Once this was an elegant place. There was an electrical generator at the South Marsh Gunning Club, an intercom system to call the guides in their bunkroom on a frosty morning. The knotty pine paneling, like everything else, was hauled over from the mainland.

Men hunted ducks here, escaping from the city to the flat salt marsh, where there are no trees, where the morning sun glints off the spiky marsh grass and where starlight is bright enough to navigate by.

South Marsh is just as pretty as ever but it isn't much of a place to hunt ducks anymore. The underwater grasses are gone and gone with them are widgeon and pintails, redheads, canvasbacks and mallards, gone someplace to look for food to carry them through the winter.

The gunning club was abandoned more than a decade ago by the city folks who built it with plenty of their money. They turned it over to the state, which has done nothing.

Now it's rotten and almost gone. The roof is caving in over the long room that connects the kitchen to the back bedrooms and while trying to sleep we listened to the steady dripping of rain soaking a moldy red carpet.

The bulkhead that keeps the stilt foundations of the clubhouse from washing away is itself washing away. At night, sleeping on the floor where the beds used to be, you can hear water washing in and out.

In a year or two the old South Marsh Gunning club will be gone, like the widgeon and pintails, redheads, canvasbacks and mallards that brought the people who built it.

That will leave only the marsh and the black ducks.

These secretive denizens of wild places remain, feeding on the roots of the marsh grass at the water's edge and on worms and clams in the mud. Occasionally they are joined by nearly inedible sea ducks such as oldsquaws, mergansers and buffleheads, which eat fish and crustaceans.

And now they were joined by us, who came to hunt them.

It's two miles across open water to South Marsh, heading a little southwest out of tiny Wenona on Deal Island. It is not the kind of place where you expect to find someone.

But Lud Clark and his son were there, camped out in the best remaining rooms of the decaying club. "We've been coming here since the state took the place over," said Clark. "It's not very good hunting and it's kind of depressing to watch the place fall apart. We come mostly out of a sentimental attachment to the old club."

Sunday afternoon we scouted where Lud sent us and found little pockets of black ducks in coves off the main marsh guts. We picked the two best spots, set up crude brush blinds, left the decoys and went back to dig up and eat oysters from the mud flats and listen to the rain and the bay eating away at the gunning club.

A wild northwester blew through and all the next day we fought a wind that howled across the flatland. An hour and a half after dawn on this perfect duck hunting day a black duck swam into our bobbing decoys. Don Kauffman stood up and shot it as it took wing.

Shortly before noon two black ducks buzzed up the channel, soared once around our blind and set their wings, gliding directly past us on their way to landing in the decoys. Kauffman shot one and I missed the other.

Our two companions, elsewhere in the marsh, managed to take their limits of two black ducks apiece, though it took all day to do it.

Tuesday the ducks won. We took none.

Mostly these were days spent with the wind and tide and the water and sky; spent wondering about the troubling circumstances that turn a wild, rich marsh bursting with life-sustaining grasses into a nearly dead mud flat.

It is 100 miles from Baltimore to South Marsh. It's hard to imagine that Baltimore grime kills South Marsh submerged grasses. It's hard to imagine that nutrient enrichment from Anne Arundel fertilizers and Cecil County detergents clouds South Marsh water and blocks the sunlight from getting to the eel grass and widgeon grass.

It's hard to imagine that chlorine from a sewage treatment plant in Upper Marlboro gets that far, or herbicides from Eastern Shore farms, heavy metals from factories up the rivers, silt from road projects, storm drain runoff from Washington and Frederick or oil spilled by ships flushing their tanks.

But you can tramp the wild channels of South Marsh, where man rarely goes, until the mud sucks the waders off your feet and you won't see a blade of submerged grass. It was not that way 20 years ago.

Add up all the crud that is dumped in the Chesapeake and pile it on year after year and one day you wake up and the ground is bare.

The bumper stickers jokingly say, "Pave the Bay."

At this rate it may not be necessary.