NEAR MADISON, Minn. — I drove down the grassy lane, turned at the old fence corner post and rolled over the lumpy pasture to the top of the knoll. I had a job to do.
The knoll overlooks a wetland unofficially named “Lake Marge” on my friend Gary Larson’s family farm. It’s nearly a half-section of rolling land not far from the South Dakota line. The Larsons never lived here, but for decades they have kept the old red farmhouse on the property for family and friends who go there for birding, duck hunting, pheasant hunting and deer hunting. I have been fortunate enough, through friendship, to hunt here for more than 30 years.
The young yellow dog was with me that morning on the knoll last weekend. I popped open her kennel, and she bounded from the vehicle to check things out.
The old yellow dog was with me, too, in a way. She had made her journey to the big willow thicket in the sky last May, but I held in a zip-top bag a couple pounds of her ashes. I stood on the knoll for a minute just to look around. Lake Marge sparkled blue in the morning light. Cattails rimmed the entire shoreline. The ducks that had been resting on the pond at daybreak were now out feeding somewhere, I guessed.
I explained to the young yellow Lab why we had come, and that her old kennel-mate would find her final resting place here. She peed on a clump of grass. I was pretty sure she couldn’t fully appreciate the import of our visit.
I talked to the old yellow dog for a while, right out loud. Thanked her for so many good days chasing pheasants on the land I could see from that knoll. Thanked her for all the miles we spent running together in the woods back home and for the quiet mornings sitting at the far end of Lake Marge, hoping to shoot a duck. Told her that she would have good company here.
Max, one of Gary’s former dogs, is buried here, and the ashes of his dog Copper lie close by. Moxie, our friend Steve’s black Lab, is buried here. Some of the ashes of Goodman and Marge, Gary’s parents, are spread in these grasses as well.
Some days, if one of us is hunting nearby, we’ll swing up to the top of the knoll just to pay our respects. Sometimes when I’ve done that, I’ll see a pheasant tailfeather stuck in the ground, and I’ll know one of my buddies has been here to leave a little offering.
The knoll has become a sacred place to those of us who know its significance.
I’m reasonably sure my fellow hunters do what I do when they stop at the knoll. We stand and scan the 360-degree sweep of the landscape and think how fortunate we are to be able to come to this place, not just for the hunting but for the friendships with Marge and Goodman, and with neighboring farm families.
Lake Marge was one of Goodman’s dreams, a wetland created by damming the flowage from a couple of spring ponds on the Larson land. I sit at the edge of Lake Marge most mornings during my visits each fall, listening to Canada geese talking about breakfast, watching clouds of blackbirds rise from the cattails, getting buzzed by early-departing teal and wood ducks. The dog of the day sits beside me, wet from the morning dew, quivering with chill or anticipation, I never have figured out which.
Now, atop the knoll, it was time. I paid my respects to my buddies’ dogs. I silently thanked Goodman and Marge for all they had done to make my life richer. Then I opened the bag and began tossing the old yellow dog’s ashes in broad arcs. The ashes landed on the grass and remained there like dust. The first rain would take care of that. The old dog would eventually trickle down the blades and work her way into the soil for perpetuity.
Such a good dog. Such a good friend.
I told the young dog that if she was lucky, she’d end up here someday.
Maybe with a little bit of me.