A cold north wind blows through the curtains of the bedroom. I pull the duvet quilt up a little tighter around my shoulders and wiggle back into my warm cocoon. Visions of red-legged mallards with their wings cupped and their feet dangling down fly through my dreams. As they begin their final descent into the decoys, my hunting partner John and I both switch off the safety mechanism on our shotguns. One low mallard whistle on the call, and they commit to the spread.
Just as we are rising out of the cattail-camouflaged duck blind a rude, raucous ringing penetrates the quiet. I roll over on my side and slam my half-open fist on top of the alarm clock. Five hours of sleep is not enough. I rise out of bed and dress in my fleece wader pants and my camo chamois shirt with the Ducks Unlimited logo. I turn on my headlamp with the red bulb so as not to awaken my beloved bride and slip quietly down the wooden steps to the kitchen, where the smell of French roast coffee caresses my nostrils. I breathe in deeply and pour the wonderful brew into the thermos. Moments later the truck roars to life and I depart the gravel driveway.
I arrive at the access—I am always a half hour earlier than the appointed hour because I enjoy being the first boat in the water. My partner John arrives, and after deploying our sneakboats and firing up the engines we depart from the dock. The smell of outboard exhaust is strangely welcoming. It seems that when we truly love an activity, we learn that otherwise unpleasant smells become a part of the experience and thus we begin to enjoy them. Of course, I love the non-petroleum smell of the lake and the quiet swishing of the canoe paddle as well, but it seems I’ve come to love it all.
The three-quarter waning moon shines brightly as we motor our way across to the far shore where the mouth of the stream meets the broad bay. We navigate through the channels, weaving around half-submerged logs and trying to avoid the thick, dying lily pads and weeds.
Arriving at the blind, we slog through the foot-and-a-half deep mud, lugging our backpacks, guns, ammo and thermoses to the thickly covered 4-foot by 8-foot blind. It’s somewhat elaborate for a duck blind. It has a back rest on the bench seat and a shell and donut rack that accommodates three guns. We set the decoys out in front of the blind in about 10 inches of water. Wood duck decoys at the head of the spread, greenwing teal in the middle and mallards and black ducks in the rear. The spinning wing decoy and the feeder with the motorized wobbling motion go in the landing zone.
Back at the blind we huddle through the webbed door and take our seats on the bench. We pour our coffee in the dark and listen. We can hear whistling wings overhead in the starry sky. An occasional distant “quack!” echoes through the swamp. The smell of decaying water plants mixes with the musty smell of swamp gasses escaping from the mud. Remember that when you truly love something, all these strange and normally unpleasant smells are now a part of the activity that you love.
As we drain the remaining coffee from our mugs, the eastern sky ever so slightly begins to change to a dark purple with sage green highlights on the horizon. The pace of bird activity begins to pick up. The sound of tearing silk and the dark shadows of fast flying objects race across the barely discernable decoy spread. “Teal!” I whisper.
As the light continues to grow into a burnt orange above the sage green horizon, we are suddenly caught flat footed. A flock of wood ducks drop into the spread with wild abandon. “Wooo-Eeeek!” they scream. Splashing ensues. “In the decoys,” John whispers. “Got ‘em,” I reply under my breath. “Two more minutes to legal shooting,” I say.
What seems like mere seconds later, the ringtone on my phone quacks loudly, signifying it is now legal shooting—exactly one-half hour before sunrise. “Ready?’ I ask. “Ready!” John replies. We stand in unison, and the birds begin to flush upward into the pastel sky, quacking and squeaking all the way. Our guns echo through the swamp.
As we stand in our makeshift blind, we both recognize that this quest has been going on for hundreds of years and we are but a speck in time. But with each passing minute we are fully present for the miracle of our sacred connection to the water, the land and the wonder of migration.
Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter.org, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.