The Christmas duck

Many years ago, when I was struggling to maintain financial stability, I would nurture my spirit as often as I could by spending time outdoors doing things that made me feel like I belonged in this universe. I would fish, hunt, forage, or just sit in the winter woods and watch the snow fall around me. Solitude and quiet were my medicine.

One day as I sat under an old oak in reverie of the gentle snow coming down through the surrounding pines, I was wrestling with some sadness that I couldn’t afford a nice Christmas present for my bride. It had been a tough year and we were relying on our love and faith to pull us through. I asked the Great Spirit for help. The answer that I got was a small voice in my head that I should pursue what I love and that everything would work out.

Bradley’s Labrador retriever, Buck. Photo by Bradley Carleton.
Bradley’s Labrador retriever, Buck. Photo by Bradley Carleton.

I got up and walked out of the woods as the snow began piling up. The light fluffy, happy kind of snow. The kind of snow that, as a child, made me feel joy and peace. I walked slowly home through the powdery white covering, kicking the drifts, and watching them explode with all the glee I felt in my childhood. Poof! Poof! I laughed as I walked. My spirit was rebounding, and I took a deep breath. Arriving at the house, I grabbed the keys to my old pickup with the rusted side panels and shoved it in 4-wheel drive. I plowed out of the driveway and began pushing through the snow beginning to accumulate on the road. “Where to?” I thought. Let’s drive down to the beach and see if any ice is forming for ice fishing season.

I took the long way, wandering down Spear Street toward Lewis Creek, around the bend and up the hill toward North Ferrisburgh. Crossing Route 7 at Hollow Road, I turned into the Mobil Short Stop to wish my dear friend Dorrie “Happy Holidays.” Somehow, every time I stopped in here, Dorrie would cheer me up. When I brought a cup of French roast coffee to the counter she said, “This one’s on me.” Wow! Perhaps, the purpose of the journey today was about realizing that, in general, people are kind. Still, what to do about the Christmas present for my wife?

I pulled out of the station and headed west to Greenbush Road, then North through the West Village. I turned left at Ferry Road and headed toward the lake—a place that always brings peace and, if I’m listening with my heart, answers to my most existential questions. Impulsively, I turned right on Lake Road and headed toward the beach. As I crossed the covered bridge, I saw a lone drake mallard flapping his wings on the shore as he faced the North wind, slapping the shoreline with foot-high waves. I knew from the past that the piece of property south of the beach was not posted or restricted to hunting and was more than the required 500 feet of any occupied property. I parked my truck and watched him for a bit. He appeared to be at peace with his solitude. I considered just watching him, but after a few minutes, he began letting out a series of loud quacks and it seemed as if he was calling to me. Was he presenting himself to me? Was he offering his life to nurture mine? It sure felt that way.

Tentatively, I went back to the truck and let out my Labrador retriever, Buck, picked up my shotgun, and one shell. If I was meant to shoot, I had just one chance, and if I missed, it was not meant to be. I walked slowly toward him. He did not fly away. He just got quiet and looked out over the frigid expanse of the bay. I had Buck heel at my side and wait. I raised my gun, expecting him to take wing. He did not. One more quack and the old shotgun fired. The drake mallard dropped on the shore. A clean shot.

I sent Buck to retrieve the bird. When he brought it to hand, he delivered it as if it had some significant importance. It was then that I noticed it was banded. In fact, it was double banded! One gray steel band on one leg and a green one on the other. I was curious. I’d shot many banded birds before but never a green band. I examined it carefully and saw the words “$100 Reward Band” imprinted on the green steel ring. “Call USFWS.”

I held the magnificent creature in my hands, admiring his beautiful blue and white speculum and his iridescent green head. Snow flurries blowing off the lake caressed my face. I started to cry. I looked out over the wind-whipped lake, my tears stinging as they froze on my cheeks. I closed my eyes and said “Thank you” aloud. My love for my wife, for this bird, for following my bliss, would now allow me to purchase the most meaningful Christmas present I could imagine.

Bradley Carleton is Executive Director of Sacred Hunter, a non-profit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.