A multitude of poor decisions in my university years have blurred my childhood memories a bit, so it may not have been my first waterfowl hunt, but it was the earliest that I can remember with crystal clarity. I might have been eight or ten years old back then but in my mind the old imprints are palpably rooted in the present.
I had heard Dad’s footsteps on the creaky farmhouse floor moments before I felt his hand gently shaking my shoulder. A goose hunt had been on offer the night before, and to be honest I had spent a restless night hoping the weather would be cooperative and I’d get to hit the field with Dad.
“You getting up to hunt?” he said in a half-whispered voice.
I said I was and he left the room, but not before quietly advising me “Dress warm.”
In the beam of small handheld flashlight that he had left me, I scrounged together long underwear, heavy socks, jogging pants, and two sweaters before descending the steep stairs down to the kitchen. The woodstove fire had been going all night and the stovetop closed with a groan as Dad fed it another stick. The light smell of burning wood perfumed the downstairs and I was pleased to find that Dad had prepared a couple of pieces of toast for me. A stiff breeze hummed low outside and when I checked the thermometer, the mercury was hovering near single digits.
Dad handed me a plaid-red flannel work coat and then an olive grey overcoat that was probably two sizes too big. We dug in an old covered plastic tub in the back room and found some brown mitts and a dark green toque and while Dad put some shotgun shells in his pocket and zipped an old leather case around his Remington 1100, I slipped into a pair of red-soled rubber boots. Dad inspected my attire and untucked my pants from my boot tops. He folded them down over the outside of the boots and muttered something about how that would keep anything from slipping down in through the top them. We turned off the lights and stepped out into the wind.
Our hunting ground that morning was a farm field belonging to a friend of Dad’s and there had been a smattering of geese in it recently. This was in the years before Canada geese were an overabundant pestilence to farmers, and to our knowledge at the time no one specialized in goose hunting. We arrived in the morning dim and walked down to a rock pile that was in the middle of the field; I don’t know how old the stone pile was, but there was long grass growing in a ring around it and some greying cedar rails from some old, disused fence had been thrown up against the rocks.
Dad had carried six Canada goose decoys in an old CO-OP feed bag and before he put them out, he dug in his pocket and passed me a black garbage bag.
“Take this to sit on and find a spot on the rock pile where you’re covered up a bit.” Doing as I was told I snuck in behind an angled fencepost and in between a couple of rocks that provided, at least initially a bit of support. Placing the decoys (which are by today’s standards laughably primitive looking, but to my young eye on that dingy, windy morning were uber-realistic) he loaded his shotgun and sat a few feet from me against the rocks, behind some tall fronds of grass. The wind blew consistently, and sometimes gusts would lay the grass in front of us nearly flat, but not wanting to complain I turned up the big collar and lapels on that olive jacket and buried my face deeper down against my chest. I seem to remember some idle chit-chat about where the geese would come from, and if he thought they would land right in the decoys, and other child-like curiosities. In the middle of one of my interminable questions, Dad hissed “Okay, there’s geese right there…” and I knew that was my signal to be silent and still. Seeing geese in those days in that part of the province was a much rarer occurrence than it is now and I was hyper-vigilant about not being the reason these birds spooked. While I sat perfectly still, Dad drew a chocolate brown goose call out of his pocket and blew a few short greeting honks before sliding it back into his coat and crouching down further.
At first, I couldn’t see the birds from under the brim of my hat, but before long I could hear their moans and clucks, and their calls guided my eyes to the three low black silhouettes moving against the close, slate-coloured sky and they were winging our way, hard into the wind. They were no more than thirty feet off the ground when they reached the decoys, but they had no real intention of committing to land with our fakes when Dad rose to shoot.
That was my signal to raise my eyes as well, and for a split second the geese hung in the air as a perfect slow-motion tableau of thin, black, elegant necks, glowing flashes of white throats, and the whir of wings spinning dust-coloured underbellies away from a danger that they were oblivious to just seconds before. That almost surreal stillness was broken when the bark of the gun split the air and a goose spun down from the sky. On the second report nothing fell, before Dad turned at the hip slightly and crumpled another bird with the third volley as it tailed away from him. The one remaining goose turned hard and wide, before speeding away with the driving winds then at its tail. My heart hammered in my ears and I was so excited that I had no words; only my Dad might know what my face looked like at that precise moment but I can almost sense that it was probably one of wide-eyed excitement and probably some goofy child-like grin.
I do remember that Dad was smiling at me in the way he does when he’s pleased with himself.
He nodded to the nearest bird laying belly-up in the field and with a smile said “Go get that one”. Extricating myself from my hiding spot, I strode out into the wind for my first retrieve.
That was another ‘imprint’ moment. I’d never been so intimately present on the hunt, never picked up a still warm goose, and I clumsily brought it back to the rock pile and laid it next to ‘my spot’. It was as perfect a bird as my mind could have imagined. To this day I don’t remember where Dad hit it, but it was completely clean without a single bloodstained feather. It was as though Dad had missed it completely and it had simply died of fright. I remember the weight of it in my hand and the warmth of it as it laid on a rock next to my right leg. I remember that while the body was warm, especially when I put my hand under the breast feathers, the black feet were ice cold and scaly. For another hour or so we sat there and a slight spittle of rain started. Dad said we were leaving and I was hooked on the experience enough to want to stay but just cold enough to be okay to head to the vehicle.
It was my self-appointed job to mule out the two geese while Dad carried the bag of decoys and his shotgun. I huffed and puffed valiantly to keep up to him while carrying my awkward load before he finally turned to me and set his gun and decoys down.
“Here,” he said “carry them like this,” and he hoisted the birds over my shoulder. I’d been dragging their heads on the ground and kicking their necks long enough, he said smiling. Like the kid I was, I asked him why it mattered to dead geese, and in a matter of fact and slightly abrupt way, he said something about his hunting ethic that has become a permanent part of my own.
“Because it’s disrespectful to the geese to drag their heads along through the mud and dirt and cow shit.” End of sentence.
Dead animals still had dignity: that was the message. They don’t die so you can mistreat them before you process them: that was the message. Show respect, because you took their life for sport, or for food, or both: that was the message. Messages I still try to live by today every time I shoot a duck, a goose, a turkey, or in rare instances, a deer. He said it with what, to my young mind, equated to a heroic conviction and the rest of the way the geese swung behind my back while I carried on with aching triceps, sore hands, and a commitment that not one feather would touch the ground until we got to the car.
We went for a special breakfast that morning at a place that isn’t there anymore and I remember a couple of old-timers and one or two people that Dad knew from his youth asking how we made out and asking me jokingly if I got any birds.
It all made me feel quite grown up and responsible.
We went back to the farm and while Dad plucked and cleaned the geese, I showed off, embellished the story, and generally acted like an excited kid, because I was one then. Two years ago, I took my (then five year old) son out for his first goose hunt. Maybe it made as much of an impression on him as this one I just related did on me, and maybe it didn’t, but that’s okay.
Whatever it was for him, for me it was in so many ways indicative of the progression of Ontario’s waterfowling in the last twenty-five years or so. Big, very realistic decoys numbering in the dozens and dozens. A cacophony of hunters using equally realistic goose calls made from space-age and synthetic materials. Head-to-toe camouflage. Big flocks and big action. It is now really (and with limited hyperbole) a bit of a new golden age for goose hunting. So much so that, for some hunters I think, this ample abundance sometimes breeds contempt for Canada goose hunting.
I tried to explain this paradigm shift to my son, but he couldn’t picture just six decoys, just three birds all morning, just a couple of confident notes on an old wooden goose call to birds that wouldn’t decoy and were shot on the pass. But then I told him about the things that stayed the same, and maybe just maybe he got it. His restless night before the hunt, a quiet breakfast with his Dad while everyone else in the big old farmhouse slept, bundling up for the weather, being respectful to the geese, and most importantly being silent and still. Just like always we went for a special breakfast, and just like always while we went to clean the birds he regaled his mother and his brother with his version of the stories from the hunt, because he was just a little, excited kid.
And that’s the other thing that doesn’t change, because sometimes, when it comes to goose hunting, I’m just an excited kid too.