Cordova Chronicles: Joys of that first duck hunt

For anyone that chases ducks, the memories of that first hunt always endure. It is therefore with joy and anticipation that I took my granddaughter Ellie out to the blind for the first time early this September.

Ellie recently turned 8 years old, and is in 3rd grade this year. She is not fond of the loud explosions of fireworks, and has great love of all creatures, be they as small as dragonflies or as large as horses.

I still remember and cherish my first bird hunt. It was down Alaganik, back in September of 1954. How could I forget? It started in eager anticipation. Dad, my brother Bobby and I — plus our cocker spaniel, Candy — headed downriver at the crack of dawn in a tiny cedar boat powered by a little 10-horse outboard. It ended with us dragging the boat upriver on a falling tide in the pitch black: cold, wet and exhausted. When we arrived home, Mom chewed out Dad for putting us kids at peril, while we tried to hide our smiles for partaking in such a grand adventure.

In the early ’80s, I took my daughters Heidi and Gretchen on their first hunt, from our cabin at Pete Dahl. They were Ellie’s age at the time. We left in sunshine at midday, and had a great time in a blind, blowing duck calls, eating snacks, drinking pop and watching rubber Deeks bob in a slight breeze. Then I ruined it all by shooting a spoonbill.

Later, when they were both in college, I took them out to the same spot. They delighted in raucously blowing duck calls, not to attract birds, but rather to chase them away. Surprise, surprise.   I passed on a few crazy birds that were attracted by the racket, while rethinking the nature of my attempts at calling birds. We had a great time, and still laugh about it. Learning is a change in behavior, and it was a lesson not forgotten.

So Ellie and I headed out in mid-afternoon of a sunny cloudless day, she wearing this floppy bright hat that always makes me smile. We rode up a narrow slough above the cabin in my 14-foot riverboat; a snipe zipped along in front of us so close you could almost touch it as we navigated the glassy water. After anchoring the boat, we had to hike several hundred yards, and then row across a pond to reach the blind. Over 60 decoys were spread out, and Ellie marveled at the mix of species, including mallards, widgeons, pintails and yellow leg geese, plus four swan confidence decoys.

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We got all set up in the blind, and I pulled all the essentials out of my pack: chips, candy bars, cookies and iced tea. Healthy food is not a duck blind staple. I let Ellie try all the calls. Her favorite turned out to be the one for Canadian geese, which I found amusing since the season on Honkers was not yet open. Ellie had to stand to see over the brush in the blind, and delighted in a battery operated motion decoy called a splash duck spinning in circles to stir up the water.

Not surprising, there were no birds moving. We sat and chatted for a bit. Then she jumped up.

“Grampa, look at the fish!” She had noticed several little sticklebacks swimming in the murky water under our feet. “Can we catch some?”

“Sure”, said I, remembering the trout fishing expedition which she and I made to Pipeline Lakes a month earlier in which we caught zero fish and two toads. Those little amphibians could jump like popcorn, and saved the day.

The question was how to catch these speedy little guys. We dug out the Tupperware container used for the chips, and after a few trial sets she managed to scoop up a total of five. Of course, Mom and Grandma back at the cabin had to see this. So we put them in a Ziplock bag filled with water, which she carried carefully on her lap all the way back to the cabin.

When we pulled up to the bank, both were standing there to greet us. Before they could even ask how we did, Ellie shouted, “You won’t believe it!  We got five!”

Astonished, both replied in unison, “You got five?”

Holding up her Ziplock bag, she hollered: “Yes!  We got five fish!”

And both, to my delight, responded with “Wow, Ellie, that is awesome!”

After transplanting them to a kelp bucket full of water from the pond behind the cabin, plus adding weeds to improve their habitat, along with giving them each names and playing with them for awhile, Ellie decided it was time to release them to meet their new nearby friends.

Our duck cabin at Pete Dahl was built in 1959. We started a tradition of making entries in a Cabin Journal on each visit at that time. These cabin “Logs” now fill seven loose leaf binders, a chronicle of so many characters, times and events.

Here are excerpts of what Ellie wrote in the Log:

“September 4, 2016. This was an outstanding trip to the cabin. I went on a duck hunt with grampa. We didn’t catch any ducks, but we caught five sticklebacks! Five! Then we let them go in the pond next to our cabin.” More prose followed, and then this closing: “This cabin trip was so awesome I can’t explain. love, Ellie.”

A smiley face followed her signature. And crosses my face every time her words are read.

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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].