I could feel the shape of the swamp through the soles of my chest waders. The slick mud floor, churning up a darker color — if I could see it, caked my waders with Kenai River mud. If it weren’t a blue-black morning — overcast with star-obscuring clouds, I still wouldn’t know whether I stepped on driftwood snared in polargrass, clumps of mud and sedges, or the bodies of dead salmon.
Without much to view of my greater surroundings on this morning’s trudge through the dark water of a rising tide, I followed Steve. Because I was second in line, I was enveloped by the full bloom of the swamp as each of Steve’s steps released a putrid smell of fish carcass and rotting foliage.
The floor of the flats, netted together in dead grass and root, held just enough to prevent sinking to unknown depths. Each step was a struggle to lift from the sucking mud and untangle before taking another gamble at where the bottom might be.
It was my first time venturing out on the Kenai River flats before sunrise, over 15 years ago. Even as I doubted our course in the unfamiliar feel of the terrain, I didn’t voice my thoughts — “Are we stepping on dead things?” The silence was sealed by the dark, as though we were adrift at sea and no communication could change the fate on the horizon. I wanted to be a good sport.
The tide was at our knees when my fears shifted from the bottom to dodging loose boards and the thump of salmon. The tide schedule didn’t cooperate with shooting light and required the risk of a 24-foot tide before getting to the blind, where the water would let out just at sunrise if we could make it. We were already halfway when it occurred to me to doubt the tide tables. The sound of wings low overhead was little comfort.
Red lights from a tower across the river were finally visible through the morning fog. They were the markers for our blind, still a half-mile away, telling us we were off course. The pull of the tide made walking difficult, and I leaned against it to balance myself — the water at our waist and still coming. If I made a wrong step into one of the sloughs, I’d be what Steve calls a floater, which ironically meant that I was not likely to float to safety. He gestured for me to stay behind and follow as if I wasn’t already.
“This is about as high as it’s going to get,” he said.
Instead of fearing the gore and danger of its depths, I feared the water itself, a gray and clogged drain pulling the contents of the flats into the Cook Inlet. The tide was, in fact, going back out. The sky, however, was clearing, making a dismal forecast — the ducks would be flying high.
The high tide had only improved our blind’s appearance. It looked as natural as other piles of grass and sticks, painted by river mud. The water was at our knees when we got inside, so I crouched until it would expose the two stumps we would sit on. Steve unpacked the decoys to place on what would be a pond in a matter of minutes but was still unseparated from the ocean around us.
Once settled, we painted our faces with river mud and arranged the grass around our backs. Neither of us had spoken, and the silence of the early morning darkness returned. The clang of the thermos sounded like a bell ringing, the pour of the coffee like a refined stream compared to the rough and dirty water draining around us.
The widgeon I’d heard on the way out were nowhere to be seen. Only gulls filled the morning flight, their heads shifting back and forth, the way gulls do.
It was a few years of mornings like this one — many without taking home any ducks — before Steve and I brought home our first retrieving dogs. Jack and Gunner were both one-year-old chocolate Labs, and Gunner became a serious duck dog and stalwart companion.
This fall, Rigby joined us for his first days afield. At one year old, he looks much like Gunner, only broader across the chest and far more lighthearted. Because we’ve had him since he was a pup, perhaps he will always be a puppy to me. As we ventured out on the flats for his first early morning hunt, I doubt he had any of my initial mental worries. I didn’t have them either.
Last week, the three of us hurried into a blind built by other duck hunters as a flock of teal flew over. In the corner of the blind, there appeared to be a spot made for a dog to sit. Rigby found it, and we stayed there for a half-hour or so.
As seagulls flew overhead, Rigby would glance at the sky. I wondered if he was beginning to tell the difference between seagulls and ducks at a distance, something I couldn’t discern at first.
Steve had pointed out the way ducks fly with tiny beats of their wings. Later, I would learn other ways to tell the difference between birds in flight — the pintail’s long neck and tail, the whistling sound of widgeon, and the erratic flight pattern of teal.
Steve shot a single teal that night, and a friend said, “All you got was one teal?” It’s hardly a meal. And so much work. In fairness, the birds add up eventually to a meal, and pan-fried teal with wild rice is one of my favorites. But, that’s only one important reason we go.
I head home from work as many nights as possible and change into waders while Rigby barrels out the door, always ready. It feels like old times, yet I often think back to when I worried about Jack getting on the furniture and thought our early morning treks to the blind were a gauntlet I might not have the grit to bear.
These days, they are a delight — a place where grass ripples in salty wind, Rigby splashes through ponds, and so many memories go in and out with the tide. There is nothing else we’d rather be doing.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Kenai.