Not long after we stepped from shore onto the ice, an immature eagle circled once overhead and disappeared into the low angle of sun. This was early Thursday morning and the temperature was 10 degrees. Our canoe was on a sled with steel runners, and Wendell Diller pulled the sled easily.
Behind Wendell, in the tracks of the steel runners, shuffled his wife, Galina.
In past years by Nov. 20, the ice in these backwaters of the St Croix River had barely formed, postponing our hunts until December, by which time the duck season was finished and we were hunting geese only. We like geese and marvel at their wingspans on final approach, and how the birds at higher altitudes slip air through their primary feathers and cascade downward acrobatically. So on Thursday the prospect of hunting these alone would have been attraction enough. But this year, thanks to the early cold, we could travel onto the ice, and then open water, while ducks were still legal fare, and in our mind’s eye we could see fat drake mallards backpedaling over our decoys one after another, all morning long.
“Galina,” Wendell said. “Come ahead and hold on to the canoe in case we break through.’’
In the canoe in addition to our decoys was a charcoal grill, two paddles and two push poles. Also we had along two hard cases containing a pair of shotguns that when assembled would have 7-foot-long barrels.
The long barrels essentially silence the shotguns, allowing us to pick off a bird here and bird there without disturbing the lot of them.
Arriving at the ice’s weakest point and expecting we might break through, each of us hung onto the starboard side of the canoe. An outrigger Wendell attached to that side would provide the necessary stability if we had to crawl in.
“When I was here scouting the other day, I broke through,” Wendell said. “The water was up to the top of my waders. I pushed the canoe along until the ice got thicker and I crawled back on top of it.”
None of this bothers Galina, who is from Siberia and is unafraid of the cold.
Wendell found her on the Internet and they’ve been married some years.
“Not many people in Russia wants to live in Siberia,” Galina was saying. “Winter comes in September and lasts until May.”
A half-mile off shore, we reached open water. When we did, I clambered into the bow, and Wendell pushed the canoe off the ice into the water. Then Wendell jumped into the stern of the canoe, while Galina threw herself amidships, sprawling over the decoys and the guns and the grill.
The outrigger consists of an inner tube marginally inflated, and it counterbalanced our movements enough to keep us from capsizing.
Paddling into the heart of our hunting country, we were surrounded by willows, the bare-limbed trees bracketing the narrow waterways we traveled.
The water was clear and in some places shallow. In other spots, the water was deep.
Occasionally, mallards jumped up, the drakes resplendent against the bright morning, the hens barking their guttural “quack quacks.”
Yet, for the most part, there were very few birds, which was uncommon. We had expected to be covered up in geese, and mallards, too.
“They were here the other day,” Wendell said.
We stopped at a spot we had previously hunted. Wendell perched a few goose decoys on a small ice floe, while I scattered duck decoys nearby in moving, ankle-deep water.
Save for the honk of an occasional high-flying goose, the morning was silent. And starkly beautiful, blue over white.
A short distance from the water’s edge, we set the grill, rustled some kindling and soon the grill’s charcoals were white-hot. We removed the guns from their cases and twisted the long barrels onto the receivers. These were pumps and the ends of the long barrels were ported. We shoot subsonic shells through them, loads that travel about 850 feet per second. A shooter has to remind himself of this or he’ll continually be behind his target.
An inventor, Wendell dreams about these things and then makes them happen.
A short time passed and Galina said, “I’ve got your pancakes and coffee.”
Galina is a chemist and concocts pancakes turbocharged with calories and drenched in maple syrup. One of them could last a trapper a week in the bush.
We ate breakfast. But not a single duck overflew our decoys, or a goose.
“Maybe it’s too cold,” Wendell said, “and they flew south.”
The best waterfowling occurs on frigid mornings like these, when the season’s last birds meet the season’s last hunters in places otherwise unvisited.
But it wasn’t happening Thursday morning.
When the sun was at the midpoint of its daylong arch, we picked up the decoys and paddled until we reached ice.
From there we lifted the canoe onto the sled, and shuffled atop the ice to the distant shore, the sled and canoe in tow, the sky still empty of birds, save for the immature eagle we had seen earlier, which still circled overhead, as if also wondering whether hunting in these backwaters had ended for the season.