The question early Thursday morning was whether sound judgment would prevail or whether instead we would go ahead with the outing as planned. At stake was a Christmas goose or two. But between us and those festive dinnertime centerpieces was a lot of thin ice and, after that, more open water.
"I don't know,'' Wendell said, looking out at a river backwater that in most previous years in early December has been a solid sheet of ice. "We might not make it.''
Wendell is Wendell Diller, and he and I have undertaken this goose hunt quite a few Decembers now. Its beauty lies not in the number of birds harvested, but in its stark, early winter splendor. Sun and snow, ice and water, moon setting and sun rising. All with birds flying. Not just geese, but swans, eagles and late-departing ducks, including on Thursday, mallards, bluebills and buffleheads.
This year, Wendell's wife, Galina, was along, a woman of good cheer, despite the circumstances. Then again, Wendell found her in Siberia, so she's seen some weather. Ultimately, when we decided to make a go of it, she strapped on a life jacket and hopped on Wendell's back to be carried over the open water along shore. Reaching ice that would hold her, and also Wendell and me, she scrambled on top of it, and we with her, pulling our loaded canoe behind.
"Let's see how this works out,'' Wendell said.
In addition to being a bird nut, Wendell is an inventor, flush with patents in the gun and ammo game. Especially for these icy forays, he affixes an outrigger to port of his aluminum canoe, at the end of which is a semi-inflated inner tube. The point is to stabilize the craft should we have to climb out or back in. This might occur because one of us broke through the ice while walking alongside the canoe, or because while paddling and poling, ice has stalled our forward progress altogether.
Eighty yards out, we busted through. Calamity didn't ensue, but we weren't laughing, either. I climbed into the bow, Wendell the stern and Galina was amidships, as if a taskmaster. We were breaching ice head-on now, the canoe's bow riding atop it, then falling through, aluminum clamoring against the frozen water.
The resulting racket put to wing honkers that had been hidden from view far in the backwaters.
"So beautiful,'' Galina said, watching the big birds appear as silhouettes against the rising sun.
Reaching, finally, open water, we took to the paddles. Now geese were everywhere, some materializing in singles and pairs, but most in larger flocks, all arrowing to nearby cornfields to feed. Fewer, smaller and with quicker wingbeats, mallards were in flight also, while lumbering in the distance, swans similarly heard the siren song of morning and lifted mightily into the gathering light.
Never at this time in December had we found so little ice in the backwaters. This mattered less to Wendell and Galina, who would hunt on this outing only with cameras. But I had no floater decoys along, only those I intended to place on the ice. So I was hamstrung in my choice of places to set up.
Finally, I found a patch of frozen water, arranged the fake geese and cranked together one of Wendell's inventive guns, a 12-gauge pump with a 7-foot-long barrel -- a firearm that barely issues a poof when discharged.
Soon, Galina said, "There's a flock. Call, call.''
Resisting mightily a roll of my eyes, I croaked obediently into the imitator that swung from my neck.
As quickly, a smiling Galina said, "Stop now. Sounds unnatural.''
"Right,'' I said.
The morning wore on, the breeze picked up and the temperature seemed to fall.
Finally, a loosely formed squadron of honkers overflew us, and I somersaulted a good big bird, my only one of the morning.
Not long before noon, we picked up. As it turned out, we had punched a crease in the canoe while breaking ice, and took on water at a fair rate en route back.
Yet, as Wendell said on shore, "A great day.''
Handing the morning's lone bird to Galina, an excellent cook, I said, "A Christmas goose.''
For me, there would be other mornings to bag a seasonal feast. The holidays weren't quite yet nigh, and all the geese haven't flown south.
Perhaps one more never will.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org