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The Dalles Mountain Ranch is now a public park located high above the Columbia River in Washington state. In the 1860s it was an active cattle ranch encompassing more than 3000 acres. Large herds of cattle created black spots across the golden rolling landscape as far as the eye could see. Since 1993 the land has been in state hands, and a serious native grassland restoration program has been underway. We wanted to check the progress of the grasses and give the dogs an opportunity for some new ground under their feet.
Cowboy and Gypsy raced ahead bounding between hardy bunches of fescue up the gradual hill. We followed slowly pointing out flower husks and commenting on types of plants. Gypsy was out of sight, and Cowboy ran back down the hill; I stretched out my palm; he hit it full force with his nose and turned and zoomed back up the hill. He was flying and bouncing up and down as he jumped over clumps of grasses reminding me of the dip up, dip down of the northern flicker in flight. Gypsy was being a bit more circumspect; she stalked and hunted for game birds.
The hilltop presented a view of endless other hills, treeless carpets covered with yellow grasses, miles of smooth mounds. The dogs were already down the other side of the hill, when they raced past a low solitary shrub. Up burst a barn owl. An enormous tawny bird with a big head. Cowboy’s eyes yearned upward, and he ran faster and faster —circling – his pounding pattern below matching the circling rising bird above. If only he could fly. Then a raven flew into the arena and the owl and the raven sparred. I ‘d never seen these two birds joust! The owl unsteady and the raven swiveling. The raven kah-kah! The owl —deadly silent.
And, Cowboy following their skylarking barked from below “ I will catch you!” His lungs worked like bellows. Young, strong— his powerful breath propelling him onward. Sprays of dirt shot upwards. He barked, “oh let me fly” as he ran faster and faster and just began to get a little lift.
All I saw was this year old bird dog in his Dionysiac fervor, so I didn’t see the barn owl fly away nor the raven return to its place. But they did leave. While Gypsy ignored this madness, and wove between grasses scenting for Hungarian partridge – remembering she had found them on this hillside before. Ready for the point, she was an elegant, sleek runner that barely disturbed ground or stalk.
When the skies were empty, and everything calm, I looked back to see Cowboy lying down. He was panting so hard; his tongue was hanging down to his paws; it seemed he might implode for lack of air. Where has all this youngster’s air gone? Spent. I shook my head at his folly. Bruce and I began our way back to the truck.
We picked our footing carefully as we stepped down the hillside, and Cowboy finally got up and followed weaving like a drunk, making a dozen steps, and flopping back down.
This was the procession down hill. He’d weave, he’d walk, he’d flop. Eventually I leashed Cowboy and he walked tiredly by my side. No pulling and farewell desire. How pleasant to have my bird dog on an loose leash. He didn’t mind that I was being so slow, and when we reached the truck he somehow found the strength to jump onto the pickup tailgate and scoot into his kennel. We put away our gear and Gypsy found her place in the truck. I’m pretty sure Cowboy was fast asleep when we pulled out onto the road for home.