Given the early arrival of cold weather this winter, Wendell Diller, his wife, Galina, and I expected the ice to be thicker than at this time in recent years. It was. But I still broke through, and, as usual, unexpectedly.
This was the other day. The temperature was in the mid-teens and the three of us were in the river backwaters that divide Minnesota and Wisconsin, hoping to score a Christmas goose or two.
The trip is an annual affair made possible only after the ice cover on most of the water we cross is thick enough to support our weight. Eventually we also encounter open water and when we do we climb into a canoe that we pull atop the ice on a sled.
The canoe is fitted with a homemade outrigger and it’s important if the ice breaks that we are alongside its outrigger side. That way if the water is deep enough to crest our wader tops we can hold on to the canoe and keep ourselves dry. Leveraging the outrigger’s stability, we can also climb into the canoe, albeit while creating a sort of clown show of flailing arms and legs.
“It’s a beautiful morning, but I don’t expect to see many geese,’’ Wendell said as we shuffled across the ice in the morning’s half-light.
Wendell and Galina had scouted the area a couple of days previously, and the big birds were mostly no-shows.
“At the very least, we’ll eat a good breakfast,’’ I said.
As likely as Wendell or I to somersault an overflying honker, Galina’s specialty nevertheless on these exploits is cooking pancakes from thick, walnut-stuffed batter she brings from home. A native of Siberia, she creates Siberian-grade flapjacks.
“I’ll get a fire going,’’ she said when we arrived at a spit of land cluttered with enough willows to camouflage our presence from above.
Twenty yards distant lay an ice-free, cigar-shaped riverway, and after stashing the canoe and sled, Wendell and I set up a handful of decoys on the water’s frozen perimeter. Geese had alternately floated on this small pond and walked on its encircling ice earlier in the morning, and our hope was that at least a few of the giant Canadas would return after chomping stubble in nearby cornfields.
• • •
Intent as I am to eat what I shoot, I confess to struggling at preparing a wild goose for the table. Roasting an entire bird is challenging because its legs typically finish cooking long before its breasts. Even cooking breasts alone, whether whole or sliced, marinated or not, grilled, fried or slow-cooked, requires, to my taste, not just a good red wine for palatability but lots of good red wine.
Fortunately, my friend John Weyrauch of Stillwater has solved this wild game puzzler.
A barrister by day and amateur chef by night, John concocts from goose breasts tasty Italian sausage. Modifying a hot venison sausage recipe he found online (tinyurl.com/y82h8f36), he cubes 2 pounds of goose breast and 2 pounds of pork belly and combines them with garlic, fennel and other spices before grinding and hand-mixing the meat and adding a quarter-cup of cold water.
“I put the mixture in the fridge for a day to let the spices marry the meat,’’ John said. “The finished product is great for spaghetti sauce, soups — wherever you want to use a spicy meat.’’
• • •
Wendell is also a cook. But he trades in ideas, not food. An inventor, he specializes in ballistics, specifically shot shells with brightly colored wads that travel with a shell’s discharged pellets, allowing the shooter to see if he is on target, behind or ahead.
On this cold morning, while Galina serves up Siberian cakes, Wendell shows me early prototypes of heated, cold-weather mittens he’s developing. Held together mostly by safety pins, the hand coverings seem not quite ready for prime time.
“I’m not sure safety pins will fly with today’s demanding mitten consumers,’’ I say.
“Don’t worry about the safety pins,’’ Wendell says. “The mittens are in development.’’
“They are warm,’’ I say.
Just then, Galina alerts us to a goose on final approach, its wings set and feet backpedaling. Distracted by the syrup-soaked flapjacks I’m eating, and also by Wendell’s fantasy mittens, I have no chance to reach my gun.
Wendell, however, grabs his 12 gauge in time to fold the big bird onto the chilled water, where it begins to drift quickly with the current.
Grabbing a push pole from the canoe, I plan to drag the goose from the water onto the ice before it floats away. Instead as I near the jagged edge that demarcates hard water from soft, I break through into water nearly as deep as my waders are long.
Using the canoe, Wendell winches me back onto solid ice.
“Warm your hands in my mittens,’’ he says.
Hanging out until late morning, we swig coffee and jawbone.
But no more honkers show up. Just that one. A Christmas goose.
And I know how to cook it.