March 07, 2011
Thin ice and bitter conditions endanger a devoted waterfowl hunter and his trusty hunting companion
It was Dec. 14, 2007. My truck was loaded with gear with my Barnegat in tow. I was headed to my favorite place on the Pend Oreille River in the northeast corner of Washington. I was full of anticipation, knowing well that mid-December marked the strongest migration of redheads, bluebills and canvasbacks.
I arrived at the lodge late and tired that evening. It had been a very long week at work and I was looking forward to enjoying a weekend hunt with just my water spaniel, River. I had been going to the lodge for the past five years, and was greeted by the owners as though I was family. I stay at the cabin nearly every weekend of the 105-day waterfowl season.
I poured my usual glass of scotch, and then sat by the fireplace to catch up on my host's hunts. Later, after making a large lunch for the following day, it was time for me to get some needed rest. River had already gone to bed, knowing she was in for a long, cold day.
INTO THE SNOWY STILLNESS
I awoke to the alarm, and found myself moving like a 54-year old who had been doing this for 40 years. My spirit was full of anticipation at what first light would bring, but my body didn't seem to agree.
Despite greater risk than hunting with a partner, the author generally hunts only with his retriever.
After eating my favorite old-fashioned donuts and drinking a cup of coffee, it was time for a short drive to the boat launch. While driving, I remember thanking God for giving me so many days in the marsh. It seems to be the only place that restores my soul.
While pulling into the launch, I felt it would be wise to chain up the truck. Nothing will wake you up faster than laying on the snowy ground in the dark, putting on cold chains.
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Once aboard the boat and following my GPS plotter trail, I worked my way upriver in the snowy darkness. River, as usual, was up on the bow with a heart full of excitement, visualizing our arrival. I labored over which blind to hunt, and finally decided to set up on the downriver point of an island. My decoy set consisted mostly of canvasbacks, redheads and two-dozen shell goose decoys. The bay on my left was completely frozen over. It was 14 degrees when I left the lodge. The main river channel on my right was open and flowing with a light current.
At first light, the stillness in the air took me by surprise. Not many birds were trading on the river. Snow was falling hard, and I assumed the birds would move once the storm subsided. After sitting in the blind for two hours, I decided to dunk the decoys to wash off all of the fallen snow. The few birds that did work our set flared on the final approach.
Finally, as I looked upstream, I saw a large flock of about 60 redheads trading downriver toward my blind. As they made the first pass, I called on my 1940s Zimmerman broadbill call.
They liked what they saw and heard. Aggressively banking, the divers turned into the wind for their final approach. My side-by-side barked twice. To my astonishment, two drakes lay still in the decoys.
River was doing her best to get both of them in one pass. She finally gave in and delivered one to my hand, then went back for the other. She then gave me that look like, "Now, this is what we came for!"
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As I was putting the birds on my leather strap, I heard the faint call of a Canada goose behind us. River held her ears high, trying desperately to locate the goose. I made a quick call on my flute, then looked to my right, where a single was locked up and coming into the decoys.
I missed on my first shot, but folded the large goose on the second. River was very aggressive, as always. When it comes time for her to fetch Canadas, I think she is reminded of the very first goose she retrieved. When she was 10 months old, a goose beat her profusely with its wings. From that day forward, even a call on my flute gets her wired.
A FATEFUL GOOSE ENCOUNTER
Little did I know that during the next turn of events, I would be on my knees praying!Again, I heard a distant call from a goose. This time, River was locked on the bird with both eyes. The goose was coming into the decoys as though it was on a suicide mission. I stood up, shot and folded the goose. It fel
l to my left and landed on the ice in the bay.
River eyes the sky for the next flock of divers.
River bolted out of the blind and ran out on the ice. I called for her to stop, but she ignored my command. She had been whistle-trained to stop on command, but by the time I found the whistle on my lanyard, she had fallen through about five yards in front of the goose.
My Barnegat was parked 300 yards upstream from me on the island point. I asked myself,
"What can I do?" She was barely hanging onto the ice by her front paws, fighting the current that was trying to pull her under. She cried profusely — with a cry unlike any I have ever heard.
I knew she would be gone by the time I went to get my boat and came back. I did not have rope in the blind, and my life jacket was in my boat.
I knelt and said a quick prayer.
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The spot in the ice was rotten where she went through. I didn't see another dark spot like that between her and me. Having no other options, I took my heavy parka off, lay down on the ice and started crawling toward her. I wasn't sure she would last, as her shrill voice was getting softer.
I knew if the ice gave way under me, neither I, nor River, would be coming home. I kept calling her name and slowly crawled toward her, asking myself, "What are you doing, you idiot? Your life isn't worth your dog!"
River has always aggressively retrieved Canada geese.
But I had no other option. All I kept thinking about was the long ride home without my hunting partner. As I moved forward, my pace slowed. I knew it wasn't the right thing to do. I was sick to my stomach, cold, wet and scared.
Finally, I drew close enough to reach for her. I grabbed her front paw. Right then, she slipped back into the water as though saying, "I have had enough."
I pulled as hard as I could. The ice broke toward me. Still, I would not let go of River. I backed up and pulled again. This time, she slid up onto the ice.
River laid for a moment on the ice, wet and exhausted with barely any life left in her. I inched backward, reaching and pulling her toward me.
When we finally reached the shore, I ran to the blind with her. I quickly wrapped her in a wool blanket and rubbed her until she warmed up. We then went running up the island to warm her more. By then, she was acting like nothing had ever happened.
As the danger waned for River, I thought about how fortunate we both are to be able to plan for our next trip to the marsh.
A MAN AND A SPANIEL
The passion to waterfowl hunt is so deeply imbedded in me that I have yet to find anyone that likes the sport as much as I do. I have primarily hunted alone all my life, and have been told numerous times that is a mistake, especially when things go wrong. I have been blessed on a few risky occasions and I have always made it home. With the exception of a hunt or two a year, I'm not willing to share my blind with anyone, except my best friend, River, my American water spaniel.
Gary March, and his retriever, River, hail from Nine Miles Falls, Wash.