ALGONAC, Mich. - A heavy sky of low, leaden clouds was pushing east-southeast against an attempted sunrise.
Only a luminescent lemon-rind of sunrays blasted through beneath the eastbound layers of steel gray, relentlessly driven as they were on 25 mph west-northwest gusts. Spits of snow pellets peppered the cattails and the hunters' camouflage parkas, each wind-driven bit announcing its arrival with a loud "tick!"
It was almost 7:33 a.m., the golden moment. Shooting time. You could hear the mallards hacking and quacking their heads off over in the refuge, hard by the south channel of the St. Clair River, where it pours into the shallow St. Clair.
You've been up since 3 a.m., on Harsen's Island since 5 a.m., perched in a cattail clump at the edge of the open water since 7 a.m. The short ferry ride to the island, the long dark, the madness and organized chaos of the random drawings for hunting sites fade in a zombie haze. In brief breaks torn into dark gray cloud banks, you catch glimpses of the patron constellation, Orion the Hunter, now setting toward the southwest. Good.
Out front are a couple dozen decoys, which the crew carried across more than a quarter mile of open water in a 12-foot aluminum boat with a mountain of other waterfowling paraphernalia. You slogged alongside waist deep in water and shin deep in molasses-like bottom muck because there wasn't room for gear and you, too. You always hang onto the gunnel of the boat for steadiness against a misstep, which comes suddenly, unexpectedly.
In the cattails, you stand in chest waders but only knee deep in water. But one step off your perch and you'll be waist deep - chest deep-plus and ice-water cold if you make one wrong step. You slurp coffee as you await the lemony crack of dawn, playing into the notion that the java is warming you up. At least the caffeine keeps you alert, something that sleep-deprived watermen must be to avoid false moves.
Well, welcome to the Harsens Island managed public hunt at St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area. If you're not having fun yet, well, you are not a duck hunter.
Admittedly, the foregoing description hardly depicts a life of ease and luxury. It is decidedly shy of creature comforts and long on physical hardship.
But there is just something about immersing yourself, so to say, in the high drama of an autumn marsh, sculpted as it may be by nature's raw elements. It draws certain men and women who simply cannot live as mere spectators or consumers.
All of the foregoing is well and simply summed up by waterfowler Dave Gottschalk, of New Baltimore, Mich.: "Harsens Island doesn't give up its ducks easily."
Over the course of a couple of days of hunting the fabled St. Clair Flats with Gottschalk, he uttered that line more than once. Pulled thigh muscles from muck-slogging became believers, made the utterance a truism. But it was easy enough, after experiencing the Flats, to see how waterfowlers like Gottschalk are drawn here like moths to flames.
He lives not far away, drives a UPS truck in Detroit and Grosse Pointe to keep the wolves away from the door. A navy veteran, the 41-year-old Gottschalk is a dedicated volunteer to Ducks Unlimited and a recipient of its military volunteer of the year award in 2007.
He kindly agreed to fill in as a guide during a DU outdoor media camp aimed at acquainting writers with what DU, in partnership with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, is doing for the ducks and the wetlands in this critical remaining habitat of the St. Clair delta.
About 33,000 acres of it belong to Michigan and another 62,000 acres belong to Ontario just across the South Channel at Walpole Island.
MDNR biologist Ernie Kascus noted that of three million ducks that annually migrate through Michigan, two million of them "go through here."
The birds would have nothing if the sprawl of Detroit - the downtown skyline of which you can see on a clear day from 30 miles across the lake - proceeded unchecked. In a presentation Kascus showed aerial views of the region; the relentless urban encroachment and dwindling natural habitat are stunning.
Ninety-five percent of the wetlands are lost, the biologist noted. It takes 37 miles of dikes, 86 water-control structures, and six pumping stations to keep just what the MDNR's Flats have in play.
It is a tribute to the MDNR's management of the Flats - not to mention DU's influential behind-the-scenes support - that they can manage to squeeze in morning and afternoon hunts for up to about 100 "blinds" every day without rest. Not every blind -really just a hunting site, without structure - rains ducks every day; most don't. But that's the hunting lottery game for you. Part of the scheme by manager John Schafer and crew is to flood the plots progressively, to provide food and cover in stages across the season instead of an all-at-once-then-gone approach.
Well, back to Gottschalk and the marsh and the flooded corn and sorghum stands, where we also hunted:
He was on vacation, takes two weeks off this time of year for deer and ducks. "I live for this island," Gottschalk said. He ferries over every day, and if he gets a bad draw for the morning, he scratches and returns for the afternoon session.
"Been in the muck before?" he asked, as we slogged to the first morning's stand in flooded corn. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. And doing it again - why, who can say?
Gottschalk was introduced to duck hunting via the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend route after his active navy duty - he retires from the naval reserve next June after 25 years, has been a radar operator on a P-3 Orion patrol plane.
"I shot two ducks and I was hooked," he said of that first time. "We got there at midnight to get our place and we stayed until 9 the next night. My feet were frozen, and I was hooked. We were back out at 1 a.m. the next day."
You have to arrive early in public areas to stake a claim. Sometimes the hour of arrival is hours before that luminescent lemon rind of sun tries to squeeze in some daylight under eastbound banks of lead-gray clouds.
That's Harsens, which doesn't give up its ducks easily.
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