A story of a southern gentleman, duck hunting, and the heartbreak of September in Alaska.
By Ken Marsh
September was nearly over and, even though Harry was a fine man – a South Carolinian and southern gentleman in the truest sense – I didn’t feel much like talking. We sat side by side on a drift log, a great weather-bleached cottonwood, next to a pond on the Susitna Flats. A cold wind blustered, pinched our cheeks and turned them pink while we waited for ducks that came in fits and starts, cup-winged over the decoys.
This was Harry’s first trip to Alaska. He’d waited for more than 60 years to get here, working 40 of those years as a heart surgeon. Saving lives for a living or, at the very least buying time for the doomed, he was a miracle worker by any measure. Yet there I sat, three feet away, silently nursing something broken inside that he could not fix.
The two of us had shot poorly all afternoon. The ducks came fast on the autumn wind and we suspected we were not allowing proper leads. Perhaps on that day there was not enough lead in the world; maybe the ducks and the wind were simply faster than reflex, powder, and shot.
Duck hunters sometimes have to wonder where the birds come from; one moment the sky is a lifeless place of wind and clouds, the next you hear overhead the jet-engine rip of wings cutting air. And there they are. This time it was a group of wigeon, a dozen or more in a tight wedge. I just had time to stand, point, and shoot. There was the report of my gun, the solid splattering contact that you feel deep in your chest, and then a bird from the flock’s tail end dropping like a stone out of the sky.
There had been no time for Harry to shoot. The ducks had vanished almost as quickly as they had appeared. Still, Harry was happy. For me. And for himself.
Earlier in the week I’d taken Harry hunting for ruffed grouse over my orange-and-white Brittany. When the dog locked up in some yellow grass at the base of a hill, Harry had stepped up and bagged the first ruffed grouse of his life. The bird had flushed with wings beating like a frenzied, racing heart, and the surgeon had coolly pointed his shotgun and squeezed. For a flash there was silence, a cloud of feathers hanging in the air like someone had torn open an old-fashioned pillow. Then the kindly, silvered-haired southern gentleman stood and yelled like rebel at Fort Sumter. Later, Harry told me that he liked Alaska. “It’s a man’s country,” he’d said.
More ducks came and we dropped a few, including a headshot bluebill that flew perfectly for 300 yards before folding up in an odd, delayed reaction. And Harry made a fine shot on his first canvasback, a huge drake that splashed down among our decoys with a definitive finality. Then the sky grew dusky and we gathered our spread and motored off in a beat-up johnboat across the pond’s dark, troubled waters.
We were staying with two others at a duck shack (a plywood outbuilding set upon stilts to avoid flooding by the highest Cook Inlet tides) far away from the forest, yet I imagined that I could hear leaves falling even as winter’s darkness fell and the night’s frost came on. Oddly, Alaska appears more crisp and vibrant in September, even as it seems to die. Within a week the trees would scratch the raw sky with aching, naked limbs. The duck flats would lie bare and silent, ponds sealed in ice, the air dead, the last wigeon and greenhead gone. Like always, a hollowness would expand like a balloon in my chest and for no tangible reason I would feel the need to hold back tears. A courtship would have died and I would find myself left alone because time and its season do not wait. That is the heartbreak of September. And no heart surgeon in the world can fix it.
You may love all seasons, but you may not live them all at once. You must take each one singly, as it comes, and no matter how much you yearn for another, you are committed by time to remain where you are.
That night the clouds parted and gave way to stars, a full moon, and complete stillness. By the glow of a propane lamp, we played cards and sipped scotch. Outside the moon glared, illuminating the flats and creating a black-and-silver world that was surreal. We could hear geese yelping all night long, leaving with the frost under the light of the moon. The card game grew subdued and it is possible that we all knew just where we sat: on a cornice, the threshold of winter.
Next morning the sun rose over the Chugach Range, a bright circle of fire that burned cold like frozen steel. The ponds had frozen and ice crystals glittered in the hard blue mud. No geese called or peppered the pale sky, and the ducks of the day before were gone.
Harry remained upbeat, as always, which made me think of the stories he’d shared over our decoys the day before. In one story he’d diagnosed a woman with terminal cancer. The woman had been told that her life could be extended with chemotherapy, but she refused to accept the diagnosis and, against Harry’s advice, left the hospital. A year passed. Then one day Harry had glanced up and there was the woman – still very much alive. She’d never felt better. An examination showed that her cancer was gone. She’d had no treatment, and Harry remained to that day happily puzzled. He was a spiritual man and had often felt a greater presence while performing grave operations. His stories made me think. They offered hope.
We flew in a small plane back to Anchorage late that morning, over the lifeless duck flats, through a mass of gathering clouds spitting snow. And somewhere between the Susitna River delta and Lake Hood in Anchorage, I felt a sudden warmth and knew my heart was healing. Maybe it was something the surgeon had said. Or perhaps it came from somewhere else.