There was a stillness in the air and the water reflected the dark loneliness of the early morning. I felt a sharp chill of anticipation as I pushed off from shore and paddled out into the river. The sky was quickening now, bringing light to the dawn's grayness. I pointed downstream and guided my canoe under the bridge, gliding swiftly through a short stretch of ripples.

Being alone gave me great pleasure and a feeling of oneness with the river. My excitement was enhanced with the stillness of it all. The only sound, past the ripples, was the crackling rustle of brown leaves high overhead in the towering oaks. The smell in the air carried the rich, biting taste of the decay of fall.

This was my first trip on the Monocacy River, as well as my first attempt to hunt ducks from a boat. I had put in at the Dickerson Road bridge, just over the Frederick County line, and planned to take out at the C&O Canal Aqueduct where the river empties into the Potomac. Friends -- at the price of a duck dinner -- should be waiting there to shuttle me and the boat back to my car.

The river here was slow and I judged the trip would be a leisurely two-hour float. If all went well, I should get a few shots at some mallards or wood ducks.

To prepare for this new experience, I rigged my whitewater aluminum canoe as a cold-water hunting boat. First, a coat of dull brown paint, to cut the glare and make it less conspicuous to the ducks. Next, to deaden the metal drum effect from a dropped paddle or the banging of my clumsy feet, a two-foot wide strip of foam rubber cut from an old mattress was used to carpet the floor of the boat. It also served as insulation from the icy cold river.

The two thwarts ahead of my paddling position also were wrapped in foam to form a handy rest for my shotgun. This provided for a safe and quiet way to carry a gun in calm water. Of course, this method would not be suitable or safe with more than one hunter, in a narrow boat. Needless to say, having a loaded shotgun pointed at him would disrupt the concentration of the man in the bow.

The rest of my gear, aside from the standard lifejacket, bail and extra paddle, included a thermos of coffee, a fresh change of clothes and my own idea, a small can of charcoal lighter fluid and waterproof matches. I had no plans of getting wet, but a dump in mid-November could be serious business. n

Once in slower water, past the bridge, I rested my paddle to load my gun from a handful of No. 5s stuffed in my pocket. With its safety on I positioned it for instant readiness across the thwarts. I then tied a length of cord from the T-handle of my paddle to the stern of the boat. With this arrangement I felt I could silently drop the paddle in the water and reach for the gun at the first sign of ducks.

Twenty minutes and no ducks later a squirrel tempted my gun as it flicked its tail and hurried along a downed tree. He was about to become my first prize of the day when I heard a barking sound as of dogs yapping in the distance. As the sound came closer I looked up to see a large flight of Canada geese in a well-formed V barking their way to some distant grain field. The sight and sound of Canada honkers winging overhead always gives me a special thrill and I stopped to watch and drifted past the squirrel on the bank.

By now the sun had climbed halfway up the sky, filtering glittering rays of light down through the canopy of trees. Its warmth felt good on my back as it soaked through my clothes and for a brief time the pursuit of a duck dinner had lost its importance. I grounded on a sandbar, uncorked my thermos and sat back to absorb the quality of the day and the blue of the sky. After a second cup of coffee I pushed off.

Ahead, where a fork in the river makes way for an island, I could hear the cawing of angry crows. Immediately I knew that some poor owl had been caught out in broad daylight and was being harassed by his ancient enemy. As I approached the island I took the left fork and sure enough there was a great horned owl zooming along at treetop level heading straight for me.

A flock of crows was hot on his trail. It was similar to a WWI dogfight with the odds in favor of the bad guys.Now I've always been kind of partial to birds of prey and this owl, with his 4 1/2-foot wing span, truly was a magnificent creature. I dropped my paddle and raised my shotgun, figuring to cut down the odds a bit, and fired at the lead crow. As he turned to make a run for it, I wasted another expensive duckload on him, again shattering the woods with the boom of a 12-guage. Insulted but unharmed, the crows disbanded, and the owl gained a healthy lead as he continued on up river.

Beyond the island and past a field of dairy cattle, I entered a straight stretch of river leading under a railroad trestle and on to the aqueduct and the end of my trip.Although I was coming in emptyhanded with no green-headed mallards to brag about, or iridescent wood ducks to show off, it still had been a successful hunt. Aside from the flight of Canada geese and the great horned owl, I was fortunate enough to see three pileated woodpeckers, numerous squirrels and the white flag of a deer bounding through the woods. Ducks in the larder would be nice, but certainly no requisite for a seuccessful hunt.

A quarter-mile away I could see my waiting friends waving to me from the stone supports of the aqueduct. As I lifted my paddle to return the greeting there was an instant eruption along the right bank 20 yards ahead of my boat. Three mallards, two drakes and a duck, burst out of cover, climbing to about eight feet, then angling down river. I dropped my paddle in the water and grabbedf my pump shotgun and swung for the lead bird. I did not even hear the first shot and hardly heard the second and held up on the third as the female was already out of range. Two ducks down, feet up in the water. I could hardly believe it. Never before have I connected on a double -- a duck hunter's dream -- and in front of witnesses at that.