Sporting Life

The Majestic Wild

And an unexpectedly quiet moment that shaped my life

By Tom Bryant

“The silence of snowy aisles of the forest, the whirring flight of partridges, the impudent bark of squirrels, the quavering voices of owls and coons, the music of the winds in the high trees — all these impressions unite in my mind like parts of a woodland symphony.” — Hamlin Garland

Late Tuesday evening I received an email from Mike Metcalf, the president of our Sandhills Rotary Club. “Tom, I hope you’re in town and not off on one of your travels. You’re scheduled to have the inspirational five minutes at our next meeting. Just a heads- up.”

Mike’s inspirational moment idea that the club is now doing is actually a spin-off of Lynn Thompson’s, our immediate past president’s, five-minute autobiographical presentation. It works like this: Every member is allotted five minutes right before the scheduled speaker to present to the club an inspirational personal occurrence that made an unforgettable lifetime memory. With Lynn, the five minutes were dedicated to the member’s autobiography. These talks, Lynn’s and Mike’s, provide great opportunities for members to get to know each other better.

Unfortunately, I was out of town and unable to make the club meeting to give my spiel on a memorable happening that made a real difference in my world, but I started thinking about the many wonderful experiences I’ve had in the great outdoors.

My life has been crammed full of memories that have influenced how I look at the world, and Mike’s request that I present one to the Sandhills Rotary Club wouldn’t be difficult. The big problem would be coming up with just the right one.

There was one day, though, that I always remember when I’m in a reflective mood. It was late fall, right before Thanksgiving, and I was on my traditional early season duck hunt.

It had been an unusually hot summer, even for North Carolina, but the week before my trek to the duck hole, a cold front blasted through, bringing with it much needed relief. It was almost as if we were skipping fall and moving right into winter. My favorite little piece of woods, known simply as the duck hole, is on a farm of about 400 acres only 45 minutes from my house and is one of the most prolific areas of wild habitat that it’s been my pleasure to visit. It’s as if wildlife of numerous species decided to make this place home.

During duck season I make many trips to this beautiful property, beginning with an early venture right before Thanksgiving, so I was excited about the coming hunt. My old Lab, Paddle, had passed on to her duck hunting reward during the summer, so I was on my own for this hunt, and it was a strange sensation. We had had many adventures in the wilds, and I would miss her.

The day before, I made all the preparations, hooking the duck boat to the old Bronco and loading decoys, paddles and all the other duck-hunting gear that would make a successful hunt. That evening I fried country ham to go in biscuits that Linda, my bride, had baked, filled the coffee maker ready for the morning, and prepared for an early bedtime. I always sleep in the guest room before duck hunts so as not to wake Linda; but on this, the first hunt of the season, she was up with me, packing the ham biscuits and filling the thermos with coffee.

“You be careful out there. You don’t have Paddle to look after you,” she admonished as I eased out the back door to load the shotgun and gunning bag into the Bronco.

“I’ll see you, Babe, be home around lunch. You go back to bed.”

Early morning, and I mean real early, right before night gives way to another day, has always been my favorite time. There was no moon, and the stars and Milky Way were clear and bright as I slowly drove out of town into the country. It took me about 30 minutes, and I was at the farm and through the pasture gate. Sleepy Black Angus cattle watched as I drove toward the tree line and to the little creek that opened out to the duck hole.

I backed the skiff down a small incline to the water and got my gunning bag and gun from the Bronco and put them in the covered bow of the boat. I unhooked, hid the vehicle up in the trees and went back to the water.

At the duck boat, I silently waded out and climbed into the stern. Geese were calling out on the big water, and there was a splash of a beaver’s tail as he alerted his friends that an interloper was about. The electric motor cranked without a problem, and in just a few minutes, I was where I needed to be for the early flight. It’s amazing how my old cork decoys ride the water just like ducks. In the darkness, the silhouettes were bound to draw in some of their real cousins. I was hunting out of the boat, so I anchored under alders growing out of the side of the bank, draped an old gray tarp, almost the color of creek water, over the bow and settled down to wait.

It was silent, the quiet before dawn. Another beaver surfaced close, slapped its tail in warning and submerged again. In the distance, I could still hear geese as they prepared to fly to their feeding grounds. The tree line on the east side of the creek was more discernible as a slow grayness ushered in another day. Little birds were flitting about in the alders above the boat, and a lonely hen mallard called from up the creek, looking for some company.

A squeaking noise, like the hinges on a rusty gate, came from upstream and seemed to be heading my way. A pair of eight-point deer that could have been twins tiptoed down a deer path right beside the boat. They suddenly realized something wasn’t right, leaped to the side and bounded up the hill, flat out, white tails flashing.

The little squeaking sound was getting closer and as I looked back, I saw eight turkeys fly, single file, across the creek to disappear into the darkness of the woods beyond. The weird noise sounded again, right beyond a close bend, and I sat still as the round head of a river otter emerged beside the bow of the boat, then its partner surfaced. They looked at me and made their squeaking noise. I swear I saw them grin, and then they were gone.

The geese decided it was time for breakfast and flew treetop high right over me. There were at least 50. Then ducks, mostly big ducks, mallards mixed with a few blacks, dropped out of the sky. They landed in a small pond that was fed by a branch from the creek.

I never even loaded my gun. That much wildlife in such a wilderness setting shouldn’t be disturbed with loud noises.

It didn’t occur to me then, but that day, that wonderful day, would be one of many inspirational moments that helped me become, for better or worse, who I am.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

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