The smell of cedar and the memory of an old friend
By Tom Bryant
It’s going to snow! Four magic words that can get a duck hunter’s heart racing with anticipation; and if he’s a born optimist like me, the coming storm promises to open the door to all kinds of wonderful adventures.
I was out in the yard loading up the Bronco with my gunning bag, decoys, waders and a favorite duck-hunting shotgun. My little yellow Lab was beside herself with excitement. Ready to do what she was born to do, chase ducks. I opened the passenger door and let her jump onto the seat. We were ready.
Christmas was right around the corner, and my afternoon duty was, along with a quick duck hunt, to gather boughs of cedar and holly for decorations in the house. It was a chore I took seriously, and I had a couple of cedar trees and one magnificent holly loaded with red berries that I remembered from earlier summer outings. They promised to be perfect for our holiday needs.
My favorite duck hole is a farm of about 400 acres bordering the headwaters of a city lake. The farm is a microcosm of all kinds of wildlife. In my many trips hunting and fishing there, I’ve seen ducks, geese, doves, deer, turkeys, beaver and otters. The little area is home to more wild game than any other small space I’ve ever had the benefit of experiencing. Needless to say, the farm is one of my favorite places, and I try to visit at every opportunity.
Paddle, my little yellow Lab, was about 6 months old and had yet to retrieve a duck. We had dove hunted quite a bit, and she was a natural at retrieving doves, but had yet to prove herself on ducks.
A few flakes started to fall just as we were nearing the farm and picked up in earnest when I got out of the Bronco to unlock the gate to the pasture and the small dirt road, not much more than a cow path, that led through the tree line bordering the creek. I might as well put her in four-wheel drive before I head across the pasture, I thought.
I bought the Bronco new in 1977, the last year Ford made the small size. After that came the era of big trucks, and I was happy I had this one. It served my purpose without hesitating and took me into some rough places in the woods where walking would have been tough.
The cedar trees were in the tree line next to the creek, and I clipped several boughs for Linda’s Christmas decorations. The holly tree was magnificent, festooned with red berries galore. I took several small limbs with plenty of berries and piled everything in the back of the truck.
To me, there is nothing that will set off the beauty of Christmas like nature’s own decorations. One holiday season down on my granddad’s farm in South Carolina, he actually cut a 12-foot holly tree to use in the dining room of the old plantation house. The tree just fit in the 14-foot ceilings, and together with all the other decorations gave the house a wonderfully festive look. The room could have been used as a set for Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Present.
Snow was now falling in earnest, and Paddle was romping around checking out all the bushes. Every now and then, she would tear off around the truck in a burst of happiness that made me laugh. She was having a fantastic time. I decided to grab the shotgun and walk down to the creek. I had no idea that ducks would be moving, but I wanted to give Paddle a chance to get wet.
Snow came in flurries with big flakes. It was too early for a memorable snow, but the wet weather added to the holiday festive spirit. Without hesitation, Paddle leaped into the creek, swam around a bit, and came back to the bank. I swear she looked like she was grinning as she looked up at me.
Suddenly from the headwaters where the swamp spreads, I saw a movement over the tree line. It was a big duck. Visibility was low, but I could tell it was either a mallard or a black duck. Instinctively, I raised the shotgun and snapped off a shot. The duck crumpled and fell about 50 yards down the creek. Paddle watched it all the way, and in an instant, before I could stop her, she was in the water heading toward the downed duck, swimming so fast she almost left a wake.
It was a wonderful sight. A dog that was born to retrieve ducks and me just watching, the instigator of it, but now a cheering spectator. In little time, Paddle grabbed the duck and turned, heading back to the shore and me.
It’s still in my memory today, that little dog with her first big duck gliding through the water as if propelled by a motor. She reached the bank, walked up to me, sat, and presented the duck to me as if it was something she did every day. I took from her the biggest, blackest black duck I’ve ever seen. She shook off the cold water, heeled beside me and looked up the creek to see if another duck was on the way. At 6 months old, all business. I couldn’t stand it. I knelt down and grabbed her in a great big hug, then we both rolled around on the wet ground. Not good training, I’m sure, but hey, she was my dog and I deserved to celebrate.
Snow was changing over to rain, and as the sky lowered with threats of a downpour, we hurried to the Bronco, loaded up, drove back across the pasture and headed home. Paddle was curled up on the passenger’s seat sound asleep, and the big black duck was on the floor almost under her nose. Every now and then, she would twitch as if she was swimming after it again.
The little AM radio in the truck was tuned to a station playing Christmas carols, and the cedar bedding smell that emanated from a wet Paddle, along with the freshly cut boughs of cedar, presented a Christmas fragrance you would never be able to buy in a bottle.
Paddle and I had many more memorable hunts over the years, but that one day when we were both young and full of optimism and confidence was made for the memory book.
Several years ago, Paddle went to her reward where big ducks are plentiful and she can retrieve to her heart’s content. I still miss her.
The old Bronco is parked in our garage. I don’t drive it much anymore except around Christmas, when we head to the woods for holiday greenery. I’ll load the little truck with cedar and holly and remember Christmases past, when Paddle and I were young and chasing ducks. PS
Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.