With apparel for almost any occasion, waterfowl are flashy dressers

For no evident reason, in a flurry of splashing water and wing beats, the drake northern pintail sprang from the cattail slough, flying into the orange glow of setting prairie sun.

“That’s how I would dress if I had an audience with the queen,” I said to Christine, as we watched the dapper duck fly away. “Now, if I were going to be knighted, I would want to appear as a bull canvasback. And if I were headed to the Caribbean for a fortnight of hearty partying, I would have to go with the look of the northern shoveler.”

“Where did you hear that,” Christine wanted to know.

“I didn’t hear it, I just thought it out loud.”

She looked at me with the jaundiced eye of speculation and said, “Well, it’s a good thought, if you think about it much, wildfowl are flashy dressers.”

We were on a break from sorting out my father’s estate, and chose to spend it revisiting country where I had cut my young hunting teeth, and where Christine, many years later, discovered a love for hunting dogs. It is a love that has taken us near the point, or perhaps beyond it, where folks might whisper, “That’s those crazy dog people.”

Eastern North Dakota is situated in the Prairie Pothole Region of North America. The expansive area, which includes Saskatchewan to the north, is fondly referred to by waterfowl hunters as the “Duck Factory.” Thousands of small ponds or “potholes” that rarely cover more than a few acres, and the cattails and other vegetation surrounding them, provide nesting cover as well as stopover points for migrating birds to rest and feed on their travels north and south.

Folklore has the term pothole originating during the Roman Empire when pottery makers would dig divots out of the hard-packed clay roads of the day to make their pots. Wherever the term came from, the pothole region of the plains displays a remarkable variety of life — if one cares to look.

It also represents a significant portion of the Great Plains, also called the “bread basket” or the nation’s “heartland,” where farmers and ranchers feed the country, or perhaps more accurately given the food stress created by enormous growth in the human population, the world.

When Christine and I made our first hunting trip to the region together, she commented on the midday drive to our destination, “How can anything live on all of this flat farmland?”

The crops had been harvested in late October, leaving remnants of corn stalks, bean vines and some wheat stubble. With no machinery working the fields, the country viewed from the window of a vehicle traveling 75 mph on the interstate did appear desolate.

“You’ll see,” I replied.

For the next week, we had hunted the rural countryside, renewing relationships that I had fostered with the land during childhood while lamenting the many places plowed up in favor of corn production.

On the drive back to the airport, Christine said, “It reminds me of the flats.”

Her experience with the estuary at the mouth of the Kenai River, which we call the “flats,” had found her driving by them every day for years and thinking they were a wasteland, until she starting hunting there and came to find the astonishing array of wild creatures making a home there.

During subsequent hunting trips with my Dad, Christine came to embrace the plains, although, like me, not enough to leave Alaska. In recent years, health issues and the beer bug had prevented our making the fall trips we had enjoyed so much, and during the interim, we lost my Dad.

Although our return was bittersweet, we were determined to get out and visit the hunting grounds and “take the temperature,” as Dad always referred to his daily roaming of the country. That’s how we came to find ourselves out looking at ducks and musing about the copycat opportunities for dress.

Spotting a drake redhead duck in another pothole, Christine blurted, “So, where would one go dressed as a redhead?”

“That’s easy,” I said. “The Highland Games.”

“Watch out,” Christine hollered as we crept along a slough that spring melt had risen to nearly flood the road.

I slammed on the brakes, “What?”

“A turtle came out of the grass, and I thought you would hit him.” Over the next few back road miles, we saw many more turtles crossing the road. Each time we stopped, and assisted them, hoping they wouldn’t be run over.

“Look,” I pointed to a yellow-headed blackbird clinging to a cattail. “That one looks dressed for the Oscars.”

A much bigger pothole lay ahead and there were large snags drowned out over the years and covered with cormorants, a sure sign some sort of fish resided in the slough.

“Should have brought a hook and a worm?” I asked.

“Who dresses like them?” Christine wondered out loud. “Pirates.”

“Let’s go look at the mallard slough,” Christine said. The place she meant was just up the road from Dad’s place. The small pothole had been circled by cattails and mallards would pour into it at last light. We always hunted it at least once every trip down.

When I pulled off an approach across from the mallard slough, we stared out at a plowed field. We found out the farmer had sold the land a couple of years before, and had burned off the cattails and filled in the slough for a couple of acres of corn.

Finding places that we had hunted in the past plowed up and planted had become routine during our trips there. There is little in the way of public land in that part of the world and the availability of places where folks are free to roam the country and commune with the natural world is disappearing.

If that isn’t enough to keep us in Alaska, Christine discovered another reason. We had taken a walk around the pothole slough on my Dad’s property, where hundreds of all sorts of birds lived. When Christine felt something land on her hand, she looked down to see her first live wood tick. I had already found several on myself, a memory from childhood where deticking was a daily chore.

Since we had always visited in the fall after freezing weather, Christine had never experienced them.

“You know,” I deadpanned, “we are going to have to shave our heads before we head back, we can’t risk taking ticks back to Alaska.”

“Maybe you could have told me that before I came down here,” she responded.

“Not really,” I said. “But it’s another good reason for us never move away from Alaska.”

Steve Meyer

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting.