THE OLD MAN AND ME BOOK 2 - CHAPTER 33: Darwin’s Shotgun Missed (Revised)
In the fall of 1967, my first semester as a graduate student at Utah State University, I did a fair amount of duck hunting. To the southwest of Logan, Utah (the home of the USU Aggies) lies a marsh of several thousand acres, dominated by shallow open water and islets of very tall bulrushes. This marsh lies on a major waterfowl migration route, and during the fall it is heavily populated with ducks of many species. Hunting the marsh was an every weekend (and some weekdays) event. In fact, so many hunters hit that marsh on opening day the Fish and Game service held shooting time until noon.
My first opening day, I went to the marsh with a couple of friends. We got there about ten in the morning, loaded the canoe with decoys, shotguns, shells, a plastic bag of sandwiches and general stuff, clambered in (carefully) and paddled out into the open water that meandered among the huge bulrush hummocks. We found a hummock that opened to a fairly wide stretch of clear water and spread about a dozen and a half decoys about fifteen to twenty yards out in small groups, then pulled the canoe into the bulrushes and got out of it. I stayed with the canoe. The other two spread to the right and left. I got out of the canoe, putting it between me and the decoys. Standing on a raised hummock of bulrushes with decoys spread in front of me and a canoe to lay my shotgun on and rest lightly against, waiting nearly two hours for shooting to start was nerve-wracking.
And there were always the “sooners.” Just as in the Oklahoma land rush, they had a patience problem. The first shot came at about eleven-thirty, which provoked the roar of the Rangers’ airboats. But it rapidly became an exercise in futility. By ten minutes of noon, someone fired every few seconds. At some point there was even the “ka-RANG” of a rifle as some idiot tried to reach one of the swans flying over at two hundred yards above it all. That brought all the Rangers, their airboat and outboard skiff motors racing. I don’t know if they caught him, but if they didn’t it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Shotgun fire may have begun sporadically, but by the time the airhorns blew to signal the official start of shooting the crescendo of sound was the living definition of “rolling thunder.” Then it began to rain. I was wearing a cap with a rolled brim that had a peak in front, and my head was pelted with rain as I looked up to see flocks of ducks, both snow and Canada geese, and even a few small flocks of swans. I looked down to pick up my shotgun, and discovered it hadn’t been raining after all. Birdshot poured out of the rolled brim and off the peak of my cap.
While all this excitement had been going on, a small flock of ducks had dropped into and among our decoys. None of us had noticed. But when a flock of Gadwall wheeled in and set their wings, we all fired, turning the air in front of us into a frenzy of ducks taking off, ducks trying to beat back up from almost landing and ducks falling out of the sky. Within an hour we all had our limits. With more difficulty than we had expected, we got back into the canoe, pulled the decoys and headed for the launch area – a bit scary at that time of day to tell the truth.
At the launch area we hauled the double-skinned canoe up onto the boat launch and transferred everything in it into the station wagon. Then the three of us struggled and finally got it onto the roof rack. The canoe was fiberglass with a fairly heavy rib frame, built from a kit. Once built, the builder decided it wasn’t sturdy enough, so he bought another kit and laid a whole new body on it, worked in a few extra ribs and made it so heavy two men couldn’t lift it to the roof of a car.
One day when I couldn’t go hunting (something about attending classes on a regular basis), one of my roommates borrowed my semi-automatic 12-gauge Remington, and he and two friends went duck hunting in the canoe. The plan was the usual, set the decoys, hide the canoe among the rushes and get out of it and stand behind it in waders - using the rushes as a blind and the canoe as a gun rest while they waited and called ducks.
I went off to class.
Upon my return to the house, I was met by my (very soggy) roommate exiting the car - without my shotgun. It seems that, as the three of them were paddling from the launch to their chosen islet, from behind another islet appeared a mixed flock of Gadwall, Teal and Mallard ducks, flying straight at them at high speed and low elevation. Our three intrepid waterfowlers, forgetting entirely the stability issues inherent in canoeing (not to mention Newton’s First Law of Motion) dropped paddles and upped shotguns.
Firing in unison into the mass of quacking and flapping ducks, and not incidentally perpendicular to the long axis of the canoe, all three were immediately reminded of some of the basic tenets of flotation and the mechanics of motion as described by one Sir Isaac Newton; to wit, “bodies in motion tend to remain in motion,” and as described by every paddler of long and narrow boats, “canoes are tippy little suckers.” Finally, as all three twelve-gauge shotguns fired together, they were reminded that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” As the pellets exited the muzzles of the guns, the “equal and opposite” energy slammed into the shoulders of our three hunters, throwing them all three to the rear. In short, they went swimming in their hunting gear - chest waders, hip boots, shotguns and all.
Guns were immediately abandoned to their watery fate… and waders and hip boots were quickly, if arduously, discarded as well. Unfortunately for their Darwin Award eligibility, they were able to save each other, sling arms over the canoe, and hand-paddle back to shore.
The shotguns were salvaged the next day by diligent use of a magnet from the School of Engineering. Suspending the magnet into the water by a rope, each of our young woodsmen dragged it across the bottom from a flat-bottom Johnboat until a “clunk” was heard and it became nearly impossible to drag it farther. Lifting the magnet revealed the shotgun, and someone else began dragging the magnet. Waders were snagged with a grappling hook made from stiff wire. Once our heroes arrived back at the apartment, they made a beeline for the bathroom... with the shotguns. Within moments I heard water running at maximum yield into the bathtub. Wandering into the bathroom and asking a couple of questions, as they opened the chambers of the guns and began awkwardly attempting to run water into them (bathtub faucets are not positioned for such foolishness, so they were having very little luck), I made a startling, and saddening, discovery... not one of them had ever completely disassembled and reassembled a weapon in their lives.
Gently collecting the guns (“Give me that before you burn yourself!”), I led them into the kitchen after instructing them to bring towels. I spent much of that evening training three much-chastened young men how to disassemble, clean and reassemble various models of shotguns. Late into the night, one gun at a time, I taught them the basics of removing mud, sand and water from steel parts that depended upon very tight tolerances to operate. Modern hunting weapons, especially gas-operated semi-automatic ones, are so constructed, as are modern military weapons, that sand and soil are not helpful in tight tolerance operations. Skills learned from the Old Man, as well as from my days as Arms Room Master in Camp Page in South Korea, came in more than handy. I taught them how to scrub (soap and hot water are useful at this point), properly dry and re-oil them, and how to reassemble them. Finally, watching them struggle, I told the guys never to try it alone, pointing out that every western town, including Logan, had a gun shop.
None of them ever fired a shotgun out of a canoe after that day... nor, come to that, did I.