BY MITCH MODE
SPECIAL TO THE STAR JOURNAL
The gray sky was low and the breeze stiff and chill as I stood on the hillside. The forecast called for snow. The trees were bare; there would be no shelter from them today. I took it all in; the sky, the rising wind, the spare trees and skittering of fallen leaves, then started down the narrow path the led to the lake.
The fiberglass duck skiff slid into the water. I won it at a Ducks Unlimited dinner, lord knows how long ago. Thirty years? Forty? The fiberglass wears patches like scabs, bruises where the glass cracked and I laid fiberglass tape and resin as Band-Aids against leaks. It floats. It carries weight. It does the job.
I loaded a bag of decoys, the shotgun, a camouflaged bag of gear. In the bag was a camera, two boxes of shells, binoculars, a set of regulations. I have never in my life needed two boxes of shells, not on that lake, but two boxes fits the bag well and frames a gap for the camera so I carry them.
As I set the decoys, the wind gathered muscle and the boat drifted. Paddling back against the wind, I placed seven factory-made mallard decoys and an equal number of wood and cork frauds that I carved.
In a normal year I would pull the boat up on dry land and walk to the blind but this is not a normal year. The rains of last spring, when we had double the average rainfall, flooded the swamp and now the footing was uncertain. I did not walk to the blind but paddled the boat close and then pulled it into the flooded timber behind the blind.
I carried bag and cushion and shotgun to the blind and put the gear bag in front of me on a log that was above water level. Reaching into the right-hand pocket of the hunting jacket, I felt for three shells, loaded the shotgun and rested it atop the bag.
Then, for the first time since I’d left the hilltop, I relaxed.
The lake is not a good one for ducks. It is convenient to me and so I hunt it. No, on this day I was hunting solely to hunt in falling snow and driving wind. Ducks would be a bonus; the snow, forecast to start later, was why I was out.
For reasons unknown, I love to hunt in falling snow. I will sit in a duck blind as the snow falls and watch the mesmerizing bob and roll of the decoys on the late autumn wind. I hunker down in my deer stand in late November as the snow falls and the world seems to close in. I do this for hours in the grayness and wind.
Rarely do I see ducks on days of snowfall; and seldom see deer. My range of vision in falling snow is reduced and swaths of landscape disappear in the shroud of snow. For all I know deer may move and ducks may fly and I never see them. I do not hunt in the snow for the success it may bring. There are other reasons.
I hunt in falling snow because the world is small, more manageable in snow. The horizon is gone; the world draws in. On a crystal clear day you can see forever and in that expanse comes a dizzying abundance; sky and horizon and distant hills and ever present trees and leaf and lake and more. It can weary the mind. Gone, all, on days when snow comes down. In the haze of snow one can focus on matters close to hand. Snow days are restful to the mind.
A deer stand in falling snow is very quiet. There may be the sound of wind in trees or simply the sound of snow falling on the earth, which is to say, no sound at all. The far-off ridge disappears in the mask of snow as if the clouds above have fallen under their own weight to come to ground. Your eyes find shapes and forms, distinct for an instant then faded as the snow shifts and you are left not knowing, not with certainty, what it is that you have seen.
In snowfall comes mystery; landscape seems to shift; what is solid becomes indistinct; what has weight lifts up. There is no certainty, only mystery and imagination and in a world of certainty and fact-driven answers mystery becomes an odd but wonderful feeling. Snowfall carries mystery from the heavens to the ground.
And there is this: Part of what we seek when we leave pavement and home and turn to field and forest is solitude, simple solitude as big as the world, as private as your soul. Sit on a deer stand or in a duck blind in the falling snow and solitude is your companion.
On the day I hunted ducks the snow came. Light at first then thicker and steady and the horizon was hidden to haze, then gone. I pulled the hood up on my parka and burrowed my hands deeper into the pockets.
Darkness came early that afternoon; the falling snow robbed the day’s late light. If there were ducks on the wing they were lost to the snow and the cloud. I pulled the decoys, paddled back and unloaded the boat. Then I climbed the hill, started the truck and turned up the heater.
I did inventory; no ducks seen; no ducks taken. All I had was a solitary hunt in falling snow driving wind and in that, everything I needed.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.