Thursday morning the barn opened warm and humid like a greenhouse, its heavy door creaking. In times past, three horses might have nickered in response, then for a while, two. Now just one neighed softly beneath lights kept on at night so his winter coat doesn’t grow. His name is Isaiah and I thought: I really should saddle him. But time was short. Wearing a jacket and a cap against the chill, I blanketed him instead and led him to a pasture.

Unable to sleep the night before, I had spent an hour or so checking temperatures of various places I have hunted in fall. This was over the kitchen table about 2 a.m. A window was open and autumn wasn’t so much rushing in as summer was rushing out. We have a mother bear in the area with cubs and surely she’s with the program: time to fatten up. Also deer. The bachelor groups have dispersed and no longer expose themselves in daytime.

The Internet has its advantages and I dialed up conditions in Winnipeg. Its temperature was in the mid-30s. I like to hike and also to ride a bike. But there is no reason to be in Winnipeg in October and, especially in November, to hike or bike.

Instead, if you hunt ducks on Delta Marsh or Oak Hammock, you pass through Winnipeg then, usually pushing against a north wind, the sky low, with Canada geese by the tens of thousands on the city’s margins. You probably have a dog with you, in the back seat or in the pickup bed, and you bypass the geese, recognizing them as urban knickknacks. Already in your mind’s eye, you can see the marshes up ahead, imagining also in the half-light of early morning, mallards and teal, widgeon and gadwall gathering in small tornadoes and, soon, winging over your decoys.

Farther north still, about 400 miles, in The Pas, Manitoba, the temperature varied not a lot early Thursday morning from Winnipeg’s. But scaup, or bluebills, nest near The Pas, in the parklands, and the sight of these compact birds by the thousands, arrowing in small squadrons and emerging through snow, afterburners kicked in, isn’t soon forgotten.

So from the kitchen table I imagined these also, and imagined as well in the weeks ahead when the back side of a low pressure system jump-starts their migration, all of this a reality show like no other, especially when viewed from the ground, looking up, birds swarming.

Years ago, my friend Willy and I were on an endless marsh outside The Pas, traveling in a camouflage Grumman Sportboat, with a 3-horse outboard.

This was all the motor we could afford, and because we moved so slowly, we had to be on the water at 3 a.m., put-put-putting a half-mile or so before setting up our decoys and blind. Jake, Willy’s Labrador, was along, and he slept going in and coming out.

We shot our limits. But an airboat full of clowns from Illinois had belatedly set up about 100 yards from us, skybusting our ducks on their final approaches. In this respect the morning was ruined, and even though we left before these guys, they beat us to the landing, where one announced to Willy that his dog was “extremely valuable’’ and that Jake should be kept at a distance.

“Jake wouldn’t hurt a fly,’’ Willy said.

This was about 30 seconds before Jake leapt from the Sportboat and grabbed the Illinois dog by the throat.

“Bad dog,’’ Willy said, pulling Jake away. “Very bad dog.’’

But Jake, still indignant, wasn’t done. The Illinois bunch turned to load their airboat, and when they did, Jake cocked his leg on their gear, and remained in that position interminably, while from afar Willy and I waved our best wishes to our newfound friends, in no hurry to rush Jake along.

Thursday morning, I checked temperatures north-to-south in Minnesota: Thief River to Ely, Grand Rapids to Ashby, and Willmar to Worthington. The chill would have been enough, I figured, to alert every living thing, one latitude to the next, that change was coming.

I don’t begrudge anyone their activities in September, October and November. But being an observer of autumn is far different than allowing the season to wash over you, and being part of it.

After leading Isaiah to the pasture, I watched him a long while, his head down, grazing contentedly.

Then I freed the dogs from the kennel, and they frolicked like puppies.


Dennis Anderson