Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
This One Time…
The howling November wind screamed in from the frigid, ice-choked river, blasting against the sides of my friend Jon’s rickety old van, rocking the vehicle back and forth. Jon and I hunched down, pulling our sleeping bags over our heads; the temperature was dropping precipitously. Our breath plumed out in the light of the Coleman lantern; Jon’s tiny catalytic heater sputtered weakly, lending almost no heat to the freezing interior. The remnants of a large saucepan of pork and beans bubbled softly on the propane stove; the beans were a last-ditch effort to bring some warmth to our frozen bodies.
“Man” Jon observed, “We really put ourselves through all this just for a few dang ducks?”
“You tell me.” I replied. “We didn’t see any ducks today.”
“That’s for sure. Whose idea was this anyway?”
It had in fact been Jon’s idea.
“Well, maybe we’ll get into the birds tomorrow,” I offered. “This storm should bring a fresh bunch down from Minnesota.”
“This storm will probably bring polar bears down from Canada, too,” Jon muttered. “We gonna hang around and wait for them?”
“Quit griping and pass the beans.”
Whose Idea Was This, Anyway?
The weekend had started with promise. We had been planning the Great Upper Mississippi Duck Hunting Trip for weeks. Several Saturdays were spent touching up Jon’s tiny string of decoys, replacing old anchor lines with new, repainting Jon’s tiny johnboat, sorting and packing camping and hunting gear. When the great day finally came, the excitement had built to a crescendo; we were primed and ready for a legendary duck-shooting weekend. Jon and I packed his ancient, arthritic Dodge van on Thursday night, rode to school together Friday morning, and on that glorious, sunny, warm Friday afternoon, left school and drove straight to the Waukon Junction entrance to the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge.
When we arrived at the boat ramp parking area where we intended to camp, the sun was already low in the sky, but the air was warm. We kindled a large campfire and sat in our T-shirts, lazily toasting hot dogs on green willow sticks.
Jon leaned back in his lawn chair, yawned pleasurably, and looked up at the sky. “Hope we get a few clouds tomorrow. Don’t want to hunt on no blue-bird day.” Jon’s observation was destined to fall into the ‘be careful what you wish for’ category, but now all was well with the world.
We stayed up until a little past ten o’clock, drinking bottles of pop, toasting hot dogs, passing a bag of potato chips back and forth. The johnboat rocked slowly where it lay against the bank, secured with rope to a large tree; the decoys were already loaded; our shooting vests shell loops were filled with newly purchased steel shot shells. We were ready to go forth and seek web-footed fowl. Then, with the stars winking companionably overhead, we decided to toss our sleeping bags out on the grass and sleep next to our dying fire; the last thing I remember of that evening was the sight or the glowing bed of coals, and the cooling air of a remarkable early November Indian Summer evening.
The Next Day
The air had cooled quite a bit more by morning. When my little battery alarm clock buzzed at four o’clock, I awoke pulled down inside my old sleeping bag; when I opened the bag a little, a blast of ice-cold air hit my nose. I opened up a little farther, trying to get a look out over the Mississippi; the stars were gone, and only darkness greeted my searching eyes. I leaned over and smacked Jon’s sleeping form.
“Wake up!” I prodded. “You got your wish, it clouded over!”
Jon muttered something under his breath, rolled over, struck a match and lit his Coleman lantern. The sputtering light glimmered off the crystalline sheen of a hard frost all around us, on the grass, on the fallen leaves, on our sleeping bags. We hopped about in the pre-dawn blackness, frantically pulling on every scrap of clothing we’d brought, our invective accompanied by the hissing of the propane lantern. I attempted to rekindle the fire without success; apparently the wood was too cold to burn and matches only sputtered fitfully for seconds before dying out. Breakfast consisted of toaster pastries, frozen to the consistency of marble.
“Well,” Jon finally offered, “let’s get the boat loaded and shove off, OK?” Already in the distance we could hear the drone of outboard motors; competition for good spots was fierce.
“Yeah, I suppose so! Hope it warms up some.” I replied, using a piece of frozen pastry to scrape some mud off my boot.
It was the work of moments to load guns, ammo, decoys and lunch, and then we pushed off into the black icy water. Jon grabbed the pull-cord for the motor and yanked.
With the weak beam of a flashlight older than he, Jon checked the spark plug wire and the gas level. All fine. With a frown, he yanked the cord again. And again. And again.
We looked at each other with dread. The wind was slowly pushing us back towards the bank, the johnboat rotating slowly in the sluggish backwater current.
“Guess we’ll have to row for it, huh?” I ventured.
We took turns on the oars. The exertion soon had us shedding outer garments, sweating even as we squinted into the icy wind. The eastern horizon was already starting to brighten by the time we got to a decent spot, a U-shaped inlet on a small island. The bank was hidden by a tall stand of cattails, forming a natural blind.
I cast a nervous eye at the slowly brightening sky as we set out Jon’s ten decoys. As far as you could see, the sky was an angry mass of low, scudding gray snow clouds. The river water was icy, black, and choppy with the freshening wind. A few snowflakes began to drift down as we finished and set up our folding stools behind an improvised screen of cattails. Still, things seemed brighter once we were set up, ready and comfortable, guns, food and hot drinks at hand.
“Well, this ain’t so bad, is it?” Jon wanted to know.
“Hey, this’ll be great!” I was mostly speaking for my own benefit, sort of a whistling in the dark comment. “At least it isn’t a blue-bird day, huh?” We both chuckled. It was time to get into some birds.
Trouble was that the ducks weren’t cooperating.
Our first sighting of waterfowl was a coot, who swam through our paltry decoy layout and picked in a desultory fashion at some waterweed, mildly insulted a large drake mallard decoy, and puttered away.
Another hour later, the next sign of life came in the form of a muskrat, nosing along through the cattails. He gazed at us myopically for a moment, panicked and dove with a loud splash.
“Should have bought some muskrat traps,” Jon groused, “might have got some more action that way.”
Just as things were starting to get boring, the wind picked up, and a hard, gritty snow began to pelt us. We had still – still – seen no ducks; in fact, there had been no shots fired that we could hear, despite the hundreds of waterfowlers camouflaged in this stretch of backwater. With uncommon fortitude, we hunkered down to tough it out.
At eleven o’clock, we heard a shot in the distance. Then, another, slightly closer; more followed, a series of shots working their way down the river towards us. Jon looked at me, wincing comically under the weight of the ice forming on his eyebrows.
“Birds comin’ in!”
No birds came in. Whatever the other hunters were shooting at didn’t make it as far as our stand.
By noon, our thermos jugs of hot chocolate were drained. Jon had demonstrated uncommon foresight in placing his propane stove in the boat; together we discovered the logistical difficulties in warming up a ham-and-cheese sandwich over the open flame of a propane burner, using no tools but a mittened hand. We finally gave up and ate the sandwiches cold. Jon chipped a front tooth on a bit of frozen ham.
Around one, the wind picked up. The cattails behind which we were trying to hide bent flat against the roiled surface of the water. Jon’s decoys pulled tight against the anchor lines. Since the spread no longer looked too realistic, with all the blocks facing upwind with military precision, we rowed out and gathered the ten fake fowl in.
“M-m-m-maybe we’ll still get some p-p-p-pass shooting.” Jon hoped.
“I s-s-s-s-ure hope so,” I shivered in reply. “Hate t-t-t-o think we d-d-did all this f-f-for nothing.”
Two o’clock came and went, and all the ducks were apparently still in Minnesota. The temperature, on the other hand, was something right off Hudson Bay, or perhaps points north of that. A skim of ice now clung to the sides of Jon’s johnboat. A similar skin of ice now clung to my face. Jon had chipped two more teeth due to violent chattering.
Three o’clock rolled around. Jon’s teeth had finally stopped chattering, because they were frozen together. Both of us hunched in the boat, our shivering forms covered with snow. Life had assumed the proportions of a Norse saga, with the two heroic figures battling wind, snow, ice, and the elements in an epic duel. The only thing missing was the end-goal of our quest, the web-footed fowl we sought, our Golden Fleece, our El Dorado, our Holy Grail. The wind now drove the snow sideways, blasting it under our parka hoods, ripping away at our tender, frozen skin.
Four o’clock. The light was fading from the birdless sky.
“We may as well start back,” I offered.
Jon growled in reply, “I reckon we might. Maybe rowing will warm us up.” He tossed an angry epithet at the failed outboard motor, which I won’t repeat here.
Amazing as it may seem, we had a spot of bad luck rowing back to the boat ramp. If you look at a map of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge, you’ll note that Iowa lies on the west side of the river; that afternoon, the gale-force wind was howling out of the west. Several boats with functioning outboards were tacking into wind at angles, trying to fight their way back to the ramp; even powered boats were having difficulty. Jon strained at the oars to get us out of our inlet and into open water, but the moment he faced into the wind the howling gale spun us sideways, pushing us back east.
“GET ON AN OAR!” Jon shouted over the roaring storm. I hopped onto the middle seat next to Jon; he took one oar, I the other, and we strained away until our muscles popped. Our progress was painfully slow; we’d make a few yards headway, and a gust of wind would blow us back. About halfway across the channel, fighting current and wind, we were overflown by the only bird of the day, a hen wood duck, screaming downwind at approximately Mach Two. Both of us grabbed shotguns, and blasted away at the hurtling form, with predictable results; the duck was probably traveling faster than the shot leaving our gun barrels. While we were thus engaged, the wind pushed us back a hundred yards. Groaning in frustration, we took to our oars again.
“One duck, and it got away clean.” Jon grumped.
It was past seven o’clock, and pitch dark, when we finally arrived back at the boat ramp. My face was frozen into a grim mask, my parka covered with a rime of ice, my arms felt as though I had soaked them in molten lead.
Against our better judgment, we elected to camp overnight and try again in the morning. Jon hauled the motor up into the back of his van, and an hour’s tinkering had it sputtering to life; at least we wouldn’t be rowing. We repasted on still more frozen ham sandwiches, and the aforementioned pork and beans. The van was still icy cold when we crawled into our sleeping bags, hoping to shiver ourselves warm and try to sleep. Exhaustion eventually overcame the cold.
And Then This Happened
Four AM Sunday came all too soon, announced again by the buzzing of my tiny alarm clock. I cautiously opened the top end of my sleeping bag and poked my nose out. The air was frigid, and my abused nose protested the exposure to the cold; but there was something else, something it took my sleep-befuddled mind a few moments to catch onto.
“Hey, Jon!” I smacked the side of his sleeping bag. “Hear that?”
“Whaa?” Jon muttered sleepily. “Don’ hear nothing.”
“That’s what I mean, nitwit.” I shot back. “The storm stopped.”
Jon sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Yeah. Doesn’t feel as cold, either.”
We popped open the back door of the van and looked out on a winter wonderland. A good four inches of snow had fallen, coating everything in white; large flakes continued to drift down silently in the light of the lantern. The wind had stopped, and all was dead still. The only break in the blanket of snow was the black muddy river itself, carrying a burden of ice chunks downstream.
“You want to try to take the boat out in that?” I asked.
Jon considered the churning black water, the gray chunks of ice, the still-falling snow.
“Hell, no!” he reached his decision. “We crash out a few more hours and go over to the State forest and shoot some grouse.”
“Works for me.” I pulled my sleeping bag back up over my head.
Late that afternoon, I burst in my parent’s front door, a brace of ruffed grouse in hand, and began stomping snow off my boots. The white stuff was a good foot deep by now.
“Funny looking ducks,” Dad commented.
“You should have seen the one that got away.” I assured him.
We eventually mastered the art of hunting the Mississippi, but never again did we go out that late in the season. Although it might be a stretch to say that we learned something as proved when, a week later, the mercury dropped to twenty below and stayed there or lower for three days. School was cancelled not for snow, but because all the school buses were hors de combat from the Arctic cold. At seven o’clock the first morning, with the temperature at twenty-eight below, the phone rang; it was Jon on the other end.
“No school!” he exulted. “Let’s go shoot some pheasants!”
“I’m in!” More than ready to make the most of our free day, I raced for my parka and shotgun.
It was half-past spring before we thawed out all the way.