A dog named Copper

Early in the days of our duck cabin at Pete Dahl, we had a dog we named Copper. The runt of a litter of golden retrievers born here in Cordova, he was named after the Copper River Delta and destined for many duck hunting adventures there. 

Golden retrievers are known for lacking affinity to cold water, and we soon discovered Copper was a case in point. He was great for finding birds we had dropped in the grass, but would practically cover his eyes with his paws when the blast of shotguns was followed by the plop of birds landing amidst our decoys. 

Additionally, while trekking to our blinds at Walhalla, he would run half a mile around the pond to avoid swimming across a gutter two feet deep. 

Back then the Delta was treeless and brushless; one vast plain of short grasses. We could see him running and he would meet us, tongue hanging out, at the blind.   

I soon learned to add an extra three feet on the 2×12 used for the bench in the blind, for him to sit beside me while we waited for the next flight. 

Often, I would have to lift him up to his warm, dry perch after he whined about having to wade through the icy water surrounding the blind. 

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But it was worth it. With his keen eyesight and great hearing, he would often alert me to incoming ducks, and watching his excitement was rewarding. 

Additionally, he was a great hand warmer. Many a day I would find the soft dry fur under his chin the perfect remedy for numb, tingling fingers. I have yet to find the ability to shoot and reload a shotgun wearing gloves. Back then chemical hand and toe warmers had not been invented. 

Strangely, what brought back this flood of memories was, of all things, voles.   

Recently I was at long-time hunting buddy Randy Bruce’s place reminiscing, as all true duck hunters do, about the good old days. 

He mentioned there was an incredible number of voles scurrying about down by the Eyak cabins this year. Their paths and runways were everywhere. 

For those of you not familiar with voles, they look a lot like a mouse with a short nose, and their population seems to fluctuate in cyclic fashion.  

It was these very voles, along with various other rodents, that made Copper, for one brief moment in time, overcome his fear of water.  

Prior to the nine-foot uplift caused by the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, big tides of 13-14 feet would literally flood the entire Delta. It would turn into one vast plain of water, which could be rather intimidating. Screw up navigating a 22-foot wooden work skiff, and you might be there for quite a while. 

These tides also created incredible bird hunting. It seemed like every duck and goose on the flats was airborne. And every creature that couldn’t fly was swimming for dear life. 

We had discovered there was one high spot on the Lower Cutoff between Pete Dahl and Alaganik that did not flood, so Copper and I headed over there. I built a scrawny blind on a little high patch of grass, threw out six rubber inflatable decoys, and hoped I hadn’t misread the tide book. 

The sky was full of birds flying in every direction, including ducks, as well as hawk, owls, eagles, and other birds of prey diving and catching voles, mice, and shrews. 

Guess what the ones they weren’t catching were doing? 

Swimming right toward the only dry spot available. 

Copper was going crazy. Barking, growling, catching them in his mouth, tossing them in the air, running in circles around the blind – all in the water. 

Of course, all his antics scared the ducks away. 

When we made it back to the cabin dad noticed a soaked Copper jumping slowly out of the boat, and asked how we did. 

“Well, I didn’t get a single bird, but Copper had the best hunt of his life – and forgot he was afraid of water.” 

Back in the early 1960s, Jerry Behymer (shown) and I water skied in chilly Eyak Lake. Notice my water-shy retriever Copper was not about to get wet. Dick Shellhorn photo 
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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].