PLACER RIVER WETLANDS – Strange are the passions that survive the passing of the years.
The weather here on Sunday was Alaska at her best worst, a 33-degree, north wind sometimes gusting strong enough to blow snow horizontal across marshes overflowing after a long string of heavy rains and some of the highest tides of the year.
And we were loving every minute of it.
The unusual weather that pushed the first frost of the year in Anchorage back by more than a week was at last coming to an end. The National Weather Service was forecasting two to six inches of snow by Monday and temperatures into the 20s by Monday night.
The window between fall and winter was closing fast, but it was still open here Sunday.
Lars was seldom less than Labrador-retriever belly deep in water and often as not he was swimming. Even when we detoured onto the moose trails along the brush line to find easier walking around places where we never find ducks, the water was ankle to calf deep.
When the day started off with nothing and then nothing more, I almost gave it up and went home, but Lars kept acting like he’d found scent of birds in places. So we pressed on. I think he was faking just to prolong his time in the marsh, though I could never prove it.
We beat the flooded grass for an hour before we even saw a duck. It was way beyond shotgun range on a mound of grass hundreds of yards out in the middle of lake. As soon as it saw us, it took off and winged away in the opposition direction.
As we worked around the lake, a couple small flocks of wigeon took to the air hundreds of yards out of range, circled away from us and quickly disappeared into the snowstorm. We waited for a few minutes to see if they would come back. They didn’t.
After that, it just got worse. A long march to a finger of water sure to hold ducks in this sort of blow ended at a finger of water devoid of ducks. Another long, taxing march downwind to a place we could get around a riverside lake followed.
At the bank of the lake, Lars lit up and followed his nose enthusiastically for a couple of minutes before deciding that whatever had been there once wasn’t hiding in the grass anywhere anymore. We waded through the flooded grass at the end of the lake with my fingers turning numb inside waterproof-breathable gloves, an article of clothing I prefer not to wear.
As we started down along the lake, I admit thinking more about getting back to the truck and warming up than anything else. And then I heard a mallard quake. The quake was so loud and obvious that if the weather hadn’t been so totally rotten, and if it hadn’t been clear we were the only humans in the marsh, I’d have thought the sound was some other hunter in a blind just messing with us.
I’ll even admit to scanning the brush line for a blind, though we were in a place where no one had ever built a blind. So we worked toward the sound. A hen mallard flushed before Lars smelled her.
I dropped her on the second shot. It was more luck than skill with a near numb trigger finger not working so well. She landed in the middle of a small pond easy for Lars to spot, and he was on his way there almost before he was told to “get.”
What he brought back was a fat, well-fed duck. The day was suddenly looking up. One mallard wasn’t much, but it made the drive east from Anchorage in a snowstorm and the workout that followed worth it.
The duck went in the backpack, and we started down the lake again with the seemingly more intelligent of our duo confident that the commotion of the shooting and the commands shouted to Lars would have cleared out any ducks for hundreds of yards around.
Lars quickly put an end to that idea. He started vibrating, made a couple of circles and jumped into a big clump of grass out of which popped a beautiful, green-headed mallard drake. We got that one, too.
We might have had two more that followed it out of the grass, but the 25-year-old, SKB semi-automatic hadn’t been cleaned since the last hunt and one or two before, and the action was sticky enough that the bolt didn’t close on the second round. I slammed it forward with my hand, but by then the ducks were out of range.
Old hunters with old gear ought to know that everything requires more care with age. The thought of being effectively stuck with a single-shot shotgun for the rest of the day did, however, bring back memories of an old Iver Johnson, exposed-hammer, break-action, single shot, 12 gauge.
The exposed hammer was effectively the gun’s safety. As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to cock it until birds were flushed. I still have dreams of my father saying, “OK, why don’t you take this one,” and my tromping into the brush behind our old Brittany spaniel Freckles on point to flush a fat Minnesota pheasant.
The bird broke from cover with that long, beautiful tail trailing out behind to reveal it as a legal rooster, and that hammer clicked back and the gun started up, and “boom!” the pheasant went down in a cloud of feathers.
And my father said, as he would say many times in our years hunting together, “We couldn’t wait forever. He was getting out of range.”
We? Like Freckles cared that much?
I did eventually learn to shoot fast. It’s stayed with me ever since.
I didn’t give a thought to what to do when Lars put up the next mallard. The motions were as automatic as running your hands through your hair or scratching an itch. I couldn’t even tell you what the sight picture looked like when I pulled the trigger.
I don’t remember seeing the bead on the end of the shotgun barrel or estimating the lead on the departing duck. It was that automatic.
And “boom!” that mallard was going down just like the way the old man used to do it.
We got a couple more ducks, fat mallards all, before we left the grass along the lake and started the long slog back to the truck. I was tired and my fingers were cold, and Lars, who’d spent hours in near freezing water, was running out of gas. He had trouble porpoising through the thick flooded grass that blocked the route to the truck.
But he was happy. So was I.
I could do this every day.
As a kid through the teenage years and early adulthood into my thirties, I felt that way about fishing, but somewhere along the line the passion died. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I caught so many fish, but then a lot of other passions – fly tying, rod building, marathon running, cabinetry and beer brewing to name a few – came and went and didn’t involve catching anything.
Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy angling now and then and still dipnet to fill the freezer because we love to dine on well-cared-for salmon. But sport fishing is no longer a passion nor big-game hunting, which I also still pursue but as a practical matter.
It’s about putting meat in the freezer. The hunt isn’t about passion; it’s about what needs to be done to get from A to B. That probably sounds cold, but the world, at least the natural world, is cold.
Predators kill and eat prey. That’s what they do. That’s what the great plan – whatever the hell the great plan – shaped them to do. These are their roles. I slide pretty easily into that role when the time comes.
But this, this time in the marsh, this goes way beyond that.
On a practical level, this doesn’t even make sense. So much energy expended for so comparatively little food? This a grizzly bear digging up an entire mountain to get one stinking ground squirrel.
We really do love to eat duck, too. But even by that standard, the way Lars and I hunt waterfowl is like paying $1,000 for a $100 bottle of wine. It would be much more efficient to sit and wait over decoys and kill birds that way, but sitting bores me and I’m confident Lars feels the same.
And, in the end, the thing about passions is that you can’t really explain them. They are what they are, and when they happen to be healthy all you can do is be thankful.
As this is written, we’re both beat. A day in that flooded grass is at least the equivalent of two days in the gym for me, and more like three or four in the doggie gym for Lars. And that’s a good thing. As good a justification as anyone can get for an inexplicable passion.
Now, it’s time to go pluck ducks.