The Sounds of Duck Hunting

camping with the kids at wildwood nebraska

I wrote a few days ago about our recent overnighter at Wildwood, a small lake north of Lincoln, Nebraska, nestled between fields of corn and soybean. I mentioned there that our sleepless morning was interrupted by spurts of shotgun fire. But I forgot to describe the source of the shooting.

I didn’t actually see them until sunrise, but their commotion in the quiet morning air gave the duck hunters away.

If you’re too busy too duck hunt, you’re too busy.
Jase, Duck Dynasty

It was long before dawn when I awoke to gravel crunching in the parking lot, first under rolling truck tires, then under shuffling boots. I checked my cell phone for the time. It was 4:30 AM, about two hours before a Nebraska hunter could legally open fire.

Gray limestone gravel paves all the roads and parking lots in my camping memories. Those small chalky rocks, with random angles but uniform size, create a sort of man-made welcome mat on mother nature’s vast front step. Reflecting on all our family trips as a kid, dusty gravel was always first to greet me as I jumped out of the truck. The sound and texture of it are subtle but distinctive and unique to that point where driving ends and a campout begins.

As the waterfowlers unloaded their truck beds, oblivious to me and my eavesdropping, I heard the unnatural clatter of their most essential trapping, the flock of decoys. Dozens of hollow-bodied, featherless, plastic ducks, who would be carefully placed to create the illusion of a safe and inviting stretch of lake-shore property.

Until this point, the sounds of the setup were mostly quiet and cautious. I heard some rustling in the bushes and grasses, and soft splashing as the hunters waded out and distributed their bait in the most effective pattern they could think of. I could picture them pausing in the cloudy moonlight, to imagine how the scene would appear to their prey. Maybe the decoys would seem too eager, or too exclusive, as the ducks flew past in search of friends.

Eventually, with the stage set, the splashing stopped, and the waiting began. The hunters were clearing the air. At some point I fell back asleep.

sunrise at wildwood lake

At 5:30 AM, the decoys came to life. I’ve never heard such a lively group of ducks. Their quacking seemed forced, as if someone were squeezing it out of them against their will. It was awkward. No real duck could have the lungs to maintain such a consistent, rhythmic squawk.

And yet, apparently, the hunters found something to shoot at. The shooting was almost as relentless as their calling. Blam, blam, blam, …, blam, blam, blam, blam, blam! Then, more calling. Squawk, squawk, squawk, squawk, …, squawk, squawk, squawk, …, squawk, squawk! Over and over, back and forth.

The kids, exhausted from a late the night by the fire, slept through it all. But I was wide awake. As I stretched out in my goose down sleeping bag, I thought about the ducks. I wished they could be taken more elegantly, with less squawking and blasting. And I hoped the hunters were grateful for their kill.

Hunting presents a difficult contrast for me: you take an animal’s life to, hopefully, sustain your own. I first confronted this contradiction while bow hunting last fall, when I shot my first buck. My heart was pounding and my eyes were damp as I let my arrow fly, an arrow that would stop his heart from beating and his eyes from seeing. As someone with a relatively small and superficial connection with the earth, it was both exhilarating and terrifying to end the life of a creature that is one with the earth, a creature that spends all of his existence with it and in it. I’ve never felt so close to and so far from the natural world at the same time.

These thoughts and feelings came back to me as I listened to the duck hunt. And I realized that the sounds of a hunt can be beautiful or disgusting, depending on the attitude and reverence of the hunter.

Camping With the Kids at Wildwood Lake, Nebraska

camping with the kids at wildwood nebraska
A thin glaze of ice on Wildwood Lake, with wild woods behind.

Last weekend I took the kids camping at Wildwood, a small reservoir just north of Lincoln, near Branched Oak. This was my first overnighter alone with the full crew. Five kids, no mommy.

I’m not going to lie, camping with kids is stressful and exhausting. Half of the time I’m stoking a fire or prepping a meal. The other half I’m helping an unhappy camper, wiping tears, warming fingers, zipping, buttoning, or tying. But camp we must.

camping with the kids at wildwood nebraska
An old iron bridge, with many failed attempts to break the ice below.

The earth is a part of me, and I want it to be a part of my kids. I want fresh dirt in their pores and fresh air in their lungs. I want the open spaces to inspire them, the unexplored shadows and hilltops, the depths and ledges, to challenge them.

I want them to experience what would happen if… Break a stick just to hear it crack. Splash a pond to see the ripples. Dig, build, break, throw, run, jump, climb, spin, taste, just because. See what happens.

All good things are wild and free
Henry David Thoreau

There’s no other time or place when kids can so much be kids. When they’re outdoors, unleashed and unrestrained, there are few limits they don’t create. As a result, they get to experience all of themselves. And I love to watch them grow as the discovery unfolds.

Anyway, here’s a quick summary of our night at Wildwood: eating, crying, eating, crying, storytelling, sleeping, waking to drunk people yelling and breaking things, sleeping, waking to shotgun fire, sleeping, shotgun fire, etc., eating, hiking, cleaning up after drunk people.

The shotgun fire came from some very excited duck hunters.

The crying came from our 18-month-old on her first campout without mom.

camping with the kids at wildwood nebraska
The full crew, in full effect.

Walt Whitman Poem To Bryant, the Poet of Nature

walt whitman

From the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Newsroom:

Wendy Katz, associate professor of art history, has discovered a new poem by Walt Whitman. While researching art criticism in the penny newspapers as a Smithsonian Senior Fellow in Washington, D.C., she found a poem by “W.W” in the June 23, 1842, issue of New Era.

I tend to avoid poetry, along with any other literature or art that reminds me how uncultured and unread I am in comparison to people who understand these things. On the other hand, I seek out activities like camping and hiking and rock climbing that are uncomfortable and that remind me how weak and small I am in comparison to the long steep trail, the gnarly route, the bitter cold, and the raging storm. So, I’m going to branch out and give poetry a chance.

The poem is titled To Bryant, the Poet of Nature. FYI – a diadem is a crown with jewels, and a lyre is a miniature harp.

Let Glory diadem the mighty dead —
Let monuments of brass and marble rise
To those who have upon our being shed
A golden halo, borrowed from the skies,
And given to time its most enduring prize;
For they but little less than angels were:
But not to thee, oh! nature’s OWN, we should
(When from this clod the minstrel-soul aspires
And joins the glorious band of purer lyres)
Tall columns build: thy monument is here —
For ever fixed in its eternity —
A monument God-built! ‘Tis seen around —
In mountains huge and many gliding streams —
Where’er the torrent lifts a melancholy sound,
Or modest flower in broad savannah gleams.
W.W., “New Era,” June 23, 1842

High Adventure in the Ozarks: Canoeing the Current River

cave on the current river

This summer I joined the scouts from our church for their high adventure trip to the Ozarks. We maneuvered a caravan of canoes about 50 miles down the north section of the Current River, starting near Salem, Missouri, before getting pounded by a storm that would send us home a day early.

Getting to Aker’s Ferry, MO

We left Lincoln before sunrise on a muggy Monday in June, three adults, four scouts, and five days of gear all crammed into a minivan. Sleeping pads and pillows were stacked to the ceiling behind the back seat, with all the heavy stuff underneath, giant totes full of food, stoves, the troop cookware, and an accumulation of old mess kits seasoned with food residue from many years of fireside feasts. Those ancient mess kits connected us to a long line of scouters who camped the same parks and wilderness over the decades, who tread the same earth and waterways, but who left no trace, except for the scratches and dents and the hint of oatmeal and other reconstituted meals in those thin aluminum pans with the awkward flattened handles.

cave on the current river

After nine hours together in the minivan, we were anxious for a change of scene. We arrived at Aker’s Ferry, tired but excited to paddle, around 3PM. We discussed our itinerary with a weathered old river man, who cautioned us against drinking the river water, which would give us gee-ardia, unless we drank it straight from a spring. Then, another old river man, more weathered than the first and harder to understand, instructed us mostly with gestures to throw our stuff in the back of his short school bus. And we were on our way.

Yellow school buses with glossy black trim are as timeless as aluminum mess kits. They never age or change. It’s impossible to tell when they were made, or where they come from, or how many kids, over how many years, have climbed around on those tough green vinyl seats on their way to the schoolhouse.

The bus driver took us up a bouncy country road to our starting point, Ceder Grove. Ignoring my offer to help, he unloaded the three sixty-pound canoes plus a kayak from the trailer on his own with ease, as if he’d done it every day for the past fifty years. Before he pulled away, I asked which canoe was best. I imagined he knew those battered plastic boats like a dog sledder knows his team, that he knew which one was loyal and reliable, which one had spunk. Pointing, he shared what sounded like critical information about each craft. I couldn’t understand anything he said. But I did gather that the yellow canoe was best, so I got first dibs.

Paddling and Capsizing

We distributed the heavier items across our three boats, which would later be dubbed orange crush, green monster, and the banana boat. Orange crush was gimpy, but bulky and tough, not runty. It floated about 4 inches lower on one side, with its gunwale just above the water, as if it dared the river to enter as it pushed past. I liked crush. It had experience and character. Green monster wasn’t really a monster. The scouts just couldn’t think of another name to go with its color. The monster was steady, reliable, and unassuming. Then there was the banana. Quick and confident, having been named best of the group by the canoe master himself.

beach on the current river

For our first hour on the river, we got comfortable in our boats, becoming familiar with their movement on the water, how they responded to our shifting and leaning, and how they handled sharp turns past downed trees and other obstructions. My ride, the banana, didn’t respond like I expected and we tipped into the river while trying to shoot under a tree that formed a low arch in the water. We lost about a fourth of our food as a result, since it wasn’t water tight. A giant box of minute rice doubled in size, bulging at the sides and top, within minutes. Pasta got soggy. Fortunately, we had about twice as much food as we needed, so no one went hungry.

In the end, everyone would capsize at least once. It was always caused by a downed tree that would knock the canoe off balance, usually going around a bend in the river. All sorts of gear, including sleeping bags and pillows, would get soaked. The biggest challenge was then drying the soaked gear under a cloudy sky and in the humid air. Aside from a t-shirt or hat, what got wet pretty much stayed wet.

The Water

Water is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.
Henry David Thoreau

I love water. I love gulping it, splashing it, surfing it, floating on it, bailing off a cliff or flinging from a swing and crushing through it. I love how it can smoothly separate when broken and then seamlessly reconnect, how it reflects and distorts light, how it looks and sounds as a paddle blade slices through it and pushes off it.

If only I could become water, forgiving but resilient and consistent, fluid but strong and supportive.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend.
Bruce Lee

See my notes on the River Shannon for another ode to agua.

The Current is a special waterway, a diamond in the redneck rough of rural Missouri. Because it is spring-fed, it has none of the murkiness that gives any other river in the Midwest the appearance of swamp drainage. Instead, it’s as clean and clear as snow melt, but warmer and with a slight bluish limestone tint. All the pollution, the stink and muck and gee-ardia, is removed through the process of infiltration, as the water percolates down through the southern Missouri countryside into an unseen aquifer hundreds of feet below the surface, to later emerge, purified, through cracks and caves under and along the banks of the Current.

So, being four days in and on the Current was sublime.

The Caves

Every few miles the forested hills on either side of the river grow into towering limestone bluffs and cliffs. The cliff faces are moist from the groundwater seeping out through their pores, and in a few of them we discovered gaping caverns that led deep into the throat of the crags.

cave on the current river

About 25 miles into the journey, we stopped at Round Spring and took a guided tour of the cavern. Hiking half a mile into the belly of a mountain is a little unnerving, especially when the guide locks the gated entrance behind you, but the tour was well worth the 90 minutes of our day. We saw what are assumed to be ancient beds and claw marks of the short-nosed bear, possibly the largest bear to ever roam the earth. We also marveled at an enormous pile of guano, easily 15 feet high, and witnessed thousands of stalactites forming at a rate of 2 millimeters per year.

I have no pictures from Round Spring cave, or anything after day three of our trip, because my phone battery died. So I’ll have to describe my two favorite parts of this trip in words.

The Storms

One evening we set up camp along a straight section of river as a thick thunderstorm formed to our north. We were battening down the hatches when one of the scouts started shouting and pointing upstream. A wall of rain was rushing toward us. The river surface showed a clear distinction between raining and not raining, and the not raining part was shrinking fast.

We waited out the deluge in our tents until the sun had set and the storm had moved to the south. Then, the lightning bugs appeared. I’ve never seen so many at once. The forest all around us was filled with an ethereal and ephemeral new species of tree. Spindly yellow saplings sprouted from the glowing paths of the rising fireflies, and then evaporated into the darkness as others grew in their place.

The lightning bugs must have been inspired by the actual lightning that flashed across the horizon. I’ve also never seen such an electric thunderstorm. The clouds produced a strobe light of lightning, with almost more light than dark. It was magical to watch the bugs with their namesake, dancing together through the same sky.

The day after the lightning rave, we encountered a storm that would stop us in our tracks. It was early Thursday afternoon. The saturated clouds were gradually descending on us as we paddled, first as a light mist, then a light drizzle. When the drizzle turned to rain, the calm turned to wind, and the two seemed to antagonize one another until an all-out brawl started, rain versus wind, with us in the middle. We sprinted to the nearest beach and set up our tents, potentially for the night.

After about ten minutes of fighting the rain was squelched. The wind had won. But it was much stronger and much fiercer now. The edges of our tent started to pull up from the sandy gravel beneath them, with us still inside. Then the tent poles started snapping. The wind was rushing and howling so loudly that we had to shout and wave our arms toward the river to confirm to each other that it was better to be in the boats or in the open than in a torn up pile of tent.

We struck the tents in a matter of seconds, wrapped them crazily into bundles, and stuffed them into totes. But clothes, hats, sleeping bags, backpacks, anything not strapped to a human or a canoe blew away down the beach as the wind increased. It was wild. We quickly formed a huddle to reconsider our decision: go or stay?! Just then we heard the deep, slow cracking of a century-old tree trunk splitting in two. We turned to watch it topple over, crushing everything beneath it. Trees were splintering all around us now. That was our cue.

Looking into the scouts eyes I saw confusion and fear, but, in a frenzy, we finished packing and loading. Sand and gravel pelted us now, as gravity was overpowered and the surface of the beach began to erode into the air. This was now a battle between wind and earth. As people climbed into the canoes, I couldn’t resist stopping for a moment to take it all in. With sand and river spraying my face, I put my hands up and shouted into the storm, frightened but exhilarated. Then, I jumped into orange crush and pushed off into our only refuge, the open water.

swimming in the current river

Gear Review: GI Leather Trigger Finger Mittens

gi leather trigger finger mittens wool

My first inaugural gear review ended up being more of a eulogy to the greatest pair of shoes I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I’m really going to miss those Rockports. My next pair has some big shoes to fill.

Today I’m moving on to another essential piece of clothing that has already had a big impact on me in the year we’ve been together. At the start of last winter I purchased some GI Leather Trigger Finger Mittens on Amazon for twenty bucks. I’ve gone through a dozen or so pairs of gloves and mittens over the past ten years, hiking, camping, and biking through the Minnesota and Nebraska winters, and these are hands-down my favorite.

In Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire, an arrogant Klondike explorer nearly freezes to death, alone in the woods, when his fingers ice over so fast in the open air that they wont flex or bend to pick up a match. In a revised version of the story [spoiler alert] only the explorer’s dog, warm and secure in its natural covering, survives without the revitalizing warmth of a fire.

With stiff fingers which he could not bend, he got out a bunch of matches, but found it impossible to separate them. He sat down and awkwardly shuffled the bunch about on his knees, until he got it resting on his palm with the sulphur ends projecting… But his fingers stood straight out. They could not clutch…

The frost had beaten him. His hands were worthless.
To Build a Fire, by Jack London

I think the original is better than London’s second, less juvenile version of the story. But the second version does highlight nicely the strengths and frailties of being human, in contrast to those of being canine. In most cases, human strength dominates. But at sixty below zero, the scale is tipped against us, and our dexterity, which depends on warm blood flow, isn’t effective enough to sustain itself.

Side note: I just learned that our brains are only 2% of our body weight, but use 20% of our oxygen supply and 20% of our blood flow. Wow!

Finger coordination in cold weather is an example of a key tradeoff in evolving from something primitive, like a dog, to having specialized skills, like dexterity and rational thought. Specialized skills make us more reliant on specialized circumstances. As a result, we are less tolerant of adverse conditions. Just as our fingers can now only operate above a certain temperature, our complex economy and way of life can only operate with a certain amount of electricity and fossil fuel. Someday, we might evolve ourselves into a corner where our skills don’t match the conditions.

It is a rule in paleontology that ornamentation and complication precede extinction. And our mutation, of which the assembly line, the collective farm, the mechanized army, and the mass production of food are evidences or even symptoms, might well correspond to the thickening armor of the great reptiles — a tendency that can end only in extinction. If this should happen to be true, nothing stemming from thought can interfere with it or bend it.
John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

The solution, as always, is getting back to basics and spending more time outdoors. But I’m getting carried away. Back to mittens.

after the snow campout

I’ve noticed that cold hands are the leading cause of not playing outside in the winter months, second only to cold toes. This is especially true for kids, who have no idea how to keep themselves warm, and whose boots and gloves seem never to fit right. Cold digits, sad kids.

Cold hands have been a problem for me too, especially when camping and biking. My previous mittens were the typical black nylon over some insulation with a thin layer of plastic and a fleece liner. This standard construction works fine for normal winter use, skiing, sledding, and snowball fighting, but it’s not durable or versatile enough for serious cold-weather activities.

torn mittens

The key to long-lasting winter warmth is layers. You need a strong mitten shell with removable fleece or wool liners. The GI mittens are an affordable, no-nonsense solution. They’ll keep you outside longer, while also demonstrating your disregard for the fancy new-age glove technology and whatnot. Leather palms and drab nylon-something on the outside, with wool inserts, and giant wrist covers.

Some parting remarks. These mittens have no insulation, aside from the wool liner, so you’ll have to supplement them in some way when it gets Klondike cold. I have fleece liners from another pair of mittens that I wear under the wool insert. My bike commute ranges from 45 to 60 minutes and sometimes gets below 20°F, but the frost hasn’t been a problem yet.

gi leather trigger finger mittens

gi leather trigger finger mittens instructions

gi leather trigger finger mittens instructions