By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
It had been three hours since we first hadn’t seen any ducks. And we still hadn’t seen any ducks. My hunting partner, the diehard, hadn’t lost hope. I glanced over as he contentedly poured himself another lid of coffee. I was not as content. I had an idea of shooting a pair of mallards for a roast, and since I’d been living on Mountain Dew and M&M’s all day, my visions of fireplaces and roast duck had given way to a warm car and the cookie in the glove box.
“I can’t stand it anymore,” I said.
A fog had settled on the flats, making our only view the pond in front of us. The only excitement was the flock of snipe occasionally mistaken for teal.
The puzzled look on his face meant he wasn’t anywhere close to being done. He pulled up his sleeve and looked at his watch. One hour and 49 minutes until last light. He pointed out that the decoys had never looked better.
“If I were a duck, I would be landing here,” he said.
If you were a duck, I thought. Warner Bros. cartoon images filled my mind of the starving and conniving Daffy making a meal out of Bugs.
“I’m going in,” I said. I’d been duck hunting in some form or other since opening day. It had been a week in the same partially dried-out gear. I was dirty, I was tired, I was hungry.
“Don’t get mad if I shoot a duck,” he called after me as I departed the blind. I hesitated.
It was always the moment after I gave up that something happened. Not Murphy’s law, but a close relative of Murphy’s law — if something can go right, it will go right, just moments after you’ve left.
The flats we hunted were on the south side of the Kenai River on its final approach to the inlet. To those passing by on the road, the flats look like a short stretch of swamp with canneries and mountains floating in the distance. When venturing out on the flats for the first time years ago, I was surprised by the miles of walking and the impassable sloughs running from corner to corner.
The well-worn trail from our blind to the road assured me that I wouldn’t get lost in the fog. As I marched along, I got a second wind. A pond about 60 yards ahead of me had ripples on the water. Still pessimistic, I figured it was probably just snipe. But I waited and watched through the fog. The ripples could also have been caused by jumping salmon fry that got trapped in the ponds at high tide. I started walking again when a pair of mallards launched out of the pond in front of me.
I watched, and when their heads were out of view, I crept closer, bent in my best impersonation of Elmer Fudd. When they were in view, I froze. Still about 50 yards away, if I could make the next 10 or 20 yards, they’d be in range. They got up again, and sat down on another pond farther away. I repeated the same tactic and so did they, flying when I got within 50 yards. This time they flew farther. I couldn’t see where they went in the fog.
The ponds around me didn’t look familiar, and I couldn’t tell the direction of the road in the fog. I started walking and came across a slough. That was my first sign I’d taken a wrong turn. I got down into the gut to cross, but the tide hadn’t gone out enough that it was safe to cross.
Getting stuck in the mud without anyone knowing where I was would make my situation worse. That’s when it occurred to me that my situation was already bad. I’d have to find my way back to the road without the help of the well-worn path in a heavy fog with only an hour or so of light left.
Being lost at twilight in the fog wearing wetlands camo was probably the worst idea I’d ever had. I crossed several guts, out of breath, not sure if my excessive sweat was exertion or fear. What made matters worse was that I was so used to hunting with someone that I never carried a flashlight, whistle or GPS. Since I didn’t want to be bothered in the field, I hadn’t even brought my cell phone.
I’d been stumbling around for nearly an hour, walking up countless sloughs and back again, probably going in circles. My shortcomings were never so apparent. I’m that guy, I thought. I’m that person that goes ill-prepared into the outdoors and has to be rescued.
My hunting partner was probably making his way back to the vehicle. When he realized that I wasn’t sitting in it with the heater going full blast and the radio on, he would worry. He would think I knew my way well enough that, if I hadn’t made it in, I must be injured out in a hundred acres of fog and marsh muck.
There were two stumps in the distance and I tried to remember if I’d ever seen them before. They were moving fast, carrying packs full of decoys. I didn’t care where they were going, I didn’t want to lose sight of them. I ran to catch up, then walked to catch my breath. These guys must be a couple of football players, I thought. I was about 20 yards behind them and their dog and they still hadn’t noticed me. Maybe I could still play it off like I hadn’t been lost for an hour and just casually join them on my way in before my buddy realized I was lost.
At about 15 yards, I called out again, and one of them turned. My vanity gave way to relief, “I got lost,” I hollered.
The deck at the pullout appeared suddenly in front of us, just 60 yards away, and I could see the lights of my friend’s vehicle along with two police vehicles. I wanted to hide or somehow avoid the inevitable explaining I had to do.
My hunting partner was wracked with worry that hadn’t quite faded out of him any more than my residual panic. Someone mentioned that an officer was bringing the dog. I didn’t just feel stupid, I felt like “The Fugitive.” I wonder now how the drug dog would have found me when a trained retriever failed to notice me in the fog.
There are things I could have done and should be done. Like carry a flashlight, cell phone and a compass or in the one-word salutation of the officer — “GPS.” If things were going bad and it looks like there will be a rescue, stay in one place and, if possible, build a fire, blow the whistle or fire a couple shots to give location.
There are a few ways, outside of technical advances, to gauge direction, such as marking your path, picking out landmarks or determining the wind direction and staying consistent to avoid walking in circles. There is also the general admonishment against chasing ducks in the fog or rabbits down holes.
And if your sole provision is a day-old chocolate chip cookie, don’t leave it in the glove box.
Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. She can be reached at email@example.com.