I did it again last October — fall in the loon stuff, that is. I do it every couple of years, and it never fails to bring back memories.
It started in high school, when a friend and I tipped our canoe during an ill-fated duck outing along the fragrant shores of Lake Emma.
“Wow,” said my hunting partner Bucky as we sunk to our knees in gooey, primordial muck. “This stuff sure stinks. I hope it washes off, tonight being Homecoming and all.”
We recovered our guns and most of our gear before dark. I got home in time to take a hot shower before the Homecoming dance, but I gave my face an extra splash of Aqua Velva just in case.
“What is that stuff, anyway?” Bucky asked our biology teacher, Mr. Garth, after class the next week. Mr. Garth, an avid duck hunter, didn’t crack a smile.
“Loon stuff,” he said. Only he didn’t say “stuff.”
“Oh,” said Bucky.
Since Bucky and I had never seen a loon on Lake Emma — those mystical birds being more inclined toward the cold, clear lakes farther north — we wondered about Mr. Garth’s explanation.
Then came college. I asked my biology professor what made duck marshes smell the way they do. The answer involved scientific terms like organic matter, plant decomposition, and sulfur dioxide. During a duck hunt over Thanksgiving break I passed my newfound knowledge along to Bucky.
“Yeah right, loon stuff,” he said. Only he didn’t say “stuff.”
I fell in it again last fall, reminding me that duck hunting is a lifelong learning experience, complete with lessons I never seem to learn. One of those lessons dictates that shooting at an overhead mallard already past vertical can lead to trouble, especially when your boots are ankle-deep in mud. I did a backward swan dive into the odoriferous ooze.
That’s when I learned that a wader-clad duck hunter with a heavy parka and lots of shells in his pockets is not unlike a turtle flipped onto its back. I laid there a while gathering my strength, then reached out and leaned my shotgun against a clump of reeds. Then I did a mud-bound duck hunter’s version of the Eskimo roll, only in reverse — a maneuver that left me slimed over with a putrid coat of marshland muck. I had mud in my ears and up my nose.
As I struggled onto my hands and knees I found myself eyeball to eyeball with my black Lab, Bailey, who took one look and backed away in disgust.
I admit to loving everything about duck marshes, despite their occasional treachery and miasmic mysteries — I even love the way they smell. I guess it has something to do with all those pleasant memories of wet dogs, ducks coming to decoys, and partners I’ve shared duck blinds with over the years.
In fact, I’m even thinking about designating my favorite duck marsh as a final resting place. Here’s what I’d like adorning the weathered wood of my old duck blind:
A Duck Hunter’s Last Wish
When I’ve shot my last shell
and my skiff’s run aground,
please don’t bury me
on a hill or a mound.
Take me down to the marsh
with my old hunting vest,
spread my ashes around
where the waterfowl nest.
Let my soul rise high
with the cattail fluff,
while the rest of me sinks
in the sticky loon stuff.