One Last Hunt at Muck Pond

muck pond
Art by Bob White

Closing a chapter of a friendship

“Plum pudding?” I offered.

“What?”

“Plum pudding. Left over from the party. Here.” I passed the paper plate to Stephen through the driver’s-side window of his Subaru. “Gonna grab my stuff and be right back.”

A few stragglers from the holiday gathering were chatting in the kitchen when I slipped to the basement to grab my cased shotgun and blind bag. A few polite farewells, a kiss on the cheek to my wife and I collapsed into the passenger seat next to Stephen. It was 9 pm. Not as early as we’d have liked to have left, but not bad.

“Should get there around 12:30, I guess,” I said. “Coffee?”

“Sure. Wow, this is great. Your mom make it?” He kept one hand on the wheel while carefully lifting a forkful of pudding with the other.

“No, she got it at the store. Imported from London, according to the can.”

Miles passed, and I-90 lifted us from the cluttered suburbia of western Washington to the cedar-flanked foothills of the Cascade Range. The cedars gave way to hemlock and fir, then snow-dusted spruce as we crested the pass. The night was clear. A waning moon floated above the peaks to the south. To the east, a black horizon of stars.

We traveled in comfortable silence. Stephen and I had been making this pilgrimage to eastern Washington for two decades together. First as kids in the back of my dad’s Ford Club Wagon, then as college students in my two-door Corolla, now as fathers ourselves who braved the icy roads in sensible all-wheel-drive vehicles. One hundred ninety-six miles each way. Seven hours of driving, round trip, if the pass was clear. Longer if it wasn’t. Dozens of times per season, dozens of seasons in the rearview mirror. Hundreds of hours of talking and napping and laughing and fellowship that, cumulatively, formed the foundation of a friendship without tension or pretense. “You guys just get each other,” as my wife put it. And though neither of us wanted to dwell on it, both Stephen and I knew this particular trip could be our last.

Stephen was halfway through his final year of medical school, set to graduate in June. After that? “Who knows,” as he put it. January marked the initiation of residency interviews that would determine his landing spot for the next seven years. California, possibly, or Arizona, or Arkansas. But all options were out of state, with little to no time off during the hunting season. “This will be it for me, I think, this season,” Stephen had said earlier in the week. “You down for one last classic hunt at Muck Pond?”

The unimaginatively named Muck Pond is a shallow warm-water seep that drains into an irrigation wasteway in the heart of a popular public wildlife area. When Stephen and I first stumbled upon the pond as teenagers—in the days before smartphone mapping apps—we sensed we’d uncovered something sacred. A handful of other hunters knew of the pond certainly (a well-established blind guarded the east end), but none in our immediate circles. We swore one another to secrecy, agreeing to invite just one other friend to join us for a hunt the following Wednesday.

That first hunt, on the week before Christmas, opened our eyes to a standard of mallard hunting for which we had no framework. Flocks of 60, 80 mallards plummeted toward the pond in freefall at first light. We shot. Reloaded. Shot again. And still they came.

When it was over, Stephen and I and our friend left the blind laden with our first-ever limit of 21 wild greenheads, and our standards would never be the same. Gone were the days of being pleased with a dozen shots fired and two skinny wigeon on the strap. We were like a couple of seventh-grade students who had been invited by the varsity cheer captain to the high school dance and, having seen and heard and tasted, the middle school socials weren’t going to cut it anymore.

“Twenty degrees,” Stephen nodded toward the dash as we dipped out of the pass into the broad plains of the Columbia plateau. “Perfect.”

I agreed. Anywhere between 14 and 28 degrees for an overnight low presented ideal conditions for a hunt at Muck Pond. Cold enough to freeze the sheetwater and shallow lakes that dotted the wildlife area but not so cold to freeze the seep itself. The birds would be concentrated. I lifted the thermos. “Refill?”

We arrived at the public parking area at 12:19 am and began strapping gear to our jogging strollers. In our younger days we lugged the blocks and birds on our backs, but somewhere in our mid-20s Stephen came up with a plan to convert used jogging strollers into DIY decoy carts. We never looked back.

“See you at six,” Stephen said when the last bungee was clipped. “Text me if you lose feeling in your extremities. I just completed an amputation unit last week.” I grunted something in reply and nosed my stroller into the night. It was Stephen’s turn to sleep in the vehicle, my turn to lay claim to the blind. But I didn’t mind. I had two zero-degree-rated sleeping bags strapped to my cart, a full-size pillow stuffed in my frame pack and two chemical handwarmers to stuff in my socks. What’s more, the night was stunning—a true midnight clear. The stars were sharp. Prairie grass glittered in the light of my headlamp. I began to sing. Softly, at first, then with a voice to match the fullness of my heart.

Stephen arrived at the blind an hour before dawn and the mallards not long after. “Look at these,” Stephen whispered. “Right in the hole.” It was still eight minutes till shooting light, so Stephen and I watched in silent satisfaction as the dozen or so mallards chuckled down with a splash just 10 yards in front of the plywood blind. A rush of wings overhead signaled the arrival of more, and by the time Stephen’s phone showed 7:15, close to 40 ducks were swimming and sipping in our decoys.

“On three,” Stephen mouthed, holding up three fingers. “One, two . . . .” We eased to our feet. The group on our left flushed, followed by those directly in front. I raised my gun but couldn’t find a clean target against the black reeds. Stephen’s gun popped twice.

“More on the way,” he said, reaching for a box of shells. “These next ones are yours.”

The three mallards circled directly over the blind. Though it was still too gray to see color, the drake’s long neck and large body were easy to pick out. Another circle. I swung hard as they passed at 15 yards.

“Nice shot,” Stephen said. “You pummeled that one.”

“Not bad yourself,” I replied, nodding to his birds on the water.

We added five more mallards to the strap before the initial flurry dried up. By then the sun was beginning to touch the orchards on the hills that guarded the valley, and flights of snow geese could be heard in the distance. We leaned our shotguns against the frame and stood, keeping our eyes on the horizon.

“You remember that time we were here with Landon . . .” I began.

“And the dude with the pitchfork showed up?” Stephen finished. “I was literally just thinking about that on the hike in.” We both laughed as we recalled the hunter’s unorthodox method of decoy transport: six plastic mallards hanging from the points of a pitchfork he carried over his shoulder like a tin soldier’s rifle.

“Haven’t seen that guy in ages,” Stephen said. “Or the Marlboro Man.” I nodded, thinking of the local character known for chain-smoking in the parking lot until the first group of hunters finished their limits. He would rub out his cigarette, whistle for his Lab and then assume possession of the hot blind. Not a bad public-hunting strategy, if you have the time and the smokes.

“Here’s two,” Stephen said, reaching for a call. “Is this me or you?”

“You,” I said, picking up the jerk cord. The pair hovered over the decoys, Stephen sighted down his barrel like a scoped .243, and the hen fluttered away by herself until she was out of sight.

“Classic Muck Pond,” Stephen observed as he slipped a shell into the underside of his action.

“Classic,” I agreed. The next 45 minutes brought more of the same. Stephen and I took turns standing as singles and doubles banked in for a landing. The glittering green heads of the drakes were almost dazzling in the midmorning sun. Our straps began to sag on their pegs in the blind. 

We always picked our shots carefully at Muck Pond, as a rule. The seep is surrounded by a nightmarish mess of head-high reeds growing in knee-deep slop, which makes finding cripples an exercise in futility, even with a stout dog. But our discretion this day was based as much on sentiment as it was on ethics. It was 9:30, and we were just four birds short of a limit. Though we didn’t care to mention it aloud, both Stephen and I knew that the next flight of mallards that lifted from the dry corn could signal the close of this chapter of our friendship.

That flight arrived just before 10 and, despite our caution, I somehow managed to screw it up. “I think you hit one of those birds too,” Stephen said. “Right there. See that greenhead swimming toward the shore?”

Stephen plugged his ears as I sent a swatter load toward the distant drake. And another. And another. Undeterred, the bird clambered up the ice edge and disappeared into the reeds.

“I’m going after him,” I announced, slipping the sling of my shotgun over my shoulder. “You’re still one short, right?”

“Yep. You too.”

I unhooked the zip tie that served as a door latch. “Just start calling, if you see any ducks.”

The muck for which the pond is named hits the average wader mid-thigh and is the consistency of slurry concrete. It took me five minutes to reach the opposite shore, where I found the cripple’s trail without difficulty. Bright drops of red flecked the frosted ice. Crawling, I entered the reeds.

I had just emerged with the mallard in hand, sweating and heaving, when Stephen’s single-reed rang across the marsh. I froze. From my vantage 60 yards distant, I watched the flock circle once, twice and then commit. Stephen’s hat appeared above the lip of the blind, the birds flared and a single shot sent a greenhead tumbling. The rest of the flock veered away from the blind—directly toward me, just 20 yards high. My gloved thumb found the safety.

“Well, that worked out,” Stephen called from the blind. He was smiling. As I waded into the muck to pick up the final drake of the morning, so was I.

I was surprised to find no sorrow in my heart as we closed the latch on the blind and turned our backs toward Muck Pond. Maybe it was the sunshine, now full and warm on the dripping sage. Maybe it was the thought of cheeseburgers and lattes in Ellensburg, just an hour’s drive away. Maybe it was the 14 mallards strapped to our strollers.

Or maybe it was something more like a realization—unspoken, half-conscious, but warmer than the sun on the green prairie grass. C.S. Lewis once described friendship as two people who, upon discovering a common passion or common experience, “stand at once together in immense solitude.” Intimacy isolates by its very nature. It draws the pair apart from the many. This, for Stephen and me, was the solitude of Muck Pond.

From that plywood blind, side by side, we had seen wonders. We had killed ducks. We had cursed. We had soaked in soft sunrises and braced against bitter winds. We had shared Pop Tarts and prayers. We had amassed, over decades, a common memory bank filled with beating hearts and whistling wings and jammed actions and missed shots and belly laughs that no one else could access, because no one else had been there. Except Stephen. And me.

So as we walked on the dirt road that morning, smiling and talking freely, both Stephen and I knew we weren’t really leaving. Muck Pond is a place where two friends will always stand, side by side, in immense solitude, together.

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