Sometimes when Wendell Diller and I hunt waterfowl we think of our old friend Don the Duckman. Don Helmeke was his given name. But as long as anyone can remember he was known as Don the Duckman, and Wendell and I thought he was a swell guy. You could say Don liked to hunt ducks and geese, traveling far and wide at various times of his life to do so. But in his later years and also those in the middle he wanted more to help birds than to shoot them, building nesting boxes for wood ducks and also studying canvasbacks and thinking about mallards semi-manically, in each case appreciating these and other such species more as part of a grand mystery than as winged fowl to be fully understood. I was thinking about Don on Wednesday as Wendell and I, along with Wendell’s wife, Galina, strapped spikes onto our boots and headed onto thin ice in search of a Christmas goose. The morning was frigid, 0 degrees, with a blustery north wind at 20, and more.
“It’s cold this morning," Galina said, pulling on a facemask.
“You’re from Siberia," I said. “So that says something."
This is an annual trip, and if Don the Duckman were still around he would be with us, wearing chest waders and pulling the sled that carried Wendell’s canoe while hearing the sweet music of runners scraping ice and wondering, as Wendell, Galina and I wondered Wednesday morning, when exactly we would break through, into the frigid water.
On water fit neither entirely for canoe paddling nor foot travel, goose hunting in this manner so late in the season invites a hybrid approach that melds a keen interest in the shooting sports with an almost Gomer-like indifference to risk. The short story is we pull the canoe until the ice gives way and deep-sixes the three of us, at which time we hang on to the canoe and, in time, leverage ourselves into the craft to begin paddling.
Boarding the canoe is possible because Wendell has affixed a makeshift outrigger onto its port side, which balances the double-ender against our weight.
“Good ice this year!’’ Wendell shouted as we made our way across a broad expanse of lake ice toward narrow ribbons of cold flowing water bracketed by willow tangles.
“The ice was a long time coming,’’ Wendell said. “But it’s good now."
Usually in December en route over ice to our hunting spot we spook a few dozen swans followed by a gaggle or two of geese, sometimes more. Then either by foot or by canoe we reach the location where the birds are roosting, placing there a dozen or so decoys on water and ice, split about 50-50, after which we wait. In most Decembers, within an hour or so, the geese return, sometimes as singles, other times in pairs and threes.
Wednesday morning was different.
Instead of a gaggle or two of geese arising from the open water, hundreds upon hundreds jumped up as we approached, even thousands, and had we wanted to we could have ambushed our limits just then as the birds flew low overhead, splitting the scene.
But that would have spoiled the fun. We wanted instead for the birds to return and upon doing so succumb to our calls and decoys, setting their wings on final approach, easy pickings.
A chemist who grew up in Russia, Galina met Wendell over the internet. Their courtship blossomed when Galina said she liked to run, hike, fish, shoot, hunt, paddle and garden, preferably in the same day.
Also she cooks a mean pancake, and after Wendell and I got our blind set up and our decoys spread, Galina fired up a charcoal grill while Wendell and I screwed together the 7-foot-long pump shotguns we would use to target geese.
Chambered with 12 gauge subsonic shells, these meat-getters are nearly silent when discharged, an invention of Wendell’s that allows us to target one or two birds in a flock, felling them, with the others none the wiser, except for the part where the targeted birds somersault summarily to earth, meeting on ice or water their unseemly fates, akimbo.
An hour passed. Snow bunnies swirled across the icy lake in the distance before cascading atop the cold bubbling open water and reaching us, freezing every inch of our exposed skin.
Bank-robber-like, we pulled our facemasks tight to our skin. Then we ate mountainous stacks of Galina’s Euell Gibbons-worthy heavyweight flapjacks, each bathed in maple syrup, after which, perhaps not so inexplicably, I felt the urge to shadow box for maybe a couple of hours. C’mon buddy.
But no geese returned. Not in the first hour. Nor the second. Or the third.
“It’s so cold, with this wind, maybe they just left,’’ Wendell said. “Migrated.’’
“Or they’re in a field, feeding.’’
This was at noon or thereabouts, and the three of us were left only with the cold and the wind and our thoughts, some of which summoned memories of Don the Duckman, a good friend now gone who would have loved this day, shooting or not, with so many birds flying, and more flying still, into the middle distance and beyond, part of the mystery.