The things I remember missing
Story & Illustration by Bob White
When I was a boy, the year was divided into just three parts. In descending order of importance they were: hunting season, Christmas and the rest of the year.
Once I was old enough to drive and began exploring the local river bottoms, duck hunting became my singular passion. Everything about it appealed to me. It was romantic to be awake in the hours before dawn while the rest of the world slept. It was exciting to be on the rivers and in the flooded timber—wild and dangerous places in the extremes of winter. And perhaps most important: The birds were migrants from mysterious and distant lands. I fell in love with duck hunting for the same reason I prefer to fish moving water. It’s said that you can never step into the same river twice. Likewise, a duck marsh is in a constant state of change with weather and migration.
I hadn’t fully appreciated how important duck hunting was to me until a few years ago when I gave it up for a season. The decision wasn’t made lightly, nor was it welcome.
My wife, Lisa, deftly balances my passions with the precarious living I make as an artist. The second floor of our home had tipped the equilibrium, however. I’d gutted it seven years before to prepare a nursery for the arrival of our daughter. Now she was 10 years old and the job remained unfinished. My time and focus were needed at home.
Although I didn’t hunt that season, I still tasted the wind and gauged the weather every time I went to the woodshed. My snowbound canoe hadn’t moved from its resting place under the cedars, but my heart still thrilled to think of meandering through the labyrinth of channels in the marsh. My eyes still searched the evening skies.
Just as we sometimes take our loved ones for granted, forgetting the small things about them that are unique and special to us, I found that not hunting for a season inspired me to reflect upon what I love most about time in the marsh.
Certain sparks were predictable, of course, like watching a pair of mallards twist through the trees to land on the brook behind the studio. Others were more subtle and interesting.
These were some of my most poignant recollections . . .
• Waking to the sound of my flat-coated retriever’s tail thumping in the darkness. Certainly he’d known we were going hunting, as he’d watched my preparations, but how had he known that it was time? Had I stirred, or had he been awake all night?
• The smell of that first cup of coffee. (It’s different standing on the back porch in the darkness.)
• I missed the pre-dawn moan of the wind through the limbs of the ancient white pine that guards our home.
• A dark, low, woolen sky spitting sleet, and the sound of it on the tin roof of the woodshed.
• Water dripping off the end of my canoe paddle, and the reflections of the night sky distorted by the wake of my passing.
• The sound of gusts coming suddenly through the flooded timber and driving water spouts across the marsh.
• I didn’t realize how much I cherished the slow, eventual graying of dawn.
• Or the lonely calls of crows as they paddle across the sky.
• I missed the smell of wet wool, a wet dog and pipe tobacco.
• I’d forgotten about the marsh hay I’d gathered into my blind for the added insulation . . . grateful for the retriever beside me.
• And Luke spotting birds on the horizon I hadn’t yet seen.
• I could close my eyes and hear the ripping-silk sound of unseen ducks as they fell from the sky.
• And hear shotshells falling to the floor of the blind as I desperately tried to reload.
• I thought about the surprisingly good taste of a nearly frozen liverwurst sandwich and a barely warm boiled egg.
• Maple leaves showering upon the river as I paddled through long afternoon shadows.
• I remembered the sound of snow falling on still evenings.
• Watching dusk creep across the marsh and up the bluff—the rusty reds of the oaks deepening to ruby and orange while the shadows turned into pools of ultramarine and purple.
• I missed the calling of swans and the knowledge that the last of the northern birds soon would follow.
• I missed the satisfaction of ducks hanging under the eave of the back porch, a perfect kinetic sculpture twisting in the wind.
• I remembered the smell of roasted duck and the sizzle of dripping fat. The earthy aroma of wild rice and butternut squash, and the sound of a long cork pulled from a bottle of Argentine Malbec.
• I recalled Luke’s tail-thumps on the floor as he chased ducks in his dreams.
Later, in bed, while following the twisted thread between consciousness and dreams, I realized that the most poignant hunting stories are written after the season’s end . . . just as the truest love poems are composed in the absence of a lover.