Dick Brennan and Bob Quinn looked death in the eye in January and said, "No, thanks."
They were rescued after 35 hours of waiting and wandering, wet and unprotected, in the sucking ooze of the Wachapreague, Va., marsh. After it was over Brennan waited a little longer, until he was alone in a motel room.
"I couldn't sleep. I sat down in a chair and I started to cry. I couldn't stop myself. It was as if I'd lost my best friend."
Said Quinn: "You almost did."
Millions of people hunt waterfowl. Some like the shooting; some like the eating. Brennan and Quinn discovered duck hunting five years ago and found the thing they like best was the independence.
"We're do-it-yourselfers," said Quinn, like Brennan a Washington advertising man.
Instead of spending money hiring guides they spent time building their own portable blind, putting together a ducking rig, acquiring decoys and scouting the public marsh.
They knew Wachapreague because they'd fished there together for years. They started hunting there and have never hunted anywhere else.
The evening of Jan. 10 they set out for the Eastern Shore in their customary fashion, towing an aluminum boat full of decoys and gear and looking ahead to a weekend of sport.
They arrived at the Whispering Pines motel late, then stayed up later preparing equipment. When the wakeup call came at 4:30 the next morning, a Friday, they'd had 3 1/2 hours of sleep.
No matter. At first light they towed their home-made floating blind five miles out into the marsh and enjoyed an excellent morning. By a little after noon they had killed nine ducks, mostly seaducks and close to their daily limit.
Quinn made the last shot. Brennan, a tall, angular Indianan, went out in the boat to retrieve the downed bird. When he tried to start the outboard to return to the blind, it wouldn't kick over.
There were oyster boats nearby. One answered Brennan's call for help. Since they all were heading in for lunch anyway, the oystermen ferried the duck hunters back to Wachapreague with the 15-foot aluminum skiff in tow.
It was Quinn's boat. Before lunch he tried his hand on the balky motor. It started right up and ran well.
"At that point," said Quinn, "I considered changing the plugs, but we decided to wait and do it that night."
They never got the chance.
The ducks didn't fly that afternoon so Quinn and Brennan went exploring. They left their little blind in the marsh, staked down with their only paddle, and headed to an area south of Wachapreague along a channel seldom used in winter.
They had taken no precautions.
"It was a clear, pleasant day," said Brennan. "We never thought anything could go wrong."
But they were miles from home, heading back with the sun falling out of the west, when something very wrong occurred. The motor quit.
Things began happening very quickly. A south wind sprang up and pushed them nose first into soft, muddy shallows.
The sea built up behind them and water sloshed over the stern. They jumped out in their chest waders to try to turn the boat around but sank to their hips in the ooze. It got dark. The skiff swamped. They couldn't trim the motor up. It was buried in the mud, anchoring them stern-to the choppy sea.
They had no paddle, no food, no water, no extra clothing, no flares, no radio, no lights, no matches, no life jackets, and no one knew where they were.
"It looked like our only hope was to fire our shotguns in the three-shot international distress signal," said Brennan. They did, and realized quickly that it sounded just like duck hunters shooting at ducks.
"We realized we were there for the night," said Brennan. "It was about 30 degrees and getting ready to rain. The wind was shifting to the northeast."
They dug out a rain poncho and squatted on the seat, side-by-side, to wait out the night.
The boat swamped thoroughly late that night, and they climbed onto the foredeck to get out of the wet. At last they watched the sun rise over Parramore Island.
"We knew we had some walking to do," said Quinn, a native Washingtonian.
The men narrowed their options to two: a six-mile trek through the grass and mud to the edge of a main channel into Wachapreague where they thought they could hail a boat, or a three-quarter mile hike to shelter -- a cabin cruiser that had run aground a few weeks earlier on the marsh they were on.
They could see both destinations across the broad, flat marsh. They could see Wachapreague and the Coast Guard station on Parramore Island across the bay. They could see the washed-up cabin cruiser. But no one could see them.
They decided to try first to get to the cabin cruiser and were halfway there when they ran into a broad river within the marsh, 250 feet across. They dared not try to cross it.
The men went back to their boat and got supplies -- a shot gun, some shells, a 100-foot length of rope and the poncho. They set off west toward the channel that led to town.
A marsh is a weird place. It all looks the same from a distance but it's not. "Guts," like the one that kept Brennan and Quinn from the cabin cruiser, course through it. In some places the mud is hard enough to walk on. Elsewhere you sink to your hips and worse.
Guts and soft mud plagued the travelers. They found they could walk only about half the time. They lay belly-down when they came to soft mud. Quinn had the gun and Brennan the coiled rope. Each would flop in the mud, place his prop in front of him, pull his knees up with the leverage, then stick the prop out front again.
They made 1 1/2 feet at a time. It was slow going.
The guts grew worse. At first they were shallow. Brennan would wade across. Quinn waited behind, connected by the rope. But halfway across the marsh, when they could barely see the channel that was their destination, they came to a wide gut, wider than their 100-foot rope.
It was afternoon. The exertion, the lack of food and water and the psychological effect of increasing danger were beginning to wear them down. It was sunny and 40 degrees, but they were wet. They had to have shelter by nightfall.
"We'd hit mud sometimes that was so deep you'd go straight down," said Brennan. "All you could do was flop on your back to stay up, and let the other guy pull you out. Without the rope we'd have been dead many times."
The wide, deep gut frightened them. They did not want to lose direct contact with each other, but the rope wasn't long enough. They looked east along the gut and saw that it led back about three miles to their original destination, the cabin cruiser.
"By then both of us were showing signs of getting tired," said Quinn, "and I was much tireder than Dick. We'd had no food or water for 24 hours. We could see the cruiser. We knew we had to make it by nightfall." What they couldn't see was more guts than ran laterally off the main gut. Later, when they came to them, they knew they had no more choices. They had to swim.
Brennan went in first, sliding down the muddy edge and filling his chest waders with the frigid water. The first gut was 75 feet across. He swam it and pulled Quinn across.
The second was closer to 100 feet. As he hauled himself out on the far side Brennan felt a jerk on the line. Quinn had dropped his end. "With that my heart sank," said Quinn. "If he couldn't find it I knew I didn't have the strength to go back."
Quinn dove in head-first and miraculously found the rope. Brennan hauled him over.
"At that point I was so exhausted I literally couldn't stand up," said Quinn. "I told Dick I had to stop. He started yelling at me. He told me if we stopped now we were done for."
"I was afraid. Terrified," said Brennan. "I knew if we hit one more gut, we'd never make it." They were a half-mile from the cabin cruiser.
But there were no more guts. Brennan made it to the cruiser just before night closed in. Quinn was unable to stand up at all over the last several yards.
"I couldn't get him on his feet," said Brennan. "He was like a drunk -- just slack, dead weight. It took him a half-hour to go the last 75 yards."
Brennan hauled Quinn over the rail. They found a jar of apple sauce, two small bottles of club soda, some scotch and a bag of apples. Quinn ate the apple sauce with a pencil, then collapsed in a bunk, covered with life jackets, and vomited. Both men shivered uncontrollably. After dark the temperature plunged to 20 degrees.
At 3 a.m. they heard a helicopter overhead. Brennan raced out but the chopper was gone. It was the Coast Guard, looking for them.
An hour later there came a tapping at a porthole.
"Hey, anybody in there?" someone asked.
It was Randy Lewis, who owns a marina in Wachapreague. He had guessed the men might have found the cruiser. Someone had spotted their abondoned skiff late Saturday afternoon.
On Parramore Island, Coast Guardsmen stripped off Brennan's soggy waders. "My feet looked like huge white sponges," he said.
Both men had frostbitten feet. Brennan had heart fibrillations for three days after they were rescued.
But they were alive, mostly because they just kept going. "I must have said it 100 times," said Brennan. "I'm not going to die on this marsh." h
Brennan and Quinn say their brush with death won't keep them from hunting again, but they never again will venture into the marsh unprepared, no matter how pleasant the day appears.
"It doesn't matter if we're going to be out for two hours or two days," said Brennan. "If we're out of shout of other people, we'll have safety gear. With what we had, you'd have thought we'd never been outside before in our lives."