MINNEAPOLIS -- One Friday at dawn the sun came up and the temperature went down. Whether the thermometer measured 5 below zero or colder still, we were unsure. The wind wasn't blowing -- we were happy about that. Anyway, we stepped onto the frozen lake in our waders, feeling the ice as we went. We were looking for geese.
My partners in this escapade, Wendell Diller and his wife, Galina, will tell you this hasn't been a good fall for goose hunting, not in the metro. They're correct: If you think we have anywhere near the number of Canada geese around the Twin Cities that we once did, either you live on a golf course or own lakeshore property. And even in those honker havens, the numbers are greatly reduced.
Wendell and Galina and I cared about this Friday morning, the goose population, and simultaneously didn't. We had our facemasks, heavy parkas and hand warmers, and were going hunting either way. Also among our stuff were charcoal briquettes, a small grill and a pan to boil water for cowboy coffee. So if geese didn't fly, we'd occupy ourselves with these and also with flapjacks Galina would concoct from her signature mix.
"Her pancakes will darn sure adjust your glycemic index," Wendell said.
An inventor and ballistician, Wendell, a longtime friend, isn't averse to issuing a proclamation or two straight out of left field.
So I said, "You keep your hands off my glycemic index!" And left it at that.
In the past, I've chronicled similar hunts Wendell and I have taken in December, looking for Christmas geese to roast. Some of these outings occurred before Wendell found Galina in Russia via a matchmaker website featuring hot women from cold places -- Ukraine, Galina's home, being No. 1 in the latter category, with a bullet.
Of course not many of these women feature on their resumes advanced degrees in chemistry, as Galina did, which for Wendell was a real turn-on and explains in part how they came to live happily ever after, one a citizen, the other a resident alien.
"I don't think we'll fall through the ice until we get out a little further," Wendell said.
As he spoke, he pulled a sled on which rested an aluminum canoe. In it were two shotguns, a dozen or so Big Foot decoys, portable blinds and the foodstuffs previously mentioned.
When we sensed ice weakening, we would abandon the sled and instead mosey along, the three of us bent over, holding onto the canoe gunnels.
The trick in these circumstances is not to break through the ice in water deeper than the tops of your waders.
Or if you do, to support yourself above that demarcation by holding onto the canoe, then crawling in, the entire operation aided by a makeshift outrigger extending from the craft's port side.
Fair warning here: With Obamacare still limping along, don't try this at home.
"The ice feels strong," Galina said. "Maybe we won't break through, after all."
As she spoke, not far upriver, hundreds upon hundreds of swans took flight from the ice. Lumbering, they pedaled like roadrunners before gaining lift beneath their wings.
Once airborne, the big birds, along with broad phalanxes of geese, were greeted by the rising sun, which bruised the horizon in oranges, reds and purples as it crested the hilly shoreline.
The birds would return later in the morning.
Or so we hoped.
"So beautiful," Galina said.
And it was.
We picked an island surrounded mostly by ice, with a patch of open water just offshore. The swans had resettled not far away and were again resting. But the geese would feed in nearby picked cornfields for at least a couple of hours.
Galina arranged briquettes in the grill, put a match to them, and we settled in, with coffee brewing. The temperature wasn't yet above zero, and our breath appeared as vapor as we spoke.
Wendell and I perched ourselves on buckets and watched Galina pour platter-size arrangements of doughy pancake mix into a frying pan, this while still more swans departed the backwaters and flew over us.
Some of the birds were so low we could almost touch them. As theater, it was Broadway and London's West End all in one.
Earlier this year, Winchester brought to market shotgun shells using special wads Wendell invented. Fitted in target loads, the highly visible wads fly with shot pellets as they leave the muzzle, allowing shooters to see whether they are correctly leading clay pigeons or other targets.
"If they miss, they finally know why," Wendell said. "The wad tells them whether their aim is behind, in front, or right on."
That Friday morning, we would be shooting only at single geese, or maybe pairs, or at the most, small handfuls. Wendell is a big believer in not lighting up goose roosts with Alamo-like volleys, and I agree. The goal should be to sneak a bird here, sneak one there, and not frighten the flock into the next county. Or state.
It was near midmorning when a single honker came over and Wendell rose to tickle the trigger of his vintage 12 gauge, somersaulting the big bird in a long arch toward the frozen river, and in the process producing a tricky retrieve, falling as the goose did in an area notorious for weak ice over deep water.
"That's why we brought the canoe," Wendell said.
Another goose soon came within range against the late morning's bright blue sky, and it also was brought to hand, giving us two Christmas birds, a fair enough dividend for our efforts.
Now midday was quickly nigh and we loaded the canoe for the trip back across the ice.
Awaiting us on shore was still another thrill: Wendell's 1978 Volare station wagon, its odometer rolling over 432,000 miles.
"The tranny's the weak link in these babies; I've got a couple extra at home," Wendell said as we loaded our gear and squeezed into the front seat, shoulder-to-shoulder, still wearing our waders.
Driving away, we bottomed the old Plymouth's springs a time or two, while behind us, in the backwaters, ice still formed, crowding out, little by little, the geese and swans that winter will soon push farther south.
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