I've always subscribed to this adage because I've never really enjoyed the killing part of hunting, but since I want to eat meat and take responsibility for what I ingest in one fell swoop, it's necessary. Necessary but easier when done with respect to the animal, to the land, and, most of all, to everything in between.
North Dakota's sky never ends, honestly, it doesn't. After the truck and our cheaply made, hand-crafted, almost depressed-looking decoy trailer passed into the night, around the corner of the nearest hill, the sky exploded.
Stars dotted the opaque stretch at every inch from high above our collective noggins to at eye-level, seemingly just over the next ridge.
Not many words were spoken that first morning since I am generally the one to start and keep conversation going. I was preoccupied. That sky made me feel three inches tall. In every direction, as far as we could look, there was absolutely nothing. No cars passed on the dirt road, no other hunters could be seen in the twilight, preparing for another morning on the field.
Nothingness continued for over an hour as the sun made its sluggish way over the horizon. It rose for hours, taking its sweet time, pulling degrees from the already frosty morning.
Snow geese, obviously far from home or overly-punctual for the migration celebration, began circling our spread. The sound of their wing beats, a thudding whistle that defies description, no matter how hard I wrestle with the sound to the written word, assaulted my ears, churning my heartbeat into a pounding tattoo.
They circled once, causing my appreciation for flight to increase tenfold as their webbed claws lightly scraped the top of my blind. They landed approximately three feet from me with a sound so inexpressible, so unearthly, that while I feel that I changed because of it, I have not one single vowel to aptly describe how it sounded. It wasn't a jet landing, a thud, or anything close to a tom turkey's display of affection. It was the tenor of thirty 5-10 pound birds with at least five-foot wingspans cupping, beating the air back, and landing an arm length away from where you're laying. It sounds exactly like that.
The time: 6:45, a full 15 minutes before we could legally shoot.
I knew, given my proximity to the birds and that one had begun eating wheat from the back of my blind, three inches from my head, I couldn't call out to my husband or our hunting companions to make a game plan, when to shoot. My phone, and source of time verification, conveniently, was near my knee, too far to inch up.
Noshing commenced as the arctic birds feasted upon the land, tearing every inch of nourishment they could, including my blind and, I will testify, my furry hat.
An orchestra of grumbles, crunching, and a strange almost-mewing began to play around me. Me, a huntress who had never been privy to anything like this before, lay listening, mystified. The group, three hunters who also had never seen anything akin to this so early in the season, were able to peek over their blinds and watched as the geese began to surround me, taking my actions hostage.
Once legal shooting time popped on everyone's phone, I heard the shrill scream of the only six-year-old in my group, "CUT 'EM".
As I sat up, the birds appeared stunned that we had been there the entire time, they looked at us, incredulous that we had ruined their brunch, and began to set off. Grabbing my gun, I cut a lone straggler.
I went to retrieve it and looked back at my companions who had begun to talk about the dance that had just played out in front of us, the invisible wheat mounds. My heart started to slow.
Hunting the rest of the day proved to be as fruitful as the summation of every single waterfowl hunt I've ever been on in the last three years.
The next morning, we headed out again. My shoulder had been damaged somehow during a wayward shot. Fearing for the rest of the season, I brought my camera instead of my gun. Shooting, I figured, but using different bullets.
We had more time to set up that day so I took minutes to pause whilst raking more wheat, to look at the sky, count the stars, make my own constellations.
The group gathered once more as the truck's lights faded into the distance. We huddled, joked about the twenty-two degree morning, and blew on duck calls as loud as possible, warm breath billowing out the ends in a smoky haze.
Later, before the sun was clearly seen, a coyote crested the hill in front of us. His silhouette was still, save for the head that looked about in every direction. He lumbered off, seemingly towards us but never made an appearance.
My feasting snow geese never returned but ducks did, mallards of all shapes, sizes, and questionable genders piled into our spread.
A little girl went on her first duck hunt with her dad that day. While he snoozed in his blind, she raced to every downed bird, carried them to the owners or kept them for herself, stroking the feathers as if to thank the animal one more time for the meals it would provide.
We grilled my snow goose and pan-fried the mallards over rice and brown gravy last night.
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