“Anyone who goes on the sea the year around in a small boat…does not seek danger. You may be absolutely sure that in a year you will have it without seeking it, so you always try to avoid it all you can.” — Ernest Hemingway
An old-fashioned Brant hunt
February 28, 1976 — Samish Bay. Warrant Officer Harold Thornton and Captain Paul Walters, 92nd Aviation Co., headquartered in Everett, were on a routine training flight in their Army whirlybird above the tumultuous waters of northern Puget Sound. When they circled up into Bellingham Bay, they noticed something off to the left of their flight-path, low in the heavy swells and wallowing badly. Swinging their big craft over, they paused like a huge hummingbird above a big old double-ended workboat. The guy aboard was wielding one oar, trying to hold the old scow’s head to the seas. He looked tired and seasick. He was both. He was also crazy. You have to be crazy to be a brant hunter.
I can attest to these latter statements though they don’t appear in the 92nd’s log entry. They were looking at your humble correspondent, rendered even humbler by the 30-knot wind, the dizzying march of the waves, and a couple of balky outboards.
“Not too many hunters ever try for the Cadillac of waterfowl,” Vince Cottrell told me a couple weeks earlier, sitting in his Seattle kitchen and sipping strong coffee. Rawboned and wind-burned, Vince looked hardy enough to take on anything. “Not the way we do it, anyhow. Josh Green, the Seattle pioneer, was one of those hardy enough to do it.”
He was talking about brant, the elusive sea goose that loves rough bays the way a Canada honker loves grain fields. The first time Vince tried to show me what it was all about the big winds blew us right off Samish Bay. His old 19-foot black-hulled boat with a dory-style rocker bottom rocked and rolled us across a beam sea and earned my confidence, but after a slow, rolling orbit around the blinds, Vince called off the hunt. I didn’t want to quit; I was afraid I’d never get another chance.
But now the last day of February, the last day of brant season, I was back on the beach behind the oyster sheds, helping a giant I knew only as Tom muscle the dead weight of that 19-footer into floatable water. Neither Vince nor Warren, his partner in ownership of the offshore blind, was with us. Both were down with severe bronchitis, a brant hunter’s avocational affliction. Fred, Vince’s father-in-law, was skipper. The fourth of our party was Bruce Stoddard, an optometrist I met on the earlier trip.
Fred, years before this hunt took place, went poking around Samish Bay looking for a place to shoot brant. The oyster beds are privately owned. Getting a spot there was about as likely as winning the lottery. The oyster harvesters noted that Fred was missing one arm, and couldn’t take him seriously. Men with both arms were reluctant to try the bay on for size when it was up and roaring. But Fred was obsessed with the sea geese. He finally talked them into it.
“But it took a lot of convincing,” he told me. A small, wiry guy who handled a long double-barrel 12-gauge more deftly with one arm than most men with two, he had the oystermen build a blind for him. He purchased the old boat from other branters when they moved up to something fancier with a cuddy cabin for weather protection. Over the years, his prowess with boat and gun on the savagely treacherous bay earned him respect and solicitude of the tough bay folk. It was seldom a pair of binoculars weren’t trained from time to time on his blind any day it was being gunned. None of us knew about the binoculars that day, but I for one came to be very grateful.
On an ideal day, with four men gunning, the fixed-blind and pickup-boat concept was a model of teamwork. Trawls of brant decoys — about ten to the trawl — are anchored with a weight at each end that would hold a good sized boat in more protected waters. A coffee can filled with cement is one variety. One steersman and three trawl-handlers make quick work of this. Two gunners scramble into the blind. The pickup boat stands off beyond spooking range. Successful shooting is signaled by a big white flag and the boat runs in to pick up. They won’t even consider using retrievers on Samish Bay. The last Labrador another group sent for a brant never came back.
Older blinds were perched on treated pilings high enough to clear high tide. The new kind was mounted on a truncated steel windmill tower, set into place by a barge-mounted derrick. The blinds were simple “piano-blind” boxes, big enough for two, with a slanting roof for concealment and to keep the rain off. Weathered and bereft of camouflage, they didn’t bother the brant. The shooting teams trade between boat and blind until the falling tide chases them off the eelgrass beds. If they linger too long, they wait for the tide to come back and float them.
The day started badly. As I climbed into the blind, Tom attempted to steady the boat, wrapping one strong hand around the gunn’l, fingers outside; a landlubber mistake. A wave slammed the boat against the steel platform. The tip of one of his fingers was severed. It was gone so swiftly Tom turned to wave Bruce into the blind without realizing what happened. I have that scene burned in my brain: big Tom waving Bruce up — and spraying Bruce, Fred and the bilges crimson. Tom wrapped a dirty handkerchief around the amputated tip and wanted to keep right on; he was itching for action.
We overrode him. Fred took him off across the bumpy bay to an oyster company where he knew first-aid was available. Bruce and I waited in the blind and hoped no brant would decoy, since there was no way to retrieve them. Oldsquaws, bluebills and cormorants came right in. On Samish Bay, they called cormorants “double-enders,” the same thing they call those old workboats. The brant stayed gone until Fred was a low-lying blur rocking his way back to us. Then a small flock of five zeroed in on the decoys with that haunting, fluting call I’ve heard just enough times to recognize. Fred’s homemade decoys — laminated slabs of apple-crate wood from days when crates were made of substantial cedar planks — were the best rough-water decoys I ever hunted over. Each one weighed about as much as a half-dozen of my cork mallards and eeled over those high waves like live birds.
The birds came on my side. I dropped my first brant and ducked out of the way for Bruce to shoot. But they flared and were gone on that blustering wind. I watched my bird drift downwind on the marching waves, willing Fred to kick that old boat along faster. When he finally arrived, he had a brant in the boat; not mine. He’d seen a flock on a collision course, killed the motor, and — amid waves almost five feet high — dropped the closest with a single shot. The retrieve is what took him so long. He hadn’t heard us shoot.
The good news about Tom was that he was on his way to a hospital in the small town of Sedro Wooley. They’d found the tip of his finger in the bilges. There was hope it might be sewed back on, first time I’d heard of such a medical breakthrough. The twentieth century had 25 years to run and many things were changing; some for the better. The bad news was: now we were three. Vince and his partner insisted on two men in the boat, two men in the blind. Fred thought they were overly conservative. Since I was the guest and had a bird down I volunteered for boat duty. I chugged downwind to try to overtake my brant, though I vowed long ago on Florida’s Banana River, in a far milder climate, never to trust another man’s outboard. Doing so this time wrecked our hunt, and could have proved disastrous.
A small enough thing, like the horseshoe nail that lost the war. I hunted the downed brant a half-hour among waves that steadily increased in height. Dark crab-pot floats with white on them kept fooling me until I realized they were anchored and my brant wasn’t. When the waves were so high I couldn’t see foothills behind the shoreline and the wind began to snatch whitecaps off their crests, I turned upwind. Every time I topped a crest, I looked for the blind. I couldn’t see it. But the little kicker and the heavy old boat handled the wild seas with equanimity. Everything was fine until the outboard died.
I was in a trough between waves. If the boat hadn’t been built for tough going, I might have lost it right there. It went broadside and tipped frighteningly before it righted. I scrambled for oars and got them in place as we climbed the next wave. One dug water, turning the prow. It came around handily, like a drift boat, and nosed comfortably over the next wave. I reached with the other oar…
It wouldn’t touch water. I have a 35-inch sleeve and am broad in the chest. The oars were 8 1/2 feet long. But I couldn’t touch water on both sides at the same time. It was now absolutely clear why the two-man rule was in effect. I turned the bow at an angle to the running sea and held it there with a single oar, sculling against the massive push of the water. I used an empty coffee can to bail with the other hand. An awful lot of water was getting aboard. The marching waves and counter-slosh of blood-pink bilges finally unscrewed my equilibrium and I added my breakfast to the mess. I was too busy to worry about it.
I counted wave sets, which came with metronomic frequency. Every momentary break, I crawled to the auxiliary kicker and tried to fire it up; nothing, repeatedly nothing. Every other wave completely immersed the auxiliary on its small bracket. The sparkplug must be soaked. No way to dry it. I crouched forward to the anchor. The line went out — all eighty feet — and hung straight down. I was out of Samish Bay, on Bellingham Bay itself. If things kept on like this, I would be on Puget Sound. Not exactly the Pacific, I told myself; I’m warmly clothed and have plenty of food and liquids in the locker. The worst that can happen is I drift clear across the Sound. Well, no, worst would be getting run down by a freighter in the shipping lanes that didn’t’ spot the low-lying black hull…
Enter the 92nd Aviation Co. They hovered low enough that I could see the concern on their faces. I pointed emphatically at the motors and made a dramatic throat-slashing gesture, back and forth; got a thumbs-up in return. They stayed with me, surfing the wind up there, and made reassuring gestures. I assumed they were reassuring. Native Americans knew sign language was important as vocalization, but hunting wisdom gets lost in a mechanized world. Then the chopper lifted and swept away. I have never felt more lonesome in my life.
But it didn’t last. A big green Marine helicopter appeared overhead. I remembered the Navy and Marines call them helos; chopper was an Army term. Random thoughts the brain jogs loose at the oddest times. The Marine helo dipped west toward the open Sound and swooped low over a distant thrash of white water; a bow wave, coming hard. The helo came back slowly and the vessel followed. Soon I saw heavy spray breaking clear over its bridge as it plowed the waves: a Coast Guard cutter. I later learned it was a 65-footer.
It maneuvered upwind, broached to the sea, and eased delicately toward me. The water was suddenly calm around me; the cutter’s bulk protecting me. My boat bumped the hull. A sailor in a bright orange wetsuit put down a folding ladder. He took a line and secured my boat. I clambered up the ladder, clumsy-footed. With an almost-salute, he said: “Hot coffee below, sir if you’d care for some.”
Right then and there I decided I wouldn’t bitch about my income taxes that year. The skipper was a blocky, neatly-bearded Chief Petty Officer with pale far-seeing eyes. My main concern was for the two men stranded in the blind. The chief got on the air to report rescue of a duck hunter. I said don’t say ducks; duck season is closed and you’ll get the game warden after me. The chief didn’t even know what a brant was; he said most of his rescues involved pleasure boaters, engines disabled, poorly dressed for the weather, suffering hypothermia. He almost grudgingly admitted I was in pretty good shape. I told him rowing keeps you warm, and got a grin. He asked about depths and shoals in Samish Bay. I said I wouldn’t trust it with this size vessel. Before I knew it they lowered away a 12-foot Zodiac inflatable mounting a 25-horse Johnson. “How do we find ‘em?” The chief asked.
“I’ll show you,” I said.
For that, he had to get permission from Seattle headquarters. Ah, bureaucracy! He said permission was granted only if I wore a wet suit. He looked me over: six-two and 240 pounds. I was dressed in long-handles, thick wool shirt and wool pants, a wool sweater, a down vest, a 10-X down hunting coat, size-14 insulated hip boots, with a wool watch cap and wool steelheader’s gloves. I probably looked bigger than I was. He made a command decision.
“We don’t have a crewman your size. I don’t know if we have one in the damn Coast Guard your size.” he poked a stubby finger through the layers on my chest. “You’re dressed for it. If anybody asks, say you had on survival gear.” He tossed me a life jacket. It didn’t fit either.
The fit young sailor in the Zodiac knew only two speeds: at rest and full-out. The rubber boat greyhounded across the waves in a bone-jarring rush. I spread out on the floor to absorb the impact. The life jacket made a nice pillow; I was asleep before I knew it. When the motor slowed I opened my eyes. We were already at the blind. He went into waist deep water and waded to the bottom of the ladder. The blind was empty. He climbed in to ensure nothing had been left behind. The decoys were gone.
“Somebody’s been here,” I said. He reported on his portable radio. “Now we get to play,” he said with a big grin. He surfed the waves downwind, the boat flexing and molding itself to the water. He’d jump off one wave, run up another. Scoot over a few, then surf. I was asleep again when I heard the shout: “We’re there!” At the chief’s request, I went back aboard the workboat to secure gear for towing. I passed up three shotguns from the console gun rack; they rode to Bellingham on a crewman’s bunk. The chief told me headquarters had contacted the boat’s owners in Seattle and they were on their way. I hated the thought of bronchitis-sickened men making that long drive, but understood they’d worry about their equipment. There was a bunch of report-writing to do.
That’s when I found out about those binoculars. An oysterman on Rock Point saw the boat adrift with only one oar working and thought one-armed Fred was in trouble. He called the Coast Guard. Then he heard shooting — Fred killing birds, assuming I would get them on my way back to the blind — and called another bay man. They got the stranded hunters, who were already en route to the hospital to get Tom and his re-attached finger. We all had a happy reunion over a Bellingham seafood dinner before Vince and Warren arrived.
Warren was in a snit. I rode home with them. The whole hundred miles, I silently endured his endless litany of things I probably failed to do to make his motors work. Those motors always started first pull, every time, regardless; I must have flooded the carburetor. I said mildly, no, the waves did that. Then I must have forgotten to change to a full tank he said. I must have left the air vent closed. I must have failed to pump the bulb; on and on and on.
Before long, I drifted into a somnolent state where his steady recital took on the rhythm of the winds on Samish Bay. I had hunted brant, at last, the old way. I had been at the mercy of the bay, and survived. I had done the best I could in a bad situation and would have made it, if I had to drift across the whole damn Sound. I’d enjoyed fresh tax-paid coffee in a Coast Guard mug and a free carnival ride in the Zodiac. It was great to be alive.