Saturday, October 6, 2012

8 Point Dilemma

The morning began at 4:00am. The Big Ben alarm clock went off, shattering the rhythm of snoring men and restless dreams. Within minutes the percolator was bubbling with the dark, pungent aroma of French roast coffee. Gradually the smell of cob-smoked bacon took over the one room camp. Wood smoke blended with the leftover fragrance of Hoppe’s #9. A cold North wind blew through the crack in the old green door. An oil lamp was lit in the corner casting a golden glow over the gingham checked tablecloth and arcing in a great semi-circle on the ceiling. Grunts and groans were heard throughout the room as grown men pulled on their thermals and woolen socks. For some it meant bending over in bodies that had been worn thin by pursuing the American dream; others paid for their dream by late hours in the office and long road trips spending precious time away from loved ones. But now, it was being paid back. Five men huddled in a rustic camp in the deep north woods of Vermont, left alone to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Five men who are bonded by a love of the outdoors and the hope that one of us will take a nice buck.

The Old Green Door
The weather-beaten front door is pushed open but doesn’t seem to want to budge. Something is on the other side and it is heavy. Another shove and the door creaks open a couple of inches. A swirl of wind whips icy flakes of snow onto the floor. “Did it snow last night?” I ask. One of the other men, my father-in-law, Brian Hoyt, leans over the kitchen table and looks out the window. “Sweet Jeezus, did it snow! It’s gotta’ be two feet deep!” My heart jumps with joy. “The deer will be in the pines ridin’ this one out boys!”

I’ve always wanted to relive a hunt with my father when I was 15 years old when we drove all night through a blinding snowstorm to reach the deer camp where he’d gotten us invited and we got snowed in for days. I had the man I most admired all to myself. And now, here I am, surrounded by my best friends, Chris Thayer of Charlotte, Steve “Ozzie” Osborne of Williston, my father-in-law, Brian of Charlotte and my 80 year old father, Arthur Spencer.

 I walk over to the radio and turn on the weather channel. The crackling of the NOAA weatherman’s voice sounds as if he too was caught in a blizzard.

Eggs are sizzling in a cast iron pan and the warmth of the wood stove is over-powered only by the warmth of the camaraderie. I am overcome with serenity and joy.

Over breakfast we pull out the maps of the mountains around us and plan our day.
We have our own names for them. “Camp Milk Bottle”, “The Saddle”, Poop Hill”, “The Flats” and “The Pines.” We spent the summer planting small food plots that should now be mature and supplying the deer with attractive sustenance. Chris will head down the ravine, across the bear trail to his ladder stand, Ozzie will take the long hike up to Camp Milk Bottle, Brian will walk out to the cliffs above Poop Hill, my father, will guard the camp from bears and will be vaguely responsible for preparing lunch. Me, well, I think I’ll head down into The Pines and sit against the rock cliff  right off a well worn trail leading to the stream flowing through the center of The Pines.

Yes, it will be tough going this morning, plowing through 2 feet of new snow, but it will be quiet. The kind of quiet where all you can hear is your blood pumping past your ears. The kind of quiet that sharpens your senses and makes all things possible.

5am Breakfast
By 5:00 breakfast is over, the dishes have been placed in the sink to soak, and we are all pulling on our Johnson woolens and checking our radios. It would be impolite to share our radio names for each other in such a fine literary work as this so you’ll have to chuckle and know that they are nothing you would say in front of your Mama. 

We head out the door. Rifles in hand, backpacks loaded with keep-warm goodies. “See you back here at noon boys.  If one a’ you guys drops one, be sure to call us on the radio. Good luck!” I say and plow my way out into the deep snow. A white world of wonder envelops me and in minutes the camp has faded from my view, obscured by the falling snow. I am in the Green Mountains. And for all I know, this may as well be heaven.

I trudge down the drifted streambed that serves as a road once we’re past the flats. It takes me 45 minutes to make the trail that leads into the pines. It is nothing more than a canopied tunnel with pines that shoulder-press the heavy snow above their heads. I can sense the mighty struggle to hold the weight above the ground. Occasionally, I hear a loud snap and shudder at the sound of an old hemlock losing its branch. Other than that, it is pure, unadulterated silence. The kind that some city folk cannot stand because it echoes the loneliness in their souls. For those of us who live day to day with this connection to the earth, it is peace. I cross the gurgling brook being careful to place my rubber boots in the water and not on the slippery rocks that look like large white mushrooms poking out of the rushing water.

As I step onto the other side of the creek, I cut a set of tracks headed down into the heavy pine thicket. It’s been a few hours since this one passed. The snow is too deep to read whether it’s a buck or doe but the tracks are widespread and pointed outward, indicating that it might be a deep-chested brute. I slip quietly up the hill and push into the rock cliff overlooking the run that leads in to the pines. I sidle up to a young maple and shake the trunk to let the snow fall off the branches, which forms a neat fortress around the base of the trunk. I tuck myself behind the wall of snow and place my thermal seat against the tree. My backpack is placed in the drift beside me.

I can feel the sweat trickling down the channel of my back. This is going to cause problems later when my core temperature drops. Right now, it’s 28 degrees, but the wind is now coming out of the North and temperatures will dip this afternoon. I settle in and start hunting with my ears. It’s no use. It’s too quiet. I will have to constantly scan the trail below. I suppose it’s somewhat natural, but at times like these, my mind starts playing fantasies of monster bucks stepping out into a shooting lane and offering me some outrageously simple shot. It’s times like these that I find I can get lost in the dream and lose my focus. Like right now.

My left eye catches movement on the hillside behind me. I turn my head slowly, my neck gaiter grabbing my 3 day beard and tugging it. All I can see are horns. Dang it! He just walked through an opening between a short stubby pine and a sapling. And I missed the shot. I shoulder my Remington 30.06 and peer through my 3-9x scope. It’s fogged. I flip the lens covers up and re-shoulder my gun. I count the points. 2, 4, 6, 8. A nice wide symmetrical rack, not a basket rack like many of the bucks we’ve seen for years. I quickly see that I have a choice to make. He is standing behind an old 10’ long pine tree that has lost its needles and is lying on its side. The center of the trunk covers his vitals. His head and antlers stand tall over the top of the tree.

It’s a moral decision that many have told me “I’d have taken the shot” but I cannot. The vitals aren’t exposed. It’s only 50 yards and I have my index finger on the trigger and my middle finger hovering over the safety. It’s now or never.  The thought comes to me that he may wander further down the trail, behind the big boulder and emerge on the other side, following the trail, and give me a perfect shot broadside at about 75 yards if I let him walk. My heart is pounding and I can feel it in my ears and forehead. I take a deep breath through my nose and exhale quietly.

I wait. Did I make the wrong choice? 5 minutes pass. No buck emerges from behind the boulder. 10 minutes. Still no buck. What would I tell the guys? Should I say anything? I wrestle with my conscience.

To this day, when I tell the story, some don’t believe me, others do. But I ask everyone, “What would you have done?” It’s become a way of measuring a man’s conscience.

That nice 8 pointer is probably still wandering around those woods and one day we may meet again and things will have a different outcome. For now, my band of brothers at “Camp A” likes to needle me and pat me on the back, and say “You sure you really saw him or was that just one of your daydreams?”
Father Shooting Breakfast from the Deck

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Second Opener

The south wind blows and the ridge pole of the rustic one room camp creaks above our heads. We are on the shores of mid-Lake Champlain. With the window slightly cracked we can hear the waves lapping against the rocky shoreline. Beyond the polished stones lies the bay, the outline of the islands with the Adirondacks looming in the dark background. Inside the cabin, a Vermont Castings Vigilant woodstove burns the last of the spirits of the beech that had fallen outside the west window last winter. Blue-green and orange flames tongue the remaining log, digesting its pulp in a flurry of whistling air. I am sitting in the old Kennedy rocking chair sipping my lapsang souchong  tea that reminds me of a childhood spent longing for moments like these. We are winding down after a dinner of roast duck, acorn squash and late-picked green beans from the garden. An empty bottle of hearty merlot stands on the table in the center of the dining area, a testament to a stroke of culinary genius. We revel in the silence of the crackling fire and the wind whistling around the old green door with a crack winnowing down the center. Tomorrow is the Opening Day of the second half of Duck Season on the lake.

 The dishes are done and I am showered and ready for the rack. In the corner of the room is my bunk, made of crude 2x4’s and plywood, with a mattress and an old Hudson’s Bay six pelt blanket, doubled over and neatly tucked into the slats beside the weathered hemlock paneling. The small oil lamp glows yellow in the corner over the dining room table, casting an arc of warm light on the ceiling. “I’m gonna’ hit the sack. Three AM comes early ya’ know” I declare.  Within minutes I am in the astral channel of unconsciousness and bliss.

The old Big Ben alarm clock rings loudly, interrupting my dreams of mallards flying perilously close to my blind. It is rude, but effective. There is no drifting back to sleep after the ear-shattering ring of Big Ben. I roll over, groaning, as my feet hit the cold plywood floor. I shuffle quickly over to the woodstove and throw another log on the searing embers. It quickly catches and within minutes the cast iron stove is radiating new warmth to the cabin.

Breakfast is underway and the smell of cob-smoked bacon permeates the room. Steel cut oatmeal is bubbling away on the back burner of the old gas stove. French roast coffee is popping in the tin percolator. We fill our bellies with the best breakfast of the year and pull on our camo gear.

We’re going light this year. The water is at an all-time low and the swamps won’t allow for full-size boats. So we opt for the canoe. The walk is a short one – maybe 100 yards. The south wind has switched around to the north and the sky has cleared into a starlit pre-dawn.

In the shadow of a waning crescent moon we pull the antique cedar planked Mansfield canoe up into the weeds of the swamp. The wild rice stalks rise seven feet above us as we step into the primordial ooze.  The vapors of decaying vegetation assault our noses with their putrid fragrance. Only a duck hunter can love these smells. We set out the hand carved cork deceivers in the middle of the channel that is choked with smartweed and sago. The decoys bob gently in the breeze, spinning from side to side as if they were real birds searching for seeds. We trudge back to the canoe and drape the tall sedge grasses over the gunwhales. Then we retreat into the pucker brush and saplings of the shoreline 20 yards away. Behind us, to the east the sky begins to brighten in dark purple and greens and the moon shadows fade over the slough in front of us.

Whistling wings can be heard constantly. Finally a loud “qwaaaack!”breaks the silence of the dawn and the south end of the swamp erupts in a flurry of beating wings. The swamp comes alive and we are surrounded by the sounds of air being flushed over the powerful pinions of duck wings.

Greenwing teal buzz the decoy spread. Big winged mallards vocalize their intent with raspy guttural calls. The whining “wooo-eeek” of wood ducks whistles throughout the riparian haven. I check my watch. 6:48 am. Two more minutes until legal shooting.

Birds are dive-bombing into the decoy spread and swimming around trying to determine why all these other ducks are not talking to them. Seconds later, they realize that they have been duped by the handsome cork imposters and depart with a loud squeal of disdain. The last two minutes feel like an hour. Finally a distant shot from far to the south alerts us that it is time.

We stand up behind our wall of grass and look down both sides of the channel. I whisper excitedly, “Incoming triple at 2:00” as three birds approach the spread. I give one raspy grunt on my drake whistle and the early migrators suddenly lock their wings and drop their feet, swinging from side to side as if they were small fighter jets looking for a landing on an aircraft carrier. At the same time we whisper to one another “mallards.” The two drakes and a hen begin to backpeddle, beating their strong wings in a forward motion and slowing them down directly over the center of the decoy spread. As their feet reach out to touch the water’s surface, I call the shot.

We rise in unison and our guns bark out their deep percussive tone. Two large drake mallards lay belly up in the water. Simultaneously, we notice that on the legs of both birds there are affixed two shiny aluminum bracelets. These are trophy birds. Ones that have been caught and banded by biologists. Ones that will have a history of where they were born, where they have migrated and where they have come to meet their final destiny.

We retrieve them with alacrity and once back in the blind, we admire the extraordinary iridescent sheen on their green heads, the perfectly symmetrical herringbone pattern of their flanks and their magnificent auburn breast peppered with white stars. The wing speculum is as if an artist had painted the perfect shade of deep blue on a bar and then outlined it in white. These are spirit birds. We drink in their beauty and praise their grace. These birds will be served to our families on the coldest, darkest nights of the winter, where we will regale our guests with the story of how they came to our prayers. As we revel in their beauty, we become aware that more birds are looking over the spread.

This time it’s a swarm of greenwing teal, late on their migration. Before either of us can speak, our guns are shouldered and we are swinging quickly through the flock from left to right. Our shotguns speak and 3 birds are down at the edge of the channel. I volunteer to take the short walk over to retrieve the birds and offer to you the lookout over the set-up. As I bend over to pick up the first of the teal, a handsome full plumage drake, I hear your gun bark yet again. Then your shout “Heads up!” I look skyward and helicoptering down from the heavens is a drake wood duck. It lands with a thud at my feet. “Holy Cow! Next time just tell me to hold out my hand so I don’t have to bend over again, OK?” I laughingly shout back.

I now have 4 birds in my hand and my Benelli is cradled in my right arm as I begin to cut my way back through the sedges.

Suddenly, one foot drops into a morass of mud. Water splashes up into my face. I drop the ducks and slowly tip forward swinging my gun in front of me so that the barrel is crossways to my quickly declining torso. I land on the gun, which distributes the weight of my considerable frame and keeps me from sinking deeper. I have found the only beaver hole in the entire north end of the marsh and managed to plunge into it up to my waist. I issue an appropriately placed expletive, as you hold your stomach and fold over, laughing at my predicament. I want to pound you but begin to laugh instead. Soon we are both guffawing and gasping for our next breath. I extricate myself from the blessed hole and pull myself to my feet, groaning, struggling and laughing at the same time.

When I arrive back at the blind, you are pointing at my face, near my chin, where I have detected a strange feeling, akin to one of those small suction cups used on children’s arrows when they are learning to shoot a bow. I set the birds down, lean my gun against my bag and reach for my chin, where I feel a strange, slimy, wriggling entity clinging for its life to my jowls. I pinch it and pull. With a popping sound I pull a leech off of my face and let loose another well deserved expletive. Again, you are laughing like a hyena, so I toss the creature at you. More expletives. Then more laughter. These are the shenanigans that bond duck hunters. We are re-living our youth in the eternal marsh of our dreams.

It takes several minutes to recover our senses and gradually let loose of the grinning idiocy of our unabashed childishness. We are young again, when suddenly we are jerked back into our intention by the low grunting of more mallards. This time a black duck is following a pack of greenheads and susies. They flare hard at the two fools laughing in the blind and clamor for altitude. I swing up and over the black duck as he rises and miss with my first shot. I quickly add more lead and drop him on the follow up shot. You have, once again, showed restraint, and chosen to pass on a hen. We high-five one another and, and once again, I am off retrieving at your command “Back!” “It’s non-stop comedy out here today!” I reply.

While I am picking up the black, you begin calling furiously. I crunch up into a ball in the weeds and turn my head over my shoulder to watch as you level your gun on two decoying mallards. Both birds drop just shy of the head of the spread, perfect clean kill shots. You shout to me “As long as you’re out there, would you mind?” and give me an “over” hand signal. If you weren’t my friend, I’d be sure to direct you right into that beaver hole on the way out. I retrieve your ducks and climb wearily back into the blind. “I am beat!” I proclaim. “Let’s head back for some lunch and we can finish the bag later this afternoon.”

You agree and we pack up the tools of our trade in the backwards order that we will set them out later. I offer to carry the decoy bag back across the boggy surface to shore, being careful of the placement of my feet. A subtle side step goes unnoticed. I hear the splash behind me and grin. “Watch out for that hole” I say calmly, turning around and offering a hand up. A final expletive is ushered from my friend’s lips. Such is the life of duck hunters, ever the pranksters, ever the child who refuses to grow up, ever the bon vivant.