Me, Boo and the Milky Way

By author of The Duck Blog

Time in the marsh with a special dog creates lifetime memories

One look up at the sky above an October marsh makes you feel like you're falling backward forever among the stars. Illustration by Ryan Orndorff

Darkness fills every corner of the world at ground level, hiding even my hand at arm’s length. Yet a small glance upward reveals never-ending light from millions of torches, setting the sky ablaze from horizon to horizon.

It’s the middle of the night in early October, and I’m a few push-pole lengths into a remote marsh far from the confusing ambient light of civilization. My retriever, Belle — or “Boo-Boo,” as I sometimes call her — sits in the front of the skiff, invisible but always revealing her presence by sniffing nonstop at the secrets of this pothole lake. We can’t hunt until hours from now, but our early journey is a necessary inconvenience; part of a plan to beat the pressure on this hard-hunted water on what promises to be a bluebird day.

But it’s more than that, of course. The trip provides a chance to experience a wetland far different than the one we’ll see during daylight. The thick cattails choking the channel are laden with dew, drenching my sleeves and Belle’s coat every time we brush against them. A light breeze creates the only noise, save for the occasional “krrp” of a coot or squawk of a bittern. And then there’s the sky, resembling a vast, placid pool of water rather than a huge expanse of atmosphere and space. One look up makes you feel as if you’re falling backward forever among the stars. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, takes center stage, stretching across the blackness like a bridge paved in gold. I cannot imagine that it shines any brighter in the most remote corners of the world.

Enough sight-seeing, I remind myself. We have work ahead.

To the Little Round

We’ll make the journey solely on memory, as only the slightest glint of light near the skiff’s bow betrays the channel.

The path, cut by dozens of skiffs and canoes through decades, shoots straight south from the landing to a “pond” that’s actually just a wide spot. From there, we take a hard right turn west and wind through a couple of tricky bogs before entering a tiny pothole. By lining up a distant radio tower, we again pick up the channel and angle southwest a while to a relatively large expanse of open water. This isn’t a bad place to hunt, but it’s fairly accessible and close to shore, and friends and I have always favored somewhat hidden areas, so Belle and I push on.

Finding the channel south is tricky, and it’s not uncommon to miss it and shove into a bog. Today, however, we catch the opening and hit it perfectly. The push-poling gets easier in this part of the path, but we’re headed for a test. In recent years, the fourth pothole has become home to a beaver lodge, and pushing a skiff past or over the obstruction can be tough. Worse, the beavers are usually active at night, and although I can’t see them, Belle can smell them, and they drive her nuts. But to reach our destination, we must pass the beaver gauntlet.

A soft thud lets me know we’re at the lodge. I grunt and lean into the pole with all my weight, which does nothing but beach the skiff atop the muck, bog and popple poles the beavers have piled up. Out I go. One leg finds a stout log, but the other breaks through, and I flounder in the muck. Somehow, using the skiff to stay above water and pressing ahead with my anchored leg, I slide us off the lodge and back into water. Then, I clumsily belly over into the skiff and regain my balance.

“Smack!”

Yep, the beavers are out, apparently unhappy with our intrusion. Another flat tail slaps the water, and Belle darts from side to side in the bow, hoping to see the varmints. I don’t bother telling her she does not want to tussle with a beaver.

A few shoves on the pole slides us past the loge and toward the small opening that separates Pond 4 from Pond 5. From there, we take a hard left toward the center of the marsh, passing through Old Man Johnson’s Pond, the productive Rice Pond and the First Little Round Pond. Finally, we reach our destination: the Little Round Pond. We’ll hunt here today, hopefully far enough from other guns that we can work mallards and other ducks into range.

When it finally gets light, that is.

Night and Day

The stars slowly fade as silver begins to paint the horizon. With an hour remaining till shooting light, Belle and I busy ourselves by placing two dozen decoys in a horseshoe-shaped spread and then finding a good hide. A small point provides a likely spot. The cover is just thick enough to hide the skiff yet not too overgrown to inhibit shooting or marking. Best, the sun will be at our backs during the morning.

Finally, the hour nears, and birds move about the marsh. I hear some and see a few others, but Belle alerts me to most of them. It’s amazing how well she hears their wingbeats or catches their faint silhouettes in the dark. The quivering in her legs tells me she understands their significance and realizes what’s about to happen. As if that were in question; she loves this more than I do.

We don’t wait long. A minute after the opening bell — usually heralded by a firecracker-like barrage on the main lake — a duck burns over the decoys. I rise, twist and shoot in coordinated motion, folding the bird and sending it skidding across the water. Belle has seen it too, of course, and didn’t wait for my command to go after it. That’s not ideal, but she’s excited, and we’ll have time to work on that later. And before I know it, she’s back with the bird, a gadwall.

Not a bad start. The gray duck might constitute our bonus duck today, and we can now focus on greenheads.

Focusing and killing don’t always walk hand in hand, though. We work several good flocks and see many others. Most show no interest, and some circle endlessly while getting tantalizingly close before something sends them on. But finally, one big drake mallard commits to the setup, and we have our second duck.

But his approach, from almost behind us, has me worried. The wind has switched to the south and is now blowing in our face. We could stay put and try to shoot birds as they work in from the north, but our backs are fairly exposed, and I’m skeptical that approach will work after the sun burns bright. So off we go to the other side of the pond.

I’m hot and winded by the time we set up on the southern rim, so I barely catch the movement. Belle flinches twice and raises her head high. Reflexively, I grab my gun and look up to see three big ducks descending on the decoys. A quick shot at the lead bird produces our third bird, another drake mallard. Minutes later, another mallard zips over from the west, and we add it to the bag. Belle isn’t all the way back to the skiff yet when a single greenhead passes over, cups and joins his brethren in the boat.

And like that, from dark-thirty to midmorning, we’re done. The night sky has yielded to a golden sunlit marsh, illuminating a mud-splattered skiff and a tired yet proud black Lab. We’re one duck shy of a limit, but with work calling and lots of clean-up looming, another day is history.

Under the Milky Way

That hunt and many others like it are 15-plus years in the rear-view mirror. Belle, my first retriever and companion on so many wild adventures, hunted for 14 seasons and finally died three-and-a-half years ago at age 15-1/2. I miss her greatly, of course, and think often about our many days with ducks and pheasants.

Memories of our outings have faded through time, and I guess that’s to be expected. Now and then, I page through photo albums to view Belle as a young pup or the crazed hunting machine in her prime, and only then do I recall details from individual hunts. But the longer time separates us, the more I think back to those early days on that lake, looking skyward at a cosmic light show and realizing that we were only one minuscule stitch in a colossal universal tapestry.

I still look up to the Milky Way during clear, cold fall mornings, and I’m pretty sure Belle does, too. We’ll reunite someday in some form, I’m sure, whether under the stars or among them. When we do, maybe some of the mysteries those lights hold will be revealed. She’ll probably understand better than I can. But until then, marveling at the night sky surrounded by wild ducks renews our bond and takes us back to the days when me, Boo and the Milky Way seemed to be all that mattered.

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