River Falls, Wis.
I remember talking to guys who said if they didn't have a dog, they'd give up bird hunting. Crazy, I thought. Then I buried Aspen, my first Labrador, and knew what they meant.
I was single when I got Aspen as a puppy. It was 1988 and I had just started working for Pheasants Forever as a field representative. I drove a Bronco II and Aspen sat in the front seat with me. We put on a quarter-million miles together, and she and I stayed in every type of hotel, from Hiltons to mom-and-pop joints in Nowhere, Nebraska.
When I met Faith, my future wife, Aspen was a year old. After being with me every day, Aspen wasn't sure she wanted to share me. The first night I picked Faith up for a date, I told Aspen to "stay'' in Faith's apartment. She did, reluctantly, and when we came back she had carried one of Faith's best shoes from her closet to the living room and was lying beside it, as if to say, "I could have destroyed this shoe. Don't try that again.''
I really believe Aspen was half human. It was like she could read my mind. I could take her anywhere, and she'd just walk at my heel. People were impressed. The truth is, she lived more like a person than a dog. So it could have been expected.
Aspen and I trained a lot, and she knew whistle commands, hand signals, the whole deal. Once she started to learn things, everything came easy. But more than training, more than anything, Aspen loved to hunt and was great in the field.
Faith and I have been married nearly 20 years. Dogs have always been part of our life together, and we now have an older Lab named Rosie and a new pup, Baylee. But we'll never forget Aspen. Her picture is still on our refrigerator.
It was 1999 when Aspen and I were in North Dakota, duck hunting and chicken hunting, that I noticed one of her eyes had clouded over red. The vet said it was cancer.
Three weeks later, Faith and I buried her. Before we did, Aspen and I ran to Nebraska to hunt pheasants a last time. While there, I knocked down a rooster in heavy grass, and sent Aspen in the direction I thought the bird fell. Aspen soon returned with the rooster from a different direction.
Nearly 11 years after she came into my life, and I still didn't realize she knew more about bird hunting than I did. I should have.
Rick Young is Pheasants Forever's vice-president of field operations.