The beginning is often a poor place to start a story of a duck hunt, wrote Gordon MacQuarrie in his tale “A Pot-Hole Rendezvous.”
Yet a story about MacQuarrie must start at the beginning for he was the beginning.
Born in 1900, the Scotsman from Superior, Wis., is credited with being the nation’s first full-time professional outdoors writer. He landed the job 80 years ago at the then-Milwaukee Journal. He excelled at it for two decades. Then, 60 years ago, a heart attack stole his life. He was 56.
MacQuarrie produced some of hunting’s most poignant prose. Known largely for the 100-plus national magazine articles he penned during the 1930s and 1940s, MacQuarrie seeded his stories with emotion, romance and humor. His deft touch grew a loyal following. He would harvest a prominence barren to most who toil in the outdoors writing field. Tennessee’s Nash Buckingham and South Carolina’s Havilah Babcock are perhaps the only other outdoors writers from that era whose books are still in print.
“It was the best time, the beginning of the last week of October. In the partridge woods I would pluck at the sleeve of reluctant Indian summer, and from a duck blind four hundred miles to the north I would watch winter make its first dash south on a northwest wind.”
This description of autumn appears in an Old Duck Hunters’ Association story, a fictitious organization MacQuarrie invented for literary purposes. Many association stories take place in northwest Wisconsin, his favorite part of the state. That is where his father, a teacher, built a remote cabin along the Eau Claire Chain of Lakes. That’s where he would rise early and ponder the day.
“Morning. Or is it morning? It’s so black ... One wonders if the sun will ever take the trouble to rise and light the day on such a pitchy morning ... the clouds are probably so heavy again they will push the sun down behind the jackpine and the sun will get discouraged and quit.”
Duck hunters could relate to such descriptions. They could also relate to the way MacQuarrie cast them in society, a gaggle of gutsy and unflinching characters up for the task.
“Let others lie abed and rise three hours later in the full light of the day. The duck hunter, probing the secrets of a new day, sees the night retreat, and nothing is so fine as daylight coming and night departing while wings overhead whisper the old and unsolved mystery of migration.”
MacQuarrie’s descriptions of swamps and swales and swinging at darting ducks were dead-on. Readers could imagine every scene. And why not? They had been there. They had experienced what he experienced. They had seen a blunt-nosed wedge of many geese, thin and lacy against the gray beyond. They had risen early to discover how the gathering wind had its way with the patient trees ... laid chilly fingers on land and water. And, yes, they had experienced cold — not the bluffing nips of October, but the still, steely cold of November.
MacQuarrie also had a knack for humor. He used it frequently. It often drove a favorite theme — the value of membership in America’s hunting community. Today, that aging community, whose population peaked in 1982, is aggressively seeking new members. MacQuarrie recounts how he was introduced to duck hunting in this exchange between wife and new father-in-law:
“I told him last summer that now, since he was more or less part of the family, I ought to take him duck hunting.”
“I see said the daughter ... you want someone to row the boat.”
“I do not. I even borrowed a gun for him.”
“You will find he won’t row. He won’t even put up curtain rods. He looks like a dead loss for the both of us.
“I will take a chance on him.”
This yarn, of course, spins into a tale of personal achievement and community acceptance. On his first-ever bluebill hunt, MacQuarrie discovers something special in the sounds of swift wings, the booming of guns, the smell of burned powder. He takes his first duck from a flock that comes straight in, low.
“The President and Fred had declined to shoot. They were furthering the education of a novice. They were, in fact, letting the virus take full effect ... they had introduced me to something new and something good, and I was grateful ... Not even the sure, hard pluck of a hard-to-fool brown trout, or the lurching smash of a river smallmouth has stirred me as has the circling caution of ducks coming to decoys.”
MacQuarrie’s stories would have been largely lost save for Zach Taylor, a former editor at the hunting magazine Sports Afield who collected manuscripts and collaborated with Tom and Chuck Petrie of Wisconsin’s Willow Creek Press to have them published. They largely exist in three volumes — “Stories of the Old Duck Hunters and Other Drivel,” “More Stories of the Old Duck Hunters” and “Last Stories of the Old Duck Hunters.”
Taylor, who died in 2009 at age 72, contended that MacQuarrie had entered the field of outdoors writing when it was at an unimaginative low. He believed MacQuarrie stood out because his voice was true and inspiring. Wrote Taylor: “MacQuarrie felt the need to make deep statements about the outdoors ... He could not have known it at the time but the Old Duck Hunter stories were to become the vehicle that enabled him to do this.”
Today, 80 years since MacQuarrie’s hiring, outdoors journalism has migrated to a different and perhaps larger place. Much of this rise relates to television and web opportunities. Today, huge herds of hunting and fishing shows rumble across the cable and digital landscape. Similarly, hunting and fishing bloggers have become as common as sparrows, their words and videos surfacing daily on Facebook and other sites. Many are excellent. As such, in some ways outdoors journalism has never been bigger.
Still, in some ways, outdoors journalism has never seemed smaller. Much of what is produced is little more than infomercials, the narratives driven by products not people. Moreover, the images that accompany these rambling episodes, though captured with amazing digital clarity, often miss the mark. This is especially true when it comes to the taking of an animal. The all-too-obligatory fist-pumping and mugging at the camera is perhaps one reason that millennials who have taken up hunting have no interest in being photographed with their free-range meat.
Nationally, newspaper outdoors journalism seems smaller, too. As an outdoors writer, MacQuarrie never had to cover disc golf, geocaching, mountain biking or the like for they did not exist. Yet today these and similar activities are a big part of the outdoors scene. Modern newspaper coverage reflects that as a result, outdoors pages are often less about nature and more the nature of outdoors users — runners, skiers, rock climbers, kite boarders and other silent sports brethren.
This outdoors journalism evolution is not surprising. Outdoors writing is and always has been a tricky business. It is a hard to find the words that people want, advertisers will support, and someone will print or broadcast. The market calls most shots. Today’s there’s arguably less interest in a duck hunting story because a smaller portion of the population hunts, especially ducks.
Yet for those who yearn for old-fashioned hunting prose, October is a good month to dust off MacQuarrie. His words hit home with America’s waterfowl hunters. They were glad to have him among them. They were glad someone had taken him under a wing.
“From then on I shot with the others. They had let me have my chance. I had killed a duck. It had been an easy shot. They knew it. So did I. But they did not speak of it. They just kept grinning, for they must have known I had been ordained to love the game and they were glad to help a natural destiny work out.”
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives in Baxter, Minn.