After a couple of rough days last fall in which nothing went my way, a two-day hunting trip to southwest Minnesota with good friends Logan Hinners, Neal Hinners, Todd Jorgensen, their dogs Aspen and Skeet, and my 2-year-old Labrador, Captain, seemed the perfect remedy.
Entering a small state wildlife management area at 9 a.m. on our first day, we made an initial swing through grass, willows and cattails with little more than excitement to show for it.
Then we came to a food plot with tall corn lying about 100 yards from Interstate 90, and Captain and I took the side farthest to the north. In minutes, a hen flushed, then another, then a hen and a rooster. In a fraction of a second, the brightly colored cock bird cleared me, a feathery blur.
Spinning, I tried to align my shotgun with the escapee as Captain charged past me like a missile, thinking I’d knock the rooster down. I appreciated his confidence. But he was wrong. The rooster never presented a shot.
I tried calling Captain back by hitting the tone button on his electronic training collar. Usually, that’s all I need to do to return him to my side. But the wind was blowing hard, and the food plot’s standing corn rattled loudly, so maybe he didn’t hear the signal.
Waiting a while, I followed up with the stimulate button. I heard a “yip” in the distance, so I turned to finish the push, figuring he’d blow past me before I got to the end.
Meeting up with Logan, I waited for a couple more minutes with no sign of Captain. Something was wrong. He always came back. A sick feeling came over me.
In desperation, Logan and I backtracked, and Todd and Neal circled the area. The louder the sound of passing cars and trucks on the nearby interstate, the more panicked I became. For five hours, we scoured our hunting area on foot and by vehicle. Nothing.
We also stopped at every house in the area, and occasionally fired off a couple of shots, hoping Captain would come running. We asked every farmer, mail carrier and utility worker we met to keep an eye out for my dog, and I called both the Jackson County Sheriff’s office and the Lakefield Police Department. Also, we sounded the alarm through social media as we made nerve-racking drives up and down a long stretch of I-90, hoping not to see a dog lying alongside the road.
By sunset we were heartsick. We had done everything we could, to no avail. I was scared and feeling guilty. My dog had vanished without a trace, and I had absolutely no idea what more we could do. I did not look forward to telling my two daughters I had lost Captain. They thought of him as a little brother.
Wherever he was, he’d be on his own that night. Before that, the biggest hardship he’d endured in his young life was getting a chicken-flavored rawhide instead of one seasoned with beef. I worried too that because he’s not overly happy engaging strangers, the likelihood of his seeking shelter at a nearby house was slim.
That was it for Captain, I thought, and I left a sweatshirt of mine in the field where we hunted, hoping he might find it and wait there until morning.
When I walked into our house, Claire, my 8-year-old, asked, “How many birds did you get, Dad?”
Then: “Where’s Captain?”
“Wish I knew,” I said.
The girls were in shock, but my wife, Cate, told them to stay positive, and that we would go back in the morning to find him.
Privately, I told Cate I didn’t think we would see Captain again. But she would have none of my negativity, and got to work making “lost dog’’ signs and double-checking our social media posts.
“He’s a smart, strong dog,’’ she said. “He’ll be there.”
At 5:30 the next morning, with two tumblers full of coffee, Cate and I drove west, where we met up with Logan and Neal and returned to the area where Captain disappeared.
Striding four-wide through the tall corn we had hunted, we reached the spot where Captain and I were last together. Just then, from behind and to my right, I heard what sounded like a freight train blasting through the corn.
Unharmed, he was still wearing his orange vest, his electronic training collar and his identification collar. “Good boy!” I shouted, as Cate, Logan and Neal came running.
Jumping nearly high enough to look me in the eye, Captain was excited, too.
The best we could figure, he had tried to find us in the corn but got turned around and panicked. Other hunters were in the far distance, and perhaps he ran to them and the sound of their shotguns, thinking they were his hunting companions.
I still feel awful about the night Captain spent alone so far from his home, wondering, I’m sure, where his dad was.
He probably never gave up believing I’d come back for him.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was less certain he’d come back to me.
As we walked back to the truck, Captain scoured the edge of the corn, his nose to the ground, checking for birds as he always did — as if nothing had happened.
I thought: Good dog.