Give me a fast boat in the dead of summer, when getting there is not the fun. Make it a fast, warm one in January. But in spring and fall give me a canoe.
It's the slowest form of marine transportation, which is what you want when a day begs to be savored. It's also the quietest, barring unseen rocks, which makes it a ticket to sights not normally seen by noisy humans.
For the last two weeks early duck hunting season has been open around Washington, first in Virginia for four days and then all last week in Maryland. One of the most pleasant but generally least productive ways to hunt ducks is to float down rivers in canoes, hoping to surprise a flock.
They don't surprise easily or often. This is not something anyone has had to tell me; it's learned first-hand.
So why keep going back?
"Wow," said Henry, a neighbor on his first river-ducking voyage last week. He was at Edwards Ferry on the Potomac, nursing the effects of a late night the night before, three hours sleep and harried predawn drive around the Beltway. "Wow," he said.
There was a faint red tinge downriver and it wasn't the mercury-vapor glow of Washington, 20 miles away. It was the sun coming up. Mist hung two feet off the river, which was placid. There was a brief, spitting warm rain. It was silent.
Henry was impressed that such a place should exist less than an hour's drive from town. He ventured a guess that no other city Washington's size had such wilderness so close. He hadn't seen anything yet.
The rain quit. Henry loaded his shotgun and took the bow seat. The river was low, the current almost nonexistent, which meant that instead of drifting there was much hard paddling.
"Law 1 of canoeing," said Henry, who might have been canoeing once before in his life: "No matter where you put in and which way you are going, the wind will always be in your face."
The birds flew within minutes. Small vees of four and six ducks swept overhead, flapping madly as if they were racing to catch a bus. Henry drew a bead on each passing flight, even though they were so high shooting at one would have been like heaving rocks at a 747.
A mile downstream an arm of river veered off behind an island. Peering down the slough in search of swimming ducks, Henry noticed something moving.
A deer was performing its morning ablutions on a sandy point at the northern end of the island. The deer, spotting the canoe 100 yards away, moved slowly off the point and into the water. It had taken several steps when two spikes became apparent on top of its head, indicating it was a buck. That information was relayed loudly in the canoe and the deer kicked up its heels and bounded across the stream.
A mile further downstream the canoe rounded a bend and a flock of wood ducks hove into view, heads bobbing above slick-calm water. "Ducks," Henry hissed.
They were a goodly distance away and swam farther the closer the canoe came.
The boat was beached and we split, with the idea of one man walking downstream below the flock, then jumping the ducks and sending them back toward the first man.
The walking man was me. The job was not done well but there were so many diversions. First doves came soaring out of the trees. Fifty yards from the boat there came yelping and clucking noises and suddenly the path was crowded by a flock of wild turkeys, probably a dozen. The turkeys took off like a covey of quail, knocking limbs off the trees as they took flight. Then another deer jumped out of the brush and thundered across the stream.
The exclamations of the battered advance man no doubt alarmed the wood ducks. For whatever reason they kept swimming off downstream, and finally Henry and I rejoined forces at the boat and set off in pursuit, which was stupid since if we couldn't catch them from shore we sure wouldn't in the boat. s
The turkeys had lighted in trees along the banks. As the canoe eased along they would erupt from the overhanging limbs, smashing twigs and flying, in Henry's words, "like airborne cinderblocks." He got a kick out of that. "I love it when animals are clumsy," he said.
All day long the ducks managed to stay ahead, just out of range, and there were plenty of them. This is the way it often is with float hunting. A pair of mallards made the mistake of settling near the tip of an island where we stopped. Henry noticed them feeding, we crept up and when they spotted us and leaped from the water we fired and both birds fell. It was excellent and truly unexpected.
At the end of the 10-mile float Henry said he'd never been freshwater fishing but he'd be delighted to try. He asked for a little lesson on which one is the rod and which is the reel and how do you hold this thing. Then he went off on his own for an hour and caught two keeper bass and a basketfull of gigantic sunfish. Teacher caught a skunk.
For all these blessings, thank the river and the canoe, one of which should be in every person's garage. With the height of autumn foliage fast approaching and with duck seasons over until November, the Potomac and Shenandoah valleys are again peaceable kingdoms offering alternatives to the mandatory October family drive. There's more to see at the bottom of the hill in a silent double-ender.