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When the skies opened

“Would you like full coverage on the vehicle?” the young woman behind the Saskatoon car rental counter asked. “It’s about $200 extra, Canadian,” she said, a little apologetically. But added with a much brighter tone: “Bumper-to-bumper, no questions asked. Anything happens, just walk away.”

Anything happens, just walk away. My mind flashed back to my own truck’s checkered past, the encounters with submerged logs, mud, boulders, and precipices that didn’t always end well.

“It’s a deal,” I said, handing her my credit card.

An hour later later I arrived at my destination, one of those small towns where the bank teller is also the lady you hand your package to at the post office. It took only a few minutes to drive down every street until I recognized the place the five of us had rented for the week, a nice little house in a quiet neighborhood of families and retired people. Some older residents gathered on a porch watched me drive by twice, a look of curiosity on their faces the first time, suspicion the second time. But both times, with a wave.


Rain passed by in the distance, but throughout our stay the weather felt more like California than Saskatchewan in late September.

I had been to Canada many times, the first few with outfitters, the last one without. This time we were on our own, too. The flight up to Saskatoon had been packed with hunters, the ones surrounding me part of the same group. A boisterous, moneyed bunch, already boasting about how well they were going to do, based on photos their guide had sent them of  previous hunts, and giddy from small bottles of Jack and being off their respective leashes.

“Who are you hunting with?” my row-mate turned to me and asked. He handed me his phone, which showed a photo of what his outfitter had produced for a group the day before, the kind I’ve learned to call the you shoulda been here yesterday photo.

“Some friends from Iowa and California” I replied.

“No, I mean, what outfitter are you using?”

“Not using  one,” I shrugged.

“Wow. Well, how will you know where to go? Where are you staying?”

“Well, we basically just drive around until we find the birds, and then knock on doors,” I said. “Almost always get a yes from the farmers. We’ve got a house and I’ll be doing the cooking. Hopefully be making some duck or goose.”

I don’t know whether it was the thought of duck dinners or of being totally responsible for your own success or failure, but I could tell our adventure wasn’t his idea of a good time. Which made me realize how much it was my idea of a good time. I was suddenly very proud to be going to Canada unguided, and grateful for all the work that two of our group – Mike and Don – had done to pave the way for this particular hunt. I’ve had some great hunts in Canada and elsewhere with outfitters and guides, but there’s just something deeper and more meaningful about doing it yourself. We’d be figuring out where to go, what decoys to put out and how to arrange them, when to shoot and when to hold off. Win or lose, we would each be able to say, to quote Frank Sinatra, I did it my way.

Settled in at the house, gun, gear, and clothes laid out for a quick get-ready at 4am, we went over the plan. The three that had driven up from Iowa the day before – Mike, Mike’s son Alec, and Dave – had already been out scouting that evening, and a good field had been secured.

The next morning, we loaded into the truck and headed out, a trailer filled with decoys and layout blinds in tow. We were minus Don, who’d arrived late the night before after getting held up in customs and missing his flight. We set out the decoys – mostly ducks and some geese based on the previous day’s observations – and arranged them and the layout blinds according to the light breeze. With the truck stashed behind a stand of trees and us closed up in our brushed up coffins, we counted down the minutes to shoot time.

No matter how many hunts I go on, the magic of those moments will never be lost. The first light on the horizon. The sudden whoosh of a silhouetted duck or whistle of wings. The distant sound of geese getting up, long black strands breaking up and becoming thousands of black dots that we hope will head our way. The alertness and anticipation building as the quiet reports come: five minutes, three minutes, one minute.


We put out a light spread of duck and dark goose decoys that first morning, based on the birds seen working the field the evening before.

The swarms of birds we were hoping for didn’t arrive, though we were kept busy throughout the morning with singles and pairs, mostly ducks and the occasional goose. When we packed up, our harvest was meager by Canada standards. But all of us except one were former Wister hunters, that desert-surrounded waterfowl area by the Salton Sea in inland Southern California. By Wister standards it had been a very good day, there being nothing but mallards and a couple of cacklers on the strap, and because we hadn’t braved the infamous Wister mud, bugs, and brain-boiling heat to get them.

So rather than disappointment, I think we all felt it was just a good warm up for the week to come. The birds were breasted out in a matter of minutes and after naps, sorting gear, and other chores, the rest of crew took the two trucks and went scouting. I stayed behind to work on dinner, marinating our morning’s take, making do with what I’d thought to buy at the local store and what seasonings I could find in the cupboards. That evening we talked about our opportunities for the next day’s hunt over a plate of wasabi rice, Caesar salad, and fresh-as-it-gets mallard with a drizzle of sweet chili sauce. Dinner

Making dinner for me and my friends, with ducks we’d harvested that very day, is one of the things I enjoy most about a do-it-yourself hunt in Canada. That and discussing what the scouts had seen; fields loaded with grazing snows, dark geese and ducks piling into potholes, birds on the move throughout our area. Thanks to past trips, Mike and Don had phone numbers to several of the fields’ owners, and only a couple required us to ask around and visit a farm house.

In California and other places, asking for permission to hunt someone’s property can be intimidating. You never know what kind of response you’re going to get, from militant anti-hunters to stay-the-hell-off-my-land types to some just too worried about liabilities and lawsuits to give you a yes. But Canada is a different story. With the damage that geese do to crops, farmers welcome hunters and will go out of their way to provide an opportunity for you and intel about where the geese are going. I think even if geese weren’t damaging crops, farmers in Canada would probably still let us hunt. Because they’re just good, helpful people.

Of course, we’re not just helping farmers by reducing the goose population in our own small way. They overgraze the delicate vegetation in the tundra, exposing the dark peat soil to wind and water erosion, and burgeoning goose populations are causing other species to lose their nesting territories. In other words, you can’t be anti-hunting and pro-environment.

Goose_blindOff into the dark we went the next morning, in two trucks towing fully loaded trailers, headed toward the spot that had been pinned the evening before. Headlamp beams bouncing around the gentle sloping field we tossed up chaff to confirm the wind direction and positioned the layout blinds and full body, sillosock, spinning wing and motion decoys – nearly our entire arsenal. That done, we settled into our blinds to await the first of the day’s customers.

And come to us they did, dark silhouettes at first and then with more detail as the morning dawned – the whites and mottled blue-grays of snow geese, and small Ross’s geese, and the green heads of drake mallards, some bright as emeralds and others still in their splotchy green and brown eclipse plumage. So many swirled around us, from every direction, feet down and wings cupped, hovering on the wind right overhead, or already landed and walking through our decoys, eye to eye with their lifeless plastic replicas. It was hard to tell which group had prompted the shout of “take ’em!” Shouldering out of our layout blinds, guns blazing, birds cartwheeled out of the sky on top of us or glided down just beyond our spread. After each volley the two black labs, Nike and Zoey, raced into the field, bringing back the nearest and then heading out again to pursue the distant ones.

It wasn’t long before we realized we’d done it. We were on the proverbial “X.” And no guide was getting the credit, just us. Approaching geese drove us back into hiding throughout the morning, so many that we could afford the luxury of picking the perfect groups. And that is another wonder of Canada, peering at geese and ducks without the pressure to take every shot. Many are so close you can see every feathered detail and I felt the wing beat of one duck as it nearly knocked my hat off. After so many years of waterfowl hunting when only one or two ducks might come close enough for a passing shot, the aerial show in Canada is spell-binding. Watching birds working the spread, dodging each other as they compete for airspace, flipping and spilling the wind from their wings to hasten their descent, dropping their flaps and landing gear as they vector in for a landing all makes for the most incredible moments of waterfowl hunting.


Americans on the “X”: Mike, Neil, Don, and Dave. With Alec behind the camera.

In fact, the only problem with a Canada hunt that goes well is that it’s over too soon. Our hunt that morning felt that way, as we tallied up our harvest and targeted the final geese that brought us to 100. And that number represented both good news and bad.

In past trips, we’d stayed at a small, somewhat run-down – but very charming – hotel with a bar and grill. Providing our own meals – and drinks – wasn’t a problem now, but something else about our new situation was becoming one. Before, we’d barely get all the day’s breast meat into a bag out in back of the hotel before one of the bar and grill customers, sometimes several of them, would appear around the corner to take it off our hands. Now, in a house by ourselves, we were amassing enough goose and duck meat to feed a small army. And then a small army found us – a local fellow with seven kids who wanted all we could provide. Whew. Problem solved, ours and his.


Alec with Canada’s version of Big Bird

Later that day, after feasting on tacos stuffed with carnitas that had been slow-cooking for six hours, the process of scouting and planning began again. And after a few hours of sleep, the early morning ritual of setting up decoys and hunting as well, all of it to be repeated several more times before the week’s adventure was over. We had great hunts in the days that followed, sometimes just targeting dark geese or getting limits of ducks, though never quite like the constant grind we had going that one morning. Which was fine, because I had a photo on my phone just as impressive as the one I’d been shown on the flight up. And another one maybe more so, for the violent, beautiful, split-second of chaos it captured.


Sometimes it was a moment away from hunting that was worth a photo. Like setting my family’s signature cocktail down – a perfect Manhattan, the same drink my grandmother and parents were fond of – on the old picnic table we’d been using to clean the birds. Of all the places my Manhattans have ever been, or ever will be, none could be more worth immortalizing than that one.

Kill_table_manhattanWe were all up early Sunday morning; Mike, Dave, and Alec heading out on the long drive back to Iowa, and Don and I going to the airport for our flights back to California. At the rental counter again, we handed over the keys to the truck.

“Any damage to report?” inquired the agent, a young man this time. I thought of the mud-encrusted wheel wells. The murder scene in the back. Blood, guts, and feathers everywhere.

“Nope,” we both said in unison.

A few weeks from now, the waterfowl season will  begin in California. There will surely be good hunts this year, but none as richly layered and satisfying as the days in Canada. Ducks and the occasional goose will appear, shots will ring out, and feathers will fly. A dog will swim out to a fallen one or maybe two, but not the many that littered our late September field with each five-gun fusillade. The hunts to come will be more luck-of-the-draw at designated spots than the open roaming we did in Canada and the deliberate choices we made, when of all the places for birds to be in that vast region, we chose well and rightly more often not. On blue bird days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sky is empty and silent, it will be good to have an epic adventure still fresh in the mind to reflect upon, when the skies opened and waterfowl rained down.