It could've been any old girlfriends roadtrip: Two women in a packed SUV heading north on Interstate 5, taking so many stops on the way that a five-hour drive became, literally, an 11-hour journey. Drop off the dog here, breakfast there, store here, another store there, lunch at the headwaters of the Sacramento River, bird-watching...
The only tipoff that this wasn't your ordinary girls trip was what was in the car: shotguns, camo and ammo. Lots of it. Tracey and I were headed to Tule Lake for an early season hunt.
You don't actually have to go that far from where we live to hunt ducks, but Tracey’s colleague Brent has become something of a hobby guide who specializes in taking women waterfowl hunting, and he'd invited us up for the weekend.
He had a boat, a black lab named Sage and a single-wide he calls home during duck season, and he knew the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges like the back of his hand. Who could say no to that?
The only thing I had to worry about was my shooting.
Of course, that was no small fear given that I fired my first shot as a hunter less than two years ago. I dream of great shooting, but somehow that vision has a way of evaporating in the field far more often than not. So I usually approach each hunt with a mixture of trepidation and hope.
But this trip was different, and that had to do with where we were.
I've been all over this enormous state, but I had never been to California's upper righthand corner, and I didn't know what to expect.
We headed up I-5 through my golden Sacramento Valley - the location of every duck hunt I've ever been on - and climbed into the green, forested mountains after passing Redding. We hung a right at Mount Shasta, and very quickly the coniferous forest morphed into a stunning high-desert volcanic landscape.
Now, my section of California is shaped by plate tectonics - you can clearly see the straight-line ridges and valleys that give away the locations of fault lines.
Volcanic regions are something else entirely - broad, gently sloped valleys ringed by perfect single-cone mountains and interrupted occasionally by old lava flows that had gushed out of a mountain and hardened in place, like very thick paint spilling from a can. In the high desert, everything is covered with pale green sage brush and sticky-looking scrub, and you can just feel how every plant you see has become an efficient user of what water it can get.
But the Klamath Basin isn't just a pretty geologic feature - it's got some interesting history. The basin was once filled with water, the 96,000-acre Tule Lake and an 88,000-acre lake-marsh complex in the Lower Klamath Basin. But following the misguided wisdom of the day, the U.S. Reclamation Service started draining it in 1905, clearing vast swaths of agricultural land that are farmed to this day, producing root crops such as potatoes and horseradish.
There's still water, though - about 25 percent of what used to be there - and the basin is an important stopping point in the Pacific Flyway. It's a staging ground for birds that will later come down into the Central Valley and a winter refuge for a fair number that stick around Klamath.
At the end of our long drive, Tracey and I zipped across the Oregon border to meet Brent in Merrill, a tiny town where storefronts actually have signs that say things like, "Welcome Hunters!" Take away hunting and agriculture and this town would probably dry up and blow away inside a year.
Brent's home was a virtual museum of hunting oddities. First, there was the enormous ring of bands hanging on a lampshade. Tracey and I marveled at them, and he casually mentioned that there were many more - he just hadn't gotten around to stringing them up. Then he showed us a band from a bird that he had banded himself. Then he showed us one of those $100 bands that Hunt, Eat, Live! wrote about the other day.
Then there were the ducks. OK, lots of hunters have taxidermied ducks, but Brent's were just plain weird. There was the funny looking pintail that turned out to be a pintail-mallard mix. Then there was a palomino-colored mallard-domestic mix. And another mallard mix - maybe wigeon? I'm losing track now. But the theme was clear: Those mallards are wild and crazy ducks.
Perhaps the oddest of all was a Canada goose with a waddle - like a goat waddle - hanging from its chin. Brent speculated that it had been damaged as a fetus; Tracey thought it was one of those partially formed conjoined twins - just like the one on Nurse Gollum in that episode of South Park! Of course, I neglected to take a picture of it, so you'll just have to settle for Nurse Gollum here.
After the introductions to the dead duck collection, we wandered over to the neighbor's place for some delicious venison tacos. What else would we have? Everyone in this place hunts, and you just don't find a lot of meat in polystyrene trays there.
The wine was great, the conversation was great but we didn't stay long - our alarm would go off at 4 a.m. the next morning, and it was time to get some sleep.
At oh-dark-thirty, every duck hunt looks the same. Groggy people stumbling around in camo, their hands stuffed into their pockets to ward off the chill as they wait for the morning draws to be announced. Pile into the truck, zip out to the boat ramp, then zoom out to the perfect spot that you never tell anyone about, watching the reflection of the stars rippling in the boat's wake. Set up dekes. Make quiet small talk in the boat while you wait first for shoot time, then for the flutter of wings that tells you: Game on!
The night before, Brent's neighbors - Gina and Murray - had told us what a stellar caller Brent was, that he knows exactly how to talk to the ducks. Hunting puffery? No. This man really had a way of bringing them straight into the boat.
"This one's your's, Holly."
Coming in, coming in, coming in, almost floating like a butterfly...
I stood calmly, mounted the gun to my shoulder perfectly, dropped my cheek on the stock snugly, put the bird behind the muzzle, pulled the trigger...
Poof. Drop. Plop - dead on the water, about four feet from the boat. Instant death, the merciful death I pray for because nobody wants to watch them suffer.
Sage burst out of the boat and retrieved the bird, swimming around to the other side of the boat to hand it to Brent.
I dug in my bag for a liver treat. I don't have a dog myself - as we say in our house, "We are the dog." But I keep liver treats on hand to reward dogs that do my work for me, when I'm lucky enough to hunt with them.
Wigeon. Pretty little bird.
I was filled with the warm glow that follows a rare perfect shot. It's a lot like the feeling of contentment that follows rollicking, good sex. Somebody get me a cigarette, quick...
Of course, it was my only duck of the day. Brent brought in plenty more birds, but he and Tracey were doing all the hitting. And we had a rash of really bad luck, losing three birds in thick tules where even Sage couldn't find them.
Oh well - with only three ducks to pluck, we'd all have time for a good nap before dinner.
Truth be told, I was discouraged by my shooting on Saturday, after that one perfect shot. It was the same old thing - miss after miss after miss.
But Sunday morning, I had a good feeling. I packed the tripod in Brent's truck so I could use my remote control to take a picture of all of us together at the end of the hunt. A dangerous temptation of the fates.
On this day, we would be hunting out of pit blinds in the middle of flooded grain fields. Brent had heard a lot of shooting from this direction on Saturday, and he wanted to give this area a try. When we launched the boat, we could hear them everywhere - mallards, pintails, wigeon, teal. It sounded promising.
And as the sky began to lighten, we could see the landscape was stunning. Normally when you hunt ducks, you establish points of reference so you can alert your hunting partners where the birds are coming from. This is 12 o'clock, this is 6 o'clock, etc.
Here, our reference points were much more beautiful. Mount Shasta. The dome. The pyramid. The petroglyphs. The silo. The willows.
Shoot time arrived in dead silence, but pretty soon the birds started coming in - not like my hunts where I'm lucky to bring them in range for a pass shot, but straight to the blind - so close you could see them scanning the water to find the source of that magical calling.
Brent got the first duck of the day, and then the birds started really piling in.
On Tracey's side of the blind.
Maybe I wouldn't need the tripod and camera remote control at all.
But I was having a good time anyway, because as soon as the sun came up, we heard stirrings in the blind.
"There's a mouse in here!" Tracey announced.
We all looked down.
"No, there's two!" I said.
Wrong again. Actually, there were five. Brent and I donned gloves and chased them around the little pit blind to see if we could eject them. We really didn't want any of them hitching a ride home in our bags.
I got off my stool and found three of them were already forming a nest under the legs. Clomp! "Gotcha!" Out they went.
Wait, what's that sound? Frog. My, my, busy place, this blind.
While all that was going on, something strange happened: The birds shifted directions and they all started coming in on my side.
Shoot. Drop. Shoot. Drop. Shoot. Drop.
Holy crap, I had never shot like this!
Not all perfect shots. Some I dropped in one shot. Some took my more usual - and embarrassing - three shots. At one point, Brent was off with Sage retrieving a bird, and a pair of teal came in. Tracey and I dropped both just a few feet in front of us.
By 9:30 a.m. I had downed six birds, a new record for me. Four wigeon, one greenwing teal and a greenhead. Tracey and Brent had brought in another six.
We couldn't hunt all day because we had a long drive ahead of us, but I didn't care. This was, for me, an embarrassment of riches. Now all I have to worry about is whether I've become spoiled in the last two weekends of waterfowling, or whether I really am getting better at this.
I'll find out soon enough, because it's duck season - game on!
Good thing I packed the tripod and remote!
© Holly A. Heyser 2008