CAUGHT LIKE A GREENHORN
Nisqually River Delta, Washington State
December 1979. Ducks jumped ahead of my boat, not fifty yards away. I got a blurred glimpse of flat-black puddle duck silhouette against the grey of the predawn water, straining for altitude. Then they were swallowed in the vaster black of the land beyond. I cut the outboard motor. My big old aluminum skiff glided to rest, hesitated, and began to nod in the slowly building Puget Sound tide. Salt water burbled under the hull. Now I could hear the far-off buzz of some other hunter’s outboard, racing the tardy dawn. The sky was low and dirty overhead, warmfront stratus promising rain but little turbulence. In toward the featureless shoreline, somebody belabored a duck call with more energy than talent.
I took a sounding with my wooden 14-foot pushpole, warped from years of service. About five feet of water. Over where the ducks had jumped, a snag stood out of the water, thrown up here on the broad Nisqually delta during one of the recent heavy floods. The boat ambled around beam-to the tide. The flick-flick of the buoy light caught my eye, out on the edge of the shipping channel where Nisqually Reach bent around Anderson Island. I still couldn’t make out my shoreward landmarks, but the position of the light looked right. The jumping ducks were a good sign. I was pretty sure I’d found the area they used to rest between feeding flights into the national refuge inshore. The tidal swell moved under me, slow and oily. A squadron of seagulls beating out from land flared higher, crying, as they came upon me unexpectedly here in the gloom.
I muscled the first heavy decoy sack into place between my knees, dropped the first window-sash weight over the side, and paid out rope. Metal harness rings were secured at intervals along the hemp with a simple overhand knot. I pulled a decoy out of the bag and snapped its swivel, dangling from a short cord, into each ring. With ten decoys stretched uptide, I snapped in a second sash-weight line, cranked the motor, and idled the boat around against the tide.
The string of handmade cork mallards bobbed in my wake like plastic ducks at a carnival ring toss. When I had a horseshoe bend in the line, I put the second anchor over, moved the boat away from the trawl and repeated the process. Five trawls of ten decoys, with a half dozen individually rigged blocks to break up the regularity of the bends, went into place without too much effort.
The light was getting better. I could make out low-lying marsh grass not too far inshore now. A pair of quick-flying widgeon checked above the spread, saw me, and went on. I motored over to the snag, bent a bowline around it, and draped the boat in muddy canvas tarps. I sat down amidships and Harry, my undersize Labrador, already muzzle grey after seven seasons, rearranged himself to lie with his head on my knee. I uncased the Browning Automatic Five, fed shells, poured my first cup of coffee from one of my two-quart vacuum bottles, and was ready.
The first unanticipated gust of south wind thumped into me sometime later.
The direction was unexpected. It rippled the oily tide, and moved the decoys smartly. The boat swung downwind on its tether.
“Maybe some ducks will move now,” I told Harry. He was asleep and my voice didn’t rouse him.
A couple weaker gusts and the wind died. A brief curtain of rain obscured Anderson Island off across the leaden water. I poured more coffee and wished I hadn’t forgot my pipe and tobacco. Inland, a small bright silver cartopper headed back toward the launch across the now flooded flats I had skirted on my pre-dawn run. There hadn’t been much shooting anywhere this morning.
The ten o’clock flight, something duck hunters look for from the Chesapeake to the Colorado River, consisted of one greenwing teal drake, which I managed to bag. A rainsquall moved across me later, and I huddled inside my new Columbia rain parka. Behind the rain came more wind, freshening and steadying, again from the south. Small whitecaps began to kick up. My layout was wrong for a south wind. I was far over toward the low-lying north shore of the delta. Wind dipping over the high south bluffs, or coming around them, had a straight run at me.
I mentally replayed the recorded voice that had hummed down the wires to my kitchen from wherever they recorded Pilot Weather for the Pacific Northwest. The route forecast had mentioned low visibility in clouds and fog, mild temperatures, stratus formations. There had been something too about an occluded frontal system. My unfinished ground schooling — where I had quickly copied the Pilot Weather number into my address book as a duck hunter’s secret weapon — dredged up the knowledge that occluded meant a fast-moving cold front overtaking and stalling on a slower warm front.
The wind gusted again. The temperature was dropping, too. The cloud ceiling stirred into restless motion. I debated whether to begin picking up in the choppy whitecaps, or ride out what I hoped was a transient condition and hope for bird activity. A few flocks were moving over the refuge now. I decided to wait. Gradually, the wind settled into a steady push. The wind waves grew and marched across the dropping tide. By almost unnoticeable degrees, the midday light began to shift as the clouds changed character, and an occasional rift appeared. Squalls marched and countermarched across the unsettled face of the sound. The big skiff bucked against its restraint, making the snag nod solemnly. The apparent temperature continued to drop.
I dug into my lunch and enjoyed the spectacle. This was more like duck-hunting weather, even if the ducks weren’t working my rig.
The tide’s ebb was heavy now, treacherously crosscutting the big wind in a characteristic Nisqually trap for the unwary. Acres and acres of grass, and then streaming mud, humped out of the wavelets. To the uninitiated, the amount of real estate uncovered by a dropping Washington tide can be awe-inspiring. There was maybe a foot of water under my keel now. The snag stood well above me, and I had to reach up to loosen the mooring line. I cast off, figuring to drift out to deeper water on the tide.
I hadn’t drifted a hundred yards when I went hard aground. Somehow I had managed to guide the boat into a residual pool surrounded by mud. Before I could find an outlet, the pool was too thin to float me. Aground for good and all. I looked at my watch: two-thirty. The tide would peak again at eight p.m. A shorter tide than the one I came in on — six feet shorter. I looked back at the snag, estimated its height, and relaxed. The eight p.m. high should float me.
Not twenty feet beyond the prow of my boat, the mud slanted like a roof toward a rapidly narrowing slough that drained this part of the flats. Several trawls of my decoys already were aground. I walked out and dragged them back into the water and closer to the boat. Harry padded around in the mud, looking for a bush, and settled for the base of the snag. By the time I had all the decoys afloat again, sweat drenched me beneath my heavy clothing.
Ducks were working now, all right. As I stood in plain sight beside the boat, a trio of pintails came over and hung on the wind above the rig. I missed three straight strikes. I hunkered back down into the boat, noting with satisfaction that its camouflage paint did a pretty good job of turning it into an inconspicuous blob on the mud. A tarp I had thrown over the motor bellied on the wind. Four-ounce fishing sinkers at its corners tattooed against the hull. I got that snugged down.
Ducks continued to move, but few moved over the bare mud. They were beating inland, over the marsh grass, pitching in back there to feed. I abandoned ship and the Browning, and unlimbered the big Harrington & Richardson ten-gauge single-shot I carried for contingencies. It was a heavy trudge across the mud and marsh grass to where I could hunker down and try pass shooting. I failed to take a bird out of first one flock, then another. They beat up into the wind, almost stationary, and I couldn’t figure the lead.
Only the heavy recoil of the ten-gauge two-ounce loads was familiar; the ten’s big boom was snatched away downwind, leaving behind not much more than a .410 pop. Harry watched all this disconsolately. His downwind ear stood straight out from his head on the wind. The other one flipped back over his head and fluttered like a crippled blackbird wing. The wind had him squinting through red-rimmed eyes. Me, too.
We trudged the marsh in solitary splendor. Everyone else had given up long since, and got out before the tide fall. Thick cumulus clouds wheeled in from the direction of the Pacific Ocean. The westering sun laced their forms with burnished gold. It took very little imagination to see the rays converging on some glowing pathway past the sunset. Half-remembered fragments of myths about Valhalla and the twilight of the gods flitted through my mind. Alone beneath the brunt of the weather, the myths seemed more real. I had a passing thought that to witness a day like this was worth dying for, if it came to that, and then thought that might be whistling past the graveyard of my unease about the way the evening was shaping up. The usual reliability of Pilot Weather or not, a serious cold front was shouldering its way inland.
I headed back to my boat. The line of the tide was a distant bright smear in the failing light down here close to the ground. Out on the unprotected mud, away from the marsh grass, the temperature seemed to have dropped several more degrees. I decided to pick up the decoys before dark. Ducks still were moving. I traded the ten-gauge for the Browning and its sling. I wore it upside down behind the left shoulder, European style, while I trudged up and down the slope of the mud, getting myself liberally slimed with the clinging delta silt. Though my decoys were grounded, there still was a thin thread of water in the bottom of the slough.
Ducks evidently thought my marooned decoys were resting from the wind. I made my heavy cork decoys with flat bottom boards for just that reason — so they wouldn’t tilt unrealistically on a keel when grounded. I had only gathered up a dozen when a widgeon kited over the slough and hooked in. I dropped the decoys in my arms and made that quick, twisting draw which is why Europeans carry their shotguns that way. The widgeon was just too close for the wind to spoil the lead. Harry bounced out and collected him.
After that I paced myself on picking up. Dusk was pooling in the lower elevations though the clouds still blazed in bejewelled glory, and I still had shooting time on the clock. I was down to three dozen grounded decoys when two gadwalls cupped into an aerial slalom. I crouched over the mud and let them come within twenty yards and took one clean, missing the other. Things were looking up. The long wait for the tide would be happier with part of a bag limit aboard. I continued to thin out the decoys. There were a dozen still on the mud when I took my first mallard of the day. Dark was coming fast then, so I concentrated on getting the rest of the spread into the boat and settled down to wait.
With full dark the wind seemed to redouble its force. I didn’t like that at all.
Far off across the blowing dark, taillights burned bright red as the last hardy winter salmon anglers retrieved their big boats on the launch I’d left before dawn. I turned my back to them and to the wind, and hunkered down. No charcoal, no perforated number five-coffee can to burn it in for a warming fire, no matches. Two decades of waterfowling in a variety of pretty rugged conditions, and caught out like a greenhorn. I knocked the edge off my internal chill with the last of my coffee and food, reasoning I would need the energy to fight the heavy skiff off this lee shore. I held one Snickers candy bar in reserve.
As I stared north to the bright lights of Tacoma, twinkling in the unseen spindrift above the Sound, the tide finally turned and began to come back, inch by agonizing inch. Eventually the dark water spread around me, and I was up out of the boat, perched on the gunn’l waiting for the first subtle bob to indicate I was afloat. My wristwatch finally told me it was eight p.m. Then after eight. It was suddenly evident that my calculations were wrong and the tide was not going to come any higher.
I hooked numbed hands around the gunn’l and put my back and legs into it. The boat moved. Not much. Maybe six inches. I tried again. Muscles creaked with the strain, and the mud grudgingly relinquished its hold. I grunted and hauled, hauled and grunted, aware that time seemed to be running fast now. The first twinges of real panic added adrenaline to my flagging strength, and I literally tore the boat loose into floatable water. The wind almost clubbed me off balance, and the boat promptly grounded again. I fought back, cursing out loud. Harry cowered in the boat.
“I’m not mad at you, Harry,” I told him. He wasn’t buying it. The boss was in one of those moods, and he was laying low.
The boat was shin deep now, not deep enough to put the motor down. Waves rose against my hip boots, as high as my knees. I eased it out a little more. Visions of Everglades airboats danced in my head, supplanted by images of the big sleek jet sleds of the Northwest. With an airboat, I could simply drive off the mud and go home. An outboard mounted with a jet pump would have been ready to crank and go in the amount of water I had achieved. My Mercury 20-horse and Sears 3-horse were canted on the transom, helpless. I cussed some more. A jet sled’s price didn’t seem so outrageous now, with the falling tide ripped by shallow vicious windwaves that tried to either fill my boots or upend me, as I struggled to get the boat deep enough to tip the motor down.
When I tried to hold the boat bow out to the sea while working back to the stern, the wind simply turned the boat around me. If I tried to halt the turn, it tried to push me under the boat. A thrill of fear ran through me: I was sweating heavily again, but my face was numb with cold. If I fell and got soaked now…
I was afraid to try backing out under power for fear of taking too much water over the transom. So I backed it out far enough to tip the Mercury down, fired it up and let it idle until it was warm. Then I shoved the tiller hard over, powered up, and tumbled into the boat in one clumsy motion. When the prow turned into the wind the boat stopped — literally stopped — and the wind shoved me sideways.
The tiller jerked and the motor drowned in liquid mud. I was cussing steadily now. I fought the boat back to motor depth, cranked it again and fell aboard — instant replay. Okay, I had to try to reverse out, risking a swamping. I was pretty sure there were no high spots or unexpected stumps to jam the motor; I’d had plenty of time to memorize the immediate lay of the land before dark.
The wind waves slammed the outboard skeg forward against the slope of the mud before the prop bit enough water to pull me backward. Again and again I tried to reverse out, taking waves over the transom each time. More weight to try to move. The motor began to act strangely, probably clogged with the fine Delta silt. I talked to it earnestly — just get us into deep water and you can clean yourself out on the way in; c’mon, big Merc, you’ve never let me down, just this once make like a jet…Nothing doing.
My muscles trembled with fatigue. My head swam from the wind and wave action. I knew I was dangerously close to making the fatal error: falling down and getting soaked. The short tide was leaving the mud more quickly than the day tide. I was far enough down the mud now that the next tide would float me for sure — but the next tide was after dawn, almost twelve hours away.
I had one last chance. I walked the boat gingerly out toward the flick of the distant buoy light. If I could reach the end of the spit, and let the wind take me across into deeper water downwind, I could set a course for the ship-channel buoy and hope no big freighters were plowing down the storm-tossed Reach.
A chunk of driftwood spun out of the dark, banging into the boat with a mighty crash, and scared Harry and me out of our wits. It skittered along the boat and vanished into the night. I had long since quit cussing to save strength. But whatever strength I’d saved was used up. My legs were wobbly as I inched the boat along, trying to pierce the darkness, read the wave action, follow the fall of the water. A stronger gust of wind bullied the boat onto the mud once more. When I leaned into it to move it, nothing happened. I tried again, lost my grip, almost fell.
The terminal fear of a soaking in frigid water shot through me again.
The boat was wedged half-on half-off the mud, bouncing, taking spray with every wave. I couldn’t budge it. I stood erect, stretched my screaming back muscles. I swept a glance at the light-speckled distance of Tacoma, drew a long shuddering breath and accepted the situation: I was here for the night.
I wrapped one of the canvas tarps around me and huddled in the bottom of the boat. Harry crept in under the tarp, half into my lap. Seventy-pound lap dog. Before long, his body heat began to soak through my Army surplus wool pants. I probably dozed. At least I was semi-conscious for awhile. The wind continued to thump me about the head and shoulders like a succession of pillow fighters. My next real awareness was of crippling cold. I was so cramped I didn’t think I could move. Unbidden, arctic tales of Jack London crawled into the back of my mind, forcing me out of my canvas cocoon.
The water was gone.
The grey-black of the denuded mudflats was a barren nightmare terrain beneath fitful moonglow through marching clouds. I shambled around the boat in a half-run, trying to restore circulation. The wind sliced through my parka, my two wool sweaters, my down vest, my stag shirt, my longhandles and stole warmth as fast as my pumping heart supplied it. I clambered back into the boat thoroughly chilled. When I coaxed Harry back into the tarp, he was shivering, too. I remembered a Canadian telling me on a four-below-zero night along the frozen Saskatchewan River that no dog ever died of exposure. They shiver themselves warm. It wasn’t working for me.
I buried my head under the tarp to close out the bitter moonlight and the bewitching twinkle of headlights of cars on the far-off north-south freeway. The numbing cold compelled me to try jogging around the boat one more time. Back under the tarp I decided that, Jack London or no Jack London, I wasn’t coming out again. In my bemused state I wondered if that decision signaled the onset of hypothermia. I tried to feel through my nerve endings whether I was actually approaching danger, or just acutely miserable.
Does your body tell you when it’s getting ready to just surrender? Or does the misery become accepted, then ignored, and then you’re gone before you know it? I held the frozen oblong of the Snickers bar in my hand and wondered if I had the energy to masticate it. Harry’s cold nose touched my hand beneath the tarp. He whined softly, wanting chocolate. I put the bar away inside my stag shirt. Not yet, I decided.
I settled into a dismal, depleting routine of huddling almost unconscious for a time, then kicking my heels against the bottom of the boat and slapping my arms around me. I refused to look at my watch. I wanted to look at that watch more than anything I had ever wanted. I debated with myself, wheedled myself, was stern with myself, pleaded with myself, warned myself that a watched pot never boils — poor choice of image, setting off new violent shivers — and eventually succumbed.
Midnight had not yet struck.
After that sickening revelation, memory blurs until abruptly I was startled upright, wide-awake.
The wind had quit. Just like that.
I looked at my watch in the moonlight. It was approaching two a.m.
The lights of Tacoma and the Narrows Bridge shone like low-lying stars. The sparse stars of winter wheeled high overhead. The near-full moon bathed high points of the flats in silver contrast to the unrelieved black in the hollows. Gradually, a sound insinuated itself into my awareness: freeway traffic, miles away; big trucks down-shifting on Nisqually Grade. I was still cold, still miserable. But the wind had laid down. Among all the significant events of my life, that will remain forever clear: the wind had finally given up. The overtaking cold front had shoved the warm front inland, off the flats. There was an almost ruler-straight line of black clouds across the eastward-lying stars. A line that moved on east as I watched.
It was an hour before I believed the wind was gone for good.
The pattern of lights up toward Tacoma seemed to shift. Neon shut off for the night, bars closing; drunks climbing into their cars to go find a roof for their load or a fatal encounter on the highway. No man on earth was safer from a drunk driver that night than me. Across the flats toward the freeway was a smear of neon color that I knew to be an all-night restaurant. I visualized tired drivers wheeling into the parking lot, strolling in blinking, asking for coffee and pie between yawns — yes, warm the pie up, please. My hands fumbled vaguely in my clothes for my pipe and makins until my slowed brain reminded me that I’d left them at home.
Home. She’d be worried sick by now. And she had to get up very early to go to work tomorrow. She would try to conceal her worry from the children. They would have wanted to stay up late to see if Dad got anything. Dad — A strange new name for me. Not quite used to being Dad yet. Family man, with family responsibilities, out sitting on the mud in the bitter cold. Might as well be on the moon. Some men go to the moon. Others go duck hunting. She would call somebody in authority, all right. She did the first night I was stranded out here.
That had been a milder night, with a higher evening tide. When I was able to motor in cautiously to the darkened launch, a big car came down the hill and threw its bright headlights on the ramp. The deputy helped me load my boat after telling his radio room to call home and tell her all was well. Since then, she had become more seasoned and would consult the tide book I left on the hall tree. She would wait for the second tide, and then a half-hour for me to get off the water, an hour to drive home. Maybe another hour for good measure in case I stopped for coffee or gas or whatever. And then the gradually dawning realization that far too much time had passed.
Waiting for a loved one to come home is always far, far worse than being the one who is in the fix. I remembered my maternal uncle, who had been asleep in his foxhole under a bush when the German panzers came rolling through to launch the Battle of the Bulge. He woke up one hell of a lot of miles behind enemy lines. As the battle wore on, and the cloud cover kept the Allied air from containing the Nazi counter-offensive, the standard War Department telegram had arrived in a small town in Georgia: missing presumed killed. While his mother, my grandmother, steadfastly refused to discuss funeral arrangements, word came that he had walked back into the lines unharmed, carrying German souvenirs. Years later he told me of the bloody work done with a bayonet to a three-man Nazi patrol to avoid detection, but added: “Hell, I wasn’t missing! I knew right where I was all the time…”
That made good remembering, and helped the hands crawl around the face of my wristwatch in the moonlight. I remembered the moonlight of a different, postwar Germany, mounting guard over mysterious bunkers where Allied technicians tinkered with nuclear warheads of rockets descended from the V-2s the bunkers had been built to conceal. That duty was eight hours of sentry-go with an M-14 and heavy ammo pouches holding four full magazines of 7.62 NATO, the web belt cinched over the outside of a heavy OD parka that would have made a good duck-hunting coat.
I was partnered with a taciturn cowboy from Idaho who told me one dismal ice-fog night that a man could remember every detail of his whole life in one night’s watch; you could get really deep inside your own head until you would almost resent being interrupted by the end of the shift. You could remember your triumphs and regret your mistakes, play them all out in your mind the way you should have played them when you had the chance…
Before too long, in such solitary reflection, if you are a man who has cared for and been cared for by women, their names and their faces and their bodies come back to you. Out of the careful shadows of planned forgetfulness, they return to you as they came to you in life, one at a time. Old passion kindles afresh, old quarrels spark remembered anger, old partings ache anew. Where are they, this night of nights, as you sit absolutely suspended in time, resurrecting their lost memories in a vain attempt to build warmth out of a depleted and overtaxed mind?
Somewhere along in there I fell asleep and dreamed an intrepid helicopter crew had found me on the flats with some highly advanced infrared scanner, lowered a sling, and took my vacuum bottles to be filled with coffee at the all-night restaurant over there. In the manner of dreams, the sound of helicopters became security choppers patrolling the Banana River near the Cape Canaveral moon-launch site as I rowed five miles, shirtless on a mild night, because a shattered shear pin ended a Florida duck hunt. The security choppers ignored me on their repeated circuits but porpoises didn’t, surfacing and blowing in the soft dark for all the world like an escort.
I knew before I was fully awake the sound of helicopter rotors that invaded my dream was real. I opened my eyes to gray dawn. The sun hadn’t started to show yet, but my sensitized body could already feel its impending warmth.
Two olive-drab Army helicopters swooped low across the flats from Fort Lewis; very low. They landed on the boat launch where I left my truck. One by one, their rotors went quiet. I strained my eyes and made out a good deal of activity around the launch. Emergency-vehicle flashers blinked here and there. All I could think was oh no, she’s really got the troops out looking for me this time; if they charge me for this, I’m going to be in debt forever.
The tide was easing silently back over the mud. A low mist rose above its leading edge. The vanished slough along which I struggled in the dark was once again a wide dark creek, filling as I watched. As details grew sharper, my heart missed a beat. There was a solid mass of ducks resting on that water, not forty yards away!
The Browning’s rich bluing and walnut finish was dulled by overnight surface rust and striped with caked mud. I got it in hand and stiffly eased to my knees. The pintails paid absolutely no attention to the camouflage lump slowly growing a man-shaped tumor. But they flushed suddenly, spooked by something out toward the Sound. They came right over me, not twenty yards up, every detail burnished in the first rays of the sun. I swung on the lead drake. As I pulled, a higher drake caught up with him. Two cinnamon and white pinwheels spun in unison to the mud. I was so startled that I let off a second shot at blue sky, and held my third. The birds landed side by side. I collected them before Harry could wake up enough to figure out what was going on.
“The payoff, by God,” I told him. “Look at ’em, Harry! Two of ‘em! Two of ’em at once!” I babbled a little. Harry curled back up and I sat down. I was half-considering putting out a few decoys.
Minutes later, water gurgled once more along my hull, and I heard men’s voices. A runabout materialized out of the low mist. The voices sounded tense. They could see the boat, but not me. I heard the words “no sign of life” and I sighed. It looked like I was going to be rescued, all right. I knew now what that Idaho cowboy meant. I still had thinking to do, and I resented the intrusion now. Besides, ducks were moving. I had earned the right to be here to take them. A small wad of mallards aimed for the slough, saw the runabout, and flared off.
I peeled the paper off the Snickers bar and gave it to Harry. Then I got up out of the boat so they could see me.