I hope it's alright for me to put this story on the Duck Chat. I wrote it for my brothers in northern California. Forgive me if I'm hogging space on the chat.
Duck Hunt on a Snowy Morning
We met in a super market parking lot at the south end of Anchorage, Alaska. We had talked on the Internet on a Duck Hunting Chat and met once before at the yearly Sportsman’s show in Anchorage. There Brett had carried his two year old son in a pack on his back. Reminded me of carrying my own son Brett the same way on hikes into the countryside. This Brett was about 30 with slightly thinning hair, in good shape, and seemed like a truly nice guy.
He arrived in his 350 Ford crew cab pick up and parked opposite me in the empty parking lanes at 6:00 in the morning. He asked if I would rather follow him or ride with him. He said he had brought towels for my dog, Tula, to dry off with. Although I covet my independence I opted to ride in his truck. I wanted to be able to converse with him, to learn of the hunting opportunities that he was familiar with in his area. Brett was willing to share them with me.
We drove south for an hour with pleasant conversation. I liked him. He had chosen to leave his veteran yellow lab Loki at home so as to give Tula the chance for more hunting experience. He seemed like a gentleman. We talked about the problem I was having with Tula retrieving the birds. Brett assured me that this was a maturity thing, and not to worry about it. She just needed more time out hunting.
After a turn off the main highway we took a small 4 wheel drive trail to the left of the road and with locked hubs groaned and slipped our way through a narrow snow laden trail over hung with alders that brushed the sides and top of the truck, arriving after a short bumpy ride to an opening where a smooth wide creek shown in the starlight in front of us. We stopped the truck and geared up for the push to the pond we would be hunting.
The first ford of the creek was only knee deep water on slippery rocks. I went carefully through so as not to fall and get wet. Then through 50 yards of alders and the next ford in the dark, which was waist deep and very slippery rocks. The wading staff was a God Send to me. It helped me to make it through the pitfalls of the fast current and up the deep snowy banks and back into and through the alders.
The chance that on this late day in the season there would be a few mallards to decoy in urged us onward. It was pitch dark, about an hour before dawn. The two of us slogged along with the light of our headlamps barely penetrating the thick alders that grew three or four feet above our heads. The 6 to 8 inch deep snow slowed our steps, and the alders greeted us by dumping their load of snow down our necks as we passed beneath them. Their stiff smooth branches grabbed at our packs testing our balance and stripping off our hats as we weaved and ducked through them.
My 60 pound pack of decoys and other stuff was growing heavier by each step. I would have stopped for a breather, but Brett, his steps about ¼ stride longer than every one of mine was getting well ahead of me so I pushed on. When would we get there? I, more than twice his age, was starting to sweat. It was 20 degrees with 6 to 8 inches of snow on the ground; I knew it was not good to sweat. I struggled as I pushed along, to un-zip my jacket and fleece hooded sweatshirt to let some cool air on to my chest to cool down. My hiking staff stabbed through the snow to the frozen earth with each step. I found myself leaning harder on it than when we had started out. It was so damn dark! The small blue glow of my LED headlamp shown on Brett’s footsteps in the snow ahead of me. I could not keep up with the pace of my younger companion, but I was grateful for the sign in the snow that he left for me to follow.
The pond was said to be only a half mile walk from where we parked his truck. We had driven a couple miles up a small road off the main highway into a canyon formed by high mountains on each side. This was one of the canyons that the waterfowl followed when they left this cold north country to fly to the warmer marshlands and rice fields to the south.
It seemed to me that the ½ mile walk was long since behind us and we still pushed on. My 64 year old legs screamed to me at the hips and knees. My walking staff pushed deeper into each stride. We strove forward up a snowy hill above the flooded creek, then through the shoulder deep moose groused willows, thick with each years pruning, and under and through the thick leafless alder patches with their stiff grabbing branches.
We lumbered on in our head lamp light. My young black Labrador Tula rejoiced in the journey. She would run in front of Brett to show the way, then come running back to me, twist in the snow and race back to lead the way for Brett, with side journeys that the smell trail provided for her.
I came prepared for only a half mile walk, so I included several heavy luxuries in my decoy pack; a machete to hack down the necessary material to build a blind, the Robo duck with it’s heavy battery, my old time metal lunch pail with two peanut and butter sandwiches, a bag of nuts and dried cranberry raisins, and a full six cup thermos of coffee. I began to labor with each step, but pushed onward.
We had just about gone farther than I was prepared to go when we came upon a small pond formed by the braided creek. The dawning light showed it to be a three acre pond with a 100’ diameter island the middle. Brett stopped us and pointed out the dark silhouettes of several ducks just ahead of us on the pond. “Told you we’d see some ducks!” he whispered excitedly. Slogging out to the island the three of us went with anticipation. Brett said that the pond was only about knee deep, but that half of that depth was muddy muck that you would have to push through. It looked beautiful in the early light.
Here we were in a beautiful deep valley about four or five miles long between steep mountains that towered 2000 feet above us, covered with timber about a third of the way up, then tundra, and finally bare snow covered rock on top. Glaciers hung in the deep crevices and valleys on their slopes. Up the valley in front was more alder, willow and marshy creek bottom, and behind us, the same. It was knock down gorgeous country! Brett tempered my joy of the surroundings with the information that a huge Grizzly bear patrolled this area and that we should be on the watch for him at all times.
Dawn was coming. We only had about 15 minutes to get the decoys set up and blinds made before shooting time. Wanting to be ready, we hurried the process along. I suggested to Brett that we set up the decoys in a rough “V” or “J” pattern on the downwind side of the island. We both hurried to get the dozen or so decoys set up this way. I brought along a pair of teal dekes as a “confidence” set and put them on the up wind side and far to the left of the main flock of mallards, then set up the Robo Duck with its spinning wings right in front of us.
We were able to hide in the moose groused willows that grew to the ponds edge and had two fine chairs with arms that someone else had left on the island. It was an excellent and comfortable set up. I had brought a Tyvec suit, which is a white fibrous paper suit that is used for hazardous materials removal, and had painted on it the shape of alder/willow branches with black and brown paint. I was invisible in the suit this day. It was perfect!
Right at shooting time a flock of about tem mallards came straight in to us. I managed to drop one, and Brett another, Tula retrieved both like a professional, except that she would not bring the birds to hand, but would drop them on the shore line when she arrived. I could live with that for now. At least she was retrieving them!
The next flight of birds blasted in to the dekes and surprised us both. I stood up and dropped one, and Brett dropped another. Tula retrieved the one I dropped in the pond. All was good. An immature bald eagle swooped down threatening to take the duck that Brett had dropped on a snow covered sandbar about 40 yards from the blind, so he hurriedly slogged out across the pond to beat the eagle to the prize. The eagle chittered and chattered about this and was obviously upset at the loss of such a delicious breakfast, but soon went on to hunting elsewhere for its repast.
Fifteen minutes later another group of six or so birds came in and I dropped two, a double, which really makes my day! Brett couldn’t shoot because of shooting across me so he didn’t get a chance at this group. There’s something about getting a double that fills me, not so much with pride, but with a joyful sense of completion, of having become an accomplished shooter. The smile on my face was also etched in my heart and my memories!
As our toes were slowly freezing in our wading boots, the light grew and several flocks of swans hooted and honked their way overhead and up the valley toward the southern warmth. The mountains were exceedingly beautiful and as the sun rose, their tops were bathed in pink alpine glow, and the cracks in the hanging glaciers shown with an inviting aqua blue light.
Late morning and the sun finally peeked above the rugged mountains to the east shining a silvery sheen on the flat pond and the decoys. It was time to pick them up and head back. A great morning of shooing! I had four fat mallards, three drakes and a hen, and Brett had a beautiful extra big drake and a fine hen. These ducks were fat from foraging on the abundant resource of our rich Alaska wetlands and were a heavy but joyful burden to pack out. Brett said that if we stayed on there was a chance of singles and or doubles trickling in from time to time, but for me a three hour drive ahead, then the proper processing of the birds urged me to choose to pick’em up and truck.
I’ll tell you that walk back to the truck with the addition to the pack of the four fat partially frozen mallards kicked my butt! I’m sure it was more than a half mile! It was lots easier to walk in the day light, but my hips and knees still complained just the same. Weaving through the alder patches in 6 to 8 inches of snow was tough going. I was a sweaty mess when we reached the truck. No sign of the big bear!
Brett, seeing that I took quite a bit longer to get there than he, asked if I would like I do it again next season? Absolutely Yes! I said.