At The One Duck Camp
At the One Duck Camp: Back Again
Just under a year ago, the O.L.D. and I laid our old friend Stumpy Drake Jr. to rest, or rather scattered him over the slow flowing water in the narrow channel between the lakes. So now it’s up to me. Call me “Nemo”, everybody here at the One Duck Camp does. Years ago, when Stumpy, the old caretaker, was writing his journal about the goings on here, he called everyone by a nickname, so I’ll keep up that tradition. He was something our Stumpy. Always finding another little job to do, but always willing to stop to tell you a story if it looked like your needed one. Always wearing the same faded blue Tigers cap that I swear he must have gotten from Ty Cobb or Harry Heilmann. And those hands of his! Calluses warn to a smoothness like an old shoreline rock. Not to mention the eyes. The eyes always got you, green like the needles of the oldest hemlock tree that hangs out over the peninsula between the mud lakes to the east of here. Green like your youngest dreams and always full of jokes and sips of old dark beer. No, I’ll never measure up to that. I’ll never touch that old crooked smile either. That smile that’s brought me back from more than one self-induced calamity. More than one stroke of life that was completely out of my control. That smile that wrapped itself around stories you never forget but always want to hear again. No I’ll never measure up, but I’ll do my best.
I’ll have to keep up a lot of traditions. I’m caretaker of the One Duck Camp now. Though, my older brother the O.L.D. (the self proclaimed Overall Lake Director) who lives up the hill, in our departed mother’s old house, is now caretaker of all the cabins and grounds around the lake when everybody is gone, and the camp too when I’m not here. It’s coming to the time of year now and nearly everyone else is gone. And soon they will be, once the weather gets even colder and the snow begins to fly. It was 33 degrees this morning and that’s a start. The OLD always breaths a sigh of relief when the summer people leave. That’s not mean spirited, I don’t think, it’s just how he feels. I feel that way too. I love them all, but when the flights of wildfowl start issuing down from the north, there’s just something about the lonesome feel of the water and the wind, the pines, cedar, tamarack, and the echoes and morning fog in the sunrise down on Mud Lake, that makes you catch your breath and try to hold the moment.
All that aside, the OLD took on a lot of responsibilities here when he retired from teaching a good number of years back now. And he likes to keep busy. There’s a bit of Stumpy in him, though ol’ Stump was no blood relation. I smile to see the OLD doing Stumpy’s old jobs. More and more he seems to know what he’s doing. He’s always around with the old green tractor. He finds a million good use for it. That’s just plain good, but it makes me a little sad to see anyone, even my brother taking on those jobs of Stumpy’s. The OLD has hats, but he always loses them, then they show up months later. He stays quiet a lot. He’s always thinking. He’s thinking about the next job, I think, but I don’t know. Who really knows anybody else? Especially anybody in one’s own family. Anyway, he’s always thinking of something.
Soon I’ll be joining him in complete retirement. I’m an old teacher too; before that I was a newspaper reporter, before that I was one of those kids trying to figure everything out and failing, but game for more. Soon I’ll just be writing, paddling my canoe, hunting ducks in season, cross country skiing down the old logging roads. I’ll just be living that life. How lucky am I? And why? What did I ever do to deserve it? I wonder about that. But full retirement doesn’t come for me until next Spring. I am so looking forward to grading my last paper; though, I bet I will miss the kids.
When Stumpy was writing those journals, which somehow made their way into my old newspaper column, all those years ago, I was still pretty young. Now I am right at the edge of, or well into old, depending on your perspective. Yes, this year, as I said, I’m saying goodbye to teaching, I think forever. Though I’m sure lots of folks who visit me here will have to put up with a lecture on various subjects, from some piece of obscure classical literature, to how to backwater a canoe. Force of habit. Yes, soon I’ll be all but full time here, except for two or three winter months and for the times of my wanderings with my darling wife Sparky in that new/used conversion van she’s bought. She’s got everything in there from a kitchen to a bedroom. The bed is too short for me, though, so I’ve got myself a “ta da” tent, one of those unfold and set up in an instant specials. I got it open quick enough, but I’m damned if I can figure how to fold it completely up again. Anyway, I’ll be sleeping in that while Sparky dozes in her van. We’ll likely have lots of lively talks around the campfire and in that tiny kitchen and along whatever road she takes me down. I’m fine with her doing the driving on those trips. She always seems to know where she’s going. She calls the van Charles Kuralt. I think that’s pretty funny. I am an old newspaper man after all. I’m hoping I’m not being replaced. And the OLD sometimes called me Charles Kuralt, in memory of an ill fated and short lived hitch hiking trip I went on at age 20. I was bound for the west coast and the remains of Mt. St. Helens, but came up just a bit short of that distance. My trip came to an end in western Upper Michigan, when I stood in one spot for 16 hours without getting a ride. When that young couple from Minneapolis headed for New York City picked me up going east, I was greatly relived. They dropped me off out on the highway at the end of the camp road at the end of my lill fated journey that same day, the OLD happened to be coming out the lake road. He rolled down his window, shot me that half cocky grin and said, “How’s the travels Charles Kuralt?” He was trying to get under my skin, no doubt, and he did, but that’s what brothers do. Then I remember he just rolled his window back up and drove away, leaving me to walk the half mile in to the camp, where I sat and brooded for most of a day before Mom brought me down some cookies fresh from her oven in the house up on the hill. It made me feel like a little kid. All of that did, but maybe I needed to. I had gotten a little big for my britches as I recall.
But back to old Stumpy. The day the OLD and I scattered Stumpy was right at the end of last duck season, and it was a wild season, let me tell you, or at least one week of it was. That crazy week started the first of November when all the ponds in Canada froze and every diving duck then situated on the bogs of our northern neighbor headed right this way and flashed and dove and swirled and quacked and whirred around this lake for about ten days. There was some marvelous hunting during that short span, but I’ll get to that next time. Anyway, the day of Stumpy’s scattering, that day was still and cold, and the big flurry of ducks we had during that one amazing week or ten days, had gone on south. Not a duck to be seen. Fitting somehow.
Stumpy made us promise when he was first ailing that there wouldn’t be big doings for him, though some of the fellows from camp did stop in one by one while I was shutting down the camp for the year later. They just came in to say hello, and to give the OLD and me condolences. I don’t know if they planned it or it just happened, but we both appreciated it. That was nice. A good way to close out. Like I said, Stumpy was no blood relative of ours, but he sure was family.
The scattering of Stumpy’s ashes from an old red coffee can as that old coot directed, was a quiet moment down at the channel with just the OLD the dogs and me. We didn’t say much. The OLD managed, “So long, Stump.” That’s about all he would have wanted, the crusty old cuss. I remember looking around at the birches on Sandy Beach, the tamaracks in the distance east on the bog, and back towards the One Duck Camp. This was Stumpy’s realm. This was his world. He never wanted another. I shivered a little, patted my Labrador Tom’s old head, and watched the puppy, Sam working around smelling everything, splashing into the channel among Stump’s ashes helping to scatter them. Stumpy would have liked that. That was, like I said, just under a year ago. I like to think he’ll be off hunting about this time with old One Duck himself or Bezhigwan Zhiishiib, Zhii for short, as you’d say it in Ojibwa, and Ol’ Doc my father, and with Stumpy Sr. as well. Those four formed quite a hunting party at one time I’m told, though Stump Sr., a bigger man than our Stump and a good bit harsher, though trustworthy and honest according to my dad, was only around when my dad first arrived up here back in the 50’s. Stumpy Sr. was gone by ’59. So that was a good while ago. Time’s funny that way. I was born in 1958. I remember when that was seen as recent.
So, like I said, maybe that hunting party of old fellows are all out in Zhii’s old wooden rowboat, ol’ One Duck, the little dark man with his slouch hat pulled down low over his jet black hair, though he always seemed to be about 100, as he paddles slowly across this old water; my dad, ol’ Doc puffing away on a cigar and looking back with those brown eyes at camp, back at us, before he turns to the two Stumpys and tells another joke.
Anyway, on that day of the scattering just under a year ago, the OLD and I turned back from the channel and headed back to camp in the old pontoon boat. I’ve gotten so the only time I ride in anything motorized on the water is when I’m in that old boat with the OLD. The experiences I’ve had over the years with one thing and another breaking down on a pretty regular basis during hunting season from motors to guns to various parts of the camp itself have made me move towards the most simple machines with no moving parts. So these days, I paddle my old canoe with the biggest, strongest kayak paddle I could find. Seems to work. And even if the paddle breaks, I can replace it without having to sell my truck. And it’s a rare day, when I can’t find a by staying close to the shore and paddling hard to work my way down to the blind. I hunt with an over/under Browning, and I depend on my dogs Tom and Sam, chocolate labs, to bring in the ducks. They’re not perfect, but I’m no crack shot or master strategist either, and I don’t really fancy swimming in 33 degree water after a dead duck. What more does a fellow need, I ask you?
During that crazy last week of hunting last year was when I realized that my life out here had come full circle. I can pinpoint the moment when it happened. We didn’t know it yet, but the big time we’d had was already over. On that last day I’d hunted with a couple of wildlife biology majors from the college down the road, one of whom is from a family that’s been on the lake nearly as long as mine has. To me he’s just a kid, and he’s not normally a member of the One Duck, but at the end of the year, with all the usual hunting places closed down because of the brand new sheets of ice on the two Mud Lakes, you often get forced into new hunting places, and come to know new hunting partners. I’ve got think that’s a good thing. Anyway, this was the way that day. So all three of us were kind of forced together by the weather to hunt right at the channel, and, to all of our surprises, the hunting was superb! But I’ll get into that later.
Back to that moment when I came to my realization. We were back at camp after a fine, cold morning of hunting, the front yard covered in snow and a stillness growing and hanging in the air that meant, if I’d been paying attention, that the season had really ended that morning. I’d heated up some of the truly fine duck gumbo that my wife, Sparky, has been making for years now, based on a recipe I found in a cajun cookbook. My culinarily talented wife always adds her special touches, don’t ask me what they are, that make her version of any recipe better than the original. Both the boys were very appreciative of the hot meal, and the young native laker’s friend, the other young bio scholar, took a couple of spoonfuls, murmured his honest appreciation, then looked up at me and said, “You just kind of appeared this morning.”
“What?” I said.
“There we were, down on that frozen shore in the darkness, and all of a sudden this deep voice says, ‘Morning’ .” The boy laughed for a moment then added, “Scared the crap out of me.”
Truth is I’ve never thought myself to be much of a one for stealth, and I wasn’t intending to be mysterious, but there it was. I have become the old man on the lake. The old legend who paddles his canoe along the shore in all weathers, who moves silently in the dark. It made me laugh, because inside I feel at least as young and silly and insecure as those two boys or even younger. As I said, the world has come full circle. I used to sit in awe of my father, Ol’ Doc, and Stumpy, and One Duck, and now I’m sitting in their place, not feeling very legendary, just old. Still it is flattering.
What a crazy way that last week was to end what had, up to then, been a pretty average, even below average season! Up to the first of November, I’d been pretty much hunting alone, except for a weekend or two. My brother the OLD (Overall Lake Director) doesn’t go out much anymore, and the main inheritor of the tradition, his son Dubs, is so busy with his young life right now, new wife and child, that he doesn’t typically get over to the camp as often as in the past, certainly understandable. When he was single a few years back he used to be here all the time. One Fall when he had taken a government cutback pink slip from his teaching job, he spent the whole Fall at camp and really learned how to hunt in ways that—I’ll just say it—are beyond me. I remember coming out that year, I was still teaching full-time then and could only hit the weekends…anyway, I remember one day seeing that Dubs was out in Big Mud in a layout boat with his little dog, Hank. It was a vision as I sat there in my blind watching. Dubs would lie down in the little boat, right at the waterline and just disappear. All you’d see was what looked like a log with ducks all around it. Those decoys floated just right. Then the real ducks would come in and you’d see Dubs emerge, his shotgun pointed at the sky.
Blam! Splash! Blam! Splash! Bam! Splash! Wow, that boy can shoot! Over the years he’s become more than a hunter, he’s become, as Norman McClean described his fly fishing brother in his masterpiece, A River Runs Through It, a kind of artist. Dub’s marksmanship makes his old man proud I know, and me too. Ol’ Doc smiles somewhere every time Dubs shoots. He’s a better shot than any of the rest of us by a wide margin.
Dubs is all for high tech, which I don’t really approve, but it sure as hell seems to work for him. He’s got one of those mud motors that can go in the shallowest water. You should see him motoring down the lake in his wide bodied pram with a big plume of water behind, as he stands there in his slouch hat, yes, stands there, holding that extended tiller, rushing down the lake! And the blind he built is a small lake condo with all the amenities! Puts my old stick built hovel under the tamarack by the river, to shame. But I like my primitive ways; he likes his modern take on the craft. That’s as it should be, and adds spice to the whole experience.
Anyway, that wild week of hunting began on a Saturday, a day after I’d been out alone, and taken four diving ducks. I thought that was a pretty good day. That morning began cold with a big wind from the west that kept everything from freezing up. I didn’t know what kind of day it would be; I thought maybe I’d used up the good hunting on Friday, when all of a sudden, just after sunup, the blazing away began down at Dub’s new blind, where Dubs and the OLD were set up. Pretty soon little Hank was in the water bringing back ducks. Again and again it happened. Finally, some came my way, and I’d end that day by taking four more, one of which was actually one Dubs shot which came down by my blind. Anyway, my dogs Tom and Sam had some fun bringing in our four. But the OLD and Dubs, mostly Dubs according to my brother’s account, but he often sells himself short, took nine, mostly buffleheads with a few ringneck and bluebills thrown in.
Well, after that, I was ready to call it a season, thinking we’d seen about what we would see, but then, the following Tuesday, the OLD’s grandson, who we’ll call Eager, came out with two of his friends from college and the three of them took the full limit! They sent me a picture of the three of them posing with their haul like old time hunters. Pretty cheeky, but I thought it was beautiful. Again, all those old hunters would have been proud. I know I was.
So, then, I figured, that has to be it! And I really believed that, that frozen morning as I paddled down in my canoe then saw the lights down by the channel and figured, the only remaining spot to hunt was taken. But those two bio boys generously invited me over after I scared them saying hello in the dark. So we sat down on the beach all dressed in white, the two of them in the latest winter camo, me with a white “mad bombers” hat and a sheet draped over me. Funny, it was years before I thought to cut a hole in the damned sheet so I could put my head through. Which I suppose now makes me look like the wise old hunter making the best of his resources. Truth, it was just trial and error figuring that out. I felt like an idiot when it finally dawned on me that instead of wrapping the sheet around me and having it constantly fall off, even using a clothespin to secure it around my neck at one point, I could just cut a hole.
Anyway, those boys and I settled down there after my dogs Tom and Sam got used to them and became their new best friends. Right after sunrise, here came the ducks yet again and with three of us blazing away in the half light with snow flitting all around on the east wind, there were soon more ducks on the water and my dogs were in Heaven! We took fourteen that morning from crazy angles coming in off that big lake. They loved those decoys, in that bad weather! And that was mostly the end of it. All a result of a big freeze suddenly coming on up in Canada, every duck on the continent heading south. A new legend, that’s what it was. And I can taste that legend and all the others down all the years, in every spoonful of Sparky’s gumbo or of her Old New England Waterfowl Stew. Don’t know which I like more.
Oh, I almost forgot there was one more day. It was the next day. I was out alone, and by then things had gone all still and even the spot down by the channel had an ice sheet extending out towards the west and even if it hadn’t, the wind had gone around to the west and north so the ducks wouldn’t be coming in there with the wind. So I set up closer to home along the north shore under a cedar tree at a place I call the Last Chance Blind, LCB, for short. I didn’t see much, but one flock of eight bluebills did go by at a fairly good distance, so I pulled up with my Browning over/under and sighted in on the leader and let off one shot. Damned if the leader didn’t fall. A golden bee bee shot, as the OLD wold put it. Old Tom went out after him and I called it a day. That was the last flock on the lake. By the next morning they too had flown south. So, I called it a season. And a grand one with that one wild week. Like I said, a legend. Another legend. As I stood there in my waders pulling in my string of cork decoys that morning, with the snow swirling all around, I was already remembering that day’s event and the whole magical week’s, as if they had happened 20 years before. Yup, damned good season, with the promise of more, if all goes well, but that’s always another story, isn’t it?
I may have committed a sin against nature. Or maybe I’m just a typical old blabbermouth who just can’t bear to keep the secrets of the wild to himself. Either could be true, maybe both. Anyway, I didn’t keep quiet and now everybody knows. There’s a monster down on Mud Lake. Mud Lake is beyond the narrow channel to the east of the One Duck Camp, in the wildest section of these waters. That’s where we do ninety percent of our duck hunting. Anyway, that’s where, last week, on a little reconnaissance run down in Mud Lake in my canoe with my labs Tom and Sam, I saw the monster.
With duck season still over a week away, and not a goose in sight down there this goose season, I’d taken to just paddling down without my Browning over/under, just to shore up the blind and gauge numbers of flocks for the coming season. That’s just what I was doing on a crystal clear cold Friday, down at the far end of Mud by the river in the middle of the sea grass just off the cranberry bog, when I glanced west over my shoulder and saw him.
He was in the water, and he was enormous. At first I thought his antlers, which were hanging with sea grass he’d picked up on his swim were the wings of a cormorant, then I thought, for a second he was a moose swimming through Mud since the spread of the antlers was so wide; then I realized that he was a white tail deer, a buck. He didn’t seem harried, though almost everybody I told about him, and blabbermouth me, like I said, I told almost everybody…almost everybody I told about him figured he must have been rousted out by wolves or some such, otherwise, why would he be in the water? But the impression I got was that he was just out for a swim, or just thought that swimming was the easiest way to get where he was going. Who knows? I sure don’t. Anyway, he was very calm. Much calmer than I was.
When he finally saw me, or recognized that I was a person, he turned slowly and calmly towards the peninsula between the two mud lakes and swam away. As he did so, I finally thought to pull up my phone and take a picture, but the new sun was reflecting off the water something fierce and I couldn’t really see the view screen, so I just pointed the view finder in his general direction and took shots. They weren’t very good. And I didn’t zoom. So when you pull them up and zoom them in, they just come out very grainy. But that seems to make the majesty and mystery of this particular monster even more so. Like those famous shots of the supposed Bigfoot or the supposed Loch Ness Monster.
How big is this buck? Well, like I said, big enough so that I took him for a moose at first. How many points on the rack? I’m not sure, and the pictures don’t make it clearer. But the rack is very, very wide and shows ten points at a minimum and I think many more than that. With the sea grass hanging from them, it was hard to tell, at that mystical moment, and in the pictures it’s even harder to discern.
Well, I as you now, what should I have done? I ask myself, what have I done?
You know if I had just taken a moment to listen to the wind I very well might have done what I now think would have been the wiser thing: I could have just kept this whole vision to myself. This vision, this strange small natural event, this gift of Grace given me on a cold sunny morning, could have been just something for me to contemplate a long, long while, to keep in my heart and soul and remember that yes, such things actually happen, have happened for me in this life.
Tom and Sam were wise enough to do just that. Tom, my older lab looked towards the swimming buck, sniffed a while and looked elsewhere. Sam the pup looked at Tom after sniffing the deer and sensing no alarm or call to action in his mentor, looked elsewhere as well. I could have done that too, but I didn’t.
The social human in me, the part that makes human beings so adaptable, that makes Western human beings so creative, but also infuriating and bothersome and even destructive, so given to gossip and innuendo, so intent on hearing the sound of our own voices telling the world something new, something wonderful that up to now only we know; that part decided, without even a moment of contemplation, or better yet, years of contemplation followed at last, when I am very, very old, the revealing of an old story kept long to a granddaughter say, or a grandson, some night by a lovely fire at the camp, the revealing of a magical little gem, that perhaps makes this grandchild believe I harbor many just like it…
Anyway, I didn’t wait, but, instead took the phone in my hand and fired off a text to my nephew and fellow outdoorsman Dubs complete with the grainy pictures.
“Whoa,” he texted back. “This happened just now?”
“Those tines are wide apart!”
“How big was he?”
“So big, I thought he was a moose!”
And soon the texts were firing back and forth between us so fast that a great deal of time had passed and I looked up finally from the infernal phone at the still water and the clear day realizing I’d been sitting there for a long, long time looking down into the more tawdry technological elements of myself instead of just watching a glorious northern morning for more mysteries or just the ordinary mystery of natural life. Tom and Sam were watching me. It seemed the woods were watching me too and maybe even that buck. I felt admonished and considered what I should do next, but it was too late. I’d already, pretty thoughtlessly, made my decision.
I thought of what Stumpy would have said, had he been with me.
“Yeah, they do that sometimes,” he’d have said watching the buck head for the peninsula. And then he would have told me some quaint old joke.
And One Duck? What would he have said? Old Zhii wouldn’t likely have said a word. Or if he had, he would have said it to the departing buck and it would have been something cryptic and vaguely spiritual like, “Onward, Brother.”
And Ol’ Doc, my father? He would have just puffed at his cigar, smiled deeply in his old brown eyes and nodded.
I’d had an opportunity to treasure something. To keep something and let it work on my frequently devastated interior a while, and instead I’d spilled the beans and now it would be known and everyone who heard it would want a share, and the story would spread, and in hunting country that has obvious implications.
Sure enough, by the time I got back to camp my brother the OLD had heard and was saying that wolves must have rousted the big buck up. His son-in-law, the big fellow I think of as “The Guardian” was on the grounds doing some work for the OLD and scouting out his deer hunting spots and didn’t say a word, but was clearly very interested, when I, out of an obligation for what I’d started this time, recounted the story.
Within, 48 hours, Dubs, who as I’ve told you in earlier journals is a high tech 21st century guy, was on the scene with a game camera in hand, which he planted down on Sand Beach, at the edge of Mud, where there are many tracks. Tracks, I, in the grip of my texting babble over my phone had also photographed and sent his way on that Friday in a vain effort I realize in retrospect, to further the legend I’d started.
I have done it now. And whatever comes next, is my fault. I knew the implications of telling this story, or would have if I’d waited more than a second to tell it. I know that in hunting and perhaps in life it’s almost always good to wait a day or so, or a month, or several years before you say anything, and even then say less than you know, especially less than you know for sure. And like I said, what I’ve done by telling the tale may be a sin against Nature.
Don’t we need legends? And how do legends begin? Surely somebody has to tell the tale first. Granted, maybe not so impulsively as I did, maybe not so bent on getting the word out, but somebody has to tell the tale. And I was born a story teller. I’m an old newspaperman. I’m a teacher and a writer. A bard, if you will, though that sounds pretty pretentious to me. Anyway, isn’t it my obligation, being who I am, who I have always been, to let folks know that something marvelous has happened? Wasn’t I just fulfilling my obligation to a society hungry for stories, just as all the bards of antiquity did around campfires and at tribal gatherings? In a way, wasn’t, isn’t my tell this tale noble? I was taking up the mantle that was passed down to me through all of time, since the beginning of civilization.
But some time soon, there may be a less grainy image of the monster on Dubs’ camera. Maybe the picture will reveal that the monster is not nearly so big as he seemed. Or that he’s even bigger than I described. And what will I say then? That old hunters sometimes get carried away? Or that that can’t be the monster because he was so much bigger and the rack was way more massive? Or that, yes, I knew he was that big, see? Those big bucks are out there! And then sit back with undeserved pride at my pseudo-bardic perceptiveness. And yes, there are other possibilities too, there may be a big buck soon hanging on somebody’s buck pole. And how will I feel if that happens? Now that might have happened anyway. There are quite a few hunters in these woods come deer season. Enough so that one late duck season, when I was in my teens, the OLD and I ended up lying on our bellies in the swamp mud inside our blind because some lunatic up on the peninsula was shooting a rifle over our heads. The OLD finally fired off a shotgun blast into the air and the rifle bullets stopped whizzing over our heads. Yes, there are sometimes that many hunters around, though most, thank God, are less reckless. Anyway, I may have helped, by revealing the big swamp buck’s existence, to hasten the Mud Lake Monster’s demise. If so, that’s an old story. One person tells another and the result is Nature has to pay a price. If that is true, then I’m ashamed.
I wonder, though, if I should be. By telling this tale about The Mud Lake Monster I might have helped bring about a great experience for Dubs or the Guardian, who might end up with the Monster on one of their buck poles. And that would become the other end of this legend. A good end. Right? They could point to his antlers on the wall and tell tales to their grandchildren about the time they bagged The Mud Lake Monster, after a long and storied pursuit through these fine old woods.
But wait a minute. I mean, really, who is the monster? The big buck I saw is absolutely a native of that swamp; he was born here. Though it’s true that white tail deer aren’t really native here and only showed up in numbers after all those climax forest white pines were cut down in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the woodland caribou and moose disappeared.This buck, though, was doing what big swamp bucks do, making his way through the woods and waters, perfectly natural, perfectly engendered to his environment. And there I was in a synthetic canoe, wearing my manufactured hunting waders and wool shirt and canvas hat, holding my carefully manufactured hybrid metal and treated wooden canoe paddle. None of these materials were created from this environment, and I was and am a being of towns and buildings. In some ways, I am the alien, I am the anomaly, taking a breath in this wild country to alleviate, for a time, my constant feeling of always being the stranger in a strange land, the foreigner, making his awkward and broken way along in this life. I was the one out of place. And I was the one creating a situation out of the air involving this native creature and his immense proportions and implications of his existence for everyone I knew. If there was a monster in Mud Lake that day, it was me, or perhaps it was my inventive spirit and its ability to create a stir where none naturally existed. In short, I was the one who had created the legend, the monster. The deer was just going about his business.
And now, as I sit here in camp, over some eggs and sausage, a taste of coffee readying me for a new day, I think again of what old Zhii, One Duck, would likely tell me. Nothing surely at first, but eventually, if I really pressed him, he might have ventured an opinion. Likely, as I said, not in these words, or perhaps not even in words, but instead by some esoteric gesture, some little grimace or smile, or, if truly pressed to his limit, some cryptic phrase, to the effect that things are what they are, neither good nor bad, but just existent. We can take actions or not take actions and they may be significant or they may not matter at all. They simply are.
I am very small. I know that each day when I look into the sky out here, day or night. On the next wind is wisdom. I wonder what it will say. What I will do, when it comes?
This morning, after my coffee, some breakfast, and a little reading, I’m heading out to my duck blind to make final preparations. There’s no one else in camp. There’s not likely to be very often this year either. You might think, “Oh, the damned virus!” Well, true enough, it’s a factor, but it’s not the main factor. I’ve been hunting here mostly by myself for a solid ten years and probably more like fifteen going on twenty. Like they say, ten years ago isn’t what it used to be. Now don’t go feeling sorry for the old guy moping around his camp and going out to face the cold water and wind and darkness alone, though, for a while there, when all this solitary hunting started I was sure feeling sorry for myself and I was pissed at all the guys who used to be here for not being here. I was mostly pissed at my brother the OLD, the guy who got me started hunting after Ol’ Doc, our dad, died and there was no one else to do the job. I just want to say, right now, that my anger at my brother for leaving me alone to hunt this past decade or so was completely, totally unjustified. And to have ever felt that anger was an act of complete self centeredness, selfishness on my part. Wrong as it was though, I felt it. And that says way more about me than I’m always comfortable sharing. But, in my defense, I have adjusted, even thrived out there on the water alone. And now, I’ve gotten a reputation for being an old curmudgeon who prefers his own company to anybody else’s. Strangely, there’s some truth in that, and there may be a good bit of selfishness in that too, but at least it’s earned, at least it may be an indication that I’ve grown some over the years. Lord, reading through this, I sound like an armchair psychologist. To hell with that! Instead, let me give you a little history, of how things came to be the way they are now here.
After Ol’ Doc died, when I was 14, the OLD stepped right in and took me down to the blind where the two of us really got to know each other by hunting together. He taught me everything ol’ Doc had taught him and that was a good deal of information. Some of it good, some of it out and out silly. The point is the OLD taught me! See, the OLD is ten years older than I am. At the time, I thought of him as being ancient. He wasn’t even 25 yet. Helluva thing for a kid that age to do: choose to be a father to his younger brother, but he did it. Made special trips home from grad school down state just to hunt with me. I’ll always be grateful to the OLD for that. And I should say, he’s still around the grounds here all the time. He lives up the hill in the house our mother, who Stumpy used to call, “The Lady on the Hill”, had built out here in 1980. Like I said before, the OLD doesn’t get out to the blind much anymore, but he doesn’t need to. He’s had a world of experiences out there, just like I have, but I’m not ready to stop going just yet.
Anyway, there was a golden age there for a while, after I graduated from college, and the OLD had moved back to the UP. The two of us were out at the blind together every season, all season. And we weren’t alone. There were so many who became our partners over the years! Some for a little while, some for long durations. The Damp Cook, who prepared us many, many, honestly fine meals, and went with us on many adventures, still shows up now and then, but he’s got bigger responsibilities at home now and at another more illustrious and fabled camp down the road where he is official cook and manager. He and I had one very memorable adventure on a foggy morning once out here. I’ve written about that before, and told the story a million times, but I’ll save the retelling of that one for later and a remembrance all its own.
Among the many who came to the One Duck in those golden years, there was my buddy Ambush, so named because once, while waiting for me to come back from a little scouting walk in the woods with my old yellow lab Sota, he passed the time by watching a flock of mergansers swim by just out of range. Being a scientist, Ambush figured out that the mergansers would, on a regular basis, dive, then resurface about 20 seconds later. They were working a straight line alone the shore, so he figured while they were down he could run down the beach and get within easy shotgun range of them. He acted on his scientific theory and was blazing away from the beach just as I came out of the woods. I’ve never asked him how merganser tastes. To each his own, I guess.
There were so many others, my buddy “Bait Pile”, another scientific type and a bit of a health freak who got his nickname because all he ate for lunch was a head of undressed lettuce, which I always called the safest lunch in the fridge.
Then there was my cousin “City Buck” who grew up metro and came to visit us at the One Duck very occasionally bringing along the latest high tech hunting gear from the mall. CB, as we came to call him, always promised to show up and did so rarely. Any time anybody came to the door at the One Duck during those years the OLD would call out, “Hey, it’s cousin City Buck!” During one of CB’s rare visits he brought along a truly memorable fellow we came to call “The Swamp Fox”. Nice enough fellow, but one of those guys who has the lowdown and all the other information on nearly everything. He was only here one weekend, but during that time he gave seminars on nearly every topic you can imagine, especially duck hunting. He had a dog so well trained that she practically made tea for him. Funny thing though, she didn’t really retrieve ducks. The Fox explained later that she was used to the waters of Florida and our temps were just a bit too frigid for her. The OLD set the City Buck and the Swamp Fox up in a blind on the bog in about the spot where Dubs’s fancy blind, The Halfway House and Cranberry Swamp Bed and Breakfast is now. Before leaving the two city hunters there, the OLD warned them not to leave the blind because there were many, many holes in the bog all around it and it was easy for any unwitting hunter, and that’s the only kind we have around here, to fall through into the muck. Well, sure enough, fifteen minutes later, after having shot a merganser at point blank range, right at the shoreline, the Swamp Fox being the Swamp Fox, went out on foot to pick it up against the OLD’s warnings because his ultra-trained, cold water shy dog wouldn’t go. The said Swamp aficionado predictably fell through one of the many bog holes, merganser in hand. The OLD rushed over in the power boat to rescue him, brought the boat to rest about a foot and a half from the Swamp Fox’s all but submerged head, then reached down to pull him up. The Swamp Fox, shoulder deep in loon shit and reeking swamp gas mud, held up the merganser and with a mud speckled smile declared the humble fish duck to be a highly coveted pintail.
For a while there, the camp got really big, and our old pal Stumpy, who for some unimaginable reason rarely hunted with us anyway, only seemed to show up late on Sunday afternoons after the others had gone, when we were cleaning up. One weekend a year we’d invite everybody out and that included my oldest brother and personal skiing instructor Jumbo and my very own personal court and playing field hero and only slightly older brother, Coach, and all of their friends. Jumbo and Coach brought along a “treasure” trove of characters too numerous to mention, very few of whom had any interest in hunting. But, oh my God, we had fun times! Loud, fun times. Stumpy was nowhere in sight those weekends. One Duck, old Zhii, was likely shaking his head somewhere deep in the woods, but Ol’ Doc would have gotten a hell of a charge out of it all.
Anyway, under its own weight, I think, the annual big weekend sort of petered out and soon it was just the OLD and me with a few friends like the Damp Cook, and my life long friend Traveler, who is no hunter but loves to come by, sleep late, out in the back of his truck and away from the snoring, and come into camp after we get back from the blinds to hear the stories. Traveler, as you might guess, has been damned near everywhere all around the world. Really. It’s not just talk. He’s a friendly, funny, and surprisingly humble fellow. A good friend to have. Not to say he doesn’t have his foibles including literally not knowing his left from his right, and possessing an accompanying knack for getting lost, and enjoying it, and worse yet, having given up hunting years ago as a childish pursuit, but I try not to hold that against him.
And then, the OLD’s boys Roughcut and Dubs came along and the OLD naturally took to hunting with them, and later, following their exploits on the football fields of the midwest where both were high school and small college standouts. Soon, the OLD was rarely out hunting at all and when he was, it wasn’t with me. I tried to be understanding, but I’m afraid I wasn’t. And some stupid, selfish, resentment bubbled up. I wanted the old days back and hadn’t learned yet, that time moves, things change and we have little to no control over any of it. Complicating the OLD’s already busy world was the fact that our mother was getting older. She wanted to be taken to Mass on Sundays and the OLD, who isn’t even Catholic, accommodated. I had offered to take Mom to Saturday night Mass, so that Sunday would be free and the OLD could have another day of hunting with me, but The Lady on the Hill was a traditionalist: Mass on Sundays. So there I was, out in the blind alone on Sundays, nursing Catholic school boy guilt for not only not going to Mass, but for not going to Mass with my mother, and instead making my older non-Catholic brother take her to Mass. I am a piece of work sometimes… Ha, all the time.
Anyway, soon my own boys came along, but Bam and Widget, as I sometimes call them, though they are outdoorsmen, Mountain Men really, who work in the ski industry, long hair, beards and all, have their own thing obviously. They both tried out hunting, but it didn’t take. And then they both became all state cross country runners, so their training regimens took them and me sometimes far from the One Duck Camp. That was okay, I loved to watch them run.
By this time, the OLD was following the next generation of family athletes all around the midwest and when he did show up down on the bog, it was with Dubs. And when the Lady on the Hill passed away, he became the new resident, with my and my siblings’ blessings, of The House on the Hill. He did so partly so that somebody besides Stumpy, who was getting up there in years by then, would be around to keep track of things.
Soon enough, ol’ Stump couldn’t really manage to make it out to camp anymore, so even that old friend seldom if ever came. Now and then, I’d run into One Duck out in the woods or down on the bog, at least I think I did. Old Zhii is a nebulous character. But, I swear, he’s still out there sometimes.
So, it came to be just me out there at the blinds and in camp most weekends, especially, after Dubs too started moving towards marriage, family, and now kids of his own. Some days did, I have to admit, get lonely.
But then something happened. It happened almost exactly seven years ago. I was sitting out at the Halfway with my then pup, Tom who the canine hunting legend, Huck, about whom I have too many stories to fit into this one account, had trained to hunt. Huck, the old master had trained him well, and Tom was ready. But ready for what? Sitting in a blind with an aging lonely hunter who sat silently moping even weeping at times about the lost old days? Pathetic. And no life for a ready and able young Lab.
It was a crystal clear day and I’d been sitting out there from before dawn to about 2 p.m. I had decided that I was going to stay for the full duration until dark again no matter what, maybe as a show of inner strength or just as a display of masochism, I don’t know. Anyway, I hadn’t seen a duck all day and I really was about to give up, but then I looked towards the southern horizon on that still day and I saw them coming. I knew from a distance that they were diving ducks of some kind. As they got closer I could see they were either bluebills or ringnecks and as they got closer still and my heart rate increased exponentially with each wing beat I spotted the tell-tale stripes on the bills of the drakes: ringnecks, 40 of them, coming right this way!
I calmed myself and said the duck hunter’s mantra, “Pick one out. Pick one out. Pick one out.” Too many times I had “flock shot” instead of just focusing on one and ended up with none. As they came ever closer I picked up my Browning over/under. And, seconds later, they were coming in, setting wings, I picked one drake out near the center of the tightly-bunched flock and fired.
The smoke cleared, I leveled the gun again to shoot and realized there was no need. There were five stone dead ducks in the water and the rest had flown away.
Yeah, I thought so too at the time. Hand to God, it’s true, though. Tom hit the water and had a field day. I had to keep telling him to go back again. He couldn’t believe it. In the seven years since that wonderful moment, he has learned what an anomaly such a moment is in my duck hunting career. He’s learned that duck hunting, for a Labrador hunting with Nemo, mostly consists of sleeping in the blind and waking up for treats and the swearing brought on by missed shots.
Anyway, back at the One Duck Camp later that day I was cleaning my ducks down by the lakeshore. The OLD happened down and inquired, “Only heard one shot did you…Holy shit!”
“Yeah,” I said smirking a little, “on one shot.”
The OLD started to smile. Then his smile got even wider. He chuckled for a bit, then nodded, “One shot.”
I smiled back.
This morning, is the day before the season starts, and just as I started work on this account, The OLD’s grandson Eager informed me by text that he and his buddies won’t be staying with me at the One Duck, but only due to the virus and for my sake. I like to think that’s true. I’m also savvy enough to figure out that the average 20-year-old boy doesn’t really want to spend the weekend with his 62-year-old great uncle looking over his shoulder. Eager and the boys will be staying at his father, The Guardian’s camp down the road, but hunting from the Halfway Blind here. He promised to keep me informed of all their adventures. I’ll have some idea how they’re doing from my viewpoint at the Beaver Stick Blind, which is just east down the bog shore from the Halfway.
What’s more, my sons Bam and Widget have been talking about coming out and trying some hunting again. That may happen, it may not. And Dubs will no doubt show up now and then between his family and career duties. And there’s always the OLD, who will be around working in the woods and checking on everyone’s progress. Maybe he’ll even make his way to the blinds a time or two.
I’ll tell you what, if a new golden age is coming to the One Duck, with lots of new hunters and lots of new stories, that would be really nice. But if not, I’m good. I’m okay now with hunting alone.
The stars are out over the lake, and they make the time go away. I could be 15 and still in a dazed mourning over ol’ Doc, my father’s death, and crossing this lake with the OLD, the temperamental Johnson motor sputtering us towards the blind. I could be in my late twenties in the same boat with a new motor, the OLD shouting over the sound of the engine, laughing with his brother-law-law, The Navigator, and me about our escapades at King Tut’s Bar the previous night. As I start my paddle across the big lake today, opening day 2020, directly overhead the Great Bear is brazen and comforting. That vibrant constellation always makes me think of my legendary chocolate Labrador, Huckleberry, who was so big and ursine that we thought of him as a bear. I like to think he’s watching over me and my current Labs, Tom and Sam. I truly think he is and I will continue to think so. A meteor or two shimmers down the sky in the north as we cross the big lake headed for the Beaver Stick Blind in this old canoe. The wind is very light and from the south. There is a pristine quiet in this darkness with only the sounds of my paddle strokes and an occasional sigh from the sleeping dogs.
Eventually, after what seems a long and blissful time, which evokes a near sleep condition in me bordering on meditation, we arrive at the channel between the big lake and the larger of two muddy fingers of water to the east which we call Big Mud Lake. I have to walk the canoe through the channel because, despite a high water year, it has recently become shallow. In all the timelessness of this lakeshore, the water level is the one thing that alters, and in so doing, alters the nature of the land. Nowhere around this lake is that more true than at the channel which can go in a matter of days from hardly a channel at all, but just a straight forward opening of relatively deep water, to a mere trickle of its former self, becoming then a woodland creek bending towards the north through the new sand. Suddenly there is a violent and quite unexpected flashing of light and my heart jumps a bit. Then I remember that my nephew Dubs has set up a game camera on the beach there to catch a glimpse of a huge buck I saw swimming in Big Mud a week back, the one we’re calling “The Mud Lake Monster”. I laugh for a moment.
On the other side of the channel I re-board the pups who had jumped out to investigate the surroundings when the canoe hit sand. Sam the pup leaps in immediately, hardly needing a word, Tom, the elder at eight years of age has to be coaxed a bit. I shine my little silver workman’s flashlight on the front seat for his benefit and eventually he steps in gingerly. His eyes are starting to go and he has become quite careful about where he puts his feet. Once, not very many years ago, he would bound into the canoe just like Sam. I carefully board the canoe myself, old bones and joints creaking, and my breath coming in gruff little grunts and sighs as I get situated. I paddle in the darkness down the north shore along the swamp woods which give way to a cranberry bog as we move east. I pass Dubs’s Halfway Blind where the OLD’s grandson Eager and his buddy, whom I hardly know, but whose dark complexion and black hunting beard give me a notion to call him “Swarthy”, will soon be setting out decoys, that is if they wake in time from the revelries of 20-year-olds. They are spending the night at The Guardian’s camp down the highway. The Guardian is the OLD’s son-in-law and Eager’s step-father.
Soon the pups and I arrive at the Beaver Stick Blind. And the old challenge comes around again: finding the opening in the brush in the darkness where I always land the canoe. I manage it, and Sam, over-enthusastic as usual, somehow gets out without flipping the boat. Soon I’ve laid out the two strings of cork decoys, the goose decoys and the extra corks on their own anchors along with several plastic Flambeau mallard decoys that date all the way back to those days when I was even younger than Eager and Swarthy are now.
I glance up again and the Great Bear is still there watching over us. I settle down into my coat on a warm morning in my hunting chair under the burlap and mesh camouflage roof I’ve hung out and I listen to silence. Soon there is a rush of wings and another. A promising sign. There’s a bit of a whine from my older dog, Tom which I quiet with a word of reassurance that I know the ducks are there in the dark. Then there is more rushing of wings, a quack or two and as light starts to come up, I make out the unmistakable white of two swans well across the lake near my old hunting blind on Huck’s Island. They are a rare event on this lake, those swans. Their species has only been coming around during the last decade or so. Last summer my wife, Sparky and I woke to twelve of them down floating gracefully by the dock back at the camp in the dawn. Magic moment that. We shared smiles then, Sparky and I; smiles that emanated with the memories of all the summer mornings we’ve awakened on this lake. The swans, though were new, magical. We know enough now to cherish such moments.
Back in the Beaver Stick on this opening day, there is more rushing of wings and now Sam has gotten wind or sight of the swans and barks a time or two; it’s startling, and I shush him. Tom mutters a bit and settles in for the early watch.
Just before dawn, there are lights from from headlamps and Dubs’s camera going off again and noise of boats and young voices as Eager and Swarthy hit the channel and start the outboard roaring down the lake. I smile. And immediately I’m back in those early years with the OLD, the Navigator and me making our way down powered by a might-start-today outboard motor as we nurse hangovers and caress optimism for the day ahead. We were a trio then. Rather, they were a pair and I was the kid. We mingled freely those nights with the denizens of King Tut’s who were a motley crew at best, and were rarely at best. Once we were asked to leave King Tut’s for playing Freddy Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” on the juke box nine times in a row. Obviously the King Tut’s elbow tippers also couldn’t appreciate the fine arts. The Navigator was and is a likable sort. He is a Vietnam veteran and was actually a navigator on a B-52. In those old days, only recently back from the war, he survived at the One Duck on a steady diet of white bread and cigarettes. He was understated, wryly funny, and the possessor of an Austin-Healy automobile and a Jon-E hand warmer. The latter he once absentmindedly placed, closed but still ignited, inside the sports car’s glove box, prior to a stop at King Tut’s, and nearly burned his beautiful little car down. Come rain or snow the Navigator could be found, in those days, down at the blind dressed lightly in his old army fatigues and combat boots. How he stayed warm, I’ll never know.
Eager and Swarthy quickly get their decoys out and no sooner have they done so than a small flock of wood ducks passes through and I take a drake on the rise. Later, down at the Halfway, the boys, according to the text they send me, take a drake wood duck of their own. But from that point the shooting is all but done there. The Beaver Stick is the hot blind today as I take another drake wood duck, of all things, as another little flock passes through; then take a high flying ringneck hen on my best shot of the day. Tom is in the water and on all three of them before the pup Sam knows what has happened, though Sam does go out once with his mentor to see what’s what.
The funniest event of the day by far comes at about 9:15 a.m. as I am sending a text down to the boys in the Halfway to the effect that I intend to take a paddle down the river outlet at about 10 a.m. to roust some ducks and maybe get a pot shot or two. Such sojourns also have a tendency to push up ducks and get them circulating out of the river and out onto the big water again where Eager and Swarthy might get some more shooting. I assume Eager and Swarthy know this. I also assume that they care. Both assumptions may be erroneous. Anyway, as I’m about to send the text, easily the biggest flock of the day roars right through my decoys from over my right shoulder in the northwest. I look up, my silly phone in hand, in time to see them disappearing in the distance to the east. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time such inattention will cost me a shot at ducks. At one point my negligence might have riled me, now it just makes me smile, and acknowledge once again that I’m an old fool. Young Sam is in no mood to find the humor in the situation. He looks up incredulous as the ducks roar through, then barks in despair, and finally hits the water in pursuit. Tom looks up from the spot at my feet in the blind where he has curled up to rest from his labors and grumbles for a moment. None of this is new to him. I get the impression he is mildly amused and slightly irritated. There is plenty to be amused and slightly irritated about with young Samwise. Twice on upland bird hunting expeditions around the camp recently he has returned with tennis balls, one old, one new. He may be a little confused about his actual quarry. When he gets bored out at the blind, which is often since he’s young, he digs up ancient shotgun shells and hurls them in the air. I’ve always tried to clean up my shells as I go, but somehow the puppy finds more each time he goes out. Like the tennis balls, he apparently finds deep in the woods, he seems to pull the old shells out of what I call “the puppy ether”, a nether region of the cosmos to which only young dogs have access. I think it may be in an adjacent dimension to the galaxy of lost socks.
When I finally do go down river I do manage to push out a rather large flock, but Eager reports later that they didn’t have a shot. I spot some otters down river as well and Tom gives a little growl. He had a run in with three of them by Sand Beach last week and had to teach them some manners when one challenged him by swimming towards the sand where Tom and Sam were standing. Tom, with a serious growl and a loud “oh yeah?!” bark exploded into the surf and all three otters quickly disappeared. Both dog and otters emerged unscathed, but there is lingering resentment on at least one side.
By the time I come out of the river the boys at the Halfway are already picking up their decoys. And, if I’m not mistaken, and I don’t think I am judging from the plume of water behind their outboard and the yells and laughter, they are using a technique of collecting the decoys perfected by One Duck Camp hunters years before known as “High Speed Decoy Retrieval”. This consists of the pilot lining up on the last decoy still in the water then gunning the engine as a partner reaches out from the bow of the boat and tries to retrieve the decoy at top speed. What usually happens is that the decoy goes unretrieved on four or five passes by which time the participant is drenched with water and derision. As I recall, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Anyway, that ritual complete, the boys are headed back down the lake, laughing loudly and playing loud sophomoric tunes on their duck calls. I laugh out loud. Sam whines. I can’t help remembering resorting to the same choice of instrument on low duck days myself, years ago. When the OLD, the Navigator, The Damp Cook, Ambush, Baitpile and so many others, were here on such bleak days, we sometimes did renditions of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, accompanied with shotguns. And sometimes that was only the beginning of the silliness. As the OLD would sometimes say paraphrasing Julius Caesar concerning our hunting techniques at the close of a day on the lake, “We came; we saw; we discharged liberally!” I am still laughing as the boys disappear through the channel and head on to parts unknown. I think I know what Stumpy and One Duck felt like all those years ago watching our shenanigans.
Paddling back the puppies, who like to run along the beach on the way home, flush four more wood ducks out of the reeds along the shoreline. There are an unheard of number of wood ducks this year and that is a good sign for the hunting and, it occurs to me, for Ducks Unlimited’s efforts in conjunction with other environmental groups, to keep all wildlife populations healthy for hunters, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts for years to come. Sometimes, the human race gets something right.
Soon the pups and I are back in camp and I’m writing the day up in the journal. One of the wood ducks was banded and I get on my laptop…yup…things have changed at the One Duck, Stumpy would be shaking his head without a doubt…I get on my laptop and record the number on the band to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Once I enter the number on the web-site, I am instantly informed that the wood duck I shot was hatched in 2019 and banded near Knifley, Kentucky on 08/28/2019 by one Dr. John H. Brunjes of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. For kicks I look up Knifley on Wikipedia. I beg you to do the same, so that you can see I’m not making what I found there up. After noting that Knifley is an unincorporated community near Columbia in Adair County, that the its elevation of the village is 718 feet, and that it has a volunteer fire department, the next piece of information offered is that Knifley is, “The home of the extended family of Kentucky Sports Radio Founder Matt Jone’s girlfriend, Rachel Bailey.” I have no idea who wrote this Wikipedia entry, but I would like to invite him or her to the One Duck Camp. Clearly, we have a shared sense of humor.
And so, that was the opener. And it was a fine one. The temperatures will soon be falling, the wood ducks, mallards, ringnecks, redheads, teals and other early arriving ducks will give way to the buffleheads, goldeneyes, and bluebills. The warm weather gear will come out, and I’ll be wondering if I can squeeze in one more week before things begin to freeze over. Sam will be wiser by a season, Tom will already, be going on nine years old, hard to believe, and memories of ice breaking retrieves and wild blizzard hunting with the OLD, the Navigator, Stumpy, the Damp Cook, Ambush, Baitpile and the others, will come back to me again, as they always do, always will, here at the One Duck Camp where anything can happen and usually does.
On the second day of hunting season, the boys are predictably no shows. Early that morning, in the half darkness inside the One Duck Camp, Tom deliberately and meaningfully lies down at the door of the bedroom and looks me in the eye as Sam and I stand at the outside door. It is his canine way of telling me, I think, that he’s had a big day on the opener and he believes he will give himself a rest today. Who am I to argue? I nod a little sadly and assure him we’ll be back later with some new stories. As he rests his head on his paws watching us depart, it becomes clear to me that to Tom that outcome is never in doubt.
To say that Stumpy Drake Jr., the old caretaker here, had his doubts about me and the OLD too when we were younger, is probably an understatement. Stumpy, the old buddy of my father, and a mentor to both the OLD and me after our dad, Ol’ Doc, passed away, certainly had reasons enough to feel such doubts, especially about me. Stumpy also, though we don’t often, or ever really, mention this aloud, loved us both like sons. I suppose Stumpy’s unvoiced affection for us is proof, that the OLD and I are and were lovable, despite our old crustiness now and our young arrogance then. That being said, I have to also add, that in some quarters, there is still a great deal of disputation about our collective lovability.
Anyway, for certain, in the Fall of 1986, when I was 27 almost 28, and this story is set, I was still a very wild young man and there were plenty of reasons for Stumpy to have doubts about me. I am not wild anymore in the sense a young man is wild, but I like to think I’m wild now the way an old tamarack tree is wild. One that’s been rooted in the moving soil of a peat moss bog, and whose roots are now above ground, but still clinging hard for nourishment, rhythm, and existence. I don’t intend to go anywhere for a while yet. But when I was young, I was the one in this camp crew who was pushing for a little more fun, a little more outrageousness. I was opinionated, a trifle hot tempered and pretty damned full of myself. I remember Stump never did say much about my behavior, even when I was at my very worst, but those green eyes of his would flash. And he might mutter, when I said something truly ridiculous and young, “Ya, well that there’s one way ta look at it.” And every time I said that kind of thing I knew he was thinking of what my dad would have said, and looking out for me because he had promised my dad, Ol’ Doc, his friend, that he would, and because, independent of that, he loved me. I knew that and it did penetrate, despite my youthful, dense exterior, but for a long time it didn’t change my behavior. A lot of those wild statements of mine, and that wild behavior started to change the duck season I was 27, which would place this story, as I said, in 1986. That doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but in any real sense of time it most certainly was.
Somewhere towards the middle of that season, when things were just starting to get cold, I had a little mishap down in Mud Lake. From that day on I came to be known as “Nemo”. The OLD coined the name. It has nothing to do, except by extension with the Pixar kids’ film, Finding Nemo. It is connected to an old Disney movie staring James Mason and Kirk Douglas, an old Disney movie which was based pretty closely on, and shared the title of Jules Verne’s classic of early science fiction 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The main character of that book and film, as you may well know, is a kind of anti-hero named “Captain Nemo”. Yes, that is my whole nickname and remained that for a number of years before it was shortened for convenience. Captain Nemo in Verne’s story, is a self-avowed enemy to mankind, who believes, that left to His own devises, Man would destroy the planet along with Nemo’s beloved oceans, and so he has declared war on mankind and the 19th century shipping industry in particular. He attacked ships in his high tech submarine called The Nautilus. Now I’d like to think that the OLD hung the Captain Nemo moniker on me because he saw me as a young anti-establishment hero. I’d like to think that, but I know it’s not true. The reason I got the nickname was because the OLD saw me as sharing Captain Nemo’s profession: submarine captain. Where am I going with this? I think you may be getting an idea…but let me tell the story. When I’m finished, you’ll definitely understand the nickname, and why the OLD never fails to call me it, to this day, whenever he believes I’ve gotten too big for my britches.
The day, as I said, was cold. And I was excited. That week I had made one of my first big purchases as a young adult: a duck hunting boat. I’d bought it from an old hunter over near Autrain who used it on the river to jump shoot ducks, but the old fellow was getting up there in age and wasn’t quite up to river hunting anymore. You’d think the word “river” would have stuck in my head, but it didn’t. When I brought it to the lake that Friday, Stumpy, who came over to see it from his camp out by the end of the road, took one look at it and said, “Well, chum, that’s a damn nice boat, but don’tcha think it’s a little narrow and short for the big waters here? Seems more like a river boat.”
I couldn’t believe how dense he was being. “Well, Stump, see how the deck is enclosed? Those big waves, when the wind comes up, will just break right over it and wash down the sides. See the design?”
“Yup,” Stump said giving a little tug on his weathered Tiger baseball cap. “I see the design all right.”
When the OLD first saw it a while later, he gave one little stifled chuckle, and knowing full well that if he criticized it I’d just insist on what a fine boat it was even more simply said, “Nice boat.”
Stumpy shot him a look and even then I saw the OLD shake his head just a little. I’m not sure if he was looking out for my welfare by letting me find out some hard facts for myself or simply wanted to see the fun that would result from my momentously bad decision. I’d like to think the former.
But back to that next cold morning. The wind wasn’t up much, so I was feeling pretty confident. I’d decided to hunt from the point, the area next to the channel at the west end of Mud Lake. Stump and the OLD were going to hunt down at the east end of the lake in what we called “The Lost Island Blind”. It was so called because, one day several duck seasons before this, the OLD had been looking at various likely spots for a new blind. I was along for the ride and as we were looking over this point at the east end of the lake, the OLD said from back in the woods, “Well, I’ll be damned…this is the lost island!”
The Island Blind had been a legend in my family for a long time. When the OLD was young, Ol’ Doc and Stumpy used to hunt from an island which was out in the middle of Mud Lake about three quarters of the way down to the east. The way the OLD described it, it was a duck hunting paradise. You had 360 degree shooting and you could put the decoys out all around. It seemed almost unbelievable to me. What was even more unbelievable was that one year, Ol’ Doc and Stumpy came down the lake to make seasonal preparations, and the island was gone.
I should explain that the islands down off this peat moss and cranberry bog are connected to the murky water bottom, which is really bottomless mud, by little more than tree and plant roots. If they roots break away, say in a big storm, the island floats away. That is what had apparently happened in this case. The island found its way east and apparently, eventually reconnected to the shoreline there.
Anyway, the OLD knew that this was the old island because he had found the little foot bridge made of an old piece of boat dock, which Ol’ Doc and Stumpy had laid across it. Thus, the name Lost Island Blind. All of which has almost nothing to do with the Captain Nemo story, but I thought it was interesting.
So, as I said, that morning the OLD and Stumpy were headed for the Lost Island and I was to be on the point at the other end of the lake. We figured by hunting both places we could drive the ducks back and forth, break up the flocks and have some good shooting. But, the OLD would tell me later, Stumpy was on edge about my new boat.
“We better keep a close watch there, chum,” he said to the OLD as both boats were making their way down the big lake. “Ol’ Doc would never hardly forgive me if his youngest went down on a cold day in the dark o’ foredawn!”
“Okay, Stump,” the OLD scowled. “We’ll keep watch.”
And they did, to my annoyance, running along at low speed behind me and my river boat with the putt-putt motor with which it came equipped. To their amazement I made it down the big lake just fine, with the mild chop breaking over the bow and around the enclosed deck of the little boat, just as I had predicted. I was feeling pretty smug. I did notice, however, one little alarming quality of the boat, when I sat in the stern, operating the motor, even with my golden retriever, Snowshoe, looking out over the bow, as she liked to do, the bow was raised considerably in the air, just from my weight. I made a mental note to put a little more weight or ballast into the front of the boat for the next crossing.
Well, there wouldn’t be a next crossing for the little river boat, at least not under its own steam.
When I dropped off my gear on the point and picked up the decoys that had been stashed there for the season, the OLD and Stump, despite their better judgement, headed off in the darkness for the Lost Island Blind. About three quarters of their way down the lake, Stumpy who was keeping an eye on my flashlight, in hopes to head off calamity, suddenly said to the OLD, as calmly as he could, “Chum, I do believe that there flashlight of the boy’s is shining up from underwater!”
But we’ll get back to that. A few moments before Stumpy’s alarming revelation about my flashlight, I was down by the channel, setting out decoys. The persistent east wind and the darkness were making this no easy task. Just as I was getting pretty frustrated with tangled decoy lines and the wind and water in general, I heard a calm voice from from the darkness, emanating from the beach. I nearly fell out of the boat with surprise when I heard these words:
“Watch the water.”
When my heart started again, I looked up in the direction of the voice and could see the unmistakable silhouette of Charlie One Duck, old Zhii himself, standing on the beach. HIs slouch hat was pulled down and his form was short, strong, definite. Even at that moment, all those years ago, One Duck was already a legend in my mind. I hadn’t seen him, that I could remember. since the day of my high school graduation when I and my friends were partying at the camp, and he had rowed by in his old wooden boat, looking up briefly to nod and smile at me a bit without comment. My old high school friend Spear, so called because of his penchant on the football field for using his head as a battering ram, saw Ol’ Zhii go past and asked me, “Who was that?”
I nodded and smirked at my high school pal in turn, taking on the nature of a man of the world, “Geez, Spear, don’t you know Charlie One Duck?”
And now, nine years later, here old Zhii was. It occurred to me then, that I actually knew so little about my father’s old friend. Ol’ Doc, my dad, had told me that the rumor was that Charlie had been run out of St. Ignace for selling bootleg whiskey, and had then taken on the job of caretaker here. He’d been the caretaker until the later 1940’s when Stumpy Drake Sr. took over after the war until the senior Drake’s untimely death in 1959, when his son, and the lake caretaker I knew best, Stumpy Jr., took over.
“How come Charlie quit being caretaker, Dad?” I’d asked my father once.
“I don’t know, for sure,” Ol’ Doc said puffing on a cigar one day out in the fishing boat, “but I’d guess, knowing old Zhii, that it was because he thought Stumpy Sr. needed a job. Besides, that old man always has other business to do. I’ve never seen him just doing nothing. He knows a lot of people, and so he has a lot of jobs.”
“What’s his job now, Dad?”
“Well, I suppose I am. And you definitely are.”
At age 13, having studied just enough history to be dangerous, I said to Ol’ Doc, “So Charlie One Duck was run out of St. Ignace for bootlegging?”
Ol’ Doc, my father, laughed. “That’s the story.”
“Wouldn’t that have to have been in the 1920’s?”
“Yup,” Doc cast out a line.
“Well…how the heck old is Charlie then?”
My father chuckled for a moment and said something I’ll never forget, “How old do you want him to be?”
I was pondering all this, with a hand full of tangled decoy line, and trying to understand what, Charlie One Duck, Zhii’s warning meant when the boat started to lurch a bit, and I looked towards the bow to see that it was pointed just a touch towards the sky. It didn’t really register with me at that moment that that increasing angle of the bow, might soon be a problem. I looked back at the spot where Charlie One Duck had been and saw, nothing. So, either I’d imagined that Zhii was there or he was on to other business, as my father, Ol’ Doc, had suggested he usually was, all those years ago. Just then, I heard a loud splash and looked up to see my golden retriever, Snowshoe swimming away from my little boat and in towards shore, and as I looked again towards the southwest, I realized why. The bow was nearly vertical and, for good measure, the boat was filling up with water!
The bow was quickly and steadily working towards an even crazier angle, the decoys I had extracted from the bag were now floating freely around me and all sensible precautions I’d frequently been told about water safety by the OLD, Stumpy, my dad, other folks around the lake, and my high school health and gym teachers went out the window. “Always stay with the boat!” Those sages of my youth had cautioned, but did that apply when the bow of the boat was pointed like an arrow towards the stars and the stern was submerged? I, like my retriever, Snowshoe, or any sensible rat, decided to abandon a sinking ship.
This was a bad idea for a lot of reasons.
First, I wasn’t wearing a life jacket. None of us did in those days, but I always have since. Second, I was wearing hip waders, which, though they adhered pretty well to the surrounding pants were now filling up with water and acting as pretty good anchors. Third, I was wearing a calf length insulated camouflage coat which likewise was taking on lots of weight with the water and pulling me down. As soon as I hit the water, despite, and partly because of my best efforts to stay afloat, I began to sink. And then, my head went under.
It was dark. It was 36 degrees outside. A little wet snow was in the air. The waves were moving pretty briskly from the east. I looked up, and in the surreality of my new situation, I could see the stars from under the water. I struggled for a second and managed to break the surface gasping for air and waving the flashlight I still had in hand. Then I went down again. I remembered all those cliches about “going down for the third time” and realized that cliches existed for a reason. I realized too, quite objectively, that I probably wasn’t going to survive this.
“This,” I thought, in a kind of insane calm, “is how I’m going to die.”
Then, something happened. A voice spoke to me. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. I’m not entirely certain, but in memory the voice seems to have been One Duck’s. Zhii said quietly to me, “Roll over on your back.”
In what must have been seconds, but seemed like a good long stretch of meditation upon my dire circumstances, I thought that over. Yeah, if I roll over on my back an air pocket will form in the space between my coat and my down vest and I’ll float to the surface.
I did as the voice, One Duck, Bezhigwan Zhiishiib, instructed, and sure enough I did float to the surface. Then using just my wrists and hands managed to propel myself, in a fairly short time, over to the nearby north shore where Snowshoe waited to give my face a lick. I dragged myself like a half drowned and freezing cold rat up to the surface. Now what? I thought. I had to get out of these clothes, get in front of a fire, but that would be hard to do with no dry matches and no boat to take me to the other side of the channel, let alone all the way back to camp. Just then I heard the motor from the OLD’s boat coming back my way. I shone the flashlight in my face so my brother would see me.
A moment later from out of the darkness came the following comment of concern and love, “What the hell are you doing?” the OLD said in relieved exasperation from the darkness.
“I…The…the boat sank. I had to swim for it!”
Suddenly the beam of the OLD’s flashlight swung out towards the middle of the lake, where my little river boat was floating quite horizontally and peacefully on the waves.
“Looks like it’s still floating to me,” came the OLD’s sardonic, disgusted response.
Only much later, would I piece together what had happened. As I’d been fiddling with the tangled decoys the stern of the little boat, which was not enclosed like the rest of the craft, had been facing east, and the waves had begun breaking over the transom. Soon, especially with my weight towards the back of the boat, the water had rushed in and caused the bow to tilt at an ever great angle towards the sky. Then, as soon as I’d jumped out, the little craft had righted itself, and continued to float, quite buoyant, despite a boat load of water. Had I simply moved slowly towards the bow, instead of jumping out, I could have righted the boat and rowed to shore. Still, in all, that boat was certainly not the boat for these waters.
To make a very long story short, The OLD and Stumpy helped me tow the boat to the shore, flip it, bail it out, then towed me and Shoeshoe both shivering, Shoe more in empathy than actual cold I think, across the big lake and back to camp. Over the rumbling of the motor I heard Stumpy admonishing the OLD a couple of times about how cold I must be and that maybe it would be best to stop and build a fire now after getting me out of the wet clothes.
“Captain Nemo there, will be all right,” I heard the OLD say. “He’s too stupid to freeze to death!”
He has since confessed to me that he was pretty mad at me that day. And further, has informed me that he had plenty of reason to be. “Gee, ya think?” I’ve said in sympathetic response to his plight of, following Ol’ Doc’s death, trying to raise an unraisable young scamp like me. Since those days, I’ve had some experience with such circumstances in raising my sons, Bam and Widget. He has also, in just the past few years, admitted to having been terrified for my safety that day, but by God, once he saw I was safe, I was going to be taught a lesson. To which I have recently responded, “I don’t blame you one tiny bit.”
He has also told me since, “When Stumpy and I got close to where you were, for a second, I shone the flashlight on that little boat, and when I didn’t see you in it, all that kept going through my head was, ‘Oh God, what am I going to tell Mom?’”
Back at camp that day in 1986, wrapped in a blanket by the fire. I sipped the coffee that Stumpy had made for me and thought about my near death experience.
Stumpy came over and sat down next to me, placing a hand gently on my shoulder. The OLD was down in the front yard standing with his back to camp in the new snowfall and looking out at the lake. He was very, very still.
Stumpy gave a tug of his cap with his weathered hand and his green eyes flashed at me for a second. “Ya know…” Stumpy started.
“Yeah,” I said. “I do now, Stump.”
Something has happened and I need to tell you about it. I’ve had a revelation. I’m not sure precisely when it happened, but I know it happened some time in the last few days while I’ve been here at the One Duck Camp. It may have been yesterday afternoon when my young dog Sam, who is now going on two and has grown bigger than my old dog Tom, who is eight, decided that it was time to get out of the canoe and did so with a trusting leap over the gunnels of the canoe, when we were passing over a 50 foot drop-off down by Sand Beach; where upon, young pup Sam sank like a stone down a good ways under the waves in a solid west wind, then emerged blowing water out his nose like a whale clearing his blow hole. That may have been when it happened because it made me laugh and then remember when Huck, who was Tom’s trainer and gruff old friend when Tom was Sam’s age, took exactly the same dive in nearly exactly the same place and from then on, Ol’ Huck, always looked and smelled carefully over the side before he exited the canoe. Yeah, that could have been when it happened.
Or it may have been Friday morning when my back, shoulders and arms ached in the way only the joints and muscles of a 62-year-old man can ache, as I paddled again, in the dark, down to the Beaverstick Blind, wondering the whole time how much longer I could do this and then realized, when I arrived there and heard a massive rising of wings and splashing that is like a ghost song older than the wind, and can only be made by a flock of rising ducks just a few yards away, that I will continue to paddle to the Beaverstick in all weathers for as long as I am living and able. Yeah, that could have been when this revelation happened, too.
It may have been the other O dark thirty when I was setting my decoys. Those decoys that were recently, freely, and benevolently given to me. I acquired them unexpectedly two years back, from a dentist benefactor and his wife, she being my old college friend. I made this acquisition simply by being present at a poetry reading and having casually given those two friends of mine the knowledge that I duck hunted. Yup, these wonderful folks freely gave me the cork bluebills with the wooden heads, and the cork mallards with the wooden heads, and a few assorted others including some cork buffleheads with wooden buffle heads. Yes, it may have been when I was setting those benevolent gifts out down by the Beaver Stick Blind the other O dark thirty. That this happened. And at the time, along with those cork and wooden treasures, I was setting some other decoys the OLD and I bought or acquired long ago, some made of rubber and plastic, and styrofoam. I was also remembering still other older decoys, the wooden ones that Ol’ Doc, acquired from various other old duck hunters. Most of those old wooden working pieces of art now reside on the mantle in the One Duck Camp, and a few others are no doubt lost in the tangles of swamp at the back of the Mud Lakes and now likely no longer resemble decoys so much as, well, wood. I remembered then too the old Herter’s hard plastic decoys Ol’ Doc bought in 1969 as well. Some of them are still very much intact and in use. They are the ones George Herter claimed, in his old catalogues you could bang on a fence post in the dead of winter without causing damage. And damned if the old bigoted, misogynist, McCarthyite horse’s ass, George Herter, wasn’t right. Yeah, it may have been the very tactile sensation of setting out the decoys that caused my revelation. Or maybe the memory of the sound of a decoy string wrapping around a still spinning propeller and the curses and laughter that would follow such events. Or it may have been a memory I was having during the long, long process of setting out my decoys, which I now have on two long lines with key rings where I attach each cork decoy with a nifty little hook on the end of short strong string. The OLD and I discussed just such a rig-up for years and years wishing we had one. The OLD wished out of nostalgia for just such a decoy rigging, like the one Ol’ Doc and Stumpy Drake Senior had strung out from a stilt blind out on Lake Superior near Paradise years and years and years ago. Yeah, it could have been the decoys that brought it all on. Or the memory I also had while I was still setting decoys of an argument I had with the OLD one day years ago about whether in that particular wind it was better to set the decoys out in a “V” or a “J” or if it wasn’t best to always just set them out in lines going in every direction or perhaps in two big bunches, and whether it was important to keep all the different species of decoys together, and whether the goose decoys should be set off a bit or kept closer where geese could actually be shot if and when said geese ever actually decided to come into our goose decoys, which was highly doubtful. And this argument continued as we were actually setting them out in the darkness that one morning long ago and on towards dawn light and nearly to sunrise, and Stumpy Jr., who was already in the blind wearing his Tiger ball cap and red earmuffs of all things, finally said just as the sun started to break and a rush of 20 buffleheads blew right past us in the boat as we sat arguing…Stumpy said, “Boys, it don’t make one damned bit of difference how you set’em out if you don’t never set them out cause yer too damned silly stupid to stop arguin’ about how to set’em out!” Ha, yeah, it may have been that memory.
It may have been later the other day, after a morning hunt in a cold wind during which I didn’t shoot all that well, and came away both a touch disappointed, but also satisfied, in the knowledge that there are days like that on the bog and lots of other kinds of days too both miraculous and mundane which are both a kind of Holy in their miraculousness and mundanity, perhaps even a minor Sacrament. It may have been, as I say, later closing up my nephew Dub’s high tech and efficient Halfway House and Cranberry Swamp Bed and Breakfast Blind; closing down the shutters and shutting the door there that I smiled at all the times Stumpy, the OLD, and possibly even One Duck, Zhii, and Ol’ Doc, my dad, did similar things for me that I never noted and only half remember, and I thought of how time moves and doesn’t out on the bog with the ducks in the shifting wind and the dogs hitting the water, and the shotguns blazing and the jokes going around and the motors and paddles striking water and the sun rising and setting. So, it may have been then, too.
And it may have been earlier that morning, when I dropped a teal and watched my old dog, Tom and my young dog, Sam take off from opposite sides of the Beaverstick and I wondered which of them would get to the bird first and what would happen then. And it was, of course, Tom, the old hand who got there first and Sam came out of the water and looked at me with the look that said, “Make another one hit the water!” and I laughed with a laugh that I hope said to him, “I will if I can, but I can’t always.” And just knowing that the three of us are a kind of brotherhood, the way dogs and men have been almost since men recognized themselves as men and dogs learned loyalty, and that the two of them sometimes make three of me in integrity, honesty, and courage, and are always ready even when I’m not. It may have been then or the next day when Tom, who gets a little sore these days after a day or two out hunting didn’t answer the call and slept in the back bedroom while Sam and I headed out, and that morning down at the blind I shot a surf scoter duck of all things, which Sam latched onto and brought back in a jiffy, and later I knocked down a ringneck well out and Sam pursued and pursued as that duck dove time after time, and eventually I took the canoe out and went in pursuit as well and we thought we had him, but the duck kept diving and the pup kept trying, but you don’t always come in with the ducks you pursue. And I know that now in all its complexities. Yeah, it may have been then.
It may have been that same day, yesterday, when I suddenly realized I was getting somewhat low on shotgun shells, even though I shoot much less than I once did and actually do hit a few more than I once did, and remembering my old pal we called “Sharp Shooter” out here, who once spent fifty shells in a single day, and how hard we were laughing most of that day counting up the cost of the shells as opposed to the few ducks we got, and how Sharp Shooter laughed and made me laugh so hard I could hardly breath until the thermos coffee came out of my nose, and how he always used to get dressed up in old air force surplus clothes he got from his brother including the dumbest looking mad bomber hat you have ever seen, and how he would look at me deadpan with his goofy kid’s mad spark eyes and a blush would flash over his rosy cheeks in the cold air and he’d say, “That’s the thing about duck hunting: it’s a fashion show every day!” Yup, that may have been when it came to me too.
Or, it may have been arriving back at the beach at the channel yesterday and looking back down the Mud Lake and remembering all the “night flights” when we would wait there with just a few decoys out, for the ducks to rush through over the channel on their way to the big lake for the night and the way we would “anti-aircraft” shoot as they went over and oh, oh, oh, if we hit one as they went screaming past, how the cheers and jeers and huzzahs would fly as the dogs hit the water in pursuit. Or the memory of the time the OLD and I trudged down along the frozen beach in our hip boots because another damned motor had broken down, each of us with a bag of decoys over our backs and when we arrived, nearly hopeless and completely exhausted, found that over night Big Mud had frozen all down its length except for a perfect little rounded area just to the east of the channel. So, in desperation, we threw out what decoys we had in that little ice pond and sat down in the snow and we could feel the wild wind on the big lake and all of sudden the ducks started coming in, though we could hardly see them in the driving snow and we shot and shot until our barrels were hot and we had each collected our limit of all the late season ducks and we trudged back home laden down but happy. That memory too could have caused my revelation.
I think now, though it may have been when I got back to camp the other day and was cleaning my Browning over/under and thinking about how happy I am with the simplicity and practicality of this gun, and then remembering all the other guns I’ve had: the Second Winchester pump that I used hard until the action finally broke; the first Winchester pump, the old Model 12 Winchester with the short barrel, with which I took two red head ducks with one shot from the Lost Island Blind while the OLD’s boy, my nephew Roughcut, looked on; or the Remington 1100 semi-automatic I inherited when Ol’ Doc, my father, passed on, which was a great gun in September and early October, but had all kinds of problems when it got cold even after we learned a few secrets about how to speed up the action; or the .410 I hunted with when I first went out with the OLD back in the 70’s. The one I shot at ducks with and likely hit nothing, though the OLD told me that every duck that fell I had shot. Yes, it may have been that memory too.
Or it may have been coming back any of these last three days, sometimes with the wind, sometimes across the wind, sometimes against the wind paddling along or riding the wind, and realizing that I’ve gotten, out of necessity, so that I can read the wind pretty well, and so that I can find a way around the wind, though it isn’t always easy in the ice of late season or on a heavy wind day earlier in the Fall. And remembering too all those days when the the boats the OLD and his boys and Stumpy and I and the Navigator, and Bait Pile, and the Damp Cook, and Ambush, and Sharp Shooter and all those others came and went in, and battling to get the boat off Sand Beach against a west or north west wind, and how the boats only occasionally took on water though more than once we were out in weather we shouldn’t have been out in. And thinking about how the canoe is actually quite a bit safer than any of those boats in bad weather now, because I’m rarely…or never if my wife Sparky is reading this…out very far from shore and usually am only ten yards or less off the shore, so my dogs can run along on whatever beach there is in the joy and clarity of mellow Fall daylight. Yes, I guess those thoughts could have brought on the revelation too.
And anyway, what I came to realize these last few days, what happened to me, is that I at last, after 62 years understand who I am, or at least who I am now, especially now that in just a very few months I will teach my last class of English students forever, and I will ever after that spend as many Falls as I have remaining as long as I am able, right here at the One Duck Camp. And that’s because, much more now than I am a teacher or a writer, though, admittedly a good bit less than I am a husband and a father, I am Nemo, silly as that sounds. I am the old guy who hunts alone at the Beaver Stick Blind and paddles his old canoe using his kayak paddle, and hunts with his over under and always, always has at least one good hunting dog and usually two and who laughs now at his bad shooting and smiles when things go right and remembers everything that’s ever happened here since the One Duck Camp began, and lives for the wind and water and the reverberations of something very old and something that is yet to come. This is who I am now. That’s what I realized. That’s what happened. That was my revelation.
Oct. 6, 2000—The old, bespectacled duck hunter, his hair gone long and largely white, and pulled back under a Stormy Kromer hat which featured a wilderness organizational pin or two, had become pretty adamant as he sat on a barstool. We’d struck up a conversation as I sat at the bar waiting for a growler of local stout. Our conversation concerned our mutual favorite topic: duck hunting.
“You’ve gotta go out tonight! You may be hitting it just right,” he said of the weather outside. There was a rain snow mix with a fifteen mph swirling wind out of the northwest. “You can’t pass this up.”
His insistence came after I’d told him I’d had a hard week at school and was looking forward to getting to camp and just sitting back for a beer or two while I waited to see if any of the camp regulars would show up. He was insistent, I surmised, in part because five or six years earlier he’d reluctantly decided to stop duck hunting due to the toll it was taking on his body. He had acquiesced to the ravages of age and Nature, but he clearly wasn’t happy about it. “You’ve got to go,” he said, his meaningful look holding steady as he sipped his draft. The phrase “for me” was clearly implied.
I was 42 and in the middle of my teaching career. The recently completed week of school had been a bad combination of angry parental involvement with several difficult students, who had obviously inherited some of their worst personal traits; governmental intervention in education involving ever more standardized testing; a nagging cough which was threatening to worsen in the wet, frigid, weather down on Mud Lake and also from the kickback of the camp wood stove; and some general personal angst; the only cure for which had always been taking my sorry ass to camp. Just sitting there at camp and savoring a beer tonight and contemplating whether I even wanted to try going out to hunt in the morning sounded pretty good. Still, the old hunter had a point. When the weather is right you really should go out, for yourself, and for those, who, like him, can’t go out anymore.
Oct. 11, 2020—Oh I was definitely going out. Yeah, I was in a good deal of pain, but it was just joint and muscle pain from stupidly, stubbornly, insisting on riding my bike the 36 miles into Marquette from home on Wednesday, then, when I got to camp on Thursday, insisting on paddling down to the Beaver Stick Blind across a fairly strong south wind, just to “check out the situation” then paddling back. Then, getting up on Friday, paddling down to hunt, then paddling back again to camp. So far the reward had been taking part in some poor shooting and managing to bag one tiny teal early on Friday morning, which my old Lab, Tom made a b-line for and brought straight back hoping for more as my pup, watched then quivered insisting there had to be more. But there wasn’t more, just a paddle back, a restless sleep and the prospect of another paddle this morning. By God, I made that paddle too, though. Tom, having perhaps better sense than I, and now in a kind of semi-retirement, had not so much as shone his nose beyond the back bedroom at camp, so it was just the second year man, Sam and me on this decidedly chillier morning with a northwest wind at about 15 miles per hour.
When the most recent paddle was finally finished, I sat back in the Beaver Stick at last, a bit chilly and no less sore and soon saw a couple of bulky ducks come in to the west, I took one and watched the other sit, then get up and disappear into the morning fog to the west. Sam was on the duck in the water quickly and brought it back. It was, to coin a phrase, an odd duck for our parts, featuring a neanderthal forehead a wide elongated flat bill and white spots of feather around the eyes on an otherwise black head. It took a moment, but I remembered, “Surf scoter.” Now, from when did I remember these ducks? I somehow knew they were normally denizens of the east and west coast who occasionally made it into the great lakes. Usually big winds were the only thing that could drive them this far inland.
I texted an image of the duck to my nephew Dubs, who is eating his heart out this year concerning duck hunting, but not regretting his family involvement, which precipitates his hunting abstinence. He concurred on the identification. “Yup, that’s a scoter,” he texted. “Probably the big wind pushed him in off Superior…”
Oh yeah…I suddenly remembered when I had last shot one of these. And it had to do with an old duck hunter in a bar. I texted this to Dubs, “Yeah,” he texted back. “I remember reading about that in the camp journal.”
“Do you remember when that was?” I inquired.
Oct. 6, 2000—When I got to camp Stumpy, like the old duck hunter at the bar, was also being insistent. “I already got yer boat ready, the decoys are loaded. Don’t give me none of that crud about a tough week; I can’t see good enough no more to shoot straight er safe er I’d be out there with ya! Now dang it all, yer goin’, boy! Yer brother ain’t been able to go these last couple years what with all his family who-ha and what-not and yer the only one what has a couple years left before yer involved in all that too. Ya got a good night, dang it, yer goin’ out!”
I made a half hearted rejoinder about how the camp seemed awfully nice and warm and I appreciated the work he’d done making it so, and the decoys would still be in the boat in the morning and…
“Dang it all! Zhii was here!”
“Charlie One Duck, ol’ Zhii, was here. I was cuttin’ wood earlier today when the sun was still out and Zhii came up on me outta nowhere like he does and he says clear as a bell from behind me, so’s that I was like ta break my trapeze muscle tryin’ ta hold up in the back swing with my sixteen pound splittin’ maul, he says, ‘When the boy comes, tell him the day is right. He should hunt.’”
“And I turns around and tells him that he done scairt me half ta death. Then I says, ‘Looks pretty sunny to me Zhii. And that boy, he usually likes ta take it easy Friday nights after his week a’ work.’”
“‘The day is right,’ that old cuss says again already turnin’ away like he does.”
I knew then, looking first at Stumpy’s weathered serious expression, then out the window at the whipping wind, that I no longer had a choice. The three elders were right, the weather did look right.
“Okay,” I finally said to Stumpy with a smile, “like they say, nobody works harder than an American trying to have a good time.”
I loaded up the rest of my gear and my aging yellow Lab Minnesota. Sota had always been a bit of a reluctant retriever, but she had a heart to please and so was going along even in this nasty weather, and it had turned even nastier. I pushed the boat out in my hip waders, climbed aboard, and incredibly the motor started on the first pull. I wondered if Stumpy had given the aging eight horse a tune up to insure I’d have no excuses. That would have been just like him. I headed down the lake in the general direction the storm was taking. There would be hell to pay getting back. I hoped, the old duck hunter in the bar, Stumpy and Zhii were right. I hoped the trip would be worth it.
Oct. 12, 2020—My poor shooting had continued. I’d had a few shots at teal after the surf scoter success, but nothing had fallen. I’ve become a little more philosophical about such things as I’ve gotten older, but it still bites a bit.
The water around the lake is high this year and that’s been a trend for awhile, but it’s really up. The beavers in Mud aren’t even bothering to try to dam things, so they must be satisfied. The channel for a while was rushing with water and was hardly a channel between the lakes at all, but has since been blocked with sand on the west wind and the old channel pointed north down sand beach is back in place, deep at the center and impassable even in my canoe where the sand has washed up. I headed on through the channel that morning after having seen a few shots from Dub’s game camera on the beach. No sign of the “Mud Lake Monster” the swimming behemoth of a buck I’d seen in Mud a few weeks back, but there was a nice picture of two does and one of a wolf passing by at 3 a.m. just a few days ago. They are here and no doubt. The place is wilder for them. It gladdens my heart.
Anyway, Tom was taking another day off and Sam and I headed back to the Beaverstick, this time battling an east southeast wind which was easing as we got further down the lake. I figured it would be pretty calm under these stars this morning down at the Beaverstick. I was right, it was a quiet paddle the rest of the way with Venus for a guide, the Great Bear, my ol’ Dog Huck’s cluster of stars overhead, and Mars staring angry and red over my shoulder.
About three quarters of the way down I heard a flock of mallards get up to the north. Always lots of quacking and wing beats when that happens, then I could hear a startled swan as I made the final approach to the Beaverstick to pick up the decoys. Set out went well in the still water. Soon enough I was sitting back under my cover of miscellaneous camo burlap, mesh, and plastic wrapped over tamarack limbs and pinned into the beaver sticks I’d collected last summer which give the blind its new name.
The light was just starting to come up and soon it would be shooting time. That’s when it happened.
Oct. 6, 2000—The water was very, very low that year. So low we weren’t even trying to venture down into Big Mud with our motor boats. I hadn’t figured out the whole canoe quotient I would come to swear by in later years, so we were relegated to either hunting from the point where the channel is, or using the deeper but inferior duck hunting waters of Little Mud over to the southwest. The three old hunters who had goaded me into coming out that night had a point. The last hours of day were when the ducks came out of Big Mud onto the big lake. It was the best chance for some shooting, in this dry, hard luck year. I stood on the ample beach throwing out the decoys as the snow swirled around me, but something else was suddenly swirling too. Ducks! I skipped the rest of the decoys, huddled down in the snow with Sota, and began firing and shifting shells through the chamber and out the side of my newly acquired Winchester pump almost immediately. After a few misses, at fast flying teals, at least I thought that’s what they were, it was hard to tell in the storm, and with the snow and rain turning to just snow and picking up, a dozen strange, bulky looking ducks roared through the haphazard decoys. I found my targets, fired three times and four hit the water. Immediately they started drifting away on the waves which were headed quickly down the lake to the south and east. Sota, invigorated by the excitement of all the shooting, made four long retrieves, one well over 100 yards. Later that memorable night, back at camp, after consulting, the waterfowl book we keep on a shelf in the corner there, I came to know that I had just shot four surf scoters.
“What are they doing here?” I asked Stumpy who was smiling from ear to ear.
“Danged if I know,” he said. “Maybe the wind brought’em in off Superior. Guess Zhii was right.”
“Isn’t he always?”
I remembered too, the old nameless duck hunter at the bar. He had really started something. I wondered if there would be a sequel the next morning.
Oct. 12, 2020—They just kept passing and passing and passing. They flew by at medium height out in the middle of Big Mud for at least 30 seconds. My jaw involuntarily dropped. I wasn’t even thinking about what it would be like if those roaring, surging, swooping little brown teals, which danced through the air like an enormous school of tropical fish through water, suddenly decided to turn towards my decoys. I wasn’t really thinking at all, as this vast entity, that was composed of a thousand little water birds worked east towards the sunrise. I was living in awe of something much much bigger than my little concerns. Here was the outward showing of forces of Nature and perhaps Spirit manifested in this impossible cloud of over 1,000 little ducks. It was impossible to watch just one or even a dozen, the whole was one. I was just with them and almost of them. Or so it seemed. I was honored to be a part or just to observe this phenomenon.
But then that nagging, mundane human voice came back into my head. There have to be a thousand of them. Now, wait…wasn’t there another time…
But soon I didn’t have time to remember. Two trailing teal or two that had broken off from the group broke down towards my decoys from the east. I pulled up the gun, shot, incredibly both went down. Sam was on them, then working back, doing puppy work, trying to figure it all out. After some difficulties we had them in the blind.
Just about then, eight more teal came in from the northwest side of the blind, I shot twice this time, and again, incredibly, three went down. Was I dreaming? And why did this seem like deja vu?
For the rest of a short morning in fits and starts the teal kept coming back, and now I was one duck away from my limit for the first time in, oh, I don’t know, nearly ever. I was starting to think about shooting. Kiss of death. I missed on three successive passes. Finally, and still at only about 9:30 a.m. eight more teal roared through from the west and turned rapidly south I pulled up and shot at one. Did that one twitch? I think it twitched. But they kept flying until well across the lake, then, splash! The twitching teal came down and I was limited out. I took a breath or two. Sam was in the water, and he had the general direction, but the distance was much too great. I called him back in, and together we headed out in the canoe to pick up the last duck of a fine day.
Oct. 7, 2000—My buddy Ambush showed up very early the morning after the night of the man at the bar, and Stumpy and Zhii and the surf scoters, and Ambush, as was often the case in those days, had a new toy. Now Ambush, ever the scientist, had reasoned that since the water was so shallow this year, maybe if he used his new kayak to head down into Mud, we could put up some ducks who would subsequently break for the channel and we could, I don’t know, shoot them?
It seemed like a pretty radical break from the usual logic at the One Duck, but I was willing to try it and I was feeling magnanimous and not a little smug since Ambush had missed the fun last night.
“Yashouldabeenhere! I said, as we readied to head down the lake. Me in the outboard with all the gear, he in his new kayak.
When we got to the channel and threw out the decoys it became obvious that the party was still on. There were teal, some of those scoters, and ringnecks roaring over the opening between the lakes. We sat down, took a few potshots, but nothing came down. Then, three teal came in from the north and as they broke I pulled up and shot once, and all three of them went down.
“See,” I said to Ambush smugly, “this is what’s been happening.”
“Clearly,” said Ambush. “There is some magic in the air, probably black magic, that or someone’s out and out sold his soul…”
About then another was coming straight at us low to the water, we each waited on the other, finally we both shot and it skidded between us bouncing off the beach and splashing into the big lake where Sota quickly retrieved it.
“Kamikazee?” Ambush asked.
After that, things began to quiet down, but we could still see those teals on the water to the east, bunched up well down Mud Lake.
Ambush asked if he should try his noble experiment. Never having truly understood nobility, I decided to let him try. Sure enough, while Ambush was out for his recreational, paddle, twelve more teal got up and I took one more on the pass. One or none on a pass is more like my style of shooting. I surmised that the magic was clearly wearing off. Maybe, I thought, I should quit while Ambush still thinks I can shoot. When he came back I made an effort to retain my recent reputation by pseudo-magnanimously offering to take my own leisurely trip in his kayak for his benefit.
“Is this out of nobility or shame?” Ambush queried.
“Want me to stay here with you?”
“Nobility,” Ambush said. “Definitely nobility.”
Ambush, of course, then started to give me multiple highly scientific kayak paddling instructions in the proper use of paddle, shift of weight, penetration and pull ratios, blah, blah, blah…
“How about if I just paddle the damned thing and see what happens?”
“Sounds good. Say, you got a life jacket…Nemo?”
I did, and I had half a mind not to go on this scouting run for a partner with Ambush’s attitude, but I headed down the lake and managed to push, shall we say, some teals up. How many? Well…all of them… Every, last, one.
There, were so very many.
When I got back, having heard no shots and seen that all of that myriad of little brown ducks, all of them as one, had passed well out of range, but right over Ambush, after flying right over me, I asked Ambush, all kidding aside, with a voice that wasn’t quite steady, “Did you see…”
“Yeah,” Ambush said his voice uncharacteristically sincere, free of scientific calculation, and completely awed, “I did.”
What are those damned tourists doing? I thought, staring down Mud Lake towards the west. They looked to have just entered Big Mud through the channel in their little boat. There were four of them and they all appeared to be standing tall in their little boat. And they were all dressed completely in white. What are they, nuns? It’s never easy when you’re down hunting and some visitor to somebody’s camp, usually some older ladies who are visiting one of their nice older lady friends who has a camp on the lake, comes down in a boat poking around when you’re hunting. I never know whether to fire off a shot in the opposite direction just to shock them into getting the picture. Yes, these are decoys. Yes, the bad, bad man is hunting. Yes, you’re right, he just has no conscience, no upbringing. No, he doesn’t understand the higher things. Never has, never will. Can he go back to hunting now? Can you be on your way? But nuns? The little Catholic boy in me really didn’t want to deal with nuns this morning. Or fire off a round in their opposite direction to give them the picture. Was it too much to ask that…wait…
There was a good deal of fog around, and my binoculars were fogged over and of no use for the moment. I looked closer with my naked, sinful eyes. Wait, the nuns appeared to be milling about. How can they be milling about in a boat? Well, it’s pretty calm, maybe…wait, what if they’re not in a boat. Am I seeing some holy apparition? Oh, get ahold of yourself! Think. All in white, milling around, and could that line just be dark water, or a log, or just a shadow? There isn’t a boat, you dope, and those aren’t four nuns. And they aren’t dressed in white habits, those are feathers! Those are swans! Four swans. Better keep this particular little episode to yourself. People might think… Anyway, it was a unique perspective. Everybody has their own perspective, sees things differently. Some physicists and other theorists talk about a multi-verse, a universe with an infinite number of dimensions. Maybe those scientists, like me and my milling nuns, are just doing some very human struggling with the idea of perspective and what there really are in the universe are an infinite number of perspectives in the way that people and other creatures see the universe, so in that sense…
About then a goodly flock of mallards roared past the decoys. Pretty far…should I? Oh, what the hell…
Too far. The OLD would say I was skybusting, and he’d be right. Well, they won’t be back anyway.
There was a pretty good mass of ducks around again, but they’d gone past in darkness and half darkness and now they were going past too far away. They weren’t wary of the decoys. And they couldn’t see me behind the screen of beaver sticks in my camo right down to a mesh camo face hood. Those ducks just didn’t need the comfort of company; they had their own company and they were just flying by out of curiosity or conformity. And the day was coming up way too still and nice. I’d feared it would be this way on the paddle down. It had been lovely, with Venus in the east facing Mars in the west again, and the water so still that each was leaving a star trail on the dark water. And the Moon was just to the north of Venus, low on the horizon, a “sliver bottom moon”, so other worldly and lovely. It made for nice paddling, but it also meant there was no weather to stir the ducks and any opportunities would come early or maybe not at all.
All that had been borne out. Maybe the illusory nun swans have cast a spell. But, there were four of them, not three, so they weren’t witches on the heath like in Macbeth, and they were feathered in white, not ragged grays or jet black, so barring a fata morgana, and you never know on that score, they were up to only good or natural, those milling nun swans.
But, putting aside all that musing, I assessed my chances. The conclusion: not good. Too calm. Too nice. Clear cold beautiful. Good day for a paddle, not so good for hunting.
Whoa! Another quick pass. But I checked myself this time. No chance there. Sam whined. Sam was going solo again. Tom had again opted to stay at camp. I wondered if he had some insight into the day, or if he’d made a final decision concerning his involvement in hunting favoring retirement. Either was okay. Sam was holding his own, though recently he’d gotten into the habit of hitting the water every time I shot. He’d soon learn that the old guy didn’t shoot that well. There would be lots of futility and he’d have to learn to wait. But that was okay too.
Learning. We’re always learning until we can no longer learn. And that doesn’t happen this side of the grave, and maybe it even happens after that. Another distant pass. Again, no shots. Again the whine.
Sam’s other bad habit is jumping out of the canoe too early. But he is learning there too. That might well be the result of when I went a little angry scary on him earlier this Fall after he pitched the canoe enough coming into camp to half fill it with water. Since then he’d given me over the shoulder looks as we’d approached any shore and I’d given him verbal cues. We were working it out.
I wondered if maybe that’s why Tom wasn’t coming down with us recently, because he knew the two of us had to work some things out. And he’d been through all that himself and might only be in the way. The puppy had to learn from the old man. Could the old dog be that smart?
Sky busting. I laughed a little out loud. There is a long history there at the One Duck Camp. Whenever somebody from the One Duck shot at a fairly distant group the tradition was you accused them of sky busting. It was almost a matter of course. And it was funny. A way to rag on the other guy. That’s what men do. I wonder how long that’s been a tradition? Much longer than there’s been a One Duck Camp surely. The topper, though, was if you or somebody else pulled up and shot just as you were about to be accused of sky busting and suddenly a duck wavered, then crashed to the water with a dramatic splash. It was wonderful then to look at your hunting partner and say, “Sky busting? Were you going to say sky busting?” The eye rolls and chuckles were lovely then as the dog or dogs hit the water in pursuit. And somebody in the blind would say…the OLD likely, or sometimes Stumpy who would be laughing from under his Tiger cap, or even Dubs as he’d grown older, Dubs…but somebody would say, “Golden bee bee shot!” An attribution to dumb luck on the downside or Divine Intervention on the good, but never, never skill if it was somebody else at the One Duck. Ha! Sweet moments.
There are a lot of traditions at the One Duck, the sky busting/golden bee bee conflict being one. Another is our stance on mergansers. Or at least mine. I can never tell what the OLD’s stance will be. I do know there will be one, though, and it will come clear and definite in that half serious voice of his. And he’ll say whatever it is as though he’s said it a million times, even if it’s the first time he’s said it. Sometimes I can’t figure out which is true. I wonder if he can? Anyway, there were a few mergansers hanging around that morning. My final decision on the matter was that I wasn’t going to shoot any more mergansers. They aren’t good eating, they are tough to kill, and it’s just a waste all around. So these days, I let them swim in and out of the decoys all they want. A couple times this year at the Beaverstick they’ve actually popped up from under the floor at the front where the shore meets the water. They sometimes bring other ducks in with their movement, a kind of accidental decoy, but Sam doesn’t know that, and I’m not sure he’d care if he did. I mean, hey, a duck’s a duck. Though, mergansers aren’t actually ducks. Even the OLD says, “a duck’s a duck” sometimes. Anyway to Sam and sometimes the OLD they are ducks. So why, Sam asked that day, with whines and impatient head bobs and lunges, wasn’t I shooting? If Tom were here he’d be sleeping at my feet. He’s gotten used to my strange human discretions and digressions.
About then a beaver showed up. That’s inevitable in some ways. Beavers, like people, are creatures of habit. They often make the same passes over water at the same time each day. If your blind is on their route, you’re going to see them. The Beaverstick is on this beaver’s route. Go figure. He passes right through the decoys. Unfooled, indifferent, hard to tell which. I’m leaning toward indifference. But he’s not indifferent to Sam and me. When he scents us, he myopically tilts his head our way. What’s next is inevitable too. He makes a couple of dramatic circles then: Whack! Flat tail hits water and he is on his way. Yeah, I know you’re there too beaver. We’ll agree to disagree.
After that there was a lot of beautiful nothing. The fog was clearing out. The day was coming up cold and clear. The water was flat and reflective. The colors were in the trees. In the silence down there time has a way of shifting and reassembling. Sometimes time will move very fast. Sometimes an hour will go by and I’ll wonder where my head has been and I’ll think to myself, smiling out there alone on the bog, I don’t know, but it was some place pleasant. And then there was the osprey, who had apparently been sitting in a tree on the bog behind me. At the Beaverstick, with its rag-tag covering of burlap and plastic camp, with me wearing my face netting and camo, truly nothing can see me. The osprey flew in low and took off across the lake. And from the top of pine on the opposite shore to the southwest, an eagle broke into the air and made a direct line for the osprey. I had seen these battles before. The first time was when my wife Sparky and I were young and were out for a canoe in summer down along the weed bed on the northeast side of the big lake. That time it had been a real arial dogfight with talons flying and the eagle, who had been holding a fish he’d caught, spinning over on his back to take a full on swipe or two at the osprey. This time, neither had a fish, and so it was just one pass, as the osprey veered around the eagle and headed on his way west across the big lake.
There comes a moment in nearly every morning of duck hunting when you can feel it. There’s a scent of something wild, or perhaps a distant sound of wing feathers in the breeze, or a wind shift, or a tingling that may come from the trees or the water and enters your spine. However it works, the moment comes when you know the birds are moving. I sensed just that, and for once was not looking the wrong way, or drinking coffee from my thermos, or texting Dubs who is pining for hunting a hundred miles west of here. I saw them coming. A nice flock of about 10 ringnecks coming hard and low on the water from the west. I calmed myself, picked out one bird near the center of the flock and as they swept in along the U of my cork decoys I fired once. Splash. Sam was in the water before I said his name and had it back in a matter of moments. Nice. One drake ringneck made to order. There was something pretty perfect about that moment.
The next moment was funny. The swans, who by this time had worked their way down the southwest shore of Mud started moving right for the blind, honking their swanny heads off even as Sam was coming back with the bird. How close would they get? Pretty damned close! Enough so that Sam finally started to have a conversation with the four of them as they drew closer and closer. Had I not stood up to take pictures, I wonder if they would have taken the pup on. That would have been a mass of feathers and tails! But when I stood, though I was still wearing my camp mask and must have looked like a tree suddenly springing up from the ground, they moved off, but kept right on honking. It made me laugh. It made me glow a little. I wondered what their motivation was. Had the gunshot upset them? Did they see Sam and figure he was encroaching on their territory? Ha, did they see him swimming off with one of their little brothers and decided they’d damned well tell him that wasn’t an option when it came to them? Sam kept watching them, wondering about them as well, that made me laugh too. That pup has come a long way in just over a year of life. He’s a retriever now. I can rely on him. Maybe that’s why Tom hadn’t come again today. I wasn’t sure. There are lots of things I don’t understand about dogs, about nature, about the universe in general. But, you know what? There are a few things, after 62 years in residence, that I am beginning to figure out.
Anyway, I was coming to relish this day, as I began to slowly, methodically, pack my gear away and ready the canoe for the trip back to camp. Clean. Perfect in some ways. The way the flock had come in, I’d taken the one shot. One had dropped. Not excessive, not exceptional, but a good, solid, working day at the blind, with some little oddities like the raptor tussle and highlights like the swan confrontation, all its own. Almost every day is like that when I go out to hunt. And I think I’d be pretty satisfied almost any day to have one perfect pass, where I pick one out and drop one in textbook fashion. I might keep coming to the Beaverstick for 1000 years with that guaranteed. I might come for 1,000 years anyway, if that were allowed. Maybe it will be. I hope so.
Note: The “historical facts” concerning the Efeu Glove, as related here by Nemo, are neither historical nor facts. The account of this conversation between Nemo and Dubs is also a fiction, but then, what isn’t?
About ten years ago this duck season, I was passing by Dub’s duck hunting blind, otherwise known, at least by me, as The Peat Bog Half Way House and Cranberry Swamp Bed and Breakfast. It’s a fancy deal; it has actual walls and a ceiling, shutters, a door and such. You know, all those high tech things modern hunters like Dubs are so fond of. Anyway, I was passing by Dub’s blind at the end of a chilly hunting morning and I waved my gloved right hand at Dubs and his dog Hank, from the space at the center of their decoys, which were arranged very scientifically, according to species all around.. My old dog Huck, he was around 10 or so by then, was asleep in the bow of the canoe. He had a way of doing that. That old dog could sleep through anything and usually didn’t even wake up when I shot a ducks unless he heard some cue words like “Got’eem!” or “Wow, I actually hit one!” So when Dubs took one somewhat quizzical, frowning look at the strange looking glove on my right hand, I didn’t hesitate, for fear of waking Huck, or of disrupting the hunting there to answer his vital and awe inspired unspoken question at length and aloud.
“Well, that’s the Efeu Glove, Dubs.”
“Uh huh.” Dubs said, for some reason glancing around frantically at the sky to the west, east, and south. “The which?”
Really, having known me as long as he has, Dubs should have probably stopped with “Uh huh”, but at this point he had asked, and in keeping with One Duck Camp protocols, he was now obligated to listen to what I had to say. What’s more, secretly, I think Dubs actually likes to hear my stories, though you’d never get him to admit that, ungrateful kid. (Well, okay, he’s going on 40.)
I held up my right gloved hand and looked at it for a moment. It was and is, though I have modified it somewhat since, a strange looking glove to wear on one’s shooting hand. The glove is an ordinary leather fingerless trap shooting glove with one exception: The middle finger, where the truncated knuckle cover ends, has been wrapped in a generous, multi-layered tube of extra stiff and thick duck tape all the way to the fingernail. So, the hand constantly looks as though it’s making an obscene gesture.
“Don’t tell me I’ve never told you about the Efeu Glove…”
“Can’t say that you…”
“Well that’s a good story. See the middle finger wrap here is designed to protect the middle finger from the recoil of my powerful Browning over/under. It hurts like a moth…Well it hurts a lot when the trigger guard impacts against the bare middle finger and raises a pretty good bruise and a lump on the most handward knuckle to boot, if you don’t have it protected from the awesome power of the Browning over/under’s recoil.”
“I see. Nice design, Uncle Neem.” Dubs said shooting a compliment my way and perhaps seeing the tactical error he’d made and trying to head off the impending story, his breath visible in the chilly air, as he oddly continued to look around at the empty air. Yes, at this point, Dubs was quite ready to take the explanation at face value, but I felt that would be depriving this young fellow of a bit of One Duck Camp history.
“Yeah, I wish I could take credit for the design, but I only created this version along the lines of the original Efeu Glove. The schematics are back at camp in one of the journals. They’re not the original schematics, of course, only a copy of the ones preserved in the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing.”
“Uh huh…” Dubs said, a bit of tension starting to form around his eyes as he scratched Hank’s ear and continued to scan the horizons. The little dog had put paws up on the inside front of the blind and, unlike Dubs, was listening avidly to my story. Huck had heard it many times before and perhaps understandably snored away in the bow.
“Yes, the Efeu Glove was originally designed by a French trapper and duck hunter around these parts named Efeu Charles. In the historical record, which was written by Charles himself in French of course…I took high school French and I can pretty well make it out, see…”
“Uh huh…” said Dubs, a look of hopelessness starting to enter his demeanor.
“Efeu’s last name, “Charles”, may seem an Anglicized version of the French, and it certainly is. Thus, the full name would actually be pronounced, ‘Ef-you Shar-lay’.”
“I see,” Dubs said absently, all hope gone now and a certain numbness having entered his responses.
“Yes, ol’ Efeu, see, bought a Browning over/under at a fairly reduced price from an unscrupulous Hudson Bay Company trader named Henry “Sketch” Russell-Banks-Chesterfield-Dorcester.”
“See, ol’ Sketch had himself bought the over/under from an old indigenous trader named Cathode Minx, somewhere about 1893. Minx himself had won the gun in a card game with the old and crusty fur trader named “Gravy Bones” Chilblains, who used to run a post near Paradise at the mouth of the Tahquamenon…Say, you listening, Dubs?”
“Sure Uncle Neem, but you know I really should get…”
“Anyway, Minx had warned ol’ Sketch about the recoil and suggested he lay his middle finger flat along the trigger housing when he shot, but Sketch hadn’t listened and the first time he fired the beast, he raised a holy hell of a holler that made some wolves howl…”
“Uh huh, yeah, good story Unc I gotta…”
“So, after that, Sketch figured he’d been hoodwinked by Minx, and knew he wouldn’t see him for a good while, since the old fella had headed off for Quebec. As any trader of the time knew, when you get taken in a straight up trade, the only thing to do is look for a new pigeon.”
“Okay, good advice, but I…”
“So, that very day old Efeu happened by the trading post, and Sketch, covering the bruise on his middle finger with a chamois cloth and pretending to brush off the counter, sold the unsuspecting Frenchman the gun.
“Okay. Well that’s a good…”
“So, in turn, when old Efeu got back to his camp, stepped out into a clearing to test-fire the gun, then let off a round, he screamed, ha, ha, ha…”
“He screamed, pardon my French, ’Sacre bleu! Zat steengs like a moitheir fookcare! Ha, ha, ha!”
“Okay, well that’s…”
“So, knowing he’d never be able to give the gun back to Sketch, and having no other real recourse, being an honest person generally, and not one to slicker some unsuspecting newcomer to the rough-shod state of Michigan, and having a scientific bent to boot, Efeu set out to make the firing of the over/under safe for all knuckles. And thus he came up with his design.” I held up my hand once more to illustrate and punctuate my tale.
“Great story, Unc…”
At this point, I heard the definite sound of rushing wings. I looked around and noticed that a bunch of buffleheads, a couple of bluebills, and even a mallard drake or two, had just landed in Dub’s late season decoys. Dubs sighed audibly.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. But, as the buffles and the others and swam skittishly about, I noticed a definite sense of wrapped attention in their staring eyes. Though, come to think of it, ducks always seem to stare. “Well, what do you know?” I said.
“What now?” Dubs said, a definite edge in his response.
“I think these ducks really liked that story. They look like they want to hear more.”
Oct. 26 1997
Stumpy was making coffee, and I could just smell the beginnings of bacon too. He’d gotten up very early for some reason and walked over to the One Duck Camp in the dark. He was jostling my shoulder and he seemed in a happy mood. “Hey there now boy, can’t waste this day. No sir, can’t waste it…” he said jovially from the darkness.
I slowly pulled myself up out of the bunk, resisted telling Stumpy that at 38 I was hardly a boy, but it would have been a wasted effort. As the youngest in the family everyone related to me, every old family friend, like Stumpy, would always consider me a boy. I knew that even then.
We had quite a crew there that morning for this late October hunt. It wasn’t the rowdy bunch that sometimes gathered here for the “Big Weekend” which was coming up soon. This was more of a strictly family gathering. My cousin by marriage, the fellow everybody thought of as “Get Along” because of his constantly happy ready-and-willing attitude, and his equally good-natured son we called “Friendly” for his sunny attitude and boyish can-do approach to life, were in camp. Between the two of them, no story was too old, too far fetched, or too boring. They were the greatest audience a hunter could have and never felt victimized by having to listen to fifteen consecutive stories about enormous flocks of ducks, monumental racks on bucks, or any other outdoor half truth one of us was in the mood to utter. You can’t beat guys like that, ready audiences, at a hunting camp. The OLD and his son Dubs, were in camp as usual of course. My boys, Bam and Widget were a little young yet for camp, but would be coming soon, though not for long. Friendly and Dubs were of an age, junior high, and enthusiastic hunters already. Soon, and for years to come, they would hunt on their own, but they were not quite there yet.
By the time I got to the kitchen, the others were starting to wander in as well, and I saw Stumpy had eggs, toast, pancakes, bacon, even orange juice on the table, in addition to the coffee.
“Well, get at it ya dang fools!” Stumpy laughed.
And so we sat down at the long rectangular knotty pine table in the porch/dining room while Stumpy stood back and watched. He was humming some tune from the 40’s, Begin the Beguine, I think, between sips of coffee and occasionally simply beaming at us as we slowly woke up and began the round of gentle teasing and bright expectation that begins all good hunting mornings.
The OLD looked over at Stumpy and inquired, “Just what’s got you so larky, Stump?”
“Oh, good things. Good things in the wind.”
“It’s supposed to be clear as a bell today,” I said. “Weatherman says bluebird day. Doesn’t look like much for hunting to me.”
“Bluebird days will surprise you sometimes, ya know?” Stumpy said.
“I don’t, but I guess you do,” I grinned at my father’s old friend around a mouthful of eggs, his attitude was contagious. I was suddenly hopeful as well.
Soon we were situated down in our blinds at the east end of the lake. The fathers and sons crowded together at the Lost Island Blind with Get Along’s dog Primer. Myself and Stumpy, who had uncharacteristically come along, though he had not brought a gun, with my yellow Lab, Minnesota, were set up to the west of them in what would one day be the Beaverstick, but at that time we called “The GPs’”, after the two dearly departed general practitioners, father and son, who had built it.
There were some ducks around, all right, but I was darned if I could figure out why Stumpy had been so optimistic. As on most sunny, calm days, they were just swimming contentedly out in the middle in medium sized flocks and coming nowhere near the blinds.
I glanced over at Stumpy who was wearing his Tiger’s cap and red earmuffs and home-made fingerless wool gloves, my mother had knitted him and still smiling away.
“Nice day,” I said.
“Is that,” Stumpy said.
“Why are you so happy, Stumpy?”
“Had a visitor last night.”
“Oh ho! What’s her name?”
“Nah, nuttin’ like that. Wouldn’t turn it away, but nuttin’ like that.”
It didn’t take me long for another guess. “One Duck?”
Stumpy just beamed and looked out at the lake.
“Sometimes I think I half imagine him, Stump. Sometimes I think ol’ Zhii isn’t real at all.”
“Oh, he’s real enough. Just ask his latest wife, Mitsy! She’ll give you an earful about him. One Duck is Kind of a pain sometimes to be true about it, ya know? Always has to have his say. That’s maybe why he’s had a wife or three. But he had good news for me about today.”
Stumpy smirked at me. “Course not. You know how he is. Just said I should go out with you fellas. That there’d be ‘an event’.”
“Zhii said, ‘an event’?”
I shook my head and looked out at the cool bright day. “Maybe we’re all going to get suntans. That could be eventful, I guess.”
After another hour or two of not much of anything in the way of ducks in the decoys, I was even more hard put to imagine exactly what kind of an event Zhii could have had in mind. Finally, the OLD came around with the old outboard and picked us all up. We had collectively fired some hello shots at marginal passes of small flocks, nothing more. We didn’t have a duck to show between us, but everybody was in a good mood, for some reason any way. Tell you the truth? I think we could all feel it coming.
The next stop on the journey, would be at the channel where we’d transfer the fathers and sons over to the OLD’s pontoon boat, and Stumpy and I, with Sota, would make the cross of the big lake in the old outboard.
When we got to Sand Beach, we could all see them, but most of us were not at all sure what to do about them. It was a huge flock of buffleheads, crowded down along the north end of Sand Beach among the reeds. There had to be 100 of them. The trouble was, we were here in plain sight on a sunlit day and they were there 600 yards away, basking in the same sun. If we got anywhere near them, they’d surely take off west for the middle of the lake. Nevertheless, Stumpy had a plan.
“Hey now, you boys stay here,” with an all-business jerk of his head he was including me among the boys, which irked me a bit, but I just nodded, hoping what he really meant was I could stay here with the boys, Dubs and Friendly, to supervise. A guy can hope. “The three of us will get in the pontoon and kinda ease over there, see if we can put them buffles up for ya!”
The OLD shrugged. Get Along smiled and the three of them headed for the pontoon. I got the boys to huddle with me back in the brush along the beach behind the old green boat as a makeshift blind. I didn’t really hold out much hope that this plan would work, but, then again, hadn’t Zhii promised ‘an event’?
Buffleheads are amazing little ducks. A fighter plane has nothing on their maneuverability and flat out speed. When you down a speeding buffle that has come across your decoys singlely, you count it quite a coup. If they come in as a flock they are a little easier to hit, and easier to claim you’ve hit as they tend to fly bunched and if two or more hunters have shot into the flock, it’s nearly impossible to say who made the hits. More times, than I’d like to mention, though, when hunting by myself or with another ODC hunter I have let fly on a goodly bunch of buffles roaring through the decoys in all their flashing black and white splendor, and watched the whole flock keep right on flying without so much as a little bufflehead shrug. In short, it helps if you pick one out to shoot at them. These very thoughts were going through my head as the OLD steered the pontoon carefully towards the flock on a “Fall color tour of the lakeshore”. The other thought was that, on this calm clear day, the most likely outcome was that all 100 or so of them would get up and fly out into the middle of the big lake, where they’d rest a while then head south never to be seen again.
So, when the flock did in fact get up, I fully expected their direction to be west towards the center of the lake, but then, something amazing happened. And it was the beginning of the something that we had all felt in the air, but only Zhii had found a word to describe: an event. Far from corralling the buffleheads, the pontoon boat had merely put the birds up, it was their call, collectively I suppose, though maybe there’s a head bufflehead in every flock, who knows? The ways of bird flocks, bison herds, and fish schools are nebulous by anyone’s estimation… Anyway, it was their sudden decision or instinct that made the true event take place. Or was it? Anyway, suddenly all 100 banked drastically south southeast and headed right for the channel where the three of us “boys” were standing in a clump of tag alder, behind the old boat, right next to the water.
Just before they began to roar our way a couple of mergansers zoomed through, the harbingers of the onslaught to come, and I shook my head at Dubs and Friendly who were ready to let fly. They looked confused and a little miffed and baffled for a second, until I quickly, very quickly gestured with my head at the cloud of buffleheads about to descend upon us.
What should I say about the sound? Imagine a jet fighter rushing past you as you stand on a lonely airstrip somewhere, because when the wind rushes through the wings of 100 buffleheads going 45 miles per hour, that’s what it sounds like.
And now, now they were on us!
“Now!” I yelled, and the boys and I let fly!
Nine times we fired, the boys with their semi-auto 12 gauges and I with my Winchester pump action and this time there would be no rushing away without a shrug for this flock, the little ducks began to hit the water like giant black and white hailstones.
For once I picked out birds from the massive flock and watched at least two I’d aimed at fall, but I swear that in my periphery I watched two ducks hit water each time Dubs fired. I pressed him later, and he did sheepishly tell me that he had sighted in and believed he’d hit every duck he’d aimed at. At the time, his being a junior high kid, I doubted my perception of the event and his, but as he grew and became an ever more sure marksman, I came to believe both what I saw and what he told me. One thing I know for sure, Friendly definitely sighted in on his last shot and made a good job of it, dropping a buffle at twenty five yards that had separated from the flock over Mud Lake to our east.
I stepped in my hip waders out into the big lake reloading and finishing off the wounded ducks. Dubs would later say I looked like John Wayne as I walked slowly out into the water, then let fly from the hip until all the ducks on the water were stilled. I’ll take being compared in manly bearing and theatrical marksmanship to John Wayne any day. I usually just hope not to be compared, in those regards, with Don Knotts as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show. My nephew tends to see the best in me. I like that in a nephew.
Anyway, the dogs went nuts, Primer hitting the water first, and even Sota, no gung ho water dog on her best day, getting happily into the action. In all, with the bufflehead Stumpy, the OLD and Get Along brought back which had dropped, from a monumental height, behind us on the big lake, another, if delayed, product of our onslaught, there were ten downed birds. An event indeed.
When the smoke finally cleared and the ducks were collected, and the yelling and high fives, back slaps, and garbled exclamations and laughter had all settled down, and the fellas in the pontoon had rejoined the party, I noticed a quizzical little smile on Stumpy’s face. He nodded at me, and as he did so that smile remained in place. I thought I understood what he was telling me, but there was more.
That night, long after the boys were in bed, and the OLD and Get Along were snoozing and snoring with their mouths open in ragged old arm chairs in the living room of the ODC, Stumpy and I were sipping some coffee spiked with more than a touch of Jameson. He smirked up over his cup in the half light.
“Did ya see’em?”
“He was there, ya know, standing right behind you boys, down there on Sand Beach.”
“No… Really? Zhii?”
“Yeah, your brother and cousin missed him. He turned and headed off north into the woods towards the ridge while they were gabbling with that buffle you boys downed on the big lake.”
“How did he know where to be, Stump?”
My father’s old friend just shrugged and smiled again. “That One Duck, he gets around.”
“Now…” A thought had suddenly struck me that seemed too absurd to give voice, but the Jameson was taking effect and I felt brave enough to venture a stab at the mystical, “You don’t suppose…”
Stumpy’s smile grew wider. “What are you supposin’?”
“Well, the way those buffleheads just suddenly turned so quickly east for Mud instead of heading west out into the big lake in the direction they were already flying, like I was sure they would… you don’t suppose Zhii…”
Stumpy threw up his left hand, “Now son,” he said, “a guy would have to be pretty near goofy to think ol’ One Duck had anything to do with that.” He gave me an inscrutable smile then, even more nebulous than the one he’d nodded my way on Sand Beach, and took another sip from his coffee cup.
I left the camp in the canoe about 6 a.m. under mostly cloudy skies and 23 degrees. I’d been priding myself lately on being able to find the Beaverstick Blind just by the silhouette of the northeastern lakeshore beyond the channel in the dark. Today was different. I pulled up short of my destination when I got through the channel to Mud Lake. Mars was staring hard over my right shoulder from the west and a flickering Venus was not quite marking the spot of my blind as it usually did. My favorite constellation, the Great Bear, Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, was obscured this morning. It points right to Huck’s Island, on the opposite shore where my old dog, Huck, and I used to hunt and from which, since his passing, I can’t bear to hunt anymore. The old guy’s ashes are there and it seems wrong somehow. But those stars of the Great Bear, always embody him for me. And the tail of the bear points right to where he now rests. (Yeah, the bear has a long tail in the myth.) Huck was 120 pounds of rough goodness, like a friendly bear, and thus I’ve long connected that constellation and him. It disconcerted me that those stars were obscured. Something was in the offing and I felt uneasy about it. In the end, I had no need to feel that way, but what was coming that day would be unexpected and jubilantly disconcerting. I will be a long time recovering from the experience, but in a good way.
At last I found my way into my canoe landing in the brush behind the Beaverstick and proceeded with all the processes of settling into the blind for the morning, including: retrieving the decoys from their bags near the blind and setting them out; unloading my shotgun, thermos, and shell bag from the canoe; flipping and covering the canoe with a camouflage tarp, setting my pulling poles, (which I insert in slots in the bow in order to help me pull the canoe along in heavy wind when the lake is to rough to paddle) on top of the tarp, in case of heavy winds; crawling into the Beaverstick from the doorway in the burlap coverings in the rear with all my gear; unfolding my hunting swivel chair inside the blind; taking my shotgun out of the hard shell case; re-locking the case and setting it aside; taking my camp face netting out of the shell bag and putting it on over my head; taking my ear protective headphones out of the shell bag and putting them on over the face netting and my old Filson hat; putting on my leather shooting gloves including the Efeu for my shooting hand; getting out my duck call and hanging it around my neck; wedging my thermos onto its shelf; hanging my shell bag from a sturdy beaver stick; getting out and hanging my binoculars from another, and finally, loading my over/under. In a few years, once I’m done paddling and fiddling with all these processes, my next step may well just be to fall asleep from exhaustion. I practically do now.
Anyway, as soon as I settled in, as if my earlier confusion with the stars and the blind’s location wasn’t enough to tell me, I could tell something strange was happening. Something different. It was still quite dark and wouldn’t really be light until almost 8 a.m. The annual hunting digest put out by the state, which is so truly useful in so many ways always advises that shooting time is one half hour before sunup. I’ve come to the conclusion that that guideline is simply not workable for a very simple reason. One half hour before sunup you really can’t see anything. And even if you have exceptional eyes, you still can’t really see well enough to shoot and hit anything. Suffice it to say, if you can see flames coming out the end of your barrel, you probably shouldn’t be shooting. So, beginning this year, after nearly 50 years of hunting, I ignore the hunting digest. I no longer shoot until the light is clearly up. I’m finding it improves my shooting percentage, and saves me a lot of money on shotgun shells.
But back to the events of that particular morning. Something was happening. Something other than the usual early morning quacks, Sam’s usual whines when he scents or hears ducks moving, the sound of a few rushing wings overhead in the darkness, the rare but not unusual howls of coyotes and even wolves from the peninsula to the south and west, the not infrequent calls of loons from the big lake, or eagles close at hand. The wind was absolutely still, but as the light started to come up still further, I could see there was a wake, a very sizable wake working across the lake from south to north. At first I didn’t give it much thought, but then it occurred to me: What in the world could be making such a big wake? I thought of the big buck that we were calling “The Mud Lake Monster” that I had seen swimming down the lake just before the season opened. No, even he was not big enough to make a wake as big as a moderate wind does. Interestingly, later in the day, after the happening that will forever define that day in my mind and heart, I did see a deer swimming down the lake, a doe this time, and she swam right by my decoys unconcerned or perhaps unaware of Sam and me. On any other day, that would have been spectacle enough. But this wasn’t any other day and the wake wasn’t caused by her either. Nor was it caused by my four swan friends, who were still around and would make a sweep around the lake and directly over the Beaverstick, just before the happening. Suffice it to say, this wake was way too big, even in still water to have been caused by one, four, or 100 sizable creatures.
By this time the light was almost full up. That’s when I saw the first of the ducks. There were quite a few. I squinted into the new light and realized that most of them were buffleheads with a few hooded mergansers, goldeneyes, bluebills, and other assorted ducks mixed in. Yes, there were a lot of them, and more were coming…many, many more.
My breath began to catch and I had just the sense to call Sam close to me so I could hold his collar because he was starting to get pretty agitated too. They were moving around the shoreline, in the semicircle between Huck’s Island to my south towards the Beaverstick. Did I say there were a lot of them? I wasn’t exaggerating, I was underestimating.
They were mustering. From 8:25 a.m. to approximately 8:40 a.m. on Oct. 25, 2020 in the weeds to the east of the Beaverstick Blind in the east end of Mud lake, they were mustering.
That’s what I call it because I hardly know how else to describe it. Congregating? Gathering? Charging? They were doing all three: congregating in groups of five and ten and twenty; then gathering in masses of forty, fifty, 100; then charging across the lake in long, long almost regimentally disciplined lines and phalanxes of 200, 300!
I’m still underestimating.
The waterfowl were following the shoreline and getting closer and closer all the time to the Beaverstick. My breath was coming short. Eighty yards, seventy, sixty. I was doing my best to keep control of myself. There couldn’t be that many could there? Keeping control became more of a struggle all the time.
They were beginning to squawk and flutter and skim the water in agitated even frantic movements. Or perhaps they always had been. Maybe it was just that now they were so close that I could actually see this happening. And there appeared to be more and more all the time. I could pick out individuals now, they were so close. I was beginning to see the blacks and whites of feathers. They were 60 yards away and coming closer. Were they really going to swim right into my decoys? How many now? Will you believe me? I wonder. A thousand. Easily a thousand and perhaps 1,500 ducks were moving right towards Sam and me. All of those swirling, driving, rushing multitudes were getting closer and closer and then…
When? A thousand, thousand waterfowl feathers ruffled, a thousand, fifteen hundred, sputtering squawks sounded, over 2,000 webbed feet deliberately paddled, and that many wings tensed and readied. When? Because, the cold air itself seemed to question, because it was inevitable. Soon. The waterfowl somehow assured each other; the wind now assured; the birches and tamaracks, the peat moss and the distant pines and cedars echoed back; and all the agitated waters and the silted depths below answered: Soon.
Then, then… by some esoteric signal they got up. How did they know? What do they sense? How in the world does such a massive group dynamic, a collective singular natural act get triggered? What mystery rules the will of the wild duck? Of the wild?
They all got up at once.
Later I would realize why they moved always along the shoreline in their progress. They were leaving space in the middle of the lake. They needed that much open space for all of them to take off.
They all got up at once.
The sound. Oh my dear lord! the sound of all of those myriad wings beginning to beat, the squawks and caterwauling, the sound of all those round feathered bodies splashing up from the water, the sound of their now rushing wings in the air as they got up as one and then in groups swirling and flitting, and beelining through the air all around me: a tornado of whirling waterfowl! They never got close enough for me to fire a shot towards that mass of duck species; at that point I was clutching the gun more to calm myself than for any purpose towards hunting anyway; they rose in a solid group and then divided into groups of hundreds in the air, heading off in every direction overhead, the mass taking off east and south, but other little groups splitting off and swirling back around and finally coming through my decoys.
To tell you that I did finally, a few minutes later, take one bufflehead out of group of 20 that passed back through seems petty, but is a simple accuracy. I also dropped one more from a smaller group of bluebills that circled in. There was no disappointment on my part that the multitude hadn’t passed through my decoys en masse, when the takeoff and the subsequent business of shooting and retrieving was over. That was never going to happen. Why would they bother with such a tiny grouping of forty plus pseudo-ducks? They were together in the migratory multitude of waterfowl. But mind boggling as this thought is, this massive movement of ducks is just one of uncountable such groupings moving up and down the continents from the Arctic to the Antarctic right now as you read this. This happens every day. Most of us just never get to see it.
Yes, they had moved. There had been a movement of life upwards onwards in one moment, a oneness of a great, great many flying on. Then they had divided and scattered and left me breathless. Had I really seen that happen? Yes. Yes, I had. In almost fifty years of duck hunting prior to that, I had never been that close to so massive an exodus of ducks. It’s quite likely I will never see or experience the like again, in just that way. I felt the takeoff of those waterfowl in the very fiber of my being. And I was uplifted by the experience. Seeing them rise and swirl and disappear in a moment after the long slow build to the near mystic time of release was truly transcendent, truly extraordinary, awesome in the archaic Biblical sense; I was filled with awe for the Natural world, whirling in all its splendor before my eyes: the wild was a feast for my senses.
In the moments after the takeoff and our little bit of hunting, I was breathless. I clung to Sam’s wet fur a while and just let it all settle, laughing at myself, shaking my head. I felt tiny in the wake of it all. None of this, I realized, was truly done for me. If it was, I certainly don’t deserve it. No, I had been simply unwitting witness to this spectacle. If it was Grace that I should be allowed this, I am grateful. If it was mere happenstance, I am nonetheless grateful.
Such moments stay.
It is inevitable that when a hunting camp has been around a while, and the One Duck has, that some terms based on old stories and experiences start to get passed around. In the days before the camp numbers started to dwindle, and we had loads of fellas down here throughout the year, newcomers would often show up and have no idea what in the world we were talking about most of the time. So, my brother the OLD (Overall Lake Director whatever that means) and I, along with some of the other regulars, started to draw up a glossary of terms for the camp journal where all the records are kept of our misadventures.That way, we figured, if someone got confused about what we were saying, we could just refer them to the journal for clarification. I’m not sure we ever actually did that, but we saved these little goofs and gaffs down all these years, and here they are for you, such as they are. Remember, what happens at camp, stays at camp. Try not to take any of them seriously. Anyway, here goes:
A Good Fire—Any fire started by the OLD.
A Bad Fire—Any fire started by anybody else.
Black and Whites—Any duck not recognized by the OLD. (This includes all diving ducks, all mergansers except common mergansers, and all puddle ducks except mallards. Occasionally the OLD can recognize a wood duck. And he is good on geese. Also, he can tell swans from loons, and I’m pretty sure he knows they’re both protected. Thank God.)
Clean Dish—Any dish which a Labrador has licked or which is not covered with camp pepper.
Camp Pepper—See mouse droppings.
Mouse Droppings—See camp pepper.
Retriever—Any of a number of breeds of retrieving dogs and/or young human relatives who wish to be hunters some day.
The Black Flag—Flag of ragged black cloth waved in the air over the blind by the OLD when desperate to attract ducks. As God is my witness, I have seen this work and the OLD always reminds me of this fact.
Rooster Rouser—For a time, the electrical discharge caused by pressing one’s genital area against the metal rim of the kitchen sink and turning on the kitchen faucet in the One Duck Camp. The problem has since been fixed, but for a few years, when the One Duck Camp pipes were not properly grounded, it was quite a sensation. Also given a courser name by our hunters. Hint, that name rhymes with “lock stock”.
Perfect Decoy Set—Any layout of decoys accomplished by the OLD at 4 a.m. in 30 mph wind with the outboard motor still running.
Terrible Decoy Set—Any layout of decoys accomplished by any other member of the ODC in any weather conditions, under any illumination.
The Not Knot—Master knot taught to the OLD by our cousin Get Along. Became famous one morning some time in the 1980’s when the OLD and Nemo after setting out the decoys and settling in at the Lost Island Blind, felt a slight breeze come up on the water as dawn broke, then watched all the decoys tied to their anchors with the said knot, floating away. In my long held opinion, Get Along’s knot design is likely perfect. I’m thinking this is a case of low tech OLD operator error.
Decoy Anchor—Any large metal object which can be tied to a decoy string. These include actual commercial decoy anchors, various auto parts, discarded tools, large pieces of silverware, king bolts, aged trigger housings, discarded tv aerials, broken vcr’s, cuizinarts, “lost” Tonka trucks, pieces of broken washer dryers, tin or pewter cups, copper pots, pans, bracelets, and parts of the kitchen sink, also…well, use your imagination.
High Speed Decoy Retrieval—First practiced by OLD and Nemo, consists of OLD gunning outboard motor and Nemo reaching down for decoy resulting in near drowning incidents.
On Time—When the OLD departs from the camp for the blind.
Late—When you arrive at the camp and the OLD is gone.
Ducking Hunting—The practice of spending large quantities of money, time, and energy; enduring horrendous weather and equally horrendous bonding experiences; learning to think like a Labrador retriever and like various species of wildfowl; becoming a connoisseur of .12 gauge shotguns, styles and makes of shotgun shells, bad thermos coffee made by crusty male friends and relatives; enduring two months of sleeplessness occupied by dreams of foul weather on cold bogs; risking alienating non-hunting family members by long absences from home on Fall weekends; mastering travel by open boats, canoes, and in hip and chest waders through creeks, rivers and semi-shallow shoreline areas of lakes in heavy weather; becoming witness to outdoor phenomena a person can see perhaps once in a lifetime and only if he or she acquiesces in all of the above, all with the ostensible purpose of shooting at (and usually missing) ducks.
Hunting Provisions—Purchases made on the way to camp at hunting outlets, hardware and/or feed stores, consisting of foodstuffs which could be purchased in view of the cash register, where the hunter has already purchased his allotment of shotgun shells for the weekend, usually six to eight boxes of 25 count. This procedure usually leads to a Saturday night dinner of pork rinds, beef jerky, and barbecued potato chips washed down with bad coffee or third rate orange or raspberry soda.
“Jammed gun”/“Bad shells”—Stand-by explanation for missing an easy shot.
“Should have had’em”—Admission by an ODC hunter who has just missed a duck whose tail feathers brushed the barrel of his shotgun.
“Good cover…no birds”—Expression used by Ol’ Doc and Stumpy Drake Jr. to describe the mind set of a long time hunter. None of us are exactly certain what it means, but we like the way it sounds. Also, according to Stumpy, it makes Zhii, Ol’ One Duck, smile.
“I believe you have my underwear”—An early morning expression used by a neophyte ODC hunter.
“Give me my #$%!%! underwear you slimey, lice infested, rotted tree crotch!”—An early morning expression used by a seasoned ODC hunter.
Breakfast—Chocolate doughnuts washed down with bargain basement orange drink while smoking an unwrapped, year old, fraying cigar.
Lunch—Meal beginning as early as 10 a.m. for those who have had a bad day at the blind, and lasting as late as 2 p.m. after successful days, consisting of every damned bit of foodstuff left in camp after one has returned from a frozen bog hungry as a bear recently arisen from hibernation. Deep friend butter is not out of the question. Nor are peanut butter and pickle sandwiches both ingredients extracted from containers marked to have expired during the previous Spring.
Supper—Large quantities of extremely unhealthy meat, cheese, and potato products prepared, if the hunters are lucky, by the “Damp Cook” who actually knows a thing or two about cooking, or if unlucky by whomever has lost the draw that day.
Damp Cook—A dear old friend and member of the One Duck Camp, so named because by pure happenstance he often seemed to get the short end of the stick, in having to cook outdoors in foul weather when the power went and continues to go out at the ODC, which is fairly often in season.
Blind Induced Psychosis—A psychiatric anomaly displayed by a hunter who sits alone with his dog in a blind for 12 or more hours without actually shooting at or even seeing a species of waterfowl. Or induced in a hunter who sits with a partner who is himself infected with a form of the malady characterized by telling repetitive, tedious, and pointless hunting stories, sometimes with insidious intent. Symptoms: belief that one is in fact a Labrador retriever, or duck decoy, a repetitive utterance which begins with “Did you hear something?” or “Ducks!” or “I think the wind just shifted.” or “If we go now, you know, they’re going to come in.” all uttered to a dog or hunting partner who has actually been fast asleep on the infected hunter’s new $400 hunting coat, which he for some reason doffed after one onset of fever and left in the mud behind the blind.
Discharging liberally—The practice of firing spasmodically at waterfowl within 700 yards of a hunting blind.
Enough shotgun shells—State of existence never experienced by hunters who discharge liberally.
Camp Stew—Continuous stew kept at a boil for two seasons containing (at the date of this was copied into the journal) Beefaroni, Dinty Moore Beef Stew, Campbells Beef soup, two cans of beer provided by Jumbo (our oldest and least predictable brother) rice, vegetables from our mother’s garden, at least one dog biscuit, and several bananas. This stew was abandoned and discarded when the OLD noticed that the concoction was beginning to smell and taste of sweat socks and camp pepper. (See earlier entry.)
Clean Camp—As in illusion of clean. Usually voiced by OLD or Nemo on last day of big camp, after the presiding pair had run a broom vaguely over each room and run some water over the dishes left in the sink, as in the phrase, “Eh…looks pretty good. This is a clean camp; let her go.”
Good Outboard Motor—One that gets hunters to the blind and back consistently over one weekend.
Faulty Motor—One which is used as an anchor.
Good Shot—Type of hunter not permitted at the ODC (Until Dubs, being family, made it impossible to adhere to this rule.)
Wet Feet—Condition often experienced but never admitted to by any ODC hunter worth his boots or waders.
Bucket O’ Heat—Long before the advent of modern hunting clothes, which keep hunters cozy no matter the weather, there was a tin bucket filled with burning charcoal and toped with a rusty grate. This bucket was kept on the floor of the blind towards season’s end. Was it safe? No. But it was warm.
Camp Mouth—The taste produced by smoking 12 cheap cigars, drinking 14 cups of horrendous coffee, devouring 8 handfuls of sunflower seeds with hands covered in peat moss mud while in the blind, topped off at the end of the day at camp with four beers and two shots of extraordinarily cheap whiskey.
And now I’d like to add a couple that have come to me during my long sojourns hunting alone at the Beaverstick:
Dark Matter Paddle—The effect of dipping a kayak paddle into the water in the darkness and attempting to pull back extra hard to propel a canoe loaded with a 230 pound man, two 90 pound dogs, 28 cork decoys, an over/under shotgun, a shell bag and various other supplies, when in fact the paddle has inadvertently been turned sideways, thus causing a quick slice through the water rather than a long hardy pull, resulting in a near capsizing event, and in two dislocated shoulders for the paddler. I theorize that this inadvertent adjustment of the paddle can only be caused by infinitesimal nudges from dark matter and or energy, that or demons, witches, gremlins, or New York Yankee fans, since I’d like to think I’m smart enough to paddle a canoe correctly without throwing out my back. this may be a vain hope.
The Dead Duck Tracer (DDT)—From the makers of the Efeu Glove, the DDT helps retrieving dogs of all species find their quarry. It comes in many finishes, from agate, to sandstone, to quartz to diorite or taconite. (The DDT is colloquially known as a rock.)
The Mobile Hunting Unit—The MHU consists of two retrievers, three decoys (carried in a backpack) one Browning over/under, and one grizzled and crazed duck hunter. The MHU becomes active quite late in the season. Usually when Mud Lake is frozen over, likewise the edges of the big lake, and only the shores of the big lake are available and that exclusively for foot traffic. “Mobile” is the key word, and the MHU can be and often is set up nearly anywhere along the lakeshore. Is the over/under ever fired? Do the dogs ever awake from their tightly curled sleeping positions in the snow? If the crazed hunter were to down a duck out beyond the ice, how would he retrieve said duck? By hurling the retriever beyond the ice barrier? Certainly not…probably. Tractor Beam? Possibly. Are there, in fact, any ducks left on the lake that late in the season? Does it matter? The season is still open!!!!
And finally, one of my very favorite entries. At the time of the Big Camp and for only a few years, there was some controversy each hunting day about who would hunt in which hunting blind. At the time there were three possibilities, and any hunter not booked for one of them was on his own. A dangerous situation to say the least. So the controversy arose. When the caterwauling complaints grew to their loudest, the OLD instructed me to create a lottery to determine who would hunt from where. He leaned in towards me at the time and whispered, “Make it as confusing as possible, so I can claim to be the only one capable of understanding the rules. There might be a good blind in it for you.” So, here’s what I created:
Rules for the Blind Lottery—
1. Ask OLD the rules.
2. Flip for partner on first draw. (Odd man wins.)
3. Draw for partners.
4. Dog goes with any single.
5. Teams designate location drawee.
6. Odd man picks first or flip if no odd man. (What are the chances?)
7. Draw for location.
8. Flip for boat draw.
9. Draw for boat.
10. Rules subject to change if OLD gets screwed.
11. Special note: Trades possible at whim.
12 Second special note: Dog no boat. Boat no dog.
Clear enough? Well, see you next time at the One Duck Camp.
Hi, I’m Dubs. I won’t go into why everyone calls me that. It’s benign enough, and kind of cute, based on something my uncle the Coach said about my real name once. Anyway, my other uncle, the one you know as Nemo, said I should take a crack at writing one of these columns. He’s easing me in, I think. Years, ago, when he was busy with family and career and didn’t get to the One Duck all that much, and during which time I found myself at the One Duck for an extended time period, especially during one pretty magical Fall, I used to record my own adventures in the camp journals. Well, this, I suppose, is just another form of that. Uncle Nemo suggested, that now that I’m the one who is busy with family and career, and since I’ve been texting him like crazy while he’s in the blind now that he’s the one with time, and since I think he figures I might be pining for camp, it might be good for me to publish some memories about the old days. He may be right. I guess we’ll see.
“Like what?” I asked him when he proposed it.
“Like…I don’t know…what’s your first best memory of camp?”
I thought about that for a while, and suddenly I remembered this. So this is what I’m writing:
I was about ten, I think, and pretty small for my age. At the time nobody knew I was going to grow up to be, of all things, a football player of some renown, though I never did get all that big in terms of height and weight. Certainly not like Uncle Nemo and Uncle Jumbo. I was a wideout in high school and college. Did all right. Maybe not as well as my uncles paint the picture. They get a little carried away. Just like the way they paint up the image of what a crack shot I am. Then again… ha! Ah, that’s not the point.
Anyway, as I said, I was about ten. And it was cold. So my dad, the one they call the OLD, Overall Lake Director, whatever that means, had really bundled me up. I had on Sorrel boots, huge air force flight pants, two of my dad’s old coats, and a wool hat and gloves my grandma had knitted for me. I didn’t care much how I was dressed. The point was, I was getting to go to camp! Not only that, on that morning I was allowed to go out to the blind with the guys! Uncle Nemo was there and my uncle from my mom’s side of the family, the one they call “The Navigator”. Uncle Nemo’s old buddy, Ambush, was along for the ride too. Big times. Old times. Good times.
Like I said, it was really cold. Late season, maybe November. And it was snowing. Even in all those clothes, small and light as I was, I was freezing in that north wind as we crossed the big lake in the big old boat, that everyone called “The Still Afloat”. My dad says it was a Herter’s boat that Ol’ Doc, my grandfather, ordered through the mail. It came in by train of all things, into the little town south and east of camp. Obviously, that was long before my time, but that’s the way Dad tells it. Anyway, I was strictly a passenger, and I was just sitting in the boat, under orders from my dad not to try to help as the four men pulled us through the channel in their waders. Snowshoe, Uncle Nemo’s golden retriever had hopped out as soon as we got near shore, and I was really tempted to follow her around in the dark on the shoreline while the men were pulling the boat through, but, like I said, I was under orders. Once we got through into Mud lake and everybody re-boarded I toughed it out some more in that cold as we puttered down Mud Lake west to east in the dark. At last, at last…we arrived at the Lost Island Blind and Dad literally lifted me out of the boat and carried me over the bog. I struggled a little at first with being carried. I was ten, after all. I wanted to walk on my own. I wanted to be just another one of the guys.
All Dad said was, “There are holes in this bog and you don’t know where they are. I do. Do you want to fall through?” In that darkness, in that cold, that didn’t sound very good. Kind of a scary thing to say to a kid, I guess, but Dad had his reasons and now that I’m a dad I know they were good ones: he was trying to keep me safe and he was trying to make sure that my first time in the blind would be a pleasant experience. Ultimately, he succeeded in both. What more can a kid ask?
“No,” I finally said after contemplating what it might be like to be trapped under a frozen peat moss bog, unable to call out, my throat gurgling with black, black night water. I decided it was okay to be carried.
When we got to the blind, which wasn’t big enough for all four men, Nemo and Ambush put two lawn chairs they’d brought along in place in the Mud by the eastern most post. Dad and Uncle Navigator took the blind seats and that’s when Dad showed me the surprise: he’d built a seat for me! He called it a “jump seat” and it was just a little platform screwed into the top of the bench where I could sit high enough up over his shoulder to see what was going on. I remember, I felt like it was Christmas. That just seemed like such a cool thing! My dad was a genius, I believed, and could create any kind of magic at his lightest whim! The little things parents do are sometimes the coolest things. The best things. I don’t know how else to explain that. I hope I can pass that on down the generations. Anyway, what my father did in those days was all magic to me.
Dad set me down there and I just took it all in: the darkness; the snow flakes landing everywhere and lightening the landscape; the wind howling out of the northwest; the dog taking her place by the water; the men unloading their gun cases, thermoses and shell boxes. That was all magic too.
“Now don’t fall asleep and fall off the back!” Dad said.
All the other men laughed for a minute at that, then went on about their morning at the blind. They settled in and talked about all kinds of things as the light started to come up. In later years, both Uncle Nemo and I came to be a little more cautious about talking loud in the blind for fear of scaring away ducks. It may matter, it may not. I don’t know. Anyway, that morning nobody was worrying about that and the talk was loud and funny and I was glad for it. I felt like I was being let in on something, and I kind of was. I was being let into the world of men. And I think, after a while, and with me sitting up and removed from all of them, they kind of forgot I was even there. That was even better. For once I got to know what men, what adults talked about when I wasn’t around.
I remember for a while they were all teasing Ambush, who had grown up down state and wasn’t from a hunting family, and who had to take hunter safety with his own son, because he was 38 and had never had a hunting license before. He was taking the teasing pretty well, though; Uncle Nemo, his buddy, was laying it on the thickest. I guess I knew before that day how much men like my Dad and my Uncles enjoy teasing each other, but it was fun to see it first hand. It was fun to see how men get along and don’t take everything seriously all the time, and how good men are pretty good at laughing at themselves. I guess that’s a kind of wisdom. Maybe the most important kind of all. A lot of people these days don’t seem to be very good at laughing at themselves.
What else? Well…after a while I started to hear these noises in the wind and the sun was just starting to come up and I figured out after seeing a dim silhouette or two whiz by in the semi-darkness that there were ducks around. I nudged my dad on the shoulder and whispered, “Ducks.”
He didn’t hear me at first, so I said it a little louder, but all of them, Dad and Uncle Nemo, and Uncle Navigator, and Ambush were all into a lot of different types of teasing and laughing pretty heavy so I finally shouted it.
They all hushed for a second, then laughed and listened a while and finally Uncle Navigator said, “Yup, sure enough.”
Then, I noticed, all four of them started to put down their coffee and got a lot quieter. Nemo’s old dog, Snowshoe, or Shoe as he called her, was up by the water raising her nose now and then as the ducks flew by in the semi-darkness. I could see from my vantage when the moment arrived: she kind of tensed and looked straight ahead right down the “V” of the decoys and here they came, and before anybody could react they were on us: buffleheads. I know now that’s what they were, though I didn’t know then, and though it was shooting time, even people who knew the species couldn’t have recognized them in the dim light with the snow blowing all around as anything more specific than ducks. Uncle Nemo, who prides himself, and always has, on duck identification was as confused as anybody else.
“What are those?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” Uncle Navigator said, “but there’s a lot of them!”
“Fire!” my dad yelled.
And they all did, I suppose it would have been 12 times, three for each. And the ducks began to fall.
And that’s the memory.
If you’re waiting for me to find some deep significance in the all this, the way Uncle Nemo would probably do, or guess at why I remember it all so well, I can only say that it’s probably just that it was my first time at the blind. My first day, I guess you could say, in the full on world of men and the outdoors, with the wind and the dawn and the silly jokes and the ice around the edges of the lake and the dog hitting the water, and all those big guns going off.
That’s it. Do you need more? Does anybody?
Yes, I’m the OLD. Yup, I know Nemo has talked a lot about me. Most of it teasing. That’s what he does. That’s what I do. That’s our way. I’ve probably always laid it on a little thick and in return he does too. Sometimes that leads to a little conflict, but we work it out. We’re brothers, that’s how it works. Nemo was just 14 when our dad, Ol’ Doc, died. I was 24. I happened to be around home then, so I tried to pick up the slack. Did my best, that’s all I’ll say about that.
As for the nickname, well that’s my own fault. I gave it to myself. See, I’m from a world of teachers. Almost everybody in this family, including both Nemo and me, is a teacher. Many of our spouses are teachers and a great number of our children. Most of our friends too. It’s our world. Most of us tend to be pretty traditional teachers, kind of adhering to the old ways of doing things. So, given our joking natures, what we do most of the time when some bright young so and so comes onto the scene in education and thinks she or he has an answer to all the field’s woes is, we make fun of that too. One of the, to my mind, to our minds, goofy things that’s come into education is the use of jargon in place of regular simple English. So, with that in mind, and as a joke, I started calling myself, while the guys from the One Duck including Nemo were around, the “Overall Lake Director” instead of maybe, “Caretaker” which Stumpy already had anyway, or “King of the Lake” or something. “Overall Lake Director”, by self-effacing design, could then be made into “O.L.D.” as an acronym, which goes along with the kind of jargon we teachers hear every day. Anyway, that’s the story of the nickname, and Nemo has certainly run with it.
But all that’s getting in the way of my purpose here. Nemo wanted me to tell my favorite old duck hunting story. Well, anybody who knows me will tell you that I have a lot of them. To be honest, I kind of delight in telling them. It’s hard to pick out just one, but here goes:
On a day like this one as I write: cold, dark, with a northwest wind blowing snow horizontally with it, Dad and I headed down the big lake in the old steel boat. That thing was indestructible. At least, as a little boy, that’s what I thought. And that day, Dad had made it even more indestructible by loading down the bow with a bunch of cement blocks. We were going to need that power and that indestructibility. As sometimes happened in those days, and I’ll admit has happened pretty often since, including just recently, Dad had gotten a little lazy and left the decoys in overnight. Yes, I know that’s not strictly according to the rules. In this isolated place where we hunt, and nobody else does, we sometimes get a little lax when it comes to that particular regulation, I’ll admit. Well, anyway, sometimes it happens that the ice just moves in all at once in one night, and the decoys get frozen in. At that point, a hunter is left with some choices and some things to consider. First, is the weather going to get warmer soon? If so, then it’s probably all right just to leave them until the ice goes. Though when the ice goes it may well push those decoys and their anchors all over hell’s half acre, and you may never get them all back. Second, is this it for the winter? Is the lake going to stay frozen? If so, then there’s not much of a choice at all, you’ve got to go in there somehow and get those decoys or they will be wintering over in the ice and who knows what will happen to them then? And these were old carved wooden decoys, the kind that, even then, around 1960, were not easy to come by. So, long story short, those cement blocks were loaded into the bow of the steel boat because we were going in and we were going to need all the ice breaking power we could get.
That old boat… well, that thing seemed huge to me, and indestructible, like I said. Nothing cold stop us in the old steel boat. Nothing could stop me and my dad. We got to the channel and Dad told me to stay put, as he pulled the old boat through to the edge of the ice. I remember, I was holding my new thermos in my hand, which Dad had just bought for me at the old sporting goods store in town that week, and I was just getting ready to take a a drink from it, hot cocoa, perfect for that kind of day. I took off my mitten, there in the dark, and picked up the thermos in my bare hand. My hand was a little sweaty from being inside the mitten and a little slippery, and the steel boat suddenly lurched a little as it came free from the sand bottom, and I dropped the thermos, and I heard the inside liner, they were more fragile then, break. The brand new thermos, that Dad had gotten me special, was broken, useless forever, and I’d done it. I picked it up quick and put the top back on. If I didn’t say anything, Dad wouldn’t know. He was too busy to have heard it break in the dark. It made me sad, though, I wanted to cry a little, but I didn’t. I sucked it up. Today was a day for men. When men did men things, ha! Kids are funny, the way they think. But that’s what I was thinking.
Anyway, Dad hauled himself back into the steel boat and fired the old outboard back up. And off we went crashing through that new ice making a sound that would wake the dead. The steel boat was having no problem. The sun was fully up, and the light was good by this time on that cold morning. Dad knew we wouldn’t be hunting today. This was just an emergency work run to get those decoys out, so the smart, safe thing to do was to wait until full light, which we had, before heading down to the Twin Island Blind.
The Twin Island Blind.
God I’m old! The Twin Islands don’t even exist anymore. They haven’t since maybe 1970, maybe earlier than that. Funny, though, on some U.S. Geological Survey Maps you’ll still see them depicted down in Mud Lake. As Nemo has told you, one day the Twin Islands were just gone and I didn’t find them again until Nemo and I were scouting out some new blind spots down in the east end of Big Mud one day, when I found the old boat dock bridge that connected the islands and realized that the islands themselves had become detached at the roots that held them in place, floated away, and reconnected somehow down at the east end of the lake. I know, that sounds strange, but those things actually happen on a bog like the one around Mud Lake. Anyway, that’s how we came to call the blind down there “The Lost Island Blind”.
But back in those days, when the Twin Islands were still in place, that was quite a place to hunt. Dad and the older of the two general practitioners who later built the blind over on the north shore that Nemo has renamed The Beaverstick, had a lot of fun down on those islands. They’d set up decoys going every which way and you had 360 degree shooting! Sometimes you’d walk out of the blind to take a leak or something, and there’d be ducks there where you weren’t looking. They’d laid the little boat dock bridge across the space between the two so you could pass easily from one island to the other. It was a little kingdom, all its own, complete with bridge. Crazy, fun times those fellas had on the Twin Islands!
So, on with the story. We’re crashing on down the lake, and Dad has a cigar in his mouth he’s chewing on and occasionally puffing away and he’s smiling around it at me through the noise because it’s so silly and fun and we’re a father and son out making this little adventure, know what I mean? Pretty nice all around.
We get closer to the Twin Islands, close enough…we’ve covered probably a quarter mile through the ice at this point, and its breaking apart and moving in sheets…close enough so we can see movement in among those frozen decoys. Ducks! Now Dad hadn’t even brought his gun that day, like I said, this was strictly a decoy rescue mission, so it wasn’t even an option to shoot at them, and it would have been pretty hard to retrieve them if you did anyway. And just from a semi-moral standpoint, those ducks were in quite a fix, and it hardly seemed fair to shoot them.
As we got even closer, both Dad and I realized that something was pretty weird about those ducks. No…I don’t know what kind they were…Nemo will have a field day with that. Let’s call them black and whites, though I think there were some mallards in there too from their sound, anyway, they were quacking away!
“Why aren’t they taking off?” Dad said into the cold air.
They were moving a little, but not flying. We couldn’t figure it out, but then it finally dawned on Dad, “I’ll be damned!” he said. “They’re frozen in the ice!”
As we drew in closer, I could see Dad was right! Those silly ducks had flown in and gotten comfortable among the decoys, spent the night and gotten frozen in with their wooden cousins. They were in a fix now, but we could get them out.
“Use your oars to bust them loose!” Dad said grinning even more wildly and happily.
So we did, we got in close, and hacked away at the ice with our wooden oars and no sooner would we do so than those ducks, free now, would get up and take off. There were a dozen of them at least! I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
I’ll never forget the way Dad was laughing either. A real man’s laugh. Kind of full of amazement and delight and honest mirth. That’s the way I like to remember him there, puffing away on that cigar and laughing between puffs, with his old hunting hat pulled down low, one hand on an oar, watching those ducks fly off.
Well, on the boat ride back, with a boatload full of old wooden decoys, some still connected to perfect sheets of clear broken ice, the anchor lines in a tangle beneath them, Dad picked up his thermos, poured himself a cup of coffee and started to drink. He gestured towards my thermos.
“Not thirsty,” I shouted over the motor holding back tears. Figuring he would be mad if I told him the truth about the thermos. I didn’t want to ruin this moment, this day.
“Ah, have some,” he said grinning. “We’ll toast to our adventure.”
“I sorta can’t…”
“How come?” he shouted back.
Dad just continued to smile and nod. Then he held out that steaming cup of coffee to me. “Have some of mine.”
I looked at him and smiled, wide, involuntarily. That coffee was hot, but pretty bitter, not much to a kid’s liking usually, but I’ll tell you something: that was the best cup of coffee I ever had, ever will have, in my life.
Hello again, Nemo here. The season, which isn’t truly over yet, came to an abrupt end for me with this latest storm. I decided to pack it all in and head out before the high winds hit and power went out at the One Duck Camp. The power had already been out for a seven hour period in much milder winds two days before. But the guys from the power company had gotten there early the next morning and fixed everything. We’re in an isolated area there at the One Duck Camp and with new power outages expected all around the region with this latest and much higher wind, I knew we would be low priority and that I might be huddling around a wood fire for a number of days before we had power again. I know, you probably figure that would be right up my alley, and just a few years ago it probably would have been, and I would have been excited about the prospects for new primitive late season adventures and ducks coming in after the storm, but this year, for the first time, it just wasn’t in me.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still love hunting, live for it, and I had a real debate with myself about whether I should stay, but these old bones and this old brain were trying to reason with my wilder side. Come on old man, you don’t really want to be here in the dark and cold for three days or so waiting for the power men. You’ve already had enough calamities this year, don’t press your luck. Discretion won out and so, I shut down the power, the water, covered the bunks in newspaper, cleared out all my food, clothes, and gear, and I called it a season. Do I have regrets, do the possibilities of what might have been nag at me? Yes. I won’t lie, but this is my new reality. It’s called age.
Now you already know a lot of what happened this season. The Mud Lake Monster; the great takeoff; the swans; the wood ducks; the surf scoters; the beavers, otters, eagles ospreys; the beginnings of my understanding that I’m the old man on the lake now; and let’s not forget Knifley, Kentucky and the famous people who live there, along with a lot of embellishments around the edges of this season, remembrances of old days from Dubs and the OLD, (thanks for that, fellas) and now the closing down.
Some other things happened too, big and small, and one group of incidents that took place about two weeks ago, reminded me of my feet of clay and that age doesn’t really have mercy on anyone, certainly not me. Also, I’ve learned that acknowledging the limitations I now have, and the pending further limitations I will inevitably acquire, is the final process of maturity.
It’s really hard for me to tell you about my rough weekend. It was a true lessen in the process of aging, as I said, and further it was an undeniable lesson in humility. So, I guess I better get to it. During a four day weekend I had been really looking forward to, all of the following things happened: I lost a hearing aid (It’s humiliating enough to have them, but to lose one too?); the power went out; when the power came back on I mistakenly thought the pump was no longer primed because I had turned the wrong valve in the basement. The upshot? I ended up taking a bath in cold spring water when I checked the very vibrant prime; my over/under Browning shotgun, due to my early morning negligence, still in its case, thank God, took a 45 minute drag through the water in the dark while suspended from the bow of the canoe; on the same day I shot, if you want to call it that, that remarkable gun 26 times after drying it out, and got only 2 ducks. I was flock shooting instead of picking one out every time; that same day, I stupidly left my decoys in near the Beaverstick while ice was forming; my decoys got predictably frozen into the ice (I know you’re not supposed to leave them out to begin with, tell me something I don’t know; what can I say? I got lazy.) and I ended up losing 12 of them (where do they go?); and finally, when the ice receded a few days later, I nearly flipped the canoe down in Mud Lake in the process of retrieving the remaining decoys, and did manage to toss myself into the cold murky water when it was 31 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing outside. This last event, was by far the most dangerous. I won’t pretend I wasn’t scared to death, but I was above all surprised to find myself in the drink, as I had truly, arrogantly convinced myself that I’d become the wise old man of the lake and such a thing could never happen to me again. It took this last event to convince me, I hope once and for all, that I’m still the same vulnerable, silly, sometimes hapless person I’ve always been.
“Dubs!” I yelled in that pre-dawn darkness. But Dubs, who had come over to hunt for the one and only time he would do so this season (can that really be a coincidence?) was down the lake and upwind and couldn’t hear me. Buoyed up by my life jacket, I managed to get myself back to the half submerged canoe which, thank God the wind had pushed up against the shore and I called out again. That’s when I realized, this was on me. Dubs couldn’t hear me. Live or die, right now old man. Nature teaches us lessons daily if we’re listening. She can sometimes also seem indifferent. I’m not sure which is more true. Both were in this case.
I lived, needless to say. I managed to pull myself around the canoe and back to shore, where the decoy I had been trying to pull free from a tangle in brush along the edge of the bog was still sitting. As the light began to come up I could see my new kayak paddle drifting away on the west wind. It was the paddle, which had slipped over the side of the canoe while I was struggling with the lost decoy, that I’d been reaching for when the canoe suddenly tipped and the trouble started.
My young Labrador Sam, who was hunting without my older Lab old Tom, who was wisely cozy back at camp, was still in the canoe, which was now upright again after having tipped the ballast, one old hunter, out. Sam was likely wondering what in the world I was doing and I didn’t blame him. I called out to Dubs again. He was over in the Halfway setting decoys, but he could’t see or hear me. I calmed myself for a second, then I worked my way around the canoe and finally found a foothold on a root along the edge of the bog. In nearly 15 years of paddling this canoe to my blind, nothing like this had ever happened before. I had been absolutely cautious that day in the way I’d come down staying close to shore all the way, but in the end it didn’t matter, as I would later relate to the OLD, I just shouldn’t be paddling around in this canoe at this time of year at my age.
It turned out well. I managed to struggle up onto the bog bank cold as I was, I managed to pull up the canoe and salvage all the gear. I managed to limp along the bog for what seemed like an hour and was only about five minutes to the Halfway and startled Dubs out of his wits as he sat waiting for the first flight of buffleheads and golden eyes of the morning. He was only too happy to give me a boat ride via the outboard, in his much bigger duck boat back to the warm, dry camp. What’s more, he went back down and retrieved everything, the canoe, all the gear, my hunting chair even my paddle and brought them all back to camp, all after shooting eight ducks on what may have been the best hunting morning of the season, of course, just to add to my lesson in humility. It just wasn’t my weekend. Then again, maybe it was. I mean, if Dubs hadn’t decided to come over, I would have faced a two hour walk over the bog, up a wooded ridge and down a long logging road to get back to camp. Would I have made it at my age? Soaking wet in 30 degree weather, with ice in my waders? If I had, then, after drying out, I would have faced another long walk, or short walk up the hill and a humble plea to the OLD to aid me in retrieving all my gear.
At some point after dropping me off back at camp, Dubs texted the OLD to check on me. The OLD reliving, to my chagrin, the other incident I’ve told you of which ended with me in the chilly Mud Lake water some 35 years ago, came running down from his house to the camp where I assured him over and over I was fine. As Dubs, the OLD, and I were standing in the front yard of camp a few hours later, after my hot shower and drying out period, and after Dubs came back in with my gear, and with his load of buffles and golden eyes, he made a suggestion over the OLD’s many suggestions for me. His suggestion had to be pretty emphatic, because the OLD was already telling me that perhaps it was about damned time for me to get a bigger boat and maybe a motor.
Dubs smiled at his father and said, “Uncle Nemo doesn’t want that, Dad.”
“I’ve got just the thing Uncle Nemo. Why don’t you take my old pram. It’s more stable and you can still paddle your way down.”
“You are. The damned thing is just sitting there (He gestured down the shoreline towards the extra lot) and it will be perfect for you. And don’t offer me money for it. I came by it for practically nothing to begin with 15 years ago.”
Dubs, the OLD, and I walked down the beach and pulled the battered old steel pram out from the extra lot, found a boat plug for it and put it in the water. I paddled it around in front of camp with the kayak paddle a bit. I smiled humbly at Dubs, thanked him again, and said it would definitely do the trick.
At this point I was still in the pram, about 20 feet from shore. Dubs was going to make one more check. “Uncle Nemo, humor me here. Reach over the side like you’re going to retrieve a paddle that’s gotten away.”
I smiled a little grimly, checking his expression for condescension, which I did not find, Dubs being Dubs, and obliged him.
Well, I’ve been using the steel pram, which I now call the “Mobile Blind” for the last couple of weekends and while slower than the canoe, it is clearly much more stable, and I have the time for longer trips anyway. I’m retired. I’ve even outfitted it with four anchors, so I can use it as an actual blind in the late season when I can’t get to the Beaverstick. Both dogs seem to like it’s stability and comfort too. In short, it’s quite a gift. And I am grateful and again, humbled by my nephew’s…well…love for me.
It was in that moment, sitting in the steel pram, with Dubs nodding his head, the OLD simply looking on, and me dutifully reaching over the side of the pram for a theoretical paddle, that I realized that the torch has completely and fully been passed now. Though Dubs can’t come to hunt much right now, as his kids get older, he certainly will. By then I’ll be a true old hunter, perhaps only looking on wistfully from the front porch of the One Duck, but I hope I can still go out and hunt even then, at least on calm days. As I sat there in the pram that day on by then calm waters, I could practically feel Stumpy looking on too, and somewhere in the woods, ol’ Doc, and One Duck Himself were smiling, I think. Time passes. We get older, and there isn’t a damned thing we can do about it other than adjust and try to acquire some grace.