my skiff through frozen maple swamp. Scant yellow leaves clung to
silver branches. I was breathing hard beneath a heavy sweater in
the dry cold air that had frozen the slough edge where my shotgun,
decoys, and push pole lay. There was a hollowness to the day, making
time seem unreal. Seeing a voyageur in a dugout canoe would not
have surprised me.
I surveyed the place I'd hunted once before. The horseshoe slough
rimmed with bare matchstick trees. Crude blinds of two-by-four and
plywood. Muddy river smell. Chinking of ice floes. I was alone but
connected to this place. I wondered why everyone wasn't here rigged
out for northern birds. No matter. I launched, broke ice with the
push pole head, and made for the tree-rimmed horseshoe.
The water was calm as glass, shielded from wind by the trees, as
I threw out decoys--a ragtag group of plastic mallards, Herter's
foam bluebills, and a sleek Jobes Brothers pintail handcarved in
Havre de Grace, Maryland. As I poled the skiff into cattail and
buttonbush cover, 20 wigeon twisted by at close range. White wing
patches flashed in gem-blue sky. I shot and watched them disappear
I thought of wigeon breeding on some prairie pothole surrounded
by golden wheat, forced out by driving cold, and now twisting over
these bare trees on their way to Central America. I longed for a
drake, a swashbuckling bird with a white crown (hence the folk name
"baldpate") and green eye patch. How can one love an animal, know
its life cycle, yet seek to bring it to his dinner table? Maybe
to participate in the divine, to pluck a feather from God.
Flocks of puddle ducks, perhaps a dozen each, continued to work
the decoys--over the horseshoe, out the cut, and back. I continued
to miss easy shots. I collected myself. Lay in the bottom of the
skiff, said a prayer, ate canned fish, set a cup of tea on the skiff
decking. Three mallards whiffled in and I took a drake, satisfying
the primitive hunger, the great gulf between zero and one bridged.
I poled out for him, smoothed his feathers, and felt part of the
grand passage of birds and weather descending from the prairies.
The sky shifted from blue to gray. The bottom began to drop out
of the temperature. Now only high singles worked the marsh. There
was the lonely sound of ice chinking, wind rustling water. A bald
eagle soared over the slough, like the ducks seeking food and open
water. A thin moon waxed above like a slice of apple.
John Motoviloff '89
John Motoviloff, formerly John Pallitto, is a freelance writer based
in Madison, Wisconsin. His essay is drawn from Driftless
Stories: Outdoors in Southwest Wisconsin,
published this year by Trails Books.
by Richard Hamilton Smith / Corbis