During one of several quiet moments late last week, Jim Fahey trampled down the crusty, noisy snow, trying to establish a patch of fluffy white upon which to stand and wait for elusive snowshoe hares.
An early spring snow fell, dampening coats and chilling fingers, and Fahey, a part-time guide and off-duty game warden, glanced at a GPS tracking unit and reported that his beagle, Chum, was some 300 yards away, but beginning to circle back.
Perhaps he’d chase the hare past us again, and give us another shot. Perhaps he wouldn’t. Either way, Fahey was content, enjoying being in woods at least one more time with his canine companion.
Those days aren’t guaranteed, Fahey pointed out. Chum — eight years old, and slowed by a nagging back condition — might just retire on April 1, when this year’s hare season closes.
That’s the sad truth of dog ownership, you see. Most usually, we outlive our canine companions. Then, far too soon, we’re left with nothing but a string of melancholy memories, snapshots of places and hunts shared in beautiful places.
Places like this stand of trees, not-so-deep in the woods outside of Bangor.
Fahey bought Chum from a local breeder when the pup was just eight weeks old. The avid hare hunter already had an older dog, and adding a youngster to the mix seemed a natural fit.
“I had the benefit of being able to pair him up with the other dog,” Fahey said. “If I took them out, the older dog would basically start the rabbit, and Chum would follow. Then [Chum] would smell what the other dog smelled, and he would contribute and bark. That’s pretty much how he started.”
For a few years, the dogs hunted at similar paces, and were paired together. Then, as his mentor aged and slowed, Chum was sent out alone more and more often.
And now, he’s Fahey’s only beagle, and his constant hunting buddy come hare season. A year ago, Chum entered the season out of shape and overweight. Fahey vowed that wouldn’t happen again, and put the pooch on a diet and exercise plan. Come October of this year, Chum was lean and ready, though not especially speedy.
But a back ailment, Fahey explains, has become a constant issue.
“There was an X-ray that shows that in between the vertebrae is compromised,” Fahey said. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t get better. But overall, just keeping his muscles conditioned, keeping the extra weight off, and just using him in a limited way, there won’t be any ill effects.”
Still, the clock is ticking, and Fahey isn’t sure how much the dog’s back may be bothering him next year.
Chum’s main problem nowadays: He struggles going up and down stairs. In the woods, he’s a little slower afoot than he used to be, but still possesses the world-class nose that allows him to find the hares he seeks.
And when he does sniff out a hare, Chum begins to bellow enthusiastically. That’s beagle for “the chase is on.”
Then Chum pursues, slowly and deliberately, as the hare hops ahead, stopping periodically to rest and watch for danger.
Eventually, if everything works according to Fahey’s plan, the hare will circle back, and cross our path, not far from its original hiding spot.
After an hour of waiting, that’s when things get exciting, as the hunters try to remain as still and quiet as they can, while lining up a shot at a white hare that is nearly invisible against the white backdrop of snow.
And when the hunter messes up and can’t get a shot?
Chum’s used to that, too, and continues to plod along, following the scent of the retreating hare.
That’s when hunter and guide can break the silence again, and talk about important things.
Things like dogs, and hunting careers that end far too soon.
“I think the days afield with [Chum] are limited,” Fahey says. “So I made more of an effort to hunt him in October.”
Because he was able to fill his deer tag early in November, Fahey and Chum returned to the woods to target hares later in that month, and also hunted in December until the snow got too deep.
Fahey has made other concessions to Chum’s aging as well. The dog used to spend every night outside in a well-insulated kennel. Now, he’s allowed indoors during the winter.
“He gets an hour or two of chewing on a rawhide bone, then he gets a drink of water and sleeps in a kennel in the living room,” Fahey said. “He snores pretty bad.”
And late last week, with just days left in this year’s hare season, Fahey has come to grips with Chum’s situation.
Maybe the dog will hunt again next year. And maybe he won’t.
Either way, he’ll be loved. And either way, Fahey has a plan in mind.
He knows a guy, you see. That guy has a female beagle.
And Chum? He might just be getting himself a girlfriend.
“Hopefully there will be the chance to breed him to my friend’s female,” Fahey said. “It would be cool to have a dog [that is Chum’s offspring], I think.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke