The Duck Cabin

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I’ve always felt that there’s more to the phrase, however, in that those thousand words are probably different for each person. Some see a painting for what it is – a capture of an event or of people. Others see a story unfolding on canvas. I guess I’m of the latter. I like to think that an artist is telling a story with the stroke of a brush. I suppose in some ways the artist is as much a storyteller as a writer, or even the outdoorsman who stretches the truth of his/her stories. For myself, being a writer and outdoorsman, a thousand words are never enough.

There’s a painting by Les Kouba that I’m rather fond of. It’s titled, “The End of a Classic Era”. Les Kouba admirers probably know that the artist had a flair for telling a story in his paintings. It’s as if the images that came from his brush were a live event unfolding before the viewers eyes. For an outdoorsman and storyteller such as myself, I can’t help but get lost in the event that unfolds on the painting.

It was the late 20s, a golden era of waterfowl hunting. September passed, pleasant with cool autumn mornings and warm summer afternoons. It was weather that stuck into October, an agreeable climate for long walks and watching the leaves change color. As satisfactory as it was, however. it was doomed to change. On the last week of the month a cold snap swept through the region. From the north came a strong wind, chilly to even the heartiest of souls. The leaves fell, the trees went bare, and the air grew cold. For the normal folks in the world, the weather was depressing. For two men, however, it was just what they’d been waiting for.

They were duck hunters, and the cold beckoned them “up north” where a cabin awaited them on the banks of a small and secluded lake in the middle of the Minnesota’s north woods. It was a “ducky lake” – shallow with a sandy bottom and plenty of reeds that grew in clusters. Surrounding the lake was a seemingly endless stretch of vast forest, broken only by narrow logging roads that zigzagged through the woods. For some, it was a cold and dreary place to be, for the two hunters, however, it was heaven.

They left work on a Friday afternoon to headed up for the weekend. The trip was made in a 1925 Model T Ford, a slow moving vehicle that made for a long, and dusty drive, but one passed by with stories of yesteryears’ hunts and hopes for one to put in the books. Anticipation was high as they turned off the highway onto an old logging road. The road was rough going. It had been abandoned for a decade by the logging crew that cut it, yet it was still hard packed and could handle the little vehicle.

The sky was beginning to darken when the lake and the cabin came in sight. It was a rustic cabin, one that looked as natural to the landscape as the trees and lake next to it – it was the kind of place that made you feel like a part of the outdoors. It was a one room shack, built with discounted boards and a blueprint drawn on scratch paper. It was built earlier that summer, but was already beginning to show age from the sun. The roof had yet to be finished, and in places there were gaps covered with an old Coca Cola sign and two pieces of lefse. Like the old Scandinavian song goes, “You can even patch a roof with lefse”. In the years to come it would begin to sag a bit in the middle, and inside would smell of wood smoke and damp boards, in this day, however, it was new, a “Taj-Mahal” of Northwoods hunting shacks.

The hunters excitedly transferred their gear, and food from the little Ford to the cabin. One of the first tasks was to start a fire in the cast iron woodstove that sat in the corner – a big blaze that would take the chill out of the cabin and make for cozy confines as night drew near. Supper that night was beans from a can, thick, smoky bacon, fresh bread, and hot coffee. After a nightcap, the two climbed in their bunks and readied themselves for a cold morning.

Saturday morning began before sunup, while the moon and stars still shone brightly in the dark sky. The hunters dressed in wool sweaters, canvas pants, and tin-cloth hunting coats. It was cold, a crust of ice had formed on shore during the stillness of the night, yet it would soon melt away in the morning sun. In handmade, wooden boats the hunters set out with cork decoys and hopes of a good hunt.

The weather didnt look good for hunting ducks. The breeze stood still, and few clouds floated in the sky. Sunrise, however, was gorgeous, and as the sun crested the eastern horizon, it cast a red glow into the sky. The hunters saw it as a good omen. “Red in the morning is a sailor’s warning”, one said to the other. How right he was. As the morning wore on, the wind came whipping up and the sky filled with gray, low hanging clouds. The air, too, grew cold and damp – as though any moment it might rain big, cold, and wet raindrops.

The hunt was successful, yet one of the men had a mishap when he fell into the cold water. Luckily, he made it back into the boat. With a limit of birds in hand they arrived back at the cabin. The wet hunter changed clothes, put wood in the stove and set to hang his wet clothes on a rope tied to the cabin and a half dead poplar tree. The dry hunter brought the boats up on shore and hung the ducks on the side of the Model T. The wet hunter reached into the stock of beer out on the porch. As Kouba said about the man, he was “getting dry on the outside and wet on the inside”. Meanwhile, his partner brought in the last of the ducks from the boat. With a smoking pipe in his mouth, he looked above the cabin’s roof where the wind blew the smoke straight to the west and saw thirteen plump, late season mallards heading out onto the lake. Though it was thirteen, he took it as a lucky omen, meaning a storm was coming, and would bring ducks with it. Tomorrow morning’s hunt would be one to remember.

Speak Your Mind

*