Three days before my 36th birthday, I found myself caught between being a child and being a man.
It seems as though it was just yesterday when my father took me down to the river and began teaching me everything good about waterfowl hunting. In the next three days, I was going to have the unique opportunity to go duck hunting with my dad, age 71, and my son, who was about to turn 5.
As I pulled into my parents’ home at 5:15 a.m., I saw my father standing in waders on the front porch, clutching a cup of coffee. As he got into my truck, he cracked a joke about why I was late, and how I could never get out of bed on time. We made the two-minute drive, past the old Arnett farmhouse, and slid our canoe into the river. It was the same river — and duck blind — my father had taken me to for my very first hunt. The blind, although weathered and worn, fixed up and torn down, was the same blind I shot my first duck from at age 12.
Once the boat was launched, my father made his way to the front of the canoe. His balance was unsteady and his knees were somewhat weary as he grasped the sides of the boat and sat down.
No matter how many more times we canoe together, it will never feel right with him riding in front of me. From little on, I have logged hundreds of hours in a canoe with that man sitting behind me. Guiding me on how to paddle a duck skiff through the duck marsh, on how to properly set out a decoy spread, and most importantly, how to balance a canoe when your overexcited retriever decides to switch sides.
We paddled upstream to the blind. I dropped Dad off in the blind, and he climbed into position. I began to set out the decoys under my father’s close watch. He advised me I had set them a little too far apart and way too close to the blind. I soon found my place at his side in the blind, and we sat silently in the dark for moments at a time. The sun rose and the ducks began to fly.
The first round of mallards decoyed. I fired three shots without touching a feather. My dad only smiled at me, but I knew what he was thinking. As the morning crept on, I had several more opportunities to cash in, but as Dad was quick to point out, I was always too far in front or too far behind.
My father would not carry a gun into the marsh this year. Recovering from open-heart surgery only six months before, he was there as what he called "support staff." We spent the rest of the morning talking about our many hunts together, and the adventures we got ourselves into. We shared a chocolate pudding, ate crackers and washed them down with whatever coffee we had left over. We finished the morning without bagging a duck.
As we paddled back to the truck, my father told me his waterfowling days were pretty much over. Even if the birds did decoy as planned, he would not be able to rise from a seated position quickly enough to engage his gun.
The next day, at 3 p.m., I picked up my son from pre-kindergarten. Dressed in camouflage and wearing rubber boots, I walked through the grade school, enduring glances from those who would never understand the life of a true waterfowler.
I held my son’s hand as we walked across the parking lot. His face lit up when he saw the duck boat in the back of my truck. The ride home was filled with questions. "When can I go duck hunting with you?"
When we got home, we asked his mother if he could go. Being cautious as mothers are, she was hesitant about sending her 4-year-old out into the duck marsh. I did not have to speak a word. She saw the look in my eyes, and understands the passion in my heart. She quickly got him dressed in full camouflage, kissed him dearly and sent him off.
We drove past the old farmhouse, down to the river, where we slid the canoe into the water. My son made his way to the front of the boat. His balance was unsteady and his knees were somewhat weary as he grasped the sides of the boat and sat down. As we pushed off from shore, he sat in silence, staring at the vibrant fall colors of northern Wisconsin. His image and the fall background reflected off the water as I took my position behind him. I checked his life jacket, and we were underway.
I instructed him how to paddle the boat, and then how to throw out the decoys — not too far apart or too close to the blind. And he nervously hung onto the sides of the boat as my anxious retriever decided to switch sides. We reached the blind, and climbed in next to each other.
His interest about duck hunting was mind-boggling, with questions about who, what, when and where. The first 15 minutes were filled with excitement and awe at being on the river and in a duck blind.
By all standards of measurement, it was not an ideal duck day. The temperature was in the high 50s, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. A half-hour into our hunt, the excitement of the duck blind began to wear off. My son was soon skipping from side to side in the blind, and reminding me that he missed Mom.
I asked him if he would like to blow on the duck calls. A smile erupted on his face. The sounds produced over the next few moments were those of a duck hunter in training. I can only hope by starting young, he will master the art better than I have.
Several minutes after the calling ceased, a lone drake mallard circled overhead. As if it knew exactly what to do, the drake circled high several times, allowing me to put ear protection on my son and get him ready. The large greenhead then locked and committed to the decoys as if it had never seen them before. With one shot, the bird folded, and my retriever hit the water.
If you can envision and 11-year-old lab hitting the water, it was somewhat slower than she had done in the past. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.
With stiff joints and a gray muzzle, she eased across the shallows to get the bird. With her mouth full of warm feathers, she worked back to the blind. As I gazed into her cloudy eyes, I could still see the young pup crashing across the waters as she had so many times before.
It has been said that old dogs are rare. Not because you don’t encounter them very often, but rather because they possess something special — a commitment to their master, a commitment to their art. A commitment to retrieve with everything they have until the day they are taken off earth.
As the old lady climbed into the blind and dropped the greenhead at our feet, questions came in a flurry once again. I began explaining to my son that as waterfowlers, we are stewards of our community. That by controlling population numbers of species, the health and well being of nature will benefit from our practices. I reminded him we eat everything we shoot, and he is never to touch one of daddy’s guns.
He asked if he could pet the duck. As he was stroking the vibrant green feathers, he looked up at me and said, "Where is this duck’s mommy?" Being caught off guard, I stumbled at first, but then reassured him, and explained that ducks leave their parents at a very young age. As he continued to stroke the duck’s head, I was sure this conversation could only go in one direction: south. Within seconds of my explanation, he looked up at me and asked, "Do ducks have teeth?" I sighed with relief as we opened the duck’s bill to inspect what type of teeth a duck really might have.
With his attention span thinning, I decided to break out the food. We shared a chocolate pudding, ate crackers and washed them down with whatever juice we had left over.
The sole greenhead was the only action that afternoon. We got back into our boat, and my son insisted he pick up every decoy by himself. We paddled back to the truck. When my son stepped out of the boat, the water went over the top of his boots. He glanced at me to see how I was going to react.
I simply smiled and said, "That’s OK, real duck hunters get wet."
The short drive home brought talk of how he still missed Mom, and could not wait to tell her he was a duck hunter.
Later that night while lying in bed, my bride could tell something was not right. She could tell I was struggling. I told her of my experiences over the past two days. I explained I could not believe I was taking my own son duck hunting for the first time.
For as long as I could remember, I was the kid in the duck blind. And that my father watched over me, and taught me everything good about waterfowl hunting: The ethics of taking a close shot, the responsibility of being able to identify birds, and the ability to appreciate the entire experience of duck hunting.
That hunting success is not measured in the number of birds in your bag or the amount of trigger time you had, but in the amount of people time you shared amidst the cattails.
As thrilled as I was about taking my son hunting for the first time, a large part of me did not want to let go. I didn’t want to let go of that front seat position in the canoe. I didn’t want to accept that I was no longer the kid riding in the front of the boat. That I now had the privilege and responsibility to pass on the waterfowl hunting heritage my father had established.
The next morning, I went back to my blind. I sat alone with my old yellow dog at my side as the sun once again broke the tops of the trees. A six-pack of woodies came sailing through my spread. Before I could shoulder my weapon, they were gone. I sat the rest of that morning in silence, thinking about the emotions and experiences of the previous 48 hours.
I found myself caught between being a child and being a man. I was caught somewhere between letting go of my father’s direction and becoming the father to my son that my father was for me.
As I reached down to pet my gray-faced lady, the years on my hands made me believe it.
I was truly no longer the kid in the duck blind.
Ty Peterson hunts ducks near home in Woodruff, Wis.