The boat trailer is already hooked up. As the truck turns over the thermometer on the dashboard blinks reluctantly. 10 degrees. Most accesses will be frozen. I toss the axe in the bed of the truck in anticipation of chopping ice. As I lay my fingers on the steel head of the axe I feel a burn. It’s one of those mornings when everything I touch has a little sting associated to it.
During the drive to the access I reflect on the beginnings of my day. A cold blast of arctic air had crept in through the window of the bedroom. Usually, I leave it open just a crack to let in fresh air to offset the old Vermont Castings woodstove which cranks out an almost intolerable heat from down in the kitchen. I had been sleeping above my covers when the frigid Arctic fingers reached through the window and wrapped themselves around my feet like a death-tolling ghost. I bolted upright and looked at the clock. 3:25am. It would be five more minutes until the radio began crackling the local country station’s middle-of-the-night news. I figured that I might as well just get up. I staggered downstairs and when I opened the porch door to let out my whimpering black lab, Boo, I was assaulted by the air sailing around the Northwest corner of the porch. I commanded him to “hurry up!” and he wriggled past me, breathing frosty exhalations of gratitude for letting him back in. I meandered over to the sink and turned on the weather. The old radio whispered static for a moment then the voice of the outdoors began to deliver his monotone soliloquy. The voice in the box said that the wind was indeed from the Northwest and attached the moniker of an Arctic Clipper. These were to be clear, cold winds of 10-20 mph on land with more dramatic currents on the lake. The lake level was deemed moderately low at 95.5 feet above sea level and the water temperature was delivered in the same uncaring voice; only 36 degrees at the Coast Guard station 20 miles North. In minutes I was dressed and was pouring a thermos of dark French Roast coffee. I grinned as I add a drizzle of maple syrup. What is it about maple syrup in coffee that warms the soul after spending hours outside? Maybe it’s the thought that something that comes from trees has to be helpful to ward off a chill.
Arriving at the access, launching the boat goes smoothly. The ice is about 1” thick but breaks with a gentle tap of the axe. The amber lights of the trailer guides glow warmly in the rear view mirror. Slowly backing down the ramp so as not to lose the boat by sliding off the trailer, I hit the ice on the bottom of the ramp and the truck lurches backward, sending my heart into high gear. Then as the wheels enter the water they catch traction again and I settle down. The bowline is clipped to the rings on the bed of the truck so I can launch solo. The boat slides easily off the trailer and into the steam rising off the water.
We shove off, busting through a thin layer of sheet ice, turn into the wind, and head toward the corner of the island.
With each decoy I toss out, I am thinking that later it will be painful to pick up with its wet cord and anchor. I set out 2 dozen whistlers and a dozen bluebills, then pull the boat up to the rocky shoreline. I wedge the boat’s hull under an old oak tree that clings to the rocks. My Barnegat Sneakboat is as mobile and shallow drafting a boat as can be made. I am filled with pride that it took me 18 months to complete this craft in my old garage and now it is serving me in these rugged conditions like a dependable friend. I light the propane heater and push it up under the spray curtain. It billows a welcome heat out from under the fore deck. I set up my milk box with a flotation cushion and hunker down inside the grassy mound. I pour a cup of coffee from the neoprene covered thermos and place it on the port shelf made by the canvas siding. I watch the steam swirl off of the cup and feel nirvana arriving. As I load my Benelli I hear it. The distinct, unmistakable sound of cold arctic air tearing over stiff wing pinions, like a child blowing on an acorn top. Goldeneyes!
I scrunch down, hunching my shoulders under the top of the blind and peering out into the smoky fog rising off of the water. I raise my gun to ready and watch closely. The big bird swings across the bay from shore. A lone drake whistler. He swings over the decoys at 30 yards and presents himself to me in a picture perfect broadside belly shot. I raise my gun to my shoulder and swing through the gorgeous black and white body. As my eyes find the cheek patch, still swinging, I squeeze the trigger and the bird folds up in mid-flight, bouncing off of the surface and coming to rest without motion at the edge of the decoys. Boo is shivering with excitement on the bow. “Back!” I command loudly. Boo flies off the bow like an F-16 leaving the deck of a carrier. He breaks through the surging water and creates a wake with his powerful swimming technique, using his tail as a rudder. As he approaches the bird he opens his mouth and slams his jaws shut on the big drake like it was the most important singular event in his life.
His swim back to the boat is filled with pride. His head is held high above the rippling surface. I could swear he is grinning. He crawls up on the bow and holds the beautiful boutonniere-adorned bird, it’s head glistening in the sunlight, a black-green iridescent sheen. “Leave it!” I command. He gently places the drake in my hand and in that moment life is defined as the joyful expression of the present. I am grateful for all that is. Man and dog share the bond that has spanned generations.