Outdoors/Adventure

Even in the worst of times, sharing a duck blind with beloved friends and dogs is the best of times

“Sounds like one of those backup alarms on a forklift,” Rick said. His voice rose over the din of hundreds of sea gulls rising from the grassland across the river from our duck blind.

Four of us sat within the large blind, brush separating us and helping to conceal movement from the ever-watchful eyes of the waterfowl that would circle and sometimes swoop into the decoys spread before us.

The coffee was issued from a battered old thermos and drunk from tin cups, the old thin-walled ones that transfer the heat to your hand. The lot of us were a hodgepodge of faded camouflage, torn outerwear, patched waders and boots.

It was one of those times that duck hunters refer to as blue-bird days. The color of the sky was a deep blue, and the bright sun was beginning to descend to the west, where it would settle beyond the distant peaks of the western Alaska Range. A light breeze held just enough authority to assure the ducks would land into it, right over the decoys.

A lovely evening most any other time, but not so much when waiting for ducks to move around. More miserable weather would get ducks moving, as it seems to promote feeding. As if a darkening sky somewhere might signal the eminent departure of ducks to distant potholes, hopefully ours.

Rigby, our rookie chocolate Labrador retriever, and Betty, the veteran black Labrador of one of our hunting partners, sat in their respective places, their coats flecked with Cook Inlet mud from the duck retrieves they had made.

[In which Rigby travels to Interior Alaska as a lapdog and returns home as a duck dog]

Rigby brought his back after a bit of trepidation negotiating decoys, a first for him. In her fifth season, Betty is the poster Labrador, tireless with enthusiasm and stylish to boot. She is a pure pleasure to share a blind with.

What Rigby lacks in experience, he makes up for in excitement, which is a good thing. Christine loves him so much I think if he showed any reservation about retrieving a duck, Christine would pat his big head and tell him that’s OK, she’ll get the duck, and off she would go, into the river.

Christine’s best shot of the year came bittersweet. She dropped a drake pintail a couple of feet behind the blind, and with no need for a retrieve, Rigby got cheated out of an opportunity. It seems with counseling they will get through it.

Far to the east, dark clouds drifted through the mountain passes, headed our direction. The occasional flashes of lightning along the foothills, followed after a fair amount of time by the rumble of thunder, hoisted our spirits. It was the first thunderstorm any of us had heard this year, and we were delighted; who doesn’t enjoy the sight and sound of distant anger emitting from the clouds? I’ve come to conclude that lightning storms are nature’s way of reminding us who is really in charge.

The storm only teased. It was too far to reach us before the end of shooting light, and it came from the wrong direction to have any influence on waterfowl that might be headed our way. That left us with each other, the dogs, and the sporadic appearance — or maybe no more appearances at all — of ducks.

It has been argued that these quiet times may be the best of times in a duck blind. When you are with trusted friends, folks you’ve hunted with for years, who understand and accept the inevitable failings we all possess in some way, it is downright pleasant, no matter what the ducks do. I liken it to the ring of friends around a campfire that invites the free expression that has become such a distant and forlorn memory in our modern lives.

Chicken soup for the soul. I’ve not read any of the passages attributed to that title, but I expect it is many different things to folks. Sort of like comfort food, it’s what you know, what makes you feel good when maybe nothing else will. Sitting in that blind felt like a warm bowl of soup, a campfire and a good book framed in brush and mud.

Another member of our blind party, and a dear friend, had recently received news that caused him, much like myself, to get much closer to our mortality than either of us wanted. For us, the way through is with a sense of humor, and in this case gallows humor was in order.

“So, if you drop from a heart attack should we just pitch you to the belugas?” he said.

“Works for me,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” said Christine, who is younger than the rest of us, but an old soul. “They are endangered, I think that would be illegal.”

“Can’t you just take a nitro pill?” said our other friend.

A nitro pill is a tablet of nitroglycerin placed under the tongue to relieve chest pain by dilating arteries. I had grown up around folks who carried small, dark-colored bottles of these little tablets, and yet I had forgotten about them.

The hunting demographic is composed of many folks 10 years on either side of my 63 years. And from what I see, it is also a large share of people who get outdoors for whatever reason. Perhaps some are in circumstances similar to mine, fortunate to be able to sit in a duck blind while waiting for the COVID-19 smoke to clear and a hospital bed to open.

“Well, I don’t have nitro pills,” I said. “You know, it’s funny. You don’t really see them so much anymore.”

Like many old remedies, they have sort of fallen out of vogue and don’t garner much attention these days. Nevertheless, that conversation in the blind led me to ask my doctor for some. Much to my delight, that they work well for me.

Since returning from the Interior after Rigby’s first hunt, we’ve spent a lot of time in that blind with our friends. The shooting has been slow — there are not many ducks around, and the migraters haven’t moved through yet. And yet these times have had little to do with shooting ducks beyond employing the Labradors.

In a world that seems impenetrably dark, I don’t know anyone who is “normal.” The weight of present times drapes over the shoulders, like the albatross of ancient mariner lore.

Time in the blind is a respite, a time for friends to enjoy some normalcy. I wish there was a way to share that feeling with the medical staff in our communities. They most certainly need a bit of respite, more than anyone I can think of.

Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.

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