The coldest day I ever went duck hunting was 10 degrees above zero. We were in a canoe on a big river which probably ranks as suicidal; but nothing bad happened to us or the ducks, and it wound up a splendid day.
My partner, Luther Carter, had spent a lot of time over the years chasing ducks in similar fashion. I asked him if the cold didn't affect the birds the same way it did us.
"Ten degrees means nothing to a duck," he said.
It's funny how little phrases stick with you, and that one has stuck with me. Now, here we are bundling up for another winter, rigging up storm windows, checking furnaces and installing snow tires. And the humble little duck, here on earth long before man is set for another eon.
Duck season arrived again last weekend, and Carter and I embarked on another river drift on a little stream this side of the Shenandoah Valley. We put together our complicated armada -- two cars, the canoe, two shotguns, 100 high-powered sheels, lunches, changes of clothing in case we dumped, camouflage suits, flotation cushions, life jackets and wool stocking caps to ward off the chill.
We enjoyed another splendid day and so did the ducks, which escaped with nothing worse than a mild fright or two.
The river was high and fast and muddy, and the eight-mile drift was completed in a scant 2 1/2 hours. We witnessed two deer swimming across the current to escape predators (probably dogs); a half-dozen red-tailed hawks circling their prey and a covey of quail flushing from the banks with a whoosh. We found raccoon tracks in the mud along the bank and watched kingfishers and a few wood ducks streak upriver.
Our voyage's brevity gave us time to drive our two-car caravan through the mountains, enjoying the sights and sounds of a pretty day. Later, we climbed a mountain to look for signs of wild turkeys, in season next month.
The initial purpose for our mountain climb actually was to hunt squirrels -- in season already -- but like most city dwellers we enjoy watching these industrious little beasts gather acorns in our front yards. Neither of us had the makeup to raise guns in anger against a bushytail, even in the wilderness.
We wound up flopped against a blown-down tree, where we talked in murmurs about life and death and the world around us.
Pretty soon a downy woodpecker drifted by, flitting from limb to limb of the hardwood trees and pecking away after worms and grubs.
Carter told me a little story about the pileated woodpecker, the downy's huge cousin. In the south, where Carter comes from, the beautiful pileated is known as the "Lordgod," he said.
"It's called that because the big woodpecker emits a loud screech in the woods. When on hears that sound during a quiet stalk through the forest his reaction is immediate.
"Lord God," he says.
We spent a lot of time sitting around. I was beat from an unrelenting chest cold, and Carter had been wearing himself out on his latest project for Science Magazine, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's official publication.
Carter is researching energy problems, for a story about the future of oil and coal and atoms.
How much oil do we have left?
"Oh, at the current rate of consumption it's down to a few decades," Carter said. "Thirty, maybe 40 years. But of course it won't go that way. It'll keep getting more and more expensive. At the end, the Arabs will have all the money in the world and it won't be worth anything at all."
Up in the high woods and down in the lowlands it's harvest time. The forest floor is littered with acorns and beech nuts and hickory nuts. With winter approaching, the squirrels are loading nuts into their dens in old oaks and sycamores.
The ducks and geese are flying here to feed on water grasses and the corn farmers leave behind. Fish are fattening up on feeding sprees. When the temperature falls they go into near dormancy and live off their fat.
The fish hawks and buzzards and even the butterflies are starting their migrations south.
Quail and deer and rabbits have overpopulated. The weak will die over the winter, but enough of the strong will remain to restart the cycle in the spring.
And the humans, smartest of all, lie in the woods and wonder what's next.