The air is warm but Lake Superior remains cold. The beach is empty except for my wife and dogs. Behind me is a lighthouse - brick red with a snow white top. It has watched over this place for hundreds of years. I step into the cool water and question myself about going deeper. I hear the waves gently lapping against the shore. It seems to call to me and I continue.
At swimming depth I can count the sedimentary lines on the boulders below. The water, rich with minerals, leaves my skin feeling clean. I stay in the lake until I can no longer stand the cold. When I leave, a feeling of correctness and a sensation of being grounded washes over me. The lake’s vastness creates a gravity that drags me in and forces a balanced perspective. To the lake, my lifetime is a blink of an eye barely registered.
My phone rings, interrupting my memory. “Hey, it’s Jonathan (Windy City Spinoni), Primo passed and I’m headed to Madison to meet Jordy Jordahl for the necropsy”. Primo was getting older but his passing was sudden and unexpected. Primo was not only the workhorse of an avid duck hunter but also a beloved family member.
I know all too well the utter devastation that remains when a good dog’s time has come. Those feelings rush in addition to a selfish feeling of disappointment. I wanted to watch the extolled dog work. Having only recently met Jordy and Primo, that opportunity was gone. I would now only hear stories in the calm moments between ducks.
I was worried. Primo was billed as first string in the upcoming season. Primo’s backup, Rupert, was tagging along to learn the ropes and gain valuable exposure. I had little duck hunting experience and the thought of taking on the Mississippi River felt a little overwhelming. Relying on Jordy’s experience, I committed to the hunt.
“Here is the plan… I think we should be up around 2:30 a.m. …” Jordy explains as we pack up the boats in preparation for the morning. It’s after dark and I am tired just thinking about it. But I’m also excited. The Mississippi River runs deep in American folklore and I had the opportunity to witness it from the hull of a flat bottomed duck boat.
When we arrive at a launch point near Pool #9 of Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, the Armistice Day darkness is broken only by headlamps and trailer lights. We hurriedly get the boats ready and depart. I am to helm the second boat and stick close to Jordy as we weave our way through the sloughs. Pulling the cord on the outboard engine at full choke, the engine sputters and dies. Half choke, the engine feels muted as I let it warm for a minute or two. Full choke, the engine revs to life seeming eager for the morning hunt.
I reverse away from the ramp turning to the port side 25 yards behind Jordy. I turn the throttle ready to head up river. The boat lurches forward and dies. Jordy begins to pull away as the current turns us toward the starboard side. I pull the rope… nothing. Half choke, nothing. Full choke, the engine sputters and my life preserver twists, wrapping me up like a straight jacket. I fumble for the buckles and remove it. One, two, three pulls and the engine sputters to life ready to stall. Half choke, it rumbles, a little throttle, it revs then sputters. Choke off, throttle, the bow jumps while I turn hard port and close the distance to Jordy’s boat now barely visible.
We race against the sun as we set up the decoys. We work fast as I experience the river illuminated by my headlamp, one decoy at a time. With the work finished, we settle into the boat and await sunrise. Rupert, like he had been there a hundred times, sits next to me calmly awaiting the ducks.
As the sun rises, I try to take in the full sensation of the river. This place has a gravity, familiar but different from the lake. I watch barely visible diver ducks skim the water. I hear a professional guide calling in the distance. I smell cold, shallow, murky water. As I am drawn into the river’s trance Jordy points out a bald eagle gliding along the river…
“So Primo goes out for the retrieve and it’s far enough that I am concerned but confident,” Jordy whispers. “The bird was crippled and all I can think is that it’s going to dive and Primo was going to take the eagle to his head. It’s those things you never forget.”
For a moment, I’m saddened because I realize that the story of my first Mississippi duck hunt will outlive my own dog. But I am also determined. Determined to seek out these experiences and find the places that have a life of their own. Happy because I know the adversity of this challenge will create memories. Memories that will out live Rupert and, if I am a good enough storyteller, out live myself.
We finish the day with a few birds, but nothing to write home about. To me, the bird count is immaterial. I left with a newfound respect for the Mississippi and a new perspective on my hunting goals. The Mississippi taught me not to look for success in limits, numbers or any other material measure. I will know success when I learn new meaning in what it means to be a hunter… a human.
You can be sure, that the day will come when I will think of a sunrise over the Mississippi with Rupert at my side, his determined eyes scanning the sky for ducks. I’ll be sad for a moment. Then I’ll remember that he was the impetus for this trip, and all my other truly great stories, and I will be happy.