Wild Goose Chase
(Definition: a complicated or lengthy and usually fruitless pursuit or search; bootless errand. Synonyms: fool’s errand, lost cause, vain attempt. C/f internet references.)
Sea Geese in February*
February 3, 1975 — I created fourteen black Brant decoys with a can of flat black spray paint, a dozen Brant heads from Herter’s and sundry of my cork mallard and Herter’s goose bodies. I repainted a couple of Canada heads in Brant pattern for the extra two. There’s a Brant hunt on Willapa Bay this weekend. Fourteen decoys aren’t enough, but all I could fashion quickly.
After I jury-rigged the Brant, I went through a dozen drift bobbers and one Johnson’s spoon chasing steelhead unsuccessfully on the Green River below Palmer Bridge; nary a bump. I saw three fish brought in, all dark. I now know that means they’d been out of the ocean a long time. The wind was icy in that eroded bend in the river where the dropping white water slicks into a long green glassy glide. The sun made several brief, warming appearances. I managed a few nice drifts, the lead tappity-tapping along the rough bottom, beginning to get the hang of the thing. I talked to two anglers who lost fish, and dozed against a log to the river lullaby. I averaged one nice drift per five backlashed horrors. Steelhead continue to elude me.
Feb. 7, 1975 — I spread my old Road Atlas on the cigarette-scarred television in a Raymond motel room, just off Highway 101. Knotty pine is the décor; jalousie windows let me know I’m near salt water. The man with a drink-ravaged face who checked me in spoke with a sleep-blurred Irish brogue close to unintelligible. Donovan, the name tag read. Harry did his business and settled in for the night. These are very old motor-court style units, with garages. I backed the boat into the one beneath my room. The only other vehicle in the parking lot is an old Bell bubble-canopy helicopter.
I have Zack Taylor’s new book on waterfowling to read. V. loaned it after I got the scoop on that Environmental Impact Statement on duck hunting anti-hunters forced through federal court action. Pat McGarvey of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. released it to me personally; we’ve developed a kind of long-distance rapport, spinning yarns about adventures. His big tale was hearing shooting outside the Saigon embassy and foolishly walking to the windows to look just as a truck bomb went off, shattering all the windows and messing him up considerably. How did he happen to be in the Saigon embassy? I had a checkered career as a CIA man for fourteen years, he told me. After the bomb he took a civil-service transfer to the Fish and Wildlife Service — a move too strange for fiction; things like that only happen in real life. McGarvey authored a book on the CIA I’ve actually heard about but not read.
I am on another wild goose chase, to meet the cartographer Mac hired to do fishing-map renovations for Fishing&Hunting News. And look for approximately 2,000 black Brant supposedly using Leadbetter Point in Willapa Bay. The tides are supposedly worse than Nisqually, so I fear another stranding. But not to make a try at the sea geese of song and story — a month after the close of regular duck season — would be unthinkable. Gas Tank One is half-empty and Gas Tank Two on the pickup is bone-dry; the Ford engine is trying to overheat. The excitement of going toward something new has me awake when I should be sleeping.
Feb. 8 — the Brant came right on schedule with the falling tide. They flared over the decoys and Scott said don’t shoot, don’t shoot; let them land. I didn’t shoot, and they didn’t land. Then two dozen more, out of range. Then maybe a hundred in a wavy line, beating almost effortlessly into the wind. The bay was a frothing fury but calmed to a quiet cauldron after the tide fell. My heavy cork decoys rode with aplomb. And the Brant came: five, then four, then another large flock that landed on the tideline out of range, feeding happily on eelgrass exposed by the tide. They fed, got up, flew a few yards and cascaded into the decoys — which by now the tide had dragged out of range. We were crouching behind a drift log that was perfect when we set up. Then marginal. Then impossible. No cover closer to the water.
Seventy yards to the water’s edge; Scott wanted to charge them — a desperation measure. We plunged clumsily in the deep sand. They began to lift when we covered ten yards; we staggered to a halt and fired. Missed. Sank to our knees to catch our breath. And two sailed in while we were in plain sight. We pulled feathers out of both but they went on. By the time we figured out we could just sit still out in the open, the flight was over.
Brant create a wild elation when they come in those long, wavering lines with that melodic, wild call that makes Canada geese seem harsh. The pattern of their white rumps and cheek patches against the tireless sweep of those big dark wings — I think they are lovelier than Canadas. Having that bunch grazing on eelgrass right in front of us — of course out of range — was really something.
We never launched the boat. Scott had promised a boat launch, but we couldn’t find it. We got lost going to and coming from Leadbetter Point. Some cartographer. He wound decoy lines around the necks — a rookie mistake. When I was re-setting decoys as the tide dropped, he started shouting “Brant!” I swung my Browning up off its sling — and it was a surf scoter; an immature female, not even the right color. But he told good tales of chasing ducks in California and lugged his share of heavy decoys to the beach. We used eleven, all we could carry with guns and stuff. When the seventh wave of each series . bowled my bottom-boarded corks over, they came right back up like real geese.
Scott gave up and went home. I spent a second night at Ilwaco City Center Motel, had seafood at Red’s, and watched a cop be polite to an obnoxious old drunk with a bad hangover who was dying of liquor thirst. I have a headache, probably from mold and mildew in the stuffy room. For my second assault on Brant, I chose the actual Point — 1100 burdened paces through the deep sand from where I parked. Three boxes of shells, eight cork decoys, four or five pounds of anchors, hip boots, down coat, army poncho, wool pants, etc. I worked up a boiling sweat.
The Brant of course switched to the Tokeland side of the bay. The bay was flat and calm, an occasional gust of wind. The sand was soft but not as soft as some I have labored through. I used weathered driftwood heaped with seaweed for a blind, and lay flat on my back with rain pants and poncho to keep me dry. My hand-warmer kept my hands functional.
Sandpipers flew over so close they looked big as ducks in peripheral vision. A snowy owl checked to see if Harry was dead enough to eat — he showed perfect discipline lying beside me. Seagulls landed and edged closer and closer to Harry, considering where to begin their feast. His lips wrinkled back and he emitted a low, diesel-like growl. They decided to go elsewhere for breakfast. I vanished in plain sight — they never knew I was there. Six swans drifted over croaking at the decoys and nearly triggered a reflex shot. Squalls moved across me.
I dozed comfortably. All the Brant flew the far side — a single, a pair, five, a dozen, a horde, then two dozen, a pair and so on. They flew to within forty minutes of what the tide book called dead low tide. I stopped every hundred paces on my way back to the truck to blow, and watch them fly. Scott balked at that road. I would have too, but the game warden told me it was bottomed with gravel. I pulled the trailer back in there to avoid pilferage.
Made a fast run home, got in before the boy’s bedtime so I could play with him a little. His grin when he recognized me out the window was blazing. The kitchen was new and strange-looking with a slick new paint job while I was gone. I stank so bad from all the marsh and sweat my wife could smell me across the room. I could smell myself. No unwashed Paris cab driver reeking of Caporals ever smelled worse. I bathed and cleaned the gun. Mingled memories of big water and small beach towns on a new coast lulled me to sleep. I told her on the phone Ilwaco was north of Oysterville. It would have been — if I was on the Atlantic coast. I was fifteen miles from Oregon and still thought I was driving north. That comes from growing up two houses from the Atlantic; it’s engraved in my brain the ocean is always east….