“I don’t know….” the somber words of my friend as he grasped the door of my salt blanketed truck. Stationary at the top of the hill, we gazed into the pre-dawn darkness at the lake we had scouted the day before. With nighttime temperatures dropping into the low teens in late-November, a sheet of ice had formed from the shoreline to 30 yards beyond. “I think we can do it” I said in an energetic, albeit brave voice.
I hustled down to the shoreline to test the thickness. The frosty north wind scraped at my face as my heavy frame floated above the ice for the first five feet, then CRASH! My feet plummeted through the ice and I stood on the sandy bottom with water to my knees. “It’s only an inch out here!” I hollered back to my friend through the bleak darkness. Warily, he started unloading the gear, discerning through a lifetime of friendship he wouldn’t easily sway my decision to hunt waterfowl in these treacherous conditions. Oh, I can definitely see his hesitant point of view, but it’s these types of edgy excursions that I wish I could relive for the 275 days of the duck-hunting offseason. Call me crazy, but one day of testing my mettle against the harsh elements for a chance at weary and desperate migrating waterfowl, sounds better than a week in tropical paradise.
With our cumbersome equipment down at water’s edge, we made quick work of the shoreline ice as we cleared a path with a sledge hammer and paddles. I pushed beyond the edge of the ice with my small motorized boat and set forth to our destination.
Watching the surreptitious shadows of the trees on the south shoreline, my stomach dropped to the floor as my boat jolted left to right, and a loud crunch filled my ears. I bent my torso low to neutralize the sway of my boat, and continued to crush the half inch ice beneath the fiberglass bow. Straining my head upwards, I could now see that the middle of the lake was covered in another sheet of ice from north to south.
Cold sweat beaded down my head as I realized the dangerous predicament I was in. If I tried to turn my boat sharply to the left or right, I would most certainly catch the edge of the ice, and flip into the icy water below. At this point I was completely committed and knew the safest way to proceed was forward. I began to feel a little more calm as I periodically turned back to see the headlamp of my friend following a distance behind me. If I did tip, he could cruise through the path of my boat to give me a helping hand. I finally arrived at the point that we were headed, and to my delight, the ice had not formed as heavily around the edge, and we were able to set out our array of decoys with relative ease.
As the ruby hued dawn approached, we methodically concealed our boats and settled into the sheltering cattails. I opened my coffee thermos, and drank in the hot black liquid as well as the blood orange sunrise before me. In a matter of 15 minutes, the first few aerial silhouettes appeared in the sky. Darting to and fro, north to south, they buzzed by with incredible speed, looking for friendship in an inhospitable landscape.
It didn’t take long for a hen ring-neck to pay a visit to our imitation. “One on the board!” I pronounced, as I grabbed the boat to row out to our downed prize. Over the course of the morning, we had flocks of mallards, ring-necks, and a gadwall cup their wings and careen into our spread without hesitation. Desperation was their demeanor, and we were catering to their quandary.
The highlight of the morning came in the form of a flock of a dozen geese. Flying south, they soared above our position with no inclination to land close by. Having little luck with Canada geese over the water, we blew our calls fervently to gain their attention. To our absolute astonishment, the lead goose sharply swung northward in our direction, and committed its loyal wings. Our bodies were locked motionless in the moment, and we patiently let them hover above our spread before beginning our barrage. Two ganders lay in the water, and my friend paddled victoriously to retrieve them.
In route to the access, my blazon trail was still visible across the entirety of the ice locked lake. A testament to the dangerous venture we had taken the morning. Following the open path, I breathed a deep sigh of relief when we both crossed through the end of the ice safely.
Although the risks were great and the outcome uncertain, we completely committed ourselves to the desperate journey, finding personal resolve in the deep cold waters of northern Minnesota.