For us obsessed waterfowl hunters, Christmas happens this Saturday. It is opening day for ducks on Lake Champlain.
I guess as we get older the presents evolve into an appreciation of just being present for our most passionate moments. I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie and liked many youthful pursuits that meant engaging in something dangerous.
As a competitive freestyle skier, I got my rush from hurtling down a mogul field and catapulting myself off the bumps into the air, contorting my body in what I believed to be acrobatic postures, and more importantly, gaining recognition from the people on the chairlift, whistling and yelling encouragement with each death-defying trick.
Later, I discovered the same rush standing on an off-Broadway stage and feeling so alive that my whole body tingled with the energy of being watched while I was in character.
When it was finally time to settle down and act like a grown-up, I researched all the less dangerous sports, like polo and being a stockbroker in New York City. All of this was based on a self-image that needed constant affirmation that my life was interesting.
When I was 23 years old, I found myself living somewhere I didn’t want to be in New Canaan, Conn., and in my desperation, I found an image in a magazine of two duck hunters in an impossibly difficult and dangerous situation, facing a tremendous north wind in a small craft. The images in the painting by Chet Reneson of Lyme, Conn., pulled me into the scene. I saw in the scene, these two men, facing certain demise, hanging on to a duck blind on stilts that had blown over and were pressed up against a weedbed that was the only windbreak protecting them from the ominous waves ripping foam off the crests of the waves as they swept across the bay.
And yet, here were these two figures, with wide grins etched into their windburned faces. One of them pointing to the ducks cupping their wings to settle into their decoys that had washed up against the side of the blind. These men were embracing life in the face of desperate conditions. And all they cared about in that moment were the flock of bluebills with dark legs dangling as they prepared to pitch into the calmer pool of water behind the blind.
These men were laughing, fixated on a singular passion. This is what I was seeking in my life. I made a choice that I had to seek out this lifestyle. And so, it began.
First, in the delta of the Housatonic River outside of Bridgeport, Conn., in the Charles Wheeler Refuge. My hunting partner was selected from a friendship I’d made at Vermont Academy, and we proceeded to buy our first boat, a homemade steel flatbottom with about 10 inches of freeboard and a Sears Gamefisher 7.5hp outboard that had a habit of stalling in waves that snuck up behind her when she wasn’t pushing fast enough.
Those first 10 years, we met with many episodes that should have put us both in a watery grave. And how did we handle it? We laughed and sang “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” not out of disrespect for those fallen maritime mariners, but because we felt more alive every time we succeeded in cheating death.
Over time, I fell in love with the cold north wind spraying the foam from the waves’ crests slapping me in the face. Eventually, I returned to Vermont and found the true meaning of this existential search for life’s meaning.
I built my own duck boat in the Barnegat Bay sneak boat style after reading Gordon MacQuarrie’s “Armistice Day Storm of 1940” and how the few duck hunters to have survived the record-breaking blizzard had been using Barnegat sneak boat-style boats.
The same style as in the Reneson painting. I was becoming one of those two characters in the painting titled “The Baygunners.”
I found a new partner, John Lesher of Burlington, and he became my closest friend and confidant for the next 25 years. He’s the kind of guy that, although he teases me about having a death wish to die duck hunting, I can count on to save us both if we should get into an untenable situation.
Twenty years ago, John introduced me to a group of men who shared this unexplainable passion for hunting waterfowl that I had now buried deep in my core. The group of men (and women now) was formed to assist helping the widow of a most gregarious and ebullient gentleman hunter with the cost of college for his children. His name was Norbert Buchmayr, and the organization, in order that his name be honored by his peers and friends, was titled the Norbert Buchmayr Society, and we, as members, are the friends of the Norbert Buchmayr Society.
The Buchmayr name is renowned for its contribution to the New England sporting community, and everyone in the hunting industry respects the name as royalty. Norbert’s brother, Siggi, and his nephew, Scott, have carried on the tradition of honor and gentlemanly sport for the last 42 years, of which I, at the invitation and sponsorship from John and Siggi, have attended for the past 20 years.
It’s a terrific Friday each September where all the members shoot 100 rounds of sporting clays, culminating in a shoot-off for the title of Top Gun and then retreat to a wonderful dinner at a restaurant on the edge of the bay on the Greenwich-Darien, Conn., border to attend an auction to raise money for young people to go to college to study outdoor degrees.
Now I know, this column may have taken a different direction from my original intention, but to circle back to the childlike anticipation of a Christmas in October, John and I will be headed out Saturday morning around 4 a.m. across the dark windy bay in his sneak boat, with the spray from the waves splashing in our faces, and the first nip of north wind stinging our skin.
We will hunker down in our cattail-covered, stilt blind, and as the sun wrestles with the earth and the blackened night begins to grow into a shade of dark purple, we will rise to the sound of whistling wings, turn our faces into the cold wind, grinning like two blazing idiots who know the true meaning of life.
(Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter.org, a privately owned limited liability corporation that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature through hunting, fishing and foraging.)