Project Upland Magazine - "A Young Setter Romance" Story Feature

Magazine: Project Upland Magazine Spring 2021

Work: “A Young Setter Romance” Article

Written by Amanda Ballengee // Photography by Amanda and her husband Sam Ballengee

You can purchase this issue here.

The below article is a direct excerpt from Project Upland Magazine:

Though I run grouse induced errands on a young heart, and capable legs, I bear an old soul with a desire for simplicity and tradition. For quite some time, I’ve longed to follow a lofty setter, accompanied by echoes of a working bell filling the mountain hollows. I can only assume my attraction is related to the fascination of those who have long found this iconic breed gracing their canvases. Words fall all too short in comparison to the charming sight of their noble stature, graceful haste, and intelligent dark eyes. I’ve always found something timeless and romantic about an English Setter gliding through the tangles of Appalachian grouse cover, illuminating the way under shadows of hemlock and rhododendron evergreens.

During the closing weeks of last winter’s hold, the firstborn of an anticipated litter drew his first breath of new life. Little did I know, this lively tricolored pup would soon fill a hole in my heart, I wasn’t yet aware of. With patience waning by the week, years of anticipation melted away as I held my first English Setter pup in disbelief. I insisted on holding him close during our homeward bound commute, by winding roads that slither through our untamed mountains. Innocent and new, I embraced his trusting affection and remembered the sweet smell of puppy’s breath. As I rubbed his velvet ear, my mind wandered to cooler seasons, and a new found meaning they now behold.

Time doesn’t linger in the company of new life. The fleeting days of soiled hardwood floors, busy dagger teeth, and ear ringing kennel training, soon were replaced by a better understanding of civilized manners. Routines were established, exploration puppy walks lengthened, and the pivotal foundation of our relationship began to take shape. Our short lived summer of chores revealed a bold and biddable young gun that had earned my trust. Once we conquered obedience, bird enthusiasm, and a polite introduction to gun, October was just a turn of a calendar page away. My once curious and clumsy pup, now resembled a dapper young man, strapped with wit, confidence, and a lengthening stride. To him I owe the pleasure of introducing a novice handler as myself to the bounties of generations of crafted genetics. He taught me to lean into his natural born instincts, rather than feeling the need to shape him from scratch. Our season of sowing had come to a close, with an anticipated harvest to come.

“Throughout the day, I witnessed the fervor of my eight-month-old pup smolder after a few bumped grouse. Each contact providing a morsel of wild bird knowledge”

The wilderness and grandeur of the northwoods beckoned Rohan back to his birthplace, as we unhesitantly followed. On a balmy October morning, after a sleepless night of kindling excitement and a riotous thunderstorm, our first season began in the company of bare young aspen, and whistling flights of Woodcock. The air felt cleansed from the recent rain, yet lacked the familiar smell of oak and beech. I realized the sweet tea smell of our changing autumn hardwoods, possesses a binding tie to my associations of the woods. I felt a twinge of uncomfortable homesickness, as the foreign uniformity of aspen closed in, the flat ground lacked navigable character, and I felt smothered as I suddenly longed to ascend to higher ground. The familiar song of a bell interrupted my moment of anxieties, coaxing my mind and eyes to follow the becoming setter before me. The lovesick sight of Rohan eagerly quartering, tail feverishly cracking, swiftly anchored my focus, and lured us deeper into the promising cover.

Throughout the day, I witnessed the fervor of my eight month old pup smolder after a few bumped grouse. Each contact providing a morsel of wild bird knowledge. Harvested birds wasn’t the goal, as our interests revolve around the development of a young pup through healthy bird exposure. Though I carried my light Beretta broke open with ease, patiently awaiting to provide positive reinforcement for the pupil. After Rohan’s keen energy sustained, we dove into denser cover for a last cast as the warm afternoon sun began its descent behind us. Barely into the new cover, a familiar witty flutter came up from under my step. Instinctually I shouldered my gun, focusing on the peering black eye of a rising russet nomad. I cashed in the first spent shell of the day, for a downed Woodcock. Though I was the cause of the flushed bird, Rohan watched it all unfold, and bubbled up with excitement from birdy associations with gunfire. I called “dead bird” as I encouraged him to search the suspected area. I felt a grin emerge as I watched him enthusiastically search, then lurch forward to catch the still bird, unknowingly anticipating an escape. My husband and I cheered our praises in unison, as Rohan fiddled with the bird, and earned a mouthful of feathers. My boy’s first wild bird, on his very first day of open season.

The following day carried swift winds of an approaching cold front, and significance I wasn’t yet aware of. With a new found mission from the previous day’s events, Rohan’s stride widened with purpose, and fervent search. He led us to a few grouse tucked under the shelter of balsams, before flushing wild from his eager approach. Expectations grew as I watched his tactics evolve, developing a taste for ease and caution with scent. I silently weaved my way through an iconic northern scene of papery birch mixed with conifer, my footsteps masked by the ease of the forgiving ground. While listening to breezy gusts rustle the bare limbs that once provided an overhead canopy, I recognized an abrupt silenced bell. With a gasp of excitement, I glanced down at my Garmin watch, guiding me in the right direction of a pup on point. I quickened my pace, closed my gun, and made my way to a sight to behold. Stanch and collected, Rohan rolled his eyes to my approaching direction while drinking in the aroma of a bird’s presence. I loosened my shoulders, and widened my focus, as I circled in the bird’s revealed direction. An unexpected Woodcock whistled up, and fell at gunshot before reaching the treetops. In a handful of hopeful moments, months of rearing and years of dreaming, dovetailed to this first transaction of blissful teamwork. I seemingly saw the connection made in Rohan’s intelligent brown eyes, as we basked in the glory together. He carried out the rest of the day in confident stride, pinning down birds I collected over unwavering points. Woodcock being the gentlemen they are, polished Rohan’s manners in preparation for an upcoming dethrone.

“The remainder of our fleeting stay in the hallowed Northwoods, unraveled amongst exalted birds, fine dog work, and treasured new friendships.”

Swooned from Rohan’s comely performance, I felt composed and confident as I approached another silenced bell. I pushed through the remaining crowd of aspen that stood between myself and a patient pup, for my heart to sink at the revealing sight. I followed Rohan’s gaze, as the whites of his dark eyes affirmed a grouse perched at the top of an aspen. A silhouette of a craned neck and alert crest against the high sun, induced doubt to fill my heart I openly wore on my flannel sleeve. I so desperately wanted to execute Rohan’s first grouse assist, yet I depend on blind reaction to overcome my self critical mind when gunning. In an attempt to salvage a chance, and simulate surprise, my husband, Sam flushed the careful grouse, as I blankly stared unfocused, away from the perched starting point. As abruptly as he flushed, I relied on a flash of instinctual muscle memory to mount and follow through, and reluctantly processed the sight of a falling bird. “Dead bird” I choked out in shakey disbelief, as I exhaled collectively, and savored the smell of spent gunpowder. Rohan was fervently searching, as I made my way to him and the located bird, against a breeze of drifting feathers. I whispered a prayer of gratitude and praised Rohan through tears, as I admired a once reigning king, and recalled the unfolding execution of teamwork that led us to behold our very first Ruffed Grouse. After carefully laying the mature grouse to rest in my christened vest, I carried the weight of pure gratitude and bliss for the remainder of a particularly grand day. A feeling I hope to never forget.

The remainder of our fleeting stay in the hallowed northwoods, unraveled amongst exalted birds, fine dog work, and treasured new friendships. With an exhausted yet inspired young setter, we reluctantly bid farewell, and continued our season’s journey in the familiar mine thickets of West Virginia. 

From south facing slopes draped with greenbriar, to cold mountain creek bottoms lined with naustagic rhododendrons, I shared my maturing dog’s enthusiasm, and willingly followed his graceful lead in pursuit of elusive Appalachian grouse. Throughout our challenging endeavors, through lead proof covers and untrustworthy rough terrain, I’ve penned noteworthy moments and observations of Rohan’s development in a fresh leather bound journal; in hopes of preserving our traditions, and the novel of the promising life of a beloved gundog. As I reminisce of the fond days of our first season together, while rubbing the ears of an affectionate dog by my side, I’m assured Rohan has only solidified my presumed setter biases. It’s more than just a fling- till death do us part.