I dumped the scalding coffee on my crotch just outside of Watertown, S.D., at the precise moment I made a tight right turn onto Interstate 29, headed north.
The coffee, stale and black and bought at a nearby truck stop, pooled beneath my backside and felt like I had just wet my pants. I wasn’t pleased.
It was 2 a.m. on a morning in early November, and I was scheduled to meet my buddy in Aberdeen for the first leg of a weeklong duck-hunting extravaganza — one of the many bird-hunting trips I’d take every autumn. But the shock and awe of my coffee spill seemed to simultaneously crash and reboot my mind’s inner hard drive. An unthinkable question popped to mind: Did I forget my shotgun at my home in Red Wing? Suddenly, I could visualize my trusty boom stick sitting cased and ready right where I had left it: resting in the seam of two walls next to my front door, a predetermined location for the express purpose of not forgetting it.
I quickly pulled over and frantically inventoried my gear, tossing bags from my truck like a possessed bellhop. I found everything but my Italian autoloader. I was crushed, demoralized, shotgun-less in South Dakota. What a spectacular, shameful gaffe.
I’ve traveled thousands of miles as a bird-hunting vagabond, in search of ducks, geese, pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and all manner of other winged critters. You can’t take that many trips without absorbing the sting of few mistakes while committing to memory some valuable lessons. When you travel to the hinterlands of the Dakotas, Montana or prairie Canada (don’t forget your passport), you need to be prepared in the extreme. That’s because you’ll likely find yourself at some point 100 miles away from the accoutrements of civilization. Take nothing for granted, including cell coverage or a gas station around the next bend.
My packing begins with the List, my Magna Carta of pre-trip planning, which I’ve augmented many times over the years. I print it and begin inventory of gear, clothing and equipment. For each piece, I check it off and pack it accordingly. I like to pack my hunting clothes in separate duffel bags — one for cold weather, one for warm. That way I’m not scrambling to find what I need. You’ll learn to appreciate such efficiencies if you take enough trips. Also, pack everything you need but nothing more. Space always is at a premium.
Lodging is a huge consideration. I never stay in a motel that doesn’t allow dogs in the room. Fido needs a warm, soft bed (yes, spring for an extra bed) on which to sprawl and re-energize for the next day. Pamper your dog because, let’s be honest, Fido is doing the vast majority of field work. Take precautions for Fido, too. Find out where the nearest veterinary clinic is and enter the phone number. Trust me, accidents and injuries happen. Remember, too, that some states require shots and records. Bring them along and stow them in your truck visor.
My friend Bob St. Pierre of Pheasants Forever is a veteran traveling bird hunter, but even he is ill-prepared on occasion. In 2007, St. Pierre was bird hunting in “Nowhere, Montana,” with his first dog, a young German shorthaired pointer. “I was near a town that had two things: a bar and a fly shop and nothing else for more than 100 miles,” St. Pierre said. “The first hour of my hunt my dog got sprayed by a skunk and I didn’t have a skunk kit.”
He then recalled what’s become the Mount Everest of myths: that skunk stink can be neutralized by tomato juice. “I went into the bar and bought the last three bottles of Bloody Mary mix they had and bathed my dog in it in the field. It didn’t work, though. She was just infused with this awful tomato/skunk smell. It was horrible.”
Traveling bird hunters, take St. Pierre’s advice: Pack a skunk kit. The magic recipe includes one quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, a half-cup of baking soda and a tablespoon of liquid dish soap. In a bucket, mix the ingredients using a pair rubber gloves, wash your dog with it, wait 10 minutes and thoroughly rinse him off with water. Repeat.
“It works like a charm,” said St. Pierre. Indeed it does.
I’ve never forgotten a skunk kit, but I have forgotten a box fan — and I paid dearly for the oversight. My uncle is a great traveling hunting companion, but he snores something awful. Sleeping next him in a small motel room after a day of hunting is like being downwind of a 747 at takeoff. After our first pheasant trip to Iowa several years ago, I learned the white noise of a box fan is the slim margin between sleep and insanity. I’ve never gone on another trip with him without one.
Finally in Aberdeen, I met my buddy at a local gas station to gas up and — you guessed it — to get some more scalding hot black coffee. He could see the shame all over my face.
“I forgot my shotgun.”
He roared with laughter and called me a dumb donkey.
For my sins, I endured the indignity of using my pal’s old pump shotgun, whose rusted and residue-choked moving parts hadn’t been cleaned — or so it appeared — since the second Bush administration. Good thing I brought my gun-cleaning kit, which is mandatory equipment for all traveling bird hunters.
Good luck, and safe travels.
Tori J. McCormick is a writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.