On the last day of 2012, I rolled out of bed at 5 am and began to get ready. Long johns, thermal undershirt, military surplus fleece pants, another thermal undershirt, two pairs of socks, a fleece pullover, and finally my hunting jacket, ski cap, balaclava, and gloves. This may sound like an abundance of clothing, suitable, perhaps, for an expedition to the North Pole. As it turned out, I would be sadly under dressed for the morning’s pursuit: duck hunting in the North Atlantic.
My auto-programmed coffee maker had failed to produce the expected results, so I waited with impatience until the pot was full and I could fill my travel mug. Then I got into my car and wound my way along the icy road to Lunenburg, which is about ten minutes away on a good day, closer to twenty when you have to take it slow. My hunting buddy, K., was ready for me. I put my insulated waders on over all my other gear. Then we hopped into his truck and headed out to our hunting spot.
I’m not going to tell you where it is, of course. Let’s just say “somewhere in Nova Scotia.” It’s not that it’s the best hunting spot in the world. But it is the only one we have regular access to, and over the last several years it’s produced a slightly unreliable but still satisfying amount of ducks. It’s in the most curious farmer’s field I’ve ever seenÃ¢â‚¬â€a kind of hilltop with no bottom to it, a grassy protuberance into an isolated harbor. At high tide, it’s cut off from the rest of the farmer’s land. Surrounded by water, it’s a great place to see birds of all sorts: not just ducks, but migrating Canada geese, eagles, kingfishers, red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, and many other varieties I can’t name.
We arrived in darkness, a full moon over our shoulders, and began to load onto our backs the gear we would need: two bags of decoys, a retrieving pole, our knapsacks, our guns, and a new toy called a Lucky Duck, which is a kind of electric decoy-on-a-stick that flaps its wings as if it’s coming in for a perpetual landing. To say it was cold would be to say Denali is tall, or India is big. It was -7 Celsius (19 F) according to the thermometer by my house, which meant the true temperature was closer to -10. That in itself is nothing. It was the wind, which came roaring out of the northeast at about twenty or twenty-five miles an hour, that really convinced us winter had arrived. A wind chill like that makes you stop and think about what you’re doing. Of course, we weren’t going to give up because of a little breeze. It was the first chance we’d had to get out this season, and since we’re both busy guys with young children, we knew it might well be the last.
So, we hauled our stuff several hundred yards to the blind and began to set out the decoys. This is a deceptively simple task that mostly involves tossing them in the water; each decoy is attached by a string to a lead weight, and they look very duck-like indeed, to the point where I have actually come close to shooting at them once or twice in the heat of the moment. But it’s more complicated than that. Decoys need to be arranged in the same way actual ducks would arrange themselves, which on a morning like this means huddled close together, near the shore, out of the wind. It takes a bit of skill, as well as some ability to think like a duck. Naturally you’re wading thigh-deep in frigid water as you do this, and the water is usually ripping along in one direction or another, depending on the tide. This morning the tide was coming in. I noticed ice forming around my legs. When salt water begins to freeze, you know it’s cold.
My favorite decoy, by the way, is of a duck’s ass sticking up in the air, as if he’s busily gnoshing on some underwater delicacy. It looks something like this:
Once we were set up in our blind, we sat and waited. Two black ducks decoyed in almost immediately, but they stayed well out of range, across the cut. We couldn’t understand why they didn’t come closer, since ordinarily they would have landed right in front of us. Oh, well. Hunting is filled with uncertainty–that’s why they call it hunting and not shooting.
Soon more ducks began to come, all right, but they zipped past us and landed in the harbor on the other side of our little hill, half a mile away. A flock of geese went by high overhead, but they ignored K’s skilled honking on his goose call, as well as the few goose decoys that floated alongside our ducky ones.
More ducks. More geese. All of them ignored us. K’s duck call, on which he is a virtuoso, began to freeze, and instead of producing feeding and greeting calls he began to sound like the trumpeter of Krakow after he took the fatal arrow. Finally, two brave little mallards landed just within range, right on the shoreline, where they proceeded to have a bath and a snack. We got off a shot at them, but they merely sneered in disdain and took off into the wind, never to be seen again.
Finally the effects of the copious amounts of coffee I’d drunk began to be felt, and I got up to relieve myself outside the blind. There, I noticed something that would explain why the duck world seemed to have been informed well in advance of our arrival. Some sort of tarp-and-wood construction had washed ashore about forty yards away from us, no doubt a victim of the latest storm. The main tarp was a bright blue, and trimmed with red. Red is a color ducks particularly hate, for some reason. The tarp flapped in the wind, creating a noise we hadn’t been able to hear, but which had been perfectly audible to the ducks. I might as well have been standing on the beach holding up a sign that said “WE SHOOT DUCKS HERE!” We hadn’t noticed this mess when we set up because it was still dark.
I got out my knife and began to cut the tarps away, a procedure that took about half an hour. By then the sun was well up and the sky had cleared, though the wind remained steady. The odd solitary duck flew past us, pursuing some urgent personal mission. It was clear there would be few more chances that morning. We could have waited for low tide, since that would have brought them out to feed, but the fact was I could no longer feel my hands or my feet, and the morning had taken on that uncomfortable edge that comes with knowing that despite your best efforts, you are sadly under-geared.
It was time to go home.
It takes a good forty-five minutes to pack up the decoys again. During that time, naturally, whole flights of ducks passed by, checking us out and continuing on to greener pastures. I was too cold to complain much. My coffee had long frozen in its travel mug, and I longed to be in my rocking chair in front of my wood stove, a steaming mug in one hand and a book in the other. And soon enough, that’s where I was.
A failed hunt is a disappointment, but there were other triumphs that morning. Foremost among them was the fact that I hadn’t frozen to death. There was also a kind of satisfaction in knowing that while everyone else was snug in their beds, K. and I were out braving the elements and enjoying the sights that Nova Scotia has to offer on an early winter morning. I will never get tired of watching eagles cruise through the air under a full moon, nor of the sight and sound of fifty geese headed for warmer climes at a thousand or so feet, their beautiful, atonal music drifting down to us. And, as always, there was something to be learned from every mistake. This time, the lesson was clear: make sure there aren’t any flapping blue-and-red tarps anywhere near your blind.