Monday, March 26, 2012

Winter Sport

It had begun as an unseasonably warm day in northern Iowa. But by midmorning the temperature was plummeting and a massive weather change was in the making, and John Cole and I figured it for a good day to jump-shoot mallards on the Skunk River.

We were tough and young, accustomed to about any kind of weather that our Iowa prairies offered. But we learned new things about weather that day. The temperature was dropping several degrees each hour, the sky darkening at midday, and the wind was building to a crescendo of bitter force. A hard, granular snow was driven horizontally, cutting and blinding any face that was turned into it for long. Not even our hunting fever could temper that terrible wind. We hunted north into the wind, and the day resolved itself into small compartments of suffering. The world about us was closed out by an encircling wall of wind and snow; there were only Cole and I, and the fifty yards of visible river that traveled with us, and the sheltered river bends and the masses of ducks that cowered there.

The storm had caught a vast waterfowl migration over the Midwest and had bludgeoned countless ducks down onto the sloughs, ponds, and river. We saw mallards beyond number that short day. Each sheltering riverbank had its huddled flock, and some numbered into the hundreds. We would blunder up on them and they would try to fly up into that roaring whiteness, only to be battered back down into the river. We would fire at the rise, our eyes blinded with freezing tears, and the sounds of our heavy 12-gauge guns were dim, muffled thuds swept away on the wind.

Neither of us had hip boots. I remember that I wore heavy blanket wool breeches with thick wool socks and short snow-pacs, and we waded for the birds up to our hips. As we came out of the water into that wind we would be quickly sheathed in ice that sloughed off in plates as we walked. Evening came in late afternoon and we were far upriver when we finally turned south again, each with more than thirty pounds of mallards slung over his shoulder, and that terrible wind pushing us homeward.

When we finally got there, exhausted and ravenous, we walked into a parental storm about as violent as the one outside, but much hotter. The folks had been listening to WHO (The Voice of the Middlewest) on the old Majestic radio, and they were pretty well worked up. The news was so bad that even "Amos n' Andy" was interrupted by special bulletins. Hunters were dying by the dozens on the Upper Mississippi and northern lakes and marshes, where waves were breaking over their blinds and freezing or drowning them. We heard later that over forty Midwestern hunters were killed by the storm.

Out Home by John Madson

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