Navigating the potential dangers of duck season

“What in the world is Vladimir Putin doing at the helm of the duck boat?” I thought to myself as the boat puttered up a tidal slough toward me.

No, I wasn’t drinking, but the sight of a gray-haired, shirtless, white-chested fellow driving the camouflage boat up the tidal cut as if it were a hot mid-July day, not a late October day in which rim ice had crusted the dew-covered vegetation, seemed something the robust and charismatic president of Russia would do for fun.

Christine and I, along with our hunting partners, Shane and Mickie, had arrived to the blind a bit early for the evening flight. With the decoys set, and the tide flooding, there left little to do but sit and wait. Which is normal and welcome with good company. But, the rookie of the group, Rigby, isn’t quite used to sitting, and he gets a bit antsy. So, he and I went for a walk.

We were gone for maybe 25 minutes and were walking back to the blind when Shane, aka Putin, drove the boat past us to hide it further up the cut.

I’ve been envious of robust folks who seem oblivious to falling temperatures. The ones who sit around hunting camp in t-shirts and shorts or stroll down the sidewalk at -20 degrees in flip flops and a flannel shirt, acting for all the world like malamutes.

As Shane is one of those hardy folks, and since he drove the boat past us, grinning, without a care in the world it, I smiled to myself and didn’t think a thing of it. I had no way of knowing a borderline tragedy had occurred in my absence. After all, duck hunters have traditionally embraced foul weather, and it wasn’t raining, and the wind wasn’t blowing too hard.

Like with most things, when you mess around in circumstances that invite trouble, sooner or later, you are going to experience some. I remember one October morning, breaking skim ice off the lake a hunting partner and I were going to cross in an attempt to shoot some bluebills, otherwise known as greater scaup.

We paddled up the middle of a cove on the far side of the lake, where a flock of the black and grey ducks floated on the water. As we approached the birds took off and flew within range on the right side of the canoe. Both of us swung our shotguns on the flock and triggered simultaneous shots.

We were not adequately informed of what the recoil from magnum 12 gauge loads would do a canoe’s balance until we were struggling to keep our heads above the frigid water and swim to the nearest shoreline. If life jackets were a thought back then, they were an afterthought.

Cold water immersion is a looming presence for duck hunters, a known quantity that lurks in the shadows and pounces when it damn well feels like it.

In the modern world of high-tech gear and rapid emergency response that eases the pain and suffering of folks who revel in that sort of thing, the most horrific tragedy in the duck hunting world, maybe in the history of outdoor pleasures, seems unthinkable.

Picture life during fall in the upper Midwest in 1940. Waterfowlers were anxious for weather that would bring the great migrations out of Canada to provide sport and an opportunity to fill freezers.

On November 10th , 1940, the forecast called for just the sort of weather that would answer the waterfowler’s prayers. Cold, wind and some snow would almost guarantee perfect hunting conditions for what was known as Armistice Day back then, now Veteran’s Day, a holiday for many grateful hunters.

Forecasting being what it was at the time, predicted the storm, but it did not accurately predict the ferocity that would engulf north central America in steady 50 mph winds, gusting to 80, driving snow to the tune of over two feet in some places, with temperatures plummeting to single digits during the day.

The toll varies, but most renditions claim some 200 people lost their lives in the storm, over half of them were duck hunters. The many stories that came from that day are remarkable and heart-wrenching. The best of them was written by Gordon MacQuarrie, “Icy Death Rides Gale on Duck Hunt Trail,” and is worth a read. The day is known in the duck hunting fraternity as “The Day the Duck Hunters Died.”

I wasn’t thinking about that fateful day when Rigby and I saw Shane driving the boat shirtless, but I did later when the rest of the story revealed itself.

Christine came running towards me from the water’s edge, south of the blind. “I’ve been trying to call you,” she said. “I don’t have my phone,” I replied laughing, and said, “Did you see Shane driving around without a shirt on? What the hell is the matter with him?”

“That’s why I tried to call you, the boat got away, and he swam the river to fetch it,” she blurted. Then in the aftermath of an enormous adrenalin dump, she told me the story in disjointed bursts of amazement, wonder, and remaining visceral fear.

Christine and Mickie were conversing in the blind while Shane adjusted decoys. At some point they looked up and saw the boat drifting out from shore, with no one in it.

In normal circumstances in this spot, the incoming tide would have kept the boat along the shore, but the wind coming out of the east pushed it toward the middle, fast. Following up river along the bank, Shane spontaneously decided to swim to retrieve it rather than go through the hassle of getting someone to come out with another boat.

Never mind the heart attack he had the year before, he climbed out of his waders down to his shorts and waded ino the cold water of Cook Inlet/Kenai River. By the time he got to the boat, it was some 600 yards offshore. Folks who dipnet this area know what a task that would be, even in the summer.

Christine said that along the way, Shane stopped swimming and they thought he was in trouble and were terrified until he started swimming again. By the time he reached the boat, he was too exhausted to lift himself in so he swam around to the motor, which has a power lift, and used it to hoist himself up.

When Shane came cruising back to the blind a few minutes later, he smiled at Christine and Mickie and said, “That’s duck hunting in October.”

I thought to myself, “Well, Putin has nothing on our hunting partner.” Rigby’s expression suggested he thought Shane fetched the boat well enough not to need any practice.