The duck shack built on pilings and painted in green, black, and tan is easily distinguishable from the other shacks along the slough. Its builder had sought to recover from a methamphetamine addiction so allowed himself to be stranded on the remote tidal flats for a summer to complete the project. Pilots checked in on him from time to time but, once they determined that he was doing fine, they never landed. To communicate his distain, he painted a giant donkey’s ass on the backside of the shack. His return to civilization brought back his addiction, but his message painted on the shack remains.
The DeHavilland Turbine Otter on floats landed 20 feet short of the grassy bank and wedged into the mud. When the pilot jumped out, Cheyenne lunged for the back door. She was still wet from jumping off the dock at the launch where she was the last item to be loaded. “Waterfowlers win every time,” the pilot had said. Big game hunters have nothing on duck hunters when it comes to amount of gear. There were just two of us duck hunters, but we had a couple dozen decoys, blind material, two five-gallon water tanks, bottles of propane, range bags full of steel shot, several dry bags, day packs, three shotguns, and a rifle.
We were left in a salt mist as we packed the remainder of our outfit up the muddy bank. Both the labs ran up the porch steps of the shack almost like they remembered it from the previous year. We didn’t put our things away. That could wait until after dark. Instead, we gathered the material we brought to build a blind and headed toward a bend in the slough a quarter mile away. The labs sat in the grass beside us as we stitched seaside arrowgrass and saltwater peas through fencing. I followed Gunner’s gaze to the sky to see a flock of cranes. He had been here once before, but this time he remembered.
The hair on his muzzle had turned gray since the last trip. Cheyenne was a few years younger than Gunner and a few inches shorter. They both shared the same dark brown coat and gold-colored eyes. It was difficult to tell them apart from a distance. But up close, Cheyenne’s eyes burnt like beacons, her body constantly shook, and when a shot fired, she launched herself toward a falling bird with a predator’s might. Gunner mildly obliged us in bringing back a bird upon request and was happy to sit in the grass. Cheyenne was my dog, and we shared the same over-eagerness toward hunting that didn’t want to waste any time scouting or building a blind.
It was just before dark when we finished grassing the blind and stashed the decoys. The four of us settled down to watch the movement of the tide and the sun set. “How long do you think it takes?” I asked my hunting partner. I was thinking of the addict who never recovered and a friend who had hiked the Appalachian trail only to return to her job as a barista and be unsettled by the noise of the espresso machine and commerce.
“How many days do you need to spend remote before the noise of civilization wears off?” The most I’d ever gone was seven days, and I never lost sight of the shore.
“I don’t know,” my hunting partner said. “It’s probably more a matter of not having a time that you have to come back.”
We sat in our camp chairs with the two labs sitting ahead of us. The wind lifted their ears as they watched the horizon. They had no way of knowing if the duck shack was their newest home or if they would ever see their yard again. They were not between two worlds the way I was, and I didn’t know if it was possible to live the three days we had to hunt the flats without a thought of return. I’d go back, but even on the first night I didn’t know if it would be enough for me to recover from a lifestyle that continually required escape.
The next morning we abandoned the blind early and headed up the slough to hunt the ponds. Gunner watched four teal sitting against the far side of the slough. Cheyenne whined and twitched her feet. We were standing in plain view on the mud. “They see us,” I whispered. But, instead of flying away, they swam straight toward us. Gunner kept watch of the teal as I readied my shotgun and walked down a slope of mud toward them. Cheyenne danced at my side. They were thirty yards away, then twenty.
Gunner had always had trouble bringing back a bird if it dropped on the other side of a slough or river. If it fell in the water, he understood perfectly. But, he could never figure out what to do with a bird that dropped on the other side or if he took the bird to the other side. Once he got across the water from us, he got confused. He never brought a bird back when this happened. As I watched both labs swim out after the birds I’d shot, I remembered Gunner’s problem.
He grabbed hold of the bird and headed for the far side of the slough. Then, for some unknown reason, he changed course and headed back toward us with the bird. From one season to the next, he had changed from an old dog incapable of learning a new skill to an old dog with a new trick. For the next three days, his retrieves were perfect. They were slow and Cheyenne often stole his bird from him as he reached shore, but he knew exactly what he was doing. He recovered bird after bird methodically and without hesitation for the first time in his seven years.
My partner cleaned birds in the blind that night. We were a few shy of our limit, so we did as much as possible outside and with our shotguns at arms’ reach. Gunner sat by our side with mud up to his haunches. There was something beautiful about Gunner’s old face and long stare. He wasn’t passionate, just sweet. The mud and feathers clung to my partner’s boots. The salty wind blew against the tide, holding it high for longer than the tide book forecasted. The night sky was filled with the unseen sounds of geese and crane. We were in a place without a clock on the wall where we could get dirty and do things reverently.
I don’t know how long it takes to recover from addiction or how long it takes to forget about the things that don’t matter. It probably isn’t a matter of time, at least not in the sense of a calendar. We can spend our lives in offices and in our cars and in our homes; we can depend upon comforts that surround us but don’t sustain us. Until something shifts within and calls attention to our real predicament, we aren’t capable of change; we’re just surviving by exchanging one mundane suffering for the ceasing of another; days at the office to pay the mortgage. I guess for me, it takes three days.