“You know,” Christine said, “over the years and thinking about all that we do, the best times have been in a duck blind.”
We had been talking about the waterfowl season-opener and how, with her hips giving out, we could include Cheyenne, our chocolate Labrador duck dog, in our most anticipated day of the year.
Since the first time I tagged along on a duck-goose hunt at age 5 or 6, duck hunting has held a reverence for me beyond most other things in life. I use the term “duck hunting” in the generic sense we call the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp the “Duck Stamp,” although it includes ducks, geese, brant and sandhill cranes.
I’ve thought about it a lot, and Christine’s announcement raised the question of why. What is it about duck hunting that holds a value for those who do it beyond the sum of its parts?
Folks have asked me about duck hunting. What does it entail? Why do we do it? When I describe a typical duck hunt, most will say something like, “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like much fun.”
It’s like most everything in life. We all have different interests and values, and in the end what matters most is what something means to you.
We’ll have slept little the night before a hunt, and our eyes are wide open by 3 a.m. May as well get up. A quick brewing of coffee, hot cup in hand, head outside to meet a cold drizzle, too dark to see, but you intuit the low-hanging cloud cover and smile when you round the corner of the house and a cold north wind hits your face.
In the shop, the decoy bag filled with the wooden stools that you spent the summer carving (you are hopelessly intrigued by the watermen who hunted the Eastern seaboard in the late 1800s to early 1900s and find yourself thinking in the duck hunting lexicon of the era). You haven’t touched them since the last time you checked, but you recheck them, assuring the lines that secure the anchors are in good repair.
A heft of the bag confirms they have not lost weight and the choice to use only five is more about moving them from place to place than that being enough.
Another check of the shotguns, cleaned, oiled and deadly, slipped into their cases. Ammunition, most for ducks, but a few for geese should the opportunity knock.
Cheyenne follows and her cold wet nose intrudes at every turn. She knows, and she’ll sit at the truck door and whine to get on with it.
There is time for breakfast, but it isn’t allowed. On duck days, earning it is a part of the tradition, and it’ll taste so much better in the wake of a cold, wet morning.
With two hours to go before shooting light, you boost Cheyenne into the truck and struggle into your chest waders. Appearing a bit like a camouflage Michelin Man, you break a sweat just getting behind the steering wheel.
The beat of the windshield wipers drones through our silent thoughts on the short drive. No one is at the parking lot. Light from a cannery across the river lends a navigation landmark for the dark walk through the rain and low clouds. Advancing years and tired eyes don’t adjust to the dark so well and leave you wondering if maybe breaking the no-light rule might be appropriate. You dismiss the thought.
It’s a slow walk across the marsh, up and down the tidal cuts that bisect the way. Cheyenne is doing fine.
Our blind, which we built years ago, has grown into the landscape, but years of being out there makes it like being in the front yard.
Christine settles into the blind to smear waterproof paint on her wet face. I can hear Cheyenne passing judgment on the sloppy application. Decoys set, I take my place in the blind, pour a cup of coffee from the thermos, and in keeping with the firm belief that nothing in nature is dirty, smear my face with Cook Inlet tidal mud. A half-hour to go.
We fuss over Cheyenne and small-talk until the first flight of widgeon, their whistling wings announcing their presence as they fly over. Focused now, we listen to the whoosh of teal, followed by several splashes as they drop into the decoys. In a moment, they whoosh away, ever the spastic bird of the waterfowl world.
Drenched and chilled, we squint through the rivulets that fill our eyes. A splash in the pond, followed by a quack in the dark, tells us a “Susie” — as mallard hens are referred to — has settled in and wants to talk. I quack back, and we have a conversation for a bit. She eventually discovers the subterfuge of the wooden fakes and squawks away, leaving us grinning in the dark.
The beloved outdoor humor writer, Patrick McManus wrote a book entitled “A Fine and Pleasant Misery.” In it, he speaks of the misery of the outdoor adventure and the necessity for a proper outing.
Duck hunting is like that. For it to be good, one must suffer. You’ll hear duck hunters complain of “bluebird days,” when the weather is too nice and the ducks won’t fly, which is not the case. Ducks go about their business regardless of the weather. They still have to eat; they still like to move around, see the sights and meet other ducks. But it doesn’t feel like duck hunting when the weather is nice.
After a lifetime of duck hunting, I understand that duck hunters must suffer for the experience to be complete. It doesn’t have to be weather. A swamped boat, getting stuck in a high tide, a broken gun, a young retriever who just can’t get it right — anything that disrupts the flow of a perfect day will do.
I won’t tell you that the killing of ducks isn’t important to the duck hunter. The first mount of the gun, the feel of wood on cheek as the muzzle swings ahead, a slap of the trigger and the splash, followed by another splash, and the wet retriever nosing back into the blind, a firm grip on the mallard, brings to all the purpose of the day. And yet, it is but a small part of the sum of parts that make up duck hunting.
The disconnect from comfort, the wet cold penetrating to the core, the aroma of wet retriever, the swamp mud and the bone-weary finish when you feel the satisfaction of having a day before the rest of the world stops hitting the snooze button.
There are no perfect duck hunting days, and that’s why sitting in a duck blind, cold, wet, and watching the outdoors come alive, is still about as good as it gets.