To a little pup that wants to be with you, these obstacles seem no different than a fallen tree across the trail. Belle is compelled by the need to follow.
For her first “official” swim, I choose a shady oxbow on the Platte River that I found in spring while fishing, stalking the grassy riverbanks looking for rising trout. An old beaver dam blocks the lower end, a place I was able to raise a few small browns. Above it, the current runs slack. The water, waist deep, is warm in the sun, the channel so narrow one could easily toss a stone across it.
I find a place to cross, a gentle slope. Belle has only a moment of uncertainty, a fit of puppy splashing when the sandy river bottom vanishes beneath her feet. Along with words of encouragement, I offer her favorite crud-caked canvas bumper, tossing it into the water in front of her. And with that, the floundering ceases. The retrieve, though not exactly textbook, is cause for grand celebration.
Excerpted with permission from Season’s Belle: A Labrador Retriever’s First Year (Countrysport Press, 2002).
For over 30 years the staff at Traverse Magazine has written about the history and natural world of our region. For the web series, Traverse Classics, we've reached into our archives to bring our favorites to our MyNorth.com audience.