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THE DECOYS in front of us were dancing on the waves. A few were tracing lazy lopsided ovals, tugging on their anchor strings, then spinning around madly when a gust of wind would hit them. A mile behind them waves were crashing on the rocky shore of the island that I thought we’d be hunting from. And two miles further, patchy nimbus clouds — low and grey, spilling the occasional flurry — were rolling up the lake’s south shore and disappearing into the snowy haze of the horizon.
I was sitting on a patch of weeds and grass, a few feet back from the foot-wide strip of gravel that was the north shore of the lake. My legs were stretched out in front of me, encased in grey-green waders. I was silent and still. A few minutes earlier a weasel had run over my ankles. It kept on going, searching for a meal. Lucky for me, duck hunter wasn’t on its menu.
Dad was about 20 feet to my right. He’d tied the boat to a tree. We dragged the boat onto the gravel and had draped a piece of camo burlap over the motor and the gas tank. There were a few small cedars along the shore, bending over the boat, and a few more beside us. Behind us, tall pines and poplars deflected the cold north wind over our heads.
“Son,” he said, “the wind is blowing the ducks close to the shore of that island, and we could probably shoot a bunch, but we’d be freezing our asses off. This morning I want to be warm.”
He was right. There was no shelter on the island, no trees to hide behind. We’d be sitting on icy rocks, our faces exposed to that cold, late-October wind.
Dad had been hunting ducks for almost seventy years. Being warm, I understood, was sometimes better than a boatload of ducks. There were times I’d been so cold that my fingers were too numb to wrap the anchor strings and anchors around the decoys after I’d pulled them from the near-freezing water. Dad would shove the motor into neutral and shout over the wind, “just dump it in the boat and grab the next one, we can fix things later.” Yes, and untangle a bird’s nest of brown and green strings that would catch on the other decoys, the oars, the life preservers, the gun cases, and those little metal rivets that hold the boat together. I always took my knife with me, mostly to remedy the decoy-string situations.
But today, sitting on the shore, we weren’t cold. The trees were blocking the wind and the parabolic terrain was focussing the sun. We were warm and cozy, waiting for the ducks that never came. It was much more pleasant than being on that island. Or in the boat; bouncing over the waves, sliding up the crest then hammering the trough like a mallet, and dodging around the spray that would flash over the bow and stab your face like icy needles. That was how we got here from the cabin, and that was how we would be going back there for lunch. Five miles of grabbing the gunnels and bouncing up and down, a white-knuckle ride for sure.
We saw a few flocks of ducks go past the island; none came near the motley assortment of decoys that floated in front of us. Old decoys never die; they just end up in one of my father’s decoy bags. Unless the anchor string comes undone, and then they float away and get stuck in the reeds, or wash up on the shore somewhere. Or sink. Especially those that have been peppered with lead and steel shot over the past few decades.
We sat there for an hour and then it was time to head back. “Let’s go,” Dad said. The rest was automatic — unload your shotgun, put your shells in your pocket and your weapon in its case. Dad pushed the back end of the boat out into the lake and stepped in, reaching his seat after manoeuvring around the half-empty bags of decoys and the fuel tank. I untied the rope, pushed the boat off the gravel and climbed in. He started the motor and we picked up the decoys and headed up the lake. A vision of us sitting around the fireplace, slurping hot soup and eating sandwiches, kept me warm for the rough ride back to the cabin.
I love hunting ducks. I love everything about it. Being there, listening for the sound of their wings, watching them fly up and down the lake, and seeing them pitch and bob over the decoys. And eating them, of course.
My first mistake was moving away for school. With neither the time nor the opportunity to go duck hunting, autumn never felt the same. My next mistake was moving to Toronto.
Don’t get me wrong, Toronto’s a great city. But no one in Toronto hunts. Or knows anything about hunting. Or wants to hear you talk about hunting.
I remember how thrilled I was when Dad phoned and invited me to come hunting. I started planning right away. I thought at least I should bring a few boxes of shotgun shells with me.
There’s a huge sporting goods store on Yonge Street just north of Bloor, so I took the subway one Saturday and went shopping. I was amazed at all the merchandise. Most of it, I observed, was camping gear. Lots of people must be into camping. But then it made sense. If I could, I too would get out of Toronto at every opportunity.
But I couldn’t find the hunting section. Eventually, I asked for help. “Sorry sir, this store doesn’t have a hunting section.” The clerk didn’t seem at all apologetic. I was stunned. I just stood there, expecting him to add, “because no one in Toronto hunts.”
It took me a minute to recover. I was just about to ask if he knew of a store that sold hunting gear when he told me about a specialty shop on Highway 400. About halfway to Barrie. And, no, the subway doesn’t go there.
I can’t describe how depressed I felt on the subway ride back up Yonge Street. What was this city I was living in? I’d seen mallards and longtails and whistlers in the harbour, so I knew ducks hadn’t been extirpated in this part of Ontario. I knew people in Toronto ate duck because I’d seen the carcasses hanging in the windows of the Chinese restaurants on Spadina Avenue. Not that I’ve ever eaten it there. And I remember seeing duck for sale at St. Lawrence Market, and at a fine food shop where it was called Canard du Lac Brome and priced accordingly.
I couldn’t arrive empty handed. I wanted to bring my father a gift, so I asked myself, “what would Dad really like, something that he’s too cheap to buy for himself?” Scotch! I should be able to buy a bottle of good whisky in Toronto.
Unlike shotgun shells at the downtown sporting goods store, I had no trouble finding whisky at the LCBO.
It was good to see Dad again. He was waiting by the baggage carousel at Thunder Bay Airport. We threw everything into the truck and drove to the cabin. It was late, we went to bed right away, and we got up early. The boat ride was cold and rough, but it was nice to see some ducks that morning — even if we didn’t shoot any.
When we were eating lunch and warming up around the fire, I told Dad that I wanted to walk the old bush road behind the lake and look for partridge. He said he was going to have a nap.
I came back, grouseless, but I’d enjoyed the walk. We had a cup of coffee and listened to the weather report. It was getting colder and windier. Dad put another log on the fire and suggested we stay inside for the evening, and have supper and a drink. Besides, his foot hurt.
So we had supper and a glass or three of whisky and shared a few stories. When I flew back to Toronto the next day, Dad was still complaining about his foot. By the time he saw his doctor things had progressed. We didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of the end.
And that was the last time we were together at the lake, and that was our last duck hunt. No ducks, only memories.