Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Waterfowler's Life Wish

It was late in the duck season, and for several weeks there had been few birds in the area. Rumor had it that “our birds” were staging about 100 miles to our north, in Quebec. We knew one thing that might bring them south was a weather pattern of monumental proportions. On the weather maps all week I watched the powerful front move up from the southeast, spinning counter-clockwise, accumulating strength and humidity over the Atlantic. It was shaping up to be one of those epic Nor’Easters. It was due to hit us hard on a Saturday afternoon, and, we all hoped, would blow the the ducks down from the St.Lawrence and Richelieu rivers

On Saturday morning I drove my truck around surveying all the access points to the lake that could be used with a northeast blow. Most of the accesses were already frozen in. Those that were still open were blocked by drifts of snow too deep for most boats and trailers to penetrate. I found only one that might be negotiated, and it had to be prepared by ramming through some deep drifts that had been plowed up onto the end of a street of summer cabins. The water just past the drifts was full of slush from the snow that had started falling. I started calling around to find trustworthy partners for the trip, preferably ones I could count on in an emergency. My friends John and Eric, my two best hunting partners, signed on. John is a middle-aged well-cultured and dependable friend who has shared many harrowing outdoor experinces and maintains his calm demeanor when faced with challenging conditions. John’s yellow lab, Remi is equally as dependable and a methodical hunter, calculating in his reserved style of retrieving. Eric, a young man headed for the Marines, is a thin, strong and quiet character who takes orders well and anticipates what needs to be done before anyone asks. These are the kind of partners with which you feel confident taking chances. We watched the wind and weather carefully.

At noon the snow and wind tapered off, giving us a short window of time in which to launch our flotilla of handmade sneakboats, bags of decoys, 2 dogs and thermoses of hot coffee. The boats were built to handle extreme weather. Barnegat-style sneakboats have long covererd foredecks and combing encircling the cockpit to keep water out, and with a traingular spray curtain on the deck in front of the cockpit, most of the water rolls off the curtain and back into the lake. Our goal was an island offshore about 400 yards, the first 200 of which were icy slush before we broke into open water. We headed for the southeast, leeward side of the island to set up under a big oak tree that wrapped it’s strong legs around the rocky shore. Then we spread our decoys out to our east with two-pound “H”-style anchors. Finally, we wedged the boats securely between the gnarly old oak and some shoreline shrubbery, then hunkered down to wait for wind-beaten birds to circle the island from the west and come barreling around the corner, seeking shelter in the cove.

The lull in the storm ended, and the wind started to increase in tempo and intensity. We tucked ourselves tightly into our boat blinds, backs turned to the tempest and huddled under our hoods. Then I heard it: the sound of wind strafing over the primaries of a goldeneye, a whistling sound so characteristic that old Yankees call these birds whistlers. "I can't see them but here they come!" I said. And from out of the mist-covered waves came a single goldeneye drake, beating his way crosswind toward our spread of decoys bobbing aggressively in the waves.
As he turned his chest away from the most distant decoy, at about 35 yards, I said to myself "Butt, body, bill...bang!" Down he went, into the icy water, and in a flash my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Boone, leapt off the rocky shoreline and swam powerfully toward the bird who had fallen about 60 yards out.

At that precise moment it began to snow, hard. The wind ramped up, creating waves three to four feet high. Boone had nearly reached the bird, and when they both crested a wave, the bird dove. Boone circled in the trough, the whitecap spray flying over his head. This Chessie was not giving up.

The bird surfaced to gulp a short breath, then dove again. Boone circled furiously. Finally, he stuck his head underwater, came up with the feisty old drake in his jaws, and started to paddle back to shore, fighting for every stroke against the wind.

I watched him a moment. Then I said, "Boys, I think it's time to go. We've got to get back to shore before dark or this is going to be the longest night we've ever spent."

Boone came ashore, exhausted but proud. We took a quick picture of Boone and the bird and quickly packed up our field bags. We shoved and grunted the boats off the submerged rock shelf between the oak and the shrubbery and fired up the short-shaft motors. I breathed a sigh of relief as the 15 hp Honda jumped to life. It is, at these times, that one is most grateful for dependability.

As the motors roared to life, the wind became fierce, the tops of the waves were being blown off in a heavy spray and the snow came at us sideways, burning our faces.  We had to hold our hands over our eyes to shield them from the stinging sharp crystals. We picked up the decoys with numb, frozen fingers and soaked decoy gloves. Then, one wave at a time, we fought our way back to shore. The wind whipped a vicious spray over the bows of the boats and smashed the waves into the foredecks. Water rolled off the boats in sheets. Each wave was a hurdle to be taken with the greatest respect for its own potential. Quartering was imperative. If we were to be blown sideways we would capsize. The only workable strategy was that of taking each wave at a 25 degree angle and pointing the bows upwind as we came off the crests. In my boat, Eric hunkered down on the floor and held on to the cockpit combing with one hand on each side as I had instructed. He was quiet and focused.

As I guided the boat by the tiller of the motor, we gradually, slowly and methodically fought each wave, closer and closer to the shoreline. As we beached the boats on the sandy shoreline o

ut of the wind, we all started to laugh, partly with joy that we had survived, but there was an undertone of wonderment at nature’s extraordinary force. We felt invigorated by the knowledge that we had faced nature’s power and were alive.

As we loaded the boats back onto the trailer, John laughed and pointed at his van window. There in the caked-on snow someone had written the word “Crazy.”

And of course, the graffiti artist had a point. Why would anyone in his right mind go out in a small boat on the open waters of Lake Champlain during a December blizzard, why take that kind of risk? Because risk acknowledges that my life is sacred and cherished, that something important is at stake. I take chances because I feel more alive when humbled by a force greater than myself, one that commands respect and brings out my best. It’s not a death wish, exactly. I’d call it a life wish.