This is a story of a hard place to get to, hard enough that two sturdy adventurers arrived there dazed and drenched in sweat, shivered the day away and became lost in a night-dark thicket of greenbriars as they stumbled back to civilization.

Duck season returns.

Maryland's three-day early season opened Thursday, which left not quite enough time for my ducking partner to scout the entire state thoroughly. But he tried.

His conclusion was that the finest spot of all was an uncharted wilderness at the head of a creek off the Potomac River. It was accessible two ways. Naturally, he chose the more difficult.

Rather than parking the car and walking a mile through the woods, he elected, for reasons of secrecy, to take three boats and a rubber inner tube across a bay, over a long stretch of wind-whipped river and up the weed-choked creek. The saga began at 4 a.m. A little after dawn it began breaking down.

We were hard aground, he in a canoe and I in a kayak, a mile from our destination. Morning flights of wood ducks, mallards and black ducks whistled overhead. All around us was muck, the marshy goo of the creek bottom. The boats would not move. We would have to abandon them.

My partner (let's call him Gyro, as in the mad inventor Gyro Gearloose) shouldered his inner tube, a bag full of decoys, his lunch, shells and a shotgun and set out through the primordial ooze. I followed with my gear. We immediately sank to our knees in the mud.

At 8:41 a.m., 90 horrible minutes later, we had slogged to within 50 yards of our goal -- a pile of debris in the middle of a pond. The ducks were buzzing around it. We pushed off into the water, hanging onto the inner tube. The water washed in over the tops of our waders. Marsh grass clung to our legs.

It took 20 minutes to get across, during which time the ducks sensed our presence and stopped flying. We tossed out the decoys, flopped on the debris pile and stared up at a blue October sky dotted with scudding clouds. We were wet and cold.

"Gyro," I said, "I believe I just got up at 3:30 in the morning in order to be in place for the evening duck flight in an area that's commuting distance from my home."

"Correct," he said.

We managed later to talk to two fellows who had hunted close by that morning. They said that, sure enough, wood ducks had been flying everywhere around our little pond in the first hour or two of daylight. That much we had missed, but no matter. Maryland's daily limit for woodies is two, and we'd have had our limit for sure. This way we still had a full day in the wilderness ahead of us.

Duck hunting success is not always measured by birds in the hand, anyway. While we sat watching the horizon for flocks of waterfowl we saw some surprises.

At 10 a.m. two large birds lifted clear of the tall trees and were framed against the brilliant sky. They were playing. One pestered the other, nipping its tailfeathers. They swooped and dove. As the birds drew closer it developed that they were mature bald eagles, dressed like headwaiters in formal black with snow white heads and tails.

We were tucked away in camouflage cover, invisible to the eagles, which flew directly over us.

Around noon a small flock of bluebirds swarmed nearby; shortly after that two yellow-shafted flickers took up temporary residence in a dead tree 30 feet away. They primped, cleaned their feathers and pecked idly at the bark.

Two pileated woodpeckers attacked a dead sycamore; a downy woodpecker drifted in below the flickers; blue herons wafted across the pond, croaking their primeval croak. The sun dappled and the wind shook autumn leaves.

About 4 in the afternoon I got sick of sitting on the same pile of nothing and took off in the inner tube for the far side of the pond. It took half an hour to get there, fighting weeds all the way. It seemed like a week.

Just about the time I reached shore the ducks began their evening flight. They dive-bombed the debris pile, just the way Gyro had said they would. I could hear him out there, merrilly popping away.

I hiked off in wet disgust to a place where some dead trees stood in the water and stood awhile against a barren oak. Pretty soon the sky started to fill with wood ducks heading for their resting grounds in the standing timber. The clouds turned orange with the setting sun. I watched the ducks filter down through the bare tree limbs, tumbling, spilling into the little pond.

Within 10 minutes I had my limit. I stood around a while longer just to watch.

It took a while to pry Gyro loose, too. By the time we started hiking out with our bags and baggage it was nearly dark. Soon it was dark. We got lost and wound up bushwhacking through thickets in the high woods. We followed the moonlight to the river and found the big boat a few hundred yards away.

It was 11:11 when I got home. "Are you all right?" my wife asked.

"Sure," I said, examining my wounds, "not bad at all for a duck hunter."