The moment before release is the most magnificent. Their entire body trembles with intent and purpose, thick muscles vibrate with contained energy crawling down the barrel chest to wet, muddy hocks shivering with instinct. Each quick breath a steamy dragon waft, puffing out in white bursts that linger in the frigid morning air. Their blonde eyes pulse from owner to bird and back again, watching, waiting in delicious and terrible anticipation. They were made for this. They are Chesapeake Bay retrievers.
Bred as a ‘gunning dog’ for use in market hunting in the 19th century, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, or “chessies” as they are commonly called, are thick-coated, strong swimmers with stamina, drive, and soft mouths. They will retrieve tirelessly and with the singular purpose that only a working dog, developed for its particular task, will do. Loyal companions, joyful in their job, and fiercely intelligent, chessies have become as essential to a gunner’s rig as his shotgun, his call, or his waders.
Historically speaking, the origin of the breed is unique in that primary documentation exists to verify the actual catastrophe that precipitated their arrival in the watershed. In 1807, two Newfoundland pups were being transported on an English brig, bound for the British coast, that foundered in a gale. Loaded with codfish and sailors (that were also loaded, but not with codfish), the vessel began to sink, when it was serendipitously intercepted by the ship Canton. From the 1845 account of George Law, who wrote of witnessing the event:
“In the fall of 1807 I was on board of the ship Canton, belonging to my uncle, the late Hugh Thompson, of Baltimore, when we fell in, at sea, near the termination of a very heavy equinoctial gale, with an English brig in a sinking condition, and took off the crew. …I boarded her, in command of a boat from the Canton, which was sent to take off the English crew, the brig’s own boats having been all swept away. …I found onboard of her two Newfoundland pups, male and female, which I saved, and subsequently, on our landing the English crew at Norfolk, our own destination being Baltimore, I purchased these two pups of the English captain for a guinea apiece. Being bound again to sea, I gave the (male) pup, which was called Sailor, to Mr. John Mercer, of West River; and (the female) pup, which was called Canton, to Doctor James Stewart, of Sparrow’s Point.
Both attained great reputation as water-dogs. They were most sagacious in every thing, particularly so in all duties connected with duck-shooting. The (female) remained at Sparrows Point till her death, and her progeny were and are still well known, through Patapsco Neck, on the Gunpowder, and up the bay, amongst the duck-shooters, as unsurpassed for their purposes.”
Two cast-iron statues of Canton and Sailor flanking the entrance to Koppers Co. in Baltimore in the late 19th century. A version of this statue now resides at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
It is the rare myth whose roots are supported by good documentation. And so we know that in 1807, the ancestor of the classic Bay water dog was introduced to its new hunting grounds. Of course, the 19th century Chesapeake retriever would have served a very different purpose than today’s web-footed companion. Prior to the Migratory Waterfowl Act of 1918, market hunting was legal, which meant that the amount of downed birds a chessie would need to retrieve could be multiplied four-fold or more as compared to today’s limits. (To learn more about this legislation and how it changed watefowling, click through here: http://bit.ly/w22sVn) When hunting ducks and geese was an endeavor of bulk efficiency and there were no restrictions on the amount of birds bagged in a day, 30 to 40 canvasbacks, swans, or mallards were considered a good haul.
Sold to steamboats and restaurants that would serve the wild birds in savory brandy and cream sauce on porcelain plates, wildfowl were not a sport; rather, a way to make a living come winter. Chesapeake Bay retrievers were an essential element to this occupation. With one blast from the great punt guns, sleeping fowl would be scattered like dropped jacks across the creek or inlet by the shot. Gathering up all the dead and wounded birds was time-consuming work, especially in places where the water was so low or the mud so thick that making your way by boat or foot was tricky. Enter the Chesapeake Bay retriever, whose physiognomy couldn’t be more perfectly suited for the task. Wide webbed feet push water aside efficiently, and provide stable maneuverability through the marsh tumps. Thick, oily fur to repels the cold water, even on the most ice-glazed winter days. A powerful physique lends athleticism, and a wide, jowly 'soft’ mouth means no teeth marks in your market-ready wood duck. Their ability and comfort in the Bay environment is clear to anyone who has ever watched a chessie retrieve, and their exuberance in the water is so effusive it can be hard to get them out of it.
A chessie and water go together like scrapple and eggs.
Even as the regulations for hunting have changed to manage the population of waterfowl, and therefore changed gunning itself to a sport of finesse and skill, Chesapeake Bay retrievers are one element that has remained consistently valued. You might even say that waterfowlers are as loyal to the breed as their individual companions are to them. In their two hundred years of buoyant, barking service, Chessies have become an iconic figure in the history and heritage of the Bay. They also have the distinction of being the only Chesapeake icon that can sleep comfortably the foot of your bed, legs akimbo and twitching with dreams of the next morning’s tidewater adventures.
The author’s father and his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Boozer.