I pulled southeast, south, southeast, south, following the 17,000 year old Clovis Indian trails that took the shortest distance crossings through these swamps. Those trails became the Nottoway Indian trails 1500 years ago, which became the English colonists' trails 400 years ago, which became logging routes and eventually roads 150 years ago.
As the miles passed, the darkness grew, and the only things consistently visible were the tops of trees against the light of the stars and moon. Cypress. Sweetgum. Sweetgum. Pine. Pine. Pine. Oak. Cypress. The tree tops, like some silly old Disney cartoon, pulled away at everything else on my mental balancing beam - work, home, and money worries all plucked up and replaced against my will. But I have things to think about! Important things! In the moment, it was impossible to consider who or what was responsible for my mental reshuffling. Something in front of me, or behind me? But things are different here, and the rules are different too. As Pat DiNizio once wrote, "Things that used to matter are no longer on my mind."
Eventually, I arrived, squarely in the middle of the night. Two hours later, we put the boat in the cold, swirling black water of the Nottoway and slowly moved up river. Boom. submerged log. Bang skeeeeeerape. cypress knee. Pop thwwwwap pop snap. overhanging branches. Oh yeah boys and girls, this is luxury duck hunting. Eventually we arrived at my brother's (the tugboatdude) blind, in an improbable timber slough along an ancient oxbow of an ancient river. I was relieved to see the sun rise.
Unfortunately, when my brothers built this blind in September, the morning sun was arcing front to rear and to the right (north), and of course December's shorter days have brought the sun's golden swing directly in front of the duck blind. "Blind" being the operative word. While the morning air was a bit crisp, we had no illusions that ducky conditions would prevail, given the prediction for clear skies and 60 degree air temperatures. And then there's the issue of the stalled waterfowl migration, now being discussed by hunters throughout the eastern half of the United States.
Hunting a place like this breeds a different kind of hunter, because the wildlife here are not like those of nearby farm fields, residential ponds, and open marshes. No, the cypress swamp is a pretty demanding place that doesn't allow for a whole lot of second chances. One quick glance around at all of the epiphytic plants growing on cypress trunks, stems, roots, and knees will tell you that. This is life on the margins.
But there is safety in isolation as well, and animals know it. That means that they are occasionally - briefly - exposed. This place has predators too. Bald eagles. Coyotes. Big snakes. Big fish. Life on the margins means no cameraderie.
Before the crush of dawn slammed over us, we were absolutely covered in wood ducks. If you have been in the marsh or swamp before, you know the sound. Fih fih fih fih fih fih fih.......wing beats. Wood ducks by the pair, and as the sun rose, ring-necked ducks by the pair. Every pair on a mission to a pre-determined feeding spot in the swamp. Not interested in a change of plans. And let me tell you, every duck hole in the swamp looks the same. Eventually, the swamp's heavy hitters came out to play. First, the geese (lazily moving from a factory pond to a nearby grain farm across the swamp), and then the deer. Gracefully creeping through a swamp that features no hard ground, just wet, rotting leaves that are many feet deep.
We didn't even get to shoot - a paucity of dumb and/or hungry birds. And of course, it didn't matter. I made it here to hunt. After two years of promising and four years of trying. The last time I hunted with Tug in Virginia, 3 years ago and 40 miles northeast of here, my life was completely different. And that next morning, while preparing for work-travel meetings at my other brother's house near the beach, it changed forever. I received a curious email from my wife, with a picture of a positive pregnancy test.
Life can swing on such minor days and events. And why shouldn't it? I consider myself blessed to have been able to return so close to home once again, and again to smell and hear the swamp like I did as a child. Granted, at 58 degrees, it was more like a spring day's memory than a late December's!
Just like the swamp's residents, my memories tied to these sights, smells, and sounds are on the margins of my heart and mind, where I keep them. And then they are suddenly upon me. This awareness comforted and haunted me for the rest of my trip - this was more than duck hunting.
We spend our lives improving ourselves, which is another way of saying that we are artists in escaping from our own ghosts. If you come to this place, be assured that your ghosts will find you. Quickly. But if you are to hunt, you cannot let that affect your mind, or your eye, or your trigger finger. Those old ghosts will have to wait until after the geese leave the roost, follow the tree line, and bank into the decoys.