Staring out across the space between the boardwalk and the ocean, the hungry scream of seagulls flashing white above the duck grass appeared to be the only life form. Then movement low on the horizon caught my eye. All at once a group of duck hunters dragged up from the ponds in the distance. The setting sun was behind them and they carried wet ducks in their fists and duck calls around their necks. They were loaded down with bags of decoys, wetlands camo covered in mud, and a soaking-wet chocolate lab beside them splashed through the marsh ready for a meal.
Standing there in office attire at the end of a work day, I appeared as out of place as the boardwalk and the road. The field that stretched out before me was a landscape. The wind blowing through my hair was slightly cold and salty. But nothing in my experience of life had told me the grassy tidal flats were anything more than a natural cow pasture. Nothing had told me that cranes, blue heron, geese, and ducks hid in the marsh or that there were even caribou, moose, and brown bear camouflaged in distant polar grass. Nothing had told me that even a cow pasture is full of life.
My own existence had never been harmless, but my dependence on life forms to live was made invisible by the comforts of civilization and I did what I could in the form of recycling and buying free-trade coffee beans. There was a gap in my understanding bridged by highways, dining establishments, and espresso shops. Being on the road was my sense of freedom. Pulling over to stand on a boardwalk took no daring, but it was like peering over a precipice. Suddenly, the spotting scope and interpretive panels seemed ridiculous. The only way to find out what was between me and the ground was to jump.
There was no way for me to go into that marsh environment and not get mud in my hair. There are duck hunters who manage to stay clean, but they go for a half-day or they are careful not to step off the trail or let their bare hands touch warm feathers. To understand that my life required the death of other creatures and to hunt in a manner that honored the life it took to live, I had to go “all in.” It wasn’t a tourist experience of duck hunting or even the food I was after to start. It was just to understand the primal urge to rise up out of mud with a fistful of ducks.
I had a chance to go along with an old duck hunter who had just come back to duck hunting after a career and family had taken him away and a life-threatening surgery had brought him back. We sat in a duck blind a mile out on the same duck flats I’d watched from the board walk. The grass itself seemed foreign. It was the long grass in Africa. Instead of an imaginary lioness stalking me through the yellow leaves it was a real ermine peering at me through the slats of the blind. The old duck hunter scooped up a handful of river mud and painted his face with it. My nose must have curled involuntarily because he said, “Nothing in nature is dirty.”
Modern duck hunters have been accused of entering public lands en masse and shooting competitively at every flock. They’ve been accused of using too much technology in the form of duck calls, decoys, camouflage, semi-automatic weapons, and even hand warmers. But, the tradition of duck hunting tells a different story, and I would learn it trade by trade, from the art of wing shooting to calling ducks to carving wood decoys to training water dogs. I would eventually spend a week living out of a duck shack built on piles and eating teal until I had no doubt that the best meals in my life were had outdoors and the best friends I’d ever had were duck dogs.
After my first year of duck hunting, I looked behind me to see the tracks my hunting partner and I had left in the marsh. The frost covered grass turned dark where it was pressed into the wet earth below. Our two tracks ran beside each other from the board walk all the way to our blind. The blind resembled a rabbit hutch nested in by birds. It was a handmade fort and invisible from the road. We sat down and I looked back across the flats. The morning flight of seagulls screamed and flapped across the sky from the ocean to the river, and in the distance I made out the heart beat of wings that were ducks.