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Sam Cook: On a Dakota morning, the waiting is good

A black Lab keeps an eye on the North Dakota sky during a recent hunt. Submitted photo

I received the text early one morning this past week. It came from a buddy of mine who was out west — North Dakota — hunting. His texts are characteristically terse. So was this one.

The text included a photo of his black Lab, facing directly away from him, sitting perfectly still in the cover of prairie grasses.

The text said: "It's all about the Wait."

What my friend and his Lab were waiting for on that Dakota dawn were sandhill cranes, he told me later. They had field-hunted for ducks and geese a day or so earlier, with success.

I think my buddy has it right: As hunters, especially waterfowl hunters, we spend a great deal of time waiting. We find our spots. We sit. We watch. We listen.

And occasionally we text our friends or loved ones.

Our dogs — most of them, anyway — are masters at waiting. Experienced waterfowling dogs have learned where the birds come from. They come from the distant horizon, materializing as tiny dark smudges or as momentary flashes of movement. More often than not, the dogs see the birds before we do. Their ears flick into alert mode. Perhaps a controlled quiver ripples through their dense coats. Maybe the quiver is accompanied by a just-audible whimper.

On snowy days in the marsh, most of us have watched white flakes begin to stack up on the dog's head and back. Too focused to shake the precipitation off, the pup waits stoically, eyes on the skies.

For us humans, the wait is just as sweet, if somewhat less focused. We may sip some coffee, but we'll keep a close eye on the strip of sky between the bill of our cap and the lip of our cup. What we do, mostly, is witness the new day emerging from night and watch the daily rituals of other creatures. In the marsh, a muskrat slides past on some vital errand. A great blue heron rides the air above the fringe of cattails and alights weightlessly to do some fishing. A northern harrier — marsh hawk to us duck hunters — glides along the shore, fierce eyes peeled for mice.

The decoys bob. You rub the checkered wood of your shotgun, think about Dad.

I imagine my buddy in the field, looking out over that Dakotascape, thinking about growing up in that wide-open country. Thinking about how it's still so much a part of him, even though he calls the city home. A hunter looks out over that land and reflects on how long it's been there, all those who have come before him, and how brief a span one lifetime seems against the sweep of eternity.

It's good to sit quietly out on the land, under all that sky, and just let your mind float free. Good to shuck the urban life for a time and become a hunter again. To read the wind and the weather. To anticipate the movements of critters. No, the hunter's survival does not depend on whether the cranes come to him on any given day. But somehow, it still matters that he does this hunting well, for reasons that are deeper than most of us understand.

And so, like the black dog ahead of him, he waits.

He scans the sky. He cocks an ear for the distant rattle of cranes. He inhales the scent of prairie grass, pungent marsh and neighboring Angus ranch.

It's a good day to wait.

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