Wings

I don’t yet number myself among the 40,000 or so Minnesota duck hunters who have abandoned the sport. But it’s increasingly obvious that duck hunting is abandoning those of us who still have the patience to hunker down in a frozen slough for hour after hour, waiting for a moment that never comes. More often than not now–on gloriously beautiful fall days as well as on those gray, stormy ones duck hunters love–the skies are empty and the whistle of wings overhead is a memory.

To be sure, on the best day any duck hunter ever had the act of pulling the trigger and taking a bird from the air was a miniscule part of the whole experience. Duck hunting is almost entirely about watching and waiting…a Zen-like activity that is only intermittently interrupted for a few seconds of actual shooting. The minutes and hours pass by and you talk to your hunting companions or to your dog or to yourself, always hoping that in the next instant you’ll be brought into action. These are the spaces that make up a duck hunter’s lot, and in recent years they’ve grown longer and longer as fewer ducks come this way.

Everyone says the flyway has moved west…or at least the ducks have moved to one further in that direction. Maybe so. Things change. And if that means I’ll soon change too, that I’ll trade days on the water for days in the field going after other birds in other places, well, I’ll miss the ducks.  But mostly I’ll miss the waiting and watching. Duck hunters see great things.

I remember one morning years ago, as my brother-in-law and I were pushing a duck boat through a vast stand of wild rice far ahead of the dawn, when a huge meteor blazed across the sky, an almost blinding streak of green-and-yellow fire so intense and so seemingly close that I half expected to hear a hiss as it fell into the lake we were on.

And I remember another morning on that same lake when we shoved off at 3 a.m. to make sure we got to our favorite hunting place ahead of some local boys who’d figured it out too. The black night was warm and close and clear. Overhead the Milky Way was bright enough to cast your shadow on the ground and the aurora borealis was shooting undulating ribbons of purple and green and red across the sky from horizon to horizon. Away from the landing we opened up the motor and slid between a series of small islands that seemed to float darkly on the water. It was dead calm and when I looked down at the perfect mirror that was the surface of the lake it reflected the whole universe above. I looked down and saw stars and the northern lights streaming by below me, and when I looked up toward the edge of the world I couldn’t tell where the earth stopped and the sky began. It was like flying through space.

When we got to where we were going to hunt as the sun came up we cut the motor well offshore and rowed silently toward the sounds of ducks dabbling and quacking among the rushes. We drifted there for a long time, with duck music heralding the imminent arrival of daybreak. I can’t remember if we got anything that day or not.