Duck Hunting

Editor’s note: This story is from guest author Louis Finch. As my writing has pulled me into other publications, space at Off Grid Kids has opened up. I invite anyone with an interest to submit stories relevant to the subjects of children and nature to Off Grid Kids via joe@offgridkids.org. This one is phenomenal. Thank you.

I had to bring my own because my uncle’s coffee thermos always had whiskey mixed in it, but mine was just like his, quart size made by Stanley of green steel so it wouldn’t break if it knocked around in the boat. It was a layout duck boat, low to the water like a hydroplane, and there wasn’t much room. It held two hunters side by side flat on their backs when the decoys were out and everything was set up. Until then, you could sit up straight, and you had to in order to reach behind and steer the 5 horsepower outboard. It said Seahorse on the side and it was the same color of green as the coffee thermos. The water of the shallow, mud-bottom bay, when it stirred up, was the color of the coffee if you put milk in it like we did.

My dad and my two uncles built two identical duck boats. They were of the opinion that if you could do something once, why not do it twice, which goes a little way toward explaining why they had sixteen kids among the three of them. I was the oldest of the six boys and two girls in my family and the oldest of all sixteen cousins too. My uncles also built two identical cottages on Sandusky Bay and I mean that almost literally. They were as close to the water as they could get, which turned out to be a mistake. My dad built his on the hill just above my uncles. They all hunted and that’s why they bought property on the back part of the bay. The first land they looked at was even farther back toward the river where the marshes were, but there was no beach. A beach was the only non-negotiable item on the shopping list for my mother and my aunts and they stood together, along with sixteen kids to complete the phalanx, and held out for the one investment option that would give them a summer vacation. It made sense. And for that reason, the fabled stand of the women, we ended up about two miles from the prime duck hunting marshland of the back bay, but gained a lifetime of family vacations which continue to this day. The duck hunting ended years ago and I’m one of the few who remember.

Memories are always mixed and the older the more so, but some things are clear. It was cold. Duck season in Ohio is November and December and the windier and colder the better, at least that’s what they told me, the point being that bad weather would not stop the hunt and it better not stop me either because I said I wanted to go. I wore thermal underwear, shirt and long-johns, then more shirts, more pants, jeans, canvas hunting pants, gloves, hat. My dad and uncles wore waders on top of everything else, but I didn’t have any. They said it was better that way, because if the boat tipped over the waders would fill with water and they would all probably drown. Without waders I had a better chance, but the coin they were flipping in the air was life or death and my uncle in particular wanted me to know that he wasn’t kidding. My dad, on the other hand, wanted me to know he was, sort of. I never knew exactly which one was lying, but I figured the boat wasn’t going over anyway. A problem deferred is a problem solved, at least for the time being, and at the time I was being twelve years old. I wasn’t too worried about existential problems then, but I never forgot it. Hunting has a way of confronting its initiates with some serious contemplation, often unexpected, but usually more of a dead duck than a dead father. My uncle was a hero to me back then. My take-away was that he wanted me to grow up and for some reason my father didn’t.

My uncle was my dad’s younger brother. He had three daughters and I was the son he didn’t have. He was also my godfather and that gave him some leverage with my dad. The two of them played a version of good cop bad cop. It wasn’t planned that way, but that’s how it developed. I was anxious to go hunting, and my dad said no. My uncle said I had to learn all the ducks first, which wasn’t yes or no. It was a challenge, and somewhat directed to my dad too like a sideways elbow to the ribs in a good-natured, brotherly way. It turned out to be the beginning of my lifelong interest in birds, and it started with a booklet of hope my uncle gave me the next time he saw me. It was a pocket size collection of the ducks of Ohio, drakes and hens, and I had to identify all of them. He would flash them to test me the same way my parents used math flashcards. Best homework ever. I learned them all, and soon after that I was in the boat.

I remember the boats under construction in my uncle’s garage, but like the bird photos, I could barely recognize the real thing in the water. The boats were covered with dried cattails as camouflage. They were stuffed with decoys, also homemade of cork and wood, each wrapped with a nylon line fixed to the bottom at one end and tied to a thin bar of lead at the other. The flexible lead bent around the carved wooden heads and made each one a neat package. Once we were anchored in the open water off the marsh where we wanted to be, the decoys were tossed out, but then the extra room was used to hold the outboard motor. It was un-clamped from the transom and stowed inside because the ducks were wary enough to recognize it, that’s what I was told anyway. We were playing an elaborate game of deception that would start at sunrise, and we had to be in place by then, anchored like a small island with ducks. Everything was done in the dark with flashlights.

It was the dark I remember best, and the quiet of it all, the rhythm of waves rushing the shore the only sound until the outboards sputtered to life with a pull of a chord and a deft hand on the choke to keep it going. Them going. The flashlights played back and forth on each boat as we left the shore in tandem for what would be nearly an hour ride in a choppy sea. We took waves over the bow at times and the only thing keeping the hold dry, and us, was a piece of canvas propped up on pegs that acted as a windshield, and not very well either. Speed determined everything and we soon got it right. I loved that ride.

I could tell this whole story without mentioning the hunting, but we did get a few ducks. I fired once in the air and missed. My uncle hit a few and what I remember was how quick he was to shoot. I spent more time aiming than shooting and that shotgun just got heavier and heavier. He let me shoot at a wounded duck on the water and I missed that one twice, with the added proof of how far off I was when the shot hit the water. The boat was moving up and down and so was the duck, that was my excuse. From our low vantage point, it was only periodically visible in the waves. My uncle missed it the first time too and later told me it was easier to hit a flying duck than one on the water in those conditions. It was one of the few times he sounded more like my dad, but maybe he was making excuses for himself too, not just me. I prefer to believe that.

What I have taken to heart from my duck hunting days is the love of birds and the irony of it all. Duck hunters love ducks. My uncle loved them. When we got back to the cottage and the beers were opened and stories were told, the ones my uncle told were surprising. They weren’t about how good a shot he was, and he was the best of the brothers. His stories were about the ducks, their behavior, about how they did the things they did, how he noticed the way a mallard jumped straight up off the water before flight. I have since watched them do the same thing in thick phragmites, marsh reeds that can grow to fifteen feet. They ascend straight up with strong wingbeats until they clear them. He was describing something he admired. Birders tend to admire individual birds. Hunters might or might not, but they admire the species. And while they might hunt the individual, they will protect the species. All of the wetland habitat in northwest Ohio now under state, county, or federal protection as the last remnant of what once was the great black swamp that covered an entire corner of Ohio, was first saved from development by private hunt clubs. Only recently has it come under legislative protection. Had it not been for duck hunters, none of it would have been saved. Birder or hunter, my uncle was one of them, maybe both.

I’m just glad he was my uncle.

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